Moroccan Road Trip

To get to the desert, I went through the desert, and also over a mountain. (Like I said, it’s always about journey.) I went on a tour with Camel Safaries, one of the many tour companies operating out of Marrakech, and over the course of 3 days and 2 nights, we wended our way over the High Atlas Mountains through Tizi n’Tichka Pass, stopped in Ait Benhaddou, drove through the Dades Valley, walked in a bit of Todra (Todgha) Gorge, and sped across the the black sands surrounding the small town of Merzouga, where we mounted up on camels and trekked into the Erg Chebbi part of the Sahara Desert. It was a heckuva road trip.

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Tour guide driver Hassan takes a break in the Dades Valley, Morocco

That’s a lot of time in a car, but if you only have so much time and you want to get to a remote spot, that’s part of the deal. One more day to cover the same ground would’ve been nice, to spend more time in some of the stops or do a more proper walk in one of the gorges, but I’m still happy with what I did.

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The High Atlas Mountains, Morocco

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In Todra Gorge, Morocco

High Atlas Mountains and Tizi n’Tichka Pass

high atlas mountains morocco road trip

High Atlas Mountains, Morocco

When you think of Morocco, do you think “mountains”? I certainly didn’t before I started researching my trip, but in fact the Atlas Mountains run through Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, separating the coast from the Sahara. Morocco is nearly bisected by the mountains, so when you look at a map and think, “I’m going to go from Marrakech to Merzouga, that’s only 350 miles, not a problem,” you are 1) clearly an American or Australian (my British friends would definitely balk at a weekend jaunt of 350 miles), and 2) not taking into account the fact that you have to climb up, squeeze through, and pick your way down a large mountain range.

As we left Marrakech behind and started our ascent, I was reminded of parts of California and the American Southwest, with the orange-red sandstone and the scrubby green trees. Once we passed our first pit stop, the red gave way to brown, and we drove past mud-and-stone villages that blended in well with the hills they were built on. Finally, at the top of the range, as we went through the pass, were among the snowy peaks we’d seen hours ago in Marrakech.

Ait Benhaddou

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Ait Benhaddou, Morocco

One of the things that attracted me to this tour was the opportunity to see a UNESCO World Heritage site. Ait Benhaddou is listed because it’s a well-preserved example of southern Moroccan architecture; it’s from the 17th century but uses building techniques centuries older than that. It seems to be in the middle of nowhere, but its placement is no accident; the route we were following from Marrakech to the desert is the same one that caravans used to travel, and this was one of the places they’d stop to trade. Now it gets most of its money from tourists and from film companies — it’s been in Lawrence of Arabia, The Mummy, and Gladiator, among others.

Our guide, Mustapha, told us that the easiest way to think of a kasbah is as a tower that has four raised points on the corner. The casbah used to be the fortified city which had one of these towers, but when defense became less of a concern, wealthy families started building the towers with the raised points on the corners, as a sign of their wealth and prestige, and the towers themselves became known as kasbahs. Ait Benhaddou is a ksar (or kind of castle/fortified group of houses), with several kasbahs in it. It’s built onto a hill and rises up dramatically from the flat landscape around it.

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View from Ait Benhaddou

We got there by fording a river, walking on sacks of sand that were laid out like stepping stones. I noticed some kids holding a tourist’s hand as she walked on the “stones” unsteadily, and once she was safely ashore, it was time for a tip. We admired the imposing gate to the town, which was apparently used in some Game of Thrones episodes, and then walked up and up and up through the town, for some great views of the countryside — a cluster of trees and greenery around the town, and then flat desert punctuated by gentle hills to the mountains on the horizon. As we walked down through the other side of the town to our waiting van, we passed lovely flowering almond trees, white blossoms contrasting with the reddish brown earth.

At one point, we passed the tiny town of Imiter and saw to the east a large complex in the low hills, and an imposing sign over an even more imposing fence. This is a mine owned privately by the King of Morocco. It’s the seventh largest mine in the world; more than 6000 people work there, going 25 kilometers underground to find gold and copper. What a thing for one person to own.

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He made dramatic, probably romantic, entreaties to her the whole time I was there

Dades Valley

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Ruins of a kasbah in the Dades

This area is romantically referred to as The Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs, and it’s true there are many around. Once you understand that these don’t mean castles the way you might have thought they did, but a combination of necessary defense systems and also symbols of prestige, you can see why there are so many.

We drove deep into the valley at night, and the next morning, we drove up a hill to get a view of the gorge, then back out down the same road, admiring the scenery we’d not been able to see the night before.

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The Monkey’s Fingers rock formations in the Dades Valley

One of the surprises (to me) of much of Morocco was how suddenly green spaces appeared in seemingly endless desert. I guess I’d understood oases mostly from comic strips and movies, so to see a grove of date palms rising up out of the otherwise barren earth was a surprise, and a welcome one. Morocco has also built up irrigation systems for farming, and as we drove through the valley I saw greens and beans, and then silvery trees I didn’t recognize. When I asked what they were, Mustapha pointed to a sign behind me that read “Valley of the Figs.” Aha.

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You can really get a sense of the valley from this, how it was cut out of the rock by water eons ago

Todra Gorge

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Todra Gorge, Morocco

The Todra Gorge used to be difficult to access, but the government has extended the asphalt road right up to the mouth of the gorge, so we drove up, hopped out, and walked along it for an hour or so. The river is quite low unless it’s the rainy season, and parallel to part of the river, a canal or gutter had been set up (although it was higher than the river and I’m not sure how it worked).

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People had set up stalls along the rock wall, selling pashminas, wooden figurines, silver bracelets. A couple passed us, packs on backs and poles in hand; the Dades and Todra gorges are popular with serious hikers.

One woman, baby strapped to her back, herded donkeys upriver. The Berber nomads in this area used to move around to find food and water, but now they shop in villages and move seasonally: they spend the summer in caves in the High Atlas, and winter in warmer tents.

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“The Sahara is ours” in Arabic

In several places, people had made giant signs on the hillside out of white rocks, which contrasted well with the brown earth beneath them. Sometimes they said “God, country, and king,” which is the motto of Morocco. Sometimes they said “The Sahara is ours,” which is a claim on Western Sahara, a disputed territory south of here which Morocco occupies and which Algeria claims as well. Algeria particularly wants the oil found there and access to the sea. Whatever the message spelled out on the hillside, there was always the Moroccan star (from the flag) to accompany it.

Glimpses of Berber Culture

Our guide, Mustapha, and driver, Hassan, are both Berber, or Amazigh. We asked if they wouldn’t mind talking a little about what it’s like to be Berber in Morocco, a mostly Arab North African country. Mustapha explained that under French rule, which was under Saudi influence, the Berber language was forbidden, although people still spoke it at home. In the 1970s, university students started being more vocal about being allowed to celebrate their culture. Around 2010, the king decided to head off any possibility of an Arab Spring situation by making Berber one of the official languages of Morocco, along with French and Arabic. The Berbers have had a written language since before Arabs arrived in the 7th century CE, but it was suppressed for centuries. Now, Berbers are openly teaching and learning how to read and write in their language.

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Hassan picks us up after our walk in part of Todra Gorge. Hassan talked about how much he likes wearing traditional dress, and he insisted we all wear headdresses when we went camel trekking.

Mustapha was part of a Berber liberation group at his university in Meknes. He emphasized that they don’t want a violent uprising, and even when they have marches they don’t want anything too disruptive. (I have my own ideas about what disruption can do for real change, but this is not about my ideas or my cultural context.)

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The yaz symbol — for Berber freedom

We saw many yaz symbols painted on cliffs, drawn on buildings, formed out of white rocks on brown hillsides. This is part of the alphabet and also represents the “free man” — which is what “Amazigh” means.

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Local transport — mule and a cart

Hassan played Moroccan music during a lot of the drive, and one song in particular was so hauntingly beautiful that I asked him to play it again, twice (which my tourmates indulged). The singer was Mbark Oularbi, who sang about freedom for Berbers. Officially he died after a battle with illness, but it is widely believed he was poisoned for stirring up too much unrest. His band is named Saghru, which is a mountain where various Berber tribes banded together to battle the French. The song is in my notes as “Hokuma” meaning “government,” but that gets me nowhere when I search for it. If you have better google skills than I (and nearly everyone does), just listen for a quiet, insistent song and enjoy.

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Tunes, new friends, gorgeous scenery, an exciting destination: it was a good road trip.

Be sure to read about the destination of this road trip — the Sahara!

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Desert to desert

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Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at the Tate Modern

If you’re in London in the next week, and you’ve not yet visited the Soul of a Nation exhibition at the Tate Modern, let this be encouragement to see it before it closes on the 22nd. If that’s not you, let this be a way to enjoy some excellent art. Content warning: some of these images are violent. Super important and well done, but potentially disturbing. Copyright note: I believe this falls within the Tate’s photography requirements of “personal use.”

The Soul of a Nation at the Tate Modern is one of the most challenging, upsetting, and thrilling art exhibitions I’ve been to in years. Before you even enter the exhibition space, you can watch snippets of speeches from five leaders of civil rights, Black Power, and liberation movements (Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Stokely Carmichael, and Angela Davis). You see Stokely responding to MLK and Malcolm X, James Baldwin teaching Europeans about American racism, Angela Davis taking a broad and pragmatic view of how the struggle fits in her life and she in it. This introduction to the exhibition is small but important. It situates us firmly within the black community in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s. We’re not hearing what white people thought about the issues or what approach white people thought black people should take; we’re hearing how black people had this discussion amongst themselves, and the myriad approaches they took to dismantling systemic racism and building a better world.

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April 4 by Sam Gilliam

Once you enter the exhibition space, with the voices of cultural and political leaders still ringing in your ears, you immediately meet the artistic leaders. Let no one tell you that art and politics don’t interact: the Spiral artistic group was formed in direct reaction to the March on Washington in 1963, so members could discuss how to represent black folks in their art, and how to fight political battles in their art.

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America the Beautiful by Norman Lewis

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Processional by Norman Lewis (apologies for the slight blurriness)

My favorite thing about these two paintings by Norman Lewis is how they talk to one another. “America the Beautiful” on the left is a collection of white figures on a black background, which as you look more closely you see is a KKK rally, taking over the canvas and popping up almost randomly, like you never know where they’re lurking, intending harm. “Processional” on the right is a collection of white figures on a black background, which as you look more closely you see is an energetic crowd of people marching forward. It’s the Selma march, and as the museum placard suggested, the gradually widening scope of the view of figures is like a flashlight leading through the darkness. Two similarly simple approaches, two radically different results.

The next room cleverly combined art of the Black Panther group (mostly from their paper but also from posters they mass-produced to reach more people) and murals painted in black neighborhoods in cities across the United States — this room was “art on the streets,” art that was made to inspire and fire up. Some of the murals have fallen into disrepair, but I know I’ve seen some — or some like them — on the south side of Chicago, although I can’t recall if I’ve seen the Wall of Respect, one of the first murals to go up during this time.

Some of the stories behind the pieces I was familiar with, and others were new to me. I did not know about Fred Hampton — Black Panther activist shot to death in a raid by Cook County cops after being drugged by an FBI informant. I did not know that during his trial for conspiracy and inciting a riot as part of the Chicago Eight, Bobby Seale was ordered bound and gagged in the courtroom by the judge because the judge didn’t like his outbursts. (Also Seale’s later prison sentence was not for the original charges but for contempt charges the judge applied during that trial.) Archibald Motley, who painted “The First One Hundred Years” over a ten-year period, never painted again after he completed this work.

Other groups and collectives formed, including the Weusi collective, the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, AfriCOBRA, Smokehouse Associates, and many others. A few of the rooms in this exhibition feature work from just one or two groups, so you can get a good sense of the general approach and what they focused on.

soul of a nation black power art london

I Got Rhythm by Betye Saar

A room full of collage, sculpture, and found object art had some truly chilling pieces. Betye Saar’s work is deeply affecting — titles that seem carefree like “Sambo’s Banjo” and “I Got Rhythm” are attached to mixed-media punches to the gut. Each tiny item in each piece adds layers of meaning — the little crucifix at the bottom of a lynched man in “I Got Rhythm,” the toy gun nestled in the top of the banjo case so Sambo might have a chance of resisting and surviving in “Sambo’s Banjo.”

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Revolutionary by Wadsworth Jarrell

soul of a nation black power art london

Detail of Black Prince by Wadsworth Jarrell

Walking into the AfriCOBRA room midway through the exhibition was like walking into an air-conditioned building after walking for miles in summer heat, a relief. The AfriCOBRA manifesto was explicitly hopeful: they wanted an aesthetic of “rhythm,” “shine,” and “color that is free of rules and regulations.” They made works to lift people up, and they reprinted them for wide distribution, so that black people all over the country could be inspired by positive images of black folks. Which is not to say that this isn’t itself a challenge, because it certainly challenges the white supremacist myth that black people are inferior and not worth celebrating. And in fact most of the art was explicitly political as well, like the work by Gerald Williams reminding people “don’t be jivin” or Wadsworth Jarrell’s portrait of Angela Davis, made up of words from her speeches radiating from the center of the painting. Make no mistake, representation on your own terms is a powerful form of resistance.

One of the debates within the black artistic community at the time was whether abstract art could be considered part of the movement as a whole. Abstract artists argued that because the art was theirs, and they were black, it was therefore part of the political black art movement. It’s like improve in jazz, William T. Williams said, and then he painted Trane, named for John Coltrane, which I think is an excellent way to win an argument.

There was a room on photography and how different ways of developing film brought out different skin tones in the black subjects; there were connections to the wider Black Arts Movement and samples from poets who collaborated with visual artists; there were many reminders that one of the constant themes in black liberation movements of 50 years ago was an end to police brutality — for all those who want to talk about “how far we’ve come”; there was a Spotify playlist you could listen to on your headphones during your walk around the exhibition and which I listened to after, getting pumped up to Gil Scott Heron as I strode along the Thames. There was so much to see, read, and absorb. Much gratitude to the artists who fought the good fight and explored their own creativity during the 1963-1983 period explored here, and beyond.

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Bill & Son by Roy DeCarava

Where in the World Wednesday

Karl Marx grave Highgate Cemetery London UK

Highgate Cemetery, London, England; August 31, 2017

As McDonald’s workers strike for the first time in the UK, and workers fight for rights during the week of Labor Day in the US, seemed an appropriate time to post this

Advent Calendar for Social Justice

Check out the Advent Calendar for Social Justice here!

We have one month left before we’re in 2017, and although it’s tempting to just curl up into a ball until it’s over, we know that we need to prepare to live in a Trump world. (For the many people who see how this year has just pulled back the mask on what wasn’t all that well hidden to begin with – I hear you. I’m sorry it’s taking some of us so long to figure it out.) Okay, so let’s live in this world, let’s make it as good as we possibly can, and let’s do it together.

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I used to be a weekly churchgoer, and the rhythms of the church year still echo in my life. The season leading up to Christmas is called Advent. Advent is a time of preparation, during which Christians prepare for the coming of the savior of the world. They prepare for the end of the world as we know it and the arrival of a better world we can barely imagine. This year, we are preparing for what certainly feels like the end of the world, and it’s hard to see anything beyond it. Trump is the opposite of a savior, no matter how he brands himself in his populist speeches. So this year we need to prepare ourselves to be our own saviors, to save ourselves from what we’ve allowed to happen. (I’m speaking mostly to my fellow straight white cis folks here – people of color and queer folk have been doing the heavy lifting since forever.)

This election seems to have served as a wake-up call for many of us. It’s not right that it took a loss that will devastate so many lives and alter the fabric of our democracy to serve as such, but here we are. So now what? is the question I see most frequently on Facebook, Twitter, in the news. There are a lot of good answers out there, from better thinkers than I. Read them, discuss them with friends and family, take action.

But for what it’s worth, here is my “what now?” response. Advent is a time of preparation, so let’s prepare. For each day of December, I’m going to take concrete action that makes me more prepared to resist the Trump presidency, or that offers some resistance now, or that contributes something good and kind to the world. Some of these actions can be done anywhere in the world, and some are US-specific.

I also think it’s important to do a mix of overtly political and more community-building or “good deeds” type things. Especially if you haven’t been politically active before, you may find this a little intimidating, but what we’ve seen from the way Trump’s campaign was run, and now after the election, is that white supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, and homophobia play a prominent role in people’s political decisions and everyday lives. Coaching Little League builds community, yes, please keep doing that — but also see how you can assist your local Black Lives Matter chapter, to build community in that way as well. And artists — keep creating, always. Artists are vital.

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Will you join me for this month? Especially for people who wouldn’t normally consider themselves political, or who don’t have much experience with activism, I tried to make this an accessible collection of things to do that will show how easy it is to fit these things into our busy lives, and how it’s not that scary to do.

If you have suggestions, please comment. Share this with anyone you like. The key is to take action, and to do it together. So call your mom, talk to your coworker, make a new friend, and go all in. As Angela Davis recently said, “How do we begin to recover from this shock? By experiencing and building and rebuilding and consolidating community. Community is the answer.”

Here is where I was going to put the calendar, but I can’t get it to embed. So please click through to the Advent Calendar for Social Justice. Be sure to click on each day to see notes and useful links with further info for each action item.

This calendar is intended as a helpful tool for people who want to do something, but aren’t sure where to start. I hope it will help you sample different ways of taking action, so that in the new year, you’ll be better prepared to really dig in to volunteering, donating, and organizing roles. I’d love your feedback. I consider it a live document and will adjust it as necessary.

Shout-out to Liz and Emmett for providing excellent advice and action items.

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Resources for Educating Yourself and Taking Action:
Accomplices Not Allies
A List of Pro-Women, Pro-Immigrant, Pro-Earth, Anti-Bigotry Organizations That Need Your Support
Oh Crap! What Now? A Survival Guide
Opportunities for White People in the Fight for Racial Justice
“We’re His Problem Now” Calling Sheet
What Educators Can Do to Support Undocumented Students
What to Do Instead of Calling the Police

Organizations Fighting the Good Fight:
350
American Civil Liberties Union
Amnesty International
Black Lives Matter
Campaign Zero
Council on American-Islamic Relations
Emily’s List
National Center for Transgender Equality
National Coalition for the Homeless
National Disability Rights Network
National Women’s Law Center
Planned Parenthood
Showing Up for Racial Justice
Southern Poverty Law Center
Sylvia Rivera Law Project
The True Colors Fund
Welcoming Refugees

Image 1. Image 2. Image 3.

 

Happy New Year 2015

Happy New Year! Here’s to a year more just and kind than the last. May the fight against systemic injustice grow stronger, and may those who try to uphold those systems change their minds and their ways.

For 2015, I’ve got another list of New Year’s Celebrations to look forward to:

  • Go to several of the museums in my new city
  • Spend an entire day reading
  • Explore a part of Britain I’ve never been to before
  • Bake a pie
  • Find a real ale I can really enjoy (Britons are obsessed with it and I’m getting used to it)
  • Pick an event at random from one of the weekend guides and go to something I’d likely not have considered otherwise

How about you? Any non-resolutions this year?

Comic from the ever-wonderful Dinosaur Comics by Ryan North.

The Two Histories of the Hanoi Hilton

The Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi combined the single-minded propaganda of the War Remnants Museum and the strange echoes of death sites felt at the Cu Chi Tunnels, resulting in a bizarre experience. A friend and I went together, and we were two of only about thirty or forty visitors in the mid-afternoon heat, so often we were the only people walking through rooms that were once packed full of prisoners, our voices swallowed up by the thick concrete walls.

Before it was the Hanoi Hilton, it was the Maison Centrale of Hoa Lo

Before it was the Hanoi Hilton, it was the Maison Centrale of Hoa Lo Prison

American prisoners of war nicknamed this place the “Hanoi Hilton” in a bitter jab at the conditions they endured. The official Vietnamese line is that the POWs were treated very well, and learned to empathize with the people they had previously only known as “the enemy.” However, multiple POWs have reported inhumane conditions, including substandard housing, insufficient food, and physical torture.

A 1969 New Year's message from Ho Chi Minh, wishing to eject "The Yanks" and reunite North and South

A 1969 New Year’s message from Ho Chi Minh, wishing to eject “The Yanks” and reunite North and South

But the first part of the museum doesn’t even mention Americans. The prison was built during French colonial times to house political prisoners, and the gatehouse that remains as the museum still has “Maison Centrale” arched over the doorway–the central house of the prison complex. Inside, there’s a mix of murals, glass cases filled with objects and scale models of the prison, and life-size sculptures of prisoners chained together and plotting revolution.

Before the 1880s, this part of the city sold stoves. This is part of the reason the prison is called "Hoa Lo"; it means "stove" and also "hell hole."

Before the 1880s, this part of the city sold stoves. This is part of the reason the prison is called “Hoa Lo”; it means “stove” and, supposedly, also “hell hole.”

Shackled statues

Shackled statues

The Vietnamese who were imprisoned by the French endured terrible conditions; the exhibits emphasized how resilient the prisoners were, and how they did everything they could to resist their imperial jailers, including gathering under an old almond tree in the courtyard to discuss resistance measures. The guillotine used to execute prisoners was on display, as were the solitary confinement cells, the piece of sewer pipe that 100 prisoners escaped through, and the room that held many more female prisoners than could comfortably fit.

Part of the sewer used as a means of escape by Vietnamese prisoners

Part of the sewer used as a means of escape by Vietnamese prisoners

Several prominent Communist leaders were imprisoned here, when it was under French control

Several prominent Communist leaders were imprisoned here, when it was under French control

The guillotine was used as one method of execution

The guillotine was used as one method of execution

There were just a few small rooms devoted to the prison’s use in the ’60s and ’70s. These held artifacts like John McCain’s flight suit, a bed used by the prisoners, and a guitar and badminton net from all the leisure activities the POWs were supposedly allowed.

John McCain's flight suit

John McCain’s flight suit

Supposed evidence of benevolence

Supposed evidence of benevolence

The two most striking things I saw in these small rooms were a video from the time of the war, and a document listing the regulations of the camp. That list started with:

American servicemen participating in the war of aggression by U.S. administration in Viet-Nam and caught in the act while perpetrating barbarous crimes against the Vietnamese land and people, should have been duly punished according to their criminal acts; but the Government and people of Viet-Nam, endowed with noble and humanitarian traditions, have given those captured American servicemen the opportunity to benefit a lenient and generous policy by affording them a normal life in the detention camps as practical conditions in Viet-Nam permit it and conforming to the situation in which the war is still on. [sic on everything]

The video was a marvel of propaganda. It alternated scenes of American POWs playing basketball and grinning at dinner with scenes of Vietnamese cowering from falling bombs and picking through the wreckage afterward. It was a genius video; who could watch it and not sympathize with the Vietnamese, who were so generous to the people who were daily trying to kill them? Of course the smiling the POWs did for the cameras was all done under duress, and it was sick to hold up these tortured men as examples of how beneficent their captors were. But just because the POW sequences were lies doesn’t mean the bomb and wreckage scenes were. It was a bloody, hateful war–as they all are.

Lots of propaganda photos, accompanied by text detailing the typical life of a POW here

Lots of propaganda photos, accompanied by text detailing the “typical” life of a POW here

My interest in the prison derived from my knowledge of the Vietnamese-American War, but once again, seeing the place in person showed me a side I wasn’t aware of–how significant the prison was to the Vietnamese as a place where they had been tortured and unjustly confined by French colonial forces. There wasn’t even a straight line drawn between the displays showing how badly the Vietnamese were treated, to displays showing how well the Americans were treated. That was a line you could draw, yes, but the way the museum was set up, it was more like it was a museum about the prison under the French, and the heroic Vietnamese prisoners who lived and died inside; and there were a few rooms about how the prison was later used.

It was fascinating, and sobering, and nothing like I’d expected.

Beyond the Facts: Visiting the War Remnants Museum in Vietnam

No museum is a mere collection of facts. It’s not possible to display information completely objectively; there’s always a point of view taken, a lesson to impart, an agenda to push. This is true even for museums that aren’t at all political; for example, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic House & Museum promotes not just Wilder’s writing, but the idea that her values and way of living are worth emulating. Museums only exist because somebody thought the topic was worthy of further study and wider knowledge by the general public. Just by building a museum, you’re taking a position. But I have to say, I have never been to a more baldly biased museum than the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.

The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Unlike a lot of museums, this one makes no bones about its purpose: it is there to tell the story of the Viet Cong during the Vietnamese-American War, and it is there as a corrective to the American narrative of the war. Every single poster and placard called it the American War of Aggression. Any time the war was called “the Vietnam War,” the phrase was placed in quotes. South Vietnam was called the “so-called Republic of Vietnam.”

Protests around the world

Protests around the world

When the USSR or China were mentioned, the war was called a “struggle for national salvation,” to be more aligned with Communist vocabulary. One placard showed Australians protesting their government sending troops to aid the Americans, and the placard said they were protesting the agreement between the Australians and US to “force Australian youths to become field targets in the US battles in Vietnam.” The whole museum was a master course in semantics. (Which is not to say it was false–you can put a lot of gloss on a base of facts.)

Some veterans from the US have sent in their medals and fatigues to the museum, with notes of apology

Some veterans from the US have sent in their medals and fatigues to the museum, with notes of apology

It was also extremely difficult to visit, because the anger and loss on display was so raw and so recent. An entire room was devoted to photos of children suffering from painful and debilitating birth defects, which they got because their parents were exposed to the dioxin in Agent Orange. Did you know that this was only one of the toxins sprayed over forests and farmlands? The museum showed posters of the various “colors” of toxins used by the US. The posters looked a lot like our terrorist threat level posters today, only guess who was the threat?

Yikes

Yikes

Ranch Hand: the name of the operation that sprayed various chemicals over the farmlands and forests of Vietnam from 1962 to 1971

Ranch Hand: the name of the operation that sprayed various chemicals over the farmlands and forests of Vietnam from 1962 to 1971

Research since the 1960s has shown that even just one parent exposed to dioxin could affect the DNA of the child, resulting in spina bifida, diabetes, various cancers, twisted or missing limbs, developmental disabilities, and other defects and diseases. So it’s not just the people who survived the war who developed health problems, but their children did, too. (Of course, this has been a big issue in the States, too, as the military has slowly agreed to compensate some US veterans for the health problems they and their children suffer as a result of being exposed to Agent Orange. We hurt ourselves when we hurt others.)

A whole room of these images, difficult to see, harder to contemplate.

A whole room of these images, difficult to see, harder to contemplate.

The Aggression War Crimes and Historical Truths sections, in addition to containing the Agent Orange room, included displays on the My Lai massacre, the founding of the National Front for Liberation (what we know as the Viet Cong), the bombings in Laos and Cambodia, and the airlift of Americans in Saigon in 1975.

The Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam

There was a special display on photographers of the war, especially American and French photographers who trained their cameras on the atrocities the Vietnamese suffered at the hands of the American troops. A couple rooms held displays of shell fragments, different kinds of guns, and in a display on the total destruction of villages in Son My, pots and baskets to show what the lives of the villagers were like before the attack.

Part of the Photographers of the War exhibit

Part of the Photographers of the War exhibit

war remnants museum hcmc

Pottery from the Son My massacre. We know it as the My Lai massacre, but that was just one of several villages in the area that was destroyed, and the Vietnamese call it the Son My massacre.

Pottery from the Son My massacre. We know it as the My Lai massacre, but that was just one of several villages in the area that was destroyed, and the Vietnamese call it the Son My massacre.

Visitors look at the guns on display

Visitors look at the guns on display

The first floor was split between two displays: one on the education the young Vietnamese received under the Viet Cong during the war, and one on the worldwide anti-war protests held during the ’60s and ’70s. The education display was dated, a magazine spread for people to read during the war. It showed children in obvious poses, smiles plastered on their faces as they shouted dedication to “Uncle Ho,” with captions like “Children tried to study well and work hard to make the contribution to the people’s movement defeating American aggressors.” I don’t mean to undermine the importance of the teachers during this time, though; they taught children in tunnels if they needed to, never sure of where or when the next bomb might go off.

Part of the "Children During War" exhibit

Part of the “Children During War” exhibit

The anti-war display was the opposite of dated; seeing the accumulation of anti-war and pro-Vietnam support from all those different countries, over many years, brought home how much this war meant to people around the world. People were not only concerned for the lives damaged and lost on both sides of the war, but also for what this kind of unofficial but all too real war meant for the world they lived in, and how it might affect their future. Seeing large posters declaring “Solidarity with Vietnam” in German, only 20 years after the end of World War II, was affecting. A man in Japan wore a sign saying “US Withdraw from Vietnam” during his commute, every day for 8 years. Several tribunals were convened on the “war crimes of the US” in Norway and Sweden. Thousands of people in South America, Africa, and Europe signed letters denouncing US intervention in Vietnam. Massive protests were held on every continent.

Before and after the war, from places around Vietnam

Before and after the war, from places around Vietnam

war remnants museum hcmc

I’m so used to the American version of the story, even the anti-war story, that I was surprised by these global actions against the war. I’d let myself be insulated, seeing everything through a particular lens, and it was good to be reminded how narrow that view is. Especially in light of the anti-war protests in 2003–those didn’t come from nowhere, they have a lot of historical precedent.

Let there be peace

Let there be peace

Outside the museum, captured American tanks, heavy artillery, and a bomber plane were on display in the sunshine. A group of children deformed by Agent Orange played musical instruments for a growing crowd of Vietnamese tourists. I stuck a flower in the gun of a tank, smiled and flashed a peace sign, consciously re-creating several historical photos of hope reaching out into violence. Behind me, the band struck up a folk song, and the gathered Vietnamese began to sing.

Outside the Peace Room

Outside the Peace Room

Labor Day: We Still Have So Much Work to Do

Happy Labor Day, fellow Americans! I hope you’re all enjoying barbecue with loved ones. For my friends outside the US who may not know, Labor Day is the American version of May Day; it used to hold a lot more power as a holiday recognizing workers’ rights, but now it’s generally seen as the the last party of the summer. Let’s take a moment to remember why we get to have the party.

Especially this year, when we’re remembering the March on Washington 50 years ago, I think it’s important to be grateful on Labor Day for the protections and opportunities we have, while we fight for the ones we’ve lost or haven’t gained yet. The nationwide attack on teachers–especially nasty in Chicago–in the guise of helping students. The “right-to-work” laws passed in 24 states (an amazing semantic victory for the right). The gender wage gap. Crippling student loan debt–and the recent doubling of interest rates on those debts. Blocked immigration reform. An unlivable minimum wage. Minimal support for new families, especially mothers in the workforce. Legal discrimination against LGBT folks. There’s a lot about employment in the US that needs fixing. (Click on those links to see groups that are taking action; you can join them.)

Obama’s speech this past Wednesday was pretty good, but the line that adapted MLK’s famous one is great: “The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.” He then urges everyone to continue fighting the good fight, a point he makes in a lot of speeches but far too frequently contradicts in his actions as president. Still, he’s not wrong. The reason we have the workers’ rights we have is because people fought for them, and not just the union leaders and lobbyists paid to fight for them. People who were tired after a long day at work then went out and rallied in the streets, wrote to members of Congress, went on strike, made changes to local laws, talked to their friends and neighbors about what was going on, elected leaders who promised to fight the fight with them. You don’t have to come home from work tired and angry with workplace injustices and your lot in life. You can come home from work tired and happy with the work you do and the conditions you work in. You can come home from work fired up to make work a place you want to return to.

So raise a toast to the unions and workers of yesterday and make a pledge to join with the ones who are fighting for a better life today. Because Labor Day means a lot more than the last day of the season to wear white.

Normal in Toronto

I’ve lived in Chicago for five years, and I’ve been to New York, LA, London, Sydney, Tokyo, and Paris. All have their own vibrant queer scenes, of course, but it was the subway in Toronto that actually showed how normalized the LGBT experience might be in that city. While waiting for a train I saw an ad for the personals:

toronto train ad

And when I got off a couple stations later, I saw an ad for HIV medication, showing a gay couple discussing whether to use single tablet drugs to manage the virus:

toronto train ad

I don’t know what the daily life situation is like for LGBT folks in Toronto, but seeing those two ads made me think that at least the first hurdle of being seen, and being seen as normal humans at that, has been crossed. Other cities, take note.