18 January 2021

Travelling in Tibet in the 1990s: colonialism and neocolonialism

Naked Spirits: A Journey Into Occupied Tibet

Naked Spirits: A Journey Into Occupied Tibet by Adrian Abbotts
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I recently read Magic and Mystery in Tibet, written by a western visitor who illegally entered Tibet in the early 20th century. This book is about a couple of western visitors to Tibet 75 years later, when it was under Chinese occupation. And at the same time I was reading Orientalism, on how to deconstruct western views of "the Orient".

The earlier visitor, [author Alexandra David-Neel], had a couple of advantages. She could speak Tibetan, and she had also spent several years in Tibetan monasteries. And though she was an illegal immigrant, she was seeing a relatively independent Tibet, where Tibetans were free to be themselves. She was, nevertheless, also seeing Tibet through western eyes, and even, at one point, described herself as an Orientalist.

But the authors of Naked Spirits were tourists in the 1990s, when Tibet had been under Chinese rule for 40 years, and while foreign tourists could roam relatively freely in China proper, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) was closed to all but expensive organised tour groups, who were kept isolated from the Tibetan people, and only allowed to see what their tour guides would allow them to see. Adrian Abbotts and his wife Maria therefore spent a great deal of time applying for permits to go to this or that place, and describe their dealings with Chinese officialdom and bureaucracy, and at that point it all seemed very familiar indeed. Tibet under Chinese rule reminded me of nothing so much as Namibia under South African rule, which I experienced from I went to Namibia in 1969 until I was deported from there in 1972.

The parallels between Chinese rule in Tibet and South African rule in Namibia were amazing, especially the attitudes and reactions of government officials to whom one applied for various permits and permissions to visit or travel through places. There were many parts of the book where I thought "Been there, done that." And Adrian Abbots and his wife evidently learned the lesson that we learned in Namibia: it is easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.

Also similar was the naked racism. The white South African rulers thought themselves superior to the native Namibians just as the Han Chinese rulers saw themselves as superior to the native Tibetans, and tried to make their language dominant.

There are differences too. In Namibia the South African rulers at least pretended to a kind of respect for local cultures, and encouraged them to "develop on their own lines" (the lines, of course, being lad down by the South African government). In Tibet there was no such pretence. Within Tibet all higher education was in Chinese and for Chinese. Tibetans who wanted higher education had to travel to China proper, and be immersed for several years in Han culture before they could return home, a policy that seemed more akin to that of Sheldon Jackson in Alaska than to the South African Department of Bantu Education.

So the book was particularly interesting to read in the light of the recent growth of Chinese economic activity in Africa, which looks suspiciously like neocolonialism. This includes the destruction of Namibian forest by Chinese logging, and, just over the border in Botswana, the threat of fracking in the Okavango Delta by a Canadian mining firm. It doesn't matter if the neocolonialism is Western or Eastern, there is little difference.

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16 January 2021

A Reading Diary: A Year of Favourite Books

A Reading Diary: A Year Of Favourite BooksA Reading Diary: A Year Of Favourite Books by Alberto Manguel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book.

It looks deceptively simple. The author reads 12 favourite books, one each month, and keeps a diary of the thoughts he has while reading them. Some thoughts are relevant, inspired by the book, and others come from current events, near or far, foreign or domestic.

The cat has not come to be fed for three days now.

But how often, when reading, does a book not inspire thoughts, some worth recording, perhaps, and some not? This is a book of such thoughts.

The cat returned during the night.

In another place there are thoughts inspired by waiting for, and during the Second Iraqi-American War of 2003. Some thoughts seem trivial, like the ones about the cat, while others are profound, but even the ones about the cat spark of my own thoughts and memories of cats I have known.

Silvia, my old schoolmate, tells me that in my school is a plaque to the students murdered by the military. She says I'll recognize several names.

Of the twelve books Alberto Manguel read I had read only two: Kim and The Wind in the Willows; my review of Kim is here Kim revisited: imperialism, Russophobia & asceticism.

Today, at breakfast, my brother tells me that "only" ten percent of the judiciary system is corrupt. "Of course," he adds, "excluding the Supreme Court, where every single member is venal.

While typing that I am listening to Peter, Paul and Mary singing "...and if you take my hand my son, all will be well when the day is done" and I am transported 1500 km away and 50 years back to Windhoek, St George's Church Hall, where Cathy Roark (now Cathy Wood) is teaching that song to the confirmation class, and I wonder where they are today. Not many murdered by the military, perhaps, but some forced into the military to kill.

Half an hour later I pick up Kim where I left off reading yesterday and find these word spoken by the Lama: "Thou hast loosed an Act upon the world. and as a stone thrown into a pool so spread the consequences thou canst not tell how far.

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05 January 2021



Orientalism by Edward W. Said
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been looking for this book for 20 years, and at last found a copy in a 2nd-hand bookshop. Since hundreds of people must have reviewed it in that period, I won't even attempt to write a review, which would simply be repeating what hundreds of other people have said. Rather I will comment on a few of the things that stuck me about it, and that I've learnt from it. 

In his book Edward Said examines the Western academic discipline of Orientalism, or, as it is sometimes called, Oriental Studies. He notes that it is entirely a Western discipline. It is a study of the way the people of "the West" study the people of "the Orient", which is that part of the world that lies to the East of "the West". In other words, it is all subjective. 

Said also looks at some of the terms the West uses to describe "the Orient" -- Near East, Middle East and Far East. Because they are subjective, these terms are rather vague, and can have different meanings at different times. Like so many subjective terms they tell you more about the people who use and devise them than it does about the people they purport to describe. If someone speaks of a place as "the Near East", that tells you little about the Near East, but tells you a bit more about the person wo whom the Near East is nearer than the Far East. To a person living in India, the "Near East" is actually the "Middle West".

Because of this particular viewpoint, therefore, the people of "the Orient" never get to talk about themselves. In "Oriental Studies" they are described and discussed as seen by outsiders. Actually, as Said points out, Orientalism was originally not much concerned with people at all; it was mainly concerned with literature and manuscripts. 

Much of what Said says in this book rang a lot of bells for me, though they are not directly related to the content of the book, which is why I'm writing about them in a blog post instead of in a review on GoodReads.

My own academic field is Missiology, the study of Christian mission, and one of my particular interests in that field is African Independent Churches (AICs). African Independent Churches were studied and defined by academics who belonged to Christian denominations that had been founded by Western Christian missionaries, and therefore, like Said's Orientals, had been studied from the outside and defined from the outside -- see African Independent Churches: Judgement through Terminology.

I wrote that article before I had even heard of Edward Said's book, but what I said in it, it seems to me, is reinforced in many ways by what Said  says in his book, even though he is writing about Muslims and I was writing about African Christians.

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01 January 2021

The Last Warrior: book & film review

The Last Warrior

The Last Warrior by Clair Huffaker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fifty years ago I saw a film called The Last Warrior, which I now discover has been renamed to Flap. I enjoyed the film very much, so when I saw the book in a second-hand bookshop last month I had no hesitation in buying it.

In the film a hard-drinking, reckless-living Indian named Flapping Eagle decides that his people have been pushed around by the white man long enough. Mounting his horse H-Bomb, Flap proceeds to hijack a railroad, lasso a helicopter, and begin the Last Great Indian Uprising. His assaults on the Establishment provide an earnest indictment of Indian neglect by the U.S. government. And that pretty much summarises the plot of the book as well. If my memory has not faded too much over the last fifty years, the film stuck pretty closely to the book

The story is both funny and sad, and well worth reading.

So much for the book review, but there is a deeper story behind why I had no hesitation in buying the book when I saw it. 

When I saw the film I was living in Windhoek, Namibia, and working at a local newspaper, the Windhoek Advertiser for money, and otherwise for the local Anglican Church whose bishop, Colin Winter had an American secretary named Marge Schmidt. Marge had seen the film in the USA, and insisted that I must see it, so we went together to see it.

And I could see why she insisted I must see it. The film is mainly set in an Indian Reservation near Phoenix, Arizona (where Marge Schmidt now lives) And almost every weekend I visited poor rural communities like those shown in the film -- the Ovitoto Reserve for Hereros to the north, Rehoboth for Basters in the south, and in between there were small camps for road and railway workers, which closely resembled the places in the film.

Ovitoto Reserve, north of Windhoek, 1971

 The time, 1971, was also a turning point for Namibia. The World Court had just declared South Africa's rule over Namibia illegitimate. The Lutheran Churches, who scarcely ever criticised the government, circulated an open letter declaring, in effect that South African rule of Namibia was misrule. And The Last Warrior was showing at a local cinema, which showed an analogous situation in the USA.

The effect on the cinema audience was profound. 

In those days cinema audiences in central Windhoek were all white. And at the end of this film there was dead silence. People left in hushed silence. Usially people chatted with each other when leaving, about the film they had just seen or something else. They would greet people they knew. Some would laugh, some would call to others. But this time there was none of that. It seemed that no one missed the message of the film. It was not far away in the USA. It was here, and now. 

I have never seen a cinema audience behave like that before or since. And that is why I think the film was worth seeing, and the book worth reading.

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