You may find reading Akhil Sharma's debut novel akin to having your head held underwater. Attendant with feelings of a relentless, choking panic, though, will be an almost preternatural awareness of the details suffusing the experience.
In Sharma's An Obedient Father, a stunning work that is both personal and political, you hear a man say, "Misery often makes me want to look away from the present and leads me to nostalgia." The misery of the present is born out of the political trials of India in the early eighties. The escape that the narrator wishes for is driven by yearning for a rural past: "As I swallowed my heart medicine in the blue dark of the common room, I imagined walking through Beri's sugarcane fields and sitting beneath a mango tree. I wanted to be a child again, with the future a wide, still river in the afternoon." What makes this nostalgia for an unsullied past both poignant and problematic is that it is the desire of a man who cannot escape the memory of the newspapers soaking up the blood beneath his daughter's thighs each night after he has raped her.
The protagonist, Ram Karan, is a corrupt official in the Education Department in Delhi. He is a widower living with his newly widowed daughter, Anita, and his young granddaughter. Anita is the child he raped repeatedly twenty years earlier. Most of the book is in Karan's voice.
The experience of an intimacy so often violent, of being a witness to what is routinely hidden but is here plainly visible, is a result of the quality of the narrator's voice. Lucid and perverse, like the solipsistic narrator of Nabokov's Lolita, the confessions of Sharma's antihero are sharp, even empathetic, and loathsome. (Recall Nabokov's H.H.: "I had possessed her--and she never knew it. All right. But would it not tell sometime later? Had I not tampered with her fate by involving her image in my voluptas? Oh, it was, and remains, a source of great and terrible wonder.")
The social backdrop of the novel is also enriched by the tussle for the Delhi seat between a dying Congress Party and an emergent, right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party. Karan is the money man, the bribe-collector, for one of the candidates in the parliamentary election. The petty political intrigues and their murderous fallouts provide a distraction from the less public drama that is played out inside the three-member Karan home.
It is to Sharma's great credit as a novelist that I was as often horrified by Karan's abuses and compulsive degradations as I was held captive by his pellucid dissection of shame that exposes a geography of self-delusion and national wrongdoing. There can be no doubt that Ram Karan is evil, but because he almost always is given voice, he also remains in some measure human.
This is the book's most disturbing feature but also its most powerful triumph. As a result, An Obedient Father poses a serious challenge to a reviewer who is tempted to take refuge in the easiest, moralizing dismissal of this unusual novel. There is reason to be dismayed by its brutality, and not everyone can savor its black humor; but it cannot be denied that the maddening narrative voice is as darkly hypnotic as those found in the pages of Dostoyevsky.
Sharma also pulls off the trick of showing that a collective political degradation is intertwined seamlessly with personal turpitude. Indira Gandhi's dictatorial "emergency," imposed twenty-five years ago, suspended civil rights and gave a free hand to an inner circle of politicos in Delhi. The emergency didn't tamper only with democratic institutions; its depredations made more base our responses to those weaker than we are. Sharma's novel bears the scars of that trauma and its aftermath on Karan, but also on his daughter: "Money would make everything negotiable.... The more years Indira Gandhi spent in office, the more my income grew, for more and more things fell under the government's aegis and we civil servants were the gatekeepers. I bought a toaster, a blender, a refrigerator, and a television. Anita went through higher secondary and into college. She grew up shy and easily panicked, but there was nothing that marked her as damaged."
If Kafka's K. located power in the distant castle, Sharma shows us mercilessly that such castles are our homes, so to speak, in our bedrooms. In fact, when you overhear Ram Karan's confessions about his political sins to his daughter each evening after the English news, you also realize that the political is a deflection from the interrogation of the personal. Karan understands this well: "I thought that providing her with something to rage about openly would be a way to keep us from the topic of what I had done to her."
Incest has enjoyed a popular run in Indian fiction recently. An Obedient Father is perhaps the novel that, some might say, Arundhati Roy had wanted to write when she wrote The God of Small Things. It is certainly the novel that Raj Kamal Jha came close to writing when in The Blue Bedspread he plumbed the dark ambiguities of abuse and incest. Sharma's novel is part of a brilliant coming of age in Indian fiction.
The dust jacket of the book informs us that its author is an investment banker who lives in Manhattan. He was born in India but grew up in Edison, New Jersey, studied at Princeton and later Stanford. He has won two O. Henry awards for his short fiction and worked as a scriptwriter for Steven Spielberg.What is most remarkable about this profile is not the youth (he's 29) or even the impressive array of accomplishments; rather, it is the fact that a writer who has lived most of his life outside India is able to write about life in Delhi with such sensitivity and flair. The brothels of Delhi's GB Road, the roads and shops of Kamla Nagar, the alleys of Old Delhi, in the changing light and temperature of the seasons, all come alive in this book's pages. Even the evocation of Karan's childhood in a village before India's independence is exact and intriguing:
I remembered that when my mother and I waited by the side of the road for a bus, I would tell my mother to move back, not because I was worried about her safety, but because this was one of the few ways I had to show my love.... Violence was common. Grown men used to rub kerosene on a bitch's nipples and watch it bite itself to death.
Does this sharpness of outline in the book, its confidence in its own voice and descriptions, put an end to the debate about the authenticity of Indian expatriate writers? An Obedient Father demonstrates that magical realism à la Salman Rushdie is not the indispensable tool of the Indian writer living abroad and, second, that unmagical realism à la Rohinton Mistry is insignificant if it does not scratch away at wounds that are covered over by the scabs of silence.
Unlike Rushdie and Mistry, both of whom have written about Indira Gandhi's emergency, Sharma produces nothing that could have been culled from the pages of a newspaper. Neither magical nor dull, his writing transgresses the borders of earlier, celebrated fictions, and he makes connections that are both vivid and dislocating: "Every night I had dreams of humiliation, of people catching me with Anita. When I saw a rooster picking at a pile of dung, I wondered what he was eating. Around this time I also began imagining sucking the penises of powerful men."
We learn early about Karan's death, but there is little consolation in this. The ironies of the victimizer becoming a victim, at the novel's end, are plainly discernible. Yet such ironies are overshadowed by the more gloomy evidence of damaged lives and their unsettled grief. And after Karan's death, I missed his eye for detail. I could not let go of the thought that of all the people in the room when Anita informs her extended family of what happened in her past, Karan is the only one who notices that everyone, in their desire to help, had ignored Anita's own desires. (Nabokov's H.H. was similarly cognizant of deeper absences: "I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.")
I tried to think again about one of Karan's earlier statements: "All the things that might mark me as unusual and explain what I did to Anita were present in other people." Did I not see the signs in my own life?
I was returning to college one summer from my hometown in Bihar, India. The train stopped at Aligarh. We were running late and it was hot outside. I looked up from my reading when an old man appeared and began to claim in a loud voice that he was Jawaharlal Nehru. The train began to move. There were many new passengers, daily commuters with their bags and their loads of merchandise. Some of them began joking with the old man. The Aligarh passengers, all men, settled down to a game of cards. They asked the old man a question or two and then teased him. Like many others in the compartment, I was amused by this teasing.
The old man, sensing that he was being mocked, shouted louder; one of the men slapped him from the upper berth and told him to be quiet. The old man was wearing a white cotton cap, as Nehru did in photographs. The cap had been knocked down. The old man picked it up and turned on the others with filthy abuses.
This was all the provocation the men needed. All down the narrow pathway between the berths, violent blows rained on the old man, who swore and spat viciously. His head began to bleed. One man gave his rubber slipper to the old man and asked him to use it to sweep the floor. "Do that, Jawaharlal," he said. When the old man tried to use the slipper to hit back, the man pulled his dhoti, leaving the old man naked from the waist down.
My fellow passengers, many of whom had been sitting till then, crowded around the old man and tore off his shirt. They kicked his genitals. Someone on a nearby berth asked that this be stopped, but this appeal had no effect.
There was a stink coming from the corner in which the old man had been pushed. As I said, it was very hot outside, and it was hot in the compartment too. I did not want to move. I thought of the old man when I got to my hostel and was preparing to sleep, but I don't think I've thought of him for any length of time ever again till I was reading An Obedient Father. That memory of derangement and violence was evoked by the book, no doubt, but also evoked was the claustrophobia of our closed lives, our bitterness and the collective nakedness ringing with abuse.
If Western Europe is to be independent it must defend its welfare state.
Marvin Kalb, executive director of the Washington office of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, diagnoses an anti-Israel tilt in the US media, in which "the Israelis have come through a miraculous alchemical formula to become the giants and everyone else is the David.'' What planet is this man living on?
Just look at the numbers. Nearly 100 Palestinians have been killed and more than 2,500 injured, compared with just five Israeli Jews. The Palestinians attack with stones, Molotov cocktails and the extremely rare automatic weapon. Unlike nations that quell riots by their own people with tear gas and rubber bullets, the Israelis respond with live ammunition: antitank rockets, helicopter gunships and armor-piercing missiles. Armed Jewish vigilantes have undertaken murderous rampages against unarmed Arab citizens, shooting them in cold blood. The UN Security Council condemns Israel's "excessive use of force."
Yet aside from the Palestinians invited to speak explicitly for their own cause, the mainstream US media condemn the Palestinians and exonerate Israel with Soviet-like consensus. Editorial pages are unanimous in apportioning the blame exclusively to Yasir Arafat rather than the war criminal Ariel Sharon, who provoked the riots to advance his political career. Sharon was puffed up in extremely sympathetic interviews by Lally Weymouth published in the Washington Post and Newsweek, and held forth as well on the Wall Street Journal Op-Ed page. Meanwhile, the members of the punditocracy who appeared during the weekend of Barak's ultimatum spoke as if channeling American Jewish Committee talking points.
While Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio battled one another to shower the Palestinians with higher and higher degrees of contempt in their second debate, the only American voices heard to speak to the larger context of the conflict were the twin electoral outliers, Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan. Given his history of anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel, the former Crossfire host has forfeited any credibility he once had on the issue. Nader's criticism of Sharon, which he expressed on CBS's Face the Nation, was therefore far more valuable, especially in light of the relative scarcity of such voices on network television.
More typical, however, are the views of Charles Krauthammer, who has apparently contracted the same mental and emotional affliction that drove poor Abe Rosenthal insane. The pundit actually compared the phenomenon of Palestinian riots and rock-throwing to the Nazi invasion of Poland. Complaining of overly sympathetic coverage of Palestinian "frustration"--"frustration with what?" Krauthammer demanded in mock horror, as if the average Palestinian refugee lived next door in Chevy Chase--Krauthammer termed Israel's dovish leaders "feckless" for seeking an accommodation to create a nation where Jewish soldiers are no longer in a position to gun down unarmed 12-year-old boys.
Sure Arafat is a corrupt, untrustworthy leader, and I wish he had somehow found the courage to risk his own neck and embrace Barak's surprising concessions at Camp David, if only as a foundation stone in a much longer peace process. The concessions were, unfortunately, the best offer the Palestinians are likely to get for some time. But it's not Arafat's indecision or Palestinian rock-throwing that lies at the root of the current conflict. Rather, as the Israeli lawyer Allegra Pacheco wrote on the Times Op-Ed page, it is the fact that "the proponents of the agreement, including the Clinton Administration, never fully informed the Palestinian people that the [Oslo] accord did not offer any guarantee of Palestinian self-determination, full equality and an end to the military occupation." Since Oslo, Pacheco notes, the quality of life in the West Bank and Gaza has declined from terrible to nearly unbearable. Owing to the lack of good will on both sides, what is being constructed from Oslo is less peace than apartheid.
I have walked across open sewage in Palestinian refugee camps surrounded by children begging for candy. I have been served tea at the home of a Palestinian family whose 13-year-old son was killed days earlier by the Israeli Defense Force as a suspect in a murder that turned out to be the work of a crazed Jewish fanatic. I have stood in the rubble of Palestinian houses that the Israelis bulldozed as a warning to those who would continue to protest. Seven years ago, I stood on the White House lawn and listened, tearfully, to Yitzhak Rabin say "enough" to the killing on both sides. Alas, it was not enough. And given the realities on the ground, for every Israeli who loses a son or daughter, so too will scores of Palestinians.
It would behoove those in the media who hold forth on this issue to address themselves for once to its larger context. It is Israel that is oppressing the Palestinians, and it is the Palestinians who are doing virtually all the dying. True, Ehud Barak has taken massive political risks by offering concessions that go well beyond the Israeli consensus. He is a brave leader and an authentic soldier for peace. But given the magnitude of the physical, psychological and sociological costs of the Palestinian "catastrophe," Barak's best is simply not good enough. The only chance for lasting peace will come when Israel agrees to share Jerusalem with a full Palestinian partner, granting equal rights to citizens of both nations; with Israeli rule in the West and Palestinian rule in the East.
Perhaps it's too much to ask a victorious people to offer genuine justice and material sacrifice to the nation it has vanquished on the battlefield--particularly when the hatred of the defeated nation continues unabated. But the Palestinians will accept nothing less.
I'm a Jew with deep emotional ties to Israel and strong sympathies with the Labor/Zionist project. My own words fill me with foreboding. But if it must come to war, then let us at least be honest about it. Like Ariel Sharon's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, it will be a war that Israel has chosen because it could not countenance the alternatives. And it will be the Palestinians who, once again, will endure the lion's share of the suffering.
It took them thirteen years to ditch
Old Slobodan Milosevic.
Now people see a new day dawn,
But notice that he's still not gone.
New York City
The Nation acknowledges that military and civilian trials in Peru violate due process of law in terrorism cases, that thousands of innocent people have been convicted and that thousands remain in prison in Peru today after political trials. Presumably it agrees that DINCOTE, the Peruvian antiterrorism police responsible for those convictions, are about as restrained and trustworthy as the elite national police that served Pinochet in Chile, the military governments in Argentina and Guatemala in the seventies and eighties and similar other police states.
Why then did The Nation choose to use its resources and invest its credibility to challenge Lori Berenson's innocence by relying on what are allegedly DINCOTE documents [Jonathan Levi and Liz Mineo, "The Lori Berenson Papers," Sept. 4/11]? The Nation was told that Peru planned to nullify Lori's military tribunal conviction and sentence to life imprisonment on the basis of a petition she filed in December 1999, and that The Nation was being used by DINCOTE to support charges against Lori for a new show trial.
Jonathan Levi misleads his readers by implying that the Berensons and I questioned only the authenticity of the records. If he will listen to the tape he made of our interview, he will hear it was the reliability of the papers, not merely their authenticity, that we challenged. We told The Nation that DINCOTE leaked the papers, "never before seen by the public but obtained by The Nation," precisely to spread false information about Lori in its pages, which reach so many of Lori's supporters, at the very time Peru would nullify Lori's military trial and begin yet another propaganda campaign against her in a new show trial in civilian courts, a trial that is itself illegal and not capable of fairness. The military tribunal, after a nine-month delay, nullified Lori's conviction and began the new proceedings just as the Nation cover story with its picture of Lori was being distributed.
The article accepts as gospel the false DINCOTE allegations of fact even where Lori has had the rare opportunity to state the opposite. The article refers repeatedly to Lori's "testimony," "deposition," "transcripts," suggesting there exist exact verifiable statements by Lori. But there are no transcripts, depositions or verbatim testimony, there is only what Levi claims a DINCOTE file they will not disclose contains. Who believes DINCOTE? Nor is it accurate to say that the papers "shed new light." All the false claims about Lori have been leaked to the press and printed repeatedly.
Levi has refused to permit the Berensons, or me, to see the papers he has. This places him in the same position as DINCOTE, which he concedes refused to provide copies of the documents "even to her lawyers," and in the same position as the Fujimori government, which has refused to provide any documents to the Berensons, Lori's counsel or the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Levi said he is "especially afraid with the trial coming up" to provide Lori a copy of the documents, because that would "have us working for the defense." Incredible. He is working for DINCOTE. He claims to have "sources intimately familiar with [its] workings." We ask only for a copy of the false papers with which Levi challenges Lori's innocence, not the source for the papers.
Aside from the moral outrage of promoting DINCOTE propaganda, the Nation article is patently cheap and demeaning to Lori Berenson. In a single sentence, asserting how "most ordinary Peruvians" feel about Lori, Levi writes that she "is a Beauty who slouches...toward Latin America, only to turn into a terrorist Beast, eyes wide open." Why the triple play on a fairy tale, a Didion book title and a prurient movie? Why the repeated references and allusions to sex? Above all, why is Levi, who has never met Lori, compelled to deny the possibility that she acted from inner qualities of goodness, even greatness, as he observes heroines in "classical tragedy" to do? Instead, he argues that she is doing the reverse: "She seems to be translating her fall into a theatrical grandeur." Lori has spent nearly five years in life-threatening prison conditions without a trial by any civilized standard on false charges in complete isolation, where any effort at "theatrical grandeur" can be seen by no one. All while the controlled press in Peru demonize her daily and The Nation serves DINCOTE's cause here in the United States.
Levi seems to know little about Peru, or Lori's case, except what DINCOTE and people within its sphere of influence told him. Lori's Peruvian lawyer in the military trial, who has not represented her for years, despite Levi's assertion that he still does, "although he is not as active as he once was," was never present during her nearly nine days of intense interrogation and sleep deprivation when Lori was alone in the tender hands of DINCOTE. On the day the statement DINCOTE prepared was given to her to sign, he saw Lori for the first time but was never able to talk with her in private before, during or thereafter. From time to time he has made statements harmful to Lori for whatever reason, which Levi joins the Peruvian press in repeating with glee.
The utter emptiness of the effort to support some level of guilt is found in Levi's repeated references to the one exposure to the Peruvian press just before her sentencing that was forced on Lori, in which she courageously and angrily spoke with passion about her concerns for the poor and about the absence of social justice in Peru. She also expressed the opinion that the MRTA is a revolutionary movement, not a terrorist group. Can the expression of a single opinion in less than twenty words be a crime? Levi thinks so. He refers to the "contempt in that face" from the film clips, although he has never seen her face. Lori was very angry for good reasons. Peru claims her words are the crime translated as "apology." It carries a lengthy prison term. Levi distinguishes the fate of an Italian woman who was convicted like Lori--but according to them on "more hard evidence"--and who was released after seventeen months, based on her claim of innocence, but Lori has always insisted she was innocent. Apparently he never saw the film clips of the Italian woman, who appeared far more agitated than Lori.
Levi called the Berensons to congratulate them when they heard Lori would get a new trial. But surely even he knows such a trial will not be fair. We can ignore the outrageous and repetitious claims of DINCOTE against Lori carried in The Nation. They are false. Lori will tell the truth if she is forced into a public show trial, and the truth will keep her free in spirit and someday make her free in body.
It is more difficult to ignore the role of The Nation in using its pages to support false DINCOTE propaganda planted to poison US opinion about Lori. A majority of Congress has demanded Lori's release from prison because Lori's parents, despite all the propaganda from Peru and the "Washington Peru policy," have persuaded them Lori is innocent. The Nation has not helped truth find its way out.
Perhaps the Nation Institute will now investigate how this happened.
LEVI & MINEO REPLY
New York City; Cambridge, Mass.
It's sad to watch such a historic defender of human rights as former Attorney General Ramsey Clark so willfully misread our report on his client, Lori Berenson. This misreading starts even before our story begins. Throughout his letter Clark attributes the article solely to Jonathan Levi. In fact, the byline was shared by Levi and Liz Mineo. Clark writes: "Levi seems to know little about Peru or Lori's case." Mineo, a full partner in the research and writing of the piece, was not only born in Lima but lived there for more than thirty-five years and worked (as her bio indicated) as an investigative reporter for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including El Comercio, a newspaper that the Berensons have lauded for its fair coverage of their daughter's case.
Clark makes some strong claims about our journalistic integrity and the motivations behind our story, but he fails to provide any evidence to support them. We reported in the article that Berenson's own lawyer in Peru, Grimaldo Achahui, signed the DINCOTE record of her interrogation and later confirmed its authenticity. Clark attempts to disparage Achahui by declaring that he "has not represented [Lori] for years" and that "he has made statements harmful to Lori." In fact, his last action on her behalf was filing Berenson's appeal to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 1999, and as recently as August the Berensons themselves referred to Achahui as Lori's Peruvian lawyer. The only statements of his that we repeat pertain to his verification of Lori's testimony to DINCOTE and his opinion that her sentence was unfair.
Clark writes, "The article accepts as gospel the false DINCOTE allegations of fact...." Perhaps Clark missed the following sentence: "The story that emerges from the documents is one of unusually hasty police surveillance, negligent interrogation and reckless reliance on one witness whose testimony was neither challenged nor corroborated. The documents give a crude demonstration of how hyperinflation can be applied to a police charge, raising Berenson, in its final pages, from the obscurity of a minor suspect to the limelight of a major leader of the MRTA." Our aim was to examine all received truths about the case. To that end, we conducted interviews with dozens of people in Peru, including former and current members of DINCOTE as well as former and current members of the MRTA and educated observers within the diplomatic and business community. Nowhere did we represent the DINCOTE documents as the record of a fair and balanced judicial process. Although we described discrepancies between Berenson's story as it appears in the documents and other available evidence, we also clearly showed grave inconsistencies in the government's case against her.
It is Clark who displays a striking ignorance of Fujimori's Peru. Although anti-regime journalists (including Mineo and many of her former colleagues) have been harassed and threatened by the government, they continue to operate with vigor. Like journalists everywhere, they routinely use anonymous government sources in their work. We came upon the documents in question through sources within DINCOTE who, in our judgment and that of other independent journalists in Peru, were reliable.
Moreover, contrary to Clark's implication, our article, which was published five days before the announcement that the military charges against Berenson had been dismissed, fairly represented the Berensons' fear that their daughter would be retried in civilian court on the charge of collaboration with terrorism, which carries a sentence of twenty years. (She had previously received a life sentence for "treason against the fatherland and conspiracy to overthrow Congress.")
Clark seems most angry that, after our article appeared, we would not show him the documents. An associate of Clark's asked for the documents on a Monday because Lori was due to be examined by the civilian judge on Wednesday. Once the new legal process had begun, we would have risked compromising our credibility as journalists by showing Clark or his associates the documents. We believe that the Peruvian court was wrong to withhold these documents from Berenson and her attorneys. But one does not have to be a lawyer to understand the difference between a judge and a journalist.
In Clark's view, since we were not willing to work for him and the Berensons, we must be working for DINCOTE. It is a charge that is beneath Clark, a veteran of the struggle during the dark cold war days of this country, when loyalty was painted red or white, and if you weren't on our side you were on theirs. Although we feel great sympathy for Mark and Rhoda Berenson and can only hope that our parents might fight so tirelessly and energetically if we found ourselves in Lori's position, we react with an appalled sadness to Clark's slander.
THE EDITORS REPLY
We stand by Jonathan Levi and Liz Mineo's careful reporting for this magazine on the Lori Berenson case. We also share Ramsey Clark's belief that justice is not possible for Berenson in Peru and that she should be released, a view we expressed in an editorial accompanying Levi and Mineo's article and another just after her new civilian trial was announced. The only "truth" we presumed to reveal was that the investigation of her case, her trial and conviction were deeply unfair and the government's evidence against her hopelessly tainted. Therefore, our recommendation was not for her case to be reopened but for human rights advocates to step up pressure on the regime to free her and all those unjustly convicted of terrorism in Peru.
I read with interest the timely report on Lori Berenson, which coincided with the Peruvian government's decision to grant her a retrial. This decision, welcome as it may be by human rights activists and the Berenson family and friends, is, however, seen by large sectors of the Peruvian public as a cynical attempt by a beleaguered government nationally and internationally perceived as illegitimate to improve its relations with the United States. While it makes sense for Berenson's family and well-wishers to portray her at best as totally innocent and at worst as a useful idiot, the documentation provided by The Nation points to a much more conscious collaboration with a guerrilla group intent on forcibly deposing a foreign government. In the United States too, long sentences have been imposed on foreigners convicted of aiding in the planning and/or perpetration of acts of terrorism. The World Trade Center case comes to mind.
As a Peruvian, I find the methods used by my government against the guerrillas excessive and often more criminal than the groups it was fighting. The time has come to re-evaluate many of those actions, in both the military and the legal realms. As scandalous as the lack of due process that led to Berenson's incarceration was, it would be equally scandalous for her to be set free simply because she is a well-represented American at a time when freeing her becomes expedient to the Peruvian and US governments, while hundreds or thousands of others remain indefinitely in jail, sentenced under similar conditions and including the truly innocent.
New York City
That Lori Berenson was denied fair jurisprudence and that our government has not secured her release are both clear. But Jonathan Levi and Liz Mineo's attempts to paint a personal portrait of Lori Berenson (through evidence that may have been completely fabricated or through her "militant" attitude during her press statement, where she was instructed to yell to be heard) miss the point. In an instance of gross human and civil rights violations, it is entirely inappropriate to look for kernels of rationale based on the victim's behavior. That Lori is innocent isn't even the issue here--would you deem it appropriate to examine the behavior of a Jewish storekeeper in Nazi-era Germany in order to find a shred of justification in his subsequent gassing at Auschwitz? Lori's imprisonment, her health problems and the outrageous treatment she has suffered by the Peruvian courts are the issues. I don't care if she's a country club Republican or an Uzi-toting terrorist's moll. She's a human being and an American, and she must come home.
In Serbia people power has swept out another tyrant. In the aftermath the Yugoslav federation's new president, Vojislav Kostunica, the constitutional scholar of strong nationalist leanings who led the surprisingly velvet revolution, faced the tough job of renewing a government that stank of rot from the top down. Opposition leader Zoran Djindjic summed up the fast-changing post-Slobo status quo: "We've done two-thirds of the job, but we used the power of the streets more than the power of the institutions and more the power of the people than of political organizations. Now it's up to us to turn what people chose with their energy into reality."
The task of institutionalizing the revolution presented the new federal president with daunting problems. His moves to oust the pro-Milosevic officials in the Serbian government--the still-loyal secret police, the military, corrupt factory managers, bureaucrats and legislators--and install honest civil servants were complicated by resistance from leaders of the old regime and some generals. But he still had the powerful force of unleashed democratic energy behind him. Given Kostunica's nationalistic sentiments, however, which permeate the Serbian Orthodox Church hierarchy and other institutions to which he claims some fealty, there is a danger of the recrudescence of chauvinistic patriotism, which Milosevic stirred up during his reign and to which elements of the populace remain vulnerable. We can hope at this point that Kostunica will work to keep these emotions within bounds.
Kostunica must also deal with restive Montenegro, which harbors secessionist dreams and, unhappy over the current Constitution, boycotted the elections. And he must confront the issue of the future of Kosovo, whose people suffered greatly at Serbian hands. Hundreds of Albanian political prisoners are in Serbian jails, and Kostunica has the power to pardon them. His attitude toward municipal elections in Kosovo, set for October 24, is crucial. These elections were seen as an important step in UN efforts to establish workable institutions in the province--and by many as part of an irreversible process of readying Kosovo for independence.
The West must give Kostunica and his new-fledged democracy strong support, both diplomatic and economic, including lifting sanctions. Billions of dollars are needed to rebuild the economy that the Milosevic regime ransacked and that sanctions crippled, and to repair the infrastructure damage inflicted by NATO bombs.
That does not, however, mean putting on indefinite hold the reckoning with Milosevic and his henchmen before the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. The meting out of justice to indicted war criminals must continue, but the West should give Kostunica running room while persuading him to cooperate with the tribunal.
The Contact Group, led by the United States, France, Britain and Germany, must begin thinking seriously about a broader international diplomatic process to resolve many of the outstanding questions and conflicts of the entire region and to give the Balkans a secure place in the European "house." The Serbs' yearning to be integrated into Europe was a strong motive behind their overthrow of Milosevic.
The crimes of Serbia's leaders, its army and its paramilitaries cannot be forgotten, but the NATO air war left a residue of bitterness among the people. Now, Yugoslav democracy needs to be nourished. The hope of better lives can sustain the Serbs in the arduous task of reconstruction they face in the years ahead.
Although most Israelis, even those who consider themselves members of the left, are blaming Yasir Arafat for escalating the current violence, some are trying to voice a different position. They have organized a number of small protests calling for Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and against the shooting of demonstrators.
In addition, about fifty Israeli scholars and community leaders--Jews and Arabs--have published a petition in Israel's daily Haaretz stating that war must and can be avoided. The petition was initiated by sociologist Baruch Kimmerling. Signers include Ruchama Marton, the founder of the Israeli Physicians for Human Rights; Dalia Kirstein, director of the Center for the Rights of the Individual; and Gila Svirsky, former director of the Israeli and Palestinian feminist group Bat Shalom. Also signing were literary figures David Grossman, Yitschak Laor, Yigal Shwartz and Orly Lubin; economist Arieh Arnon; and three Palestinian citizens of Israel who teach at Ben-Gurion University, Ismael Abu-Saad, Thabet Abu Rass and Ahmad Saadi. The petition demands:
§ An immediate and unilateral Israeli commitment to evacuating the provocative settlements and zones that are to be included in the Palestinian state--including those in the Gaza Strip, Hebron and the Jordan Valley.
§ That Israel accept Palestinian sovereignty over all Arab neighborhoods and mosques inside Jerusalem, while Israel will maintain sovereignty over the Western Wall. The city, within this framework, will be completely open to all residents.
§ That Israel declare a strong commitment to insuring equal rights in every area to all Palestinian and other citizens of the state of Israel, and that it stop shooting at demonstrators.
§ A release and exchange of all prisoners on all sides.
We believe that only the acceptance of this package and the immediate cessation of all violence by all populations on all sides can serve as the basis for rebuilding trust among Jews, Palestinians and the Arab world.
Misreported and flawed from the start, the Oslo peace process has entered its terminal phase of violent confrontation, disproportionately massive Israeli repression, widespread Palestinian rebellion and great loss of life, mainly Palestinian. Ariel Sharon's September 28 visit to Haram al Sharif could not have occurred without Ehud Barak's concurrence; how else could Sharon have appeared there with at least a thousand soldiers guarding him? Barak's approval rating rose from 20 to 50 percent after the visit, and the stage seems set for a national unity government ready to be still more violent and repressive.
The portents of this disarray, however, were there from the 1993 start, as I duly noted in The Nation (September 20, 1993). Labor and Likud leaders alike made no secret of the fact that Oslo was designed to segregate the Palestinians in noncontiguous, economically unviable enclaves, surrounded by Israeli-controlled borders, with settlements and settlement roads punctuating and essentially violating the territories' integrity. Expropriations and house demolitions proceeded inexorably through the Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu and Barak administrations, along with the expansion and multiplication of settlements (200,000 Israeli Jews added to Jerusalem, 200,000 more in Gaza and the West Bank), military occupation continuing and every tiny step taken toward Palestinian sovereignty--including agreements to withdraw in minuscule, agreed-upon phases--stymied, delayed, canceled at Israel's will.
This method was politically and strategically absurd. Occupied East Jerusalem was placed out of bounds by a bellicose Israeli campaign to decree the intractably divided city off-limits to West Bank and Gaza Palestinians and to claim it as Israel's "eternal, undivided capital." The 4 million Palestinian refugees--now the largest and longest existing such population anywhere--were told that they could forget about return or compensation. With his own corrupt and repressive regime supported by both Israel's Mossad and the CIA, Yasir Arafat continued to rely on US mediation, even though the US negotiating team was dominated by former Israeli lobby officials and a President whose ideas about the Middle East showed no understanding of the Arab-Islamic world. Compliant but isolated and unpopular Arab chiefs (especially Egypt's Hosni Mubarak) were humiliatingly compelled to toe the American line, thereby further diminishing their eroded credibility at home. Israel's priorities were always put first. No attempt was made to address the injustice done when the Palestinians were dispossessed in 1948.
Back of the peace process were two unchanging Israeli/American presuppositions, both of them derived from a startling incomprehension of reality. The first was that after enough punishment and beating, Palestinians would give up, accept the compromises Arafat did in fact accept and call the whole Palestinian cause off, thereafter excusing Israel for everything it has done. Thus, the "peace process" gave no considered attention to immense Palestinian losses of land and goods, or to the links between past dislocation and present statelessness, while as a nuclear power with a formidable military, Israel continued to claim the status of victim and demand restitution for genocidal anti-Semitism in Europe. There has still been no official acknowledgment of Israel's (by now amply documented) responsibility for the tragedy of 1948. But one can't force people to forget, especially when the daily reality is seen by all Arabs as reproducing the original injustice.
Second, after seven years of steadily worsening economic and social conditions for Palestinians everywhere, Israeli and US policy-makers persisted in trumpeting their successes, excluding the United Nations and other interested parties, bending the partisan media to their wills, distorting the actuality into ephemeral victories for "peace." With the entire Arab world up in arms over Israeli helicopter gunships and tanks demolishing Palestinian civilian buildings, with almost 100 fatalities and almost 2,000 wounded, including many children, and with Palestinian Israelis rising up against their treatment as third-class citizens, the misaligned and skewed status quo is falling apart. Isolated in the UN and unloved everywhere in the Arab world as Israel's unconditional champion, the United States and its lame-duck President have little to contribute.
Neither does the Arab and Israeli leadership, even though they are likely to cobble up another interim agreement. Extraordinary has been the virtual silence of the Zionist peace camp in the United States, Europe and Israel. The slaughter of Palestinian youths goes on while they back Israeli brutality or express disappointment at Palestinian ingratitude. Worst of all are the US media, cowed by the fearsome Israeli lobby, with commentators and anchors spinning distorted reports about "crossfire" and "Palestinian violence" that eliminate the fact that Israel is in military occupation and that Palestinians are fighting it, not "laying siege to Israel," as Madeleine Albright put it. While the United States celebrates the Serbian people's victory over Milosevic, Clinton and his aides refuse to see the Palestinian insurgency as the same kind of struggle against injustice.
My guess is that some of the new Palestinian intifada is directed at Arafat, who has led his people astray with phony promises and maintains a battery of corrupt officials holding down commercial monopolies even as they negotiate incompetently and weakly on his behalf. Sixty percent of the public budget is disbursed by Arafat to bureaucracy and security, only 2 percent to the infrastructure. Three years ago his own accountants admitted to an annual $400 million in disappeared funds. His international patrons accept this in the name of the "peace process," certainly the most hated phrase in the Palestinian lexicon today.
An alternative peace plan and leadership is slowly emerging among leading Israeli, West Bank, Gaza and diaspora Palestinians, a thousand of whom have signed a set of declarations that have great popular support: no return to the Oslo framework; no compromise on the original UN Resolutions (242, 338 and 194) on the basis of which the Madrid Conference was convened in 1991; removal of all settlements and military roads; evacuation of all the territories annexed or occupied in 1967; boycott of Israeli goods and services. A new sense may actually be dawning that only a mass movement against Israeli apartheid (similar to South Africa's) will work. Certainly it is wrong for Barak and Albright to hold Arafat responsible for what he no longer fully controls. Rather than dismiss the new framework being proposed, Israel's supporters would be wise to remember that the question of Palestine concerns an entire people, not an aging and discredited leader. Besides, peace in Palestine/Israel can be made only between equals once the military occupation has ended. No Palestinian, not even Arafat, can really accept anything less.
A new era has begun in Serbia, not only because Slobodan Milosevic has at last been expelled from office but because the deed was accomplished by the Serbian people acting in solidarity and without recourse to violence to seize their political destiny. The world will not soon forget the spectacle of Serbian riot police embracing demonstrators or the ballots spilling from the windows of the Serbian Parliament building.
Six months ago, such developments were unthinkable: Serbia's opposition had grown battle-weary and despondent, outmaneuvered by a repressive regime and fractured by internal divisions. Much of the credit for the energy, creativity and wherewithal of the protests belongs to Serbia's youth movement, Otpor, which aggressively advocated coalition-building, nonviolent civil disobedience and the importance of winning police and military support. The popular rebellion in Serbia bore the hallmarks of Otpor's strategy, as well as the youth movement's exuberance and optimism.
Still, the politics of coalition-building are complicated and perilous. Can groups, individuals and institutions that once supported Milosevic's ruling party or that launched and sustained the rhetoric of war really be trusted to help lead Serbia into the new era? For how long will the eighteen opposition parties that united behind Vojislav Kostunica continue to cooperate in the absence of a common enemy? Given Serbia's deeply divided political scene, Kostunica, a nationalist democrat from the center right, was a canny choice for presidential nominee: Uncorrupted by regime ties or mafia connections, Kostunica has a reputation for personal honesty and integrity. An anti-Communist, he also has a history of fierce opposition to Western interference in Serbian affairs. He has denounced the Hague war crimes tribunal as a political tool, he had strong wartime ties to Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, and he decried the Dayton agreement of 1995, favoring more substantial Serbian territorial claims in Bosnia. As for the Serbian offensive against Albanians in Kosovo, Kostunica once told the Chicago Tribune, "Their leaders asked for Kosovo to be bombed. How should we behave? How would Americans behave?"
These views appealed to Milosevic's former constituency as well as to the substantial nationalist opposition that has long felt that Milosevic betrayed Serbian territorial aims and soiled the country's international image. Many ordinary Serbs share an abiding distrust of the international community, especially the United States, which they feel punished the people for the actions of a leader many of them despised. At the same time, although he wears his nationalism proudly, Kostunica says that it entails neither chauvinistic intent nor "Greater Serbian" aspirations. Kostunica has always opposed the deployment of paramilitaries, and he is a democrat who favors a free press, a truth commission and the rule of law. His impressively level-headed command of the peaceful rebellion speaks for his commitment to nonviolent conflict resolution within Yugoslavia.
And yet there is an antinationalist segment of the Serbian opposition, however small, that embraces the country's new leader very cautiously. These civil society leaders, many of whom weathered the Milosevic years in Serbia's sizable NGO community, worry that Kostunica will bring with him certain elites who fell from Milosevic's favor in the mid-nineties. After all, among Kostunica's close allies are the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts and the Serbian Orthodox Church, both of which helped produce the nationalist rhetoric that Milosevic seized to bolster popular support and to fuel the war machine. Serbian nationalism in all its varieties will not soon disappear, and the student movement in particular has a crucial role to play in keeping Kostunica, as well as his future challengers, honest and in helping a meaningful political life to take root at last in Serbia.
Meanwhile, the practical challenges are monumental. Yugoslavia's economy is a shambles. Not only did NATO bomb key factories last year; not only did sanctions create a vacuum since filled by an all-pervasive black market; not only does Serbia lack a banking system and access to foreign banks; but Milosevic and his cronies established an elite class of gangsters and paramilitaries whose ill-gotten wealth will be difficult to simply wish away. To neutralize the power of organized crime, the holdings of war profiteers and mafia lords may have to be legalized, or at the very least, these characters, who have played such a nefarious role in Serbia's financial and cultural life for the past decade, must be persuaded to invest their wealth constructively. In a society whose institutions, from banks and hospitals to schools and courts, have been neglected or co-opted, and where the flight of the professional classes became a virtual hemorrhage, the road to recovery will be long indeed. Although the easing of sanctions and the promise of aid will help, the people of Serbia must survive a very difficult period of adjustment.
At the end of this period, however, Serbia, the largest and most populous nation in the ex-Yugoslav region, could once again become a forceful neighbor. This is just one reason that it is so important for Serbia to reckon with its recent history and rebuild its relationships with the other ex-Yugoslav republics on a foundation of humility and cooperation. The status of Montenegro remains an open and vexed question, with some of Milo Djukanovic's followers still straining for independence and Milosevic's party officially governing Montenegro on the federal level. And against the will of the Albanian majority, Kosovo remains nominally a part of Yugoslavia; with a reputable government in Belgrade, the international community will eventually withdraw.
The question of reconciliation with the past, specifically Serbia's role in the Yugoslav wars, is also a critical one, and it will most likely be resolved on local terms or not at all. Many Serbs believe they have been demonized by the world media and unfairly singled out for punishment for the Bosnian war. Thus, stern rebukes from abroad often meet with hostility. Although Kostunica has unfortunately vowed not to cooperate with The Hague, he may offer war crimes trials on Serbian soil. One hopes the new freedom of expression Kostunica promises will allow journalists and academics to explore recent history publicly and candidly. This internal process will be delicate, painful and contentious, but it offers the possibility of deep and lasting change.
Certainly...get him hanged! Why not? Anything--anything can be done
in this country. --Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
So here we are, barely into the next century, and the indications
couldn't be better. Peace and prosperity rule. Forget World Wars I and
II, the Nazi death camps, the gulag, Hiroshima, even Vietnam. Forget
that whole last benighted century of ours, that charnel house of
darkness in the heart of the West, or the Free World as we called it,
until, ever so recently, the whole world was freed. That's old news. It
was old even before the "short Twentieth Century," which began amid
nationalist cheers in August 1914, ended early as that wall in Berlin
came down. It's hard to believe now that in 1945, after Europe's second
Thirty Years' War, the civilization that had experienced a proud peace,
while dominating two-thirds of the planet, lay in ruins; that it had
become a site of genocide, its cities reduced to rubble, its fields laid
waste, its lands littered with civilian dead, its streets flooded by
refugees: a description that today would be recognizable only of a place
like Kosovo, Chechnya or Sierra Leone.
What a relief, when you think about it; more so if you don't: Mass death,
massacre (every acre of it), the cleansing of civilian populations, the
whole bloody business has finally been handed back to the savages in
countries nobody who counts really gives a damn about anyway. After all
these years, we face a world in which genocide happens in Rwanda or East
Timor, slaughter and mass rape in the cesspool of the Balkans, which
hardly qualifies as Europe anyway, or in African countries like
Congo--and most important of all, they're doing it to one another. Even
when it comes to nuclear matters, the MAD policies of the two
superpowers have been deposited in the ever-fuller dustbin of history
(though most of the weapons linger by the thousands in the same hands),
and the second team, the subs, have been called in. Now, Indians and
Pakistanis have an equal-opportunity chance to Hiroshimate each other
without (at least initially) involving us at all.
We always knew that violence was the natural state of life out there;
that left to their own devices they would dismember one another without
pity. We've more or less washed our hands of mass death, the only
remaining question being: If they slaughter each other for too long (or
too many gruesome images appear on our TVs), do we have a moral
obligation to intervene for their own good?
With history largely relegated to the History Channel and hosannas to
the Greatest Generation, the disconnect between the exterminatory
devastation of 1945 and our postmillennial world of prosperity seems
complete. So it's hard to know whether to respond with a spark of
elation or with pity on discovering that a few intrepid writers--Mark
Cocker, Adam Hochschild, Jonathan Schell and Sven Lindqvist--have begun
an important remapping of the exterminatory landscape of the last
centuries. (As an editor, I should add, I have been associated with
Hochschild and Schell.) Interestingly, none of them are professional
historians; and I hesitate to call them a grouping, for they seem
largely ignorant of one another's work. Yet their solitary efforts have
much in common.
They have taken remarkably complementary journeys into the West's now
largely forgotten colonial past. Considered as a whole, their work
represents a rudimentary act of reconstructive surgery on our collective
near-unconscious. They are attempting to re-suture the history of the
West to that of the Third World--especially to Africa, that continent
where for so long whites knew that "anything" could be done with
impunity, and where much of the horror later to be visited upon Europe
might have been previewed.
Worried by present exterminatory possibilities, each of these writers
has been driven back to stories once told but now largely ignored. Three
of the four returned to a specific figure, a Polish
seaman-turned-novelist who, as a steamboat pilot in the Congo, witnessed
one exterminatory moment in Africa and on the eve of a new century
published a short novel, Heart of Darkness, based on it. Of the
four, only Hochschild has done original historical research. But that,
in a way, is the point. They are not telling us new stories but
reclaiming older ones that have dropped from sight, and so
re-establishing a paper trail on extermination without which our modern
moment conveniently makes no sense.