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World Policy Journal - Spring 2018

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NO. 1
C H I N A’ S B O O M I N G
J A M A I C A’ S R O O T S
Jessica Loudis, editor
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The boom and bust of Britain’s New Age
Traveler movement
Dubai prepares to send a probe into space
Argentina’s troubled history with
Debunking the claims of Polish nationalists
How tragedy defines El Salvador’s sense of self
What feminists can learn from
Egypt’s revolution
E-citizenship in the age of Russian
What does “hospitality” really mean?
S A R A H L E O N A R D & YA S M I N E L - R I FA E
Female Syrian refugees adjust to life
without male breadwinners
Jamaican roots reggae artists take a cue
from the past
On China’s “sperm crisis” and population
Singapore’s leaders hide behind commerce
to quell dissent
Japan’s relationship with homosexuality
Frank Augugliaro is an art director at Wired.
Sam W. Jackson is a Boston-based artist (page 56).
jessica loudis
Managing Editor
Senior Editorial Adviser
Editorial Assistant
Creative Director
Special Projects Editor
Contributing Editors
Laurel Jarombek
Ilan Greenberg
John Kiehl
Meehyun Nam Thompson
Yaffa Fredrick
John Arthur Peetz
Caroline Preston
Christopher Shay
Cocktail Editor
Editors Emeritus
Eben Klemm
Sherle R. Schwenninger (1982–1991)
James Chace (1992–2000)
Karl E. Meyer (2000–2008)
David A. Andelman (2008–2015)
Chairman, Columbia University
Hattlan Media
World Policy Institute
The University of Hong Kong
The New York Review of Books
National Security Archive
Louisiana State University
NYU Center for Global Affairs
University of Chicago Law School
The Interview
Seymour Topping
Sulaiman Al-Hattlan
Eric Alterman
Sidney Blumenthal
Ying Chan
The Australian
Anne Nelson
PublicAffairs Books
Peter Osnos
Loyola Marymount University
World Policy Institute
Mark Danner
Kate Doyle
Connect U.S. Fund
University of Southern California
Naresh Fernandes
John Maxwell Hamilton
James F. Hoge Jr.
Aziz Z. Huq
Azubuike Ishiekwene
Intelligent Television
Paul Kelly
Columbia University
Georgetown University
Politique Internationale
World Policy Institute
Johns Hopkins University, SAIS
Jennifer Ramos
Sherle R. Schwenninger
Nancy E. Soderberg
Ronald Steel
Paul Steiger
Angela E. Stent
Patrick Wajsman
Martin Walker
Ruth Wedgwood
Peter B. Kaufman
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t’s rare right now to hear the terms “nationalism” and “free speech” outside the context of partisan politics. These have become loaded ideas, ones increasingly used as pretexts for silencing
opposition or doubling down on ironclad beliefs. The most extreme interpretations not only set
the tone of a country’s political climate, but also influence how society functions. In the United
States, both politics and society are radically polarized, with each side seemingly unable to comprehend the other, much less engage in conversation. This unfortunate state of affairs was on my
mind when I began thinking about the spring issue, and wondering what question I could ask that
would provide an entry point into how a country understands itself, and which legacies its citizens
value—or conspicuously don’t.
Benedict Anderson famously defined nations as “imagined communities,” and part of the inspiration behind this issue was to explore the mythologies that bind a nation, the useful fictions people
share. When commissioning, I asked writers to consider how societies around the world define
themselves in terms of what citizens are—and aren’t—allowed to say and represent. It was revealing to see how this deliberately open-ended prompt was interpreted. Hiroaki Sako wrote about the
novelist Yukio Mishima and the history of homosexuality in Japan, which has traditionally been
accepted in practice, though not in law; Jennifer Wilson surveyed the unlikely bedfellows of the
Polish far right. Many contributors reflected on national histories that had in some way been overlooked: Mariano Ben Plotkin examined the role of psychoanalysis in Argentina during and after its
authoritarian regime, Kwame Dawes read Jamaica’s roots-reggae revival as a return to a tradition
of musicians providing social commentary, and Dan Fox wrote about Britain’s New Age Traveler
movement, a freewheeling 70s-era subculture whose impromptu festivals shaped the development
of U.K. public-space laws.
Other writers looked ahead to make sense of today. In her piece on the development of an Emirati space program, Rahel Aima read Dubai’s plan to send a mission to Mars as reflective of the United
Arab Emirates’ fascination with the future—which conveniently distracts from thinking about the
present. Sarah Leonard and Yasmin El-Rifae discussed the future of international feminism and
what the #MeToo movement can learn from the activists involved in the Egyptian revolution. In our
features section, Samira Shackle reported from Jordan on how female refugees are adjusting to life
without male breadwinners, and how this might affect gender dynamics in the Middle East. Finally,
Kirsten Han reported on how the Singaporean government has framed its efforts to supress free
speech as a way to create a “business-friendly” environment.
JESSICA LOUDIS is editor of World Policy Journal.
DOI: 10.1215/07402775-6894672
Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Spring 2018 © 2018 World Policy Institute
Among the most remarkable pieces in this issue is a conversation between the Iranian film
scholar Jamsheed Akrami and the renowned filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who has continued to surreptitiously make movies in Iran despite being banned from doing so by an Islamic court. Over a series
of three conversations, Akrami and Panahi discussed the landscape of censorship in Iran, Panahi’s
own experiences with it, and the country’s underground film networks. Equally striking is an essay
by the Salvadoran novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya about his homeland’s “tragic identity,” which
has been defined by punitive U.S. foreign policy, a devastating civil war, and, most recently, the
proliferation of gangs.
Regular readers will note a number of changes in this issue. South African journalist Antjie Krog
is the inaugural writer for our new column, “Last Word,” in which contributors take an expansive
view to address social or political issues. And on the very last page, we debut the first of many
original cocktails designed by our cocktail editor, Eben Klemm. The mix of the magazine may seem
eclectic, but we hope that’s part of the appeal. There’s no one way to consider our title subject, but
the range of cultural, historical, and political responses presented here offer many possible starting points. To quote George Eliot, “it is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various
points of view.” O
How Britain’s New Age Traveler movement
defined a zeitgeist
Members of a family play the violin and flute outside their tent at the Glastonbury music festival in 1989.
rusties,” we called them. You don’t see them around today as much as you did in
the 1990s and early 2000s. Back then they were a familiar sight on the streets of
Britain’s cities. The term evokes white, matted dreadlocks; drab combat fatigues;
and a mangy-looking dog on a string traipsing behind. “Crusty” as in encrusted
dirt, dirt as a deliberate embrace of grotesquerie, a statement of resistance against
DOI: 10.1215/07402775-6894684
Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Spring 2018 © 2018 World Policy Institute
society, proof of nomadic hardship. You’d of-
who looked like refugees from a future apoca-
ten see them begging in the centers of small
lypse stood by their vehicles, uneasily watch-
cities, drinking, perhaps the more enterprising
ing the large numbers of police patrolling the
of them trying to earn a few quid doing street
road. The travelers belonged to a subculture
performances, selling woven bracelets, or giv-
that was routinely pushed around by heavy-
ing henna tattoos to teenage German tourists.
handed law enforcement, and whose fate was
Substance abuse, homelessness, poverty, and
directly shaped by the effects of public order
trouble with the law were rife among members
and housing legislation.
of the community. In the minds of mainstream
There is no clear originating moment in
society, they were simply a bunch of dropouts
New Age Traveler history. They emerged slowly
in need of a shower. But if you knew how to
from the British underground of the 1970s, a
read the aesthetics of postwar British pop cul-
period characterized by collective disappoint-
ture, their bashed-up army boots, their pierc-
ment after the revolutions promised by the
ings, and the unnameable green-brown-grey
1960s failed to materialize. As the 1973 reces-
hue of their clothes signaled that they were
sion pushed the country into economic trou-
among the remaining members of what was
ble, leftist politics became more militant while
once a vibrant subculture.
support grew for the far right. Idealistic 1960s
Dial back the clock to the 1980s and 90s
experiments in sex, drugs, and communal
and “crusty” was just a pejorative term for
living—attempts to deprogram from main-
those known as New Age Travelers, members
stream society—were falling apart in some
of the “peace convoy,” eco-warriors. Going
quarters and retrenching in others. It was the
even further back to the 1970s, they were hip-
decade in which the Irish Republican Army
pies, freaks, and long-hairs. New Age Travelers
bombing campaign reached the British main-
weren’t out begging on the streets, but roam-
land, a period of intense social unrest, indus-
ing the British countryside in caravans of old
trial action, power shortages, and paranoia in
double-decker buses, camper vans, and con-
the highest establishment circles about leftist
verted army ambulances. Their culture orbit-
threats to the country. The 70s also set a high
ed around a jumble of leftist, anarchist, anti-
watermark in British pop history; these were
war, and environmentalist causes. They would
the years when David Bowie and glam rock
camp at the edges of small villages and at mu-
initiated young minds into new androgynous
sic festivals, or engage in direct-action protests
identities, punk turned disaffection into a DIY
against motorways tearing through greenbelt
revolution, and reggae cemented itself as a ma-
land. I remember one bright summer after-
jor influence on U.K. music. Young people were
noon in 1986, when, as a 10-year-old on a
able to seek an identity in one of youth culture’s
family vacation in rural Dorset, we drove past
many tribes, and, in the process, discover new
what seemed to be an infinitely long convoy
ideas about art, life, and how to live it.
of travelers along the edge of the road. Vans
If you were to draw a thumbnail sketch of
and trucks were painted in colors that may
traveler DNA, one line could be traced back
once have been vivid but had been dulled by
to the music festival circuit of the 1970s. In
exhaust fumes and mud. Men and women
1972, activists Ubi Dwyer and Sid Rawle
DAN FOX is a writer, editor, and filmmaker living in New York. His book, “Pretentiousness: Why It Matters”
(2016), is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions and Coffee House Press. He is currently co-directing a documentary film for the BBC about the performance art groups COUM Transmission & Throbbing Gristle.
organized the first of three “free festivals” in
countercultural alignment with British radical
Windsor Great Park, near London, under the
traditions, and a mash-up of Digger philosophy,
motto, “Bring what you expect to find.” The
anarchism, commune culture, neo-paganism,
free festivals of the 70s were a reaction to the
underground pop, and whatever mystical ori-
increasing commercialization of pop festivals,
gin story you wanted to read into the existence
but they were also small-scale utopian social
of the Stonehenge monument. These were rela-
experiments. At the time, Dwyer and Rawle
tively small gatherings of a few thousand peo-
were deeply involved in anarchist and squat-
ple, temporary tent cities that served as a space
ter politics in the United Kingdom. Rawle, a
for meeting like-minded radicals, communing
prominent campaigner for land-use rights,
with the Earth, or simply getting off your face
had formed the Hyde Park Diggers (named af-
on drugs. Stalwart hippie bands Hawkwind and
ter a group that fought for land rights during
Gong played the early years, and later the fes-
England’s 17th-century civil war), which then
tival hosted performances from a wider range
became the anti-privatization Digger Action
of musicians, from anarcho-punk groups such
Movement. In many ways, their movement
as Crass, through British reggae icons Misty in
had been years in the making: The late 1960s
had seen the rise of new social ideals that challenged conventional systems of property ownership and ways of living. This coincided with
a major housing crisis in Britain, and activists
used squatting as a way to both deal with the
issue of homelessness and threaten the landlord class. As sociologist Kevin Hetherington
wrote in his 2000 study New Age Travellers:
Vanloads of Uproarious Humanity, the “politici-
zation over squatting unused houses in towns
was to extend to the idea of squatting unused
Roots, to pop stars Dexys Midnight Runners.
fields … through the alternative of the free fes-
The festival became a meeting point for those
tival.” Although the Crown legally owned the
living by alternative political and spiritual
land on which the first two Windsor gather-
creeds, who saw it as proof that better ways of
ings were held, authorities tolerated the events,
organizing society were possible, and those just
which only attracted a few hundred attendees.
looking for a good time. As the festival grew
By 1974, however, word had spread. The num-
bigger in the early 1980s, so did the diver-
bers swelled to several thousand, up from 800
sity of the crowd, which expanded to include
the year before, and police moved in to break
travelers, Hell’s Angels, skinheads, punks, and
up the gathering.
hippies—subcultural tribes bound by uneasy
That same summer, Philip Russell, aka Wal-
alliances or outright enmities. By the mid-70s,
ly Hope—who was to mysteriously die the fol-
many free festivals had sprouted: Glastonbury
lowing year after an arrest for LSD possession—
in southwest England (later to become a multi-
threw the first Stonehenge Free Festival among
million-pound fixture on the British social cal-
the iconic megaliths in the southern county
endar), the People’s Free Festival at Watchfield
of Wiltshire. The Stonehenge Festival would
Airfield in Wiltshire, the Albion free festivals
run annually until 1984, a syncretic blend of
organized by environmentalists in the eastern
rock concert, druidic solstice celebration, and
counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, and a host of
smaller folk festivals
across the summer
came key incubators
for New Age Traveler
culture: self-policed
events where ideas
could be shared and
play out in alternate
ways of living.
For some—especially those already a
part of underground
urban communes or
participating in the
the 1970s—moving
from one festival to
another evolved into
A demonstrator protests the eviction of residents and shopkeepers in Wanstead,
east London, in 1994. The buildings were set to be demolished to make way for a road.
a permanent way to
about damage to the monument, drug con-
approach to life shaped by unconventional
sumption, and public order. These were the
spiritual beliefs, hedonism, revolutionary uto-
stirrings of an establishment backlash against
pianism, green politics, and anti-nuclear peace
the convoy. The next year, under public pres-
campaigning. It was a lifestyle that patched
sure, the police established a 4.5-mile-radius
together principles and aesthetics borrowed
cordon around Stonehenge. In New Age Trav-
from Romany gypsies, Rastafarianism, and an-
ellers, Hetherington writes how the police
archo-punk and circus communities. (Though
used “road blocks, surveillance, and policing
the travelers romanticized the gypsy lifestyle,
techniques that had been developed during
gypsies blamed travelers for exacerbating ex-
the Miners Strike of 1984–85 to identify fes-
isting prejudices and hostility toward their no-
tival organizers and arrest travelers” along the
madic way of life.) By the start of the 1980s,
main routes to the site in Wiltshire. To avoid
a “convoy” began to emerge: Reconditioned
arrest and the impounding of their vehicles,
buses and colorfully painted caravans, trucks,
the convoy stopped in a beanfield off the A303
and military vehicles would take travelers from
road, approximately 7 miles from Stonehenge.
festival to festival during the summer months,
Following a standoff between 1,300 police of-
and in the winter they would take off in search
ficers and some 600 travelers, the authorities
of land where they could set up encampments
moved in, leading, according to Hethering-
of tipis, yurts, and bender tents.
ton, “to the arrest of more than 500 people,
In 1984, some 30,000 people descended
the single largest civil arrest in British history.”
on Stonehenge for its solstice festival, and me-
What became known in traveler lore as “The
dia and government began to voice concerns
Battle of the Beanfield” was a bloody incident.
escape the pressures of urban existence, a new
Journalist Nick Davies, writing for The Observer
newspaper, reported:
Act in 1980, which gave long-standing tenants
the “right to buy” their council-owned properties, had contributed to land speculation
There was glass breaking, people scream-
and rising rents, compounding an already bad
ing, black smoke towering out of burning
homelessness problem. It was just one reason
caravans, and everywhere there seemed to
behind the emergence of what sociologist Greg
be people being bashed and flattened and
Martin has called “a less engaged and less po-
pulled by the hair ... men, women, and chil-
litically active section of the traveler commu-
dren were led away, shivering, swearing, cry-
nity.” In contrast to the older, more idealisti-
ing, bleeding, leaving their homes in pieces ...
cally driven travelers of the 1970s and early
Over the years I had seen all kinds of horrible
80s—some of whom were starting families or
and frightening things and always managed
becoming involved in radical environmental
to grin and write it. But as I left the Beanfield,
protests against rural road and housing devel-
for the first time, I felt sick enough to cry.
opments—the new generation had a different
attitude toward nomadic life. “These general-
The Battle of the Beanfield marked a turning point in traveler culture. Travelers became
the target of fierce attacks in the media, which
represented them as violent hippies whose lifestyle posed a threat to the free-market ideology
of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Their rural way
of life trespassed on the symbolic importance
that conservatives placed on the British countryside—“England’s green and pleasant land”—
as a locus of middle- and upper-class moral
standards. Indeed, the prime minister boasted
that her government was “only too delighted
to do anything we can to make life difficult for
such things as hippie convoys,” and she used
the confrontation as a pretext to introduce the
1986 Public Order Act, which gave police the
ly younger travelers were ‘economic refugees,’
power to break up gatherings of two or more
who moved onto the road to escape the rav-
people for trespassing. That same year, using
ages of Thatcherism—namely unemployment
this new law, the convoy was once again pre-
and homelessness,” Martin noted. Traveler
vented from reaching Stonehenge and was ush-
communities now started to be made up of the
ered by the police through the counties of Wilt-
marginalized, some battling problems with
shire, Dorset, and Hampshire—ostensibly to
drink and drugs, or on the run from the law.
avoid a repeat of the 1985 violence. Only now
A new and troubled chapter began in 1988,
do I realize this was the convoy I saw through
when the acid house phenomenon hit British
my parents’ car window as a child in Dorset.
youth culture. Acid house—which, by the early
By the late 1980s and into the 1990s,
1990s, was known as the rave scene—caused
partly as a result of post-Beanfield legislation,
a seismic shift by bringing electronic dance
the traveler community had begun to atomize
music to the forefront of pop, and trigger-
and diversify. The introduction of the Housing
ing new variations on the free festival. Often
illegal events in squatted city warehouses or on
which only exacerbated tensions with locals.
disused airfields across the country brought to-
(A small group of travelers camped on the
gether young people from across the class spec-
edge of my hometown for a short while. De-
trum for all-night or multi-day dance parties
spite persistent rumors that they were about
fueled by Ecstasy and amphetamines. In keep-
to stage an anarchic rave that would bring vio-
ing with a long-standing tradition of creating
lence and lawlessness to our town, they largely
youth-oriented moral panics, the British media
kept to themselves, although local teenagers,
flipped out: “10,000 DRUG CRAZED YOUTHS”
wishing dearly that the travelers would throw
was one headline that appeared in The Sun tab-
a party to alleviate their boredom, would
loid newspaper in the summer of 1988. In the
score pot from them.) Collectively run mo-
small town where I grew up, pamphlets were
bile sound systems—turntables hooked up to
distributed to warn parents about the dangers
huge stacks of powerful speakers, set-ups bor-
of Ecstasy and the possibility that LSD was be-
rowed from Jamaican dub and reggae music—
ing distributed to children in the form of fake
became associated with a younger generation
postage stamps. Yet, drugs aside, fears around
of travelers. And so, the “free festival” evolved
raves were driven by the same anxieties that
into the “free party,” a fusion of traveler fes-
the free festivals of the 1970s and 80s had cre-
tival and rave. Protest and squat politics be-
ated around public order and trespassing. Only
came entangled with the idea of “the right to
this time, the convoys driving through the Brit-
party,” generating an unfocused rebellious en-
ish countryside weren’t made up of hippies liv-
ergy that made hazy the distinctions between
ing their lives on the road, but of carloads of
the fight for free assembly and the pursuit of
working-class youths chasing rumors of parties
hedonism. In 1992, the Spiral Tribe, Circus
in abandoned fields.
Warp, Bedlam, and DIY sound systems found
All-night raves were common around
themselves at the epicenter of a vast out-
the Oxfordshire countryside where I lived.
door party in Castlemorton, Worcestershire,
One summer night in 1994 a friend threw a
in the west of England, started by travelers
birthday party in a small copse on his family
who police had prevented from attending an-
farm. We rigged speakers to trees and built
other free festival. Over the course of a week,
platforms on branches where we could hang
an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people from
out. It was meant to be a small gathering, but
across the country gathered to dance at Cas-
word somehow got out that he was having was
tlemorton, hearing about it through friends,
a rave. Within a few hours, a convoy of cars
answering-machine messages, and the media.
full of strangers in search of an all-night dance
(Pre-internet and pre-cellphone, information
party stretched along the mile-long track from
about illegal parties was often distributed
the road to our party. A police helicopter was
via a telephone number: An answering ma-
dispatched to survey the scene and patrol cars
chine message would provide a rendezvous
arrived to investigate. We eventually managed
point from which the convoy would drive to
to convince the police it was a private party,
the secret location.) Castlemorton became a
and they let us carry on, but the incident was
major news story, which arguably drove even
indicative of how jumpy the authorities were
more people to the event. While the free party
around illegal raves, and how central they’d
became, for some, an iconic moment in the
become to rural youth.
history of hedonistic British youth rebellion—
By the early 90s, rave culture had come
Spiral Tribe even sampled the voices of the
in contact with the traveler and squat scenes,
police chiefs who shut down the rave in their
1992 track “Breach the Peace”—Castlemorton
M3 motorway in 1992. Even after other kinds
locals felt threatened by the sudden invasion.
of demonstrations faded—that is, until Tony
The public and media outcry that fol-
Blair decided to join the U.S. invasion of Iraq
lowed provided John Major’s conservative
in 2003—environmental protests continued to
government with an excuse for new legisla-
make headlines. In 1997, for instance, a trav-
tion. The 1994 Criminal Justice Act (CJA) gave
eler nicknamed “Swampy” became an unlikely
police new powers to curtail public gatherings
national hero for his determined efforts to pro-
and prevent trespassing. It also repealed the
test the building of the A30 road extension at
1968 Caravan Sites Act, which required local
Fairmile, Devon, by digging a network of un-
authorities to provide campsites for gypsies
derground tunnels and evading police.
and travelers. The CJA’s most infamous line
Yet despite a persistent attachment to the
of legislation, section 63(1)(b), made illegal
idea that society could be organized in a com-
any outdoor parties that played music which
pletely different, fairer, and more ecologically
included “sounds wholly or predominantly
responsible way, by the end of the 1990s a
characterized by the emission of a succession
certain idealism began to drain out of British
of repetitive beats”—a lawmaker’s definition
alternative culture. Its rebelliousness was co-
of techno. It triggered a wave of protests and
opted and corporatized. Life became increas-
the formation of loose activist coalitions with
ingly tough for the New Age Travelers. Many
names such as Advance Party and Freedom
decamped to more tolerant countries in Eu-
Network. In July 1994, protest organizers es-
rope; some gave up life on the road altogeth-
timated some 50,000 people marched from
er. No longer the media folk devils they were
Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square demanding that
made out to be in the 1980s and 90s, travel-
the government “Kill the Bill.”
er communities still exist in the U.K., though
The CJA was ostensibly triggered by the
mostly away from public view. Some third- and
travelers and Castlemorton, but it seemed to
even fourth-generation families have even
be responding to a variety of grass-roots move-
maintained their nomadic way of life by camp-
ments involving factions of New Age traveler
ing on unauthorized sites and finding seasonal
culture: the violent Poll Tax riots of 1990,
or freelance work where they can. These are
which saw as many as 250,000 people turn out
the survivors of a long history of radical uto-
in London to protest Thatcher’s flat-rate taxes;
pianism in Britain, yet their story has been
the impromptu Critical Mass bicycle rallies of
bulldozed from the record, reduced to a carica-
the early 1990s, and the direct action Twyford
ture of crusties drunk on extra-strength lager,
Down protests against the construction of the
scrounging money in city centers. O
Dubai projects a new vision of nationalism
Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Spring 2018 © 2018 World Policy Institute
DOI: 10.1215/07402775-6894696
icture Dubai, sometime after the discov-
currently the world’s tallest building, dwarf-
ery of oil in 1966, and before the import-
ing all the other very tall buildings at its base,
export boxiness of the 1980s was ascen-
depicted alone because what could compare?
dant. It’s probably the early 70s, during or
The thing about the genre of “before and af-
shortly after the Arab oil embargo of 1973-4.
ter” photos is that they usually describe an
This image of Dubai is one of sleepy, slightly
oily glamour, all bedouins and boîtes. Of mir-
control event. Here’s the verdant forest and
rored sunglasses and the earliest mirrored
here it is decimated by a tsunami; here’s a
buildings, tinted copper, steel blue or sage, the
once-prosperous city after a fire, a tornado, a
kind you see as “before” examples in photos
hurricane, a flood. But in Dubai’s case there
of the country’s evolution. Sheikh Rashid bin
never is any event except Dubai. Here’s the city
Saeed al Maktoum, founding ruler of Dubai,
before and after itself, and during the ongoing
says, “My grandfather rode a camel, my father
process of its own becoming.
rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives
Also out of this world is Dubai’s new pro-
a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover,
jected image of itself. It’s a full-throated em-
but his son will ride a camel.” It’s a quote that
brace of Gulf futurism, a term coined by artist
has since been repeated so often that its origins
and writer Sophia al Maria to describe the hy-
have become apocrypha, but its connotations
permediated conditions of life on the peninsula
remain fixed. Sheikh Rashid is wary of the sud-
at the extreme promontory of the future. This
den influx of oil wealth. He knows that it can’t
is a futurism that is very much in the Italofas-
last forever, that it’s risky to depend on a single
cist, as opposed to Afro, mold—all the aesthet-
resource. That Dubai’s economy must be radi-
ics of science fiction without the social justice.
cally diversified if the country is to survive into
Why be content with the nostalgic Space Age
the next century. Like his son, current ruler of
starchitecture of the Burj Khalifa or Martian
Dubai and Emirati Prime Minister Sheikh Mo-
landscape comparisons when you can literally
hammed, he is a visionary. He sees the future
go to space, pick up the reins of Muslim cos-
and then brings it into being. Or so the com-
mology, and aim for the stars? So, when Dubai
parison photos show.
hosts the World Expo in 2020—potentially fea-
I’m now thinking of the go-to diptych of
turing Elon Musk’s first high-speed Hyperloop
Dubai’s development, which features two im-
transport system—the United Arab Emirates
ages: one of Dubai’s arterial highway, Sheikh
will launch a probe to Mars. It will be the first
Zayed Road, snaking through empty sand and
major foray into space from any Arab or pre-
coastal scrub, and another matched shot show-
dominantly Muslim country. The probe will ar-
ing the city’s current receiving lines of sky-
rive on Mars in 2021, just in time for the 50th
scrapers. In it, the saltwater inlet that contrib-
anniversary of the country’s founding, with all
uted to Dubai’s history as a trading entrepot
the attendant jingoism and nationalistic fervor.
is scattered with wooden dhows, and lined
The team behind the Mars Mission will, unusu-
with even more skyscrapers, which crowd its
ally, be 100 percent Emirati, with a significant
sides like iron filings. And now: satellite images
assist from South Korean space engineers. As
of the coastline pre-and post the completion
Dubai shifts more broadly to being less reliant
of Dubai’s signature continent-shaped island,
on foreign knowledge and skills (while still be-
and palm shaped-islands. Of the Burj Khalifa,
ing dependent on imported physical labor), the
RAHEL AIMA is a writer based between Brooklyn and Dubai, and special projects editor at The New Inquiry.
Mars Mission feels like a pilot program in more
war in Yemen, have contributed to an overall
ways than one.
recalibration in which Emirati nationalism is
now predicated on military and technologi***
cal might. One friend characterized his time
doing military service as an exercise in nation
For decades, Emirati identity has been predi-
building. In attempting to recast familial and
cated on cultural heritage. On boat building
emirate-specific allegiances as synonymous
songs, weaving, pearl diving, nomadism, hunt-
with the national project, the government is
ing and falconry, and so on. At the same time,
striving to more solidly fuse together what has
Emirati identity is framed explicitly by what it
historically been a very lightly bonded federa-
is not: not South or Southeast Asian, not Ira-
tion. As such, the construction of the citizen is
nian, and not East African, even as it emerges
no longer based on identification with the ter-
from a triangulation of these surrounding geog-
rain (the desert, the sea), but on identification
raphies. The legacies of the trans-Indian Ocean
with the nation-state itself.
and Arab slave trades, while not actively sup-
That isn’t to say terrain no longer mat-
pressed, aren’t really reckoned with, or are dis-
ters. The research goals of the Mars probe
missed as “low” or vernacular culture. This is
are primarily weather-based, encompassing
a model of nationalism that jettisons any kind
global weather tracking and the study of cli-
of genealogical or historical fixity in favor of
mate dynamics, the effects of surface weather
instrumentalizing different—and sometimes
on the atmosphere, and atmospheric escape
competing—narratives depending on prevail-
(that is, the loss of atmospheric gases into
ing geopolitical currents. Centuries of trade
outer space). The mission is one of Emirati
and friendship with India are now in vogue
excellence: For the good of science and all
thanks to Narendra Modi’s aggressive foreign
mankind, all data will be made freely avail-
policy (coupled with the flexing of Emirati soft
able, open source. Given that the water table
power in the South Asian art scene). Proxy
is low to tapped out in most of Dubai, apart
wars in Syria and Yemen mean that Iran is very
from mountainous and rural areas, and that
much out.
the bulk of water in the UAE is very expen-
Yet recently, the way the UAE constructs
sively desalinated, studying arid environments
its national identity has begun to change.
seems like a natural fit. The last few decades
2014 marked the introduction of mandatory
have seen an emphasis on learning how to
national service for men between the ages of
quite literally make it rain: Cloud seeding has
18 and 30—which, significantly, came shortly
recently become common, and desert ionizers,
after Qatar’s own introduction of conscription.
a new technology that resembles pyramid tea
Under the new law, the standard service period
bags perched delicately on steel poles, seem to
is nine months, which goes up to two years for
be responsible for much of the recent rainfall.
those who haven’t completed secondary edu-
One indication of technological interference
cation (exemptions and reductions are avail-
is the quality of the storms themselves, which
able for those who are medically unfit, the only
are unusually violent and feature a particular
son, or in graduate or post-graduate study).
timbre of extended lightening that feels dis-
Service for women is optional and is standard-
proportionate to the amount of rain that falls.
ized at nine months. This policy, in tandem
Unfortunately, officials don’t seem to have
with post-Arab Spring political precarity and a
much control over these technologies, and
scramble to enfranchise voters, as well as the
flash flood-induced mass displacement and
death is not uncommon. (Neighboring Oman
diplomacy one step further by characterizing
both benefits and bears the brunt of these ex-
the endeavor as the UAE picking up the baton
periments as the clouds pass quickly over the
previously dropped by the Golden Age of Is-
UAE’s small territory.)
lam, a period roughly between the eight and
Most remarkable about the Mars probe,
13th centuries when arts, literature, philoso-
however, is the way in which it is being framed
phy, and especially science flourished thanks
as a revival of former Egyptian President Gamal
to the support of various caliphates whose
Abdel Nasser’s Arab nationalist project, which
empires stretched from Pakistan to Portugal.
looked to unify the many disparate Arabic-
Following Europe’s Dark Ages, this period
speaking countries from North Africa through
of scholarship led to the continent’s renais-
to West Asia into a single Pan-Arab body. (We
sance, a phenomenon that the UAE seems
might draw a line between the short-lived
keen to reprise. Also invoked by Mars Mis-
United Arab Republic, which united Syria and
sion representatives was the Lebanese Rocket
Egypt from 1958 to 1961, and the United Arab
Emirates.) Nasser’s ideology emerged from the
ashes of the Ottoman Empire, emphasizing
resistance to Western intervention in parallel
with the global decolonial moment of the time.
Its prominence waned following the crushing
Arab defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War, and as
a result of broader factors: the rise of smaller
regional blocks like the Gulf Corporation Council, a strengthening of non-Arab minority iden-
tities (Kurds and Berbers, for example), and
Saudi Arabia’s promotion of Islam as a counter
Society, whose achievement in launching the
to the rising tide of Marxism-Leninism. Now,
Arab world’s first rocket capable of suborbital
51 years later, the Mars Mission is aiming to
flight was especially remarkable given that the
recast the UAE as an ambassador for the entire
rather scrappy affair was started by a group
Arab and Muslim worlds. Take this blurb from
of graduate students who received nowhere
the Emirates Mars Mission website:
near the same backing or resources as their
American and Soviet counterparts. With these
As the first-ever Arab Islamic mission to an-
connections in mind, the initiative feels like
other planet, the project demonstrates the
an extension of government cultural strate-
capability of the Arab people as contributors
gy—which, apart from collecting works looted
to humanity and civilization. It is a symbol
from Iraq and Syria, for example, or 3-D print-
of hope for a new era of peaceful human
ing monuments and artifacts destroyed by the
development. It will inspire a young genera-
Islamic State, sees the UAE and Qatar as com-
tion to think positively and see a future filled
peting to both write themselves into, and be
with possibility.
seen as guardians of, civilizational narratives
neither were ever part of.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the probe is
Thus far, the UAE’s space program is still in
named Amal, or “hope.” At a series of launch
its most nascent stages, although it can be as-
events announcing and promoting the proj-
sumed that extending the country’s reach into
ect, spokespeople took this interplanetary
space will work wonders for the GDP in the
same way that the aggressive funding of passenger
transit, cargo, and shipping
infrastructure did before it.
In this, the Mars probe will
be a continuation of Sheikh
Rashid’s legacy, which saw
the UAE become a trading
powerhouse with the opening of Port Rashid in 1972,
Jebel Ali Port in 1979
(which, fittingly, is visible
from space, like the continent- and palm-shaped
islands that came decades
later), and the Dubai Drydocks, which were completed in 1983 following a
ing effort in the early 70s to allow access to
Anchoring these endeavors are activities of
bigger ships. As evident in how it treats its la-
the Dubai Future Foundation, which literalizes
bor force, this is a country that doesn’t actually
the strategy of continual renewal laid out by
want anyone except its citizenry to set down
Sheikh Rashid. Its tagline, for example, is “see
roots: It is designed for everything and every-
the future, create the future.” The implication
one to pass through. It is worth remembering,
is crucial: Building and protecting the nation
too, that the image of Dubai is very much a
into the future by use of technology is no lon-
surface one: The whirlwind of tourism, finance,
ger the domain of leaders, but the mandate of
luxury real estate, theme parks, and spectacu-
every ordinary citizen.
lar architecture are nothing compared to the
The activities of the Future Foundation
volume of trade that is still the lifeblood of the
include running several future accelerators
city. If Sheikh Mohammad’s national contribu-
whose function is unclear beyond encouraging
tion was to remake Dubai into an aerotropolis
techpreneurs to somewhat ominously “use the
(Dubai’s airport is now the world’s busiest for
city as a living testbed”; holding the “Drones
international passengers), then dominating the
for Good” and “AI and Robotics for Good” com-
space market seems like the logical next step.
petitions (winners get $1 million each, while
Back on earth, the government emphasis
local winners are awarded $272,250); operat-
on technological might takes the form of fixat-
ing a number of 3-D printing and autonomous
ing on the future. This future orientation is so
transport divisions (we might get flying cars
important that in 2016, the Ministry of Cabi-
after all, specifically taxis); and planning the
net Affairs was renamed the Ministry of the
Museum of the Future, which is still under con-
Cabinet Affairs and the Future. And in October
struction. For the last few years, the foundation
2017, the UAE became the world’s first country
has organized a weekend-long popup exhibit to
to appoint a Minister of Artificial Intelligence,
coincide with the annual World Government
the 27-year-old His Excellency Omar Al Olama.
Summit. These popups have reliably served as
major dredging and widen-
a barometer of where the city’s future sights
pedite decision-making processes. It did so via
are set at that moment—whether that is smart
a series of games released by the Ministries of
government, the interactive future of fitness,
Earth Affairs and Extraterrestrial Affairs, as well
going to Mars, or the most recent theme, artifi-
as ones put out by more commonplace Minis-
cial intelligence. At this year’s exhibit, one wall
tries like Labor and Transport. In one of these
quote from Sheikh Mohammed was particular-
games, a screen might ask you, the new Minis-
ly fascinating in how it carefully stepped over
ter of Smart Infrastructure and Automation, to
previous future strategy: “Artificial Intelligence
evaluate the costs versus benefits of an “open
is the new wave after the Smart Government
quantum computing data center in UAE, pro-
upon which all our services, sectors, and future
viding a regional hub for global firms’ analytics
infrastructure will rely on.”
needs.” The predicted impact is 15/100, while
Titled “Hello, I am A.I.,” the 2018 exhibit
was notable for being less techno-rococo than
the potential risk is calculated at 6 percent;
your job is to accept or reject it.
previous iterations, for want of a better way
The museum was just a taste of how the
to put it. Past years have been in keeping with
government is mobilizing futurist aesthetics
Dubai’s culture of “more is more” maximalism,
and gamification to construct future genera-
presenting future speculations that were almost
tions of citizenry, as well as the state itself.
baroque in their bells and whistles. (A particu-
After all, the more speculative and future-
lar favorite was a jungle-inside-an-Apple-Store
oriented the ideas under consideration, the
fever dream of an exhibit on the future of well-
lower the risk to those in charge. Since the
ness, in which lab-coated aestheticians used a
events of the Arab Spring, any nationalism
device to scan your palm and prescribe you the
tied to political change and self-determination
appropriate nootropical cocktail.) This year,
has been seen as dangerous, off the table. Ar-
however, the museum simply presented, over
guably, those early uprisings were only the
three sub-exhibits, the potential cultural appli-
opening salvo in a geopolitical fandango that
cations of AI, its deployment at the level of gov-
included the doubling down—and consequent
ernment, and the dangers of human, data-set,
implosion—of the GCC. Meanwhile, the rises
and algorithmic bias. (Perhaps the future has
of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic
already become a soft sell? Or perhaps organiz-
State have checked the appeal of Islam as a
ers are simply acknowledging that to live in the
uniting factor or organizing principle. With all
UAE already requires a reliance on technology
this playing out in the background, a national
to survive the harsh climate.) The first room
identity predicated on heritage has given way
considered AI’s creative applications: There
to the hard sell of a technologically enhanced,
was a listening station that let visitors tap into
might-driven future. To Mars and mandatory
AI-generated tunes, and a drawing station that
military service. For the state, there’s safety
would take a photo of the visitor and then ren-
in looking ahead. A population discouraged
der that image into a famous work of art.
from pursuing enfranchisement and liberation
The second room, meanwhile, celebrated
how AI could make use of data-crunching to ex-
in the present are asked, instead, to imagine
themselves into the future. O
On the complicated
—and lingering—
legacy of
in Argentina
Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Spring 2018 © 2018 World Policy Institute
DOI: 10.1215/07402775-6894720
n 2016, Jorge Ahumada, a 76-year-old psy-
and people in analysis skyrocketed. There are
chologist in Buenos Aires, suddenly became
no precise statistics on how many people have
famous: His photograph was featured on the
undergone psychoanalysis, but we do know
covers of popular magazines and he was in-
that in 1995 one of every 198 porteños (as
terviewed in newspapers. His celebrity came
Buenos Aires residents are called) was a psy-
about after President Mauricio Macri, who had
chologist. Even now, Argentina boasts one of
been inaugurated in December 2015, revealed
the largest psychoanalytic communities in the
that he had been undergoing psychoanalytic
world, and terms such as psicopatear (to ma-
treatment for the last 25 years with Ahumada.
nipulate someone as a psychopath would) or
Macri had started analysis in 1991 when, as a
histeriquear (to behave like a Freudian hysteric)
young entrepreneur and a member of one of
are part of everyday speech. Being in therapy
Argentina’s wealthiest industrialist families, he
is considered normal for middle- and upper-
was kidnapped. Traumatized by this experi-
class porteños, while talking about one’s trau-
ence, Macri started twice-a-week “ultra-Freud-
mas and psychological problems is standard
ian” psychoanalytic therapy, an approach that
fare at social gatherings. Growing up in the late
focuses on sexuality and the unconscious. After
1960s and the early 1970s in a Jewish, middle-
his patient became the president of Argentina
class family, I was sent to a child psychoanalyst
(Macri had previously been chief of the govern-
when I was 6 years old. Most of my friends at
ment of Buenos Aires), Ahumada decided that
school had similar experiences, and going to
their routine should proceed as usual. He re-
therapy was as much a part of childhood for
fused to hold sessions in the presidential man-
my social milieu as playing soccer or studying
sion, so Macri continued his treatment at the
psychoanalyst’s office.
Having said that, many Argentines have
Of course, Macri is not the only famous Ar-
never spent time on a couch, especially since
gentine who is or has been in psychotherapy.
in the last few decades, psychoanalysis has
A few months ago, Pope Francis vented in an
had to compete with new forms of therapy and
interview with a French sociologist that when
spiritual practice. However, in part because of
he was in his early 40s he sought the services
the adoption of psychoanalysis by the public
of a female psychoanalyst in order “to clar-
mental-health system in the 1960s, and more
ify certain things.” (He declined to make her
recently by some psychiatric wards within the
name public, though he did say that she was
prison system, a certain “psychoanalytic mode
Jewish.) Although the treatment only lasted six
of thinking”—that is to say, the belief that un-
months, Pope Francis considers his therapist,
conscious, mostly sexual, desires play a central
in addition to his mother, “one of the women
role in determining our behavior—is far more
of his life.”
common in Argentina than probably anywhere
In the early 1960s, Argentina—particularly
else in the world.
the Buenos Aires metropolitan area, which is
The fact that Buenos Aires experienced
home to roughly 25 percent of the country’s
such a boom in the 1960s is not surprising:
total population—experienced a “psychoana-
Many major cities flirted with psychoanalysis
lytic boom.” The number of practicing analysts
during that decade. In some Western cities,
MARIANO BEN PLOTKIN is principal researcher at the National Council for Scientific Research (Argentina) and
professor at the National University of Tres de Febrero (Buenos Aires). He has published extensively on the history of psychoanalysis in Argentina and Brazil and, more generally, on Latin American cultural history.
it was associated with the sexual liberation
of women entered the job market and univer-
movement, as it was seen as a doctrine that
sity enrollment grew dramatically. By the late
permitted people to investigate repressed de-
1960s, almost 40 percent of all college students
sires and understand hidden aspects of the
were female. At the same time, the country was
self. An interest in psychoanalysis as therapy
suffering from unparalleled political violence.
also converged with a general fascination in
Leftist guerrillas collided with an increasingly
Freud’s ideas as a social theory. What is sur-
repressive state ruled by ultra-right-wing mili-
prising, however, is that in Argentina the mas-
tary cliques. Between the fall of Juan Domingo
sive dissemination of psychoanalysis took place
Perón’s government in 1955 and the definitive
while the country was ruled by violent dicta-
restoration of democracy in 1983, Argentina
tors. The Argentine—and to some extent, the
was ruled by a series of intermittent military
Brazilian—case contradicts the popular idea
dictatorships. The rest of the time, the country
that psychoanalysis can only flourish in free
was led by weak civilian governments that were
and democratic environments. What the his-
under more or less open military control.
tories of Argentina and Brazil show is that psy-
The psychoanalytic community, which had
choanalysis, like any other system of thought,
grown considerably since the late 1950s, was
can be appropriated and used in different ways
also divided along political lines. The tradition-
and for contradictory purposes.
al Asociación Psicoanalítica Argentina (APA),
created in 1942, was the first Latin American
psychoanalytic society to be affiliated with the
broader International Psychoanalytic Associa-
In the late 1960s through the 1970s, Argen-
tion (IPA), which was, at that time, the only in-
tina entered a phase of rapid social, economic,
ternational organization devoted to psychoanal-
and cultural modernization. A large number
ysis and an undisputed source of professional
legitimacy. While the APA continued to boast
1980, “from the beginning of the war against
of its “apolitical” (i.e., conservative) position,
subversion, among the information evaluated
in 1971, a sizable group of leftist analysts split
was the relationship of psychoanalysis and ter-
with the association, at the same time giving
rorism. … It has been proved that many sub-
up their rank as members of the IPA. The seces-
versives were enlisted in the active fight after
sion of 1971 was the first time in the history
spending time on the analyst’s couch.”
of the worldwide psychoanalytic movement
Many members or former members of
that a large group of senior analysts resigned
guerrilla organizations sought the aid of psy-
from national and international psychoana-
choanalysts to make sense of the split between
lytic associations for purely political reasons.
their political and nonpolitical selves. Although
For some leftist intellectuals, the crisis of the
fighters were not supposed to reveal details of
APA, which took place at a moment when Ar-
their personal lives to anyone, members of the
gentine society was hyper-politicized, was part
Argentine middle class—which included most
of a broader cultural and political crisis. As the
leftist intellectual journal Los Libros (a kind of
Argentine version of the New York Review of
Books) claimed, “The conflict that stirs the psychoanalytic institution is the sign of a general
situation that includes us all … the problems
exposed [by the crisis] are linked to the future
of culture, that is to say, the political future of
the whole country.” Leftist psychoanalysts approached Marxism and the social sciences and
offered their psychoanalytic practice as a revolutionary tool.
Then, in 1976, a particularly murderous
military coup d’état ushered in a new era in Ar-
guerrillas—were so steeped in psychoanalysis
gentina. The state became a criminal organiza-
that going to therapy seemed the natural thing
tion that kidnapped, tortured, “disappeared,”
to do when confronted with the existential di-
and killed its own citizens. The newly estab-
lemmas associated with violent political activ-
lished dictatorship scrutinized any activity that
ism. Psychoanalysts who agreed to see them
questioned authority or involved public social
did so in life-risking sessions, often carried out
interactions, and it used terror to discipline
in public spaces for security reasons. Some-
and demobilize the population. The word “sub-
times, as an additional measure of protection,
versive” became a catchall term describing ev-
neither the analyst nor the patient knew the
erything from independent thinking to almost
other’s real identity.
all forms of political organization, and being
Yet if anything happened to the Argen-
classified as a subversive usually meant a death
tine psychoanalytic culture during those
sentence. Universities that housed schools and
years, it was its consolidation. Neither the
programs associated with the social sciences
APA nor the Asociación Psicoanalítica de Bue-
were considered fertile ground for subver-
nos Aires, another IPA-affiliated organization,
sion. For some military officers, this extended
were ever targeted by the government. The
to psychoanalysis. As Somos, a popular maga-
APA, moreover, refused to denounce the dic-
zine supportive of the dictatorship, claimed in
tatorship in international public fora when
given the opportunity. The APA even received
ture, as has been documented at least once
a grant from the Ministry of Public Health in
in Brazil, but survivors of the infamous con-
May 1976—only two months after the coup,
centration camp at the Escuela de Mecánica
when repression was at its height—to organize
de la Armada (Navy School of Mechanics, or
a Latin American psychoanalytic conference in
ESMA) have reported that they were taken
Buenos Aires. By 1979, the APA had become
to psychologists who evaluated their poten-
the fourth-largest IPA-affiliated psychoanalytic
tial for being resocialized, or “recovered” in
association in the world. Prominent APA mem-
Navy jargon. Those not considered fit for re-
bers wrote articles in official mental health
covery were murdered, and their bodies dis-
publications and participated in conferences
appeared. A former prisoner reported that
organized by the state. In 1980, the APA presi-
on one occasion during a depressive crisis
dent publicly boasted about the importance
she was sent by prison authorities to see a
that his institution, and by extension psycho-
psychoanalyst outside the camp. Another
analysis, occupied in the nation’s cultural life.
ex-prisoner mentioned the case of a fellow
While some factions of the military saw
inmate who decided to start psychoanalytic
psychoanalysis as a threat, other parts of the
therapy during his family visits without in-
regime saw it as a way for Argentines to express
forming his jailers. To everybody’s surprise,
distress without challenging conventional so-
when ESMA authorities learned of this thera-
cial values. They considered psychoanalysis
py the officer in charge told the prisoner: “If
acceptable so long as it remained one-on-one,
you have problems, let us know, we can offer
and confined to a consulting room. With this
you a reliable psychologist.”
in mind, these “modern” factions of the mili-
When the military took power, psycho-
tary began to appropriate dimensions of psy-
analysis was deeply rooted in Argentine urban
choanalytic discourse to appeal to the “enlight-
culture. There were analysts who were com-
ened” middle class. According to the official
mitted to human rights and political activism
propaganda, for instance, young people were in
to the extent that they were willing to risk and
danger of becoming subversive agents not only
even lose their lives. There were a few analysts
because parental authority failed, but also be-
(some of whom were highly visible in the me-
cause they could not find a nurturing environ-
dia) who, conversely, showed support for the
ment at home. Thus, the government deployed
dictatorship. The vast majority of analysts,
the same (or very similar) language that ana-
however, like the vast majority of other profes-
lysts and psychologists had been using to ex-
sionals, just tried to survive the best they could.
plain neuroses or drug addiction among youth
There is no “natural affinity” between psycho-
as a way of explaining “subversion.” The mili-
analysis and dictatorship, just as no such re-
tary, which was fond of medical metaphors,
lationship exists between psychoanalysis and
described subversives as cancerous cells in so-
democracy. Analysts simply behaved like other
ciety that should be “extirpated” by whatever
professionals. However, after the restoration of
means available. Meanwhile, state-sponsored
democracy, many analysts and scholars, both
propaganda advised parents to talk to their
local and foreign, claimed that psychoanaly-
children and provide psychological support in
sis had been a crucial element of resistance
order to keep them away from the temptations
against the dictatorship, and that psychoana-
of subversion.
lysts had been singled out for repression. The
No Argentine psychoanalysts have been
accused of actual involvement in cases of tor-
truth is that there is absolutely no evidence to
support this claim.
In 1983, after Argentina
lost its war against the
United Kingdom over the
democracy was finally restored. The military dictaESTATE OF GRETE STERN, COURTESY GALERÍA JORGE MARA-LA RUCHE, 2018
torship had “disappeared”
between 8,000 and 30,000
people. Many psychoanalysts participated in humanrights work and helped the
families of those killed by
the military process their
trauma. Others continued
practicing as usual. Psychoanalysis
spread, although in a highly
fragmented fashion. (Since
1983, many psychoanalytic
institutions have been created with different theoretical orientations.) In 2001,
Argentina was shaken by
one of the worst economic,
social, and political crises
in its history. The president
resigned, and four more presidents, all civil-
columns in major newspapers. They provided
ians, succeeded each other within days, since
psychoanalytic interpretations on topics rang-
nobody wanted to take responsibility for fix-
ing from political corruption to the cacero-
ing the situation. The state and the Argentine
lazos—people who bang pans in the streets as a
peso all but collapsed, and provinces started
form of public protest. Like in the 1970s, many
issuing their own quasi-currencies. People lost
psychoanalysts became public figures. Howev-
confidence not only in politicians, but also in
er, if in the 1970s leftist analysts approached
social scientists and economists, who failed
social theory to enrich their own practice and
to provide explanations for the catastrophe.
discourse, their successors in the early 2000s
So, in a throwback to the 1970s, many Ar-
they considered themselves to be “prophets of
gentines turned to psychoanalysts to interpret
the crisis” who could pontificate about almost
society. Analysts (mainly followers of Jacques
anything from a purely psychoanalytic point of
Lacan who, unlike the APA members, usually
view. The result was an impoverishment of so-
have professional backgrounds in literature
cial discourse.
or philosophy) became public intellectuals,
Today, psychoanalysis as a form of therapy
appearing regularly in the media and writing
seems to be in sharp decline in Argentina. Not
only do medical insurance companies general-
was succeeded by his wife, Cristina, who won
ly refuse to pay for long-term therapy, but most
a second term in 2011—Macri was elected in
people have neither the time, the patience, nor
2015. He promised to clean up the Kirchners’
the money to undergo 25 years of therapy as
corruption, to bring the inflation rate down to
Macri has. People seem to be in search of much
a single-digit number, and to help Argentina
faster solutions. A quick look at any major
achieve “cero poverty” in just a few years. After
bookstore in Buenos Aires reveals that self-help
two years of Macri, we are still far from “cero
literature has replaced the once large sections
poverty,” as inflation, after having skyrocket-
on psychoanalysis and psychology. New and
ed to 40 percent in 2016, is now only slowly
shorter forms of therapy based on neurosci-
decreasing. Opinions about Macri are deeply
ence and psychotropic drugs are also compet-
divided. A seemingly unbridgeable “crack”
ing with psychoanalysis, and the APA has lost
(la grieta) splits the population along political
some of its appeal as analysts have embraced
lines. Many Argentines define themselves as
Lacan’s experimental theories. However, per-
“Macristas” or “anti-Macristas;” “Kirchneris-
haps as a result of cultural inertia, psychoana-
tas” or “anti-Kirchneristas,” and claim there is
lytic terms are still used in everyday speech.
no possibility of dialogue between them. This
Looking at Argentina’s recent history, it is
is perhaps the major problem facing Argentina
evident that while having one of the most psy-
today, yet whether it is—or should be—talked
choanalyzed citizenries in the world may (or
about in therapy, I cannot say. What is clear
may not) have helped Argentines solve their
is that the Argentines’ flirtation with psycho-
personal traumas, the society continues to be
analysis has not softened social or political re-
deeply divided. After 12 years of a populist
lations in a country that has survived bloody
government headed by the Kirchner couple—
dictators, economic collapses, and many other
Néstor was president from 2003 to 2007, and
kinds of crises. O
N ew p e r s p e c t i ve s o n o u r c h a n g i n g wo r l d
An Argument from Economics
and Personal Experience
Mark Montgomery &
Irene Powell
What if instead of being
“too commercial,”
international adoption
is not commercial enough?
Europe and
Its Critics in
Spanish Culture
Luis MartínEstudillo
Sebastiaan Faber
How historians, journalists, photographers,
How the sustained scrutiny of the ever-
and filmmakers have dealt with the legacy
evolving idea of Europe by artists & intellectuals
of the Spanish Civil War, the Franco
helped pave the way for the current protests
dictatorship, and the Transition
against the European Union
Visit us at
In a 2016 Pew Research Center study on national identity, respondents in all 14 countries polled
overwhelmingly considered language to be a key component of nationality. World Policy Journal investigates
how accessible six European countries are to those who do not speak the primary national language.
Survey respondents said the ability to speak the national language
was “very important” to truly being a member of the nation.
Source: Pew Research Center (2017)
Speak national language as first language
Speak a second language well enough to hold a conversation
16 percent speak Catalan, Galician, or Basque as a first language
Source: Eurobarometer (2012)
Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Spring 2018 © 2018 World Policy Institute
DOI: 10.1215/07402775-6894708
Sources: Council of Europe survey (2011), Immigration and Naturalisation Service of The Netherlands
Das Erste, the main public television
channel, is broadcast in German.
Its website encourages Arabic,
English, and Persian speakers
to improve their language skills
by watching German-language
television with German subtitles.
The state-owned Hellenic
Broadcasting Corporation’s (ERT)
original news programming is all
in Greek.
M1, a national television channel
operated by a government
organization, broadcasts news
programs in Chinese, English,
German, and Russian, in addition
to Hungarian.
Dutch Public Broadcasting (NPO)
channels broadcast primarily
in Dutch, but by government
mandate they also set aside time
for programming in West Frisian,
a language spoken in the north of
the country.
Televisión Española (TVE), a stateowned public television service, has
regional programming in Catalan,
Galician, and Valencian. The
national network also hosts Englishlanguage children’s programs
meant to teach language skills.
SVT, Sweden’s public television
network, hosts short news programs
in Finnish, Sámi, Romani, and
Meänkieli. Many foreign programs
are broadcast in English.
Sources: Das Erste website I ERT website I “Hungarian state TV launches Chinese news program,” Budapest Business
Journal, January 2016 I Implementation covenant Frisian language and culture 2009 I RTVE website I Language Policy,
D. Johnson (Palgrave MacMillan, 2013)
Compiled by Laurel Jarombek
Designed by Meehyun Nam Thompson
Nationalists take on the
shifting grounds of Polish
racial identity
Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Spring 2018 © 2018 World Policy Institute
DOI: 10.1215/07402775-6894732
hen United Kingdom-based far-right
It’s important to note, however, that this
activist Tommy Robinson posted a
is far from a local phenomenon. The events
video on Twitter of a white national-
in Poland are part of a larger crusade of far-
ist demonstration he was attending
right agitation that extends well beyond the
in Warsaw, one exasperated user chimed in,
country’s borders. Notably, two of the orga-
stating: “One minute we’re being [asked] to
nizers of the Polish Independence Day march
support Poland the next minute their [sic]
(the Polish Nationalist Movement and All Pol-
taking our jobs, I’m confused.” Indeed, any-
ish Youth) also convened an international
one who recalls the anti-Polish sentiment
conference for far-right extremists that took
that British white nationalists espoused in the
place that same morning. Held in the Polish
run-up to Brexit (crystallized in the myth of
parliament building, the event was attended
the “job-stealing” Eastern-European migrant)
by nationalists from Belgium, Estonia, Hun-
will feel perplexed by the dueling narratives
gary, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, Spain, and
about Polish racial identity that are now play-
Sweden—some of the European countries that
ing out in Europe. While there are many na-
have seen a swing to the right in the wake
tionalities thought of today as “white” that
of the migrant crisis and austerity cuts. The
were at one point racialized as non-white
American white supremacist and leader of the
(Italians, the Irish, etc.), today’s Poles are
so-called “alt-right” movement, Richard Spen-
pulling off an exceptional feat. They have the
cer, was also scheduled to be there, but was
distinction of being white in Warsaw, but not
barred by the Polish government from enter-
white if they fly just 2.5 hours west to Lon-
ing the country.
don. As sociologists József Böröcz and Mahua
Making an especially strong showing at the
Sarkar have explained it: “Whiteness is inher-
Polish march were far-right activists from the
ently unstable, heterogeneous, and impure.
United Kingdom. As reported by the Southern
So is ‘Eastern Europe.’”
Poverty Law Center blog “Hatewatch,” in ad-
The march Robinson attended in Warsaw
dition to Tommy Robinson, the event was at-
took place last year on Nov. 11, Polish Indepen-
tended by Jack Buckby, a former member of
dence Day. That afternoon, a crowd of 60,000
the British National Party (BNP), a white-na-
protestors marched through the streets of
tionalist organization previously headed by a
Warsaw chanting “Pure Poland, white Poland.”
Holocaust denier. Though Robinson has insist-
Others carried signs that read “White Europe
ed he has no problem with Polish migrants in
of brotherly nations” and “Europe will be white
Britain, in July 2017, he responded to journal-
or uninhabited.” The far-right march was just
ist Yaroslav Trofimov on Twitter in a way that
one event associated with the day’s many cel-
suggested otherwise. When Trofimov reported
ebrations, but it was nonetheless the focus of
that migration of Eastern Europeans to Britain
international media attention. It was a source
had “collapse[d] to 5,000 from 48,000 a year,”
of alarm particularly for the journalists, activ-
Robinson replied: “Sorry fatcats, no more im-
ists, and concerned citizens who have been
porting slave labour to undercut us.”
anxiously tracking the xenophobia and white
Robinson’s tweet and subsequent atten-
nationalism that has increasingly become a
dance of the Polish Independence Day march
central node in Eastern-European politics.
point to one of the most confounding ironies
JENNIFER WILSON is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Russian and East European Studies at the
University of Pennsylvania.
of this new wave of white nationalism in Po-
Case in point—in that same piece for The
land. In 2016, just a year before the march, the
Correspondent, Kendzior writes about how Pol-
U.K. was confronted with a spate of what were
ish Americans arrived in the United States in
described as “racially motivated” hate crimes
the early 20th century as racially non-white
against Polish residents. When 21-year-old
before achieving a middling status as “ethnic
Telford resident Bartosz Milewski was stabbed
whites,” then eventually becoming subsumed
in the neck after someone heard him speak-
into that undifferentiated whiteness that func-
ing Polish with his friends, police treated the
tions like a second American dream. Kendzior
attack as a “racially aggravated hate crime.”
explains how the influx of black residents to
The implication was that the Polish residents
Chicago, a city where many Polish Americans
of Britain were somehow racially distinct from
had settled, contributed to a cohesive white
white English citizens. Observers of the Polish
identity wherein “white-ethnic” populations
march must then be left wondering how Poles
(particularly the Irish and the Poles) forged
can be victims of white supremacist violence
their whiteness in part through unified oppo-
and rhetoric while simultaneously existing in
sition to African Americans. This thesis—that
a European political sphere where Polish na-
whiteness is forged in anti-blackness—is a
tionalists carry signs reading “Pure Poland,
widely articulated one that has been applied
white Poland.”
most famously to the Irish and Italians. What
Some have suggested that the confusion
it points to is that the dual axis upon which
lies in a misuse of terminology. In a piece for
Polish identity operates today is not unprece-
The Huffington Post UK, Rohan Natashka Kon
dented, but is in fact how whiteness works. It is
argues that calling discrimination against Poles
asserted most belligerently when there is a risk
residing in the U.K. “racism” amounts to a mis-
that it might be revoked. The claims to white
nomer: “The majority of hate crime against
Poland that were articulated at the Polish Inde-
Polish people in Britain is white-on-white vio-
pendence Day march in 2017 cannot be sepa-
lence. While it is utterly deplorable, malignant,
rated from the racialized marginalization that
and unacceptable, nationalist discrimination
Poles and other Eastern Europeans felt in the
against other white people isn’t racism.” In
U.K. during the Brexit debate.
an essay for the Dutch online magazine The
The racial disjuncture of Polish identity
Correspondent, journalist Sarah Kendzior also
in contemporary Europe relies on a certain
remarks that the status of Poles under Brexit
kind of siloing. Accounts of racialized violence
has created new doubts about what racism is
against Polish migrants in Britain are seen as
and who can experience it, writing: “Poles in
somehow distinct from assertions of racial pu-
the U.K. are facing what some Polish Brits have
rity espoused by Polish nationalists at home.
called ‘racism’ (others, uncertain whether Poles
The fact that these conversations are allowed
are now a race, call it bigotry).” But in trying to
to exist in isolation of one another makes it
explain away the racial magic trick that Polish
possible to avoid addressing the ways in which
identity seems to be performing in European
they are part of a single narrative. In other
politics as a problem of failed language, I worry
words, the invocation of white identity by Pol-
that we run the risk of assuming there is some
ish nationalists serves not merely as a means
essential racial identity Brits and Poles share.
to discriminate against Muslim refugees from
To understand the spread of white nationalism
Syria, but also as a way of asserting that the
in Poland, we must understand how tenable
Polish are not ethnically different from white
Polish whiteness is and has historically been.
Britons or white Europeans writ large.
Others too have argued that the experi-
Eastern Europeans, particularly Poles, have
ences of Polish and Eastern-European migrants
a long history of having their whiteness—and
under Brexit have to be understood in tandem
European-ness—painted as tenuous. In Invent-
with the pull that white nationalism increas-
ing Eastern Europe, his foundational study of
ingly has on the region. Writing in Slavic Review,
how the region became constructed as some-
sociologists Sarkar and Böröcz note that East-
how distinct from its Western counterpart,
ern Europeans perceive a form of what they
historian Larry Wolff traces this imaginary di-
call “racial downgrading” when the term “mi-
vide to the German Enlightenment. Indeed, in
grant” is used to refer to members of their own
the 18th century, when German philosophers
country living in U.K. To make their point, the
Johann Blumenbach and Immanuel Kant were
sociologists cite a January 2016 meeting with
exploring a new theory of human categori-
Prime Minister David Cameron in which Hun-
zation called “race,” many of their followers
gary’s Viktor Orbán was adamant that Hungar-
made use of neighboring Slavic nations as a
ians, as EU citizens, should not be referred to
way of articulating ideas of endemic differ-
as “migrants.” Sarkar and Böröcz write that Or-
ence. The countries of “Slavs” were regarded
bán, whose far-right Fidesz party has espoused
as congenitally backward, racially tainted by
aggressively nationalist polices, “seems keen to
proximity to the Ottoman Empire, and overrun
extricate the ethnonational category he rep-
with Jews. In the eyes of Western Europeans,
resents (‘Hungarians’) from that discounted,
they generally occupied a middle space be-
racialized location that it has been assigned.”
tween East and West that rendered them eth-
While discussions about free movement within
nically suspect.
the EU have largely focused on fears of Eastern
What the competing narratives about Pol-
European migration to the western part of the
ish racial identity ultimately reveal is a truth
continent, Sarkar and Böröcz argue that the
familiar to students of history: namely, that
refugee crisis and the sudden arrival of Mus-
whiteness is little more than a tool to deny re-
lims from the Middle East have given leaders in
sources to some while preserving them for oth-
Poland and Hungary an opportunity to present
ers. Pointing out the inconsistences of racializa-
themselves as racially distinct from this new
tion is key to dismantling the false logic of race.
class of migrants. As they put it: “The arrival
This is why it remains incumbent on Europe
of relatively large numbers of displaced people
watchers to absorb these seemingly disparate
seems to have provided an excellent opportu-
conversations (racism against Poles in Britain
nity to the governments of Eastern Europe to
and racist violence against non-Poles in Poland)
stake out their claim, once and for all, to es-
as part of a single story about Eastern Europe
sential, unquestionable whiteness.”
trying to defend its fraught racial status. O
On El Salvador’s tragic identity
Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Spring 2018 © 2018 Horacio Castellanos Moya
DOI: 10.1215/07402775-6894744
n the first few pages of Malcolm Lowry’s
on discovering the falseness of a particular
posthumous novel, Dark as the Grave Where-
diamond—then calling a colleague over to dis-
in My Friend Is Laid, the book’s protagonist,
cuss the situation and, finally, indicating that
Sigbjørn Wilderness, travels by plane to
I should step aside into a small room where I
Mexico. Alcoholism and paranoia keep him in
would await a more in-depth review. All of this
a state of acute nervous excitement and dread
despite the fact that I’d showed him my green
at the prospect of being detained by Mexican
card and my credentials as a university profes-
immigration officers on his arrival at the air-
sor. None of that mattered; the simple fact of
port. Sigbjørn, of course, has a British passport
holding a Salvadoran passport had made me
and should have nothing to fear, were it not for
potentially guilty. But of what?
his state of mind and, perhaps, for some of his
previous experiences in that country.
I understand that it may seem tactless or
futile to discuss the fears of one privileged
I read Lowry’s novel at least 30 years ago, and
traveler when you’re from a country where
yet Sigbjørn’s fear at the thought of reaching im-
tens of thousands of people don’t have pass-
migration remains etched in my memory—and
ports and, instead, cross the border illegally,
far more deeply than the rest of the narrative—
on foot, putting their lives at risk; where a
for one simple reason: Throughout my adult life,
journey might begin as an epic adventure but
I’ve been victim to a similar fear, the fear of be-
will oftentimes end in drama or in gross trag-
ing detained by the immigration authorities of
edy. I don’t know the exact number—if one ex-
any country I travel to. Unlike Sigbjørn, this fear
ists—of the thousands of Salvadorans who in
isn’t the result of an alcohol-induced paranoia,
the last two decades have been murdered or
but of other factors, among them the Salvadoran
have disappeared in Mexico or in the deserts
passport I carry with me, which has raised sus-
of the United States on their exodus to that
picion in the eyes of the many immigration of-
northern country, but testimonies on the sub-
ficers I’ve had to pass by.
ject are chilling.
I’m certainly not the only Salvadoran with
I also understand that there are tens of
countless anecdotes about being treated with
thousands of Salvadorans whose experiences
suspicion the moment I hand my passport
passing through immigration have been differ-
over to the immigration officer, or about be-
ent to mine because they are traveling with a
ing interrogated with distrust, at times asked
passport from the United States or Canada or
to leave the line so I can be subjected to a
Australia, or from another affluent country that
second, more meticulous inquiry. I remember
elicits respect in the receiving officer. There are
distinctly a Dutch officer at the Schiphol air-
tens of thousands of perceptive and intelligent
port who swiftly stamped the documents of the
people who, when they had the chance, knew
other travelers of other nationalities who stood
to separate the important from the superfluous
in line before me but who, when my turn ar-
and took on the nationality of the country that
rived, slowly pored over page after page of my
harbored them, telling themselves that their
passport, making a point to bend the spine,
national identity—that feeling of belonging—
then taking out a small, charming magnifying
was determined not by a simple travel docu-
glass and fitting it on his eye so he could scruti-
ment but by a set of values, attitudes, and ways
nize every stamp—as if he were a jeweler bent
of seeing the world.
HORACIO CASTELLANOS MOYA is a Salvadoran writer. He has published 12 novels, six of them translated into
English. Currently he is an associate professor in the MFA in Spanish Creative Writing at the University of Iowa.
It’s striking to me how, in our memories, the
civil war has lost all its epic qualities, yet its
I’ve often asked myself what my interlocutors—
greatest tragedies somehow remain intact.
be they immigration officers or not—think
The majority of El Salvador came together and
when they hear that I am from El Salvador;
waged war for more than a decade against a
what idea or picture comes to their minds.
military that, with the support of the United
It is violence, above all, that determines
States, had furiously usurped the country’s po-
how Salvadorans are perceived. People who for
litical power for six decades, yet only traces of
the past four decades have suffered widespread
this history remain in old testimonies and aca-
violence. Violence in its most extreme form,
demic research. The ingenuity of Salvadorans,
that of cruel and even horrific crimes. Who has
their astuteness and daring, their efficiency,
administered this violence and what destruc-
courage, and capacity for survival are, some-
tive forces have this country and its people
how, no longer part of the war’s living memory.
been victim to? Well, ones from within. One
Of that time, we remember only the crimes
group of Salvadorans killing another group of
committed—especially against religious repre-
Salvadorans in long and constant carnage, gen-
sentatives, against Monsignor Romero and six
eration after generation. The dominant stereo-
Jesuit priests—and the massacres. We do not
type is that El Salvador is a country of victims
celebrate the war’s epic qualities, nor the dy-
and of aggressors.
namic and creative spirit of its people in the
Starting in the late 1970s, El Salvador be-
face of fierce challenges, but its tragedies.
gan to be known across the world for news of
There could be a simple enough explana-
farmers, students, and workers being killed by
tion for this: On the one hand, the epic tenor
military and paramilitary groups, as well as
of the war has paled in our collective memory
for the murders and kidnappings carried out
because many of those who had a role in it—
by burgeoning leftist guerrilla forces. Then, in
now that they are in charge of the Salvadoran
March 1980, the world was shaken by the as-
government—are viewed as no more than a
sassination of Monsignor Óscar Arnulfo Rome-
band of corrupt and inept politicians. But on
ro, the archbishop of San Salvador. The country
the other hand, the fight against impunity re-
was in the grips of something truly awful, so
quires key cases to act as proof that justice has
awful it eventually turned into a decade-long
been served.
civil war in which tens of thousands were mur***
dered or disappeared and a million Salvadorans were forced into exile. And yet there was
a more or less happy ending to that war, one
It seems old-fashioned to speak of national
in which both contending parties, under pres-
identities in our globalized world. What we
sure from their respective patrons (the United
have now are hybrid or—depending on the the-
States and the Socialist Bloc) and the United
orist you speak to—liquid identities; or, rather
Nations, reached a peace agreement that
than identities, what we have are virtual com-
would pave the way to democracy. This took
munities that obliquely traverse culture and
place in early 1992. From that moment on, El
language. The national should have ceased to
Salvador ceased to be newsworthy and nearly
hold any meaning.
vanished off the map of world media.
But reality is stubborn. Nations refuse to
disappear and the human conglomerates that
are from them or live in them insist on clinging
to these bonds of identity, symbols that anchor
that will have to take them in, a country that
their sense of belonging.
has been defined precisely for its capacity to
If we were to consider that a nation’s iden-
drive out its citizenry, to whom it can offer
tity is founded largely on its collective memory,
only poverty and violence. According to the
then it would not be unreasonable to refer to El
Salvadoran Ministry of Foreign Relations, 276
Salvador’s identity as a tragic one.
people leave the country illegally for the United States every day.
Tragedy as a collective historical fact is at the
core of Salvadoran identity. Thinking back on
If, for the past four decades, violence has been
the past 40 years, we have had the tragedy of
the lens through which Salvadorans have
the civil war, the tragedy of the 2001 earth-
been viewed, then the figure that currently
quake, and the current and most perverse
dominates this perception is that of the gang
tragedy of them all: the gangs, or maras. Each
member, or marero. According to a Decem-
of these—whether political, telluric, or social—
ber 2017 report released by the International
has produced a massive stream of migration,
above all to the United States. This mass exodus has been covered in countless news stories
and films, and it has been analyzed in various
reports on violence and migration in El Salvador. A report released by the U.S. Census Bureau calculated that, in 2013, 1.6 million Salvadorans were living in the United States. This
was before the arrival en masse of unaccompanied minors in the following years.
It was the tragic earthquakes of January
and February 2001, which destroyed much of
Crisis Group, there are approximately 60,000
the country’s infrastructure and exacerbated
gang members (1 percent of the population)
this exodus to the United States, that led the
in the entire country, with a social base of ap-
Bush administration to grant Transitory Pro-
proximately half a million people (8 percent
tection Status (TPS) to Salvadorans who were
of the population). It is significant that the
entering the U.S. illegally.
perception of a nationality, that a country’s
Now, 17 years later, the Trump adminis-
international image, should be dominated so
tration has decided to revoke the TPS status
decisively by such a small share of its citizens.
of the 200,000 Salvadorans who were under
More significant, of course, is the fact that in
its protection, and will begin to deport them
two decades the government of El Salvador
in 2019. This decision marks the beginning of
has not been able to come up with any effec-
another tragedy, not only for those who will
tive policies to contain or reduce this phe-
be robbed of 20 years of their lives—because
nomenon of social decomposition.
of their legal status, they’d started families,
I have no doubt that those who, in different
bought houses, founded businesses, paid tax-
walks of life and on different latitudes, have in-
es, and contributed to social security, like any
teracted with the 99 percent of Salvadorans who
permanent resident—but also for the country
are not gang members have an image of them
that is a far cry from those of the soulless crimi-
fireworks and ringing bells. Being the country
nals depicted in the news. Despite this, the glob-
that assigns the least value to human life is
al perception of El Salvador has been dominated
part of our tragic identity; elites who boast or
by the figure of the gang member, a figure that is
profit from it would be grotesque.
in itself tragic, both because of its root causes—a
product of abandonment or family violence, of
marginalization or lack of opportunity, of repression or any of those other related causes—and
I am part of a generation that was marked
his actions, his crimes. One’s sense of belonging
by the civil war. The plots and characters of
to a gang is granted by murder; this is the rite
the many novels I’ve written are, in one way
of passage through which the young men and
or another, connected to the event that so
women that make up that 1 percent are admit-
deeply affected my and my contemporaries’
ted into the mara, a criminal community that
lives. For the new generation, however, that
has taken the place of the family, of school, of
war is a distant thing: To them, what is cur-
the church, and of various state institutions.
rent, what is present, is the mara. These two
Each murder constitutes a tragedy—for the
very different periods of collective violence
victim, for the family, and for those around
are nonetheless similar in that the thousands
them. Each murder generates a tidal wave of
of murders, forced disappearances, and mass
pain that eats away at the social fabric of a
migrations have torn apart families, communi-
community. And the story of each and every
ties, the very fabric of society; and also in that
murder reflects the conditions of violence,
the turmoil the community suffers after every
marginalization, abandonment, and poverty of
life lost prevents us from seeing in its people
a country’s people. Every time I watch a docu-
such qualities as the capacity for survival, for
mentary in which a journalist has managed to
humor and organizational talent, for solidarity,
infiltrate the heart of the maras, the first thing
entrepreneurial spirit, and courage—qualities
I notice is the gang’s lack of resources, the ex-
without which it would be impossible to have
treme poverty its members live in. If violence is
any real sense of Salvadoran identity.
the hard face of a tragic identity, poverty is the
blood that keeps the body alive.
I’ve sometimes thought that what I experience as I go through immigration—officers
eyeing me with suspicion—might be due to
the tragic expression that has settled on my
features, and that this unconscious expression
It can feel disconcerting to read the news
is not the product of an individual fear but of
coming out of El Salvador. Murder numbers
the collective burden of terror that infected the
are cold, like all numbers. Yet, the fact that
land I grew up in, a burden that with time has
El Salvador has been repeatedly crowned the
grown increasingly heavy. And so you could say
country with the highest number of murders
I suffer from a state of psychological and emo-
per 100,000 people is shared with a perverse
tional disturbance similar to that of Sigbjørn
excitement, as if, deep down, we are proud to
Wilderness, Lowry’s character. Not because
be the country with the highest murder rate in
of alcohol poisoning, but because I am from a
the world; as if we, Honduras, and other coun-
country in which fear and tragedy have long
tries in which murder also prowls are all com-
been our daily bread. O
peting in an athletic tournament, and overtaking the others should be announced with
—Translated from Spanish by Julia Sanches
A new generation of Jamaican musicians is
blending dancehall and roots reggae to take
on the country’s problems
n “They Don’t Know,” one of his most intimate songs, the Jamaican
roots-reggae artist Chronixx bares his soul. In his signature style,
which combines singing with tumbling dancehall chanting, Chronixx delivers a litany of woes in uncompromising Jamaican patwa.
He listens to his father, the dancehall singer Chronicle, complain
DOI: 10.1215/07402775-6894768
Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Spring 2018 © 2018 World Policy Institute
about poverty; he talks about dealing with an
Cindy Breakspeare, has had a modest musical
unrighteous music industry, and how even
career following her triumph as Miss World,
though people see him brilliantly conquering
and her husband Rupert Bent is one of Jamai-
the stage, they don’t know that he has little to
ca’s most gifted guitarists.) Chronixx gets his
show for his success:
name from his father, Chronicle, and it is clear
that reggae music was formative in the younger
But dem never know seh a one shirt mi have
artist’s upbringing. Protoje, another member of
Mi haffi wash it and, mi haffi sun it, oh
this group, is the son of one of reggae’s great
singers of the 1970s, Lorna Bennett, and his fa-
Chronixx is a roots man, and the face of Ja-
ther was a successful calypso singer from the
maica’s “roots revival” movement. The “reviv-
eastern Caribbean. Reggae scholar Dutty Book-
al,” as it were, combines dancehall with tradi-
man has called this moment a “reggae revival,”
tional roots music, and is characterized by use
and though some might quibble at the accu-
of the one-drop reggae beat, which stresses the
racy of the label, the artists associated with
third of a four-bar rhythm. In the production
this movement do consider themselves part of
studio, it has meant the reemergence of the
a long tradition of reggae music. Indeed, reggae
band, and a return to rhythms derived from
culture is nothing if not rooted in deep respect
older reggae songs. Roots reggae’s international
for tradition and the importance of influence.
breakout moment came in 2014, when Chro-
The music industry is, and has always been,
nixx performed on The Tonight Show. The art-
one of the most remarkable forces for develop-
ist is only 25, but he possesses the confidence
ing talent and promoting economic improve-
of somebody who speaks the truth. When his
ment in Jamaica. Although music remains
songs take on broad political issues, such as
one of the country’s most important cultural
colonialism or poverty, he tackles them with
exports, it has always targeted the domestic
impressive clarity and intelligence. Like many
market first. When reggae music exploded on
members of the new wave of artists who are
the world scene in the 1960s and 1970s, it de-
leading the revival, Chronixx has had to devel-
fined the international perception of Jamaica
op his poetics around issues of suffering and
and complicated the country’s class dynamics.
justice—and he’s had to do so from a position
While apprehensive middle and upper classes
of relative privilege.
viewed the movement as crude, associating it
Jamaican music has historically been as-
with poverty and low culture, it was increas-
sociated with the revolutionary power of the
ingly clear that reggae was going to be big. The
lower classes, yet for the most part, the roots-
1970s saw the use of influential reggae “poli-
revival artists are middle-class young people
tics songs,” which sang the praises of particular
who come from a musical lineage. The most
candidates. When the democratic socialist Mi-
famous of this set would be, of course, Damian
chael Manley ran for prime minister in 1972,
“Jr. Gong” Marley—one of the tribe of Marleys
he made a pronounced effort to include reggae
who have been making and selling music as
music as a central piece of his People’s National
a birthright. (Even Damian Marley’s mother,
Party (PNP) campaign rallies. With the help of
KWAME DAWES is a poet, playwright, novelist, and essayist who was born in Ghana and grew up in Jamaica.
His books on reggae include “Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius” and “Natural Mysticism: Towards a New Reggae Aesthetic.” Dawes is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, teaches at the University of Nebraska, and is
artistic director of the Calabash International Literary Festival in Treasure Beach, Jamaica.
musician and “chief songwriter” Clancy Eccles,
in early 1971 as the moment in which he rec-
Manley and the PNP went on to win a landslide
ognized he was dealing with charismatic tough
victory. Manley understood that reggae explic-
guys, dangerous guys, guys who meant busi-
itly represented the dreams and ambitions of
ness. The songs these emerging reggae artists
poor and working-class Jamaicans, and that it
sang were about being the “dregs of society,”
did so by speaking to them in their own voice.
the “downtrodden,” the oppressed. The speed
By default and design, reggae has continued to
with which the Jamaican record industry was
be identified with the poor, even if its musi-
able to put out their albums made reggae an
cians go on to great success.
immediate source of aspirational social com-
Decades before “street cred” was the lit-
mentary, even in the early years. But for those
mus test for authenticity in hip-hop, roots
who did not come from poverty, there was
reggae was built on the “sufferah” credentials
another way to enter the fraternity of the suf-
of its proponents. Being from the ghetto was
ferahs: Rastafarianism.
important to defining a poetics of resistance in
the face of oppression and persecution. Indeed,
when Bob Marley sang, “Darkness has covered
my light / And has changed my day into night,”
in his song “Concrete Jungle,” he was describing the dangerous and difficult world of Jamaica of the early 70s. At that point, political violence had started to morph into intense street
and criminal violence as politicians began to
rely on the support of organized crime and
powerful neighborhood gangs. Additionally,
conditions were increasingly dire for the grow-
ing number of urban poor. Rural Jamaicans
had been migrating to Kingston for decades,
In the 1970s, Rastafarianism was regarded
though the city lacked the jobs and housing
by the predominantly Christian population
to properly accommodate them. Marley grew
and especially by the middle and upper class-
up in this environment, and he never lost sight
es as a scourge on society, a heresy associated
of that. Even in the mid-60s, the Wailers ad-
with the poor, the violent, and the drug us-
opted their name because, according to Bunny
ers. Yet by the mid-60s, Rastafari had become
Wailer, they were wailing in the face of suffer-
the de facto spiritual center of reggae music,
ing. These musicians were “rude boys” sing-
imbuing it with a cosmology and moral code
ing about a kind of thug life long before it be-
based on rejecting middle-class, Western, and
came a part of the currency of hip-hop: “dem a
“Babylonian” values, celebrating Africa, and
loot/ dem a shoot/ dem a wail/ a shanty town”
defending the poor and black. Indeed, even
(“007” by Desmond Dekker and the Aces).
young, middle-class men could earn genuine
From the start, roots reggae was synony-
credibility by embracing the reggae movement
mous with a certain kind of class conscious-
and being rejected by family and “respectable”
ness. To this day, Island Records founder Chris
society. Through conversion and lifestyle, they
Blackwell likes to recount, with slightly mis-
could instead join the working class and the
placed cockiness, the story of his first meeting
sufferahs. So, for instance, when the reggae
with Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, and Bob Marley
band Third World was formed in 1973, most
of the members were from lower-middle-class
“underprivileged” as its practitioners tend to
backgrounds, and in a few instances, from the
speak on behalf of the poor and oppressed—
elite. During the Manley years, lead guitarist
though not always for purposes of political
Cat Coore was playing revolutionary songs with
resistance. There are clearly some exceptions,
Third World while his father, David Coore, was
but for the most part, dancehall musicians
deputy prime minister. The younger Coore
are quite comfortable giving the people what
was a rastaman, a middle-class youth who had
they want, even if this means misogynistic and
abandoned respectability and joined the pre-
homophobic lyrics (which, incidentally, have
sumed “dregs of society.”
virtually disappeared from dancehall over the
In many ways, the tradition of coding class
last few years), and the celebration of bling and
politics in music continued into the dancehall
gun culture. While delivering a lecture to uni-
era. While dancehall existed before the 1980s,
versity students in Kingston a few years ago—
prior to then, the genre essentially supported
before his conviction and imprisonment for
singers and musicians. The vocal “toasters”
murder—the dancehall star Vybz Kartel pro-
and lyrical goaders of that early period even-
posed that his songs were as dangerous, revo-
tually morphed into DJs who sang over rhythm
lutionary, and controversial as the rude boy
tracks, relying on braggadocio and threats
and rebel songs of Marley and Tosh had been
while competing before live audiences. These
back in their time. He observed that their mu-
DJs formed a thriving subculture, one inextri-
sic, having entered the realm of “vintage,” was
cably tied to sound systems and record pro-
now being used to sell Jamaica in tourist ads.
ducers. By the 1980s, after the conservative
In many ways, he is correct. But there are
Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) had ousted the
differences: The lyrics of Bob Marley and Pe-
PNP under the leadership of former record
ter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer and Judy Mowatt,
producer Edward Seaga, dancehall DJs were
were aspirational and religious. Dancehall, on
the new stars of Jamaican music. Dancehall is
the other hand, has embraced an ethics of ma-
generally understood to be a form of reggae,
terialism, hustle, and party. As Jamaica strug-
but its ambitions are different, and formally, it
gles with rates of crime and violence that rank
is more Africanized than roots reggae. Many of
among the highest in the world, dancehall lyr-
its core rhythms are derived from indigenous
ics have become increasingly secular, moving
pocomania drumming, and its musicians are
between nihilism and defiant iconoclastic en-
defiant about their use of Jamaican patwa.
ergy. (The Gleaner, Jamaica’s newspaper of re-
Moreover, when chanting or speaking into the
cord, often plays host to debates over whether
mic, dancehall artists directly address a pat-
dancehall lyrics reflect violence in society or
wa-speaking Jamaican audience. While roots
encourage it.) It would not be wrong to paral-
reggae was for the most part performed in a
lel the rise of dancehall over reggae with the
Jamaicanized standard English, one accessible
rise of hip-hop over rhythm and blues in the
to international English speakers, the world
U.S. during that same period. Yet in the same
has had to learn patwa in order to understand
way that lines of demarcation cannot easily
much of dancehall. (Artists like Chronixx and
be drawn between hip-hop and R&B, every DJ,
Protoje tend to lean toward patwa in the way
from Beenie Man to Bounty Killer, sees his or
of dancehall, but on some tracks, standard
herself as a reggae artist, as part of the move-
English does creep in.)
ment’s larger ethos and sensibility.
Even as roots revival gains momentum, it’s
So how to reconcile dancehall with the new
clear that dancehall remains the music of the
generation of roots revivalists who come from
middle-class backgrounds? For artists such as
I’m living I-N-I like I’m Mister Kamoze
Jr. Gong, Chronixx, and Protoje, the solution
No surprise when they sending foes to me
is to embrace a dancehall sensibility even as
Opposite of when plain clothes approaching
they’re fully inscribed in the roots ethos. With-
out personal narratives of suffering, the revival-
Follow they rules is what they propose to me
ists have, with greater force, assumed the role
Selling they souls for what is owed, you see
of social commentators. They grew up with
Nothing is owed, nothing is promised
this “cross-over” as normal, and the line-ups of
Never know the government woulda run up
many of the stage shows mounted in Jamaica
inna them garrison
demonstrate that the “roots” / “dancehall” di-
Without no sorry, without excuse
vide is not one acknowledged by the Jamaican
Soldier man inna them lorry, everybody get
audience, who gladly embrace these artists
abused, and
regardless of genre. But roots artists wear the
Everybody have them views now
mantle of social critics and prophets with more
The media is owned so know where you get
commitment than any other group of popular
musicians in Jamaica.
In “Kingston be Wise,” Protoje calls on his
your news from
And the blood deh pon them shoes now
When them walking it trace
city to be wise after an explosive attack by a
Look them hard in them face
joint force of police and soldiers on the ghetto
And say…
community of Tivoli Gardens. The neighborhood is known as a “garrison,” meaning that
Here, we see the best elements of dancehall
it is run by a local don and is affiliated with
meeting the best of the roots tradition. If the
a political party—in this case, the conserva-
lines seem blurred, it’s because they are. The
tive JLP. (The garrison system, which envelops
roots revival musicians recognize an artistic
much of Kingston, grew out of political trade
and spiritual lineage between themselves and
union battles in the 1960s.) At the time of the
the Bob Marleys and Joseph Hills of the past.
2010 raid, Tivoli Gardens was the known base
At the same time, the younger artists associated
of Dudus, one of Jamaica’s most notorious and
with the revival—namely, Protoje, Jah 9, Jesse
successful dons. The unprecedented offensive
Royal, Kabaka Pyramid, and Kelissa—identify
took place shortly after the U.S. issued an ex-
dancehall artists such as Buju Banton and Vybz
tradition order for Dudus for drug trafficking,
Kartel as important models, while pointing to
and amid political intrigue about whether the
Damian Marley as the central figure. Marley
JLP had colluded to prevent the extradition. The
himself speaks of Buju, Bounty Killer, Super Cat,
raid ended with Dudus’ capture, and he is cur-
and Shabba Ranks, all dancehall royalty, as key
rently serving a 23-year prison sentence in New
influences, alongside artists of his father’s gen-
Jersey. In his song, Protoje is outside looking in,
eration. The roots revivalists see themselves as
waiting as the city remains under lockdown:
straddling related traditions, and in this, they
are re-injecting into reggae culture a vision-
When the city a go click-clack-blow, you bet
ary commitment to speaking truth to power. It
Government fingers and tic-tac-toes in it
doesn’t look the way it used to, but for us old-
And while they working on the X’s and O’s
heads, this is still a welcome development. O
World Policy Journal looks at museums and monuments whose names and functions have changed
alongside their host countries’ politics.
Formation of the Soviet Union
Dissolution of the Soviet Union
ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA During the Soviet era, the Russian Orthodox Cathedral was converted into a proMarxist museum about atheism.
U.S. imposes trade embargo
U.S. ends trade embargo
HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM Located in the former U.S. Information Services building, the museum has
changed its name as U.S.-Vietnamese relations have thawed, though it continues to highlight the atrocities of
“U.S. imperialists.”
1945 Soviet Czechoslovakia
German occupation
Velvet Revolution
PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC When Czechoslovakia was part of the Soviet bloc, between 1945 and 1994,
the museum was controlled by the Communist government, which forbade research and exhibitions related
to Zionism.
Compiled by John Kiehl
Sources: Kazan Cathedral: “Stories of revolution in Russia’s St. Petersburg,” Seattle Times, October 2017 I War Remnants
Museum: museum website I Jewish Museum: museum website I Amathole Museum: via email I Museum of the Revolution:
“Museo de la Revolución,” La Habana. I Bapu Museum: “Coastal museum to be named after film maker Bapu,” M. Srinivas,
The Hindu, March 2017 I Zimbabwe Museum of Human Sciences: museum website I Bardo Museum: museum website I
Chhatrapati: museum website I Royal Regalia Museum: “Churchill pushed aside for museum celebrating Brunei’s wealthy
sultan,” William Branigan, Washington Post, October 1992
Designed by Meehyun Nam Thompson
Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Spring 2018 © 2018 World Policy Institute
DOI: 10.1215/07402775-6894756
End of Apartheid
KING WILLIAM’S TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA “Kaffrarian” derives from a South African racial slur against black
people. Following a community-wide consultation, the museum was renamed in 1999 after a mountain
range in the region.
Cuban Revolution
HAVANA, CUBA The palace housed Cuban presidents until the end of Fulgencio Batista’s administration.
Before opening as a museum, the former palace served, among other functions, as the headquarters for the
Council of Ministers.
The table below tracks the name changes of museums in former colonial states. The black bar
represents the period of time between independence and the name change.
Mumbai, India | Renamed in 1995 after the founder of the Martha Empire, 48 years after independence
Vijawada, India | Renamed after Indian film director Bapu in 2015, 68 years after independence
Tunis, Tunisia | Initially named after the Bey of Tunis,
renamed when Tunisia became independent in 1956
Nairobi, Kenya | Initially named after the former British governor
of Kenya and renamed in 1963, one year after independence
Harare, Zimbabwe | Renamed when Zimbabwe became independent in 1980
Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei | Became a museum for the Sultan’s
regalia in 1992, eight years after independence
On Egypt’s revolution
and the future
of international feminism
wo years after the 2011
revolution in Egypt brought
down former president Hosni Mubarak, another wave of
protests erupted against his successor, the Muslim Brotherhood’s
Mohammed Morsi. This time, the
supported by the military. As debates raged about whether the
protests should be called a coup
or a fresh wave of revolution,
there was an uptick in mob attacks against women, which had
been plaguing Tahrir Square for
Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Spring 2018 © 2018 World Policy Institute
DOI: 10.1215/07402775-6894933
months. Between June 30
I didn’t like feeling pressured to be part of that.
and July 3, 2013, Operation
#MeToo became more interesting to me as the
way it was being used became more diverse,
and Assault (OpAntiSH),
and as it opened up conversations about con-
an Egyptian group dedi-
sent—and about inclusivity, or lack of it.
cated to combating sexual
violence, documented 186
Leonard: I’m interested in what you were do-
such cases. A petition by
ing with online activism in the late 2000s,
women’s organizations at-
and in the relationship between that mo-
tributed the spike to the
ment and the Egyptian revolution, when you
“trend of targeting female
were involved with OpAntiSH. The revolution,
activists, to punish them
which began in 2011, saw massive protests
for participating in the
against the government of Hosni Mubarak.
public sphere and to ex-
The demonstrations continued in opposition
clude them from political
to the next president, Mohammed Morsi. It in-
life.” With the #MeToo
volved a lot of social media, which the West-
movement sweeping the
ern press covered in a somewhat exaggerated
world, OpAntiSH organiz-
way. Through OpAntiSH, you were also doing
er Yasmin El-Rifae spoke
on-the-ground work during that period, even
with writer and activist
physically intervening in assaults and getting
Sarah Leonard about the
women to safety.
challenges in fighting for
gender equality, and the
El-Rifae: Sexual harassment of women in pub-
future of the feminist left.
lic spaces is a widespread and endemic problem in Egypt. People talk about it openly now,
Sarah Leonard: You wrote
and it’s a common experience for women here.
an article for The Nation
But what happened in the mid-2000s was an
about what the #MeToo
explosion of blogs. That was a new thing; activ-
movement can learn from
ists and citizens were discussing taboo subjects
the Egyptian revolution. In it, you started off
and criticizing the government in writing in
by saying that you were paying attention to
ways they hadn’t been able to before. Women
#MeToo when it was initially all over Facebook,
started writing about sexual violence and blogs
but that you didn’t immediately feel moved to
on that topic began taking off. Back then, this
be part of it. Why do you think you felt that way?
was just not an issue that was thoroughly discussed in the media. When the topic would
Yasmin El-Rifae: I think part of my first reaction
come up on a studio TV show, for example, it
might have had to do simply with fatigue. We
was always in crude, victim-blaming language.
were tweeting and posting stuff on social me-
The issue of gender-based violence is es-
dia about harassment and sexual assault in the
pecially complicated in Egypt because of the
late 2000s in Egypt, so I found the idea that we
state’s complicity. Police use of sexual torture
were still doing this to be a little discouraging.
has been widely documented, and the assault
But also, like I said in my article, there was a
of female protestors by riot police and state-
lot of outrage when the Harvey Weinstein story
paid thugs has happened over and over again.
first broke, which I found kind of disingenuous.
And on another level, women commonly feel
that they can’t go to the police to report inci-
and becoming more and more widespread.
dents of sexual assault or physical violence. I’ve
OpAntiSH and a few other groups emerged as
heard testimony from women who said that
a response; it was natural for organizers to use
police officers told them that men were just
the internet to support the physical work we
joking when they assaulted them in public, or
were doing on the ground. We used it to share
that police blamed them for being assaulted
testimonies, recruit volunteers, and promote
because of the way they were dressed—your
an approach that asserted women’s right to
typical chauvinistic victim-blaming.
protest, and that avoided a macho, “we need
our men to save our women” response within
Leonard: It’s the same in the U.S. in the sense
organizing efforts.
that the police are notorious for not taking
To bring this back to #MeToo, one thing
women seriously, and for putting them in fur-
that has made me hesitant about the move-
ther danger by sending them home or disclosing
ment is that it could put pressure on women
their personal details. One of the big problems
to write and talk about their trauma. Especially
when friends and family and colleagues are
posting on Facebook and are caught up in the
excitement. Like, “well, you’re a woman—what
do you have to say?”
Leonard: I know what you mean, and I’m interested in how trauma narratives are repeated. When there are so, so many conversations
taking place about the horrible things that are
happening to women, it can feel futile. How
do you combat that? Where you do you start?
You risk reinforcing your position as a victim
by proposing solutions like, “no man should
within the phenomenon of campus sexual vio-
ever have a closed-door meeting with a wom-
lence is that people will go to university adminis-
an.” Let’s not put ourselves in the position of
trators instead of the police because the cops are
seeming weak and pathetic! I would like to
so bad. There’s no one who’s good at handling
come out of this moment with women feeling
these cases, really. If I were sexually assaulted,
stronger. I think some of the on-the-ground
the last thing I would do is go to the cops. I’d go
work OpAntiSH was doing gets at that. You
to the hospital, maybe, but not to the cops.
were doing something very difficult under severe circumstances. I’m worried that women
El-Rifae: I’m sure that’s the experience for wom-
in the U.S. are going to come out of this mo-
en in lots of places; institutions that we’re told
ment more scared than powerful.
exist for our security often don’t work that way,
and when it comes to dealing with sexual crimes
El-Rifae: That would be terrible.
they can retraumatize us in different ways.
OpAntiSH formed in late 2012 when
Leonard: I know! [Laughter] Do you think peo-
women began writing testimonies on Face-
ple came out of the Egyptian revolution with a
book about being assaulted in Tahrir. That set
different sense of self? Did it shift people’s per-
off the alarm about mob attacks happening
spectives or politics?
El-Rifae: Oh, absolutely and deeply. I started
the inauguration. While I do wonder whether
doing interviews with other organizers and
feminists have to start from square one ev-
volunteers within OpAntiSH in early 2015,
ery time something like this happens—how is
when the revolution had been over for about a
it a surprise that gender oppression still ex-
year and a half. I heard a lot of different things
ists?—it was a consciousness-raising moment
from different people, and one of the common
for hundreds of thousands of people, and that
threads was that everybody, men and women,
was positive. I think that the volume of rage
felt that the experience was transformative.
toward Weinstein is related to how outraged
People made the jump from intellectual knowl-
women have been feeling since the election.
edge about the patriarchy to the experience
There’s something visceral about how some-
of living through a moment in which women
one like that wields power over all the women
were being physically attacked for no reason
around him. I also learned from the Weinstein
other than gender, every day. For me, the ex-
scandal that the rich assert power in ways I
perience demonstrated how everything is in-
had never imagined. I didn’t know you could
terconnected—you can’t pluck a thread out of
hire your own Mossad agent to impersonate
embedded political and economic problems
somebody and entrap a woman as part of an
and say, “this is a feminist issue.” Everything is
international scheme! You can buy that? Ap-
linked, from the state, to economic systems of
parently you can.
oppression, to the family, to dismissive jokes,
One of things that motivated people to
to the workplace. We felt that in a more real
become more politically involved was the
way afterward.
debate over health care and the question of
whether Obamacare would be trashed. Part
Leonard: That makes sense. I think that most
of the concern was that was if Republicans,
of the time we live with gender oppression in
and particularly Trump, were to take away
deniable forms. In a situation like yours, things
the welfare state and reduce social services,
were breaking through to the surface in a dra-
then the primary burden would fall on wom-
matic way.
en. Who are the caretakers? Women. Since
the 70s, real wages have been falling, and
El-Rifae: Right. So, I have a question for you.
everybody has to work—there are very few
I’m sure the current moment in the U.S. is
single-earner households in homes with more
somehow shaping #MeToo and how people re-
than one adult. At the same time, the wel-
spond to it. How do you make sense of the re-
fare state has been decimated. So there’s less
lationship between the movement, the Trump
state support, less money. Yet care work and
administration, and all of the misogyny the
reproductive labor still have to be done, and
president is unleashing?
that falls on women. I think this dynamic is
going to get much worse under Trump. Wom-
Leonard: When Trump was elected I think a lot
en, whether or not they’re fully cognizant of
of women who had felt relatively safe suddenly
all of that political economy, feel it. There’s
did not feel safe in the same way. We had pre-
only so much that people are willing to take.
viously made a lot of assumptions about what
Even Republican women who may have voted
was settled in terms of gender equality and
for Trump are suffering because child care
misogyny. Turns out, things weren’t settled at
is so unaffordable. I think women are politi-
all. That’s why you saw this huge outpouring
cally “get-able” because of these issues. It’ll
of people at the Women’s March the day after
be interesting to see what happens next,
although we don’t have any fantastic left-
lar that come to mind: the Egyptian Initiative
feminist structures or even an agenda right
for Personal Rights, the Nazra Center for Femi-
now. What have people you worked with at
nist Studies, and the Al Nadeem Center for Re-
OpAntiSH gone on to do?
habilitation of Victims of Violence. These are
all very left, very critical NGOs and always have
El-Rifae: So, the protests in the summer of 2013
been. They didn’t necessarily engage in direct
that unseated Morsi and brought the current
action during the revolution, but they were
president, [Abdel-Fattah] el-Sissi, to power,
supportive of the actions that OpAntiSH was
also marked OpAntiSH’s most sustained period
taking. They helped us with logistics, with get-
of effort. It took day after day of long hours and
ting access to hospitals and lawyers and things
intense work to be at those protests at Tahrir,
like that. These are all NGOs that have con-
and to intervene in the number of cases that
sistently positioned themselves, particularly
we intervened in. After Morsi was arrested and
when it comes to sexual assault, as critical of
the military took full control, the revolution
the state and its complicity.
was no longer present on the street. OpAntiSH
stopped its work and everyone scattered, and
Leonard: I was watching an aerial video posted
we never really regrouped. But there are ways
by Egyptian activists of a 2013 assault in Tah-
of mapping the work and the momentum and
rir Square. Because I was watching it on You-
the knowledge that flowed from the organiza-
Tube in the U.S., a lot of the comments were
tion; people went on to start everything from
racist, to the effect of, “this looks like a good
small NGOs to reading groups to journals on
place to bomb.” I’m curious whether you and
women’s issues.
the people you work with feel pressure to fend
NGO and rights work is extremely threatened in Egypt at the moment. There is very,
off interventionist reactions like this while also
rectifying serious social problems.
very little space for civil society, and holding
any kind of public political discussion is ex-
El-Rifae: It’s the never-ending question—how
tremely difficult. But there are a few NGOs
do you talk about these very real issues with-
that do excellent work on women’s rights, on
out lending support to the tendency to essen-
queer rights, and with the trans community,
tialize sexual violence as a cultural problem
even under these beleaguered circumstances.
that is linked to Islam, or to the idea that the
Active discussions on these topics still take
natural state of the Arab man is to rape, to
place on social media, whether in response to
assault? That logic has been used in support
an incident or a law being passed. I can’t help
of actual imperialist wars and is a very, very
but connect some of this progress not only to
real form of racism. It’s tricky to carve out a
the work of OpAntiSH and the testimonies of
space in which to constructively talk about
the women who suffered attacks, but also to
this issue while also avoiding that problem.
the public knowledge that the whole county
The only solution I’ve found is to make the
witnessed what happened in the square to
point, which I really believe, that women ev-
those women. We worked very hard to start
erywhere suffer from this. We all have to deal
a national conversation about sexual violence,
with the threat of rape, the threat of being
particularly in public spaces. I think you can
grabbed on the street—it’s different in differ-
still see the effects of that.
ent moments, in different places, but women
OpAntiSH also had a lot of support from
everywhere are vulnerable to this, and until
pre-existing NGOs. There are three in particu-
we truly recognize that we won’t be able to
have conversations that can break us out of
El-Rifae: I knew when I was working with Op-
these structures.
AntiSH that the story of the organization and
One incident I had a tough time with was
its resistance to sexual violence during the
the mob violence against women on New
revolution needed to be shared. It has been
Year’s 2016 in Cologne, Germany. Very quickly
sort of astonishing to see how quickly that
some of the headlines asserted that North Afri-
story has disappeared. The larger problem is
can immigrants had participated in these sex-
that a lot of the knowledge and a lot of the
ual assaults, and right-wing groups utilized the
history, or histories, that took place during
attacks to demonize immigrants. The question
those years have disappeared from public
for a lot of Arab activists who work on these
memory. It’s as if we can only talk about the
issues became this: “How do we talk about this
revolution as a failure since it failed to bring
problem without either dismissing the crime
about positive systemic political change. Yet it
that’s taken place, or lending support to these
was hugely aspirational, and so many extraor-
agendas?” It’s a hard position.
dinary undertakings were happening then.
People were working on all sorts of initiatives,
Leonard: I think a lot of Americans recognize
and we have since kind of lost that momen-
that there’s a huge problem with sexual assault
tum. This is partly due to the immense oppres-
in the U.S., yet they will simultaneously look
sion that emerged after 2013, and partly due
abroad and say, “Oh, that’s a problem with for-
to trauma, and I’m sure there are many other
eigners, with immigrants.” It’s such a discon-
contributing factors. For me, OpAntiSH felt
nect; it’s really troubling. The last thing I’d like
like the story that I needed to tell. O
to talk about is your book—a narrative nonfiction account of the work OpAntiSH did during
This interview has been edited and condensed
the Egyptian revolution.
for clarity.
been accepted
in Japan, but
the country’s
laws have yet
to catch up
he most notable legal case involving homosexuality in Japan took place two
decades ago, and it had to do with Yukio Mishima—the man of letters who
bewildered the world in 1970 by choosing to die by seppuku, accompanied by a young man, in a meticulously staged spectacle. I, long a resident
of New York City, didn’t notice the lawsuit until a decade ago, and I did then
only because I was working on a book about Mishima—to be exact, expanding
and reshaping an existing biography by Inose Naoki that I had initially taken
DOI: 10.1215/07402775-6894792
Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Spring 2018 © 2018 World Policy Institute
on as a translation. The extensive adaptation
of Guido Reni’s painting of St. Sebastian; his en-
was necessary because the original did not do
chantment with manly young men; his refusal,
full justice to the man who resembled his U.S.
as a college freshman, to marry a woman. Read-
contemporary Gore Vidal in “the range, variety,
ing Confessions had shaken Fukushima “as if a
and publicness of the career,” as Vidal himself
pill resembling a toxin, thrown into my body,
put it.
had quickly spurted up blue bubbles, without
The lawsuit was brought by Mishima’s
melting, and spread throughout me.”
daughter Noriko and his son Iichiro, in 1998,
It must be pointed out that Fukushima,
against Jiro Fukushima’s novel, The Sword and
along with his publisher, Bungei Shunju, was
the Cold Carthamin (Tsurugi to Kanbeni). The
deliberately provocative. Fukushima called
book included, without permission, 15 letters
The Sword and the Cold Carthamin a “novel” but
their father had written to Fukushima, an act
made no effort to fictionalize, going so far as to
that infringed copyright law, they contended.
use real names; Mishima, in contrast, had nev-
But, to many observers, copyright wasn’t re-
er done the same, even in Confessions. And Fu-
ally Noriko and Iichiro’s concern. Rather, it
kushima’s publisher had advertised the book
was what Fukushima described in his book: his
as a straight autobiography with Mishima as
sexual relationship with Mishima.
the main subject. Thus, even though there was
According to Fukushima’s account, his re-
no precedent determining that the copyright
lations with Mishima began in 1951 when he,
law covered letters, the court recognized the
a poor 21-year-old student, visited the already
plaintiffs’ argument. The publisher appealed,
famous 26-year-old author at his residence to
but a higher court reaffirmed the decision.
ask after the identity of a gay bar that Mishima
For Mishima’s heirs, however, the win was
had written about in Forbidden Colors (Kinjiki),
not so much pyrrhic as counterproductive. If
a novel he was serializing in a monthly maga-
their intent was to hide their father’s sexual
zine. Mishima casually welcomed his visitor in
preferences, the legal fracas magnified it. Ja-
and Fukushima soon became a live-in student
pan’s major newspapers—which sell between
in the Mishima household and good friends
3 and 10 million copies a day—each devoted
with the author’s parents. His relations with
many columns to the case. Also, the court or-
Mishima would last, on and off, until 1966.
der to retrieve all unsold copies of The Sword
(Another Mishima visitor, photographer Eikoh
and the Cold Carthamin from booksellers proved
Hosue, shot the image illustrating this piece af-
to be impossible in practical terms. The book
ter the author invited him to his house. Upon
was readily available for years afterward.
arrival, Hosue looked around the garden, no-
There had been earlier attempts to suppress
ticed the tools, and asked Mishima to pose
public knowledge of Mishima’s erotic prefer-
with any of them in any way he wanted, naked
ences. Most notably, in the mid-70s, Mishima’s
or half-naked.)
wife, Yoko, had blocked the Japanese translation
Fukushima had initially been drawn to
of John Nathan’s Mishima: A Biography (1974),
Mishima’s 1949 book, Confessions of a Mask (Ka-
which detailed Mishima’s sexual activities. (A
men no Kokuhaku), a palpably autobiographical
new edition of the translation was published in
story. It details the narrator’s life from birth to
2000.) It was with Yoko’s action in mind that,
youth—his first ejaculation over an illustration
after the court decisions, the moderately con-
HIROAKI SATO is a writer, columnist, and prize-winning translator. Among his many books are “Japanese Women Poets” (M.E. Sharpe, 2008) and “Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima” (Stone Bridge Press, 2012).
servative historian of modern Japan Ken’ichi
pan for the first time in the mid-16th century.
Matsumoto suggested that Noriko and Iichiro
The Japanese, wrote Jesuit priest Alessandro
should be more “relaxed” about their father’s
Valignano, indulged in “great dissipation in the
sexuality—a comment that likely reflected the
sin that does not bear mentioning.” Another
general attitude among Japanese readers.
Jesuit, Juan Fernández, reported that “commit-
It should be stressed that the Mishima law-
ting sodomy with a boy did not cause him any
suit, as charged by the plaintiffs, was about
discredit or his relatives any dishonor, because
copyright infringement, not about sex. Since
he had no virginity to lose and in any case sod-
the 1947 Constitution guaranteed freedom
omy was not a sin.”
of “speech, press, and all other forms of ex-
It wasn’t just Europeans who were struck
pression” (Article 21), there have been some
by Japanese openness toward gay male love; so
prominent sex cases, beginning with a transla-
was the Korean scholar and scribe Shin Yu-han,
tion of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (brought in 1951;
who accompanied his country’s diplomatic en-
dismissed in 1957), but all had to do with ob-
tourage to Japan in 1719. He is noted for An
scenity. As writer Donald Richie, a long-term
Account of Traveling Across the Sea, a fascinating
observer of Japanese culture, noted in a 2008
review of Sparkling Rain, a lesbian story collection, “In Japan, homosexuality has never,
strictly speaking, been criminalized and is,
even now, legal unless it is done where it can
be seen, in which case it becomes criminal
gross indecency.”
Two years before his suicide, Mishima penned
a preface to Tamotsu Yato’s collection of photo-
graphs, Naked Festival (Hadaka Matsuri). Yato’s
subject was Somin-sai, one of “the three great
report packed with acute observations on the
naked festivals” that originated in eighth-
Japanese. But it was in his diary that we find his
century Shinto ablution and crop rites, and
comments on the prevalent Japanese custom of
historically required all male participants to
flaunting homosexual love.
be totally exposed. But, as Mishima wrote in
“The sensuality of Japan’s male prostitutes
his preface, attitudes toward these festivals
is double that of female allure,” Shin wrote.
changed in the mid-19th century, when after
(“Male prostitutes” is his term, but most were
ending its semi-isolationist policy, Japan felt it
more like “kept men” or simply lovers.) “All
necessary to suppress or downplay some of its
over Japan, men older than 14 or 15 who are
own “barbaric” customs and traditions—espe-
comely and beautiful have their glossy hair
cially ones frowned upon by Americans and
rolled up, their faces made up with cosmet-
Europeans, like baring flesh in public.
ics and covered with colorful cloths,” he mar-
Another “barbaric” Japanese custom that
veled. “The fragrances, rare waist ornaments,
Mishima could have mentioned but did not
and other tools for decoration spent on them
was male homosexuality—something that cer-
alone are worth a thousand gold coins.” And
tainly struck the Europeans who arrived in Ja-
they are pampered and indulged by all the men
who can afford them, “lords, down to regular
Japan’s survival for the preceding 90 years: the
people.” This disgusted Shin partly because he
powerful military and the constitutional mon-
found Japanese women to be attractive: “like
archy, which depended on emperor-worship.
dolls, sensuous and elegant.”
The new Constitution, framed by New Deal
At that point, Europeans—and Koreans, for
idealists, turned the emperor into an am-
that matter—did not have the influence to im-
biguous “symbol” and abolished the military.
pose their taboos and inhibitions on Japan. As
The U.S. soon started backpedaling some of
important, the Japanese did not regard the Eu-
its policies, but most Japanese felt the defeat
ropean visitors as more advanced or civilized.
spelled a complete reversal in social values, at
“The Japanese have a high opinion of them-
least for a while, with many equating Ameri-
selves because they think that no other nation
can “democracy” with “freedom.” Sex became
can compare with them as regards weapons
far more open. However, the occupation also
and valor, and so they look down on all for-
increased American interest in Japan, as it did
eigners,” reported Francis Xavier, a co-founder
Japanese interest in America. Mishima visited
of the Society of Jesus, who arrived in Japan in
the United States several times, once living in
1549. Japan was then at the height of samu-
New York City for half a year while in talks
rai culture, and the samurai, like the ancient
about staging one of his plays on Broadway.
Greeks, took pederasty as a matter of fact.
With half a dozen of his novels translated and
That situation had changed by the time the
published in this country before his death, and
second wave of Europeans arrived in Japan, in
because of the “publicness” of his actions, he
the mid-19th century. Like the first wave three
became the best-known Japanese in the United
centuries earlier, they were Christians, many
States at the time.
of them missionaries, but now they were re-
Mishima lived his life with discipline and
garded as holders of superior “civilization and
intensity, as if possessed, sweeping through the
enlightenment,” a term the Japanese adopted
Japan of the 1950s and 1960s like a whirlwind.
as a social slogan. After all, they, arriving with
He turned out essays, short stories, novels, and
a fleet of mere four warships, had forced Japan
plays (about 70 in total, practically all of them
to open itself to the world. These Europeans
staged in his lifetime), one after another, cov-
found gay male love particularly repugnant.
ering a wide range of subject matters—boxing,
The Japanese leaders responded and created a
dramaturgy, military policy, manga, traveling,
“sodomy crime” (keikan-zai) in 1872. The law
homage to women (including his own mother),
was dropped shortly after, but the new govern-
the art of writing, the body, and death, to name
ing milieu continued to curb displays of homo-
a few. He did not deal just with homosexual love
sexual love.
in his novels, but also with young love modeled
on Daphnis and Chloë, in The Sounds of Waves
(1954); a window’s murderous lust, in Thirst
for Love (1950); love between an old politician
After a brief period of hedonism in the 1920s
and a geisha, in After the Banquet (1960), which,
and an era of heavy-handed chauvinism and
incidentally, provoked Japan’s first privacy law-
militarism in the 1930s that included an at-
suit; and a gentle, tragic love set at the height
tempted coup d’état in 1936, Japan’s defeat in
of the peerage, in Spring Snow (1969). Mishima
World War II ushered in another set of value
was versatile, and over the course of his career,
changes. The U.S.-led occupation began by de-
his treatment of love both challenged social
stroying the very institutions that had enabled
norms and anticipated changes to come.
In more recent decades, especially since
pan the way they do in the United States. As
around the time Mishima’s heirs sued Jiro Fu-
Paul de Vries, an Australian writer and long-
kushima and his publisher, the rights of sexual
time resident of Japan, suggests, it may be that
minorities have come to the fore. For example,
keeping such matters quiet “nicely fits into
in 2009, a nonprofit called ReBit was formed, its
the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ culture of Japan.” On
founders explaining that the name of the orga-
the other hand, Chihiro Takagaki, a film critic,
nization comes from an abbreviation of its mis-
observes that nowadays there are many aspir-
sion to keep “pushing LGBT awareness repeat-
ing actors vying for gay roles. She adds that in
edly, a little bit each time.” Though the first case
October 2017, the daily business newspaper
of “gay marriage” was announced in Japan back
Nikkei—called Japan’s Wall Street Journal—chose
in 1968, a year before the Stonewall Riots oc-
Kenzo Takada to write its famous “My Resume”
curred in New York City, it was no more than a
column, and the fashion designer discussed his
personal declaration, with no legal standing. It
male partner matter-of-factly, as well as his as-
was not until 2015 that the Shibuya Ward of To-
sociations with Andy Warhol, Karl Lagerfeld,
kyo (a Tokyo ward is similar to a New York City
and Yves Saint Laurent. In the past, the column
borough) became the first Japanese municipal-
picked mostly business leaders and other fa-
ity to legally recognize “the relation correspond-
mous people who at least appeared straight.
ing to marriage,” the equivalent of civil partner-
Culturally and traditionally, there have
ship. Since then at least six other municipalities
been, and are, considerable differences be-
have taken similar steps, and last year, a law
tween Japan and Western countries. At the
professor started a national campaign to legal-
same time, from the start of its history Japan
ize same-sex marriage. Still, the poet Tatsuhiko
has always sought and adopted foreign institu-
Ishii tells me that Japan remains “a backward
tions, manners, and customs, as appropriate,
country” when it comes to this issue.
while creating schisms and contradictions as a
In a small, informal survey of my friends in
result. In the case of homosexuality, you might
Japan, I found that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and
say that Japan’s traditional acceptance is be-
transsexual issues seldom grab headlines in Ja-
ginning to merge with Western legalism. O
Of the legendary publishers of the 20th century, Barney Rosset ranks among the most influential, and certainly the most controversial. Over the course of his half-century career, he introduced American audiences
to Pablo Neruda, Samuel Beckett, and Jean Genet through his publishing house, Grove Press, and literary
magazine, Evergreen Review. Frequently accused of being a “pornographer,” in 1964 Rosset altered the
course of First Amendment law by convincing the U.S. Supreme Court to allow publication of Henry Miller’s
Tropic of Cancer. Rosset died in 2012 at the age of 89; this is an excerpt from his memoir.
Ernesto “Che” Guevara was killed in Bolivia on
Debray, Roth, and the other journalist were
Oct. 9, 1967, and the February 1968 issue of
arrested as revolutionaries by the Bolivian mili-
Evergreen Review contained a special section
tary and thrown in jail. Debray was sentenced
commemorating his life. It was in 1955, in
to 30 years, but he was released in 1970 after
Mexico, that Che met Fidel Castro and joined
Pope Paul VI and other prominent figures put
his guerrilla force to enter Cuba and fight the
pressure on the Bolivian government. While
corrupt Fulgencio Batista regime. On Nov. 25,
things were going badly for Debray in prison,
1956, Castro’s group of 82 men embarked on
they were also deteriorating for Che. After two
a leaky vessel, the Granma, for a slow voyage
years in Bolivia, Che was wounded on Oct. 9,
to the island. They landed—starved and worn
1967, and taken captive. Later, while under
out from seasickness—on Dec. 2 at the swampy
guard, he was shot through the heart.
Las Colorados beach. The bedraggled army was
Che was a very important figure to me. Grove
eventually victorious, ousting the dictator and
Press published a number of books about him,
putting the revolutionaries in power.
including The Great Rebel: Che Guevara in Bolivia
Once Castro’s leftist government was sta-
by Luis J. González and Gustavo A. Sánchez Sala-
bilized, Che set off for Bolivia to join the guer-
zar, which detailed the perils of Che’s attempt to
rillas there. In a letter dated April 1, 1965, also
create an insurgency in Bolivia. The story of how
included in Evergreen, Che wrote to Castro bid-
we signed this book is part of the larger story of
ding him farewell. “I feel,” he said, “that I have
how we attempted to secure a copy of Che’s diary
fulfilled the part of my duty that tied me to
from the Bolivian authorities.
the Cuban revolution in its territory, and I say
In March 1968 I asked a close friend, Joe
good-bye to you, the comrades, your people,
Liss, who had been a top-notch correspondent
who are already mine.”
for CBS News, to travel to La Paz to obtain Che’s
The next piece in our tribute was an ac-
journal. Liss later wrote in an unpublished re-
count of what went on among the guerrillas Che
port that when he arrived at my office to get
led in Bolivia. After a futile week accompanying
the plane tickets, “To my astonishment Bar-
the military as they hunted for the guerrillas,
ney handed me cash amounting to $8,500 in
photographer George Andrew Roth hooked up
denominations of $50 and $100, and told me
with some peasants who led him to the guerrilla
that with this money I was expected to spend
camp. Che agreed to be interviewed, and wrote
about $6,000 to get what I could of the Che
both the questions and answers into Roth’s note-
Guevara diaries.”
book. He then sent a friend to lead Roth and two
Since the Bolivian government seemed to
other journalists, one being the French intellec-
be actively against giving any further public-
tual Régis Debray, back out of the mountains.
ity to the murdered guerrilla, this mission was
Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Spring 2018 © 2016 Estate of Barney Rosset
DOI: 10.1215/07402775-6894804
undercover. Liss was to pretend he was visit-
the Bay of Pigs! It was done at a late hour, fortu-
ing the country because he was working on a
nately. No one was inside and nobody got hurt.
screenplay about Che. As a further precaution,
I heard about the bombing shortly after it hap-
all communication between Liss and myself
pened, at 3:41 a.m., when I received a phone call
would go through his wife. After a deal with a
from our wonderful office manager, who was the
mysterious, high-ranking general fell through, I
first Grove person on the scene. She discovered a
gave Liss the name of another contact, Gustavo
knife tear in a poster made of our February 1968
A. Sánchez Salazar of the newspaper El Diario,
cover, featuring Paul Davis’s marvelous, iconic
who might have information about Che’s diary.
portrait of Che—it had been stabbed.
Liss flew to the provincial city of Cochabamba
The neighbor who saw the bombing told me
to meet Sánchez. Although Sánchez didn’t have
the police hadn’t taken much time to look for
the diary, it turned out that he and another
evidence. He also said that he had recently had a
journalist, Luis J. González, were writing a book
lot of trouble with his telephone; the sound was
about Che. Once we got a glimpse of the inter-
just awful. He asked an engineer friend to check
esting and thorough research the two had done
it, and the friend figured out that someone had
into Che’s life and demise in Bolivia, we asked
accidentally tapped into his line, which was af-
them to let Grove publish their book when it
fecting the sound level of the phone. He also said
was completed, and they agreed.
he could hear every phone call I made on my
While Liss was on this adventure, I told
private office line, the real object of the tap.
him, obliquely, to expect a visit. Using the alias
Around that time a number of other places
Roger Tansey, I had traveled with a colleague
in New York were bombed. Somebody attempt-
to La Paz, Bolivia. It had become very difficult
ed to bomb the apartment of the Cuban delegate
to communicate with Liss, and I was starting to
to the U.N., but they got a different apartment
feel deeply concerned about him. We met Sán-
by accident. The Canadian Consulate and Japan
chez and González and made a deal for their
Airlines were also bombed—all groups the anti-
book, and in addition to the six pages of the
Castro Cuban groups saw as their enemies.
diary Liss had acquired from them, he was able
Novelist Gilbert Sorrentino, who was work-
to buy some 11 photos of Che. We decided to
ing as an editor at Grove at the time, described
let Sánchez secure for us the other diary pages,
the aftermath of the bombing in the fall 1990
which we learned had been scattered among
issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction:
several Bolivian generals.
“They wrecked one office completely, blew
We were never able to acquire the entire
out the windows overlooking University Place,
Che Guevara diary, but we did publish the
and made a general mess. Grove got enormous
pages we obtained in the August 1968 issue
publicity out of it, ‘publisher of porno-left-wing-
of Evergreen, along with an illustrated feature:
radical-oddball-unreadable-avant-garde books
“Who’s Who in Che’s Diary.”
bombed!’ … Looking back on this incident, it
On July 26, 1968, while the issue with the
doesn’t seem that we were much affected. I
diary excerpts was hitting the newsstands, Cu-
mean, we came in to work, looked at the dam-
ban exiles bombed Grove’s offices on University
age, chatted with the cops, and went to work.” O
Place in New York City with a grenade launcher.
According to a man who lived next door, a group
This is an abridged excerpt from Rosset: My Life
of men in a pickup truck drove past the building
in Publishing and How I Fought Censorship, by
and shot a grenade right through the large front
Barney Rosset (OR Books, 2017), reprinted with
window on the second floor. Pow!—better than
permission of the publisher.
A conversation between
Jafar Panahi and Jamsheed Akrami
Along with Abbas Kiarosatmi and Asghar Farhadi, Jafar Panahi is one of Iran’s most celebrated
filmmakers. He’s also perhaps the most decorated, having won the top awards at the Venice Film
Festival for The Circle and the Berlin Film Festival for Taxi. Panahi is a favorite at Cannes, where he
took home the Camera d’Or for his debut The White Balloon, and the Un Certain Regard jury award
for Crimson Gold. He has accomplished all this despite having had more run-ins with Iran’s Islamic
government than any other artist working today. In 2009, his incarceration while shooting a film
about Iran’s street protests provoked an international uproar, forcing the government to release
him after three months. Although an Islamic court subsequently sought to punish him with a sixyear jail sentence and a 20-year ban from filmmaking, Panahi has courageously defied the ban and
surreptitiously continued to make films. The following is a conversation between Jafar Panahi and
the film scholar Jamsheed Akrami on free expression, or the lack thereof, in Iranian cinema over
the past 50 years. Akrami is a professor of film at William Paterson University and the director of a
trilogy of documentaries on Iranian film: The Lost Cinema, on Iranian cinema before the revolution,
Friendly Persuasion, on Iranian cinema after the revolution, and A Cinema of Discontent, on film censorship in Iran, all of which are available through the distribution company Kino Lorber.
Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Spring 2018 © 2018 Jafar Panahi & Jamsheed Akrami
DOI: 10.1215/07402775-6894825
Jamsheed Akrami: Iranian artists and intel-
circumstances. However, the movement didn’t
lectuals have never been blessed with freedom
weaken the hold of mainstream films, known
of expression. While the censorship under the
as filmfarsi, which were escapist and uninter-
Shah was harsh, it wasn’t as oppressive as it’s
ested in matters of social conscience. Were
been under the Islamic government, which
you following the New Wave films?
came to power in 1979. The changes in censorship were reflective of Iran’s transition from
Panahi: I only became interested in New Wave
a modern dictatorship to a totalitarian theoc-
films when I was older and could recognize the
racy. You must have been a teenager during
creative role of the directors. My father loved
the last years of the Shah. What were you doing
the filmfarsis that featured well-known mov-
during the revolution?
ie stars. So those were the first movies I saw.
He was a house painter and in the summers
Jafar Panahi: I was 18 and in my last year of
I would help him out. I remember one day he
high school. My classmates and I were among
asked me to stay at a worksite and take care of
the first groups of people that started shutting
business in his absence. But I decided to go to
down schools and demonstrating in the streets.
the movies instead. Guess what? My father was
My wife jokingly likes to remind me that I was
in the same movie theater and didn’t seem too
responsible for ruining the country. But back
pleased to see me there.
then everybody was actively involved, from
the extreme right to the extreme left. It was
Akrami: Were you interested in Hollywood
a popular revolution and people were hoping
films? They dominated Iranian screens before
for a democratic society, which unfortunately
the revolution. The movie business was so lu-
didn’t materialize.
crative that major Hollywood studios actu-
I grew up in a poor neighborhood in south
ally set up offices in Tehran to distribute their
Tehran, where political issues were not a prior-
films. People now may find it hard to believe
ity. My whole family worked blue-collar jobs,
that American movies were opening in Tehran
and I first became aware of class differences
at the same time as other international cities.
when my father and I were painting an army
Prestigious international arts and film festivals
general’s house. Free expression was not al-
were held in Iran, and Tehran seemed like the
lowed in the country; I remember one day a
film capital of the Middle East. Meanwhile,
university student showed me a caricature of
Iranian filmmakers were not allowed to make
the Shah, and was very cautious and secretive
films critical of the ruling establishment. Cen-
about it.
sors even used to force foreign film distributors
to alter plots through dubbing or re-editing to
Akrami: The last decade of the Shah’s rule
suppress any hint of subversive themes.
saw the flourishing of the Iranian New Wave,
which was a politically bold and aesthetically
Panahi: I remember seeing Jaws and Close En-
innovative film movement. It was somewhat
counters of the Third Kind back then. Hollywood
similar to the French New Wave, as it grew out
movies haven’t been shown publicly since the
of progressive filmmakers’ deepening disen-
revolution because their content—especially
chantment with the status quo in Iranian cin-
the ways in which women are portrayed—is
ema, but it was much more influenced by Ital-
not compatible with Islamic values. But people
ian neorealism in its depiction of the plights
still watch bootleg DVDs and illegally down-
of individuals caught in unfortunate social
load movies at home. There is no dearth of
Hollywood films in Iran, though they are not
Panahi: Right after the revolution, I had to be-
officially imported.
gin my mandatory two-year army service in
the Kurdish region of Iran. The months after
Akrami: The success of the first New Wave
the revolution were a period of transition, and
films inspired many aspiring filmmakers to
there was no organized control of the media.
take advantage of new opportunities and make
The Shah’s government had fallen, but the
their first films. How did you become interest-
new Islamic government had not quite estab-
ed in filmmaking?
lished itself.
Panahi: My first exposure to filmmaking came
Akrami: A year after the revolution the Iran-Iraq
when I was 12. I was a member of the Institute
war (1980-1988) erupted, which must have
for the Intellectual Development of Children
coincided with the time you were in the army. Is
and Young Adults, and there was a casting call
it true that you were captured during the war?
for a short film. They needed a chubby boy my
age, and I got the part. That experience sparked
Panahi: Yes, but I was captured by Iranian
my interest in movies.
Kurdish guerrillas who were fighting the Islamic
government. They kept me and 11 others for
80 days. They were on the run themselves, and
they moved us from village to village until we
decided to stage a hunger strike to force them
to release us.
During the war, I was given a 16-mm camera and assigned to shoot footage for television news packages. I was happy to be carrying a camera instead of a gun. The army
offered me a job as a videographer after my
service, but I decided to go back to Tehran
and enroll in film school.
Akrami: Going back to the revolution, I was a
Akrami: Have you thought of making a movie
student in the United States when it happened.
based on your wartime experiences?
I’ve heard people say that they experienced
a kind of unprecedented, heavenly freedom
Panahi: After I finished Offside (2006) I wrote
right afterward. That freedom was short-lived,
a script about the last days of the war, but the
though. The Islamic revolutionaries were wag-
censors rejected it. I think they thought they
ing an anti-Western campaign, and they per-
couldn’t trust me with a movie about the war.
ceived cinema to be a manifestation of West-
The government thinks it has a monopoly on
ern corruption. So they started to clamp down
the war and Islamic issues, so they wouldn’t
on the media and curtailed free expression in
want anyone other than their own filmmakers
a much more oppressive manner than before.
to touch those subjects.
Incredibly, they also banned all movies made
under the Shah, simply because women’s hair
Akrami: You got your film education at a col-
was not covered. What are your memories of
lege run by IRIB, the government-controlled Is-
those early post-revolutionary years?
lamic Republic broadcasting agency.
Panahi: My attendance at that college coin-
reels were and asked me how long the film was.
cided with the moment when the Islamic Re-
I said, “40 minutes.” He smiled and said, “My
public shut down all the universities under the
film was only 10 minutes long. How come your
pretext of the Cultural Revolution. A few other
homage is four times longer?” That meeting
students and I suggested putting together a
paved the way for me to later get a job as his
film archive for the college while it was closed.
assistant when he was making Through the Olive
The administrators agreed, and this was the
Trees (1994).
beginning of a productive period for me. I had
the chance to find and watch many American
Akrami: Kiarostami wrote the script for your
films and world cinema classics that had been
debut feature The White Balloon (1995), about
shown in Iran, though the hidden film prints
a little girl who wants to buy a goldfish to cel-
we could locate were not in good shape.
ebrate the Iranian New Year. At that time, Ira-
When the college re-opened, it took me five
nian cinema had gained an international repu-
years to graduate a four-year program because
tation for a particular genre of children’s films,
they were constantly changing the curriculum.
as some of the best Iranian films competing in
Many courses I had taken would later be elimi-
international festivals revolved around child
nated. I ended up taking almost 180 credits to
characters. This included Kiarostami’s Where
graduate when only 144 credits were required.
is the Friend’s Home (1986), Amir Naderi’s The
But I was happy to be there because the college
Runner (1985), Majid Majidi’s Children of Heav-
had the best facilities in the country.
en (1998), and your first two films, to name
just a few. Interestingly, Kiarostami had already
Akrami: But a free education there comes
moved on to making films with adult charac-
with a commitment to work at a TV station
ters, but he wrote a children’s movie for you.
after graduation.
Panahi: When Through the Olive Trees was in
Panahi: Yes, we were contractually obligated
post-production, he asked me about my next
to serve in one of the provinces. I had never
project. I mentioned The White Balloon as an
been to the Persian Gulf, so I chose the port
idea for a short film. He thought the idea had
city of Bandar Abbas. While there, I got a
the potential to be developed into a feature-
chance to make a couple of short films. One of
length film and offered to write the script for
them, “The Friend,” was inspired by Mr. Kiar-
me. He also made a strong recommendation to
ostami’s first short, “The Bread and the Alley.”
my boss at IRIB and encouraged him to support
His film was about a dog blocking a boy from
the project financially. He told him I could be-
entering an alley; in my film there were two
come another Amir Naderi!
friends, and one was blocking the other’s path.
After making the shorts, I applied for a
Akrami: Well, he was right. [Amir Naderi used
transfer to Tehran. I also entered two films into
to make so-called “street films” before the rev-
the Fajr Film Festival. Both were rejected, and
olution—films whose plots unfolded mostly in
I was terribly disappointed. I was waiting one
street scenes.] After the revolution, you contin-
day at the festival’s offices with my film reels
ued in the tradition of Naderi with The White
in my hands when I saw Mr. Kiarostami pass-
Balloon and other films before you were banned
ing by. I stopped him and told him I had made
from working.
a film as an homage to his first film, but that
The White Balloon was one of the first Ira-
the festival rejected it. He noticed how big the
nian films to receive decent distribution in the
United States. When it was about to come out,
(2011) won for best foreign-language film was
I was working as a consultant with October
the result of their lobbying in Hollywood! This
Films, an independent distribution company.
was the same government that had attempted
They were excited about releasing the film but
to shut down the film while it was being shot.
were not sure how to market an Iranian film
when the memory of the hostage crisis was still
Panahi: The hardliners in Iran have problems
fresh in the minds of many Americans. A com-
with certain films and filmmakers. They can-
pany executive jokingly suggested that they
not tolerate independent cinema. When the
could use taglines such as “The movie that will
Ahmadinejad government came to power in
take your heart hostage” or “A movie you’ll
2005, it took an aggressive stance and claimed
love, from a country you don’t like.”
it was going to strongly influence international
film festivals. That’s when it said it had lobbied
Panahi: They bought the film at Cannes. It was
on behalf of A Separation.
the first time I attended the festival, and I knew
I don’t think independent filmmakers co-
nothing about the film business. I remember
exist amicably with the government. We have
always tried to avoid the government and
shield ourselves from its interference. But the
hardliners have failed to silence independent
filmmakers. When they’ve kicked us out the
door, we’ve jumped back in through the window to do what we needed to do. Fortunately,
there are also some moderate elements in government who see cinema as a sort of goodwill
ambassador that can present positive views of
the Iranian people.
Akrami: That symbiotic relationship has also
adversely affected the Iranian films. After The
one day, two gentlemen approached me and
White Balloon was submitted to the Academy for
introduced themselves as employees of differ-
Oscar consideration, the Islamic government
ent American distribution companies. The one
attempted to withdraw it because of some po-
from October Films told me that he had beaten
litical skirmish between the U.S. and Iran.
the other by two minutes to buy the rights. He
said he did it so his child could see it.
Panahi: I was summoned to the offices of the
Fajr Film Festival in Tehran, where an official
Akrami: Iranian cinema and Iranian politics
put a tape recorder in front of me and said,
have had a symbiotic relationship over the
“We understand you want to boycott the Os-
years. Films have benefited from having Iran
cars. Please make your statement.” I was puz-
and Iranian politics as context, and the gov-
zled and said, “Who told you that? I have no
ernment has enjoyed the prestige the films
such intention.” Later I learned that they had
bring to the country by winning top interna-
already told their news agency that the film
tional awards, which the government usually
had been pulled from Oscar consideration. I
takes undeserved credit for. A government of-
felt like a pawn in a political fight between two
ficial even claimed that the Oscar A Separation
countries. It wasn’t just President [George W.]
Bush who was propagating the notion that you
and enter the world of adults. The presence of
are either with us or against us—the hardliners
children tends to soften everything, even bit-
in Iran had the same exact attitude.
ter realities. But if you are a socially committed
filmmaker, you can’t close your eyes to adult
Akrami: Your second film, The Mirror (1997),
realities, no matter how dark they are. I didn’t
also featured child actors, but like many Ira-
create them—I just shed light on them.
nian children’s films, it was not necessarily
suitable for children. It was about a little girl, a
Akrami: You once told me that you created
first-grader, who was dissatisfied with a movie
the adult characters in The Circle to see what
she was acting in and wanted to quit. The film
the little girls in your early films might be like
was about nascent self-reflexivity in Iranian
when they grow up.
cinema and wasn’t really meant for children.
It was widely believed that filmmakers were
Panahi: I was interested in exploring the chal-
using the guise of children’s films to avoid the
lenges those girls would face as grown women
attention of censors. In other words, the films
in a society like ours. The little girl in The White
used a child’s perspective to tackle the social
Balloon goes through a lot to take home a gold-
issues embedded in their narratives.
fish. I was wondering how she would deal with
her problems as a young woman, and I tried to
Panahi: True. The films were about children but
find answers in The Circle.
not for them. With The Mirror, I was also trying
to experiment with form. I wanted to tell two
Akrami: Did you intend for the film to be a
different stories, one for each side of the mir-
statement about the diminishing rights of
ror (the mirror was literally the camera within
women in Iran?
the film), each representing a different reality.
I pursued the same approach in my next film,
Panahi: Again, if you make films about the re-
The Circle (2000), by using multiple narratives
alities of Iran, you can’t ignore the restrictions
and trying to shape them in a cohesive form. I
imposed on women.
included adult characters in The Circle because
there were social issues that I could only ex-
Akrami: The Circle marked the beginning of
plore through them. Besides, I thought that the
your seemingly unending problems with the
children’s film tradition was wearing thin, and
Islamic Republic censors. It didn’t receive a
that it was time for me to start dealing more
screening permit in Iran, but you surrepti-
directly with problems we were grappling with
tiously sent it to the Venice Film Festival,
as a society.
where it won the Golden Lion. Despite winning
this highly coveted award, the film remained
Akrami: The Circle signaled a radical and some-
banned in Iran.
what unexpected change in your career. It was
a departure from a world populated by children
Panahi: My first encounter with the censors
to a gloomy adult world featuring the plights of
happened when I made The Mirror and was
several despondent women. Your vision grew
criticized for showing a bus in which women
considerably darker. What happened?
and men were sitting in separate sections.
They thought I shouldn’t have shown that be-
Panahi: Your vision naturally grows darker
cause it reflected badly on the country. My
when you leave the innocent world of children
response was to ask, why segregate men and
women on buses in the first place if you are
ashamed of it?
I did invite a few festival representatives
to my house. Alberto Barbera officially invited
When I sent the censors the script for The
the film to the Venice Film Festival after he
Circle, they immediately rejected it. I didn’t give
saw it. But the Ministry Of Culture and Islam-
up and kept pushing them for about a year to
ic Guidance refused to send a print, claiming
approve the script. The reformist newspapers
the film didn’t have a screening permit. Fortu-
also started criticizing the censors for keep-
nately, thanks to my fellow filmmaker Mohsen
ing a filmmaker who had won two major in-
Makhmalbaf, I had already sent a copy abroad.
ternational awards from making another film.
After learning about the film’s problems, he of-
I finally got the permit to shoot the script. But
fered to put my reels in a box labeled with the
government agencies wouldn’t help me when
title of his own film, Gabbeh (1996). The Min-
I needed their assistance. I couldn’t even get a
istry was sending Gabbeh to international festi-
police car I needed for a scene. We ended up
vals at the time, and Makhmalbaf thought the
painting a vehicle to use as a police car, which
box wouldn’t attract suspicion. That’s how we
was technically illegal, but we had no choice.
arranged for the print to be shipped to Venice,
although the Ministry also gave in and agreed
to let the film be shown a couple of days before
the festival. They had learned the festival had a
print, and summoned me to say that they knew
I had shipped out the film through a foreign embassy in Tehran. I denied this, and didn’t reveal
Makhmalbaf’s role until many years later, after
he had left the country.
Akrami: Crimson Gold (2003) is about inequality and the widening divide between the haves
and have-nots in Iran. I imagine that is not a favorite subject of the country’s ruling class—or
the censors who represent their interests. The
Akrami: I understand that when you first sub-
film follows the tragic consequences of a vet-
mitted the film to the Fajr Film Festival, they
eran’s moral disillusionment with the society
asked you to cut 18 minutes of it.
he has returned to. Its brutal realism was not
sanitized to the satisfaction of the government,
Panahi: And I told them that I refused to cut
especially the hardliners who claim to advo-
even one frame. I watched the film with the di-
cate for an equitable and pious Islamic society.
rector of the festival and he couldn’t persuade
me that there was anything wrong with it. He
Panahi: Thanks to the fact that The Circle won
thought the film was too critical of the political
the Golden Lion at Venice, the censors couldn’t
climate, which is what they always say when
keep me from making my next film. There were
they don’t allow a film to be shown. He also
many delicate and problematic details in the
said that the organizers had invited many for-
original script of Crimson Gold that we left out
eign guests who wanted to see my new film,
of the copy sent to the Ministry of Guidance
and that it would be a shame to tell them the
for approval. That version did not mention the
film was unavailable. But I didn’t compromise.
protagonist’s war history, how he had been
psychologically affected by it, or how one of
or “Hussein,” and the bad guys must have
his former commanders had compromised his
names rooted in Iranian culture and mythol-
principles. Predictably, the film did not receive
ogy. I don’t follow that in my films. I don’t even
a screening permit. The censors didn’t even
divide my characters into good or bad people.
bother to ask me to delete anything because
The characters who commit crimes in my films
they knew I wouldn’t do it.
are shown as victims of their circumstances.
Akrami: Historically, Iranian filmmakers have
Akrami: Even the slightest physical contact be-
been a suppressed group, and are always try-
tween men and women is forbidden in Iranian
ing to expand their creative breathing space.
films. A scene in which men and women greet
You break some taboos in Crimson Gold, includ-
one another and can’t shake hands, or one in
ing rules regarding the use of language, and of
which a mother can’t hug her son, may convey
physical contact between men and women.
the false impression that Iranians are cold and
Characters in Iranian films are also unrealis-
uncaring, which is far from the truth. Showing
tically polite, but we hear sexually suggestive
female characters in the privacy of their homes
language in your film. Do you consciously try
with their hair covered also creates a tarnished
to challenge the censors and push the envelope
and inaccurate image of Iran in the eyes of
with every film you make?
the rest of the world. As a filmmaker with a
realistic approach, these restrictions must be
Panahi: When I am making a film, I don’t think
deeply unsettling to you. I wonder if that’s why
about the possible reactions it might provoke,
all the films you made before your 2010 ban
or whether some scenes could be shown or
were set outside. In other words, perhaps you
not. I only concentrate on what’s right for the
didn’t shoot scenes of indoor family life be-
film. I never start with a conscious decision
cause restrictions like the mandatory use of
to break taboos. But if my characters need to
hijab would render them fake.
do or say something that might end up being
controversial, I won’t hesitate to do it. That’s
Panahi: That’s quite right. That’s also why
why I also showed my protagonist drinking in
most of my films take place within a short pe-
the film, which caused a big stir since he was a
riod of time. A story with a limited duration
veteran. I avoid anything that would diminish
helps me stay outside, and doesn’t require go-
or distort reality in my films. If I can’t believe
ing back and forth between exterior and inte-
something myself, then how could I expect my
rior scenes. I try to pick short stories that hap-
audience to buy it?
pen over a few hours or over a day, and are set
in public spaces.
Akrami: Probably more than the physical contact and risqué language, the young, rich char-
Akrami: Have the censors ever told you in any
acter who wears a tie and is portrayed as kind
official manner what they object to in your
and generous must have bothered the censors.
films? I’ve heard some filmmakers complain that
He looks like a typical villain from the post-rev-
they are never given the reasons why their films
olutionary films sanctioned by the government.
were banned. The Ministry of Guidance used to
publish guidelines defining the restrictions, but
Panahi: Along the same lines, the censors are
they stopped doing that. I guess the lack of clari-
also sensitive to names. All the good characters
ty gives them a freer hand in censoring films and
must have Islamic names like “Muhammed”
asking for what they call “corrections.”
Panahi: They never put anything in writing.
see the ban being lifted anytime soon, and it
They may just call you into their offices and
is still in effect a dozen years later. I also told
tell you something verbally, as they did with
people I was making the film as a document
me when they banned The Circle. You never
about a certain historical anomaly. Historical
get any official documents from them. They
documents don’t get dated.
impose several stages of control over filmmakers. When you submit your script, they call for
Akrami: It’s hard not to notice the irony of im-
changes. After they approve your script, they
posing a ban on a film about a cultural ban. Were
occasionally monitor your production to make
you hoping your film would change the govern-
sure you are shooting the approved script.
ment ban on women attending soccer games?
Then, they see the finished film and may require more changes. I have always avoided giv-
Panahi: No, as I mentioned earlier, when I
ing in to this extensive system of control, and
make a film, I don’t think about how it might
I’ve paid a price: My films haven’t received
affect people or policies. I wasn’t surprised
screening permits in my own country.
they banned the film. I hadn’t even submitted
its script for approval. They didn’t bother us
as we were shooting because we were using a
Akrami: With Offside (2006) you returned to
Panahi: DVDs of Iranian films from foreign
the issue of gender apartheid in Islamic Iran.
countries normally find their way into the un-
The film deals with how Iranian women are
derground market here, and that’s how people
banned from watching men’s sports in stadi-
get to see them. It was a different story with the
ums. The title refers to a violation in soccer, and
Offside DVDs, though. Because it was soccer-
your film is about violation of women’s rights.
related, I desperately wanted the film to be
small video camera and they didn’t think we
were doing a serious project.
Akrami: Offside and your other banned films
have appeared in the contraband DVD market in Iran. So the Iranian filmgoers can still
see your films, just not the way they should be
seen—in a theater, on a large screen.
shown in Iran before the 2006 World Cup in
Panahi: If you’re familiar with soccer rules, you
Germany. The censors objected. But all of a sud-
know that “offside” refers to a line behind the
den the DVDs appeared in the market and the
defenders that shouldn’t be crossed. We have
authorities blamed me for distributing them.
many similar red lines in Iranian cinema and society to keep us from advancing. So we thought
Akrami: I guess repression always breeds its
that although the title had one specific meaning,
own antidotes. But you ended up losing the
it could also signify something more universal.
money the film could have made in the domes-
When I decided to make Offside, people
tic market.
warned me the government would soon lift
the ban, and that the film would become dated
Panahi: The funny thing is, not only did I not
and irrelevant. My response was that I couldn’t
make any money, but when I want to give copies
of my own films to my friends, I have to buy the
a dark lens, but you’d rather think of yourself
DVDs. I don’t even get a discount!
as a socially committed filmmaker who reports
on his reality; if the reporting is dark, it’s be-
Akrami: In your film Taxi (2015), in which you
cause reality is dark.
pretend to be a cab driver, one of the passengers you pick up is a DVD dealer and we see how
Panahi: I have always asked the censors if there
bootleg DVDs are distributed illegally, which is
are misrepresentations or lies in my films. They
to say, not in a terribly clandestine manner.
haven’t been able to find anything, but they accuse me of showing the country in a bad light.
Panahi: The DVD dealer you see in the film actu-
I tell them that most of the roughly 100 movies
ally studied law, but he earns a living delivering
produced here every year are movies they ap-
bootleg DVDs to clients’ houses. Iran has a high
prove of—why can’t they tolerate a few films
rate of unemployment among college graduates.
about our problems?
There are shops that have distribution permits
to sell DVDs, but if they know you, they will also
Akrami: I think your films are cultural prod-
offer illegal titles, some of which may even have
ucts of their time. You can’t live in post-
been dubbed in Farsi outside of Iran.
revolutionary Iran and be oblivious to social
ills. Artists with a social conscience are obli-
Akrami: Iranian filmmakers can be divided into
gated to deal with issues of inequality and in-
pro-establishment and independent camps.
justice in their work. Italian neorealism was a
Anti-establishment filmmakers do exist in Iran,
byproduct of a troubled period in Italy after
but because dissent isn’t tolerated in the Is-
World War II. Filmmakers had no choice but to
lamic Republic, they’re not allowed to express
reflect bleak conditions in their films.
themselves, and the consequences for doing so
can range from being jailed to being banned
Panahi: There are some filmmakers who can
from working to being forced into exile. Even
only make movies in response to what’s happen-
being an independent filmmaker is frowned
ing in their environment. I belong to that group.
upon. Only filmmakers loyal to the government
I can’t betray my convictions by making com-
get preferential treatment. Maybe if a pro-
promised films. You remember once I was ar-
establishment filmmaker had made a film like
rested in an airport in New York because I didn’t
Offside, they wouldn’t have banned it. The gov-
submit to mandatory fingerprinting. I called you
ernment seems to allow a little criticism, but it
from the airport while I was detained. It was a
must come from their trusted filmmakers.
challenging incident for me.
Panahi: Yes, here who makes the film is more
Akrami: Yes, it was in 2001 and you were ar-
important than what the film is about. They re-
rested for not having a transit visa as you were
jected my war-themed script. But if one of their
flying from Hong Kong to Mar del Plata in Ar-
filmmakers had submitted the same script, I
gentina. You had already told Winstar, the dis-
am sure they would have approved it and pro-
tributor of The Circle, that you wouldn’t do a
vided them all sorts of facilities for the film’s
publicity tour in the U.S. as a protest gesture
production, too.
against the fingerprinting of Iranian citizens in
this country. You told me you had vehemently
Akrami: You’ve been labelled a dissident film-
refused to be fingerprinted, telling the customs
maker, an artist who views his society through
agents in broken English, “Me artist, no finger.”
They chained you to a bench and detained you
I told them it was unethical for me to allow a
overnight. You called me the following morn-
film’s nationality to influence my judgment of
ing, but before I could come to the airport with
its artistic merits.
a lawyer, you had agreed to be deported back
to Hong Kong.
Akrami: It sounds absurd, but the Iranian government has prohibited any cultural contact
Panahi: I didn’t agree to anything. They gave
between Iranians and Israelis.
me a choice of either getting fingerprinted or
being deported. I could’ve just given in, but
Panahi: They probably expected me to act like
I felt I would have been morally compromis-
the Iranian wrestlers who pretend to be injured
ing myself if I did. So they put shackles on my
or sick when they are paired against Israeli
wrists and ankles and didn’t take them off until
wrestlers in international competitions.
they put me on a plane to Hong Kong.
Akrami: Many top Iranian athletes have wastAkrami: A month later the National Board
ed championship opportunities as a result of
of Review, a society of film experts that cele-
this unwritten discriminatory policy, but they
brates achievements in contemporary cinema,
are always hailed as heroes and financially re-
gave you the Freedom of Expression Award.
warded by the Islamic government. You were
You wrote a strong letter to expose and pro-
also arrested a few times during the Green
test the inhuman treatment you had received
Movement demonstrations in Iran in 2009.
at the JFK Airport.
When you were heading the jury at 2009 Montreal Film Festival, you even asked fellow jury
Panahi: I was questioning the merit of the
members to show their solidarity with the pro-
award itself coming from the same country
testers in Iran, after which your passport was
that had treated me like a criminal. Of course,
confiscated again. Then, one evening in March
I could differentiate between the people cele-
2010, your apartment in Tehran was raided
brating my work and the racist agents carrying
while you were shooting a film.
out racist orders, but I was trying to bring attention to the problem.
Panahi: We were making a film about a family of four in the wake of the Tehran street
Akrami: Unfortunately, this was not your last
protests. The government agents said we
brush with detention. You had many more
were making an illegal film and confiscat-
run-ins with authorities in Iran and have some-
ed our camera and tapes. Everyone was ar-
times ended up being arrested or jailed.
rested, including my wife and daughter. The
crew and my family were let go shortly after.
Panahi: In 2007, as I was returning home from
Mohammed Rasoulof, a fellow filmmaker,
a trip to Australia after serving on a festival jury,
and another crew member were released af-
my passport was confiscated and I was taken in
ter two weeks, but they kept me for almost
for interrogation. Authorities chastised me for
three months.
giving a best actor award to an actor in the Israeli film The Band’s Visit (2007). Interestingly,
Akrami: You were eventually freed on bail
I had also previously voted to give that film a
thanks to your hunger strike and unprecedent-
best picture award when I was the president of
ed pressure from abroad, especially from fel-
the jury at the Antalya Film Festival in Turkey.
low international filmmakers.
Panahi: I decided to go on hunger strike about
as he was present in the courtroom, I would
75 days into my incarceration. One night they
not recognize the legitimacy of the court. Then
raided the cell I was sharing with three oth-
he got angry and started insulting me, saying,
er inmates. They took us into another room
“Who the hell do you think you are? I’ve invited
and searched us individually. When they
Michael Moore to visit and he’ll be in Tehran in
didn’t find anything, they pushed us out in
a couple of months.”
the prison yard and kept us in the cold for
an hour. I learned later that they had raided
Akrami: Well, I can tell you he was partially
my apartment at the same time looking for a
right. Michael Moore told me that the govern-
film. The following day, an interrogator asked
ment had invited him repeatedly, and that he
me, “What’s the title of the film you are mak-
always told them that they must stop mistreat-
ing here?” I asked, “What do you mean? How
ing Jafar Panahi and other Iranian filmmakers
could I make a film here?” He said, “The film
before he could accept their invitation.
you are making about your life here.” I was
still puzzled and didn’t know what he was referring to. He didn’t like my silence and shouted, “OK, when we throw your daughter in jail,
then you’ll tell us about your film.” He said it
in a threatening and vulgar tone that made me
really upset and concerned about my daughter’s safety. That was when I decided to go on
a hunger strike.
When I returned to my cell, I shared what
happened with my cellmates. It was then that
we figured out what must have transpired. I
had been waxing a bit philosophical one day,
Panahi: I told the interrogator it would be
saying that the whole prison experience was
great if he could get Michael Moore to come
another chapter in the movie of my life. One
to Iran!
of the cellmates had relayed that comment in
the same tone to his wife in a phone call, telling
Akrami: I must say that the way the Iranian
her that Jafar Panahi was making the movie of
judiciary has treated you doesn’t make any
his life in prison. The guards who were moni-
sense. First they slap you with a harsh and un-
toring the call had taken that quite literally
justifiable sentence, and then they decline to
and thought I was making a film in prison!
implement it without any explanation. They
haven’t even stopped you from making films
Akrami: You were sentenced in 2010 to a six-
as long as you don’t go through their official
year jail term and a 20-year ban from making
channels of monitoring and control. Ironically,
films, doing interviews, and traveling abroad.
that’s what every filmmaker in every repressive
regime wishes for. Your verdict was meant to
Panahi: The trial was a sham. It was obvious the
send you to jail and deprive you of ever mak-
verdict had already been dictated to the judge
ing another film, but actually it has been like a
and whatever I had to say would not have made
permit to work freely, albeit not too visibly. You
any difference. One of my interrogators also
are barred from leaving the country, but you
showed up during the trial, and I said as long
can move freely and work within Iran.
Panahi: It’s all part of a policy of intimidation
name a few. How do you think banning you was
by the government. They thought they could
an attempt on their part to make you leave?
make an example out of me to intimidate others. But they had no idea that the international
Panahi: My lawyer told me right after the ver-
reaction to my case would be so strong. That’s
dict was announced, “You are charged with
why they eventually released me, but issued a
‘propaganda against the regime’ and ‘acting
harsh verdict. They wanted to leave me with no
against national security,’ for which the maxi-
choice but to go into exile if I wanted to con-
mum penalty is six years of imprisonment.”
tinue working.
She thought that the 20-year ban on filmmak-
They didn’t think I would stay and try to
ing was meant to make me leave the country.
find ways to make films. But I did. After that,
I knew I had to work with very small crews in
Akrami: But if that was the message they were
covered locations. My crew and I wouldn’t dis-
trying to send, how would you leave if your
cuss anything on the phone or on social media.
passport was confiscated and you were barred
We would always go to each other’s houses to
from leaving the country for 20 years?
discuss plans. When I finish a film, the government may now think twice before doing
Panahi: They wanted me to leave illegally,
anything because they don’t want another in-
which is not hard to do. A friend told me he
ternational outcry. A reformist politician once
could get me out of the country in 48 hours if I
told me that the government had always been
wanted to leave. They deliberately confiscated
afraid of the people with political agendas—
my passport to force me to leave illegally, so
they had no idea that they would have to pay
I wouldn’t be able to return. Even before the
such a high price for harassing a filmmaker!
ban, an official in the Ministry of Guidance told
me I’d be better off working outside the coun-
Akrami: What is your own understanding of
try. But I want to stay and work here. That’s a
the situation? Do you see a resolution in sight?
right they cannot take away from me.
Panahi: No, the hardliners would like to keep
Akrami: In some ways, your career might
the situation as is. They need to maintain an
eventually be divided into two periods: pre-
air of crisis in the country in order to rule. If
ban and post-ban, with five and four feature-
it would lead to a way out of this situation,
length films in each period. The differences
sometimes I wish they would just come and ar-
between the two periods are hard to ignore.
rest me. I have so many ideas I cannot work
For one, all your films before the ban were
on because of the limitations I have been
mostly shot outside, but the first two films
condemned to live with. I don’t feel free. My
you made after the ban, This is Not a Film
lawyer friend, Nasrin Sotoudeh, makes a good
(2012) and Closed Curtain (2014), were shot
point in Taxi when she says that they release
indoors; the third, Taxi, within the confines
you from a small prison into a larger one be-
of a cab. You also star in your post-ban films
cause they’re still after you. I feel I am in that
as the main character. They are all strikingly
large prison now.
personal films but they don’t show you as an
isolated individual. Rather, you’re depicted as
Akrami: They have forced several Iranian film-
socially engaged and eager to probe social is-
makers into exile: Mohsen Makhmalbaf and his
sues through interacting with the characters
family, Bahamn Ghobadi, and Babak Payami, to
you bring into your world.
Panahi: I used to be able to take my camera di-
Akrami: In the wake of the widespread, week-
rectly into places where problems were. Now
long street protests earlier this year, some high-
that I’m not allowed to do that, I have to re-
ranking government officials made statements
flect on what I can experience. So I’m limited
affirming the people’s right to protest.
in the subjects I can choose. They have to fit
within the conditions I live in. I explore social
Panahi: The right to protest is guaranteed in
issues, but I use myself as an observer now.
the Constitution of the Islamic Republic. But
In This is Not a Film, I was still grappling with
all kinds of protests have been quelled over the
my verdict and couldn’t think about anything
past 40 years. Authorities recently arrested 29
except that. When I was making Closed Cur-
women for challenging the mandatory hijab
tain, I was badly depressed, which is reflected
law. Those women were exercising their right
in the film. By the time I was making Taxi I
to protest. In an Instagram post, I asked the gov-
had come to terms with my circumstances
ernment to allow a general referendum so peo-
and was feeling somewhat better. I need to be
ple could freely voice their opinions about the
careful to not attract attention when I work,
Islamic Republic. I am not holding my breath,
and I don’t want to put anybody in any kind
though. It wouldn’t be beneficial to those high-
of jeopardy as a result of working with me.
ranking people to allow any changes. O
That’s why I need to keep my cast and crew
at a skeletal level, and if there is a part I can
This interview has been edited and condensed
play, I just do it myself.
for clarity.
Javan, a transgender woman, sits in the
doorway of her mother’s home with her
niece and sister. Javan spent six months in
Kenya as a refugee after she was attacked
by a homophobic mob. She is one of the
rare young LGBTQ people in Uganda who
has the support of her family.
Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Spring 2018 © 2018 Jake Naughton
DOI: 10.1215/07402775-6894837
Four years after an anti-gay bill attracted
global notoriety, queer Ugandans are
cautiously coming out from the shadows
Shamim, a transgender woman, poses for a portrait at Ice Breakers Uganda, an
LGBTQ health-services organization, where she had been staying for the past
four months. Previously, she says she was arrested, beaten, and harassed by
police, angry mobs, and her family.
oward the end of 2013, the Ugandan parliament passed what would become
an infamous piece of legislation: the Anti-Homosexuality Act. The first version of the bill, proposed in 2009, sought to protect the “traditional family”
by criminalizing the “promotion of homosexuality” and calling for certain
homosexual acts to be punished with a death sentence. Though the language was
eventually softened to life imprisonment, the message was clear. The groundwork
for the bill had been laid by local religious leaders such as Martin Ssempa, who
benefited from the support of American evangelicals in inflaming anti-LGBTQ
sentiment. After incredible international outcry, Uganda’s Supreme Court struck
the bill down on a technicality nine months later.
JAKE NAUGHTON is a London-based visual journalist whose work focuses on LGBTQ communities in extremis
around the world. He is contributes to The New York Times, The Atavist, GlobalPost, Highline, NPR, and VICE
Magazine. He was named one of PDN’s 30 Photographers to Watch in 2017, and his work has been recognized
and supported by the Magenta Foundation, American Photography, and the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Leticia Opio, an out
transgender woman and
founder of the LGBTQ
advocacy group Queer
Youth Uganda, poses for a
portrait at the QYU offices.
On the morning of Christmas
Eve 2016, someone broke
into Opio’s home and
attacked her from behind.
She suffered from memory
loss, nightmares, and
general anxiety, and had
to travel to Europe to seek
medical treatment.
Joseph, an HIV-positive transgender woman, founder of the HIV and transgender support group
Come Out Positive Test Club (COPTC), and longtime LGBTQ activist in Uganda, poses for a
portrait. She says that, 15 years ago, she was kidnapped by soldiers from the Ugandan army and
tortured and raped for two days, only to learn later that she had contracted HIV from the ordeal.
Nevertheless, by then the damage had
In the years since the bill was struck
been done. A report issued in May 2014 by the
down, an uneasy stasis has become the
LGBTQ rights group Sexual Minorities Uganda
norm in Uganda. On the one hand, the in-
suggested the passage of the Act had “given
ternational attention generated by the bill
permission to a culture of extreme and violent
has been a boon to the LGBTQ activists, who
homophobia whereby both state and non-state
now have access to previously unimaginable
actors are free to persecute Uganda’s LGBTI
resources. LGBTQ programs and events hap-
people with impunity.” Acts of violence against
pen regularly in Kampala, activists travel the
LGBTQ Ugandans skyrocketed, and dozens of
world, and pride celebrations are more vis-
people sought refuge in nearby Kenya.
ible than ever.
Hajjati, 22, a transgender
woman and activist, poses
for a portrait in her office.
And yet, even as hateful political rhetoric has cooled, lowlevel violence has become increasingly common, an “allergic
reaction,” as one activist described it, to the growing—albeit
still small—presence of the LGBTQ community.
Sandra Ntebi, a longtime LGBTQ activist in Uganda, said
that the threats no longer come primarily from politicians and
religious leaders, but from the general population. “Our fear
is society now, not the government. Anyone can do anything,”
she said. “Things are changing for the worse. I am one of the
old activists. This is not what we dreamed of.”
Young LGBTQ people gather in the bedroom of the Children of the Sun safe
house. On any given night, between six and 12 people stay in the two-room
apartment. The organization had been paying the rent with earnings from a
market stall, but on the day this photo was taken, the market was shut down,
so the tenants resorted to sex work to make ends meet.
Sweet Love, a transgender woman, poses for a
portrait in the Children of the Sun safe house with
her partner Kenneth, with whom she has been in a
relationship for two years. Sweet Love co-runs an
organization that provides shelter for young LGBTQ
people in Kampala.
Didien, 23, a gay refugee from the Democratic
Republic of the Congo, poses for a portrait.
When he was nine, neighbors in the DRC killed
his father because they knew Didien was gay.
He then fled to Burundi before ultimately
coming to Uganda. There are more than 100
LGBTQ Congolese seeking refuge in Uganda.
Members of the LGBTQ community, allies, and others gather for a church
service led by gay, black American pastor Joseph Tolton. Tolton comes
to East Africa several times a year to mentor local pastors in “radical
inclusivity” and being more welcoming to the LGBTQ community.
Nearly every LGBTQ person I spoke with had stories of evictions, mob attacks, and harassment. For transgender Ugandans, the struggle can be even more intense. While reliable
statistics can be hard to come by, a 2014 study compiled by
Sexual Minorities Uganda found that there had been 162 reported incidences of abuse of LGBTQ Ugandans in the four
months after the initial passage of the anti-gay law, compared
to 19 incidents in all of 2012 and eight in 2013. One activist,
who goes by Hajjati, runs Rainbow Mirrors Uganda, an advocacy group for trans women sex workers. To avoid trouble, Hajjati
tells people that Rainbow Mirrors is an HIV awareness group
and had security cameras installed at the gate.
Tolton, who
is from New
York City,
speaks with
pastors after
a church
Worshippers sing and dance at
a Sunday service at Watoto, an
English-speaking Pentecostal
church, in downtown Kampala.
Activists say Watoto, led by
American pastor Gary Skinner,
has been instrumental in
spreading homophobia.
A young transgender
woman poses for a
portrait at the Children
of the Sun safe house
wearing a mask from a
pride event the previous
year. She was kicked out
of her home after her
parents found out she
was trans.
Hajjati wishes she could
transition, saying she feels
best in heels and a hijab, but
for the moment she presents
as a man when not in known
safe spaces. “Being trans in
Uganda is the most terrifying experience,” she said.
“As an activist in Uganda,
you wake up every day and
you say, ‘I have not had an
attack.’ That is a blessing.” O
Javan and a friend at Ram, a bar in Kampala that hosted LGBTQ nights on Sundays
and became the de facto gay bar in the city. It was the only openly LGBTQ space in
the country, but it was shut down a few months after this photo was taken.
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
A view of Kampala, Uganda.
How Singapore’s leaders use
the gospel of business to stifle dissent
Wham walked out of the State
Courts in central Singapore on
Nov. 30, 2017, to a gaggle of
reporters and photographers. It was
a typically warm tropical morning,
and people had been getting restless,
waiting for the authorities to process
his bail and release him. He greeted
friends, mostly fellow activists.* Plainclothes police officers watched quietly
from a distance but did not approach.
Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Spring 2018 © 2018 World Policy Institute
DOI: 10.1215/07402775-6894849
The day before, the Singaporean authorities
all else, maintains a laser focus on remaining
had announced that Wham would be charged
competitive, pushing Singaporeans to “steal
with three counts of organizing public assem-
other people’s lunches,” as Prime Minister Lee
blies without permits, one count of vandalism,
Hsien Loong has said. Officials are determined
and three counts of refusing to sign statements
to turn Singapore into a hub for business, fi-
to the police. The assembly charges were for
nance, media, technology, research, and in-
allegedly organizing a forum on civil move-
novation. An over-pressurized economy has
ments and democracy, staging an eight-person
emerged as a result, and politics tend to con-
silent protest against detention without trial
centrate on bread-and-butter issues like trans-
on a subway train, and holding a candlelight
port fares and housing and health-care costs
vigil ahead of a death row inmate’s execution.
over human rights and civil liberties.
(The latter lasted all of 15 minutes
All this has happened under the ruling Peo-
before the police showed up and
ple’s Action Party (PAP), which has not ceded
confiscated 26 tea candles and pho-
a majority since 1959. (There are multiple op-
tos of the inmate.) The vandalism
position parties, but only one has a tiny toehold
charge was for placing two signs
in Parliament.) Yet even if the PAP’s approval
in the subway expressing solidar-
rating weren’t as high as it is, it would still be
ity with former political detainees.
difficult to remove the party from office. Since
A social worker with more than a
it’s been in power, the PAP has gerrymandered
decade of experience advocating for
electoral districts and imposed strict barriers
the rights of migrant workers in Sin-
on political fundraising, advertising, and pub-
gapore, Wham, an easy-going figure
lic assembly. Furthermore, as Human Rights
in his late 30s, was being punished
Watch observed in an extensive report released
for stepping beyond the bounds of
in 2017:
state-sanctioned behavior in this
tightly controlled Southeast Asian
Beneath the slick surface of gleaming high-
island nation.
rises … [Singapore] is a repressive place,
Singapore is a place of contra-
where the government severely restricts
dictions. A city-state of about 5.6
what can be said, published, performed,
million people squeezed into just
read, or watched. Those who criticize the
over 270 square miles, it’s known
government or the judiciary, or publicly
internationally as both a free-
discuss race and religion, frequently find
market haven and a site of wide-
themselves facing criminal investigations
spread state intervention. One of
and charges, or civil defamation suits and
the richest countries in the world,
crippling damages. Peaceful public demon-
it also has the world’s highest cost
strations and other assemblies are severely
of living. The government, which
limited, and failure to comply with detailed
prioritizes economic growth above
restrictions on what can be said and who can
KIRSTEN HAN is a Singaporean freelance journalist covering social justice, human rights, politics, and
democracy. She is editor-in-chief of New Naratif and has written for The Guardian, Asia Times, and
other publications. She is a founding member of We Believe in Second Chances, which advocates for
an end to the death penalty in Singapore.
*The author was present at Wham’s release and has been involved in Singapore’s protest movements.
participate in public gatherings frequently
and the Chinese had been targeted in sys-
results in police investigations and the threat
tematic purges by the Japanese during the
of criminal charges.
war. Male Chinese students, many of whom
had already had their education disrupted by
It’s an open secret that there is no freedom
the Japanese occupation, rejected the idea
of expression in Singapore. Organizing or par-
of fighting for the British. The incident esca-
ticipating in “cause-related events”—a vague
lated into a larger movement, leading to the
and potentially all-encompassing definition—
development of wider networks across the
requires permits from the police. Activists are
island that brought together Chinese- and
rarely granted permits for events dealing with
English-educated anti-colonial voices.
issues deemed political, controversial, or sensi-
Singaporeans who lived through this peri-
tive, like race and religion, detention without
od remember the demonstrations, rallies, and
trial, or the death penalty. There is only one
strikes organized by trade unions and left-wing
place in the entire country where one can
student groups; some may even have partici-
hold public, outdoor events without a permit
pated. The beginnings of the People’s Action
(though only under certain conditions): Hong
Party are rooted in this movement: As a young
Lim Park, a small, historic enclosure near the
lawyer returning from his studies at Cambridge
Central Business District.
University, the ambitious Lee Kuan Yew—who
The government justifies limits on free ex-
would go on to become Singapore’s first prime
pression as necessary to achieve law, order,
minister—represented the unionists and stu-
stability, and wealth, and for the most part Sin-
dents in the anti-colonial struggle. Through
gaporeans aren’t inclined to challenge this nar-
them, he met the leaders of the Chinese student
rative. “There are laws in Singapore, and people
and trade union movements. Their involve-
shouldn’t break the law,” is a common refrain.
ment in creating the PAP gave the party access
Over the years, the idea of the law-abiding,
to a significant groundswell of popular sup-
protest-shy individual has become part of what
port; trade union leaders like Lim Chin Siong,
it means to be Singaporean. It’s as if, after years
recognized as a great orator in the Hokkien
of indoctrination, political passivity has be-
dialect, could communicate with the masses in
come part of the national identity.
a way that Lee, born to English-speaking parents, could not. The unions were also crucial in
organizing rallies, mobilizing their respective
bases, canvassing during campaigns, and get-
Following a three-year occupation by the Jap-
ting out the vote. These organizations, Lee said,
anese during World War II, British colonial
were “the political muscle [he and his English-
power was restored in Singapore in 1945. But
educated peers] had been seeking when dis-
things were not the same as before: The British
cussing our plans for action during all those
Empire was in retreat and calls for indepen-
beery nights spent pub-crawling in London.”
dence were spreading.
Once in control, the PAP was savvy enough
On May 13, 1954, almost 900 students
to dismantle—or at least severely undermine—
from Chinese middle schools clashed with
the freedoms and political structures that had
riot police while demonstrating against the
brought it to power. The new government pri-
colonial government’s desire to introduce
oritized stability, economic development, and a
conscription. Singapore’s population has been
unified national culture. A policy of detention
predominantly Chinese since the mid-1800s,
without trial, which had been introduced by
the British during the colonial period, was used
“Strong tripartism provides a stable and positive
to lock up political opponents and dissenters. In
environment for investors to bring in good jobs,
1963, a major sweep known as Operation Cold-
and allows us to take better care of the inter-
store led to the arrest of more than 100 people,
ests of our working people,” the National Trades
including leading members of Barisan Sosialis,
Union Congress’ website still proclaims today.
a left-wing breakaway party, as well as other
Although many of the activist firebrands
trade unionists and activists, under the guise of
were browbeaten into submission by the late
fighting communism. With Barisan’s key peo-
1970s, not all civil resistance was wiped out.
ple detained—some for more than a decade—
“Because of the systematic way in which [the
the PAP’s strongest opponents were stymied.
PAP] killed all the autonomous organizations
Strikes were outlawed, and other public
… the only organizations left were the student
demonstrations restricted. The Punishment for
unions,” said Tan Tee Seng, who was active in
Vandalism Act—later amended to the Vandal-
the Singapore Polytechnic student union from
ism Act—was passed in 1966 specifically to deter left-wing activists from carrying out poster
campaigns. Legislation was passed that prohibited newspapers from publishing without a
permit and enabled the government to appoint
a paper’s managing shareholders. Student
groups were also targeted. In 1974, the University of Singapore Student Union came under
attack from the government for its support of
social-justice causes, from flood relief for Bangladesh to better severance packages for workers. Accusing students of “espousing the causes
of communist political detainees, interfering
in labor disputes and trade union affairs, and
generally taking up anti-establishment political issues,” the government amended that uni-
1976 to 1978. “So we needed to take up the
versity’s constitution to prevent the union from
cudgel, to continue the good work.” In 1978,
engaging in political causes.
Tan participated in a campaign against raising
On the labor front, the government reduced
the bus fare. “We felt that the bus fare hike was
the power of the trade unions by introducing
unjustified, mainly because to the people who
a system they called tripartism, which encour-
made the decision, [a raise of] 10 cents was
aged strong collaboration between the govern-
nothing to them. But the students, we could
ment, the trade unions, and the employers’
feel the pressure on our parents,” he recalled.
federation. The National Trades Union Con-
A group of about 50 students first put out
gress—an umbrella organization formed by the
a petition, printing leaflets and collecting sig-
PAP in 1961—is led by a minister from the PAP
natures across the country. When that failed to
government, with other party members firmly
get a reaction from the government or the bus
entrenched within the group. With the party ex-
company, they decided to escalate. They orga-
erting so much control over the unions, observ-
nized into small groups, put on “anti-bus fare
ers have described union officials as “remark-
hike” T-shirts, and hit the streets. They would
ably timid advocates of their members’ rights.”
get on a bus, refuse to pay the fare, and hand out
A page from Harry Builds A Nation
protest flyers to passengers. After three or four
Spectrum—a 1987 sweep in which 22 social
stops, they would get off and repeat the pro-
workers, lawyers, and activists were detained
cess. The bus conductors “didn’t stop us,” Tan
without trial. “I don’t remember learning
remarked with a chuckle. “I don’t know if they
about [Operations] Coldstore and Spectrum,”
thought that we were justified, but they looked
said Isaac Neo, a third-year university student,
at it quite amusingly.” He recalls that some pas-
when asked about his high-school curriculum.
sengers even gave the protestors thumbs-up.
Instead, the government frames history in
This demonstration, while modest compared
terms of law and order. A social studies text-
to the mass mobilizations 20 years earlier, was
book for high school students, for example,
far more confrontational than the silent pro-
will cover the rights enshrined in the Singapore
test that Wham would be arrested for about
Constitution—equality before the law and free-
four decades later. “Now, they would say that
dom of speech, assembly, and religion—but will
you broke the law,” Tan said of the bus protest.
also note that “such rights may be restricted
if Singapore’s security, political stability, racial
harmony, or public morality is affected.” Issues
related to activism and civil liberties are almost
Today, younger generations of Singaporeans
never included, and Singaporeans are encour-
have no knowledge of their country’s po-
aged to be engaged citizens by singing the na-
litically charged past. A survey conducted in
tional anthem, volunteering, or giving the gov-
2014 found that only about 17 percent of re-
ernment constructive feedback.
spondents were aware of Operation Coldstore.
One of the only sectors in which these val-
About 19 percent were aware of Operation
ues are occasionally challenged is the arts. Neo
mentioned that the first time he had heard
The response to the strike was a per-
about the May 13 middle school protests was
fect demonstration of how far Singapore had
in The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, a graphic
moved from, and deliberately forgotten, its
novel that narrates Singapore’s history through
own left-wing history. The national media,
the eyes of a fictional comic book artist. Be-
which is largely controlled by the government,
cause it questioned the official narrative of
referred to the action as “illegal.” Newspapers
Singaporean history, the work was accused of
published articles and opinion pieces that
potentially undermining the government. In
hammered home the idea that strikes were
2015, the National Arts Council withdrew a
antithetical to the Singaporean way of life. The
publishing grant for the book, ironically pro-
workers’ decision was attributed to their na-
pelling it to the top of local bestseller lists. In
tionality, as if the idea of Singaporeans rebel-
2016, a play that touched on leftist struggles in
ling against authority were unthinkable.
Singapore’s history was rated “R18” for its so-
On Dec. 1, an article in Singapore’s only
ciopolitical content, requiring producers to re-
English-language general news broadsheet, The
fund tickets sold to those under 18. A year lat-
Straits Times, argued for educating foreign work-
er, writer and translator Jeremy Tiang revealed
ers more intensively on Singapore’s tripartite sys-
that state funding had also been withdrawn for
tem. “Unfortunately, some of the workers come
his debut novel State of Emergency, which intertwines Singapore’s leftist history with that of a
fictional family’s experience.
Meanwhile, a popular title in the country is
the 2015 children’s book Harry Builds A Nation,
the third installment in a series on the life of Singapore’s first prime minister, (Harry) Lee Kuan
Yew. The book focuses on Lee’s efforts to attract
foreign investment to a developing Singapore:
To provide jobs for Singaporeans, Mr Lee invited foreign companies to set up factories
and businesses here. He gave them a good
reason—a stable government. They also did
not have to secretly pay money to dishonest
ministers or people in charge in order to do
from different cultures and backgrounds—they
business. And they could depend on dedi-
don’t understand that we have a very strong
cated workers who would not threaten their
tripartite relationship as a framework to help
business by going on strike.
them,” the article lamented. Another article in
The Straits Times emphasized Singapore’s labor
This rhetoric had been on full display three
relations as an “intangible national treasure,”
years earlier, on Nov. 26, 2012, when 171 bus
and quoted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong de-
drivers initiated a strike—Singapore’s first in
scribing the system as “one of the most valuable
26 years. The drivers were all migrant workers
things we can pass on to our future generations
from China who were being paid less than Sin-
… a core value that holds us together.”
gaporean or Malaysian drivers and were forced
to live in substandard dormitories.
Amid relentless media coverage of the
strike, the courts sentenced five bus drivers to
up to seven weeks in prison, and repatriated 29
Tan Tee Seng, the former union activist,
others. A few days after the strike ended, both
acknowledges that Singapore has made great
the bus company and the Ministry of Man-
strides in economic well-being since the coun-
power confirmed that living conditions in the
try’s independence, but he rejects the argument
dorms were poor, and the company announced
that this was only attainable through trading
plans to undertake repairs and fumigation to
away freedom of expression and assembly. “The
deal with bedbug infestations.
argument was that [our economic growth] is
because of this governance … That is a notion
that is perpetuated by [the government].”
Meanwhile, the PAP continues to crack
The domination of a single political party over
down. Last year, new regulations were intro-
the past four decades has put Singapore in a
duced that have made it even more difficult to
curious position: It’s a place where the major-
hold protests. Among the laws passed was one
ity of the population feels safe, comfortable,
that penalizes organizers if foreigners are pres-
and privileged, and it’s also a place where most
ent at a demonstration. Additionally, in Feb-
people avoid political activity for fear of reper-
ruary, the government extended the Criminal
cussion. The public is generally aware that the
Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, which allows
powerful curb freedom of expression—an “OB
for the preventive detention of individuals asso-
(out-of-bounds) marker” is a common phrase
ciated with criminal activities. This is the 14th
indicating that a certain topic is taboo. Even so,
time the law has been renewed since 1955.
there is a lack of will to push for change.
And yet, there are hopeful signs. Last July,
In his book Singapore, Incomplete, journal-
thousands of Singaporeans showed up at Hong
ism professor and political observer Cherian
Lim Park, decked out in pink and carrying
George highlighted this inertia by pointing to
picnic baskets. Supporters squeezed onto the
the backlash against Prime Minister Lee Hsien
grass to celebrate Pink Dot 2017, Singapore’s
Loong’s siblings, Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien
equivalent of a gay pride parade.
Yang, who took to social media in 2017 to ac-
Pink Dot has taken place every year since
cuse their brother of abuse of power. The fam-
2009, but in light of the ban on foreigners, last
ily feud, which was closely watched, attracted
year’s event featured waist-high metal barri-
criticism from many Singaporeans, who felt the
ers around the park. Only Singaporean citizens
younger siblings were ruining Singapore’s rep-
and permanent residents were allowed in, and
utation by needlessly airing the family’s dirty
people queued up to have their identity cards
laundry in public.
checked by security officers. On this day of love,
“What Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang
transnational couples were separated at the
were discovering was something other critics
gate. It was a ludicrous situation, and still, the
and activists are well acquainted with: Singa-
park was crammed. Some first-time attendees
poreans’ hypersensitivity to anyone who rocks
said they’d made a point to show up in defiance
the boat,” George wrote. “Unless the issue af-
of the state’s attempts to undermine a peaceful
fects them materially and directly, they do not
grass-roots campaign for LGBTQ equality. And
like it when people raise a ruckus. And be-
so, once more, a uniquely Singaporean situation
cause they are so accustomed to the still wa-
was created: thousands of jubilant citizens unit-
ters of Singapore politics, they react queasily to
ed by a common cause, singing “Over the Rain-
the slightest motion.”
bow” in unison, penned in by a metal fence. O
Everything you always wanted to know about
sperm donation in China (but were afraid to ask)
The assembly line
in the sperm bank
DOI: 10.1215/07402775-6894861
t’s a sunny day in May, the relentless kind that sees people scurrying for the shade of roadside trees and the borrowed air conditioning of corner shops. I jump off bus 405 as it stops along
Furong Road, a congested six-lane thoroughfare that splits
Changsha, the capital of China’s Hunan Province, north to south.
Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Spring 2018 © 2018 Ayo Wahlberg
Just off Furong, Xiangya Road is its usual bus-
couples. The majority of these donors are uni-
tling self. Cars honk and pedestrians push past
versity students, who are considered to be of
pharmacies, food stalls, clothing shops, vegeta-
“high quality” because of their age and success
ble stands, shoe-shiners, and fortune tellers. I
in the competitive educational system. Family-
approach 84 Xiangya Road where the 15-story
planning officials and reproductive scientists
CITIC-Xiangya Reproductive and Genetic Hos-
believe that their donations can contribute to
pital lies, home to one of the world’s largest
the strengthening of the Chinese population.
sperm banks and fertility clinics. Hordes of
The first baby conceived from frozen donor
people are milling around the entrance. Some
sperm in China was born in 1983 in Chang-
have slept outside on the pavement in order to
sha. Six years later, the provincial government
be among the first to enter once doors open for
in Hunan prohibited the practice of artificial
the day. Most of them are there to seek fertil-
insemination. This ban was subsequently over-
ity treatment, clutching their queuing tickets
turned, and in 2003 it was superseded by na-
as they wait their turn to be called to the tri-
tional legislation, which, for the first time, le-
age desk that manages inquiries from new pa-
galized and regulated the provision of assisted
tients. The building itself is incessantly abuzz
reproductive technologies, including sperm
as patients, nurses, doctors, janitors, and tech-
banking and assisted insemination by donor. In
nicians navigate their way through the masses
the last 10 years, sperm banking has been sys-
of people that can be found everywhere, in
tematized in China with the closure of “rogue”
waiting rooms, elevators, hallways, and con-
banks and the establishment of strict licens-
sultation rooms.
ing and operating procedures. Donor sperm is
Patients impatiently ask when their turn
made available primarily to married couples
might come while white-coated doctors and
living with male infertility (but also couples in
pink-coated nurses somehow go about their
which the man is considered to have a genetic
daily routines, weaving through the throngs as
disease that makes him “not suitable for re-
they do. Two men are wheeling a large tank
production”), while single women and lesbian
of liquid nitrogen toward the elevator, plead-
couples are legally prohibited from accessing
ing for headway as they inch forward. Every-
donor sperm. With an estimated 1-2 million
thing around me is in motion as I ponder how
azoospermic men (men who are unable to pro-
best to make my way to the sperm bank on the
duce their own sperm) in China, a country of
fourth floor.
1.2 billion people, the demand for donor sperm
From crude and uneasy beginnings, sperm
remains insatiable. The country’s 23 sperm
banking has become a routine part of China’s
banks simply cannot keep up; directors public-
reproductive complex within the space of 30
ly lament chronic shortages and even warn of a
years. Today, there are 23 sperm banks spread
national “sperm crisis.” Such a crisis has come
out across China’s 22 provinces, the biggest of
at a moment when China is grappling with the
which screen some 2,000 to 4,000 potential
toxic side effects of voracious industrialization
donors each year. Those who qualify donate 12
and, following three decades of restrictive fam-
to 15 times over a six-month period in return
ily planning, a low fertility future.
for monetary compensation and the satisfaction of being able to help involuntarily childless
AYO WAHLBERG is a professor in the Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen. He is the author of “Good Quality: The Routinization of Sperm Banking in China” (University of California, 2018).
I first heard of this sperm crisis in 2008, when
cohorts (currently in their 30s and 20s) for
I came across a feature aired on the Shanghai
the best universities, best jobs, and indeed
News Channel. Against a montage of images
best marriage partners, the suggestion is that
showing crowded cities, high-tech laboratories,
couples are intent on getting their careers es-
and urban workers, the commentator explained:
tablished before they start families, much to
the dismay of their parents. Age, especially of
With increasing industrialization, sperm
women but also men, is the most reliable pre-
quality worldwide is declining. Life pres-
dictor of fertility; the older you are, the more
sure, smoking, drinking, pollution, lack of
difficult it is to conceive “naturally.” With more
exercise, dressing the wrong way, and radi-
people waiting longer to have their first child,
ation from mobile phones and computers
it would make sense to see an increase in the
have all become hidden killers affecting
number of couples who have trouble conceiv-
sperm density and motility.
ing without technological assistance.
Shanghai television was not alone in prop-
damage caused by multiple premarital abor-
agating this storyline. Indeed, 2008 turned
tions. Given the difficulties involved in register-
out to be the year that the media declared a
ing a child born out of wedlock or without a so-
“sperm crisis.” A news report from December
called “pregnancy certificate,” which confirms
Many of the doctors I met also pointed to
2008 proclaimed a “national emergency in
sperm banks in China” when only 37 out of
328 potential donors qualified for donation. In
that same year, the chief physician at the Ministry of Health China-Japan Friendship Hospital, who had carried out research on sperm
quality for some 15 years, told a reporter, “If
this trend continues, men will die without
sons within 50 years!” Liu Dalin, a professor
of sociology from Shanghai University, warned:
“Do not let man become an endangered animal.” In June 2010, journalists put numbers
to the crisis as they reported that “the sperm
quality of a man in Guangzhou has declined by
a couple’s eligibility to have a child in accor-
50 percent compared with 50 years ago … the
dance with family-planning laws, some doctors
quality and quantity of sperm have declined,
believe that more abortions are being carried
which is a problem we need to attach great
out—up to 13 million annually—which could
importance to.” The possible causes of this
lead to greater infertility. Additionally, this the-
“crisis”—lifestyle changes and the toxic effects
ory goes, abortion rates may be connected to
of environmental pollution—are now matters
“increasing promiscuity” as people adopt more
of concern and objects of scientific research in
liberal attitudes toward sex.
China and elsewhere.
The jury is still out as to whether there has
The other explanations for why infertility
been a measurable decline in sperm quality
rates might be increasing are directly linked
or an increase in infertility. (Scientists usually
to China’s so-called “one-child policy.” With
temper their findings by suggesting that infer-
intense competition among the first one-child
tility rates “may be” rising, that sperm quality
“is possibly” falling, and that this decrease is
maintaining any records for traceability should
“probably” being caused by exposure to indus-
anything go wrong. As Lu put it, “Suddenly
trial chemicals.) National statistics can be hard
sperm banks were getting out of control and a
to come by, but the figures I heard most often
lot of people were providing this service; some
were summarized by one of the doctors I met
were even operating out of a hotel!” No licens-
in Beijing when he suggested that “there were
es were needed to open and operate a sperm
five to eight out of 100 couples with fertility
bank, Lu said. “And for the sperm donors,” she
problems some 20 or 30 years ago, and this
added, anybody could volunteer—“they were
figure has increased to more than 10 couples
not doing any selection of donors.”
in recent years.” There is no way of verifying
To change the Hunan government’s per-
whether there has been an increase of infer-
spective on assisted reproduction, Lu argued
tility in China, and if so, to what extent, but
that these technologies would actually help
it is worth noting that 10 percent is the most
couples comply with the one-child policy.
commonly cited figure for global estimates of
While for fertile couples, Lu said, “population
infertility. Nevertheless, the “sperm crisis” has
policy requires that every family have only one
become a scientific assumption in China, and a
child … for infertile couples we should help
pretext for how sperm banks approach donors
them to have one healthy baby.” In 1999, the
and clients.
law was amended to permit artificial insemination, so long as the procedures were carried
out at government-run institutions. Eventually, assisted reproductive technologies, includ-
The lead-up to this situation began in the late
ing sperm banking, settled alongside ligation
1970s and 1980s, when the late chairman of
operations, abortions, and maternal and in-
the Communist Party, Deng Xiaoping, intro-
fant health care as means of birth control.
duced the one-child policy, which in 2016
It was under these circumstances that be-
was tweaked into a two-child policy. China’s
tween 2001 and 2003, the Ministry of Health
family-planning policies aimed at lowering
finally legalized assisted reproductive tech-
the country’s high fertility rate, which was
nologies. However, regulations stipulated that
considered a hindrance to economic develop-
they could only be used by couples with both
ment. Authorities were charged with meeting
marriage and pregnancy certificates. Addition-
regional and local targets through the provi-
ally, because of preexisting policies, treatment
sion of contraception, sterilization, and abor-
could be denied in situations where either part-
tion services as well as by fining couples who
ner “has a severe mental disease, genitourinary
exceeded their quota of children. In the 1980s,
system inflammation, or sexually transmitted
when scientists such as Lu Guangxiu, a pioneer
diseases,” or any “serious diseases considered
of IVF and artificial insemination, attempted to
inappropriate for conception.” In situations
develop reproductive technologies that would
concerning the former, fertility treatment
promote fertility, some state officials and sci-
could be offered once the wife or husband
entists saw these efforts as conflicting with an
had overcome the illness, whereas in the lat-
ongoing campaign to prevent births.
ter, treatment could not be offered at all. As a
By the mid-90s, a number of “rogue” sperm
result, sperm banking in China is today used
banks in cities like Qingdao and Chongqing
not only to help involuntarily childless couples
had begun offering donor sperm without any
conceive, but also to prevent or promote the
systematized screening practices and without
birth of certain kinds of children. Since the
1990s, one of the explicit family-planning ob-
During an interview carried out under the
jectives of the state has been to “improve the
shade of a tree next to a newly landscaped
quality of the newborn population,” in particu-
brook on the sprawling campus of Chang-
lar by preventing the birth of children with se-
sha’s University of Science and Technology,
rious diseases. Sperm banking is likewise seen
20-year-old Xueyu, a first-time sperm donor
as a way to achieve “better population quality”
who had yet to qualify, was asked whether
through the selective recruitment of “high-
he thought that anyone should be allowed to
quality” donors.
donate sperm. After contemplating the ques-
In just three decades, assistive reproduc-
tion he replied: “The ones who have genetic
tive technologies have taken off at an astound-
diseases shouldn’t be admitted. Otherwise the
ing rate in China. By 2014, an estimated 400
bad genes will be transmitted to offspring. We
centers offered such services, and there were a
total of 15 provincial sperm banks. The number of IVF babies skyrocketed from 50 in Beijing in the early 1990s to somewhere around
200,000 nationally in 2017. In Changsha, the
Xiangya Hospital increased the number of IVF
cycles annually from 700 in 2002 to around
40,000 in 2016. Growth continues to be driven by insatiable demand and the attractions of
a lucrative industry.
At the same time, certain restrictions have
generated arduous daily routines in Chinese
sperm banks. Government regulations limit
the number of children a single donor can
father to five. (Denmark, with a population
of 5 million, currently allows a donor to fa-
need to make sure that the outstanding genes
ther 12 children. Belgium, with a population
will be transmitted.” When asked whether he
of 11 million, allows six.) The most common
thought that donors should only be recruited
explanation for this is that it reduces the risk
from universities, Xueyu responded that high-
of unwitting consanguineous marriage and of
achieving professionals should also be con-
spreading a genetic disease should a sperm do-
sidered: “Their excellent work performance
nor turn out to have a late-onset disorder. Chi-
shows their perfect genes, so they also can
nese sperm banks, consequently, must recruit
provide good genes to the couples.”
and screen many more potential donors than
Although this was not the only opinion I
Western sperm banks do, which adds to their
heard, there is no question that ideas about
costs. This also means that infertile couples
genetic transmission of traits and diseases
have to wait up to three years to access donor
have played an important role in sperm bank-
sperm. This is the second part of the “sperm
ing in China. Some sperm banks explicitly con-
crisis”: Despite continuing efforts to mobi-
nect their fertility services to national goals of
lize potential donors, banks still face chronic
improving population quality when finding
sperm shortages.
new donors. The challenge for recruiters on
university campuses is that relatively few stu***
dents express interest in donating sperm—3
percent of a campus cohort, in one sperm bank
show up to produce a sample for analysis by
manager’s estimate. To bring in students, re-
staff at the bank. Some of them have already
cruitment flyers often feature slogans such as
been approved as donors, while others are
“Win endless glory” or “Donate sperm for the
there for the first or second time in an attempt
benefit of society.” Sperm banks appeal to the
to qualify. Once qualified, they are asked to
compassion and altruism of potential donors
make a total of 12 to 15 donations (this cal-
by vividly describing the suffering of infertile
culation is based on the limit of five women’s
couples and the happiness that a donor can
pregnancies per donor) with at least three to
bring to these families-in-waiting.
four days between each one. In reality, though,
There are also more practical incentives.
the number of donations is higher as even
Since health care has become increasingly
qualified donors’ deposits are sometimes re-
privatized in China, the possibility of having
jected. While donors always risk running into
a free health check—a routine part of the do-
people they know at the sperm bank, dona-
nor screening process—is attractive to many
tion remains strictly anonymous. This is an
students. Finally, financial compensation is
absolute requirement for the donors I spoke
a major draw. All in all, a qualified donor can
to, many of whom insisted that sperm dona-
earn between $632 and $948 or, as I ended up
tion would cease to exist in China if anonymity
calling it, iPhone money. During a focus group
were not guaranteed.
interview with four university students carried
Anonymity and secrecy are essential to re-
out on the grassy campus of Changsha’s Normal
cipient couples and donors, not least because
University, students were asked if they had ever
both groups want to avoid future trouble. Yet
considered becoming a sperm donor. The first
feelings of shame, guilt, and inadequacy are
answer was: “Maybe if I need an iPad one day!”
also a concern. As countless ethnographic
Yet even when recruiters manage to bring
studies from around the world have shown,
in students, the sperm bank’s screening pro-
the onus of infertility often falls almost en-
cess disqualifies most potential donors. It is
tirely on women, even though male factor
not uncommon for the 2,000–3,000 students
infertility is as likely to be the root cause of
who come to the sperm bank in Changsha
a couple’s infertility. Anthropologist Marcia
each year to fail their first donation. Success
Inhorn has argued that involuntary child-
is directly linked to the exceptional liveliness
lessness is often unrecognized (or, at most,
of a donor’s sperm. (“Exceptional” because the
under-recognized) as a public-health problem
Ministry of Health’s concentration standard of
in countries “where children are highly desired,
60 million sperm per millimeter is four times
parenthood is culturally mandatory, [and] in-
higher than the World Health Organization’s
fertility is a socially unacceptable condition.”
criterion for normal male fertility.) As a result,
In such contexts, “infertile people’s suffering is
all potential donors are given three chances to
often exacerbated.” This is also what medical
qualify. As one recruiter described it, “We have
anthropologist Lisa Handwerker found when
a two-year cycle. In the first semester maybe
carrying out ethnographic studies at infertil-
2,000 students will come to the sperm bank, in
ity clinics in Beijing. Through interviews with
the second semester maybe 150 students will
infertile women and men, she concluded that
come, and in the third semester maybe just
China’s “birth policy aimed at reducing births
100. There are fewer and fewer with time.”
has ironically led to the further stigmatization
On the busiest days at the sperm bank in
Changsha, some 100 male university students
of infertile women” as the pressure to have “one
child” intensified.
These pressures have surely driven the
university and graduate studies, which shows
growing shadow market for sperm, which re-
that they have higher IQ, so they charge high-
lies on middlemen brokering connections be-
er fees.” For couples, the dangers of such an
tween donors and infertile couples. In 2008,
unregulated market is that there is no guar-
a series of news reports set out to expose this
antee of the quality of the sperm, while for
black market. An undercover reporter in Jilin
donors, anyone selling his sperm on the black
Province recounted his investigation of a web
market is legally liable as the father of any
forum posting where a man had advertised
resulting children.
that he was willing to provide sperm to an
In recent years, a string of studies has been
infertile couple for $3,162. (By comparison,
published addressing questions of what an ad-
the estimated cost per legal assisted insemination cycle is $476. A legal IVF cycle costs up
to $4,761, and a procedure in which sperm is
directly injected into an egg costs up to $5,554
per cycle. Fertility treatment is not covered by
private or public insurance in China, which
means that for many couples, it remains out of
reach.) Similarly, a news reporter in Heilongjiang Province responded to an advertisement
he found taped onto a street-side wall in Harbin that read:
Do you feel upset because you can’t have a
child? Do you feel helpless because there is
no suitable sperm source? Our sperm selling company is willing to offer you good-
equate life, a moral life, or a good life in China
quality sperm and can help you solve your
might be. This is not surprising given the coun-
problems and troubles … The company has
try’s profound economic, demographic, social,
strong men of different ages available.
and environmental transformations over the
last three decades or so. Having children has
The reporter met with Mr. Wang, a mid-
long been a part of what makes life good in
dleman who had put together a catalog of 11
China. When it comes to sperm banking, the
sperm donors who he could arrange to pro-
notion of “good-quality” sperm is held up
vide fresh donations at a location decided by
above all else. This, after all, affects not only
the recipient couple. As a middleman, Mr.
the quality of life of the infertile couple, but
Wang ensured a certain distance between
also that of the extended family, the baby, and
donor and couple. He followed a tiered pric-
the population as a whole. As China makes it-
ing system, which, he told the undercover
self more and more globally competitive, keep-
reporter, was worked out “according to the
ing the population happy has become an ur-
condition of body and education level: Mar-
gent political objective.
ried men with children can only prove their
On the fourth floor of the sperm bank in
fertility, but their physical condition is not as
Changsha, potential donors are directed to a
good as young people, so they charge low fees.
waiting room outfitted with rows of orange
Students are young and strong; they can enter
tables and benches, which are often filled with
students waiting either for the results of their
as relaxed as possible. The atmosphere is often
semen analysis, or to use a private donation
light-hearted and humorous; staff members
room. Students who have arrived by them-
and experienced donors chat while first-timers
selves rarely talk to each other, opting instead
sit nervously. When I ask a qualified donor
to mask their apparent embarrassment and
how he would empathize with newcomers, he
shyness by staring into their phones, reading
responds, “Sometimes some new donors will
the newspapers and magazines that are lying
feel anxious. When I look at them I will feel it
around, or preparing for classes. Every once in
is just like me two weeks ago, yeah, then I will
a while the relative silence of the waiting room
tell them, ‘Dude, don’t be worried, I once failed
is broken when a battered, plastic speaker
too but then I passed it and now I am here as a
crackles into life—“Number 54, please”—ask-
successful donor.’” O
ing for the next donor to proceed into the
donation area. The receptionist plays a cru-
Copyright 2018 by Ayo Wahlberg. Adapted from
cial choreographing role, welcoming students,
Good Quality: The Routinization of Sperm
keeping the flow of donors as smooth as pos-
Banking in China and reprinted by permission of
sible to minimize waiting times, and providing
University of California Press / The Regents of the
words of encouragement to make students feel
University of California.
n some ways, Sara Yusuf considers herself lucky, she says, sitting on a foldout chair in a clean, spare room with
chipped white tiles. She left her home
in Ghouta in western Syria in the summer
of 2013 with her mother, sister, and two
children. Less than a month after they left,
the Syrian government struck Ghouta with
rockets containing the nerve agent sarin.
Hundreds of people—estimates range from
280 to 1,700—died violent and painful
deaths. “I think God was protecting us,”
says Sara, who now lives in Jordan.
DOI: 10.1215/07402775-6894873
As the Syrian crisis
forces women to fend
for themselves, female
refugees in Jordan are
learning to cope
Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Spring 2018 © 2018 World Policy Institute
In other ways, she doesn’t feel lucky at
The three women—Sara, her mother, and her
all. In 2012, her husband went missing. Sara
sister—fled to Jordan with the two sisters’ chil-
still doesn’t know whether he is alive or dead.
dren. They were immediately placed in the Zaa-
Mohammed (not his real name) was a low-
tari refugee camp in northwest Jordan, where
ranking government employee. They had mar-
they stayed for four months. They had come
ried young—Sara, who is 28 now, was just 18
with savings, but these quickly dissipated. “The
and barely out of school. When the Syrian war
conditions there were very bad,” says Sara’s
began as a series of peaceful uprisings in 2011,
mother, Soraya, who still lives with her. “We
the couple was living a fairly comfortable life,
spent all our savings and we had no way to earn
with a small child and a baby on the way. As the
a living. We were three women alone for the
protests spread across the country, Mohammed
first time. Just imagine—I have two daughters,
was caught up in the wave of excitement. He
and neither know anything of their husbands.”
attended a demonstration in Ghouta, enthused
None of the women had ever worked be-
by the possibility of a better and more demo-
fore; they had all depended on their husbands
cratic Syria.
to be the breadwinners. Now, they had to find a
He never came home from that protest.
way to survive. They left Zaatari and rented ac-
“The most difficult thing is not knowing,” says
commodations outside the camp. Sara and her
Sara, a slight woman who clenches and un-
sister got low-paying jobs as farm laborers, and
clenches her fists as she talks. “I don’t know
Soraya—who, at 65, was frail and unable to do
whether to grieve for him, or whether I should
manual labor—looked after the children.
still be waiting.”
“We worked a lot for very little money,”
For eight months, Sara and her relatives
says Sara. “I was paid five Jordanian Dinars [$7]
asked authorities for information about Mo-
per day. The bosses would sometimes make
hammed. Their situation was sadly typical: It
unpleasant comments and look at us while we
is estimated that around 200,000 Syrians have
worked, but we had no choice.” They struggled
been arbitrarily detained since the war began.
to make rent and lived with the constant fear
The death toll is estimated to be 470,000. Al-
that the lewd comments from male colleagues
though she was young and not particularly con-
might escalate into something worse. This
fident, Sara went to the prisons to ask whether
went on for several months. The situation felt
he was there. This was risky; there were sto-
unsustainable. And then, a lifeline appeared.
ries of prisoners’ relatives also being arrested.
Sara heard from a colleague on the farm
The family decided to flee. “I didn’t want to
about an apartment building in a suburb of
leave Ghouta, in case Mohammed came back.
Amman, Jordan’s capital, where Syrian women
I didn’t have any way to get word to him about
could live for free with their children. It sound-
our whereabouts, and I was afraid he would
ed too good to be true. She obtained the de-
not be able to find us,” says Sara, her eyes fill-
tails, submitted an application, and waited. It
ing with tears. Ultimately, it was concern for
took months to get a reply; during this time,
her children that prompted her to go.
Sara’s sister decided to return to Zaatari with
Sara’s sister was in a similar situation—her
her children. But eventually, Soraya, Sara, and
husband had also disappeared, and they pre-
Sara’s two small children were approved. In
sumed he had been either arrested or killed.
2016, they moved into the building.
SAMIRA SHACKLE is a freelance journalist based in London and covering world affairs. She is also deputy editor at the New Humanist magazine.
The block is situated in Safout, a suburb
unregistered, and it is broadly accepted that
to the northwest of Amman. It’s unremark-
the real number may be well over 1 million.
able on the outside, a former school barely
Jordan, in keeping with other countries neigh-
set back from the road. In 2013, four wealthy
boring Syria, has been extraordinarily generous
Syrian businessmen—two living in Jordan, two
in accommodating dizzying numbers of refu-
in Saudi Arabia—took out a lease on the build-
gees—particularly from Syria, but also in small-
ing. According to Abu Ahmed, a small man
er numbers from Iraq—allowing them access to
employed by these businessmen to administer
education, health care, and other services. But
the building, they had recognized a desperate
as the Syrian crisis approaches its eighth year,
need among the many displaced Syrian women
resentment and anxiety over the distribution
living without their husbands. These women
of resources is increasing, and with it the racist
were struggling to survive. They were responsible for caring for their children and supporting
their families, and were often made to endure
terrible sexual harassment in the process.
The building has 22 small apartments and
currently houses 34 families. Families with
fewer children and those who already know
each other live together. The rules are strict:
Only women, girls, and boys under the age of
12 are allowed to stay. Male visitors—including NGO workers who provide services—cannot go above the ground level. The women live
rent-free. They share communal spaces and
are expected to help with household tasks like
cleaning and cooking. They survive off the food
coupons they receive through the World Food
sentiment that posits Syrians as uneducated,
Program, sometimes pooling their resources to
backward, and a burden on Jordan. In 2017,
cook big shared meals. In the basement there is
Human Rights Watch accused Jordan of sum-
a makeshift playground, with AstroTurf on the
marily deporting hundreds of Syrians.
floor, a small slide and swing, and children’s
Studies show that at least a third of Syrian
drawings tacked to the walls. A Taiwanese hu-
refugee households in Jordan are headed by
manitarian group brings a doctor in for regular
women—meaning that, as in Sara’s case, there
check-ups and provides a bus to take the chil-
is no male provider. This is not unusual in war-
dren to and from school every day.
time, given that men tend to enlist or be draft-
“Life is good here, we are safe,” says Sara. “I
feel, again, that I am lucky.”
ed. The number of female-headed households
was thought to be even higher among displaced
Iraqis during the first Gulf War. These statistics
reflect a global reality in the context of the current migration crisis. Women and girls make
Among the more than 4 million Syrian refu-
up half of the 19.6 million refugees around the
gees across the Middle East, roughly 600,000
world. Displaced women face a host of gen-
are registered in Jordan, which has a popula-
der-specific challenges; according to the U.N.,
tion of 9.5 million. However, many more are
one in five refugee women has experienced
these work permits
had gone to women.
According to a 2016
study by Care International, four out of
holds in Jordan live
line, and those headed by women are
even more likely to
be poor: According
to the same study,
women earn, on average, a third less
than men.
situation in Jordan
sexual violence, and they suffer higher rates of
reflects that of pre-war Syria. In 2010, before
maternal death and early marriage than the
the uprisings began, only 22 percent of Syr-
general population. Additionally, data suggest
ian women participated in the workforce,
that when it comes to protracted, long-term
and those who did took in significantly lower
displacement, women outnumber men—and
wages than men. This came primarily down to
their economic prospects worsen over time.
cultural norms—men in Syria, as in many pa-
Many of these women, hailing from traditional
triarchal societies in the Middle East, tend to
societies where men are the primary household
take responsibility for managing finances and
earners, must work for the first time, even as
making decisions about housing and budgets.
they care for their children. As they deal with
Most Syrians in Jordan come from the rural,
tough economic realities, many are also navigat-
southern parts of the country, where cultures
ing bereavement, trauma, and loss.
are especially conservative and gender segrega-
Unemployment rates in Jordan were high
tion is common.
before the influx of Syrians, and especially so
“In a patriarchal environment, it is often
for women. Today, only around 14 percent of
easier for women to have a male ‘guardian,’
Jordanian women participate in the labor mar-
be it the father, brother, or husband,” says
ket—one of the lowest rates in the world—and
Lana Khattab, a Syrian-Austrian consultant
youth unemployment is around 40 percent.
on gender issues. But the realities of war and
In 2016, Jordan became the first Arab coun-
displacement mean that a significant num-
try to start issuing general work permits for
ber of women are being forced to reconfigure
Syrian refugees in certain sectors, rather than
their lives outside of traditional gender roles.
ones only relating to a specific employer. Yet
As Khattab explains, even women who do se-
many of the sectors that were opened up—such
cure work often find themselves in “informal
as construction—are male-dominated and not
and precarious contexts” where they are “un-
considered appropriate for women. As of De-
derpaid and exposed to potential exploitation
cember 2017, only an estimated 9 percent of
and abuse.” In addition to rent, these women
frequently struggle to cover school and trans-
crossed back and forth over the border. Since
portation fees.
the conflict broke out, Ramtha’s population
As Sara experienced firsthand, women
has doubled as Syrians relocate.
are also highly vulnerable to sexual harass-
In 2012, Monal fled her hometown of Da-
ment. In a 2014 survey by UNHCR, 60 per-
raa, a city south of Damascus known as a hub for
cent of Syrian women in Jordan, Lebanon, and
revolutionaries, with her husband and two chil-
Turkey said that they felt insecure, fearing
dren. A year later, her husband decided to di-
violence or harassment. Although most lone
vorce her. He has since remarried and lets Monal
women live, like other refugees, in rented ac-
see their children only occasionally. She doesn’t
commodation or camps, a number of “widow’s
have the documents she requires, including her
houses” have opened up in the last few years,
marriage certificate, to push for custody. Her
as protracted displacement became a reality.
rent is exorbitantly high, and she struggles fi-
These are mostly in or near Amman. Some are
nancially. “I live day-by-day,” she says. “I am just
privately managed; others are run by charities
trying to get by. I am totally alone.”
or have sprung up organically. At Karama, also
I met Monal at a women’s center run by
just outside Amman, around 300 Syrians—
the International Rescue Committee (IRC)
mostly widows and their children—live in a
in Ramtha, a nondescript building on a busy
strip of apartment buildings maintained by a
street. It is a busy day center, where between
local charity. Living collectively in a female-
50 and 60 Syrian and Jordanian women con-
dominated environment holds a number of
gregate daily for English classes, sewing les-
benefits. There is scope to share child-care responsibilities, which can be a huge challenge
for women seeking to enter the workforce. The
threat of violence or harassment is reduced, as
there is safety in numbers, and women living
with other women might feel the lack of a male
guardian less acutely. And, crucially, it can reduce the loneliness that so often characterizes
the refugee experience. I spoke to many women who felt more optimistic about the future
after spending time with others in similar situations; seeing others cope strengthened their
own sense of agency.
Of course, most Syrian women in Jor-
dan do not have access to female-only living
spaces, and must find ways to navigate the
sons, business courses, and psychological and
world alone and establish new lives outside
legal support. The IRC community center is the
traditional family structures. Monal (who
only one in the town that is women-only; there
asked to be identified by her first name only)
are no men at all in the building. Accordingly,
is a 35-year-old Syrian woman who lives in
it is the only place Monal feels safe. She tells
Ramtha, a small and impoverished town close
me that she has not paid the rent or electric-
to Jordan’s border with Syria. For generations,
ity bills for three months, and is worried that
Syrians and Jordanians here married each
her landlord is going to ask her to repay him in
other, worked with each other, and regularly
some other way.
“As a single woman, I can’t do anything.
want to do anything except go back home,” she
I have no rights. No one will help,” she says.
says. “I was grieving for my husband, for our
“Asking for a man’s help means that he will ask
home and all the memories I had left under
for sexual favors … Usually with small charities,
Syrian skies. But I realized I couldn’t sit in my
if you flirt with whatever man is in charge—
house forever, because there were bills to pay
give him what he wants, let him call you late
and my children needed clothes.”
at night—then you get the help you need. But
In 2016, she attended a three-month busi-
I am not like that.” Humanitarian organiza-
ness skills class run by the IRC, and learned to
tions have struggled to obtain reliable data on
knit and sew. “It was the best time of my life,”
sexual harassment, but off the record, women’s
she says. “I made friends, and I realized that
groups say that transactional sex is common.
even though I had never worked, maybe I could
“A high percentage of our beneficiaries have
do something to provide for my children.” Aida
experienced sexual harassment or abuse,” says
applied for a grant to buy a sewing machine
Rana Abu Sundus, program manager at the
and now earns a small income. It isn’t enough
Ramtha IRC. “It happens especially from land-
to comfortably cover all her family’s costs, but
lords—she cannot repay the rent, so they ask
it is something. When she talks about her busi-
her, ‘what about a sexual relationship to keep
ness plans, she holds herself taller, swelling
you in the house?’ The women don’t want to
with pride.
disclose these matters because they are afraid
of being stigmatized.”
While the market for small-scale entrepreneurship is crowded and the money available
Monal gets food coupons, but she saves
is severely limited, NGOs are launching skills
them so that there is food in the house on
workshops and business courses in Jordan and
the rare occasions when her children are al-
across the region to empower refugee women
lowed to visit. “I am hungry,” she tells me. “I
and help them enter the labor market. Often,
have nothing in the house, no food, no neces-
these efforts focus on domestic skills that con-
sities. But I don’t care about food. I only care
form to traditional gender roles, such as cook-
about [whether I have] somewhere to live and
ing, tailoring, and hair and beauty care. The
somewhere for my children to come.” In 2016,
thinking is that if women can work in these
Monal qualified for a cash-assistance program,
fields, then they will be able to avoid sexual
which allowed her to cover her basic costs.
harassment and earn a sustainable living while
Under these U.N. and NGO-administered pro-
still caring for their children.
grams, money is given to refugees in life-or-
Yet this plan, too, is not without compli-
death situations for a limited period of time.
cations. The Safout widow’s house is outfitted
The idea is that after this period, which usually
with a commercial kitchen so residents could
lasts six months, things will have stabilized and
start a catering business to support themselves.
the recipient will have found work. But that is
Given their collective lack of business expertise
often easier said than done.
and local contacts, however, they have had
trouble getting their enterprise off the ground.
Abu Ahmed, the administrator, is unsure how
long the Syrian businessmen who rent the
Aida, 43, is a friend of Monal’s from the IRC
apartment building will continue to bankroll
center. Since her husband was killed in Syria,
it. “Sometimes we can sell what they make, but
she has been solely responsible for raising her
it’s not consistent, and it’s not enough to cover
three children. “When I came to Jordan, I didn’t
the running costs,” he explained. The same
thing has happened with other strategies: “We
To prevent a backlash against women, she be-
tried to teach the women to sew, but they have
lieves “male refugees need some time to re-
nowhere to sell what they sew.”
consider their traditional gender roles here in
Jordan.” Domestic violence has risen sharply
among Syrian refugees across Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and experts attribute to the
Amid these circumstances, women like Aida
stress of displacement coupled with men strug-
are still forging ahead. Sitting at the IRC center
gling to cope with the emasculation they feel
in Ramtha and talking about her limited ac-
when stripped of their role as breadwinner. To
cess to her children, Monal began to cry. Other
counter this, a growing number of NGOs across
women crowded around her, offering comfort
the region are running gender-based violence
and advice. “He doesn’t have the right to do
programs that teach male refugees about legal
this,” said Aida. “You have to seize your rights.”
rights and positive adjustment strategies.
The other women nodded in agreement.
Certainly, some women are resentful about
This is a relatively new concept to most of
having to make these changes. Maisa, a large
them. Coming from conservative areas, the ma-
woman in her early 40s dressed head-to-toe in
jority of the female Syrian refugees in Jordan
black, lives in Ramtha and uses the IRC center.
had spent their lives in the domestic sphere
and had a limited understanding of their legal
rights. Both local and international organizations have worked to teach these women how
to recognize themselves as independent people
who can assert themselves and seek legal protection when necessary. Rights-based training is now a common part of NGO work with
refugee women, and in Amman, the Jordanian
organization Sisterhood is Global holds regular
classes on women’s legal and social rights.
Changes are happening gradually and pain-
She lives with her husband, but has assumed
fully, but they are significant. “We are seeing
new responsibilities since relocating to Jordan.
more Syrian women taking the lead [to cre-
“He can’t find work, so he sits at home, de-
ate] sustainable livelihoods for themselves and
pressed. Men are used to being the breadwin-
their families,” says Sawsan Mohammed, the
ners, and woman are used to managing with
leading gender specialist at the Jordan branch
whatever they have,” she says, her frustration
of Care International. “Some are realizing that
visible. “So it’s my job to be flexible while he
this is an opportunity. They say there is no
mopes at home. I didn’t choose this change—
return to their previous life, when they were
life was much easier for me before.” When the
passive, when they did not contribute to the
international community discusses male refu-
decision-making process within their families.”
gees, an oft-cited concern is that men trapped
Mohammed also notes that there is so
in prolonged displacement are at greater risk of
much NGO activity targeted at women that
becoming alienated and radicalized. This likely
it risks creating resentment among Syrian
underpins, at least partly, international efforts
men. “We try to be gender sensitive. This …
to fund employment and educational opportu-
has to be dealt with very carefully,” she says.
nities for Syrian refugees in the region.
In many places around the world, and at
had wanted. Ala Mejarish, a young woman with
many different times, war has been a catalyst
striking blue-green eyes, came to Jordan from
for female emancipation. As men are deployed
the city of Daraa in 2012 with her two young
or killed, women have been forced to move out
children, who are now six and seven. Her hus-
of traditional roles and reposition themselves
band was working for a security firm when the
in society. During World War II, for instance,
war broke out, and Ala was in her third year
a significant number of women in the U.S.
of an English literature degree. She was from a
and Britain joined the workforce. By the end
middle-class family where education was pri-
of the war, almost one in four married Ameri-
oritized, unlike many of the women she lives
can women was working, encouraged by the
with at Safout, who come from poorer, more
famous “Rosie the Riveter” campaign. Overall
traditional backgrounds. Before long, her hus-
labor participation among women jumped to
band had joined the Free Syrian Army and was
37 percent—although they still earned around
fighting with the rebels. The family decided it
half as much as their male counterparts. In the
was too dangerous to stay in Syria, and Ala and
U.K., the numbers were even more drastic. By
the children fled to Jordan. Soon afterward, her
the middle of 1943, a staggering 90 percent
husband returned to Syria to continue fighting.
of single women and 80 percent of married
“He was supposed to come back for us,” says
women were working in factories, on the land,
Ala, her eyes filling with tears. He was killed in
or in the armed forces. Although many wom-
early 2013.
en gave up their jobs when the men returned
Unable to pay the rent, Ala applied for a
from war, historians see World War II as a cru-
cash assistance scheme. When this was cut off
cial moment in female emancipation. A simi-
after six months, she desperately searched for
lar trend of women taking on new social and
work and borrowed money to supplement her
professional roles is already happening within
income, getting into a cycle of debt that only
Syria, where women are leading the informal
ended when she moved into the Safout apart-
humanitarian sector, training as paramedics,
ment complex. Now that she has more time,
and entering industries formerly closed off to
she is pursuing a low-cost degree in media
them. Those who were already working as doc-
studies. Most of the course can be completed
tors, teachers, nurses, and advocates are tak-
through distance learning, but once a week
ing on more senior and prominent positions.
while her children are at school, she takes
The situation for many Syrian refugee
three buses to get to campus for class. Her face
women in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey is
lights up when she talks about it. “I hope that
bleak: They face intense poverty, sexual harass-
when I have completed this degree, I can get
ment, and different forms of gender-based vio-
some work in an office, something respectable
lence, from domestic abuse to sexual assault to
that pays enough for me to support my chil-
child marriage. But this adversity is also leading
dren on my own, and fulfill my dreams.”
to radical changes—changes borne of necessity
She walked over to the balcony, which
but becoming something more fundamental, a
overlooks an adjacent roof terrace. “If I can get
shift in self-perception, a gradual willingness to
my education, it won’t just be good for my chil-
enter unfamiliar realms.
dren,” she says. “It also means that when we
Freed from the burden of monthly rent
go home, I can take my place in rebuilding our
payments, some women in Safout are able to
nation. My husband died for Syria. I want to
get back to some semblance of the lives they
live for it.” O
Palestine beyond
National Frames
Emerging Politics,
Cultures, and Claims
An issue of
South Atlantic Quarterly (117:1)
Sophie Richter-Devroe and Ruba Salih,
issue editors
The “national” has functioned as the affective and symbolic frame for the political
project of liberation for Palestinians and has also been the underlying grid of most
of the scholarly work on Palestine. This issue goes beyond national frames to disclose
a different dimension of the Palestinian politics of liberation. It sheds light on an
indigenous population engaged in ongoing and everyday collective resistance to protect
its “home” and defend its “land”—as these are constantly reconfigured and imagined
across place and time—rather than a memorialized homeland or national territory.
Contributors: Diana Allan, Lori Allen, Hamid Dabashi, Nell Gabiam, Ilan Pappe, Cédric Parizot,
Julie Peteet, Sophie Richter-Devroe, Ruba Salih
Buy the issue at | 888.651.0122
Residents of the tiny Baltic nation are going
all in on techno-governance
Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Spring 2018 © 2018 World Policy Institute
DOI: 10.1215/07402775-6894885
’ve never had a Skype conversation that worked
properly,” my friend Maria says in response to my
enthusiasm about the flagship example of Estonian entrepreneurship. “Welcome to connected
Estonia.” It’s my first time in her home country; I’m
here to give a talk about the relationship between
art and technology. As Maria and I hide from the
January sleet, I ask her all about Estonia: Is it true
that she learned how to code in elementary school?
Does she vote online? Does she know how extraordinary her country seems from afar? We’re sitting
in a restaurant in the medieval capital of Tallinn,
and I can’t stop asking questions. Maria jokes about
Skype because it has become a symbol of Estonia:
Though its founders are from Sweden and Denmark,
the service was developed in the tiny Baltic country
in 2003 and it is heralded as a prime example of
Estonian technological prowess.
With a population of just 1.3 million people, this
former Soviet republic is the world’s most digitally
advanced society. Since 2001, every Estonian has
been assigned a digital identity at birth. Their identity cards, which contain readable chips, are used
for almost every administrative task, from starting a
business to enrolling a child in school. Estonians register pets, marriages, births, and deaths from home,
and their ID cards double as public transit passes
(public transit is free for all Estonian residents). They
use the same cards to vote and to file their taxes, a
process that takes three to five minutes. Estonians’
health records, house and car registration, and educational information are all online, cross-referenced
and accessible to them as well as to the government,
their bank, and their doctors.
When I visited the E-Estonia Showroom, an office just outside the Tallinn airport that invites visitors to learn about digital Estonia, I asked to see how
this government platform works. In response, the
tour guide pulled out his ID, inserted it into a reader,
ORIT GAT is a writer living in New York whose work on contemporary art and digital culture has appeared in a variety
of magazines. She is a contributing editor of The White Review and winner of the Creative Capital / Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant.
and presented me with his personal informa-
to expand internet access in the countryside,
tion on the showroom’s laptop. I was stunned.
declaring it a human right. Estonia also tops
I asked if he worried about his privacy, and
the list in the “Freedom of the Internet Re-
he lightheartedly responded, “You Americans,
port” by the good government watchdog Free-
you think of the government as an adversary. I
dom House on counts of internet accessibility,
think of it as a facilitator.”
freedom of information, and legislation con-
This faith in government, which is widely
cerning privacy and personal data protection.
shared, may be encouraged by the fact that
The 2017 report reads, “The new president
the government itself is relatively new. Esto-
elected in October 2016, Kersti Kaljulaid, has
nia earned its independence from the Soviet
expressed strong support for human rights, in-
Union in 1991 after 45 years of Russian oc-
cluding internet freedom, signaling continuity
cupation. This was its second declaration of
in internet-related policies.”
independence in the 20th century—Estonia
In 2001, Estonia implemented a system
had previously enjoyed two short decades of
called X-Road to connect online databases
autonomy between the world wars. The coun-
while keeping them securely separate. The lan-
try’s first elected prime minister was Mart
guage of technology is packed with automobile
Laar, a 32-year-old history teacher. After read-
metaphors (“traffic,” “information superhigh-
ing free-market economist Milton Freedman,
way”), but X-Road really is a public infrastruc-
Laar introduced a flat tax, privatized large
ture. It is both an information-management
swaths of the economy, and invested heavily
system and a way of protecting data. When a
in new technologies. Estonians, who barely
citizen uses a digital ID, they access their in-
used phones and had never seen checkbooks
formation via X-Road; when a bank considers
during the Communist era, were to leap over
a mortgage application, it uses the system to
generations of technology and embrace cell-
pull the necessary files from the police registry,
phones and debit cards, then digital IDs and
from the census, and from employers. There
internet-enabled services. After years of ne-
is no centralized database. Every login and re-
glect under Soviet rule, the lack of infrastruc-
quest is transparently documented, and every-
ture became an opportunity to start afresh:
one can see exactly who checked their informa-
“We just skipped certain things … everyone
tion and when they did so. It is a legal offense
was on a level playing field,” former Estonian
in Estonia to look up information you’re not
President Toomas Hendrik Ilves recalled in an
supposed to access—and in any case, doing so
interview with The Economist.
would require considerable expertise. In June
In the 1990s, as telecommunication was
2017, the United Nations’ International Tele-
booming across the world, Estonia built an e-
communications Union ranked Estonia first in
government service and brought computers
Europe in its Global Cybersecurity Index.
into classrooms. (Schoolchildren do learn to
Estonians’ faith in these systems was
code in first grade.) The country now has six
tested as recently as fall 2017, when a vul-
times as many startups per capita as the Eu-
nerability in the cards was exposed and the
ropean average, and is a leader in developing
government froze hundreds of thousands of
blockchain technologies, digital financial ser-
compromised IDs. The problem turned out to
vices, and telecommunication. The opportu-
be an international one—its source was Dutch
nities offered by networked technology have
chip technology—and Estonia’s information-
informed Estonian culture and legislation; in
technology services did not find that any IDs
2000, the government launched a program
had been specifically targeted. Officials issued
an update for the cards, which citizens dutifully downloaded without public outcry.
coordinated on various fronts—through lowlevel hackers mobilized in Russian chat rooms,
Transparency may be one way to explain
through international “zombie” computers
Estonians’ trust in techno-governance; fear is
that had already been hacked, and through
another. Roughly 25 percent of Estonia’s pop-
high-level hackers targeting specific sites. Of-
ulation is Russian, and locals have long had
ficials suspected Russians of orchestrating
a fraught relationship their giant neighbor,
the campaign; two years later, a member of a
which still regularly invades Estonian airspace.
pro-Kremlin youth group stepped forward to
A 2018 report by the Estonian Foreign Intel-
claim involvement. In Estonia, this experience
ligence Service recognized Russia as the sole
is seared into collective memory.
threat to Estonian sovereignty, and noted that
Estonia joined NATO after becoming a
any future war would take place not on the
member of the EU in 2004, and immediately
ground, but digitally. (Nevertheless, since join-
proposed the creation of a cyber-defense cen-
ing NATO, Estonia has hosted tens of thousands
ter, which opened in Tallinn in 2007. Within
of alliance troops, which continue to patrol
the EU’s border with Russia.) The report stated,
“2017 showed that the cyber threat against the
West is growing and that most of the malicious
cyber activity originates in Russia.” It went on
to survey Russian cyber warfare and espionage
capabilities—something Estonians are vigilant
about, and for good reason.
In 2007, Estonia endured the first documented instance of country-to-country cy-
ber warfare. Two days after the government
moved a statue in Tallinn commemorating
Estonia itself, there is no single database that
Soviet soldiers killed in World War II—a move
is vulnerable to cyberattacks. All the govern-
that prompted two nights of riots by protestors
ment and private sector databases that use X-
likely mobilized by the Russian government—
Road are secured via blockchain, and since last
officials noticed a disturbing trend. The web-
January, duplicates have been stored in a “data
sites of Estonian newspapers were swamped
embassy” in Luxembourg. This server, which
with traffic to the point that they were
contains the government’s most critical data,
knocked offline. Over the course of two weeks,
has the status of a physical embassy, meaning
“All major commercial banks, telcos, media
the servers and data are technically on Esto-
outlets, and name servers—the phone books of
nian soil. Even so, the potential threat of Rus-
the Internet—felt the impact,” former Estonian
sian interference remains a real concern. The
Defense minister Jaak Aaviksoo told Wired.
question lingering in the minds of politicians
“This was the first time that a botnet [a rogue
and citizens in this northern Baltic country—
computer network] threatened the national
“Will we be the next Crimea?”—is a motivating
security of an entire nation.” There was talk
factor in its digital focus. This dependence on
of invoking NATO’s Article Five, which requires
technology may make the country seem more
member countries to provide support should
vulnerable to physical attacks, but its success
a NATO member come under attack. Eventu-
also allows Estonia to rely more heavily on its
ally, it was discovered that the attack was
international profile when threatened. And
should the worst-case scenario unfold, at least
regulations; all the founder needs to do is fill
the country’s most sensitive information is
out a five-minute form and submit a 100-
backed up in Luxembourg.
euro application fee. The e-residency program
saw applications from the U.K. spike after the
Brexit vote, and officials have already accepted
30,000 residents from 139 countries. Through
The Old Town of Tallinn looks like a Disney-
this program, Estonia hopes to add 10 million
land version of medieval Europe. In Town Hall
digital citizens and generate more than 20,000
Square, street vendors wearing period clothes
new companies by 2025.
sell “authentic” medieval snacks, mostly made
A 2017 survey by Deloitte claims that for
of marzipan, and touristy souvenirs made of
every euro of Estonian taxpayer money invest-
wood. The old city walls are intact, and the
ed in the program, e-residents bring 100 euros
entryway to the preserved medieval district is
into the economy. But the program isn’t just
flanked by two towers that look as if they’ve
designed to promote economic growth: The
been modeled on Cinderella’s castle. On top of
hope is that Estonia’s e-residents will develop
the hill is a Russian church and several magnif-
a personal stake in the country. “The idea of
icent 13th-century buildings, and beyond that
running a business online was inspiring, both
is gray urban sprawl, much of which was built
commercially and technologically,” says Marko
during the Soviet occupation. Estonia is one of
Kažić, founder and CEO of Zamphyr, a compa-
the smallest countries in the world, and more
ny focused on designing an open universal edu-
than half of its territory is forest. Before it be-
cation system. Also, he added, he wanted to be
gan developing digital technologies, wood and
“part of the story that’s being written [in Esto-
wood byproducts were Estonia’s main exports.
nia].” Matthias Will, a German citizen, says he
(The two meet in the form of Timbeter—an app
became an e-resident because of Estonia’s tax
that uses a camera phone to measure piles of
code, but became such a believer in the pro-
timber and create analyzable data.) The coun-
gram that he now moderates a Facebook group
try’s size and rural profile are major reasons
for e-residents. And Arzu Altınay, a Turkish
why it has thrown its lot in on a digital future,
citizen who registered her international tour
which, with the help of an inspired promotion-
guide business in Estonia, says she “fell in love
al campaign, it is now seeking to export.
In 2014, Estonia introduced e-residency,
a program targeting the growing class of socalled “digital nomads” who telecommuni-
with Estonia,” and is now planning to study for
a business degree at the university in Tallinn.
The state’s ambitions for its e-residents are
reflected in the program’s website, which re-
cate to work and tend to live flexible, itinerant
fers to itself as “a new digital nation for global
lifestyles. Foreigners who become e-residents
citizens, powered by the Republic of Estonia.”
do not gain physical residency in Estonia or
They’re also evident in the E-Estonia Showroom,
pay personal taxes, but they do get access
which looks like a combination of a trade fair
to X-Road, and are allowed to open Estonian
for the logging industry and a WeWork co-
bank accounts and start companies using e-
working office, with chalkboards, faux-mod-
government services. For many, the attract-
ernist furniture, and fake plants. The walls are
ing factor is the European Union. An Estonian
paneled with blond wood, and lighting tracks
company started by an e-resident who has nev-
running through them form the shape of a tree.
er set foot in Tallinn could still benefit from ac-
There are wooden floors and wooden furniture,
cess to European banks and business-friendly
and wooden stands with Vichy water bottles
and E-Estonia branded swag. As you walk be-
the union. In 2014, President Barack Obama
tween the different zones dedicated to i-voting,
visited Tallinn to mark the 10th anniversary
e-health, and so on, there are large banners
of the Baltic States joining NATO. He was also
with the logos of successful Estonian tech com-
there to assure locals about the U.S.’s contin-
panies like Skype and Transferwise.
ued support: “We’ll be here for Estonia. We will
“Estonia refreshes every five years,” says
be here for Latvia. We will be here for Lithu-
my tour guide. Estonian technologists are cur-
ania. You lost your independence once before.
rently working on an Estonian state-issued
With NATO, you will never lose it again.” Esto-
cryptocurrency called estcoin; the expansion
nia’s investment in the EU model, in strength-
of the X-Road system for international e-ser-
ening the union through the technologies that
vices; and, of course, the growth of the digi-
have yet to fail Estonian citizens, also depends
tal residency program. More than anything,
on the continued ascent of neoliberalism. In
though, the showroom reflects how Estonia is
his speech, Obama continued: “We’re stronger
already exporting its initiatives internationally.
because we embrace open economies. Look at
Finland already uses some Estonian technol-
the evidence. Here in Estonia, we see the suc-
ogy and has introduced digital IDs, though few
cess of free markets, integration with Europe,
services are offered at the moment. Japan is
taking on tough reforms. You’ve become one
trying to implement a version of X-Road for
of the most wired countries on Earth—a global
its citizens, the first instance of a much larger
leader in e-government and high-tech start-
country replicating the Estonian model. Esto-
ups. The entrepreneurial spirit of the Estonian
nia exports its technological innovations not
people has been unleashed, and your innova-
only as a business venture and an experiment
tions, like Skype, are transforming the world.”
in soft-power politics, but also as a new idea of
Estonia has made itself integral to allies by
citizenship—one that brings the tiny popula-
broadcasting its ingenuity and entrepreneurial
tion of Estonia closer to the rest of the EU, and
character, in the hope that what it produces
maybe the world.
will make the country worth protecting. Yet
In the second half of 2017, while Estonia
this gamble relies on economic and political
held the EU presidency, it oversaw the first e-
dynamics beyond Estonia’s control. It depends
signing of an EU legislative act and held a sum-
on the world recognizing that Russia poses a
mit to plan Europe’s digital future. The presi-
threat to countries beyond the Baltics. It also
dency enabled Estonia to promote its vision of a
requires a trust in globalization, and an invest-
digital single market and the notion that stron-
ment in the world becoming ever more con-
ger data links across Europe would strengthen
nected via digital networks. O
What does “hospitality” really mean?
Last year I filled out an endless number of
What happened to the ancient notion of
forms on the internet and had my photo taken
“safe cities” where people could seek sanctu-
this way for an American visa, that way for a
ary? Why, in an era where everything is glo-
Schengen one, another way for Britain. I stood
balized, is it so impossible for people to move
in queues to gather freshly stamped documents
to other places? My books and poems travel
from my bank, certificates from the revenue
around the world at astonishing rates, while I,
service, municipal verification that I own prop-
despite various invitations, need to scrape and
erty, a letter confirming my long-term employ-
beg and pay exorbitant fees for visas.
ment, payment slips, certificates of health,
The mere request for asylum, or even an
insurance, and so on. During face-to-face inter-
ordinary visa, implicates somebody: A power-
views I felt as if every government agent wanted
less person pins his or her hopes on a powerful
to tell me: We know you—you sly, diseased, and
person; a helpless person begs for the hospi-
poverty-stricken person, wanting permission to
tality of a generous person. It seems to be an
come and sponge off our social security system,
unspoken belief that the millions of people
to abuse our precious freedoms with your fun-
turning up on the West’s doorstep must be
damentalist ideas, and to infect our population
the useless ones, those with whom you can do
with your third-world unworthiness.
nothing except take in like stray cats or dogs,
Standing in those queues, I wondered, what
or try to “absorb” with minimal discomfort.
happened to the concept of hospitality? That
Meanwhile, a variety of rules and conditions
is, the original meaning of the word, derived
for acceptance are spelled out around that
from the Latin hospes, meaning both “host” and
inimitable word, the word that pushes right-
wing political parties into power, and causes
In South Africa we are very familiar with
Brexit and Trump: “integrate.” Successful “in-
the word thanks to the hospitality industry,
tegration” absolves us from having to work out
which is a massive creator of tourism jobs. We
why some are never cold or hungry or terri-
are indeed very hospitable to those who can
fied; why we have time to play and entertain
afford to tour our country, who pay for and
and travel, to keep our bodies fit and our teeth
consume what we have to offer. But those flee-
white and straight.
ing war, terror, or perilous living conditions
Blithely ignoring diversity and the manipu-
can only expect hostility. By presenting hos-
lated imbalances of wealth and power, it seems
pitality as a product for consumption we have
nations have claimed the right to decide: You
destroyed its very meaning; we have attached
may or may not enter my country, my neigh-
conditions to it that forever cut any links to
borhood, my social-security system. Lodged
conviviality, friendliness, generosity, or gra-
in the outdated concepts of nationalism, im-
cious amenability.
permeable borders, and the right to private
DOI: 10.1215/07402775-6894909
Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Spring 2018 © 2018 World Policy Institute
ownership, even more barriers are being erect-
move to another street, into a park or a million-
ed and conditions laid down—as if land, air, or
aire’s estate, into palaces, beaches, or forests.
water could ever belong to somebody specific.
They could go wherever they think they could
As Jacques Derrida phrased it: “All human crea-
lead a better life. Those who are satisfied with
tures, all finite beings endowed with reason,
where and how they live—in other words, the
have received, in equal proportion, ‘common
hosts—would have to live with these new arriv-
possession of the surface of the earth.’”
als for seven years. After that, the period would
Put more bluntly: When will the first world
come to an end. Some people might return to
begin to share equally with the rest of the
their former homes, some might be evicted,
world? Because, of course, everybody wants
but the world, hopefully, would be more equal.
to live the lifestyle we see in American soap
In one way or the other, all of us are im-
operas and films. We all want to have a house
migrants, having come from somewhere else—
that is safe and equipped with water, electric-
even staying in the same place, one may find
ity, and a fridge with food; we want to live in
that things can change so much that you be-
neighborhoods that have access to transporta-
come a kind of immigrant. How much “home”
tion, abundantly stocked shops, good and safe
does a person need? Every single one of us
schools, pleasant streets, and kind residents.
needs the world. We need the whole world in
We want interesting jobs, holidays elsewhere,
order to be fully human and humane. People
and not to be at the mercy of somebody’s ty-
must be able to move as they have moved
rannical whim.
across the continents since life first appeared
For at least four decades it has been possible to produce enough food to feed everyone
on earth. No nationality should claim us; no
border should stop us.
the world. Why isn’t that happening? Most of
Derrida reminds us that the refugee has to
the illnesses impairing the developing world
ask for hospitality in a language which by defi-
can be prevented or cured, so why haven’t we
nition is “not his own,” one imposed on him
acted? Why do most human beings live unbear-
by authorities. This imposition, he says, is the
able lives? What is the real question here? One
first act of violence, the moment in which the
could say that many of the problems the West
refugee’s right to express himself as best he can
experiences with refugees come from our in-
in his mother tongue is violated. He is forced
ability to imagine ourselves as thoroughly, and
to sound incomprehensible and therefore un-
irredeemably, interconnected with their world.
fathomable, without logic or reason—a second-
So, waiting in these endless queues of hu-
class citizen in the making. So one needs a law,
miliation I began dreaming up a plan to bring
Derrida says: “the law of unlimited hospitality
back the real true character of hospitality: Let
(to give the new arrival all of one’s home and
us declare across the world a Seven-Year Period
oneself, to give him or her one’s own, our own,
of Hospitality. All transport would be free and
without asking a name, or compensation, or
people could move anywhere after they sign a
the fulfillment of even the smallest condition),
contract stating that they accept that discrimi-
and on the other hand, the laws (in the plural),
nation based on gender, sexual orientation,
those rights and duties that are always condi-
skin color, and religion is wrong. People could
tioned and conditional.”
ANTJIE KROG is a poet, writer, and professor in literature at the University of the Western Cape. She has published
12 volumes of poetry and four nonfiction books, among them the renowned “Country of My Skull,” and has received numerous prestigious awards in South Africa for her work.
While there must be a balance between the
of the past, we must continually reinvent the
complete hospitality of the host and the laws
figure of the stranger. Jordan sees it as the in-
that regulate the behavior and demands of the
tellectual’s task to insist on collective responsi-
guest, Derrida suggests that no matter how
bility for the stranger as the figure constitutive
idealistic our assertions of unrestrained hospi-
of the community. Only viewpoints alien to our
tality may be, they “must never be completely
own will help us become aware of the perspec-
silenced by claims of impracticality.” He wants
tives we habitually and unthinkingly adopt.
porous borders for those who flee, and non-
Hospitality is an opportunity to become,
porous ones for those who persecute, and asks
in a limited sense, one who is not one’s own;
that we look continuously for practical ways to
a figure through which one may own oneself.
become more and more hospitable.
We become who we truly are through the ac-
This intricate equilibrium of hospitality
commodation of the stranger. Re-imagining a
and law is dislocated by the indigenous philos-
society that includes the stranger opens up im-
ophers of southern Africa, who insist that sur-
mense possibilities. The stranger who threat-
vival lies in embracing, not killing, the stranger,
ens stability, who puts society at risk, in the
all strangers. Mark Sanders, a scholar of Africa,
last instance also provides the possibility of
has analyzed this theme in the work of the
restoring and saving it. Our survival depends
black South African writer A.C. Jordan, who
on embracing the stranger, the refugee, even
cautions that if we want to avoid the disasters
when we see them as threats. O
“If there has ever been a cocktail that’s about
ive for a pickled cocktail onion) and the Buck-
international affairs, it would be the Vesper,
eye (garnish with a black olive), but the radical
which is the cocktail that was invented for
aspect of the Vesper is that there’s a combina-
Ian Fleming prior to the publication of Casino
tion of vodka and gin—so, the spirit of England
Royale in 1953. (Its namesake, Vesper Lynd, is
versus the spirit of Russia. There’s a tension
a colleague of James Bond’s at M16, and, we
there between East and West. For this drink
eventually learn, a Russian double agent.) The
I was trying to imagine deeper intrigue, so I
Vesper is just one of a set of cocktails that are
started with gin and vodka, then added Italian
variations on martinis—and no drink is more
and French liqueurs. It’s delicious and strong
associated with foreign policy than martinis.
and fragrant. Moreover, anyone can make it.”
You have the Gibson martini (substitute the ol-
— Eben Klemm, cocktail editor
Orange Zest
25 ml
Luxardo Bitter Bianco
25 ml
Dry French Vermouth
25 ml
London Dry Gin
25 ml
Russian Vodka
Splash of Absinthe
(Provenances are optional)
Black Olive
Fill a cocktail glass with ice and
a splash of absinthe. Stir cocktail
over ice for 20 seconds, discard ice
from glass and strain and serve up.
Garnish with a skewered black olive
rolled in orange zest.
Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Spring 2018 © 2018 World Policy Institute
DOI: 10.1215/07402775-6894921
on Britain’s freewheeling New Age Traveler movement
on the shifting grounds of Polish racial identity
on El Salvador’s tragic character
on Egypt and feminism
on homosexuality in Japan
on dissident Iranian cinema
on how Syrian refugee women are coping in Jordan
on Estonian digital initiatives and Russian cyberthreats
on the meaning of hospitality
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