Now that I finally understand that a love of Martinique does not necessarily equate to an endorsement of colonialism, mental slavery or white supremacy, I’m coming out of the closet as a Madininaphile. So you can imagine my delight when I discovered that my chosen residence at present is the centre stage of an animated feature at cinemas now. Enter Battledream Chronicle.
“It’s time to let those who live and breathe these stories in their day-to-day life, those that are personally impacted by these stories and wholeheartedly know what they mean for their people, to be the voices bringing these stories to the rest of the world.” Another great piece from media diversified. Denying local expertise or the legitimacy of people articulating their own reality is not restricted to travel writing apparently.
by Ban Ibrahim
“The bureau is a beautiful old Kabul house with a beautiful green lawn. However, that old house is only for the foreign journalists,” says Ali M. Latifi, an Afghan-American journalist living in Kabul, about the New York Times bureau in the city. “They work and live there. The local staff work in a small little side house, traditionally used for the household servants, behind some trees and hidden from view. They literally segregate their local and foreign staff. I don’t think it gets any more obvious than that.”
Latifi, who reports for the Los Angeles Times, recently called for fundamental changes to international news media in his article published here at Media Diversified, “No news is foreign: the future of the foreign desk”. He spoke of issues related to ownership and representation that have been compromised in the way international news is reported…
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Yet another awesome piece about travelling as you are.
Dispatches: Conversations with Writers of Color on Race, Place & Adventure is a series of interviews with travel writers and personalities of color where we discuss travel, writing and identity. Read previous #Dispatches here
Images courtesy of Navdeep Dhillon
Navdeep was born in England, raised in East and West Africa, the Middle East, and the United States, but he is a Punjabi boy at heart. He served in the U.S. Navy for eight years, taught ESL in China for two, and traveled extensively throughout South East Asia, including a six month honeymoon in India. He runs the travel blog, ishqinabackpack.com with his wife, Sona Charaipotra, author of Tiny Pretty Things and one of the founders of CAKE Literary, a book packaging company focused on integrating diversity into high concept stories. He is a VONA/Voices alumni, holds an MFA in fiction, and writes about books, parenting, and diversity on his own blog,
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By Chike Pilgrim
Dust covers my shoes as I walk the city center. The city of Arusha, in northern Tanzania, has its share of high rise buildings, and is well paved, complete with concrete sidewalks. But I’ve walked an hour now, in the cool weather, from Njiro, and that part of Arusha is typical of much of eastern Africa, which means that pedestrians like me are battling dust or mud depending on the time of year.
Dust on my shoes and on the lower part of my jeans immediately classify me as a man without a car, and even without a piki-piki, the name for the motorbikes that buzz around the town like so many enormous flies. My dusty appearance may mean some trouble when I step into a more high-end store, until I open my mouth and speak my halting Kiswahili, effectively identifying myself as a foreigner and therefore someone who can most likely afford to buy the store’s items.
A Maasai, in full traditional clothing, strides past me. He may be on some sort of business. He may be headed to the part of the city where Maasai men gather to examine tanzanite, the extremely rare bluish-purple precious stone that Arusha is famous for. He may be on his way to work as a security guard for one of the wealthy United Nations expatriates that operate in Arusha. These “expats” usually work at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, a UN operation that houses many lawyers and technical staff. He may be selling nuts and cigarettes for all I know.
The Maasai have become part of the everyday experience for me, although in the first few months of my stay in Arusha, I was awe-struck every time I saw Maasai. With staffs, swords, ear-piercings, shaved heads and brightly colored Maasai clothing, Maasai seem to me to be defiant time-travelers from a long lost, Africa I romanticized. However cell-phones and cars mark them as regular inhabitants of the 21st century.
Most Maasai seem to walk though, to prefer walking, as I do. I have heard of those that would walk from Arusha to the neighboring city of Nairobi in Kenya during the period of one week – over one hundred and fifty miles. Their sandals, made from the rubber of used car tires, facilitate these treks, as do their physical endurance and how accustomed they have become to the relatively harsh landscape and the cold.
And Arusha gets cold for a Caribbean man like myself; twenty degrees centigrade in the day, falling even to eight and six degrees at night. Freezing really. Although close to the equator, this area is cold because of its elevation, and that is understandable. In addition, the highest free-standing mountain in the world, Mount Kilimanjaro, is quite close to Arusha.
Kili, as she is affectionately called, hides herself in fog most of the time, and I had to take an hour’s drive just to see her. She’s beautiful and breathtaking, but she is not to be underestimated; attempting to climb her can cost you your life. Even the wind that blows down from her is no joke.
A middle-aged Chinese couple and a young European man with a huge beard pass me on the sidewalk, stopping to buy pineapple slices at the side of the road. Their Kiswahili is not bad. In fact, it’s better than mine. Maybe they took lessons before they left their countries. Maybe they live and work here.
My experience here has taught me that judging people based on appearance is misleading, even harmful. My first guess would be that they are tourists though. Arusha does see more than its share of visitors. Some come to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Some come to visit the Serengeti and watch the animal migrations. Some have come to Olduvai Gorge, one of the oldest archaeological sites in the world, made famous by the Leakys. Some have no clear aim, like myself: kizunguzungu, dizzy voyagers who have come to see “Africa” or for whom Arusha is simply another stop on a global sojourn.
Chike Pilgrim is a writer and historian from Trinidad and Tobago. He’s recently completed an MPhil at the University of the West Indies St. Augustine entitled “Black Helix: The 1970 Black Power Movement in the light of Pan Africanism.” He’s deeply interested in ancient History, particularly that of East Africa and the ‘Middle East’.
Martinique’s ‘beheaded’ Josephine statue in Fort-de-France is a must-see monument, and the scalping of abolitionist Victor Schoelcher was also exciting. A shit-stained Cecil Rhodes in Cape Town? WOW.
In case you are not aware, something rather interesting has been happening in South Africa over the last couple of weeks. And as my blog title suggests, it’s about statues. Missed it? Let me quickly bring you up to speed.
About a month ago now, a student at the University of Cape Town (UCT) staged a political protest against the lack of racial transformation at the university. His location of protest? The statue of Cecil John Rhodes located on the university’s campus grounds. His weapon of choice? Faeces! Yep, good old fashioned human poo. His plan was to cause extreme offense and confront the situation head on. It worked. Frustrated at the lack of transformation at UCT, many other students joined the protest (without emptying the bowels though) and “#RhodesMustFall” was born.
But it didn’t end there. As the news made its way around the country, a nationwide conversation around…
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I really hate Edward Said. May he rest in peace.
I love his work.
Orientalism is one of those books, after which you’re never the same again. As a thinker, I am hugely indebted to it. But as a travel writer, Said and Orientalism are a bit like disapproving parents, watching me carefully, with my fear of disappointing them sometimes preventing me from speaking at all.
Every time I think about writing or about starting a post about a place I’ve been, or an experience I’ve had while travelling, I have a mini-heart attack.
‘Do I sound like an orientalist?’ I worry. And stop writing.
I am black, so I didn’t simply understand Orientalism as Said detailed it, I felt it.
Having grown up black in a white space in which everyone is constantly bombarded with images of your blackness as a negative, I know what it means to be defined by people who don’t know you. Or don’t like you. And don’t know what they’re talking about. Who leave you to deal with the consequences.
I know the frustration, the pain, and bristle at the injustice.
So I can write about travel from time to time, but I can’t be an Orientalist. O the shame if I were!
I’m still idealistic enough that I believe that I can write interestingly about travel while keeping ‘them’ and ‘us’ binaries out of my work. I can refuse to bow to that still-popular discourse of difference. It is not required that I fetishise or exoticise the places I visit and the people I meet. And it does matter that I try. Right?
Where is the Orient anyway? I once asked. Geographically, I meant. It was a legitimate question. Does it include Turkey? China? Iraq? Japan? Morcocco? Mali? Egypt? Lebanon? Vietnam? The orient and the occident. East and West. Geographical opposites. Ideological binaries in a spinning spherical world.
What I learned from Edward Said is that there is no such place as ‘the orient’. It’s not a continent. It’s not a country. It’s not even a region. It’s an entirely imaginary space. People (yes, nineteenth century Europeans primarily) wanted to describe some cultures and customs more similar to each others’ than to their own – in the Europeans’ version of events – and thus came up with a way of describing them: The orient aka the other.
Among the Europeans themselves there was no consensus of what exactly constituted The Orient. For the French it included Mali, and Morocco, for the British it sometimes included India and China, but no place in Africa. They both usually included Turkey, but not always, and the Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Prussians, and Italians all had their own versions of the orient presumably. It was and remains, all very imprecise and rather unclear. Yet the concept remained useful so somehow, it stuck.
Orientalism was all the rage in nineteenth century Europe; learning languages with ‘different’ alphabets, trying out ‘different’ dress modes, learning about ‘different’ customs and religions, this was the height of cool.
This fashion coincided of course with the period of imperial expansion/consolidation of the colonial powers of the day: thus Orientalists were on the scene as the good guys, enthusiastically learning about the cultures and lifestyles their fellow countryfolk were in the process of dismantling, often quite consciously and for ‘their’ own good ‘they’ liked to say. A rather interesting marriage from this vantage point.
What Said explained is that The Orient is a euphemism for difference. A space which is absolutely different, it was never supposed to be real. It’s a projection of fears and fantasies, a diametrical opposite of all that is presupposed as European, and an authoritative interpretation of someone else’s reality.
Tell that to the news anchors talking about ‘the Middle East’ (le moyen orient in French). I’m always tempted to ask, so is that east of the middle? Or middle of the East? Can a spinning sphere even be said to have an ‘East’ and ‘West’? Cos surely, from say, Sri Lanka, Syria is definitely west? And from these parts (the Caribbean) it’s halfway across the world, and as much North East as it is North West.
That’s it’s so hard to define geographically, and ideologically f*cked up, is why I hate to use the words ‘them’ and ‘us’ in my writing. It’s why I can’t hack the term ‘Western civilisation’ or ‘Western’ anything that’s not tied to a specific geographical entity on my Peter’s Projection map. It’s why I don’t write ‘from the road’, hesitate before writing about a place I spent a couple of weeks in, and it’s why I sometimes struggle to write at all.
Cos I’d hate to be an orientalist.
Today’s orientalist is a lot like yesteryear’s; someone who becomes an expert on somebody else’s country/culture/customs/language. And somehow ends up having a louder voice than people who claim the country/culture/customs/language as their own.
Cos that’s the problem with orientalism: it’s also about power. It’s not just about one random person spouting off highly debatable ‘truisms’. It’s about how one narrative is reinforced by other fellow foreigners, until it becomes The Narrative about that place or those people etc etc.
Cos that’s what orientalists do. They specialise in difference. They highlight how ‘they’ are not like ‘us’ and it’s rarely done from a place of equality. Where difference is valuable, interesting even; proof of the ability of humans to adapt to their surroundings and realities and be infinitely creative. ‘Difference’ tends, in the world of orientalists, to be exotic. Exciting. For ‘our’ benefit.
Rarely is difference mere evidence of fellow humans occupying another space and organising themselves how they see fit.
Too often, Difference is to be highlighted, prodded at, giggled at, ridiculed, judged, experienced, consumed. Cos where it suits us, difference offers a space to escape the norms we don’t like in our own societies.
Similarity does not get a second glance in the world of the orientalists. Poor bugger.
So even though I’ve been up and down of late, I’ve been struggling to put pen to paper, cos I’m trying to avoid being an orientalist. It’s also why I don’t write reams about Martinique despite my current perma-foreigner status and the many adventures that brings.
But life has been as exhilarating and chaotic as usual, so as soon I find a way to relay my adventures in a way that doesn’t stamp on the dignity of the people I share them with, you’ll read them here first!
NB If you think Orientalism sounds interesting, but don’t fancy reading the book, you can check out Chimamanda Adichie’s Ted Talk The Danger of a Single Story on youtube. I think she’s kinda saying the same thing.
Just yesterday somebody asked me which Caribbean nation was the most beautiful. Without really hesitating I replied ‘Haiti. No one ever mentions how gorgeous it is.’ My response is mine and thus totally subjective. And there’s plenty of places in the Caribbean I’ve yet to stumble onto. But out of Martinique, St Lucia, Barbados, Dominica (which comes in a distant but good second), Trinidad and Tobago, St Kitts and Nevis, Guadeloupe, Cuba, the Domincan Republic, Guyana, Suriname and French Guyana, none touch Haiti’s simply overwhelming beauty imho.
Earthquakes. Cholera. Grinding poverty. AIDS. Political upheaval.
Most news about Haiti isn’t exactly the cheerful stuff of tourism brochures. But underneath the tiresome tales of suffering and misfortune lies a fascinating country of unutterable beauty, quirky charm and unexpected quaintness. Now, young Haitians — those who have never known a time when their country received good press —are turning to social media to showcase the happier, sexier side of their country.
This is the Haiti that the rest of the world forgot about more than 30 years ago. It’s hard to remember now, but back in the late 1970s Haiti was an up-and-coming Caribbean vacationland — a tropical hotspot whose tourism industry was the envy of neighboring Dominican Republic. Bill and Hillary Clinton honeymooned in Haiti in 1975, and not because they couldn’t afford to go elsewhere.
Then AIDS happened. In the early days of the public health scare, 32 Haitian…
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