Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category


February 8, 2015


Timbuktu, a film by Abderrahmane Sissako, is about the 2012 occupation of the ancient Malian city by the Islmaist group, Ansar Dine. In episodic form, the film depicts the suffering and passive resistance of the city’s residents.

Ansar Dine forbids people from listening to music (including religious music), smoking, and playing soccer. They require women to veil themselves and wear gloves. They carry out floggings and stonings of people who violate their rules.

The film is centered around Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), a herdsman who lives with his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki), and his daughter, Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), outside the city. When Kidane kills a man during a fight, the Islamists arrest him. One of the leaders tells Kidane that he can pay “blood money” to the victim’s family in the form of forty cows. When Kidane tells them he only has seven cows, they condemn him to death.

One of the strengths of Timbuktu is that it depicts the brutality of the Islamists without demonizing them. Instead, the film show how their own desires and interests conflict with the severe form of Sunni Islam that they’ve embraced. For example, one of the leaders has to hide the fact that he smokes from his men. In one scene, we see some of the soldiers discussing World Cup soccer. Another soldier clearly has reservations about what Ansar Dine is doing, but he is afraid to break with them. One of the leaders argues with an imam who criticizes what they are doing.

Timbuktu is a great film. It is a profoundly moving condemnation of religious fundamentalism and an assertion of human dignity.

George Washington’s Dentures and the Reliability of Sources

May 5, 2014


Like millions of Americans, I was taught as a child that George Washington had wooden teeth. Like so much of American folklore, this story conceals a sadder truth.

Over the past several days, several of my Facebook friends have linked to an article titled “George Washington Had Teeth That Actually Were Yanked From The Heads Of His Slaves And Fitted Into His Dentures” on a website called Reunion Black Family. The article starts out in a plausible vein, but then I came to this sentence:

    Consider, for example, his December 19, 1786 vow to never again purchase another slave from Zionist corporations that invaded Africa villages with guns and kidnapped people.

Zionist corporations? This has the stench of crankery about it. I decided to find out more about this website. From what I have been able to gather, it is owned by a man named Kola Afolabi, who apparently lives in Nigeria. He is a pan-African nationalist. He likes Gadaffi and Mugabe. He dislikes Christianity and Islam. Last year he got into a dispute with Gallery Ezakwantu, a website devoted to African art. They accused him of using copyrighted images from their website without their permission. One of the articles on Afolabi’s site is titled “On 9/11 about 4000 Jews who work in WTC were on leave. So where were they all gone just on that Day? Think about it” Yeah, think about it. I will spare you any quotes from this article. The title says it all.

So, Reunion Black Family is not a reliable source. This leaves the question: did Washington use teeth from his slaves in his dentures? I consulted several sources on this topic. They all said that Washington’s dentures were made from human teeth, animal teeth, and teeth carved from ivory. (The ivory teeth tended to turn brown over time. This may be the origin of the story about Washington having wooden teeth.) They did not say where the human teeth came from. Then I came across an article titled “The Private Life of George Washington’s Slaves” on PBS’s website. In it I found this:

    The following year, in May of 1784, Washington paid several unnamed “Negroes,” presumably Mount Vernon slaves, 122 shillings for nine teeth, slightly less than one-third the going rate advertised in the papers, “on acct. of the French Dentis [sic} Doctr. Lemay [sic],” almost certainly Le Moyer. Over the next four years, the dentist was a frequent and apparently favorite guest on the plantation. Whether the Mount Vernon slaves sold their teeth to the dentist for any patient who needed them or specifically for George Washington is unknown, although Washington’s payment suggests that they were for his own use. Washington probably underwent the transplant procedure–“I confess I have been staggered in my belief in the efficacy of transplantion,” he told Richard Varick, his friend and wartime clerk, in 1784–and thus it may well be that some of the human teeth implanted to improve his appearance, or used to manufacture his dentures, came from his own slaves.

“The going rate advertised in the papers” refers to the fact that in those days dentists sometimes advertised in the newspapers for people willing to sell their teeth, which were then used to make dentures. (It appears that the idea of professional ethics in dentistry was still in its infancy.) One can only speculate as to whether Washington’s slaves who sold their teeth did so “voluntarily”. It should also be borne in mind that this was before the invention of anaesthesia.

So, George Washington did use teeth from his slaves in his dentures. I just wish people wouldn’t use a crank website to make this point.

Chris Marker (1921-2012)

August 1, 2012

The legendary filmmaker, Chris Marker, died on July 29, which happened to be his birthday. (It also happens to be my birthday.) His real name was Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve. He once said that the reason he used the name Chris Marker was because he traveled a lot and he wanted to use a name that people could easily pronounce. He served in the French resistance during World War II. After the War, Marker was one of the founders of the influential journal, Cahiers du cinéma. Marker worked in different media, but his best known work is the short film, La Jetee, in which he uses a series of black & white photographs to tell a haunting story about time travel. It is often shown in college art courses as an example of how simple images can be used to convey complex ideas and associations.

Marker’s other best known work is Sans Soleil, which is often called a documentary, although it would more accurately be called a cinematic essay, or perhaps a cinematic meditation. A woman narrator reads a series of letters sent to her by a fictitious cameraman named Sandor Krasna (presumably the letters were written by Marker himself), while film footage shot by Krasna is shown on screen. The film is structured in a non-linear, free-associative manner. It touches upon a vast array of ideas ranging from Japanese religious ideas to anti-colonial struggles in Africa to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The film seems longer than its hour and forty-four minute length. I actually mean that in a good way; one of the film’s ideas is that our perception of time can vary. Here is the full film:

The Libyan Revolution

August 26, 2011

Some on the left (Glen Ford, for example) have taken the view that the Libyan revolution is nothing more than a NATO-driven coup d’etat. I cannot share this view. Clearly, the rebels could not have succeeded without support from a substantial portion of the Libyan population. One thing we learned from the Afghanistan war is that dropping a lot of bombs and sending in special operations forces do not guarantee a victory. Civilian support – which the U.S. clearly lacks in Afghanistan – is an important factor.

No doubt the Western governments will try to profit as much as they can from the current situation in Libya. Some members of the ruling class are openly calling for a U.S. occupation of Libya. Richard Haas has written in the Financial Times:

    Nato’s airplanes helped bring about the rebel victory. The “humanitarian” intervention introduced to save lives believed to be threatened was in fact a political intervention introduced to bring about regime change. Now Nato has to deal with its own success. Some sort of international assistance, and most likely an international force, is likely to be needed for some time to restore and maintain order. Looting must be prevented. Die-hard regime supporters will have to be defeated. Tribal war must be averted. Justice and not revenge need to be the order of the day if Libya is not to come to resemble the civil war of post-Saddam Iraq in the first instance, or the chaos (and terrorism) of Somalia and Yemen down the road.

Haas, a diplomat, apparently did not notice that the U.S. military completely failed to stop the sectarian civil war in Iraq. I suspect Haas’s real concern is guaranteeing for the U.S. easy access to Libyan oil. Despite his knowing use of quotation marks, it is clear that Haas is actually making a more sophisticated version of the “humanitarian intervention” argument. I doubt, however, that Obama will take Haas’s advice. Among other things, the current political mood in the country is not favorable for such a move.

Is the revolution an unqualified victory for the U.S.? Bear in mind that the U.S. did not get everything it wanted in Iraq, and it certainly did not get what it wanted in Afghanistan. The U.S. may find Libya also hard to control.


April 22, 2011

The U.S., Britain and France have been carrying out bombing raids in Libya. Originally, the stated purpose of these raids was to create a “no-fly” zone, to keep Libyan rebels from being wiped out by Moammar Gaddaffi’s forces. Now, we are told that the aim is to remove Gadaffi from power, and that special forces troops may have to be sent in to do this. This is a classic example of what in the military they call “mission creep”. The involvement of Western troops means that whatever government replaces Gadaffi, it will be one that designed to protect the interests of the Western powers, not the Libyan people. In effect, the West has intervened in the revolutionary upsurge sweeping the Arab world in order to protect its interests. At the same time that the U.S. has purportedly intervened to save the rebels in Libya, it has given the green light to Saudi Arabia to crush the uprising in Bahrain. And it has supported the government in Yemen, which is trying to crush protests in its country, which it denounces as “un-Islamic” because they include women as well as men. Clearly, the U.S. is not concerned with spreading democracy in the Arab world, but with defending its own interests.

There are some on the Left, such as Gilbert Achcar and Juan Cole, who have defended the intervention in Libya. They argue that a no-fly was necessary to defend the rebels. But as Lance Selfa has pointed out in Socialist Worker:

    Reportedly, the Libyan National Transition Council appealed to European governments with a list of demands, including the handing over of sequestered Qaddafi funds to the rebel government. The European governments chose to ignore most of the demands, but to accept the proposal for a no-fly zone.

    In other words, the notion that “there was no other choice” but a no-fly zone already accepts a compromise of the Libyan movement’s independence. In the coming weeks, we may learn if the West extracted other concessions from the Libyan opposition in exchange for support for its action–for example, honoring the Qaddafi government’s debts or giving preferential oil contracts to particular Western interests.

    As has argued, Western intervention has many other motivations besides the “humanitarian” claims in support of Resolution 1973: preserving the flow of Libyan oil; preventing mass migrations of Libyans to Europe; getting rid of a “failed state” in Libya; and stopping the Arab revolution from overthrowing another dictator through its own efforts.

As Mike Marqusee has pointed out:

    The current intervention ensures that if Gaddafi falls, his replacement will be chosen by the West. The new regime will be born dependent on the Western powers, which will direct its economic and foreign policies accordingly. The liberal interventionists will say that’s not what they want, but their policy makes it inevitable.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Achcar and Cole are people who have defended Gaddaffi, claiming that he is an anti-imperialist. In fact, since 2003, and possibly earlier, Gadaffi has been cooperating with the West. Some have even claimed that the rebels are motivated by racism against the country’s black African immigrants. In fact, it is the Libyan government that has been promoting racism. In the 1990’s, the Libyan government allowed black Africans to enter the country because it needed a source of cheap labor. Since then it has promoted tensions between these immigrants and the Libyan population. In 2000, there were attacks against blacks that killed at least 135 people. What’s more, Gadaffi has presented himself a gatekeeper against black immigration to Europe. During a trip to Rome in 2010, he declared:

    We don’t know what will happen, what will be the reaction of the white and Christian Europeans faced with this influx of starving and ignorant Africans…We don’t know if Europe will remain an advanced and united continent, or if it will be destroyed, as happened with the barbarian invasions.

Researchers Gregor Noll and Mariagiulia Giuffré have written:

    In the last two years, hundreds of migrants and asylum-seekers intercepted at sea have been driven back to Libya without any chance of setting foot on European soil to claim asylum. But in Libya, migrants and refugee are victims of discriminatory treatment of all kinds. They live in constant fear of being arrested, in which case they will be indefinitely confined in overcrowded detention centers, where they are exploited, beaten, raped and abused. Refugees who have no possibility of applying for asylum or accessing any other effective remedy, thereby run the risk of being forcibly returned to countries of origin, where they may face persecution or torture.

An interesting question presents itself here: if Gadaffi has been doing the bidding of the West, why are they now trying to get rid of him? My guess is that they decided that it was worth sacrificing Gaddaffi to regain control over the situation in the Arab world. They have used the fighting in Libya to make it appear that the West is on the side of democracy, while the West’s allies in Bahrain and in Yemen crush the revolts in those countries. There may also be domestic considerations behind this decision. In Britain, the government of David Cameron is deeply unpopular because of its drastic cuts. The Sarkozy government in France is also unpopular. This war is one way to distract people’s attention from the problems in those countries.

Back in February, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told an audience at West Point that the U.S. cannot afford any more wars like the ones in Iraq and in Afghanistan. I doubt that Gates would have said that if he didn’t believe it. The U.S. has been limiting its involvement in the fighting, no doubt in the expectation that Britain and France will carry most of the burden. However, if those countries are unsuccessful, there will be pressure on the U.S. to intervene more aggressively, perhaps even send in troops. Having declared the removal of Gadaffi as its goal, the U.S. cannot afford to allow him to survive. The U.S. may find itself draw into the Libyan conflict against its will.

The people of the Arab World must be allowed to decide their own future. That is why we should oppose the West’s intervention.

Of Gods and Men

April 10, 2011

Of Gods and Men, a French film directed by Xavier Beauvois, is based on a real incident. It tells the story of a group of Trappist monks living in a monastery in the Atlas mountains during the Algerian Civil War of the 1990’s. The leader of the monks is Christian (Lambert Wilson). One of the monks, Luc (Michael Lonsdale), is trained as a doctor. He provides treatment for people from the nearby impoverished village. They learn that Islamist rebels have been targeting foreigners. An official urges the monks to return to France, because the government cannot guarantee their safety, but the monks refuse. Luc treats the wounds of one of the rebels. After that, the government suspects the monks of providing aid to the rebels. (In one scene, we see the look of disgust on an officer’s face when he sees Christian praying over the dead body of a rebel.) The monks try to maintain the routines of their existence, despite the pressures on them.

The film mostly depicts the daily lives of the monks. We see their rituals, their prayers, their chores, their dealings with the villagers. The slow pacing of this film may test some people’s patience, but Beauvois wants us to get a sense of how these monks experience time. They grapple with the question of whether they should stay or leave. Although they are afraid, they feel obligated to remain. They have completely committed themselves to their way of life.

In the film’s last scene, we see seven of the monks being led away by the rebels. In the end, faith, duty and honor are not enough to protect us in this world.

White Material

March 3, 2011

White Material, a film by the French director, Claire Denis, tells the story of a white family living in an unidentified African country. Maria (Isabelle Huppert) runs a coffee plantation along with her husband, André (Christopher Lambert), her indolent son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), and her ailing father-in-law (Michel Subor). A civil war is raging in the country, and the French army has pulled out. The soldiers tell her to leave, but Maria is determined to harvest the coffee beans that are ripening. The workers on the plantation leave, but Maria finds new ones. A wounded man shows up on her farm. Maria gives him shelter. She is apparently unaware that he is actually a rebel leader known as “The Boxer” (Isaach de Bankolé).

Denis lived in several different African countries during the time she was growing up. Her films often deal with the relations between Europeans and Africans. White Material is about the futility of European attempts to colonize Africa. Maria and her family have lived in this country all their lives, yet they are basically outsiders. There is clearly a certain amount of self-delusion in the way they see themselves. Maria likes to think of herself as charitable and understanding, yet the workers on her plantation live in squalor. As one watches this film, one has a slowly mounting feeling of dread, because one can clearly sense the looming disaster that Maria desperately tries to deny.

The film never gives much detail about the civil war. We’re never told what the underlying issues are, or who exactly the antagonists are. I suppose this is meant to give us a sense of Maria’s isolation from the society around her. Unfortunately, however, it fits into a pattern in the Western media of depicting African conflicts as incomprehensible. I liked this film, but I thought it would have been stronger if it had given more background information.

U.S. Media Finally Notice Tunisia

January 15, 2011

I’ve been wondering for some time when the news media in this country were finally going to take notice of the revolution in Tunisia. I figured they would have to say something if Bin Ali were forced to flee the country. Or perhaps it just took them this long to find Tunisia on the map. (The Huffington Post has helpfully posted a map of North Africa with a big red arrow pointing at Tunisia. Thanks, guys.)

I haven’t seen anything about Tunisia on CNN. Of course, they’ve been obsessed with the Tucson shootings. The media have a tendency to latch onto one story and cover it at the expense of other matters. A bizarre example of this occurred last year when the media nabobs suddenly decided that Tiger Woods’s sex life was the most important topic in the world.

I’ve been told that today there was a demonstration in Cairo in front of the Tunisian embassy. People were chanting “Mubarak next!”

There is always hope.