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Elsewhere Series 3 (Part Four) What Has Become of Egypt?

Do you know why, of all the truly ancient cultures, Egypt is the one we remember the best?  Oh sure, sure, we can discuss Greece and Rome, and all the other subsequent world powers, but I am talking about deep, long and incredibly distant history–Old Testament times, and before.  Rome cannot help but be mixed up with the rise of Christianity, and Greece is bypassed in legendary mythology, where the realities are shrouded in magic, the truth and fantasy commingled into uncertainty.

 

But Egypt–Egypt, for all of her own Book of the Dead mysticism (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780486218663&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used), one cannot doubt that the ancient Egyptians had the first truly great historians as a part of their culture.  And while the Romans perfected this style of remembrance, the evolution of language serving them much better in the more partisan and highly politicized world of the future, everything started with Egypt.  Humanity emerged from the center of Africa, but true civilization comes from the Northern tip of the continent.

 

Egypt fascinates me, as I’m sure it does a number of you.  Take a look at those endlessly familiar images:

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What is one supposed to say about this?  How can the modern world compete with such ageless wonder?

 

Years ago, back when I was working towards my teaching certification, I worked as a ‘fine dining’ catering bartender (a top shelf purveyor at a card table in the corner, serving extremely wealthy people and celebrities fancy cocktails at weddings and award ceremonies).  The primary location of my job was the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania.  This was a glorious place, endlessly fascinating, and the home to some truly ancient relics.  The main room that most of the parties were held in was called the Chinese Rotunda, an incredibly high-ceilinged chamber featuring swords and spears and daggers, as well as 3000 year old statues of Asian lions that were once worshiped as gods (as an aside, some of the terrible people who went to these parties would bring their small children, who were both bored and overwhelmed by the majesty of what was before them.  Some of them wanted to climb up on these deities.  Some of the parents even encouraged this, assuming that such blasphemy would make a cute picture.   The fact that these relics were covered with signs stating outright “DO NOT TOUCH,” as well as, like I said, that fact that 3000 years ago numerous people lay prostrate before these idols and prayed for salvation in a barbaric world, sickened me.  I once yelled at a parent, screaming “That used to be someone’s god!  Get your kid off of it!”)

 

In the next room over there was a crowded wing on ancient Egypt–hieroglyphics on stone tablets and walls, incomprehensible dictates from some forgotten Pharaoh promoting literacy and, oh yeah, a huge graveyard behind glass filled with mummies.

 

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This is where I worked, for several years.  This is what I did:

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For the last image I was actually there, although not pictured.  To the deep sides and pockets, buried beneath spruce trees, a number of tables were set up, some offering savory appetizers, others, like where I worked, were makeshift bars, complete with every sort of booze you can think of, and the capacity to make those obscure, pretentious drinks to keep the unbelievably wealthy people who could afford to be married there feeling like the elitists they otherwise were in their everyday lives.

 

But Egypt is not about these memories, about the commercialization of a land that once upon a time ruled the world.  Without going through an endless list of the man-gods who ruled this place, nor a deep discussion of the hierarchy within their polytheistic religion (those stories have been repeatedly told by people who have spent their lives researching this, instead of the week of cultural reality I have immersed myself in), I would prefer to focus on the practical changes wrought by the modernization that came to their world through the ages.

 

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Scientists believe that the history of civilization in Egypt goes all the way back to 40,000 BC.  Sophisticated tools have been recovered that date from this time.  Back then they were a loose-knit community of hunter-gatherers, feasting mostly on those fabled creatures long since extinct (I suspect the true reason for their eradication was because they were really tasty.)  By 6,000 BC this land had formed into the first known civilization (other parts of the world still existed in prehistory).  Divided, yes, as travel was mostly walking, this vast land was home to numerous independent societies that developed tools, pottery, and built structures of greater magnitude than anything else discovered from so long ago.  Their written language of hieroglyphics was developed before 3,200 BC.  Well before this the Egyptians had formed their own system of faith, depicting their many gods within a symbolic language, and telling the stories of where they came from and how the world came to be.

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By 3150 BC a tyrant named Narmer had risen to the top of society through sheer barbarity and a cunning intelligence.  He managed to somehow unify the whole nation into one protectorate under his absolute rule.  His dynasty lasted all the way up to the 6th Century BC, when the Persians from what is now Iran invaded and conquered the land, imposing an entirely new, yet otherwise familiar way of life.

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Years and years of battles then took place for possession of this pre-Christian holy land, the Jews having emerged long since, with their own stories of prophets, and a challenge to the polytheistic faith with their a One True God.  They served as the slaves, building the famous pyramids and most of the other wonders of the ancient world.  By the time Rome took over in 30 BC, the future emperor Augustus defeating Mark Antony and eliminated Cleopatra, Egypt had become the crown jewel of the Roman empire, providing enough grain to feed the world.  The subsequent emperors succeeded the pharaohs as man-gods, and replaced the similar religion with their own.

 

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Religion during this period of time among the Egyptian population focused on whatever remained of the old ways, unifying for a short while in the worship of animal cults, primarily cats.

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And yet by 42 AD Mark the Evangelist founded the first Christian center in the world in Alexandria.

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Christianity spread rapidly with surprisingly little resistance.  The long civilized people seemed to understand that their world was profoundly changing, and many were looking forward to it.  For so many generations they had endured the ravages of modernization and no one on earth was more prepared to confront this.

 

Over the next few hundred years, as the wars of Christianity increased, bloodying the entire world, suppressed cult worship of the old gods began to expand once again.  Isis seemed to be the central focus of these people, and many times when they were rounded up and slaughtered by the Christian authorities they were fully engaged in massive orgies.

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By 414 AD the Jews came under harsh treatment again, when Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria, issued an order to expel all Jews from the city.  He declared that the Jews were guilty of nighttime murder sprees against Christians.  They were rounded up by rampaging mobs, beaten, killed, and thrown out into the desert or into the sea.

 

The following year this action was condemned by many of the leading intellectuals of Alexandria, including the governor of the province Orestes

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and the first female philosopher and mathematician recorded in history (and Orestes’ closest confident), Hypatia.

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Riots broke out in Alexandria, mostly among the remaining Jews, several of who actual did start murdering Christians in their sleep.  It had been under the authority of Orestes to expel the murderers, but that was when Cyril took over, imposing religious rule over politics.  Cyril, who today is considered a saint within the Catholic church, is said to have tried to reconcile with Orestes by offering him a gilded bible, which was refused.  Now, with the Jews still rioting, the Christians also turned against Orestes.

 

Eventually Orestes abandoned his post, leaving a theocracy run by Cyril in its place.  This was the direct result of Hypatia being grabbed out of her chariot as she was going to visit her imperial friend by a Christian mob.  They dragged her body through the street, hacking her to pieces and encouraging the fanatical public to join in.  The pieces of her were gathered up and thrown outside the city walls, where they were burned until nothing remained.  This was the end of popular paganism in Egypt.

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In the early 7th Century the Persians were on the rise once again.  Their Byzantine empire had been expanding throughout southern Europe and into Asia, with the conquer of Constantinople proving the highlight of Emperor Maurice’s campaign.

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In 602 Maurice and his six sons were killed by the army of power-mad future emperor Phocas.

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Maurice had left his land deeply in debt, and this was only exacerbated by the brutal reign of Phocas, who treated all people of Constantinople as slaves.  By 610 other ruling powers had finally had enough of Phocas and several of the emperor’s own advisers pleaded with the influencial Heraclius the Elder to save the besieged city.

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Heraclius was a Byzantine general most noted for leading the campaign of Alexandria, where he was based.  Upon meeting with Phocas’ cousin Nicetas for verification of the emperor’s crimes, Heraclius went with his navy to one of the two capitals of Byzantine, Thessalonica in Greece, and then on into Constantinople, where two days after his arrival Phocas was deposed, Heraclius was named emperor and the former ruler was executed in the matter of hours.

 

These events, within twenty years, provided the ground for the birth of Islam, a political movement and violent slave rebellion alongside a new faith set upon taking over the world.  By 641 Muslim invaders conquered Alexandria, then fought back and forth for control of Egypt for the next six years until they finally converted the masses, thus ending nearly a thousand years of Greco-Roman rule over Egypt.

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The Muslims founded a new capital city in Egypt, which they named Fustat,

 

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founding the Mosque of Amr, the first such shine in all of Africa.  Later, during the Crusades, the entire town was destroyed, laying waste to everything.

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In the distance here you can see Cairo, which was built upon the ruins.

 

By the 9th century Egypt was consumed with widespread wars and revolutions against the ruling parties.  In 828 a man named Abdallah ibn Tahir resumed the Roman idea of Governorship, although he ruled from faraway Baghdad, sending several administrators to handle the revolts as they saw fit.  Several of these men converted to the other side, while most of them sent armies to quell the masses.  As with many in Islamic tradition, there are no images to be found of this man, as this was considered blasphemy.

 

The idea of forming a true Caliphate began to sweep Egypt and most of the rest of the Islamic world around this time.  Warring dynasties of slightly different Islamic sects began vying for control of the people, imposing various forms of religious laws meant to keep the people from revolting, and suppress any ideas on disloyalty.  It was also then that the construction of Cairo began, with the intention of making it both the home of the formed caliphate and the most holy city in the world.

 

The rules of these numerous dynasties lasted for over six centuries.  In the late 13th century Islamic Egypt had reached the peek of its power, having developed military technology comparable to the most powerful nations then in existence.  They managed to claim the Red Sea, and conquer India and surrounding areas.  They were set upon taking over the world.  And then the Black Death came, obliterating more than forty percent of the entire population of Egypt.

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It was in 1517 that the Ottoman Turks took control of Egypt.  The Ottoman empire cared little for the people of the nation, and they denounced their form of Islam as heresy.  They maintained an armed, short-tempered military presence throughout the land, and ransacked nearly every granary and well, taking everything for themselves.

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With the collapse of both the economy and entire social structure Egypt fell into perhaps the hardest times they ever suffered.  First off, Portugal took control of the trade routes they had dominated for thousands of years, and then nearly fifty years of famine devastated the population.

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Things did not improve much for the Egyptians as more and more invaders arrived to make life increasingly miserable.  The greatest famine in the nation’s history occurred in 1784, which saw at least one-sixth of the population die from hunger and disease.

 

It was not until 1798, when Napoleon Bonaparte led France to war with the Ottoman empire, that things began to change.  Napoleon’s chief interest in Egypt was not, in fact, claiming that nation (although he was proud to have done so), but to block one of Britain’s chief access routes to India.  This invasion led to a new unity among the people, a black market network distributing weapons to people all around Cairo, who were swearing by the Prophet Muhammad that they would kill any Frenchman they encountered.  This was the same idea the French had, and so the year 1798 became one of the most violent in Egyptian history.

 

Also during this time the fabled Rosetta stone was discovered, leading scientists to believe they had uncovered the true meaning of all the ancient writings.

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In Great Britain, which defeated France in 1801, the field of Egyptology took hold on many of the greatest minds, re-imagining the history and mythology of the land, and given it a western flair that still exists in the studies of today (for example, this entire history is influenced and inspired, unquestionably, by western historical narratives.)

 

A power vacuum was now at the head of Egypt and a three-sided civil war erupted between the Ottoman Turks, the Egyptian Mamluks, who had been the previous indigenous rulers of the nation for centuries before the Ottomans arrived, an a roving mercenary band of Albanians, who had once been in the service of the Ottomans, but went independent upon the French invasion.  These barbarians attempted to pass themselves off as liberators and found a large following among the increasingly angry and violated population of growing Islamic fanatics.

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In 1805 power was finally seized by Muhammad Ali Pasha, an Albanian who organized the slaughter of all those who fought against him.  He started a dynasty which ruled Egypt until 1952.

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Pasha ruled over Egypt for nearly 43 years.  He attempted to keep peace with the Ottomans, declaring himself still in their service, but he independently sent his armies out to conquer Sudan, Syria, some of Saudi Arabia, and Anatolia.  In Europe they were nervous that he was attempting to replace the Ottoman empire, surrounding them with his own territories, and they threatened him until Pasha agreed to return some of the territory to his nominal masters.

 

Under Pasha the economy of Egypt greatly improved, the increase in salable crops one of the primary successes of his reign.  He also modernized the army into a significant world power, gathering a large portion of the population into compulsory military service to fight endless wars of conquest.

 

Towards the end of his life Muhammad Ali Pasha came to resemble many of the modern dictators in his growing paranoia and increasingly irrational demands of those under him.  He berated his sons, who were looking to succeed him, declared that they were sick and weak and dying and unable to understand what it takes to rule over a nation of such power.

 

In 1848 Pasha was without question senile, known to gibber in unknowable languages, in moments of clarity stating that he could see the archangel Gabriel, and even going so far as to declare himself the Mahdi.  When he finally died his grandson, the future ruler Abbas I, who hated his grandfather, had him quickly buried in a mosque, declared no time of mourning, nor public celebration of his life.  After a year of family fights with older relatives, Abbas came to power.

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The civil wars continued until 1863 (Abbas I was murdered by two of his slaves in 1854), until the man who came to be known as Ismail the Magnificent took over in January of 1863.

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Ismail is most noted for his development of Egyptian science, his dedication to the education of youth (both boys and girls, rich or poor) and his banning of slavery.  He even founded a new national library, filled with more than just sacred and ancient texts.  He announced that by the 20th century he wanted Egypt to be 100% literate.

 

Of course, for all these noble endeavors, Ismail was still a conqueror at heart.  Under the guise of humanitarian advancement of the end of slavery, Egypt swept into more and more African nations, Ismail’s dream being to rule every country that bordered the Nile River.  The war with Ethiopia is particularly notable.

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After gobbling up most of the remaining land of the waning Ottoman Empire in Africa, Egypt was ready to claim the entire continent.  They ravaged and rampaged, eventually taking Darfur, and waiting on the outside of the far better supplied nation of Ethiopia, ruled at that time by a man with similar tastes for conquest, Yohannas IV, who had taken over the nation in a military coup.

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The small band of Egyptian soldiers trekked through narrow mountain passes, figuring that within days they would have another land for their empire.  What they encountered was a huge mass of Ethiopian warriors, hiding for hours upon seeing the men.  They raced down to meet them.  To a man, this entire Egyptian army was either killed or surrendered.  Not a single soldier or weapon ever made its way back home.

 

This rout had a devastating effect back home, Ismail for the first time being looked upon with grave doubts.  After a second expedition was similarly defeated, led by Ismail’s son Bogos, the leader was being roundly denounced.  His son had been captured and held for a huge ransom for more than eight years, eventually being converted to the variant Ethiopian form of Islam then being practiced.  This conflict was finally settled in 1884 with British assistance.

 

Ismail was also a major player in the development and building of the Suez canal, the most significant trading gate in the history of the world to that point, connecting the Northern Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean and Red Seas, along with the Indian Ocean.  Yet these developments occurred well before the loses to Ethiopia.

 

Because of the enormous debts Egypt incurred to England during the war with Ethiopia, the British started oozing into the nation once more, financial issues overcoming, then dominating all interest in nations and religion and politics.  The Bank of England took over the debts and rendered Egypt, which at the start of Ismail’s reign had fought for freedom from Ottoman and European forces, completely dependent on the UK.

 

In 1879 a revolt within the place deposed Ismail, who was exiled to a palatial estate in southern Italy with much of Egypt’s remaining riches.  His eldest son, Tewfik Pasha, made a deal to serve as the regional leader upon the removal of his father from power.  His own reign is unremarkable.

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Ismail died shortly after he was allowed to return to his quiet castle in Constantinople, purportedly choking to death while attempting to guzzle two bottles of champagne at the same time.

 

In 1906 a nationalist movement rose up against the British with an ordeal known as the Denshawai incident.  This was when a group of arrogant British soldiers decided to start hunting pigeon for sport on a crowded beach.  When confronted by several outraged Egyptians, a fight broke out, which eventually led to one of the soldier’s guns going off (he claimed unintentionally, but even his fellow soldiers disputed this), wounding a woman.  This led to a riot, where the soldiers eventually fled, one of them exhausted by the sun, racing out into the blazing desert heat.  He collapsed and died, both of his injuries as well as dehydration.  When one of the locals stopped to try and help the man, he was arrested and accused of murder.  He was beaten to death on the spot.

 

The following day the British army arrived and they arrested fifty-two people, all of them known leaders of the nationalist movement, and nearly all of them not present at the previous day’s incident.  Half of them were whipped and sentenced to hard labor.  The rest were sentenced to death.  One of these men, Hassan Mahfouz, was hanged in front of his own house with his wife and children screaming.

Another one of the executed, the man named Darweesh, was heard to have said on the gallows,  “May God compensate us well for this world of meanness, for this world of injustice, for this world of cruelty.”

 

World War One made Egypt ever more dependent on Britain for protection.  With German incursions on the rise and growing international interest in the ancient culture of the land, they were under constant threat.  Their weapons remained in the hands of their protectors, a few loyalists given power over the radicalizing masses.

 

After World War II came and went, most of the Egyptian involvement involving mystical Nazis interested in exploring the ancient sites in search of magic weapons, British control rapidly collapsed.  In 1952 a military coup overthrew the last Sultan of Egypt, Farouk.

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The idea of the coup was far more political than it first came across, the leaders of the revolution interested in forming a constitutional republic modeled on the United States.  This corresponded, also, with a further rise in fundamentalist Islam, mostly as a result of horror over the formation of Israel.  By 1956 Egypt was invaded by England, France and Israel in what has come to be known as the Suez Crisis.

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While this was a tremendously deadly conflict, in the end it left Egypt completely in charge of the canal.

 

The leader of the 1952 revolution was Gamal Abdel Nasser,

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a man of great prominence and importance in the history of the second half of the 20th century.  In 1954 the then president of Egypt, Mohamed Naguib,

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asked the radical Muslim Brotherhood to assassinate Nasser.  After they failed, and Nasser, an Islamic moderate, cracked down on the terrorist organization, he had Naguib arrested and took control of Egypt until formally elected in 1956.

 

Without going too far into Nasser’s legacy (this essay is already very long, and that history could add nearly as much as has thus far been written), it is important to note a few things.  Here, a bullet list:

  • Helped found the United Arab Republic with the goal of unifying the neighboring nations under cooperative policies.
  • Adopted a policy of Neutralism on the escalating feud between India and Pakistan
  • Influenced by growing socialist tendencies, he abolished all political parties except for his own, convincing much of the nation that they were better off under him, which turned out to be true for most.
  • Inspired revolutionaries throughout the Arab world, who repeatedly overthrew tyrants and kings, seeking to model their new governments on Nasser’s example.
  • Was referenced as a primary influence in the Algerian revolution against France in 1962.
  • Saw the Arab world collapsing as repeated revolutions and counter-revolutions spread through the area, more of the subsequent leaders seeming to be modeled on Joseph Stalin than Nasser.
  • Continued his socialist nationalization programs, incorporating nearly every national resource into the people’s hands, giving the profits from these endeavors as tax breaks to the public, which made him very popular.
  • Saw Egypt humiliated in the Six-Day War with Israel, when, upon being warned by the Soviets that Israel was about to attack Syria, Nasser did his best to protect his Arab ally.  This led to Israel invading Egypt too, briefly.  Nasser went on television to announce the defeat, and stated he was resigning his post.  Popular protests broke out, the citizens pleading with him to remain in office, which he did.  Meanwhile, Anwar Sadat,

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  • declared that Nasser had lost his mind, and was becoming increasingly irrational.  Some of Sadat’s followers even denounced Nasser as anti-Muslim.
  • Attempted to recapture the territories lost in the Six-Day War in a conflict known as The War of Attrition.  This proved to be a back and forth stalemate, mostly, with the United States finally coming in to help with the peace process.  Their ideas were rejected because it was all about recapturing the Suez Canal.  Eventually Israel and Egypt signed a cease fire agreement (not a peace treaty).  Meanwhile the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was gaining power throughout Jordan and much of the rest of the region, turning the entire middle east into a bubbling cauldron of religious fanaticism and hatred.
  • Died of a heart attack in 1970, probably as a result of untreated diabetes and heavy smoking.

 

Anwar Sadat took over Egypt after Nasser, and his first move was to renounce the Soviet Union that Nasser had been aligned with, and to welcome the United States as Egypt’s new sugar daddy.  Sadat expelled the Soviet diplomats entirely in 1972, shortly before launching the October War–also known as the Yom Kipper War–in 1973.

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At the beginning of this brief conflict Egypt was very impressive.  Israel, not used to losing a single battle, was baffled by the calls for retreat, some of the soldiers abandoning the army to form Zionist cells (eventually known as West Bank Settlers).  But in the end Israel prevailed, as even Sadat likely suspected they would.  But the results worked out as a compromise.  The conflict, ultimately another stalemate, was far more complicated because of the presence of Syria.  Israel took much of their frustrations out upon Syria, which was admittedly transforming into an Islamic death cult, fundamentalists gaining power in these years before the Iranian Revolution.  Israel pushed Syria back into a smaller territory, further enraging the already enraged people.

 

Egypt broke the ceasefire, which had been rapidly put together at the United Nations, and went ahead in an effort to defend their ally.  This lead to some of the bloodiest days in Middle Eastern history.

 

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There were heavy casualties on both sides, and a general exhaustion with war on every side (other nations involved in this war in one way or another included Jordan, Iraq, Tunisia, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria and Cuba, and always with the hovering presence of both the United States and the Soviet Union backing the opposing sides) led to an agreement that finally culminated in 1978 at the Camp David Accords. This was a ground-breaking effort at peace, US President Jimmy Carter’s finest accomplishment, and a deal which led to both Sadat and then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin sharing the Nobel Peace Prize.

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Despite the fact that this deal was celebrated around the world (and even by the majority of Egyptians), many of the nations of the Islamic world felt betrayed, which led to Egypt being expelled from the very Arab league that they had helped start years before.  Peace was shaky in the homeland, with food shortages, occasional looting and riots, as well as radical Islamic recruitment efforts emanating from Iran.  In 1981 Sadat was assassinated by members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a group of fanatics who had declared war on everyone not a true believer.

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The result of Sadat’s assassination cannot be understated.  This event led to the birth of numerous worldwide Islamic terrorist groups, including the earliest germs of Al Quida, co-founder Ayman al-Zawahiri among the more than 1500 people arrested in the chaotic crackdown.  al-Zawahiri was recorded shouting in English from a crowded prison cell to the hordes of press passing through.  He declared that worldwide jihad was underway.

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Then Hosni Mubarak took over.

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Mubarak was a true dictator, a cruel, petty, vicious man who ruled Egypt for 29 years.

 

Mubarak had been Sadat’s vice-president, and had even been injured during the assassination.  But when the government was pieced back together there was no one willing to run against him for president.  Subsequent elections displayed the typical tyranny of the strongman: 99% of the electoral returns, numerous last minute allegations and scandals–even the arrest of political rivals leading up to election day.

 

Peppered by scandal and allegations of wide-spread corruption, Mubarak remained outside of the dirty work of his instructions, always clean and well-dressed, never even seeming to sweat when meeting some of the top leaders in the world.

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Mubarak fell once the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 got underway.  The protests, part of the Arab Spring that had spread throughout the entire region, were especially emphatic against Mubarak, who declared that he would not run for re-election later that year.  This was not good enough for the protesters, some of whom were getting violent, riots spreading, people getting killed.  Mubarak finally resigned in February, and was forced to stand trial in May for corruption, murder, and treason, among other crimes.  The old man fell ill, and was commanded to sit in a cage during his trial, saying nothing, laying in a bed and listening to the ranting of many of the people who hated him for both real and purely political reasons.

 

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Mubarak was at first found guilty, followed by his sons, but after a series of re-trials he was finally set free in 2017.

 

Egypt today is both an open, wonderful place, a product of its deep, dark and glorious history, as well as a troubling symbol of the dangers of both the ancient and modern world.  The current president–who has stated openly that he has ambitions to remain in office until at least 2034, is a slimy, toad of a man named Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

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He has made no excuses nor even evaded the charge that he wishes to be a dictator-for-life.  His true intentions can only be hinted at, however, as he is still relatively new to the game.  But his laughter in the photo above, beside a smug Donald Trump, cannot bode anything good.  It seems too genuine and, looking at the apparent indifference on the US President’s face, this sort of ebullience has nothing to do with jokes.  It can only come from promises, from an easy solution to a problem that had been worrisome.  And this is where Egypt hovers today, on the edge of a new sort of fundamentalist futurity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Uncategorized

Elsewhere Series 3 (Part Three): Bangladesh in The Dangers of Government

 

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I want you to look at this picture–really look at it and tell me what you see.  This is a horde of people in Bangladesh protesting . . . something, holding signs of preferred political leaders, people in dispute right at the front of the image, and a great diversity of belief in an alternative way of life, away from the world they have to this point been forced to endure.  It is not even that the people look angry–most of them do not.  It is the fact of this massive gathering, this dispute with whatever powers that be that makes me nervous.  I do not understand the broad radicalism that exists within Bangladesh.  I wish to explore this.

 

Now Bangladesh is not a huge nation, although it presently houses well more than 160,000,000 people.  It is an extremely religious  place, more than 90% Muslim, and they take their faith very seriously.  The majority of these people are Sunni, and while this does not represent a historical ethnicity, it is the faith that dominates nearly every function of their lives.  Bangladesh is one of those places that has defined a national religion for itself, and the handful of other believers (or non-believers), are an oppressed minority, trapped in a moment from the Crusades that ended more than six hundred years ago, regardless of the fact that the nation’s Constitution promises religious freedom.

 

Now don’t get me wrong.  Bangladesh is not some primitive nation, trapped in the turmoil of a Middle Eastern Holy War.  No.  This is a thriving country, with a burgeoning economy, and it is mentioned on the meaningless lists of bankers as one of the primary up-and-coming nations in the world.  Here.  Look at something else that may define this more purely than the radicals and fanatics:

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One cannot escape the density of the crowds.  This is a place I would never want to live, not because it lacks beauty and its own sense of perfection, but because I simply cannot tolerate crowds.  Bangladesh seems like a nightmare to me.  What has caused me to believe this way, and is it possible that I am wrong?  Down that rabbit hole we go:

 

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This is a tunnel going all the way back to ancient times.  It is a nation with a long history, dating to prehistoric eras.  In fact, tools discovered buried deep in the ground are from the Stone Age, crude, filed rocks used to hammer things into pieces, or simply to kill.  The dawn of Bangladeshi civilization goes back at least 20,000 years.

 

Let us move forward and start in the Copper Age, more than 4,000 years ago.

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There were swarms of people all throughout eastern Asia at this time who would either pass through, or settle in Bangladesh.  Located in the middle of India, whose borders are to the west, east and north, the chief divisions way back when were not about any form of nationalism, but about the babel of languages being spread from town to town, confusing everyone into what became warlike miscommunication.  Rice was the major food source, and natural materials were plentiful, including the copper that gave the era its name.  Bangladesh greatly benefited by its proximity to three major trade route rivers, the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna.  Pottery from the developing nation was also highly in demand, making many of the people wealthy.

 

By the Iron Age Bangladesh was among the first nations to develop advanced agricultural and irrigation techniques.  They began using coins made out of precious metals (copper had become one, since iron could be made by mixing it with much cheaper tin.)  This led to wealthy merchants hording most of the copper and making it otherwise scarce.  This was an early development of banking too, and this displays the greed of human nature rather profoundly in a time when most people were still learning how to live together.  Swords, axes and spears were produced out of the much denser iron, and Bangladesh, with its numerous trade routes, became one of the great suppliers of weapons of war.

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There are stories of the citizens of the region repelling invasions from Greece, led by Alexander the Great.  Roman efforts to conquer the land were also unsuccessful, regardless of the bases eventually established on the periphery in India.

 

Traditionally Buddhist and Hindu, in the late 7th Century AD Islam made its way in a spreading wave from the middle east and arrived in Bangladesh before the Christians ever had a foothold.  The inevitable religious violence ensued, sinking the nation into several hundred years of darkness, as religious crusades will always do to the people looking for some new form of hope.

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There was a man, a missionary from Persia named Syed Shah Nasir Al-Deen, who arrived in Bangladesh to spread Islam.  His initial mission of peace, however, was overwhelmed by the growing commercial Islamic movements, those, like any other corporation, who sought to plunder the land and enslave the people with the promise of paradise after a life filled with misery.  By the early 8th century, just two generations after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, the first south Asian mosque was built in Lalmonirhat, a place deemed nearly as holy as Mecca to many of the residents, seeking to grant themselves a higher divinity than their peers.

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And yet, the division between the Muslims and Hindus (the two primary powers within Bangladesh at the time) was mostly peaceful and cooperative.  This extremely well-organized society did not have time for holy civil war as commerce was still the primary faith.  It was not until 1204, when a fanatic from Afghanistan named Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khalji arrived with an army of Islamic crusaders on the Bay of Bengal with the intention of sacking the nation, taking all of its riches, and force converting those not following the proper faith (most of the Muslims in the land included).

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Bakhtiyar Khalji’s first campaign was a near genocidal slaughter of Buddhists, burning their temples, raping, pillaging and making the whole minority population fear for their lives.  Many people, as at any time we are told to convert or die, halfheartedly renounced the faith of their fathers and simply went along with the rituals in order to escape death.

 

A truly brilliant general, Bakhtiyar Khalji was the mastermind behind the rise of Islam within India (in many ways he was the founder of what came to be Pakistan more than 700 years later), and had one of several bases there.  He was put in command of numerous international armies of crusaders, hordes of violent men seeking to infect everything in their path with their own radicalism.  Anything–from art work, to food, to the people themselves, that would not submit was utterly destroyed, wiped from the earth as though it never existed.

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Now, it would be wrong to state that Islam has been wholly destructive to the ancient culture of Bangladesh (or even modern Bangladesh).  One of the great Arabic innovations that revolutionized the world was mathematics.  While there had been several different crude forms of counting in the past, and while ancient Jews had helped to perfect Egyptian and Roman monetary systems, the world of Islam provided the first experiments that would eventually lead to the development of physics, and other theoretical sciences that have since become heresy to the modern believers of the faith.  Bangladesh, with its history of innovation, took great advantage of these new ideas to continue developing their culture.  This is what it has led to today:

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Something to consider in this time of apocalyptic visions and renewed holy war.

 

The nation hasn’t always been known as Bangladesh, of course.  If we go back far enough we will find every nation has a diverse etymology.  Most places once had no names at all (all places if we choose to go back before life bubbled up out of the volcanic slime).  Bengal, and later Bangla go back to the 11th century.  It was not until the 14th century that Bangla Desh was officially taken as the name for this one particular region of Bengal.

 

Over the next 400 years Bangladeshi culture evolved in numerous directions.  The influence of Islam became so profound that the nation began resembling Persia in its habits and devotion.  Industry continued to advance and the fundamentalist rule began growing lax.  The people remained extremely religious, and they prayed every day, but there were other, more grounded practical concerns they had to busy themselves with.  There was no time for radicalism.

 

This atmosphere proved to be perfect for the British East India Company to take over the nation.  The great English ships arrived at the Bay of Bengal and completely overwhelmed the peasants, who had never seem anything so huge before.  They were thinking of Behemoth, of the arrival of the minions of Satan, and the treatment they received seemed to justify this belief.

 

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The British eliminated the religious hierarchy from power, executing many of the most outspoken, and established a system where the rich ruled over the poor.  Most of the rich people, of course, were European colonial settlers.  But there was still a massive resistance, the absolute faith in Allah as well as the Islamic commands to defy all who seek to deny the truth of Muhammad, caused widespread revivals, teaching the young a new sort of radicalism, defined by the first of a series of imposed famines, which after four years killed more than ten million people, a third of the population of Bangladesh.  These famines took place from 1769 to 1773, and the initial cause of failing crops and difficult weather was exacerbated by the British East India Company draining wells and burning fields.  They did not seem to care that they were losing a fortune in revenue (having conquered so much of the rest of the world made it a proper investment, they thought, to teach the fanatics a lesson).  And yet despite this, in a nation so utterly ravaged, the East India Company raised taxes on the survivors (including adding fees for the disposal of the bodies of their relatives), reducing this once proud nation of independent industrialists into a poverty-stricken nest of desperation.

 

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In 1857 there developed a widespread rebellion in India and the surrounding regions against the British East India Company.  It was begun when native soldiers in the employ of the company attacked their British overseers, and spread the message of revolution to the people.  Revolution caught on rapidly, the people seeming to have been waiting for such a moment.  The hostilities lasted for more than a year, ultimately ending with:

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But the Muslims had once more regained the faith of the people.  The growing Faraizi movement was more a resistance to the lapdog mentality of Hindu landlords and other Bengali natives nominally in the employ of the British.  Lawsuits were filed, and a propaganda campaign was started in an attempt to convince the people that Faraizi leader Haji Shariatullah was using the movement only to set up a kingdom of his own.

 

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After being repeatedly imprisoned, freed, then imprisoned again and tortured, Haji Shariatullah finally died a martyr.  His son, Dudu Miyan, took over the movement.  He led the Faraizi on a far more radical path than his father had ever intended, and managed to fulfill many of the outrageous claims that had been made about the passively resistant old man.

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Since that time the Faraizi movement has gone through numerous leaders and philosophical changes, mostly towards deeper and harsher fundamentalism.  When Dudu mysteriously died in 1862, he had recently appointed his two sons as his successors, Ghiyasuddin Haydar, who took over the movement to a general decline in interest and influence, until his younger brother, Naya Miyan claimed the throne, a man who was even more radical than his father.

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By the turn of the century the Faraizi movement had split into several factions, ranging from the more moderate to the farthest extreme.  ‘Terrorism,’ a world that was growing in popularity among the British when discussing unrest in their colonies, seemed to be exploding everywhere.  There were the socialists, there were pure anarchists, religious fanatics, political extremists, racists, and apocalyptic lunatics, all seeking to tear everything in the world down, then create scorched earth heathen idols in their own image.  The British were not about to stand for this.  They were not.  And neither were the French.  Or the Austrians.  The Ottomans.  The Americans.  The Prussians.  The Germans . . .

 

Before World War I the Hindu population began growing increasingly nationalistic.  They saw with fear that their population, which had been steadily declining for a thousand years, had finally reduced them to a minority.  The Muslims were now making deals with the British, ones that would never be kept, said the Hindus, because Islam was the faith of treachery.  A true holy war eventually broke out, passing the time of the World War as the British were far too preoccupied with the global conflict to bother refereeing two pagan religions fighting for colonial dominance.  And even though the Muslims had started trading in good faith, the British did not really care who won their war.

 

After this, numerous opposing factions were formed–The Bengal Provincial Muslim League, the Khilafat Movement, the Mustafa Kemel Ataturk Secularist Forces, the All Bengal Tenants Association, as well as the swelling Indian Independence and Pakistan Partition movements.  The British empire was collapsing under the strain of these political and holy wars.

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It was 1947 when Britain lost India, the last crown jewel of its empire.  Under the provisions of the Partition of Bengal, with the separation of Muslim Pakistan from Hindu India, Bangladesh was given the freedom to chose sides.  Bangladesh also decided to split apart, forming East Pakistan and West Bengal, divided also on religious lines.

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In 1968 the powerful Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was charged with sedition under claims that he met with Indian military officials with plans to destabilize Pakistan.  Whether he was guilty or not has never been formally litigated, although most people on either side of the issue believe it to be true.

 

Rahman was a socialist, and the eventual founder of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, the title the nation goes by today.  He was the first President, and later Prime Minister of his country.  As a matter of fact, his daughter, Sheikh Hasina, is the current Prime Minister of Bangladesh, the longest serving person in this position.

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Rahman was the political leader of the outright revolution within East Pakistan, a movement which sought to reverse the deal from 1947 and return Bangladesh to an independent nation.  The response to these rising groups of armed protesters was something called Operation Searchlight, a sinister attack on perceived Bengali nationalists, presumed intellectuals, students, religious minorities, and other new-aged ‘unwashed’ figures that the Pakistani government believed did not deserve to live.  This single day, March 25, 1971, initiated a nearly nine month war that has been referred to in the annuals of human atrocities as the “Bangladesh genocide.”

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As many as 3,000,000 people may have died during this death march.  Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had been arrested after winning the first Democratic election in the history of Bangladesh, the election results annulled and declared a violation of Pakistan’s bylaws.  When the war ended in December of 1971, Rahman was freed and Pakistan decided to give up the fight.  Bangladesh was free.

 

The new nation began as a coalition government, numerous political parties sharing a portion of power, but it quickly descended into a socialist dictatorship, heightened in 1974 by a devastating famine brought on by massive flooding.  More than a million people starved to death as a result of this (although the official government tally remains 27,000).  When pleading for help from India, that government declined to get involved, leaving Bangladesh to return to its recent enemy, Pakistan, for whatever assistance could be offered.  This led, once more, to a revival of Islam in the nation, one that this time, with the population exploding, would impact the nation up to the present day.

 

Rahman was assassinated in 1975, and this led to a time of coups and counter coups that would last all the way until 1990.  Two and a half months later, the leaders of the coup that toppled and killed Rahman were gunned down, five of them altogether.  A military junta took over the government after this, in 1977 naming army chief Ziaur Rahman the new president.

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Ziaur Rahman (no relation to the former Prime Minister) had been the army leader during the 1971 uprising, and had actually declared Bangladesh independent in the days before the genocide began.  As president he resumed the policies of Mujibur Rahman, removing business from government control, reinstating freedom of the press and free elections, and attempting to restore the ruined infrastructure that had only gotten worse during the years of chaos that had just passed.  He was assassinated in 1981 in another military coup d’etat.

 

The next ten years featured an unending series of governments being overthrown, more assassinations, imposed martial law, governmental corruption, and mass uprisings.  It was 1991 that saw a pause in this when Khaleda Zia was elected the first female prime minister of Bangladesh.

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Zia was married to the late Prime Minister Ziaur Rahman.  She had been active in politics since her youth, and was known to be a strong and forceful personality.  She emitted a show of power that the men of the previous ten years lacked.  When she was elected in the first free election since her husband’s last one, at first she was taken as a revelation, a return to normal life and peace.  Such was not to be the case.

 

What happened was the opening of a vicious partisan battle between opposing political parties (and ideologies).  After her first term of six years ended, Zia was roundly defeated in the parliamentary elections, raising opposition leader Sheikh Hasina to the highest office.  The battle between these women undermined much of the earth-shattering reality of two females competing uncontested for control of this nation of more than one hundred million people.  The pettiness of their political disputes resembled the same thing that has been seen since the very dawn of republican democracy, complete with name-calling and smear campaigns.

 

Hasina lasted in office until 2001, when Zia regained the seat in a highly contested election, one that saw allegations of voter fraud and fixing by other high powered politicians.  In 2006 Zia was overthrown by a new military coup, although this one with some seeming justification.  Two of Zia’s sons were arrested on corruption charges and Zia herself was about to be arrested as well, but she fled to Saudi Arabia.

 

Meanwhile, in 2004, while Hasina was leading the opposition party, terrorism once again broke out in waves, seeing the murder of several high opposition party leaders, the massacre of numerous party followers, and a failed assassination attempt against Hasina herself.  It is widely suspected that the attempt was engineered by the Prime Minister, with the help of some of the new generation, post 9/11 Islamic radicals that Zia found herself growing increasingly aligned with, not so much on faith, but as a force willing to do just about anything to win.

 

In 2007 Hasina was charged with graft and extortion by the temporary military government, fearing that she would regain power should a free election be held.  She had been outside Bangladesh since the assassination attempt, and was deeply offended and challenged by a declaration that she was banned from returning home.  She did so and was promptly arrested, then charged with plotting the murder of four random supporters of a rival political party.  Due to popular protests, as well as growing international attention, the charges were finally dropped.

 

Hasina’s legal problems continued into 2008, allegations upon allegations being hurled at her (some of which, most likely, she was guilty).  She even finally spent some time in jail before being paroled shortly thereafter due to ‘medical problems.’  The following year she was re-elected Prime Minister.

 

In the most recent election, Hasina’s party won 288 of the 300 Parliament seats, a result that led the opposition leader to declare farcical, that got Human Rights Watch involved, and which led The New York Times to ask “Why produce nonsensical election results when polls indicated that Mrs. Hasina would likely have won a fair election handily?”

 

The whole campaign was marred by violence in the streets and some rather curious, Trumpian statements that did not resemble her declarations of the past.  People have been murdered and Hasina seems to have abandoned the idea of freedom in favor of a smothering control, declaring that “If I can provide food, jobs and health care, that is human rights.”  And this is all that seems to matter any more, not just in an ancient land like Bangladesh, but everywhere.  Everywhere in the world.  Bangladesh, with its long, trans-formative history, could be taken as a model of the ups and downs of open society, the pressures of politics, and the dangers of radicalism of every stripe.

 

 

 

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Elsewhere Series 3 (Part Two): The Mystery of American Samoa

What is American Samoa?  As an American I am ashamed to say that I had no idea this series of five islands and two coral atolls was a part of my nation.  I never even knew that it existed until I noticed that a number of people from this obscure place were reading my pieces every day.  Upon beginning my research, I discovered yet another paradise.  Take a look:

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An absolutely amazing place, American Samoa should be a much more popular vacation spot than it is.  The opportunities for adventure and tropical fun are more diverse than perhaps any other Pacific Island, a place that has seen its ethnic culture dissolve since the United States claimed it as a territory in 1900.  Here are a few more images to whet your appetite (and I do not work for some Samoan travel bureau; I just really, really want to go here):

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Surfing giant waves, natural hot springs, mountain climbing and volcanoes.  They have exotic marine life:

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Scuba diving is among the most popular activities for tourists.

 

But that isn’t what American Samoa (or any other tropical paradise) is about, is it?  There are people who live there, and whose jobs, often to their resentment, is to cater to the rich people from mainland America and elsewhere, people who come to rudely exploit the natural beauty, and treat every person they encounter like servants.  And the people smile and grit their teeth and maintain enough composure to help these visitors have a great time.

 

American Samoa is, in fact, known to have the highest rate of military enlistment of any place that is part of the American empire.  This includes the United States itself.  With limited job opportunities, those who do not wish to mix frozen drinks or teach snotty teenagers how to surf, band together with a sense of desperate patriotism to protect not just their home from outside invaders, but to serve at the will of a president who they will never see other than on television.  There are even some–paranoid, the sort of person you really don’t wish to have armed and ready to kill, who do not believe that mainland America is a real place, and that they are being ruled and tricked by some amorphous ruling power that provides merely the weapons of war and nothing else.  Some even believe that there is an effort to inspire civil conflict (a long-standing stain of Samoan past), having the natives all slaughter one another in order to depopulate the islands and allow the outsiders to claim the land.

 

People born on American Samoa are considered nationals of the United States, but they are not citizens.  They do not get to vote.  They are led by people selected by others.  Perhaps one of the reasons for such a high military presence is because many soldiers hope that by the end of their service they will be welcomed into the mainland and earn their precious citizenship.

 

The Samoan islands themselves are a much larger series of islands located in the Polynesian region of the Pacific Ocean, its nearest neighbors both New Zealand on one side and Hawaii on the other.  There are of course numerous other islands not affiliated with Samoa nearby, including Fiji, Tonga, Cook Island and Micronesia.  It is believed that the first organized civilization on these islands existed nearly 3000 years ago, dated by artifacts uncovered by archaeologists.

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The second image is exactly what it looks like, ancient sex toys that were preserved by volcanic eruptions.

 

During the dark ages many people of means were fleeing on ships, hoping to find somewhere in the world to live, away from the bleak, harsh and murderous terror of the religious fanatics plundering the world.  Many of these Europeans discovered Samoa, Fiji and Tonga, treating the natives they way the fanatics had threatened to treat them.  There was wholesale slaughter of resisting indigenous people.  Hypocritically the Europeans brought their own demanding religions–convert or die thrown into play.  It is during this time that the history of Samoa is lost, the great craftsmanship of their pottery eliminated, the recorded oral narratives coming to an end.

 

There is a great mythology to Samoa–a secret scripture known only to the descendants of the ancient rulers, crouched in a language no one speaks any more.  Among the few narrative histories that have been allowed to be translated, one tells of the great leader Tui Manu’a, of whom it is told that he landed on every one of these nearby Polynesian islands and established a unity between all the people.  He is credited with founding Samoa, Cook Island, and one named after himself, the island of Manu’a.

 

Cannibalism was a major part of the natives diet, the natural resources plentiful as far as fruit (breadfruit, primarily) and other edible vegetation went, but the need for meat went beyond the hazard of spear fishing (much of marine life was either poisonous or man-eating).  The act of cannibalism was ritualistic, celebrating the lives of those who passed, those killed in regional warfare (from whichever side), and those who were victims of crimes, both cooked, or eaten raw during native religious ceremonies.  This practice was one of the deepest causes of revulsion among the Europeans of the early 18th century who eventually arrived to take from the islands whatever they could.  Of course some of the missionaries were devoured themselves, leading to the growing horror stories of innocent white people being boiled in a pot, or simply consumed raw by fang-faced, ravenous savages.

 

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The truth is of course a mixture of legend and recollected history.  In 1722 the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen was the first European to discover Samoa.  He was transfixed, mesmerized by the singular beauty of the place.

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Roggeveen is perhaps better known for his discovery of Easter Island in the same year, finding the iconic face statues that remain a mystery to this day, similarly consumed vy Druidic imagery alongside the murky question mark of Stonehenge all the way over in Wales (the sixth location in Series 3).

 

Throughout his journeys, this employee of the Dutch India Company kept detailed maps of the many islands he landed upon, took note of the several thousand indigenous people he found already living there, described the flora and fauna in exacting detail, and generally made no aggressive actions to conquer the natives.  This did not prevent a few resentful tribes from ambushing him and his crew, ultimately killing (and eating) ten sailors, for whom Roggeveen was compensated by the company when he returned to the Netherlands to write his travel memoir.

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In 1768 the far more warlike Louis Antoine de Bougainville, arrived with the intention of claiming the whole network of islands for France.  Bougainville was a brilliant man, the son of a corrupt notary.  He studied law briefly before abandoning it for adventure in the military.  He also wrote a complicated treatise on integral calculus alongside the famous French mathematician Guillaume de l’Hopital.

 

Bougainville rapidly became a celebrated solider, participating in both the Seven Years War as well as, later, the American Revolution on the side of the colonialists.  Upon his arrival on the Samoan Islands, after a brief war that saw many people, both French and natives, killed, the French claimed the mainland of Samoa, which Bougainville renamed Navigation Island.

 

By 1789, as France descended into their violent revolution, native warriors on Samoa took advantage and attacked the colonial government, killing many of the highest commanders, causing the fleeing general to rename the island once again, this time “Massacre Island.”  To this day the coast off the site of the attack is named “Massacre Bay.”

 

By the 19th century religious missionaries swarmed to Samoa, hearing rumors about how violent and dangerous the savages were and thinking that they and they alone could save these primitive people’s immortal souls.  The United States and Great Britain were now the nations sending their priests and soldiers, both guilty of much barbarity in the shadows behind the fanatical missionaries, who would boil the natives alive until they renounced their sins.  Since none of the missionaries bothered to learn the Samoan language, salvation was a very rare thing, left up to the Samoans who had learned English to negotiate peace.

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By the 1880s civil war broke out on the islands, two warring tribal kings, Malietoa Laupepa and Mata’afa Iosefo, sought to claim control over the entire chain of islands, regardless of the American, British, and now German dominance of the entire region.  Laupepa was favored by the western powers, himself being enamored by the modern world that had been brought to his home, although Iosefo took the time to learn English in attempts to get both the Americans and British to side with him.

 

The war lasted, intermittently, for eight years, up until 1894.  The battles had mostly been led by the Germans, who were busy looting and establishing bases on the islands, while aggressively challenging the British and Americans.  The war itself finally ended in 1894 when Laupepa was finally named king.  Throughout the final years the Germans, British and Americans were all caught up in a stand-off, their warships eyeing each other and occasionally firing shots.  Throughout this first war more than 200 people were killed and many more were crippled, killed in cyclones, or inflicted with leprosy and gangrene.

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The cyclone in question occurred on March 15, 1889.  While the Germans and Americans were busy threatening one another, their navigators were fully aware and busy warning their captains that a catastrophic storm was forming near the coast.  Each side saw this as an advantage, assuming that whatever remained of the war on land would be washed away, and whoever was left standing could claim all of Samoa.  The result turned out otherwise.

 

More than 300 sailors from both sides were drowned, every ship save one was destroyed (the British HMS Calliope).  On land the war went on, the usual feasts celebrating the dead putting it momentarily on hold until the fighting resumed in earnest.

 

By 1898 the British, Americans and Germans were locked in a much fiercer battle for control of the islands.  Malietoa Laupepa had died and Mata’afa Iosefo was suddenly thrust back into power, much to the horror of the British and Americans, who supported (and controlled) Laupepa’s son, Malietoa Tanumafili I against the German backed Iosefo.  This led to another brief conflict, lasting less than a year.

 

In the first exchange of the war the US and UK bombed much of the island into submission, causing great devastation to areas that were still attempting to rebuild from the cyclone.  The second exchange went the opposite way, the Germans fighting back with a focused attack that sank many ships and killed many soldiers.  The war ended in a stalemate, which was finally resolved at the Tripartite Convention of 1899, which divided the islands between the German run Samoa, and American Samoa.  Britain opted out by receiving a large payment from Germany, as well as a resolution to end conflict between the two nations.

 

And so American Samoa was born, fully established in 1900 as a protectorate of the growing United States of America.  It was not officially named ‘American Samoa’ until 1911, but it had rapidly become a Naval Station, the soldiers pouring in, both the William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt administrations eager to expand the domain of the nation.  A coaling station was set up, both to feed the battleships and to ship back home, making the new property into a profitable one.

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World War I left American Samoa alone, although towards the end, when the influenza pandemic of 1918 was killing people all over the world, the governor of the islands, John Martin Poyer, quickly suggested sending quarantine ships to nearby soldiers and citizens, as well as those on the mainland, saving many lives.  American Samoa was one of three places in the entire world to have no deaths from the pandemic.  Poyer was considered a hero by the people on the island and was awarded the Navy Cross for his efforts.

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On December 28, 1929 a non-violent protest for independence was broken up by New Zealand police officers with guns.  The idea of the march had been formed by Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III.  He had previously been arrested and sentenced to six months in prison for refusing to pay his taxes.  The special force New Zealand police were put into place by a British administrator who wished to escape responsibility for the actions he knew were about to happen.  As the conflict erupted, the special forces firing randomly into the crowd, Lealofi rushed to the front of his people, turned his back on the police, and told his followers to be peaceful as he noticed several of them beginning to throw rocks.  The police shot him in the back, killing him.  The story claims that Lealofi’s last words were “My blood has been spilt for Samoa. I am proud to give it. Do not dream of avenging it, as it was spilt in peace. If I die, peace must be maintained at any price.”

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During World War II the number of US Soldiers stationed in American Samoa actually outnumbered those living there.  Children as young as 14 were compelled into military service, which they proudly committed themselves to.  The Samoans became know as fierce fighters and excellent soldiers, several of them earning military honors.

 

In 1949 there was a movement in Congress to incorporate American Samoa and name it a state, giving the homeland an even greater presence throughout the world.  This was defeated, only to be modified in 1959 with the admission of Hawaii into the national community.

 

Other incidents of note occurring on American Samoa is the retrieval of astronauts from numerous Apollo missions, including the doomed Apollo 13, a few hundred miles off the coast of Pago Pago.

 

American Samoa and Samoa have grown more distant from one another as the international influences that have guided these lands over the past hundred years have transformed the people into modern aborigines, many of them relegated to encampments and reservations.  This has led to a lot of immigration to New Zealand, for those seeking hope for their futures.

 

American Samoa is very poor today, which gives the nation its very high military enlistment.  As a result, by percentage, the number of American Samoans who have been killed in the modern wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria is disproportionately large.

 

A number of individuals from American Samoa have successfully immigrated to the mainland, finding careers in the NFL and WWE–large, powerful men and women with great natural abilities and an ambition that is not generally a priority on the tranquil islands of their birth.  American Samoa remains a faraway place locked mostly in people such as myself’s imagination–the product of a Herman Melville novel or the uncertain perversions of Marlon Brando in the early 1960s, while filming his Mutiny on the Bounty.  But the truth is, for all the reading I have now done to discover just a small fragment of the past of this fascinating place, I still cannot claim to know anything about the culture, about the climate, about the way that people live in a place so very far away from home.

 

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Elsewhere Series 3 (Part One): Sri Lanka: A Prehistoric Paradise

 

Sri Lanka is one of the most beautiful places on earth.  Here, look:

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I have never been here, not out of any sort of prejudice, nor a cultural fear, visiting a tiny Asian nation I am only learning about as I write this (and who doesn’t want to see elephants up close?)  But the fact that this Edenesque paradise exists is endlessly appealing.  It seems an awful lot like heaven, although if such a place is true, no doubt I will end up elsewhere.

 

But why do I title this piece “Prehistoric Paradise?”  Well for one thing there is evidence of human civilization existing there as long as 500,000 years ago.  There was definitely a culture present during the Paleolithic and Mesolithic eras, based upon recovered tools and bones and other relics.  There have also been discovered the bones of nearly Homo-Sapien man literally inside caves, places with etchings on the walls and examples of pictorial communications.

 

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The political and social history of Sri Lanka is a long one as well.  Located south of India, this island nation was once of tremendous strategic importance on the ancient (as well as modern) Silk Road, serving as a trading post between South Asia and Africa, for whichever larger nation was then controlling the place.

 

In fact, Sri Lanka’s name has gone through many changes throughout this dense history.  Currently the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (in English translation, anyway), the numerous colonial governments that have run the nation have imposed their own identities upon it.

 

Initially known simply as Lanka (which means “island”), the island was rapidly renamed in the Tamil language Ilanku, which means “to glitter” after navigators from India discovered gold and jewels within its caves.  Later the Romans, Arabs and Persians all had their say, ravaging the natural beauty of Sri Lanka in quest for its riches.  They each began calling it by a variation of the word “serendipity” in their separate languages (“Serendivis,” Serandib,” and “Serandip,” respectively).  This was a curious name considering the enslavement and slaughter of the people, and the demands of constant warfare between the different empires, although it is also safe to say that many of the higher ups within each nation spent some vacation time on Sri Lanka, raping and murdering at their leisure.

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Prior to those wars an exiled Indian Prince, Vijaya, after running away from his home in forgotten disgrace in 543 BC, settled on the island and, even before rapidly conquering it with his followers, named it Tamraparni, which in Sanskrit means “copper covered leaf” (?)  Prince Vijaya, at least in the epics he had his court historians tell, is considered to be the first king of Sri Lanka.  Later works refer to Vijaya’s reign, including John Milton’s Paradise Lost (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780393962932&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used), Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9781853260360&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used), where the island is painted even more fantastically and renamed “Trapobana,” and, most significantly, in the Portuguese national epic Os Lusiadas (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=30169374377&searchurl=kn%3Dos%2Blusiadas%26sortby%3D17&cm_sp=snippet-_-srp1-_-title22).

 

Rulers such as Prince Vijaya afterwards ruled the island (sometimes with the permission of whichever nation had them presently conquered) all the way until 1815, when the British came.  A major transformation of society occurred around 250 BC when Buddhism arrived, missionary monks claiming hold on Mahinda, son of then ruler Ashoka.  When Mahinda took over the nation, everything changed.

 

There were still constant pirates rampaging off the coast of Sri Lanka, and eventually other nations attempted invasions, trying to fully conquer the island.  Sometimes they succeeded, usually they failed, but the curious thing, no matter the outcome, regardless of who took over to reign, each new leader was seduced by the tranquil glory of the place in between the chaos of war, and converted to nativism, often going to war with the very nations that sent them to take the island.

 

The rise of Buddhism on Sri Lanka was massive, aimless natives still living in prehistoric conditions welcoming the hope of a new way of life to bring them into the modern world.  The nation became filled with monks, with a transcendentalist fervor that was unmatched even in India or China.  There erupted a sect of fanatical Buddhists in Sri Lanka who, unlike the traditionally peaceful believers, set about with forced conversions and the occasional assassination of political leaders, the most significant being the freely elected Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1959.

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Bandaranaike was a left-wing nationalist who ran on a platform of defending “the besieged Sinhalese culture.”  This was the majority ethnicity, and much of the rest of the diverse culture took offense at these efforts, claiming the intention was to destroy the traditional languages and native ways of life numerous different people had lived with for thousands of years.  The assassination set off a series of coups and Communist infiltration, which eventually led to the yet again reformation of the island.

 

Back to the distant past:

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In 993 AD Sri Lanka was divided into two separate territories after India invaded.  They would eventually capture the emperor Mahinda V, dragging him back to India, where he would die in prison years later.  Mahinda V had been a terrible leader, a dilettante who spent most of his time having orgies in temples like the one above.  He repeatedly refused to pay the army’s soldiers, which eventually led to their abandonment of his rule, joining in with the invaders.

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During Mahinda V’s reign the nation, for the first time in its recorded history, had descended into extreme poverty, children literally dying in the streets from malnutrition and dehydration.  When India invaded Mahinda V first fled to Southern Sri Lanka, establishing a makeshift rule until a much larger invasion in 1017 conquered the whole island, finally reuniting it in 1070.

 

The Indian leaders continued to be seduced by Sri Lanka, pouring their hearts and souls into their new home, improving the irrigation and farming systems, thus saving the lives of the many residents.  Most of the citizens converted to the slightly different style of Buddhism the Indians imported, and the nation rested in peace for a short time.

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The ruler who had done so much for the good of the nation, known to history as Parakramabahu the Great, died in 1186.  Parakramabahu truly earned the addition to his name, overseeing the single largest irrigation project in the history of the world up to that time, establishing more than 1000 new reservoirs, and repairing all the decaying dams and waterways throughout the land.  He even led wars against India, where they not only were liberated, but actually took a portion of the mainland as their own.  He attacked Ramanna (now Myanmar) because the rulers of that land kept insulting not just Parakramabahu, but the people of Sri Lanka themselves.

 

After Parakramabahu’s death, everything seemed to once more fall into disrepair.   By 1215 Sri Lanka was back into dire poverty, the irrigation system collapsing, when a pirate named Kalinga Magha, known to Sri Lankan history as Magha the Tyrant, arrived and sacked and looted the country for the first time since the reign of the Persians more than a thousand years before.

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Magha the Tyrant had two goals as leader (he ruled Sri Lanka for 21 years), and that was to acquire as many riches as he could from the increasingly desiccated land, and to destroy all native traditions and cultures, setting up a new religion with himself as the vengeful god.  This led to a massive migration of the people back into the mountains, into the caves in a desperate attempt to escape Magha’s barbarity.

 

A revolt was finally led against the army of more than 24,000 soldiers Magha had at hand by King Vijayabahu III, who managed to exploit the discontent of Magha’s soldiers and force the tyrant to flee to a smaller portion of Sri Lanka known as Jaffna, where it is suspected Magha originally came from.  He ruled there until his death in 1255.

 

From there Sri Lanka descended into more than 200 years of family struggles and civil wars, the endless refrain from this period of history all over the world.  Brothers battled brothers, fathers versus sons–even mothers and daughters got into the fray as gender roles were far less restrictive in this region than they were in the west.  All this finally came to an end in 1505, when the Portuguese arrived.

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Lourenco de Almeida was an explorer and the conqueror of the southern tip of India.  When he arrived and saw the wonders of Sri Lanka he fell in love.  Rapidly he oversaw the building of numerous ports, eventually taking over the both the northern and western coasts.  This led to a heavy influx of Portuguese onto the island, many of them Inquisitional missionaries for the Order of Christ.  True believing Buddhists were slaughtered en masse, many of them so content in their faith that they lit themselves on fire before the Portuguese had a chance to torture them.  The then nominal ruler of Sri Lanka, Vimaladharmasuriya I, fled into the interior of Sri Lanka, where he believed he and his people were more secure.  This worked until 1619, when Portugal conquered the entire island, installing their own choice of a series of kings, none of whom lasted long.  The island was renamed Ceylon, a name which stuck around for hundreds of years, only prefaced with ‘Portuguese,’ ‘Dutch,’ and finally ‘British.’

 

In 1638 the Dutch ruler decided that he wanted Ceylon for himself, and he hired the Dutch East India Company, one of the first gigantic corporations in the history of the world, to throw the Portuguese out.  This battle became the center piece of a much larger war, the Dutch-Portuguese War, which began all the way back in 1602, a worldwide conflict of competing empires for their dominant place in the world.  The war extended from the Americas to Africa, and all the way into India, and the even farther east.  It also involved Spain (whom the Portuguese were allied with), and the Netherlands.  In every way this more than sixty year battle (an extension of the 80 Years War) should be considered World War I.

 

The Dutch East India (and their sister the West India) Company rapidly obliterated the Portuguese, who followed the lead of the native Ceylonese and fled to the center of the country, which became a breeding ground for radicals and revolutionaries.  A new ethnic group emerged out of the cross-breeding of the Ceylonese and the Portuguese, known as the Burgher people, repopulated much of the region.  They would later emerge as a separate power within the nation.

 

Despite the seemingly endless warfare, the kingdom in the center managed to survive all the way up until the Napoleonic Wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  Once France conquered the Netherlands, Great Britain saw Sri Lanka as up for grabs.  They raced their superior navy to the island and quickly took it in 1796.  The then ruler of interior Sri Lanka was a sickly old man named Sri Rajadhi Rajasinha, who died a year after the British invaded.  His nephew, who came to be known as Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, was only 18 years old at the time, came into power and began fighting a resistance against the British with surprisingly successful results.

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The interior empire managed to maintain their independence of another twelve years until the absolute control of the island was taken by the British East India Company, one of the greatest military powers of its day (greater, perhaps, even than England itself).  The Treaty of Amiens had granted England control of Ceylon and, despite the fact that France repeatedly reneged on this deal, by the end of the French Revolutionary Wars and the final fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, English rule of the island was uncontested.  The interior capital of Kandy finally collapsed in 1817, ending all independent rule on Ceylon.

 

After this the British East India Company controlled the island and the people in much the same way they did with other protectorates under their control.  The chief crop of Ceylon was coffee, and a broad market was opened up in the west.  More than gold and jewels, coffee became the chief interest among those seeking to make their fortune.  After fourteen years of plundering the nation, an economic depression hit Europe, forcing the price of coffee down.  This led to the British imposition of taxes on nearly everything in Ceylon: guns, shops, boats–even dogs.  The outraged people once again rebelled when the crown insisted on six free days of labor, thus restoring slavery to the island.

 

The economy of Ceylon was saved by both the development of a new brand of tea and the rise of the rubber industry towards the end of the 19th century.  By the early 20th century Ceylon was thriving as one of the prizes of the British empire.  As World War I sent the world into anarchy, the island remained a safe plantation society, the separate ethnic groups forging treaties, and the younger generations becoming increasingly educated.  There was a slow-moving socialist movement developing.

 

After the war there was a demand for many constitutional reforms, things that the British were not interested in implementing.  They managed to make some deals with a few corrupt parliamentarians, giving them new, more impressive colonial titles, and allowing the nation to sink into deeper and darker dictatorships.  The British managed to split these titles into transparent competitions of loyalty between the recently unified Sinhalese and Tamil populations, knowingly splitting them apart into increasingly violent protests and racial wars.

 

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Ganapathipillai Gangaser Ponnambalam emerged as a national leader in 1937, forming the first Tamil political party in Ceylon’s history.   In parliament he demanded that the nation be divided into 50/50 representation, with the majority Sinhalese getting half, and all of the other ethnic groups the other half.  This was rejected after seven years of debates and further demands and compromises offered, in 1944.

 

Throughout World War II Ceylon remained a mostly ignored island in the Indian Ocean, running as a business-as-usual colony of the British Empire.  After the war, as England was losing much of its power and influence, as their preoccupation with India overwhelmed their post-war business alongside the burgeoning Cold War, Ceylon gained its independence in 1948, still facing ethnic problems, but momentarily unified with the idea of freedom.

 

The British remained off the coast until 1956, protecting their increasingly dwindling properties.  In 1953 there was a large popular uprising–a hartel–inspired by the increasingly dominant socialist party leaders, calling for widespread strikes and outright business shut downs to protest the imposition of a rice ration.  This was the first uprising of the citizens of Sri Lanka against an elected leader.  It had tremendous consequences for the future.

 

When Prime Minister Bandaranaike was assassinated in 1959, the religious conflicts then exploding all over the world came to Ceylon.  One of those religions–which overtook Buddhism for a time–was Soviet Communism.  Bandaranaike’s wife, Sirimavo took over the government upon her husband’s death.  She was very popular among the masses, and even more popular with the military.  She was such an influential leader that she managed to withstand and then thrive as the result of a failed coup attempt.

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The changes to the nation that Sirimavo Bandaranaike made were vast, including removing English as Ceylon’s primary language and replacing it with native Sinhalese.  Of course this lead to wide outrage among the more than two million Tamil people, who were additionally riled up by opportunistic political leaders.  Sirimavo eventually sent troops in to arrest the leaders and kill a few protesters as a statement.  When the workers tried to cause business shutdowns and impact the once again growing economy, she simply nationalized the means of production and hired only party loyalists.  By 1964 Sirimavo had invited both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China to invest in the nation, and the infiltration of Communist ideology was nearly complete.  And while Sirimavo, after signing the papers, insisted to the people that she had signed a policy of non-alignment, she left office shortly thereafter and was replaced by a stooge to the Russians.

 

Ethnic conflicts were reaching a boiling point around this time.

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What can only be called a race war exploded between the Sinhalese and Tamil, a chaotic war paralleling, in some rather profound ways, the war in Vietnam.  It became less about ethnic dominance than political absolutism after a short time and the initial massacres.  In 1971 a Marxist insurrection broke out, with the Communists claiming numerous small towns, one after the other, for two months, until the military caught up with them and put them down.  In 1987 this same group, with a new generation of leaders, would make a similar effort with far more success.

 

In 1972 Ceylon officially changed its name to Sri Lanka, using this as an emotional calling together of the nation, finally throwing off the scourge of its colonial history.  Of course the success of this style of politics reignited the still festering ethnic battles as politicians of both Sinhalese and Tamil background began using the politics of outrage to enrage their bases, ungluing social cohesion once again.

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In 1977, seven years after Sirimavo Bandaranaike had regained the Prime Minister’s seat, J.R. Jayewardene won in a landslide election.  He would remain in office until 1989.  Jayewardene was a new style of leader for the rapidly modernizing Sri Lanka.  He introduced a new constitution, which, over the years, provided amendments for term limits, rules to handle corrupt officials, including impeachment and criminal prosecution, while excluding the President from prosecution (he also altered the government enough to change the name of the highest office from Prime Minister to President, making the Prime Minister more of a ceremonial title of honor), the making of Tamil as a second official language, as well as numerous redistricting provisions, the increase in the number of members of parliament, and new laws regarding the committees who vote high court judges into office.

 

Jaywardene also proposed drastic economic reforms, transforming Sri Lanka into a free market economy.  All these new laws distracted the President from the still simmering ethnic tensions, as well as the rise of a terrorist organization called The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who were seeking to succeed from from Sri Lanka and form their own radical state.  Their first move came in 1975 when they assassinated the mayor of Jaffna.  As they rose in power and influence, they eventually grew large enough to launch the Sri Lankan Civil War, a bloody conflict that lasted from 1983 until 2009.

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It was in 1983 when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTEE) attacked and killed 13 Sinhalese soldiers, beginning a race riot that led directly to the civil war.  The murders of these soldiers devolved into something now known as Black July, which was a week of anti-Tamil pogroms, enraged Sinhalese taking to the streets of the mostly segregated Tamil towns, burning, looting and murdering everything in their path.

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It was also during this crisis that Muslims began being targeted by mobs on either side.  The LTEE attempted to exile them into other nations, while the Sinhalese did not much care what happened to them, so long as they were gone.  It is, of course, unfair to name the two ethnic groups as specifically responsible for this horrible time, but those who led the duel-headed mobs identified themselves as hard-line supporters of the superiority of their own race.

 

If you can believe it, following Jayewardene’s twelve years in office, Sirimavo Bandaranaike was back in the spotlight, surviving an assassination attempt by the LTEE and assuming the leadership of the opposition party.  Her daughter, Kumaratunga, had risen in the political movement and, following the assassination of her chief rival in 1994, Kumaratunga was elected President of Sri Lanka.  She named her mother Prime Minister, despite her declining health.

 

When Sirimavo (who had been the first female Prime Minister of any nation in the history of the world) died of a heart attack in 2000, three days of national mourning were declared.  She has since been re-evaluated (and re-evaluated again) and has come to be known as a woman’s hero, enduring as much trouble and danger as she was forced to, and still managing to come out on top.  It is easy in hindsight to ignore many of the ignoble or even evil acts a leader commits all in the name of patriotism, and that appears to be the case regarding this influential woman.

 

Sri Lanka was devastated in 2004 by the Asian earthquake and tsunami, which killed more than 35,000 people on the island and disrupted the economy so drastically that it still has yet to fully recover.  The civil war, at the same time, was still raging.  As it began to wind down in 2009 several of the more radical factions went on killing sprees, slaughtering children, burning and blowing up crowded buildings and town squares.  It is estimated that throughout the entire war as many as 100,000 people were killed.

 

Today Sri Lanka is still attempting to reconcile the warring factions within its midst.  It is a nation of more than 20,000,000 people, and it is a hectic, very busy place, peopled by mostly diligent and hard-working individuals, seeking the same things, I suppose, as everyone else in the world, living in the shadow of racial and ethnic and religious conflicts; trapped in a world where money is often the only thing that matters and the earth seems to be turning against us with an apocalyptic harshness.

 

In 2016, on the celebration of the 68th Independence Day, the Tamil version of the national anthem was sang for the first time since 1949.  This caused some grumbling among several political leaders, and resulted in a few minor squabbles, but otherwise seemed to point in the direction of a new, better way of life, one where it is only religion which divides people.  A recent poll listed Sri Lanka as the eighth most religious country in the world, with 99% of the people stating that religion has a very important role in their lives.  (The nations in front of it are, in order, Bangladesh [Wednesday’s essay], Somalia, Ethiopia, Niger, Yemen, Indonesia, and Malawi).  Sri Lanka is still vastly majority Buddhist, but Hinduism and Islam are both growing rapidly while Christianity continues to diminish.

 

And yet for all of this past and coming conflict, and for all of the differences and hatred that even a place such as this has engineered over its hundreds of thousands of years of civilized history, there is one thing left to remember before judging the ancient land too harshly, because this is still Sri Lanka:

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Parental Influence Over Youth Sports

 

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Before beginning another major series I wanted to discuss something a little more personal, something that people might relate to.  Something more down to earth.  Babe Ruth baseball season starts today, Saturday, April 6 (it’s 2019, for posterity’s sake).  The game starts at 8 AM–or the ‘scrimmage’ (does not count towards the regular season), and I will provide updates, not play-by-play, but more og the usual sociological perspective in line with the title of this piece.

 

Anyway, to begin with there is my son.  He’s 13 year’s old and he is extremely fast.  He has a strong, if rather wild, arm and, he is a particularly good fielder, which is pretty rare in his age group, where everyone’s chief interest is to swing for the fences on every pitch.  And that’s another thing, call it the weakest part of his game: the boy can’t hit.  Oh, he makes contact, not feebly flailing away a half a second too early or too late.  He just usually dribbles the ball through the infield, or pops out to shallow left.  Sometimes his speed gets him on base, and he has an excellent eye, walking at least once nearly every game over his four year career (this is his fifth season.)

 

I have no idea what to make of his team yet.  This is his first year in the Babe Ruth league.  Last year (our first in this present community) many of the other boys  playing alongside him played in the same regional ‘youth baseball’ league (‘Little League’ is apparently yet another term whose time has passed, sinking into some swirl of uncertainty and offense.)  Some of those kids are pretty damn good.  Some of these newly teenage behemoths  are bigger than me.

 

Last year the team he was on was run by a terrible person–an angry, pushy coach whom no one on the team and none of the parents liked.  He would humiliate kids for not playing well–for missing a fly ball or striking out with runners on.  He would yell at the kids–yank them from the game in the middle of an at-bat and then tell them that they sucked in the dugout.  You might be surprised, or even shocked, to hear this, but you shouldn’t be.

 

Sports parents take on a few forms, none of them particularly admirable.  You can be the stomping, ranting bully, always demanding the unrealistic from their child, living out their own shattered dreams by insisting that their child succeed where they couldn’t.  Sometimes the parents are just assholes, understanding nothing about team play and only interesting in their own child, considering them better than everybody else regardless of whether they actually are.  In truth, the parents of the most talented kids tend to be far better people, those who might drive their children very hard, but do so with support and genuine interest in what the child is doing.

 

Other sports parents scream violence from the stands–calling out umpires, on rare occasion even running on the field to argue balls and strikes.  These are also the parents who boo kids on the other team, who laugh out loud and mock some poor child who missed a ball and caused a run to score.  They criticize their child for striking out and treat them like a loser because they could not drive in the winning run.

 

Then there are the parents like myself and, frankly, most of the others, realizing that their child is never going pro, and there to support them in any way they can, watching the games endlessly, often not wanting to be there and frequently annoyed at the endlessness of the day after day games and the two month loss of the weekend.  We are the ones who laugh in the stands, mostly condemning the coaches and rooting for one another’s children.  We stay out of the rough and tumble of the urgent, psychopathic parents in team uniforms, pretending that they are an actual part of the league.  Most of us simply sit there and watch when parents are asked to help clean up the field after the game.  We contribute the bare minimum–our child having fun, and take it unseriously.

 

Here are some of the parents present today in my upper middle class suburban community (still a foreign land for this jaded and impatient city boy):  take this guy, walking past me as I sit in the car to avoid the wet cold until game time.  It is about 42 degrees (Fahrenheit, for those trapped in the metric system) and it rained all night long.  This man looks silly in orange shorts riding up the crack of his ass, his legs goose-pimpled beneath their going slightly gray tangled hair.  He’s in an anonymous sweatshirt, perhaps promoting a different sports league out of his child’s past, or maybe even one from his own.  He’s wearing a baseball hat, sure, one that he spent twenty-five dollars on to prove that his son plays on a team.  He sports a weird strip of gray facial hair–really a stripe on his face like he’s some sort of model in Hustler magazine (only, you know, on his face) He has his hands in his pockets and is shuffling around on his feet, clearly freezing but unwilling to admit this to anyone–most of all himself.  He tells everyone that he is all man.

 

He is talking with the other fathers, things about professional sports, things like “You see how terrible the Red Sox are this year,” or “The Phillies are looking great!”  These other men all have some form of neatly trimmed facial hair, goatees and other circular grasps at fur as the scruff atop their heads blows away in the wind. (For myself, also gradually losing my hair, I am simply grubby and unshaven.)

 

 

The boys are warming up now as I sit upon a wet, freezing metal bleacher, the only one of the parents not standing.  The rest seem to be readying themselves to be harsh east coast fans, more than simply demanding.  They are angry.  They want to be amused, entertained.  More than anything they want to win.  There is a mixture of shouts, all shouting the others down.  One of the coaches–an arrogant know-it-all who does not appear to like children–shouts indifferent orders about “good throws and good catches.” (The head coach, this year, actually seems like a great guy–fun and fun-loving.  He is no doubt a man who knows how to have a good time)  This secondary coach is watching neither the throwing nor the catching.  He stares into his cell phone, perhaps seeing if his afternoon rendezvous with his mistress has been cancelled due to rain.

 

More parents are gathering as many of the boys show up late (mom or dad’s fault, although none of them admit this.)  Two people nervously uttered something about their kid taking forever, which is why they are late without having been asked.  This is bad parenting.  Some of these men are bad parents.

 

The mothers are an interesting mixture too.  These are not the gymnastics moms (my daughter was once involved with this).  Those mothers are every bit as harsh and demanding as the baseball, football and basketball fathers, and frequently much worse.  They tend to hate the other parents, while the guys, at the very least, like to sullenly smirk around critics of a like mind.  But the mothers at youth baseball tend to be either hyper-enthusiastic or utterly indifferent.  The hyper-enthusiastic are insane, talking in a language that few people understand, involved with tactics and techniques, all in the most technical terms–speaking way over our heads, themselves once prime athletes too.  Their kids tend to be the most talented players.  These women, sometimes far too aggressively, seem to want to help everyone be better.  The indifferent are just that.  They sit there with younger children, teaching them to be disinterested in their sibling’s accomplishments, or merely staring into their phones throughout the entire game.

 

 

I just took five minutes to watch the coach with the boy who I guess is going to be their ace pitcher.  The kid throws hard, although his range and accuracy are limited.  The trouble here, however, has less to do with occasional wildness, and is entirely focused upon the non-stop jabbering of the man standing right behind him on the mound, giving directions even during the wind up.  He is clearly annoying the boy, but is so funny and charming that you simply can’t be angry with him.

 

I walk over to the gathered fathers standing along the third base line and make a bland comment to one of them about the rain.  He seems thrilled, all of the sudden, to have someone to talk to.  He busily talks about his child, making sure that I know that last year he was an all-star.  He tells me what a great pitcher his son is.  He says I should keep an eye on his all season.

 

Another child is tubby, slow.  He cannot catch.  He cannot throw.  I am certain that he cannot hit.  The boy looks miserable.  Some of the other kids–my son are mocking him.  I am the only one to say anything, the boy’s father red faced.  I call my son over.  I ask him what is going on.  My son says that the boy is very shy, and is probably the nicest person he has ever met, but that the other kids don’t want him on their team because he isn’t any good at the game.

 

My son is presently telling some of the others to stop.  A few– the kids of the real fucking assholes, those in their Hummers and weekend Porsches–the bulk of them in expensive SUVs that they really don’t need–they refuse to let it go.  Every third word out of their mouths is some form of ‘fuck.’  One of these 13 year old kids, apparently with the nodding approval of his father, talks about how he “finger fucked” his girlfriend “last night in the fucking basement.”

 

 

So the game has finally started and I go to socialize.  I spoke with one of the dads for a while–one of those forgettable discussions about previous seasons and our cursory plans later in the day (my daughter gets a nice birthday dinner at some joint back home in the city.)  Decent guy; right attitude.  He does not take it too seriously, unlike most of the other parents, anxiously pacing around, calling out balls and strikes.

 

One guy–a real motherfucker, so harsh in this scrimmage towards his son that the boy walked off the field crying–seems to believe that his child’s team is all about himself.  Winning is everything as far as he is concerned (this game is essentially preseason and does not count).  This is the lesson he offers his son, a form of bitter aggression that will someday consume him when he has his own children to boss around.  He, like so many others, is creating a monster.

 

One of the boys is superb.  A slugger who sent the ball flying all the way over to the soccer field net in deep, deep center field, is also the most team-oriented, least arrogant–wait–my son is batting . . . 0-1, 1-1, 2-1, 2-2, ground out–the team star has a wonderful father.  Here is a man who sacrifices himself for his children, like any parent is supposed to do, at least more often than not.  He is encouraging, demands hard work, and realizes that not everything is about himself.

 

On the most part this is a pretty good group.  There is the same arrogance, the same pettiness and selfishness that is tragically inevitable when kids are desperate to impress their watching parents.  This is our competitive nature.  I could go on and on and eventually trash every single one of them, pointing out the covered up stupidity of our manifest flaws, but I have presently decided against this.  The skies are clearing and the sun has started to broil up the chilling wind.  It looks as though it will be a lovely day after all.  Besides–and what can I say, I am a long time fan–how bad could things possibly be?  It’s the start of baseball season.