Wednesday, March 23, 2016

My Log 509 Mar 23 2016 A puzzling story told by Kapuscinski: like a child with no experience, he follows a stranger who promises him a great view of Cairo, with a melancholy result

There is one story told by Ryszard Kapuscinski in his book Travels with Herodotus, about which I have written in Log 508, that has stuck in my mind, and about which I have been asking myself the sort of questions that Kapuscinski asked when reading the account by the Greek historian of his travels 2000 years ago.
It is something that happened to him during a visit to Cairo in 1960, when, under Nasser, the city was as he writes, “the hub of Third World liberation movements.” He describes how he noticed while walking around the city that all the streets had eyes and ears. “Here a building janitor, there a guard, over there a motionless figure in a beach chair, a bit farther on someone standing idly, just looking.” Together, he writes, their eyes created “a crisscrossing, coherent, panoptic observation network, covering the entire space of the street on which nothing could occur without being observed.”
I have never been in Cairo, but I remember an Egyptian sociologist I heard speak one day describing how it was a collection of neighbourhoods, and that everyone in your neighbourhood could be depended on to know everything that had happened. She gave the example of having lost her dog on one occasion, and how she was able to trace it by asking people in the street if they had seen it, which all of hem appeared to have done.
His observation of these idle observers  led Kapuscinski to consider the subject of “superfluous people in the service of brute power,” which is what he thought these silent observers represented. A group of people searching for some significance in life, some recognition that someone is counting on them for something, that they have been noticed, that they have a purpose, a group of people of which, he says, all dictatorships take advantage. He describes how one day, a man who he had noticed always stood in the same spot, stopped him, told him he could show him an old mosque, and asked that he follow him. “I am by nature quite credulous,” Kapuscinski writes, “to the point even of regarding suspicion not as a manifestation of reason, but as a character flaw.” And he agreed to follow the man, who was polite, wore a tidy suit, spoke passable English and said his name was Ahmed.
First, they walked, then they took a long ride in a bus, getting off in an old neighbourhood of narrow streets, winding alleyways, dead ends, blank walls, the sort of place that “whoever walks in here without a guide will not walk out.” Nevertheless he followed, until Ahmed tapped a code on a massive metal door which was opened, after a shuffling of sandals within, and the grinding noise of a lock, and after a few words of explanation, they were admitted by a guard. They lead him to the doors a minaret, where both men gesture him to enter. In the dim light he can just make out the outline of a staircase that winds around the minaret, which looks to him like a chimney extending far up to a point of light open to the sky. “We go!” declared Ahmed, “Great view!”
Unfortunately the stairs are not only extremely narrow and slippery, covered in sand and loose plaster, but they have no handrails, nothing at all to hang on to.  They climb and climb, Kapuscinski, who had previously admitted to a fear of heights, trying not to look down, and to shut off his imagination. Nothing about this minaret suggests it had been used in years. It is an abandoned place. He begins to feel fatigued, and slows down. “Up, Up!” urges Ahmed, who is walking behind, blocking off any chance of retreat. The abyss is right there, to the side. With no alternative, he climbs on, up and up. “Any sudden motion either of us might make and we would both tumble down several stories,” he writes.
At the very top is a small narrow terrace encircling the minaret. The guardrail around it has rusted over many centuries and fallen away, offering no protection. Ahmed pushes him on to the terrace, and then, leaning safely against the opening in the wall, says, “Give me your money.” With his money in the back pocket of his trousers, Kapuscinski fears that by reaching for it he might fall to the ground. Noticing his hesitation, Ahmed repeats, in a sharper voice, “Give me your money!”
“I slid my hand inside my pocket, and then, just as slowly, very slowly, pulled out my wallet.  He took it without a word, turned around and started climbing down.”  The most difficult manoeuvre for Kapuscinski was to make it over the one metre space between the terrace and the top of the staircase, which he crossed “centimetre by painful centimetre.”
When he reached the ground, the guard opened the door and let him out, and in the street some children helped him find a taxi. For the next several days he encountered Ahmed every day, always in the same spot. ”He looked at me with no expression on his face, as if we had never met. And I looked at him, I believe, also without expression.”
This is such a strange story. It is almost inconceivable that a man like Kapuscinski, whose adventures had taken him into all sorts of odd places, would have undertaken such a journey just on the say-so of an idle person he had seen in the street a few times. One might, I suppose suggest the opposite, that it was just such a man as Kapuscinski, always willing to plunge into every new and strange experience offered him, who would be quite likely to have gone with his self-appointed guide.
The story also raises the question as to whether this ever did happen, or was it one of those events, identified after his death by his biographers, that he made up for literary effect, stretching the bounds of his reportorial function into the realm of the creative.
But, even if it did happen as described, why would he --- a reporter who was always strapped for money because his employer the Polish Press Agency had such limited resources ---- why would be so coolly accept the loss of his wallet? What, besides money, did he lose when he handed over his wallet?  His identification papers? His credit cards? His credentials? All those documents on which he was able to travel around the dark continent? He never says anything about this, although these are questions he himself might have been expected to ask if someone had described such an incident to him.
When I was recently reading his book on the Angolan war, he got into such scrapes, such dangerous situations, that I kept wondering whether all this had actually happened or if it was invented, designed to elevate his prose into the realm of the imagination.

About a great writer such questions can interpose between his reader and his work.  But does the answer really matter?

Friday, March 18, 2016

My Log 508 March 18 2025: I am prostrate before a masterpiece of reporting, and of literature: Travels with Herodotus, by Ryszard Kapuscinski

I have just read a book that I have no hesitation in calling a masterpiece, written by a guy, who, rather like myself, travelled widely around the world pursuing his job as a reporter, but, unlike myself, had an unmatched gift for describing and commenting on what he saw and experienced, a gift that, as a result, caused  his books to be published in 26 languages, before he died at the age of 75 in 2007.
The author of this wonderful work was Ryszard Kapuscinski, who, of all things, was a foreign correspondent of the Polish Press Agency when the government of his country was still Communist, and certain hard-to-take norms were expected of reporters, artists, and indeed, of almost everyone.
The book in question, one of 14 of his that is available in English, is Travels with Herodotus. The book was originally published in Polish in 2004 --- so in the latter part of the author’s life, when he had time to reflect deeply on the meaning of the world.
In it he records how, as a youngster fresh out of university, he was working as a novice reporter for a youth newspaper in Warsaw, his job to follow up letters of complaint written to the editor, the idea being to discover what had caused the complaint, and report his findings back to the editor. He records that he had one unreasonable obsession, which was to cross the border. No one he knew, none of his friends, had ever been abroad, for although Stalin had died two years before, still it was considered unwise to advertise any foreign contacts one might have had. One day he met his editor-in-chief by chance in a corridor, who asked about his plans for the immediate future. He took his courage in both hands and said, “One day I would very much like to go abroad.” She was surprised, “Where? What for?” He replied, “I was thinking about Czechoslovakia.” His aspirations at the time were, evidently, not high.
A year passed before he had a call summoning him to the editor’s office, “We are sending you,” she said. “You’ll go to India.”  Before their conversation ended she reached into a cupboard and gave him “a present for the road.” It was a copy of The Histories, by Herodotus.
At first he panicked. He knew nothing about India, did not speak English, and wondered how he could get on. First he went to Rome and was astounded to see an illuminated city: cities, in his experience had all been dark and gloomy. His arrival in India was even more remarkable. He found himself alone, with no idea where to go, in sweltering heat. Eventually, an old man beckoned him to follow. He followed the old man on foot to Old Delhi, where his guide deposited him outside a building marked Hotel, and left him to it. I was able to relate to this experience, because five years before, my wife and I had arrived in India, naked as two newly born babes, fresh out of New Zealand, equipped with all the deficiencies of experience and knowledge that Kapuscinski describes, except that we did speak English and could therefore make ourselves understood. To overcome his deficiency he describes how he bought a copy of a Hemingway novel, and began to cram-study the words he came across. He would have fled back to Poland except that he had a steamer ticket that required him to pass through the Suez canal, but Nasser had just nationalized it, and it was closed. So he was trapped. The hotel staff urged him to go to Benares, a sacred city, so he did so, and thus began his travels, fascinated, excited and appalled, around India, a land the reality of which was something totally out of all his previous experience. “In time I grew convinced of the depressing hopelessness of what I had undertaken, of the impossibility of knowing and understanding the country in which I found myself. India was so immense. How can one describe something that is --- and so it seemed  me --- without boundaries or end?”
He made his way home, “embarrassed by my own ignorance, at how ill read I was. I realized then what now seems obvious: a culture would not reveal its mysteries to me at a mere wave of my hand; one has to prepare oneself thoroughly and at length for such an encounter….  I tried to forget India which signified to me my failure: its enormity and diversity, its poverty and riches, its mystery and incomprehensibility had crushed, stunned, and finally defeated me…. But of course I remembered India….”
As he pursued knowledge about India, reading Rabindranath Tagore, marvelling at how little Rabi, at aged four, who as a man won the Nobel Prize for literature, was awakened each morning by his farther to memorize Sanskrit declensions, and sing the Upanishads. He also kept looking for information about Herodotus, who was beginning to fascinate him. He realized that little is known about the life of Herodotus, apart from the fact he was born in Halicarnassus between 490 and 480 B.C. “greatly important years in the history of world culture,” for at that time Buddha “departs for the other world”, a year later Confucius dies, and Plato would be born fifty years later. He discovered that Halicarnassus lies “where the western shore of Asia meets the Mediterranean….It is a land of sun, warmth and light, of olive trees and vineyards. One instinctively feels that someone born there must naturally have a good heart, an open mind, a healthy body, a consistently cheerful disposition.”
He asks himself a thousand questions about Herodotus: about his parents, his childhood, his friends, his toys, his schooling, about which the great historian says nothing. He knows only that Halicarnassus was a Greek colony on land subject to the Persians, with a non-Greek population --- the Carians, and that his father had a Carian name. Most of the stories told in Herodotus’s great work record battles and immense wars, and while still a young man, the historian became embroiled in politics because his father and uncle took part in a revolt against the local tyrant, who succeeded in suppressing the rebellion. The mutineers took refuge on Samos, a mountainous island two days away by rowboat, where he spent the rest of his upbringing.(This Samos is still in the news, one of those Greek islands to which Syrian refugees have been scrambling in their wobbling, dangerous inflated boats.) In his thirties he appears in Athens, at that time a city of 100,000 people, and the most important city on the planet, where, as a sort of half-breed part-Greek he overcomes the instinctive superiority of the Athenians and makes important contacts with Socrates, Sophocles, Pericles. When the Athenians pass a law  decreeing that only those whose both parents were born in Attica, the region surrounding Athens, could have political rights, Herodotus  set off again and finally settled in southern Italy in a Greek colony called Thurii. Opinions differ as to what happened to him in the rest of his life.  He died at the age of 60, but no one knows where. Typically Kapuscinski builds another raft of questions around the rest of Herodotus’s life, in very much the way that he built questions about the countries in which he himself spent the next forty years reporting and travelling.
He was still becoming engrossed in India and its mysteries a year later when he was told, “You’re going to China.” Once again I am able to relate to this latest experience, for 21 years later I myself went China; but in greatly changed circumstances. Kapuscinski arrived in 1957 as Chairman Mao was encouraging everyone to speak his or her piece about the direction of events, a period known as “the hundred flowers campaign.” Having encouraged free speech (“let a hundred flowers bloom, a hundred schools of thought contend” as he put it), the Chairman one day said enough of this, rounded up anyone who had expressed criticisms, and sentenced them to exile among the peasantry, doing manual work to which most of them were totally unaccustomed. By the time I arrived Chairman Mao had died two years before, and the so-called Gang of Four, who were continuing to plunge the country into chaos following the so-called Cultural Revolution, had been arrested imprisoned, and their theories disavowed.
Kapuscinski’s observations on the difference between India and China are fascinating, including as they do considerations of the differences between their main schools of thought, Hinduism, and Taoism and Confucionism. But one day he was informed by his Chinese contacts that the newspaper for which he worked had had an upheaval, and the whole staff had been sacked. With typical faux-humility, the Chinese asked him what he wanted to do, and greatly welcomed his decision to go home immediately. On arrival home he realized his assignment to China had been caused by two political thaws, that of Gomulka in 1956 Poland, and of the Hundred Flowers in China. His recall was caused by the collapse of both thaws.
On his return he left the newspaper, and joined the Polish Press Agency for which he worked for the rest of his life. It was about at this point in his book that he begins to study the travels of Herodotus. Perhaps because I know little about this part of human history, I was astonished by how contemporary it all felt, and was enchanted by the way that Kapuscinski wove his personal observations around the facts, placing his own experiences along with those of Herodotus in such a way as to create a superb amalgam of past and present. Like me, this reporter never believed in one of the major shibboleths of mainstream journalism in our day, that of objectivity. In fact, he once said, "There is no such thing as objectivity. Objectivity is the question of the conscience of the one who writes. And he himself should answer the question: is what he writes close to the truth or not?"
He called his method “literary reportage”, and the extraordinary accessibility of this to ordinary people was indicated by the fact that Kapuscinski, in the end, according to Wikipedia, fluent in English, Russian, Spanish, French, and Portuguese, and had become a visiting professor at Universities in eleven countries.
This is already too long: I will have to content myself by concluding with this observation: that the so-called philosophies and wisdom of the ancients of that time were offset by the insensate cruelties and barbarisms they were prepared to exact on each other. Also, their rational minds were usually overcome by the irrational belief in The Gods, whoever or whatever they might be. Soothsayers, who claimed to have access to The gods, were always prominent advisers before decisions were taken. In one particular case cited, the commander of the Persians, Mardonius, whose King Xerxes ached to defeat Athens because he wanted to be master of the entire known world, arrived in Athens to find the city already destroyed and the people sheltering to Salamis.  He sends a messenger to them to propose they surrender without a fight and recognize Xerxes as their ruler. The envoy presents this to the highest Athenian authority, the Council of Five Hundred, with a crowd of Athenians listening to their deliberations. One member of the Council, Lycides argues for accepting the offer and coming to an agreement with the Persians. The crowd, enraged, surrounds the speaker and stones him to death.
“Let us pause for a moment at this scene,” comments Kapuscinski. “We are in democratic Greece, proud of its freedom of speech, and of thought….Lycides simply forgot that there was a war going on, and that in wartime all democratic freedoms, including the freedom of speech, are typically put on the shelf. War engenders its own distinct laws and the normally complex code of governing principles is reduced to a single fundamental imperative: victory at any cost!.... The throng, furious, is in a state of mad frenzy, no longer hears, no longer thinks, and is incapable of stopping itself. It will come to its senses only after the last stone has extinguished the life of Lycides, turned him to pulp, silenced him forever.”
A terrible event, indeed, but Kapuscinski warns: “that is not the end of it.”
Quoting Herodotus, he adds: “The uproar in Salamis over Lycides alerted the Athenian women to what was happening. With every woman arousing and enlisting the support of her neighbour, they spontaneously flocked to Lycides’ house, where they stoned his wife and children to death.”
There are many other things I would like to have drawn attention to, but I have already gone on long enough. Suffice to to say that this book is a wonderful read, brilliant in its presentation of story, and convincing, as it seems to draw attention, without ever saying so, to the unchanging nature of human kind.


Saturday, March 12, 2016

My Log 507 March 12 2016: Canada loses an exceptional man with the death of film-maker Colin Low: I record my personal gratitude to him, and some stories of how he worked to get some wonderful NFB films made

Canada has lost an exceptional person with the death of Colin Low. One of that cadre of film-makers who built the National Film Board of Canada into an institution with a world-wide reputation for the quality of its films, Colin spent almost his entire working life as a member of the staff, and made himself into such an expert that I always thought of him as a veritable  encyclopaedia of film-making knowledge.
He was, in addition a man of great personal generosity, as I can personally attest, and one with such a wide interest in the wonders and marvels of life as to leave many of us who tried to keep up with him, more often than not, in the words of the song, bewitched, bothered (not so much) and  sometimes bewildered.
In addition to his film-making expertise he became over the years an expert in the workings of government, and knew, better than anyone I have ever met, how to enter the labyrinths of government decision-making in such as way as to turn them to his, and the NFB’s advantage.
I first came in close contact with him in 1971 after I had quit my job on The Montreal Star. At that time he was running Challenge for Change, the innovative programme that arose out of his work in Fogo Island, Newfoundland. His action in persuading the islanders, who were scheduled to be removed when their settlement was closed by the Newfoundland government, to permit him to film their reactions to this decision by assuring them that they would be the first to see anything he filmed, and if there was anything they did not like he would destroy it, virtually changed the relationship between documentary film-makers and their subjects, and aroused world-wide interest. The outcome was that, when the islanders’ opinions were transmitted to the government, the proposal to obliterate Fogo Island was reversed, and it exists to this day.
He asked me if I would do some research for his programme, and eventually suggested I might like to co-direct a film I had suggested. I had no film experience, did not know one end of a camera from another, but he put me together with Tony Ianzelo, one of the most brilliant and sensitive staff cameramen-directors, and the pair of them put up with me, warmly greeted what I could bring in the way of handling information, and generously ignored my many other deficiencies, treating them as if they did not exist. The result of this collaboration was the film Cree Hunters of Mistassini, which in 1975 won an award from the British Academy of Film and Television --- a fitting tribute to Ianzelo’s superb camerawork. But without Colin this film would never have got off the ground.
It happened that the film, supposed to be about Aboriginal Rights, was to be on a subject which was disapproved by the Prime Minister of the time, who really didn’t understand the issue, and thought he had it summed up by saying one part of society could not enter into a treaty with the other part. Consequently, when they got word of the film proposal, a notice came down from “the highest authority” in Ottawa that the film should not be made, and work on it was shut down. A couple of weeks later Colin suggested maybe we could recast the proposal as a series of four half-hours about Indians in Canadian society. One of the four could be about their relationship with the land. He circulated the 14 members of the governing board of the Challenge for Change programme, obtained their agreement, and we then went out and got to work as if on our original proposal.  “You always have to remember,” Colin told me, “there is always someone in the government who agrees with you.”
I suppose I might say here --- I don’t think it will be a surprise to anyone who knew him --- that I found as an administrator of a studio, Colin did not rank among the decisive bosses; in fact I got the impression that there was seldom a decision requiring urgent attention that Colin did not believe could be made tomorrow. Nevertheless, Challenge for Change was his baby, and the world-wide interest it aroused was almost entirely due to his leadership. We made two one-hour films in that series, and he was also instrumental in forcing the second of them called Our Land is Our Life  through the bureaucracy when the department most closely concerned, Indian Affairs, opposed its release on the grounds that it was full of errors. While they were scrabbling around trying to justify this complaint, Colin took a rough cut of the film to an international conference of information officers in Sweden. There, it created a sensation for its criticism of government policies over the years. Are you sure this is a government film, they asked. They were certainly not into doing anything  like that. What are you into doing? Colin asked cooly. They were into the government telling people what they wanted.  “But,” rejoined Colin, “who is telling the government?
Having received such accolades internationally, Indian Affairs, who in any case had found no errors in the film,  had no option but to agree to the film’s release. Not only that, but eventually they paid an extra $30,000 so their name could appear in the credits as a sponsor.
I tell these stories because they illustrate the way this remarkable, quiet-spoken, mild-mannered man had of getting his way even in the notoriously reluctant corridors of power.  I tell them also because they encapsulate how the qualities that the skilled cadres who earned for the NFB its reputation worked for the public good. We need far more such men.
There was almost no subject that Colin Low was not intensely interested in, and had read voluminously about. My last professional contact with him came when, after having been the brains behind so many other films, he decided to make a film expressing his personal views.  I worked on helping him write a script. It was a real challenge. Every day he came to the office with another idea. Every day I would loyally re-write the script to include the new stuff. Only to have to change it, or even sometimes remove it, the next day. Eventually I realized I was not really helping him, I simply was not well enough informed, not patient enough, not brainy enough, to do what was asked. So I withdrew, and the film was completed, apparently to everyone’s satisfaction.
I suppose one might conclude on the basis of that story that Colin could occasionally be difficult to work with. In his latter years at the NFB his interests in the escalating new developments in the technologies of film-making took him far beyond anything I could comprehend, or even sympathize with. But until his retirement a few years ago he continued to be in the forefront of global thinking about film and how it was shot, edited and related to life.
That Colin Low was, in his particular field, a great man, I think cannot be doubted by anyone who knew him.