|Friday 27th of December 2019
The Wizard of Oz by Salman Rushdie @LRB
In 1992, he writes of The Wizard of Oz: ‘So striking were these
colour effects that, soon after seeing the film as a child, I began to
dream of green-skinned witches; years afterwards, I gave these dreams
to the narrator of my novel Midnight’s Children, having completely
forgotten the source.
“No colours except green and black the walls are green the sky is
black ... the stars are green the Widow is green but her hair is black
as black,” begins the stream-of-consciousness dream sequence, in which
the nightmare of Indira Gandhi is fused with the equally nightmarish
figure of Margaret Hamilton; a coming-together of the Wicked Witches
of the East and of the West.’
He says that watching The Wizard of Oz at ten ‘made a writer of me’.
It is impossible to tell if this assumes that any writer’s development
is interesting, or his above others’.
Rushdie is fortunate, in a sense, that his story, unlike most
people’s, has become more interesting after each telling. He spends
much time indoors, in fear of his life. He has been studying The
Wizard of Oz on video: this is natural, since most of us have seen it,
repeatedly, only on television.
Rushdie’s central argument is that the film betrays its own message by
concluding with a homily on the consolations of home life, after
showing the attractions of risk and adventure. ‘Are we to believe that
Dorothy has learned no more on her journey than that she didn’t need
to make such a journey in the first place? Must we accept that she now
accepts the limitations of her home life, and agrees that the things
she doesn’t have there are no loss to her?’ Regrettably, his final
statement of the argument, when he discusses Dorothy’s return to Oz in
L. Frank Baum’s later books, is contradictory and indefinite: ‘So Oz
finally became home ... there is no longer any such place as home:
except, of course, for the home we make, or the homes that are made
for us, in Oz: which is anywhere, and everywhere, except the place
from which we began.’ Rushdie implies that the alternative to a
demystified Oz, a world of wonders manipulated by pulleys and levers,
is not humble roots but another bright, possibly fraudulent, fantasy
world. This position seems hard-hearted and neglectful of emotional
facts. In truth, the film ends ambiguously. Judy Garland, showing
early signs of the flamboyant masochism of her maturity, makes Dorothy
yearn for Kansas: but when she wakes up in Kansas she speaks longingly
of the colour and excitement of Oz. Rushdie misses an important aspect
of the story’s melancholy: Dorothy does not have parents. In Kansas,
as in Oz, which is Kansas in a dream, home is incomplete.
The essay aims to toughen the viewing of the film. Rushdie, it must be
emphasised, is anti-Toto. Americans can be indifferent to dogs, in
representation or in the street – not the English. ‘Toto: that little
yapping hairpiece of a creature, that meddlesome rug!’ He doesn’t like
Glinda, the Good Witch, either; the Wicked Witch of the West receives
his appreciative notice. This is the old, perhaps oldest, story: that
of Satan attracting greater interest than God.
Rushdie rightly notes the brilliance and sophistication of the film’s
design. The opening scenes in Munchkinland are confidently presented,
with complete assurance of their reality. The mustachioed Munchkin
coroner could have stepped out of Velazquez’s Sebastian de Morra. But
if Oz does have the qualities of a great film, that is probably the
performers’ achievement. Garland, a brilliant, intuitive actress,
conveys the proper degree of wonder at what she sees in Munchkinland
and Oz, enough for the viewer to share and not too much. Of the other
performances, Rushdie correctly singles out Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion
for praise, but he would have done well to explain why it is Ray
Bolger’s Scarecrow who provides the emotional anchor.
‘That “Over the Rainbow”,’ Rushdie writes, ‘came close to being cut
out of the movie is well known, and proof positive that Hollywood
makes its masterpieces by accident, because it simply does not know
what it is doing.’ I think it offers a more negative demonstration:
that Hollywood nearly destroyed a masterpiece by accident. Hollywood
does not know what it is doing now: but it once nurtured people who
did. Rushdie, despite a knowledge of film history unusual for a
professional novelist, displays some of the old literary prejudices.
He speaks of ‘camera techniques’. His view seems to be that film art
is a matter of the exploitation of extreme effects in the medium. Of
the scene in which Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion
go skipping down the Yellow Brick Road, he writes: ‘How strange that
the most famous passage of this very filmic film, a film packed with
technical wizardry and effects, should be by some distance the least
cinematic, the most “stagey” part of the whole. Or perhaps not so
strange ... the equally inspired clowning of the Marx Brothers was no
less stagily filmed.’ The first sentence is an unintended concession
to contemporary Hollywood and its aesthetic of noise and bother. Film
is like other art forms in that the best effects are usually the
simplest. But Rushdie does hit on the paradox that stagey effects in
film can be superb. (Renoir, in his ‘theatrical’ films of the
mid-Fifties, addresses this condition of film with great self-irony.)
Rushdie also unjustly dismisses the dream source of Dorothy’s Oz: ‘The
film, like the TV soap opera Dallas, introduces an element of bad
faith when it permits the possibility that everything that follows’ –
from Dorothy’s being knocked unconscious during the tornado – ‘is a
dream.’ Ugetsu and Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms, two films which also
presuppose a dream structure, are hardly soap operas.
Rushdie’s prose has occasional soft areas (‘the film is breezily
godless,’ ‘Glinda does exude a sort of raddled motherly safeness’),
but mainly it is rapid and decisive.
The essay is richly and wittily illustrated with stills. The short
volume closes with a story, ‘At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers’. The
slippers are auctioned in a scene of urban chaos:
Behavourist philosophers and quantum scientists crowd around the magic shoes.
Exiles, displaced persons of all sorts, even homeless tramps have
turned up for a glimpse of the impossible, emerging from their
subterranean hollows and braving the bazookas, the Uziarmed gangs high
on crack or ice, the smugglers, the emptiers of houses.
There is apocalyptic intoning and the now familiar hymn to fiction:
And fictions, as I have come close to suggesting before, are dangerous.
In fiction’s grip we may mortgage our homes, sell our children, to
have whatever it is we crave. Alternatively, in that miasmal ocean we
may simply float away from our heart’s desires, and see them anew,
from a distance, so that they seem weightless, trivial.
It is hard, here as elsewhere in his recent work, to understand the
point of Rushdie’s fixation on the status of fiction. Prose fiction is
under attack from long-term trends in narrative art – the decay of the
novel and development of film – that are more merciless than any
The Wizard of Oz is a film made in 1939 and widely considered to be one of the greatest films in cinema history.
It is a version of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s book The Wonderful
Wizard of Oz and featured the then child star Judy Garland as Dorothy
Gale. The wizard is one of the characters. Unseen for most of the
novel, he is the ruler of the land of Oz and highly venerated by his
subjects. Believing he is the only man capable of solving their
problems, Dorothy and her friends travel to the Emerald City, the
capital of Oz, to meet him. Oz is very reluctant to meet them, but
eventually each is granted an audience, one by one. In each of these
occasions, the Wizard appears in a different form, once as a giant
head, a beautiful fairy, a ball of fire, and as a horrible monster.
When at last he grants an audience to all of them at once, he seems to
be a disembodied voice. Eventually, it is revealed that Oz is actually
none of these things, but rather an ordinary conman from Omaha,
Nebraska, who has been using elaborate magic tricks and props to make
himself seem “great and powerful”.
Angel Gabriel @SalmanRushdie @LRB
And Garcia Marquez’s genius for the unforgettable visual hyperbole –
for instance, the Americans forcing a Latin dictator to give them the
sea in payment of his debts, in The Autumn of the Patriarch: ‘they
took away the Caribbean in April, Ambassador Ewing’s nautical
engineers carried it off in numbered pieces to plant it far from the
hurricanes in the blood-red dawns of Arizona’ – may well have been
sharpened by his years of writing for the movies. But the grandmother
is more important than any of these. She is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s
In an interview with Luis Harss and Barbara Dohmann, Marquez says
clearly that his language is his grandmother’s. ‘She spoke that way.’
‘She was a great storyteller.’ Anita Desai has said of Indian
households that the women are the keepers of the tales, and the same
appears to be the case in South America. Marquez was raised by his
grandparents, meeting his mother for the first time when he was seven
or eight years old. His remark that nothing interesting ever happened
to him after the age of eight becomes, therefore, particularly
revealing. Of his grandparents, Marquez said to Harss and Dohmann:
They had an enormous house, full of ghosts. They were very
superstitious and impressionable people. In every corner there were
skeletons and memories, and after six in the evening you didn’t dare
leave your room. It was a world of fantastic terrors.
From the memory of that house, and using his grandmother’s narrative
voice as his own linguistic lodestone, Marquez began the building of
But of course there is more to him than his granny. He left his
childhood village of Aracataca when still very young, and found
himself in an urban world whose definitions of reality were so
different from those prevalent in the jungle as to be virtually
incompatible. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the assumption into
heaven of Remedios the Beauty, the loveliest girl in the world, is
treated as a completely expected occurrence, but the arrival of the
first railway train to reach Macondo sends a woman screaming down the
high street. ‘It’s coming,’ she cries. ‘Something frightful, like a
kitchen dragging a village behind it.’ Needless to say, the reactions
of city folk to these two events would be exactly reversed. Garcia
Marquez decided that reality in South America had literally ceased to
exist: this is the source of his fabulism.
The damage to reality was – is – at least as much political as
cultural. In Marquez’s experience, truth has been controlled to the
point at which it has ceased to be possible to find out what it is.
The only truth is that you are being lied to all the time. Garcia
Marquez (whose support of the Castro Government in Cuba may prevent
him from getting his Nobel) has always been an intensely political
creature: but his books are only obliquely to do with politics,
dealing with public affairs only in terms of grand metaphors like
Colonel Aureliano Buendia’s military career, or the colossally
overblown figure of the Patriarch, who has one of his rivals served up
as the main course at a banquet, and who, having overslept one day,
decides that the afternoon is really the morning, so that people have
to stand outside his windows at night holding up cardboard cut-outs of
El realismo magical, ‘magic realism’, at least as practised by Garcia
Marquez, is a development of Surrealism that expresses a genuinely
‘Third World’ consciousness. It deals with what Naipaul has called
‘half-made’ societies, in which the impossibly old struggles against
the appallingly new, in which public corruptions and private anguishes
are more garish and extreme than they ever get in the so-called
‘North’, where centuries of wealth and power have formed thick layers
over the surface of what’s really going on. In the work of Garcia
Marquez, as in the world he describes, impossible things happen
constantly, and quite plausibly, out in the open under the midday sun.
It would be a mistake to think of Marquez’s literary universe as an
invented, self-referential, closed system. He is not writing about
Middle Earth, but about the one we all inhabit. Macondo exists. That
is its magic.
It sometimes seems, however, that Marquez is consciously trying to
foster the myth of ‘Garcialand’. Compare the first sentence of One
Hundred Years of Solitude with the first sentence of Chronicle of a
Death Foretold: ‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad,
Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when
his father took him to discover ice’ (One Hundred Years). And: ‘On the
day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty
in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on’
(Chronicle). Both books begin by first invoking a violent death in the
future and then retreating to consider an earlier, extraordinary
event. The Autumn of the Patriarch, too, begins with a death and then
circles back and around a life. It’s as though Marquez is asking us to
link the books. This suggestion is underlined by his use of certain
types of stock character: the old soldier, the loose woman, the
matriarch, the compromised priest, the anguished doctor. The plot of
In Evil Hour, in which a town allows one person to become the
scapegoat for what is in fact a crime committed by many hands – the
fly-posting of satiric lampoons during the nights – is echoed in
Chronicle of a Death Foretold, in which the citizens of another town,
caught in the grip of a terrible disbelieving inertia, once again fail
to prevent a killing, even though it has been endlessly ‘announced’ or
‘foretold’. These assonances in the Marquez oeuvre are so pronounced
that it’s easy to let them overpower the considerable differences of
intent and achievement in his books.
For not only is Marquez bigger than his grandmother: he is also bigger
than Macondo. The early writings look, in retrospect, like
preparations for the great flight of One Hundred Years of Solitude,
but even in those days Marquez was writing about two towns: Macondo
and another, nameless one, which is more than just a sort of
not-Macondo, but a much less mythologised place, a more ‘naturalistic’
one, insofar as anything is naturalistic in Marquez. This is the town
of Los Funerales de la Mama Grande (the English title, Big Mama’s
Funeral, makes it sound like something out of Damon Runyon), and many
of the stories in this collection, with the exception of the title
story, in which the Pope comes to the funeral, are closer in feeling
to early Hemingway than to later Marquez. And ever since his great
book, Marquez has been making a huge effort to get away from his
mesmeric jungle settlement, to continue.
In The Autumn of the Patriarch, he found a miraculous method for
dealing with the notion of a dictatorship so oppressive that all
change, all possibility of development, is stifled: the power of the
patriarch stops time, and the text is thereby enabled to swirl, to
eddy around the stories of his reign, creating by its non-linear form
an exact analogy for the feeling of endless stasis. And in Chronicle
of a Death Foretold, which looks at first sight like a reversion to
the manner of his earlier days, he is in fact innovating again. The
Chronicle is about honour and about its opposite – that is to say,
dishonour, shame. The marriage of Bayardo San Roman and Angela Vicario
ends on their wedding night when she names the young Arab, Santiago
Nasar, as her previous lover. She is returned to her parents’ house
and her brothers, the twins Pedro and Pablo Vicario, are thus faced
with the obligation of killing Santiago to salvage their family’s good
name. It is giving nothing away to reveal that the murder does in fact
take place. But the oddness and the quality of this unforgettable
short fable lie in the twins’ reluctance to do what must be done. They
boast continually of their intention, so that it is a sort of miracle
that Santiago Nasar never gets to hear about it; and the town’s
silence eventually forces the twins to perform their terrible deed.
Bayardo San Roman, whose honour required him to reject the woman with
whom he was besotted, enters a terrible decline after he does so:
‘honour is love,’ one of the characters says, but for Bayardo this is
not the case. Angela Vicario, the source of it all, appears to survive
the tragedy with more calm than most.
The manner in which this story is revealed is something new for Garcia
Marquez. He uses the device of an unnamed, shadowy narrator visiting
the scene of the killing many years later, and beginning an
investigation into the past. This narrator, the text hints, is Garcia
Marquez himself – at least, he has an aunt with that surname. And the
town has many echoes of Macondo: Gerineldo Marquez makes a guest
appearance, and one of the characters has the evocative name, for fans
of the earlier book, of Cotes. But whether it be Macondo or no,
Marquez is writing, in these pages, at a greater distance from his
material than ever before. The book and its narrator probe slowly,
painfully, through the mists of half-accurate memories, equivocations,
contradictory versions, trying to establish what happened and why; and
achieve only provisional answers. The effect of this retrospective
method is to make the Chronicle strangely elegiac in tone, as if
Garcia Marquez feels that he has drifted away from his roots, and can
only write about them now through veils of formal difficulty. Where
all his previous books exude an air of absolute authority over the
material, this one reeks of doubt. And the triumph of the book is that
this new hesitancy, this abdication of Olympus, is turned to such
excellent account, and becomes a source of strength: Chronicle of a
Death Foretold, with its uncertainties, with its case-history format,
is as haunting, as lovely and as true as anything Garcia Marquez has
It is also rather more didactic. Garcia Marquez has, in the past,
taken sides in his fictions only where affairs of state were
concerned: there are no good banana company bosses in his stories, and
the idea of the masses, ‘the people’, is occasionally – for instance,
in the last few pages of The Autumn of the Patriarch – romanticised.
But when he has written about the lives of ‘the people’, he has thus
far forborne to judge. In Chronicle, however, the distancing has the
effect of making it clear that Garcia Marquez is launching an attack
on the macho ethic, on a narrow society in which terrible things
happen with the inevitability of dreams. He has never written so
disapprovingly before. He gets away with that, too, because he never
makes the error of allowing his characters and their motives to become
one-dimensional. And there is, of course, the sheer beauty of his
sentences and of his images (helped into English, once again, by
Gregory Rabassa, who, along with Grass’s translator Ralph Manheim,
must be the very best in the business), the dry wit, and the
unequalled talent for rooting his fabulous imagination firmly in the
real world. Chronicle is speech after long silence. For a time Garcia
Marquez abjured fiction: whatever the reasons for his return to the
form, we can only be grateful that he is back, his genius unaffected
by the lay-off.
'Humans were not centre stage': how ancient cave art puts us in our place @guardian
In 1940, four teenage boys stumbled, almost literally, from
German-occupied France into the Paleolithic age. As the story goes –
and there are many versions of it – they had been taking a walk in the
woods near the town of Montignac when the dog accompanying them
suddenly disappeared. A quick search revealed that their animal
companion had fallen into a hole in the ground, so – in the spirit of
Tintin, with whom they were probably familiar – the boys made the
perilous 15-metre descent to find it. They found the dog and much
more, especially on return visits illuminated with paraffin lamps. The
hole led to a cave, the walls and ceilings of which were covered with
brightly coloured paintings of animals unknown to the 20th-century
Dordogne – bison, aurochs and lions. One of the boys later reported
that, stunned and elated, they began to dart around the cave like “a
band of savages doing a war dance”. Another recalled that the painted
animals in the flickering light of the boys’ lamps seemed to be
moving. “We were completely crazy,” yet another said, although the
build-up of carbon dioxide in a poorly ventilated cave may have had
something to do with that. This was the famous and touristically
magnetic Lascaux cave, which eventually had to be closed to visitors
lest their exhalations spoil the artwork. Today, almost a century
later, we know that Lascaux is part of a global phenomenon, originally
referred to as “decorated caves”. They have been found on every
continent except Antarctica – at least 350 of them in Europe alone,
thanks to the cave-rich Pyrenees – with the most recent discoveries in
Borneo (2018) and Croatia (April 2019). Uncannily, given the distances
that separate them, all are adorned with similar decorations:
handprints or stencils of human hands, abstract designs containing
dots and crosshatched lines, and large animals, both carnivores and
herbivores, most of them now extinct. Not all of these images appear
in each of the decorated caves – some feature only handprints or
megafauna. Scholars of paleoarcheology infer that the paintings were
made by our distant ancestors, although the caves contain no
depictions of humans doing any kind of painting. There are human-like
creatures, though, or what some archeologists cautiously call
“humanoids”, referring to the bipedal stick figures that can sometimes
be found on the margins of the panels containing animal shapes. The
non-human animals are painted with almost supernatural attention to
facial and muscular detail, but, no doubt to the disappointment of
tourists, the humanoids painted on cave walls have no faces. This
struck me with unexpected force, no doubt because of my own particular
historical situation, almost 20,000 years after the creation of the
cave art in question. In about 2002 we had entered the age of
“selfies,” in which everyone seemed fascinated by their electronic
self-portraits – clothed or unclothed, made-up or natural, partying or
pensive – and determined to propagate them as widely as possible.
Then, in 2016, the US acquired a president of whom the kindest thing
that can be said is that he is a narcissist. This is a sloppily
defined psychological condition, I admit, but fitting for a man so
infatuated with his own image that he decorated the walls of his golf
clubs with fake Time magazine covers featuring himself. On top of all
this, we have been served an eviction notice from our own planet: the
polar regions are turning into meltwater. The residents of the
southern hemisphere are pouring northward toward climates more
hospitable to crops. In July, the temperature in Paris reached a
You could say that my sudden obsession with cave art was a pallid
version of the boys’ descent from Nazi-dominated France into the
Lascaux cave. Articles in the New York Times urged distressed readers
to take refuge in “self-care” measures such as meditation, nature
walks and massages, but none of that appealed to me. Instead, I took
intermittent breaks from what we presumed to call “the Resistance” by
throwing myself down the rabbit hole of paleoarcheological
scholarship. In my case, it was not only a matter of escape. I found
myself exhilarated by our comparatively ego-free ancestors, who went
to great lengths, and depths, to create some of the world’s most
breathtaking art – and didn’t even bother to sign their names. Cave
art had a profound effect on its 20th-century viewers, including the
young discoverers of Lascaux, at least one of whom camped at the hole
leading to the cave over the winter of 1940-41 to protect it from
vandals, and perhaps Germans. More illustrious visitors had similar
reactions. In 1928, the artist and critic Amédée Ozenfant wrote of the
art in the Les Eyzies caves, “Ah, those hands! Those silhouettes of
hands, spread out and stencilled on an ochre ground! Go and see them.
I promise you the most intense emotion you have ever experienced.” He
credited the Paleolithic artists with inspiring modern art, and to a
certain degree, they did. Jackson Pollock honoured them by leaving
handprints along the top edge of at least two of his paintings. Pablo
Picasso reportedly visited the famous Altamira cave before fleeing
Spain in 1934, and emerged saying: “Beyond Altamira, all is
Of course, cave art also inspired the question raised by all truly
arresting art: “What does it mean?” Who was its intended audience, and
what were they supposed to derive from it? The boy discoverers of
Lascaux took their questions to one of their schoolmasters, who roped
in Henri Breuil, a priest familiar enough with all things prehistoric
to be known as “the pope of prehistory”. Unsurprisingly, he offered a
“magico-religious” interpretation, with the prefix “magico” serving as
a slur to distinguish Paleolithic beliefs, whatever they may have
been, from the reigning monotheism of the modern world. More
practically, he proposed that the painted animals were meant to
magically attract the actual animals they represented, the better for
humans to hunt and eat them. Unfortunately for this theory, it turns
out that the animals on cave walls were not the kinds that the artists
usually dined on. The creators of the Lascaux art, for example, ate
reindeer, not the much more formidable herbivores pictured in the
cave, which would have been difficult for humans armed with
flint-tipped spears to bring down without being trampled. Today, many
scholars answer the question of meaning with what amounts to a shrug:
“We may never know.”
If sheer curiosity, of the kind that drove the Lascaux discoverers,
isn’t enough to motivate a search for better answers, there is a moral
parable reaching out to us from the cave at Lascaux. Shortly after its
discovery, the one Jewish boy in the group was apprehended and sent,
along with his parents, to a detention centre that served as a stop on
the way to Buchenwald. Miraculously, he was rescued by the French Red
Cross, emerging from captivity as perhaps the only person on earth who
had witnessed both the hellscape of 20-century fascism and the
artistic remnants of the Paleolithic age. As we know from the
archeological record, the latter was a time of relative peace among
humans. No doubt there were homicides and tensions between and within
human bands, but it would be at least another 10,000 years before the
invention of war as an organised collective activity. The cave art
suggests that humans once had better ways to spend their time. If they
were humans; and the worldwide gallery of known cave art offers so few
stick figures or bipeds of any kind that we cannot be entirely sure.
If the Paleolithic cave painters could create such perfectly
naturalistic animals, why not give us a glimpse of the painters
themselves? Almost as strange as the absence of human images in caves
is the low level of scientific interest in their absence. In his book
What Is Paleolithic Art?, the world-class paleoarcheologist Jean
Clottes devotes only a couple of pages to the issue, concluding that:
“The essential role played by animals evidently explains the small
number of representations of human beings. In the Paleolithic world,
humans were not at the centre of the stage.” A paper published, oddly
enough, by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention,
expresses puzzlement over the omission of naturalistic depictions of
humans, attributing it to Paleolithic people’s “inexplicable
fascination with wildlife” (not that there were any non-wild animals
around at the time). The marginality of human figures in cave
paintings suggests that, at least from a human point of view, the
central drama of the Paleolithic went on between the various megafauna
– carnivores and large herbivores. So depleted of megafauna is our own
world that it is hard to imagine how thick on the ground large mammals
once were. Even the herbivores could be dangerous for humans, if
mythology offers any clues: think of the buffalo demon killed by the
Hindu goddess Durga, or of the Cretan half-man, half-bull Minotaur,
who could only be subdued by confining him to a labyrinth, which was,
incidentally, a kind of cave. Just as potentially edible herbivores
such as aurochs (giant, now-extinct cattle) could be dangerous,
death-dealing carnivores could be inadvertently helpful to humans and
their human-like kin, for example, by leaving their half-devoured prey
behind for humans to finish off. The Paleolithic landscape offered a
lot of large animals to watch, and plenty of reasons to keep a close
eye on them. Some could be eaten – after, for example, being corralled
into a trap by a band of humans; many others would readily eat humans.
Yet despite the tricky and life-threatening relationship between
Paleolithic humans and the megafauna that comprised so much of their
environment, 20th-century scholars tended to claim cave art as
evidence of an unalloyed triumph for our species. It was a “great
spiritual symbol”, one famed art historian, himself an escapee from
Nazism, proclaimed, of a time when “man had just emerged from a purely
zoological existence, when instead of being dominated by animals, he
began to dominate them”. But the stick figures found in caves such as
Lascaux and Chauvet do not radiate triumph. By the standards of our
own time, they are excessively self-effacing and, compared to the
animals portrayed around them, pathetically weak. If these faceless
creatures were actually grinning in triumph, we would, of course, have
no way of knowing it. We are left with one tenuous clue as to the cave
artists’ sense of their status in the Paleolithic universe. While
archeologists tended to solemnise prehistoric art as
“magico-religious” or “shamanic,” today’s more secular viewers
sometimes detect a vein of sheer silliness. For example, shifting to
another time and painting surface, India’s Mesolithic rock art
portrays few human stick figures; those that are portrayed have been
described by modern viewers as “comical,” “animalised” and
“grotesque”. Or consider the famed “birdman” image at Lascaux, in
which a stick figure with a long, skinny erection falls backwards at
the approach of a bison. As Joseph Campbell described it, operating
from within the magico-religious paradigm: “A large bison bull,
eviscerated by a spear that has transfixed its anus and emerged
through its sexual organ, stands before a prostrate man. The latter
(the only crudely drawn figure, and the only human figure in the cave)
is rapt in a shamanistic trance. He wears a bird mask; his phallus,
erect, is pointing at the pierced bull; a throwing stick lies on the
ground at his feet; and beside him stands a wand or staff, bearing on
its tip the image of a bird. And then, behind this prostrate shaman,
is a large rhinoceros, apparently defecating as it walks away.”
Take out the words “shaman” and “shamanistic” and you have a
description of a crude – very crude – interaction of a humanoid with
two much larger and more powerful animals. Is he, the humanoid, in a
trance or just momentarily overcome by the strength and beauty of the
other animals? And what qualifies him as a shaman anyway? The bird
motif, which paleoanthropologists, drawing on studies of extant
Siberian cultures, automatically associated with shamanism? Similarly,
a bipedal figure with a stag’s head, found in the Trois Frères cave in
France, is awarded shamanic status, making him or her a kind of
priest, although, objectively speaking, they might as well be wearing
a party hat. As Judith Thurman wrote in the essay that inspired Werner
Herzog’s film The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, “Paleolithic artists,
despite their penchant for naturalism, rarely chose to depict human
beings, and then did so with a crudeness that smacks of mockery.” But
who are they mocking, other than themselves and, by extension, their
distant descendants, ourselves? Of course, our reactions to
Paleolithic art may bear no connection to the intentions or feelings
of the artists. Yet there are reasons to believe that Paleolithic
people had a sense of humour not all that dissimilar from our own.
After all, we do seem to share an aesthetic sensibility with them, as
evidenced by modern reactions to the gorgeous Paleolithic depictions
of animals. As for possible jokes, we have a geologist’s 2018 report
of a series of fossilised footprints found in New Mexico. They are the
prints of a giant sloth, with much smaller human footprints inside
them, suggesting that the humans were deliberately matching the
sloth’s stride and following it from a close distance. Practice for
hunting? Or, as one science writer for The Atlantic suggested, is
there “something almost playful” about the superimposed footprints,
suggesting “a bunch of teenage kids harassing the sloths for kicks”?
Then there is the mystery of the exploding Venuses, where we once
again encounter the thin line between the religious and the
ridiculous. In the 1920s, in what is now the Czech Republic,
archeologists discovered the site of a Paleolithic ceramics workshop
that seemed to specialise in carefully crafted little figures of
animals and, intriguingly, of fat women with huge breasts and buttocks
(although, consistent with the fashion of the times, no faces). These
were the “Venuses,” originally judged to be either “fertility symbols”
or examples of Paleolithic pornography. To the consternation of
generations of researchers, the figures consisted almost entirely of
fragments. Shoddy craftsmanship, perhaps? An overheated kiln? Then, in
1989, an ingenious team of archeologists figured out that the clay
used to make the figurines had been deliberately treated so that it
would explode when tossed into a fire, creating what an art historian
called a loud – and one would think, dangerous – display of
“Paleolithic pyrotechnics.” This, the Washington Post’s account
concluded ominously, is “the earliest evidence that man created
imagery only to destroy it”. Or we could look at the behaviour of
extant stone age people, which is by no means a reliable guide to that
of our distant ancestors, but may contain clues as to their comical
abilities. Evolutionary psychiatrists point out that anthropologists
contacting previously isolated peoples such as 19th-century Indigenous
Australians found them joking in ways comprehensible even to
anthropologists. Furthermore, anthropologists report that many of the
remaining hunter-gatherers are “fiercely egalitarian”, deploying
humour to subdue the ego of anyone who gets out of line: “Yes, when a
young man kills much meat he comes to think of himself as a chief or a
big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or
inferiors,” one Kalahari hunter told the anthropologist Richard B Lee
in 1968. “We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday
his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat
as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.” Some
lucky hunters don’t wait to be ridiculed, choosing instead to
disparage the meat they have acquired as soon as they arrive back at
camp. In the context of a close-knit human group, self-mockery can be
In the Paleolithic age, humans were probably less concerned about the
opinions of other humans than with the actions and intentions of the
far more numerous megafauna around them. Would the herd of bison stop
at a certain watering hole? Would lions show up to attack them? Would
it be safe for humans to grab at whatever scraps of bison were left
over from the lions’ meal? The vein of silliness that seems to run
through Paleolithic art may grow out of an accurate perception of
humans’ place in the world. Our ancestors occupied a lowly spot in the
food chain, at least compared to the megafauna, but at the same time
they were capable of understanding and depicting how lowly it was.
They knew they were meat, and they also seemed to know that they knew
they were meat – meat that could think. And that, if you think about
it long enough, is almost funny. Paleolithic people were definitely
capable of depicting more realistic humans than stick figures – human
figures with faces, muscles and curves formed by pregnancy or fat.
Tiles found on the floor of the La Marche cave in France are etched
with distinctive faces, some topped with caps, and have been dated to
14-15,000 years ago. A solemn, oddly triangular, female face carved in
ivory was found in late 19th-century France and recently dated to
about 24,000 years ago. Then there are the above mentioned “Venus”
figurines found scattered about Eurasia from about the same time. But
all these are small and were apparently meant to be carried around,
like amulets, perhaps – as cave paintings obviously could not be. Cave
paintings stay in their caves.
What is it about caves? The attraction of caves as art studios and
galleries does not stem from the fact that they were convenient for
the artists. In fact, there is no evidence of continuous human
habitation in the decorated caves, and certainly none in the deepest,
hardest-to-access crannies reserved for the most spectacular animal
paintings. Cave artists are not to be confused with “cavemen”.
Nor do we need to posit any special human affinity for caves, since
the art they contain came down to us through a simple process of
natural selection: outdoor art, such as figurines and painted rocks,
is exposed to the elements and unlikely to last for tens of thousands
of years. Paleolithic people seem to have painted all kinds of
surfaces, including leather derived from animals, as well as their own
bodies and faces, with the same kinds of ochre they used on cave
walls. The difference is that the paintings on cave walls were well
enough protected from rain and wind and climate change to survive for
tens of millennia. If there was something special about caves, it was
that they are ideal storage lockers. “Caves,” as paleoarcheologist
April Nowell puts it, “are funny little microcosms that protect
paint.” If the painters of Lascaux were aware of the preservative
properties of caves, did they anticipate future visits to the same
site, either by themselves or others? Before the intrusion of
civilisation into their territories, hunter-gatherers were
“non-sedentary” people – perpetual wanderers. They moved to follow
seasonal animal migrations and the ripening of fruits, probably even
to escape from the human faeces that inevitably piled up around their
campsites. These smaller migrations, reinforced by intense and
oscillating climate change in the Horn of Africa, added up to the
prolonged exodus from that continent to the Arabian peninsula and
hence to the rest of the globe. With so much churning and relocating
going on, it’s possible that Paleolithic people could conceive of
returning to a decorated cave or, in an even greater leap of the
imagination, foresee visits by others like themselves. If so, the cave
art should be thought of as a sort of hard drive, and the paintings as
information – and not only “Here are some of the animals you will
encounter around here,” but also “Here we are, creatures like
yourselves, and this is what we know.”
Multiple visits by different groups of humans, perhaps over long
periods of time, could explain the strange fact that, as the intrepid
French boys observed, the animals painted on cave walls seem to be
moving. There is nothing supernatural at work here. Look closely, and
you see that the animal figures are usually composed of superimposed
lines, suggesting that new arrivals in the cave painted over the lines
that were already there, more or less like children learning to write
the letters of the alphabet. So the cave was not merely a museum. It
was an art school where people learned to paint from those who had
come before them, and went on to apply their skills to the next
suitable cave they came across. In the process, and with some help
from flickering lights, they created animation. The movement of bands
of people across the landscape led to the apparent movement of animals
on the cave walls. As humans painted over older artwork, moved on, and
painted again, over tens of thousands of years, cave art – or, in the
absence of caves, rock art – became a global meme. There is something
else about caves. Not only were they storage spaces for precious
artwork, they were also gathering places for humans, possibly up to
100 at a time in some of the larger chambers. To paleoanthropologists,
especially those leaning toward magico-religious explanations, such
spaces inevitably suggest rituals, making the decorated cave a kind of
cathedral within which humans communed with a higher power. Visual art
may have been only one part of the uplifting spectacle; recently, much
attention has been paid to the acoustic properties of decorated caves
and how they may have generated awe-inspiring reverberant sounds.
People sang, chanted or drummed, stared at the lifelike animals around
them, and perhaps got high: the cave as an ideal venue for a rave. Or
maybe they took, say, psychedelic mushrooms they found growing wild,
and then painted the animals, a possibility suggested by a few modern
reports from San people in southern Africa, who dance themselves into
a trance state before getting down to work. Each decoration of a new
cave, or redecoration of an old one, required the collective effort of
tens or possibly scores of people. Twentieth-century archeologists
liked to imagine they were seeing the work of especially talented
individuals – artists or shamans. But as Gregory Curtis points out in
his book The Cave Painters, it took a crowd to decorate a cave –
people to inspect the cave walls for cracks and protuberances
suggestive of megafauna shapes, people to haul logs into the cave to
construct the scaffolding from which the artists worked, people to mix
the ochre paint, and still others to provide the workers with food and
water. Careful analysis of the handprints found in so many caves
reveals that the participants included women and men, adults and
children. If cave art had a function other than preserving information
and enhancing ecstatic rituals, it was to teach the value of
cooperation, which – to the point of self-sacrifice – was essential
for both communal hunting and collective defence. In his book Sapiens,
Yuval Noah Harari emphasises the importance of collective effort in
the evolution of modern humans. Individual skill and courage helped,
but so did the willingness to stand with one’s band: not to scatter
when a dangerous animal approached, not to climb a tree and leave the
baby behind. Maybe, in the ever-challenging context of an
animal-dominated planet, the demand for human solidarity so far
exceeded the need for individual recognition that, at least in
artistic representation, humans didn’t need faces. All this cave
painting, migrating and repainting came to an end roughly 12,000 years
ago, with what has been applauded as the “Neolithic revolution”.
Lacking pack animals and perhaps tired of walking, humans began to
settle down in villages, and eventually walled cities; they invented
agriculture and domesticated many of the wild animals whose ancestors
had figured so prominently in cave art. They learned to weave, brew
beer, smelt ore and craft ever-sharper blades. But whatever comforts
sedentism brought came at a terrible price: property, in the form of
stored grain and edible herds, segmented societies into classes – a
process anthropologists prudently term “social stratification”– and
seduced humans into warfare. War led to the institution of slavery,
especially for the women of the defeated side (defeated males were
usually slaughtered) and stamped the entire female gender with the
stigma attached to concubines and domestic servants. Men did better,
or at least a few of them, with the most outstanding commanders rising
to the status of kings and eventually emperors. Wherever sedentism and
agriculture took hold, from China to South and Central America,
coercion by the powerful replaced cooperation among equals. In Jared
Diamond’s blunt assessment, the Neolithic revolution was “the worst
mistake in the history of the human race”. At least it gave us faces.
Starting with the implacable “mother goddesses” of the Neolithic
Middle East, and moving on to the sudden proliferation of kings and
heroes in the Bronze Age, the emergence of human faces seems to mark a
characterological change – from the solidaristic ethos of small,
migrating bands to what we now know as narcissism. Kings and
occasionally their consorts were the first to enjoy the new marks of
personal superiority – crowns, jewellery, masses of slaves, and the
arrogance that went along with such things. Over the centuries,
narcissism spread downward to the bourgeoisie, who, in 17th-century
Europe, were beginning to write memoirs and commission their own
portraits. In our own time, anyone who can afford a smartphone can
propagate their own image, publish their most fleeting thoughts on
social media and burnish their unique brand. Narcissism has been
democratised and is available, at least in crumb-sized morsels, to us
So what do we need decorated caves for any more? One disturbing
possible use for them has arisen in just the last decade or so – as
shelters to hide out in until the apocalypse blows over. With the seas
rising, the weather turning into a series of psychostorms, and the
world’s poor becoming ever more restive, the super-rich are buying up
abandoned nuclear silos and converting them into doomsday bunkers that
can house up to a dozen families, plus guards and servants, at a time.
These are fake caves of course, but they are wondrously outfitted –
with swimming pools, gyms, shooting ranges, “outdoor” cafes – and
decorated with precious artworks and huge LED screens displaying what
remains of the outside world. But it’s the Paleolithic caves we need
to return to, and not just because they are still capable of inspiring
transcendent experiences and connecting us with the long-lost natural
world. We should be drawn back to them for the message they have
reliably preserved for more than 10,000 generations. Granted, it was
not intended for us, this message, nor could its authors have imagined
such perverse and self-destructive descendants as we have become. But
it’s in our hands now, still illegible unless we push back hard
against the artificial dividing line between history and prehistory,
hieroglyphs and petroglyphs, between the “primitive” and the
“advanced.” This will take all of our skills and knowledge – from art
history to uranium-thorium dating techniques to best practices for
international cooperation. But it will be worth the effort, because
our Paleolithic ancestors, with their faceless humanoids and capacity
for silliness, seem to have known something we strain to imagine. They
knew where they stood in the scheme of things, which was not very
high, and this seems to have made them laugh. I strongly suspect that
we will not survive the mass extinction we have prepared for ourselves
unless we too finally get the joke.
The Okura's iconic lobby has been fully recreated. Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg @business
“It was one of those rare experiences that transported you to another
time, from the quality of lighting to that slightly musty, humid,
cigarette-infused scent that was always hanging in the lobby,” says
Tyler Brûlé, editor-in-chief of Monocle, of the original lobby.
The lifestyle magazine led a campaign in 2015 to preserve the original
hotel. “No matter how busy the lobby was, there was this hushed
The lattice for the shoji paper windows, assembled without nails, the
silk wall tapestry with four-petal flowers, and the chairs and tables
arranged like plum blossoms, are utterly familiar, yet new or
The cavernous Heian no Ma banquet hall. Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg @business
At the lowest levels of the Heritage Wing are 19 banquet and meeting
rooms, including the cavernous Heian no Ma, which has hosted
everything from IMF meetings to Group of Seven summits over the years.
With a seating capacity of about 2,000, the hall is decorated with
handcrafted ornamental Japanese paper in shades of blue, green, red
and white. The original ringed-leaf design door handles were restored
and reused from the old hotel.
Opinion Geopolitics 2019: the year of street protest @FinancialTimes @gideonrachman
Law & Politics
Certain years in history — 1848, 1917, 1968, 1989 — conjure up images
of street protests, mass demonstrations and revolutionary turmoil.
When historians put 2019 in perspective, they may also declare it a
vintage year for popular unrest.
In terms of sheer geographical spread, it is hard to think of a year
to rival this one. Protests large enough to disrupt daily life and
cause panic in government have broken out in Hong Kong, India, Chile,
Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Spain, France, the Czech Republic, Russia,
Malta, Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Sudan — and that list is not
Yet all this turbulence has so far defied efforts to come up with a
convincing global explanation. One reason for the lack of analysis is
that the 2019 rebellions have taken place in such disparate places —
in wealthy global cities like Hong Kong and Barcelona, as well as poor
and relatively isolated nations such as Sudan and Venezuela.
That makes it harder to join the dots and easier to cast doubt on the
idea that there is anything global happening. There has also been no
single iconic moment — no fall of the Berlin Wall or storming of the
Winter Palace to capture the drama.
But while the 2019 revolts have not yet toppled a major world leader
or government, they have certainly claimed some scalps. Street
protests and strikes saw Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, forced
from office in November, after 13 years in power.
Other political leaders felled by mass demonstrations include
Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria and Omar al-Bashir of Sudan — both of
whom fell in April after decades in power. (In the case of Mr
al-Bashir, the military staged a coup, after months of protests.)
The prime minister of Lebanon, Saad al-Hariri, was forced from office
at the end of October after two weeks of mass protests. The following
month, Adel Abdul Mahdi, the prime minister of Iraq also resigned,
after several months of turmoil.
In both Iran and Iraq, mass demonstrations have been met with shocking
levels of violence — with hundreds killed on the streets of both
The fact that several countries in north Africa and the Middle East
have been convulsed by demonstrations, often at the same time, shows
that there are indeed connections between popular upheavals in
In two regions — the Middle East and Latin America — the protests are
sufficiently widespread to constitute a genuine regional upheaval, in
which events in one country are clearly inspiring emulation in
neighbours, in a manner reminiscent of the Arab Spring.
The slogan made famous back then — “the people want the fall of the
regime” — is once again being chanted.
A common language in Latin America has also allowed news and images of
unrest to spill easily across borders.
In today’s connected world, ideas and slogans can even jump continents
effortlessly — spread by smartphone.
Some Catalan protesters have been seen carrying the flag of Hong Kong
and have adopted similar tactics — such as occupying an airport.
The spark for mass demonstrations has varied from country to country.
In some places, it was an economic trigger — such as a rise in metro
fares in Chile or a proposed tax on WhatsApp in Lebanon.
In other places, the motive has been more clearly political — such as
the new laws on citizenship and refugees in India, or a proposed
extradition law in Hong Kong.
There are also certain common themes and tactics that emerge in
location after location: protests at the harshness of everyday life;
disgust at corruption and oligarchy; accusations that the country’s
political and economic elite are out-of-touch and unresponsive.
Social media is a powerful organising tool everywhere — allowing
protesters to crowdsource grievances, slogans and tactics.
In an effort to prevent protests going viral through social media,
India has shut down mobile communications in some of the cities
affected by mass unrest.
But while large demonstrations are clearly more easily conjured up by
social media, this new brand of “leaderless” revolt may also suffer
from its spontaneity.
Hashtags and internet memes are good at getting people on to the
streets quickly — but they can disguise a lack of organisation and
Perhaps as a result, relatively few of the demonstrations have so far
succeeded in toppling leaders — some that did succeed, such as those
in Algeria, have continued even after a nominal change in government.
But the mass protests of 2019 show few signs of dying out. Indeed, as
the year comes to end, they may be gathering force — with huge
demonstrations, challenging the Indian government.
The Modi administration’s response has been clumsy and violent — with
prominent intellectuals arrested in front of television cameras and
the police using brutal tactics against students.
All of that could easily fuel a spiral in unrest in India in the new
year. The Hong Kong protests also look set to rumble on, while
confrontation in Spain and Chile could also intensify.
Above all, as the last 12 months have demonstrated, social unrest is
now repeatedly breaking out in unexpected places, for unanticipated
So while 2019 already qualifies for a place in the annals of street
protest, it is possible that the really world-shaking year may turn
out to be 2020.
21-OCT-2019 :: The New Economy of Anger
Law & Politics
“The revolutionary contingent attains its ideal form not in the place
of production, but in the street, where for a moment it stops being a
cog in the technical machine and itself becomes a motor (machine of
attack), in other words, a producer of speed.’’
The Phenomenon is spreading like wildfire in large part because of the
tinder dry conditions underfoot. Prolonged stand-offs eviscerate
economies, reducing opportunities and accelerate the negative feed-
Antonio Gramsci wrote, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that
the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a
great variety of morbid symptoms appear. now is the time of monsters.”
This is a Revolution and it is a Global Phenomenon.
Ryszard Kapucinski also said: “If the crowd disperses, goes home, does
not reassemble, we say the revolution is over.”
It is not over. More and more people are gathering in the Streets.
The best of times, the worst of times for India's @narendramodi @France24_en
Law & Politics
The year began with an electoral landslide for Indian Prime Minister
Narendra Modi, but is ending in an unprecedented display of opposition
against his divisive policies. But police crackdowns and an organised
Hindu right-wing mobilisation could make 2020 a very violent year for
the world’s largest democracy.
It was the year, it appeared, that would see Narendra Modi’s star
rising to unassailable heights. Coasting on a landslide victory in the
April-May elections, the Indian prime minister kick-started his second
term with a turbocharged Hindu supremacist agenda that seemed
unstoppable by an opposition party in shambles and a populace split
between exultant nationalist supporters and cowered detractors
silenced by the intimidation and assaults on free speech.
But if 2019 began with the stars aligning to make it another “year of
Modi”, it's ending in cosmic disarray for the man at the centre of a
personality cult that could not be questioned for more than
half-a-decade without the fear of threats, legal harassment, arrest,
trolling, or at worst, a violent “justice” by vigilantes.
It took protests in a remote northeastern state against a
controversial citizenship amendment law to galvanise student protests
that were brutally crushed by police storming campuses to break the
wall of silence that had encircled the world’s most-populous
The rest, as they say, is history-in-the-making.
Protests have erupted across India from the northeastern borderlands
to the Hindu “cow belt” heartlands with demonstrators defying bans,
communication shutdowns and police brutality to take to the streets.
In states governed by Modi’s Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party
(BJP), the police crackdowns have been deadly with the nationwide
death toll mounting since protests broke out earlier this month.
With the wall of silence finally breached, the protest movement has
since evolved from demonstrations against the Citizenship Amendment
Act (CAA) -- passed on December 11 -- to a broader battle against the
Modi administration’s agenda which, critics say, targets India’s 200
million-strong Muslim community and is destroying the republic’s
constitutionally enshrined principles of secular tolerance.
The protesters have not minced their words, with banners proclaiming
their outrage against Modi’s authoritarian, Islamophobic agenda. “Shut
down fascism, not the Internet,” read banners at a Delhi protest.
In the financial capital Mumbai, banners decrying the links between
Nazism and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindu
nationalist organisation in which Modi once served as a full-time
worker, were explicit: “Jab Hindu-Muslim razi, toh kya karenga Nazi” –
when Hindus and Muslims agree, what can Nazis do?
Modi’s about-turn, in just 12 months, from poll-sweeping leader
worshipped by his supporters to publicly proclaimed hate-mongerer
destroying the foundations of the Indian republic was one of the most
dramatic developments of 2019.
As a new decade dawns, the situation in the world’s largest democracy,
home to the world’s second-largest Muslim population, could be a
harbinger of the struggles confronting citizens caught in the thick of
a whittling down of the post-World War II liberal order.
“For Modi, this year has been the best of times and the worst of
times,” noted Salil Tripathi, author of “Offence: The Hindu Case,” a
book on Hindu nationalism and free speech, in an interview with FRANCE
“He had such a phenomenal victory in the 2019 elections, but for
reasons that rationally make no sense, Modi decided not to have an
economic agenda but to push a social one to remake India.”
The metamorphosis has been noted in the international press, long
focused on global jihadism and Pakistan’s role in the phenomenon, and
willing to overlook the human rights abuses and excesses in India.
“The year is culminating into a very bad ending for Narendra Modi. His
international reputation is in tatters with major US and British
papers, as well as leading French dailies such Le Monde, pulling away
the Modi mask. For the first time, the Western press is talking of
Modi not as an economic reformer, but as an authoritarian Hindu
nationalist leader. It’s a very big transformation,” said Mira Kamdar
The year began with measured criticism of Modi’s first five-year term,
with ambitious but ill-conceived policies such as demonitisation,
failing to deliver the promised economic miracle and resulting instead
in slower growth rates coupled with rising unemployment and inflation.
As the country geared up for the general elections -- a massive
democratic exercise with a 900 million-strong electorate voting over
six weeks -- pundits wondered if India’s battered opposition would
seize a campaign opportunity.
But Pulwama changed that.
On February 14, a young Kashmiri man rammed a car packed with
explosives into a security services convoy in Pulwama, a district in
the disputed region, killing 40 Indian paramilitary policemen and
triggering cross-border airstrikes between arch foes India and
As Indian news organisations switched into high jingoistic gear,
everyday economic issues flew off the agenda.
Riding a rejuvenated patriotic wave against jihadist-supporting
Pakistan, the BJP swept the polls in May, thrashing a weak opposition
to win a historic parliamentary majority.
The ‘enforcer’ turns home minister
Modi’s second term kicked off like no other as the BJP set upon
appeasing its vote base, implementing a long-dreamed vision of
Hindutva -- or “Hinduness” – that views India as a Hindu rashtra
(Hindu nation), where the fate of religious minorities depended on the
good will – or lack thereof – of the majority.
“On the political front, the current crisis began with the appointment
of Amit Shah as India’s home minister. He’s the real brain behind the
operation propelling a series of events culminating in the Citizenship
Amendment Act,” explained Kamdar.
Dubbed “Modi’s enforcer", Shah is the head of the BJP and has been the
chief strategist behind Modi’s rise to power. Shah was the home
minister of the western state of Gujarat in 2002, when Modi was
Gujarat chief minister as anti-Muslim riots engulfed the state,
killing more than 1,000 people.
Modi was accused of sanctioning the violence while Shah was arrested
and charged with murder in connection with extrajudicial killings.
Both men deny the charges and they have never been convicted by
While Modi focuses on an anti-corruption, “new India” discourse, his
political strategist makes no bones about his xenophobic, anti-Muslim
At a campaign rally ahead of the 2019 polls, Shah turned his invective
against a pet Hindutva target -- illegal Muslim immigrants from
neighbouring Bangladesh -- calling them “termites” and vowing to “pick
up infiltrators one-by-one and throw them into the Bay of Bengal”.
Following Modi’s May 2019 reelection, Shah was appointed home minister
– India’s equivalent of an interior minister –sending a signal across
the country that a Hindutva agenda would dominate Modi’s second term.
They were not wrong – although the speed of the changes caught
everyone by surprise. On July 30, the Modi administration banned a
form of divorce permitted under Muslim personal law.
On August 5, the government stripped Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only
Muslim-majority state, of its autonomy, imprisoned thousands of
Kashmiris – including politicians who were former BJP allies – and put
the disputed region under an unprecedented communications shutdown.
On November 9, the country’s Supreme Court cemented the Indian
judiciary’s reputation of failing to deliver justice to victims of
violent Hindu extremism when it ruled that a flashpoint religious site
be handed to Hindus. The top court ruled that the 1992 destruction of
a 16th century mosque in the northern Indian city of Ayodhya by Hindu
extremists was a criminal act.
But it nonetheless granted Hindus permission to build a temple on the
site of the criminally demolished mosque.
Trump mistakes ‘Howdy Modi’ for the Mahatma
Reactions to the policies ranged from jubilation among Modi supporters
to a resigned despair among his critics. While the Kashmir violations
made international headline news and sparked condemnations from human
rights groups, Modi looked set to ride out the storm on the world’s
French President Emmanuel Macron stuck with New Delhi’s position on
the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan, maintaining the issue
had to be resolved bilaterally, implicitly rejecting Islamabad’s calls
for international intervention.
On the question of Kashmir’s revoked autonomy, Macron maintained it
was “an internal issue”.
The next month saw Modi’s star power mount to giddy heights when he
attended a “Howdy Modi” mass rally with US President Donald Trump in
Texas, where about 50,000 Americans of Indian origin chanted “Modi!
Some fans, dressed as India’s founding father Mahatma Gandhi, equated
the prime minister with the Mahatma – a man whose vision of a
tolerant, secular India was antithetical to Modi’s dream of a Hindu
rashtra. Even Trump mistakenly called Modi “the Father of India”.
While Modi adulation grabbed airtime in an India plummeting on world
press freedom indices, opposition against the government’s divisive
politics was brewing.
But the anti-Hindutva sentiment -- electorally dispersed over
fractious regional political parties and silenced by press
intimidation -- was underestimated and overlooked.
Until it erupted on the streets, catching everyone by surprise.
Toward the end of August, as world attention was focused on Kashmir,
the Modi administration published results of a controversial National
Register of Citizens (NRC) in the eastern border state of Assam that
was officially aimed at identifying illegal immigrants.
Nearly 2 million people were found to be “stateless”. Opposition
parties flagged reports of legitimate citizens being deemed “illegal”–
including former army and police officers and the family of a former
president of India.
They were plunged into a nightmare of appeals before non-judicial
tribunals amid desperate scrambles to assemble paperwork that
activists called “a humanitarian disaster,” with local rights groups
recording suicides linked to bureaucratic precariousness.
Meanwhile the government started building massive detention camps,
triggering alarm bells. Despite the disruptions, Shah promised to
extend the NRC across India before the 2024 general elections.
Amid mounting disquiet over the Modi administration’s bid to build a
countrywide surveillance network, the government started a pilot
project to create “a comprehensive identity database of every usual
resident in the country” called the National Population Register (NPR)
that would “contain demographic as well as biometric particulars”.
For the BJP, Assam -- one of India’s most multi-ethnic states, home to
the second-largest Muslim population after Kashmir – was a logical
launching pad for a nationwide NRC.
But if the Hindu right-wing party was hoping to use the NRC to weed
out Muslim “illegals” from voter lists, the move appeared to backfire.
When Assam’s NRC list was published in end-August, Hindus made up 1.2
million of the 1.9 million undocumented people declared “stateless”.
That’s when the Modi government rushed through a Citizen Amendment
Bill (CAB) granting citizenship to non-Muslim migrants fleeing
persecution in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
By December 12, the CAB had turned into a law – the Citizenship
Amendment Act (CAA).
The NRC and CAA are closely linked as the latter will protect
non-Muslims who are excluded from the register and face the threat of
deportation or internment.
“People have connected the dots between the NRC and the CAB and from
there, it was not hard to connect the dots with the planned NPA,”
“People understand not only the government’s primary focus of
targeting Muslims, but that with the establishment of a nationwide
biometric registry, everything about everybody is known and it’s up to
some bureaucrat to decide citizenship in a country where hundreds of
millions lack basic documents.”
The first anti-CAA protests erupted this month in Assam and other
northeastern border states, many of them marginalised and simmering
with insurgencies crushed by Indian security services. The protests
were against an influx of migrants regardless of religion into the
“Modi thought he had consolidated his constituency in northeastern
India. He thought his base was against the Muslims without realising
that the mood was against all outsiders regardless of their religion,”
The protests in the peripheral northeast punctured a prevailing fear
of publicly voicing discontent against the Modi government. It wasn’t
long before students in the heart of the country -- including the
capital, New Delhi, and the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh --
took up the baton.
Their grouse was against the government’s divisive, anti-Muslim
policies and what they perceived as the Modi administration’s bid to
identify and surveil “doubtful citizens”.
It took a brutal police crackdown on students in two major Muslim
universities on December 15 to unleash a pent up rage against the Modi
government’s assaults on India’s much-celebrated secular tolerance.
“The enormity of what was happening to the country finally struck with
the police invasion of Jamia Milia Islamia University and Aligarh
Muslim University and the violence with which they attacked students
in campuses, libraries shocked people,” explained Kamdar.
''There was a concerted effort over the past few years to change the
very nature of India, to rewrite history, rewrite the textbooks. But
there remains, surviving in the fiber and sinew of India, a beating
trace of the founding fathers’ vision of India and they [the Modi
government and its backers] have not yet succeeded in completely
extinguishing that from the soul of India.”
But if the embers of Hindutva opposition have been ignited, few doubt
the power of Hindu nationalist cadres that can be mobilised and
marshaled by the RSS, a vast Hindu umbrella organisation that includes
trade unions, youth groups, prayer associations, women’s groups as
well as the ruling BJP.
“On the negative side, they [the Hindu right] will not go down
easily,” noted Kamdar. “Amit Shah is a ruthless, focused person and
he’s not going to easily let go of changing India into an
authoritarian, fascist state that tracks every single citizen to
ensure no one dissents.”
In his first speech since the nationwide protests erupted, Modi on
Sunday, December 22, defended the new citizenship law. In a combative
speech to his party members, the Indian prime minister denied his
government’s plans to extend the NRC nationwide.
“Has anything happened with the NRC yet? Lies are being spread,” said
Modi. He also denied links between the NRC and CAA.
An invigorated Indian news media promptly published reports debunking
Modi’s assertions about the opposition’s “lies”.
Modi’s robust defense, combined with assertions that the opposition
was dealing in “fake news” sets the stage for further crackdowns on
the protest movement – and a likely violent 2020 for the world’s
second-most populous country.
“I do think there’s a risk of increasing violence because they’re not
going to go quietly,” said Kamdar. “They will do everything in their
power to get back the narrative and I don’t think it’s going to be
02-DEC-2019 :: India's Narendra Modi whose calling card was economic growth in Gujarat notwithstanding his fondness for a good old fashioned pogrom
Law & Politics
India’s Narendra Modi whose calling card was economic growth in
Gujarat notwithstanding his fondness for a good old fashioned pogrom
is clearly embarked on a ‘’West Bank’’’ level settlement project of
At a private event on Saturday in New York City, Sandeep Chakravorty,
India’s consul-general to the city, told Kashmiri Hindus and Indian
nationals that India will build settlements modelled after Israel for
the return of the Hindu population to Kashmir.
Three years ago, India was enjoying economic growth of about nine per
cent. Now the rate of expansion has slumped to just half that.
The country’s gross domestic product grew by just 4.5 per cent in the
July to September quarter, the lowest level since early 2013.
GDP growth was at seven per cent in the same period last year, and
five per cent in the previous quarter.
Economic growth has now fallen for six consecutive quarters, a slide
that can be partially attributed to the recent weakness of India’s
The manufacturing sector shrank one per cent last quarter. The growth
rate for agriculture was more than cut in half.
The GDP figure is the weakest recorded under Prime Minister Narendra
Modi, who first swept to power five years ago promising to take
India’s economy to new heights and create millions of jobs every year.
Those Who Search for Dawn Don't Fear the Night @Consortiumnews
Law & Politics
There is little that divides Modi’s fascistic Rashtriya Swayamsevak
Sangh (RSS) and his Vishwa Hindu Parishad from the piety movements of
Tablighi Jamaat (with its millions of Muslim followers) and these
neo-Pentecostal formations in Latin America, says Vijay Prashad.
Jeanine Áñez, the ‘president’ of Bolivia, walked into the Burned
Palace (Palacio Quemado) with an enormous Bible in her hand. ‘The
Bible has returned to the Palace’, she said as she seized power.
Áñez’s Party – Movimiento Demócrata Social – won only 4 percent of the
vote in the 2019 presidential election, and she is not in the direct
line of succession.
The Movement to Socialism (MAS) controlled the majority in parliament,
and its speaker – first Adriana Salvatierra and then Mónica Eva Copa –
stood ahead of her in the queue.
Nonetheless, as MAS officials stayed home for fear of their lives, a
parliamentary vote that excluded the majority party took place in
which Áñez took power.
The military backed her. Very soon thereafter, the United States and
Brazil sanctified this Christian fundamentalist right-wing politician
as the president.
The Generals stood beside Áñez as she took her oath. Hovering nearby
was Luis Fernando Camacho, whose political party (Movimiento
Nacionalista Revolucionario) won only 0.69 percent of the vote in the
Nonetheless, Camacho is the kingmaker. He is the leader of the Civic
Committee of Santa Cruz and the Santa Cruz Youth Union (Unión Juvenil
Cruceñista) – both bodies tinged with pro-business fascism.
Camacho followed Áñez into the palace. He was holding a crucifix.
‘Pachamama will never return to the palace’, he said. ‘Bolivia belongs
Beneath the volcanic eruption of Áñez and Camacho is the lava-like
growth of the right-wing evangelical movement. In the 2019
Áñez was not the standard-bearer for evangelism. Chi Hyun Chung (who
won nearly 9percent of the vote) and Victor Hugo Cárdenas (who won
0.41percent of the vote) had the strongest evangelical credentials.
During the lead-up to the vote, it was Chi who was called the
Bolivian sociologist Julio Córdova Villazón found that these men – Chi
and Cárdenas – erased the separation between Church and State and
relied upon the vast network of evangelical churches and television
programmes to run their campaign.
After the election, Julio Córdova said that it was Camacho, the man
who installed Áñez to the presidency, who legitimized his
authoritarianism through ‘Bolsonaro-style religious discourse’.
Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil, is – like Camacho and the
others – rooted in these transnational evangelical neo-Pentecostal
But this is not an affliction of the fundamentalist versions of
Christianity – such as neo-Pentecostalism – alone; there is evidence
from around the world of these sorts of authoritarian religious
movements that are pickled in hatred and rooted in praise of
militaries and capitalism.
It is no wonder that the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – who
emerges from his own authoritarian religio-political movement –
invited Bolsonaro to be the Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day Parade
on 26 January 2020.
There is little that divides Modi’s fascistic Rashtriya Swayamsevak
Sangh (RSS) and his Vishwa Hindu Parishad from the piety movements of
Tablighi Jamaat (with its millions of Muslim followers) and these
There is an enormous amount that they share in common.
Our researchers in Buenos Aires (Argentina) and in São Paulo (Brazil)
have developed a preliminary theory of these neo-Pentecostal movements
in South America.
The team in Buenos Aires has published a report (in Spanish) on the
Evangelical Question, while the team in São Paulo has produced an as
yet unpublished document on the rise of neo-Pentecostalism in Brazil
(André Cardoso and Fábio Miranda, ‘Contribuições para entender o
crescimento pentecostal e os desafios para o campo popular’).
One of the common features of the findings in Argentina and in Brazil
is that these movements are growing at an astronomical rate, doubling
in twenty years.
In both countries, these movements have jumped into the electoral
sphere, where they have begun to define an ‘evangelical vote’.
This consolidation of evangelism in politics polarizes sections of the
working class and peasantry. The analyses from our two offices are
very close to each other, and they both point to at least five
features of these movements:
Heart in a Heartless World
Over the course of the past few decades, as social inequality has
increased, the purchasing power of the urban and rural poor has
declined while the time and money for leisure activities has been
With the cuts in social spending, State-funded community activities
have also lessened. This has meant that in the neighborhoods of the
poor, commercial and State-funded avenues for social life have
Near Brazil’s favelas, the storefronts are now occupied by a line of
neo-Pentecostal churches, by liquor shops, and by a few restaurants.
It is these neo-Pentecostal churches that operate as one of the key
places for social life in these working-class communities and as an
employment agency for its members.
As the Church becomes a hub for social life – including music lessons
– it attracts young people into its ranks. Few other outlets are
available for the working class.
In South America, the feminist movement, particularly the movement for
abortion rights, has strengthened. In reaction, these religious
currents have consolidated a patriarchal response.
They make the argument that the elite is trying to colonize the
families of the poor by eroding the authority of the father.
These piety movements and their political allies routinely uphold
patriarchal attitudes towards women, seeking to retroactively control
all aspects of their lives and keep them subdued and submissive.
RSS leader Mohan Bhagwat often says that women should not work, that
they should rely upon their husbands.
By putting the Father on a pedestal, these movements take their
authoritarian ethos of the Strong Leader into the heart of the family.
Camacho’s statement that Pachamama – an indigenous Andean spiritual
concept – has no room in the presidential palace in Bolivia is just
one of a million pieces of evidence that suggest the deep hatred that
this seam of evangelism has for any form of life that does not follow
its precepts. Both Áñez and Camacho have made racist statements about
the indigenous communities of Bolivia, whose faith they consider
‘satanic’. The RSS view of Muslims and the adivasis (indigenous), and
the Tabligh’s view of apostates (murtadds), mirror this attitude.
Made in the USA
Our teams in Buenos Aires and São Paulo find that this form of
evangelism was exported from the United States.
Anthropologist Rita Segato suggests that there has been a concerted
effort to export this form of religiosity into the Global South as a
means to disorient and fragment the working class and peasantry and to
undermine national liberation movements.
Indeed, in the 1960s, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and others
pushed a narrow and suffocating form of Islam through the World Muslim
League to undermine the growth of socialist movements from Indonesia
to North Africa.
Just before he was executed, the Egyptian leader of the Muslim
Brotherhood Sayyid Qutb described his organization as part of a
tendency that he called ‘American-made Islam’.
Evidence for Segato’s view came to us a decade ago when Dr. Kapya
Kaoma and Political Research Associates showed how U.S. conservative
evangelicals – assisted by the U.S. government – pushed an agenda of
homophobia in Africa (Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda). Little wonder that
these currents – including the current led by Áñez and Camacho – are
cosy with the military and with imperialism.
Even if the push comes from the U.S. evangelicals, or – in the case of
this ‘American-made Islam’ – from the CIA, it finds its own allies
amongst ruling elites and others who drive an agenda rooted in older
religious forms but weaponized for their aims.
It is out of this deeply violent seam of authoritarian neo-Hinduism
that the BJP government in India passed the Citizenship (Amendment)
Bill that undermines the right of Muslims to be Indian citizens; and
it is out of this seam that it has shut down Kashmir and now parts of
the North-East and sent in the police forces to attack the students at
Aligarh Muslim University (Uttar Pradesh) and Jamia Millia Islamia
University (New Delhi).
The Prosperity Gospel
Neo-Pentecostal churches and neo-Hindu gurus operate amongst people
who are often the poorest of the poor, and yet it is amongst these
social groups that they promote a ‘prosperity gospel’.
It is not merely that these tendencies use the opportunities of the
modern world – the media and the market – to push their aims; it is
that they promote the values of neoliberalism amongst the
working-class – be an entrepreneur, don’t become a trade unionist.
These movements draw from older traditions, but they refashion
themselves for neoliberal times. It is not as if they provide a
necessary spiritual antidote for populations bereft of social life
because of the neoliberal assault; other forms of ‘spiritual’ comfort
are available, forms of social coexistence that are secular and
progressive. But as the institutions of working-class culture are
summarily destroyed in many countries; these forms – including
neighborhood and trade union gatherings – are overrun by the
well-funded religion-oriented assemblies. A genuine sociology of these
neo-religions should not avoid looking into the dark corners, where
the ruling elites sit and write their support with cheques; in the
bright lights, we see the working class stumble in and seek a soul in
soulless conditions, but the lights are so bright that they often
cannot see into the corners.
Aye subh ke ghamkharo, is raat se mat darna.
Jis haat me khanjar hai, us haat se mat darna.
You who search for the dawn, do not fear the night.
Do not be afraid of the hand that holds the dagger.
Fear is the ethos of this neoliberal religiosity. The Pakistani poet
Ahmed Faraz saw this fear and shrugged. He counsels bravery.
One of the brave ones is Bolivia’s Evo Morales, now in exile in
Argentina. When he was in Mexico City, he spoke to The Intercept’s
Glenn Greenwald about the coup in Bolivia, and about the social forces
afoot in South America.
Turkey will send troops to Libya at the request of Tripoli as soon as next month, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday @ReutersAfrica
Libya’s internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA)
has been fending off a months-long offensive by General Khalifa
Haftar’s forces in eastern Libya, which have been supported by Russia,
Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Last month, Ankara signed two separate accords with the GNA, led by
Fayez al-Serraj, one on security and military cooperation and another
on maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean.
“Since there is an invitation (from Libya) right now, we will accept
it,” Erdogan told members of his AK Party in a speech. “We will put
the bill on sending troops to Libya on the agenda as soon as
The legislation would pass around Jan. 8-9, he said, opening the door
“Russia is there with 2,000 Wagner (fighters),” Erdogan said on
Thursday, also referring to some 5,000 fighters from Sudan in Libya.
“Is the official government inviting them? No.”
“They are all helping a war baron (Haftar), whereas we are accepting
an invitation from the legitimate government of the country. That is
our difference,” he added.
We find that the countries of Africa are collectively net creditors to the rest of the world, to the tune of $41.3 billion in 2015. @GlobalJusticeUK
African countries received $161.6 billion in 2015 – mainly in loans,
personal remittances and aid in the form of grants.
Yet $203 billion was taken from Africa, either directly – mainly
through corporations repatriating profits and by illegally moving
money out of the continent – or by costs imposed by the rest of the
world through climate change.
An estimated $29 billion a year is being stolen from Africa in illegal
logging, fishing and the trade in wildlife/plants.
Gabriel Zucman, an academic at the London School of Economics,
estimated in 2014 that rich Africans were holding a massive $500
billion offshore (i.e, in tax havens) – amounting to 30% of all
Africa’s financial wealth
United States recalled its ambassador to Zambia on Monday @nytimes
The United States recalled its ambassador to Zambia on Monday after he
criticized the government for sending a gay couple to prison and
accused officials of stealing millions of dollars of public funds.
The ambassador, Daniel L. Foote had, described the treatment of the
gay couple as “horrifying” — setting off outrage in Zambia, a
conservative Christian country.
But analysts said that the main reason for his departure was that he
had repeatedly declared that ministry officials had misappropriated
In an unusually combative public statement for a member of the
diplomatic corps, Mr. Foote had said that the Zambian government
“wants foreign diplomats to be compliant, with open pocketbooks and
Mr. Foote’s comments set off recriminations in Zambia, a
copper-producing, landlocked country in southern Africa. Zambia’s
president, Edgar Lungu, said he did not want Mr. Foote in the country,
even if Zambia risked losing its annual $500 million in American aid.
“We don’t want such people in our midst. We want him gone,” President
Lungu told the state-owned television channel ZNBC on Sunday.
He later told Sky News: “If that is how you are going to bring your
aid, then I’m afraid the West can leave us alone in our poverty. And
we’ll continue scrounging and struggling.”
The State Department said in a statement that it was dismayed the
Zambian government had declared that Mr. Foote’s position as
ambassador was “no longer tenable.”
The department said that his remarks were “the equivalent of a
declaration that the ambassador is persona non grata.”
Mr. Foote is a career diplomat who was appointed ambassador to Zambia
by President Trump in November 2017. In his statement, released in
Mr. Foote said that the Zambian foreign minister had accused him of
interfering in internal affairs for speaking out about the “harsh
sentencing of a homosexual couple.”
Despite all of the aid Zambia receives, the ambassador wrote, he had
found it very difficult to get an audience with the president.
“Both the American taxpayers, and Zambian citizens, deserve a
privileged, two-way partnership, not a one-way donation that works out
to $200 million per meeting with the head of state,” Mr. Foote wrote.
The administration of Mr. Lungu, who was elected in 2015 after his
predecessor died in office, has been widely criticized as corrupt.
One Zambian analyst recently called it “kleptocratic,” saying that
grand corruption had become endemic and that the economy was
A recent report by the Environmental Investigation Agency, an
international organization that investigates environmental crime and
abuse, described the president, his daughter and two ministers as
central figures in a “cartel” that traffics mukula rosewood trees.
It said that the trees were on the verge of commercial extinction.
Mr. Foote had spoken out about corruption in Zambia before.
“His voice is powerful. He had exposed their hypocrisy and
corruption,” said the popular musician Fumba Chama, who has repeatedly
criticized government corruption in songs like “Koswe Mumpoto,” which
means “Rat in the Pot.”
Mr. Chama — whose stage name, Pilato, stands for People In Lyrical
Arena Taking Over — has been targeted by the government multiple
He was last arrested in Livingstone on Saturday while running a
workshop on transparency and accountability, charged with unlawful
assembly, and released two days later.
He said that the furor over the ambassador’s comments on gay rights
was just a pretext and that the real issue was his bold condemnation
of corrupt officials.
“They brought up the L.G.B.T. thing because they knew if they brought
it to the fore, the public would side with them. Zambia is a very
religious country,” Mr. Chama said.
Gay relationships are against the law in many African countries, but
gay people confront a broad range of conditions across the continent.
The prosecution of the two Zambian men, for what the government called
“crimes against the order of nature,” is not unique on the continent.
In its statement, the State Department said: “The United States firmly
opposes abuses against L.G.B.T.I. persons. Governments have an
obligation to ensure that all people can freely enjoy the universal
human rights and fundamental freedoms to which they are entitled.”
It quoted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying, “We abhor violations
of these rights, whenever and wherever they are encountered.”
However, some State Department officials have said they have seen a
rollback in advocacy for gay rights under President Trump and Mr.
Diplomats recently requested permission to fly rainbow flags at the
American Embassy and Consulate in Brazil, where the openly anti-gay,
far-right President Jair Bolsonaro was elected last year, but
Mr. Pompeo has installed a new human rights panel to review the State
Department’s definition of human rights, which some critics say is a
move to curtail advocacy for the rights of L.G.B.T. people.
Conservative American evangelicals have been accused of promoting
opposition to gay rights across Africa. In Zambia, evangelical
Christianity is a dominant force in society and the political arena.
Many Zambians were introduced to North American evangelism in the
1990s through shows like Pat Robertson’s “700 Club.”
Why outgoing CEO @MikoszSebastian found @KenyaAirways KQ top seat too hot to handle @dailynation
Kenya Airways Chief Executive Sebastian Mikosz watched CCTV cameras
and witnessed how his workers tried to twist them out of view so they
could load tyres into trucks and sneak them out.
The tyres were later traced to a shop where they were being sold openly.
Mr Mikosz could not believe his eyes.
“We found the tyres in a shop. And there was a guy who was not even
hiding (the theft). He said ‘these are tyres from KQ’,” Mikosz says
gesticulating and though smiling, he gave the impression of a man
frustrated at every turn in his two-year stint at the Kenya Airways
where he had been tasked with the onerous responsibility of reviving
the airline that had sunk into a deep financial hole.
He says the theft of the tyres is a microcosm of the entrenched series
of problems afflicting the once Pride of Africa.
“These are just tyres but we have the same problem with fuel, with
parts,” he reveals.
The loss-making airline spends Sh5 billion ($50 million) a day and has
a long history of staff, suppliers and banks scheming how to pilfer
resources from its coffers.
Mr Mikosz says some workers used every means, mainly litigation to
block him from making any meaningful changes in a bid to bring to
fruition his overall vision.
This, he adds, coupled with internal wrangles contributed immensely to
his failed bid to turn around the airline that has been riding through
a stormy financial patch for years now.
“The biggest enemy when you are restructuring are not outside
(forces). I’m actually not afraid of Emirates, I’m afraid of this
(internal setbacks),” he says noting that even if you have board
support, you cannot effect meaningful changes in the face of
deliberate schemes by workers to scuttle reforms.
Mr Mikosz’s tenure is indeed a litany of legal duel after another.
According to documents seen by Smart Company, after the tyre incident,
Kenya Airways sought to reorganise supply chain functions that would
have edged out some of the suspects in the syndicates.
However, on December 4, Rose Kosgey and Rosemary Mburu, who are part
of the supply chain staff, stopped the process in court saying it was
a restructuring process that risked rendering them redundant and that
the process was designed by the acting head of supply chain to exclude
When engineers went on strike over pay, he says, KQ dismissed them,
but they rushed to court and were reinstated on grounds that there
would be no one to maintain the planes.
When KQ tried to hire 850 contract staff through Career Directions
Limited (CDL), Africa Cargo Handling Limited and Insight Management,
and the CDL itself, filed a claim of Sh68 million as severance pay for
early termination of their contract.
The three firms are listed as interested parties in a suit by the
Kenya Aviation Workers Union (Kawu) against the process.
The court last week stopped KQ from hiring staff on temporary terms
following an application by the airport workers union.
The CEO says it is not just workers who gave him a hard time.
He faced huge opposition terminating contracts with suppliers and
brokers even though the deals had exit clauses.
He says he used an August 2016 audit report by Deloitte to “simplify,
narrow down and reduce the number of suppliers” and then rotate staff
in procurement to reduce familiarity with the suppliers.
This process, too, ran into headwinds although he managed to effect
“We reduced the number of suppliers, but according to me you can still
reduce them by one third. But it takes a lot of time. For example, for
spare parts contract, we needed to have a direct contract with Boeing.
However, talks with Boeing take too long,” he says, noting that once
you clinch a deal with Boeing, you buy straight from them and reduce
the number of intermediaries.
“We [also] revised the number of fuel suppliers downwards,” he says.
Mr Mikosz, a graduate of the Institute of Political Studies from
France with a Master's degree in economics and finance, says besides
laborious litigation, navigating union politics was a tough call.
He said although he has power of doing things, the union insists on
“The number of bottles of whisky I took with them (while negotiating)
made me almost an alcoholic,” he says.
The feud over pilots pay spilled into Parliament, where Kenya Airline
Pilots Association (Kalpa) claimed Mr Mikosz had lied on certain
issues, something that almost earned him a censure. He was, however,
He says KQ pilots are paid a lot of money in mandatory benefits even
if they do not spend overnight abroad. They also earn productivity
allowance even when they do not fly any planes, he reveals.
“Kenyan taxpayers gave us $750 million (Sh75 billion) of sovereign
guarantees and I pay these guys more than British Airways pilots and
nobody says anything. And I’m the mzungu bad guy,” he says, hastily
adding that “the next CEO who will come will have the same situation.”
Last week, KQ board announced Allan Kilavuka as the acting chief
executive officer effective January as Mr Mikosz is set to leave ahead
of his contract’s expiry.
Although the Polish has a listed numerous reasons why he did not
succeed in lifting KQ out of the financial hole, the verdict is still
out there on whether he just failed or the circumstances he has
outlined genuinely conspired against him.
A number of analysts holds the view that the outgoing CEO did not do
enough to revive the flagging fortunes of the national carrier.
“His brief was to turn around the company, close unprofitable routes
and make the airline more efficient,” says George Bodo, Director
Callstreet Research and Analytics.
Mr Bodo notes that when Mikosz took the job, he knew the airline was
unionised, something that faces every other airline. So his position
was not unique, he adds.
Deepak Kumar of Canada, who has been involved with airlines
restructuring in the past, said Mr Mikosz lacked a strategy for
generating cash by getting people or goods where they need to be at a
profitable margin. Everything else, he adds, was pointless in the
“He had very little control over the two aspects that were absolutely
crucial to improving cash flow from operations: driving better yields
on capacity (revenue per seat kilometre) and reducing the cost per
seat,” he says.
“Revenue was hit by constantly cancelling or delaying flights… and
whatever is buried in the fuel or currency hedge books.”
The KQ boss’ biggest project — taking Kenya Airways to America — has
also been questioned. Mr Bodo says there were other commercially
viable decisions than taking the country to the US.
Mr Kumar opines that opening new routes costs money in profit per seat
kilometre, money that KQ did not have to spend: “The competition for
those passengers was well prepared to take on KQ, and the airline
walked into the market at the worst time internally.”
Mr Bodo says the new KQ chief executive will need to make the national
carrier digital-savvy and deliver data-driven commercialisation.
“A new CEO should cut the fat and make it leaner, even if it is
cutting down unprofitable long routes such as Europe and relying on
codeshare agreements with its alliances,” he says.
For Mr Kumar, KQ needs to match its marketing, operational, and
financial realities today to its revenue projection going forward.
That’s how western airlines did post-9/11.
He says this does not seem to have percolated to senior management at
KQ, who seem, at the moment, to be looking a month rather than three
“Maximising profits does not have to translate into bad services, poor
staff, high fares or creaky planes. Any options will need integrated
support from staff, stakeholders, and the State. The board has to pool
their interests,” he says.