Travels with Kapuscinski

In my flat, four days away from saying goodbye to the girls, who have been nothing but patient and sweet with me. Not for the first time, I am sitting in front of my computer surrounded by the works of Ryszard Kapuscinski.

Kapuscinski has been the thread that has run through this blog since I started it a bit less than two years ago, as I left Ottawa in April 2011.

The Shadow of the Sun, the book detailing the Polish reporter’s adventures in Africa, was recommended to me by one of my profs at Carleton, Alan Martin, who I still talk to. I bought it at the Chapters on Rideau Street in Ottawa. It was on a reading list and I read at least half of the books on that list, although only one was required—the book I actually read for the assignment was about Chechnya. I read Shadow of the Sun on the plane to Bern and ended up giving it to a friendly Canadian colleague of mine called Matt. I’ve lost contact with him, but it’s thanks to him that I know my friends Sophie and Karen, who have helped me a lot, both when I was depressed and when I needed to ship stuff around.

I found Self-Portrait of a Reporter in Stauffacher’s English bookstore in Bern. I still have it, I read it on the bus to Rwanda and discussed it with my wonderful CouchSurfing host in Kigali, Sarah. I still have it, I carry it everywhere and half the passages are underlined.

I found The Soccer War in English in Shakespeare and Company English bookstore in the Latin Quarter in Paris. With a fair amount of underlining, I blogged about it and gave it to Rob, a week or so before I left Nimes.

I found Imperium , Kapuscinski’s book about the Former Soviet Union, in French at the public library in Nimes. It’s still there.

I found The Negus, the book about the downfall of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia, in French at a bookstore in Montpellier. Kapuscinski books were basically all the reading material I had in Bern (where everything, including books, costs an arm and a leg) and in Bujumbura, where books are gold. I left it on the bookshelf in the newsroom in Bujumbura after reading it at least twice.

I found The Shah, a true heart-pounding book about the downfall of the Shah in Iran, in a bookstore in Montpellier. My dad bought it for me, even though he doesn’t even read French. As I was leaving Nimes for the last time, I gave it to Frédéric. I only pass my Kapuscinski books to people I love and respect. I didn’t get a chance to read about it a second time or blog about it. So when I reread it, it was the copy from the ULaval university library.

I found My Travels with Herodotus at Stauffacher’s in Bern during my second trip to Switzerland. I was wandering the streets of Bern kind of in a fog, I bought a cheese burek from the Bosnian food place next to the bookstore—Bosnian food which cost 16 times as much as it would in Bosnia, but real comfort food that people (especially Slavic people like myself) just need sometimes. Then I went to Stauffacher’s and treated myself to this book, probably the richest of his books, in my estimation. On his travels, whether to India and China (as a young, clueless foreign correspondent who spoke neither Hindi nor English nor Mandarin) or to Algeria, or Iran, or Senegal or the Congo, he took an old Polish translation of the work of the Greek historian Herodotus, who historically speaking was the first reporter, the first known human being to travel within the known world, talk to strangers and write about it. Like some of Kapuscinski’s own work, Herodotus’ work is composed partly of interviews with people from far-flung lands, partly of war stories and partly of myths. I read this book two times through in Burundi. It was my breakfast book. Silent Man’s  sludgey green-black tea mixed with  a bit of coffee and half a ton of sugar, combined with stories of a lonely Polish 20-something in Maoist China, or a pair of road-toughened–but still awed—Eastern European reporters among the pageantry of  the Negro Arts Festival in Senghor’s Senegal—were the only things that helped me choke down my vile, nauseating malaria medication and the slimy onion-and-rock-salt omelet.

Kapuscinski says that at times he was more enthralled by the war thousands of years ago between the Greeks and the Persians than the war going on around him as he sat in a mission house in newly independent Congo. I was at times more absorbed in the adventures of a clueless twenty-something in 1950s India than in the adventures of my own three-person band of clueless 20-somethings—I’m counting myself among this number—running from one workshop or press conference to another in Bujumbura and sweating blood as we tried to file enough content to feed the inevitable newsbeast. I left the book on the newsroom bookshelf, even though it meant flying without a book from Bujumbura to Nairobi to Addis Ababa to Paris. Oh well, I had a feature to write anyway.

I found Another Day of Life, Kapuscinski’s account of the post-Independence war in Angola, in English (!) in a cardboard box of two-for-three-francs books at a flea market in front of an enormous anarchist bar  in Bern. I brought it to Buja, and read it on my mattress in my slimy, no-light, no-water, no-breakfast, no-mosquito net, no-French speakers hotel down the street from work, before I saw sense and moved back in with Pascal and Athanase. I read it three times—savouring it because there was so little else to read—then ‘left’ it in the newsroom. I saw Félicie devouring it one day after work, and then Pierre after her. Where else will my gang get English books?

I found The Other for the first time at Shakespeare and Company, but got it for the first time at the university library, and its philosophical suppositions about the nature of difference between people and of categorization form the basis for my master’s project.

Le Christ à la carabine is a collection of stories which has been published, to my knowledge, in Polish and French only. It is easy to see why, as Kapuscinski only published books in anglophone countries that were relatively soft on years of British and American meddling in Latin America and the Middle East. This isn’t, showing a Palestinian perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—bringing to life the smell of oranges and blood after an orange truck in the West Bank gets into an explosion—and the rotten depth of American meddling in Latin America, using the “fight against communism” as an excuse to mount coups and destroy the socialist regimes of the ideological ancestors of Hugo Chavez , Evo Morales and Luiz Lula da Silva. It is a study on attention to detail in reporting—“the soldiers’ shoes were veritable communiqués from the front”—and a piercing indictment of Western responsibility in various messes in places like Haiti and Guatemala. An English version needs to be produced forthwith.

Finally, while visiting Devan and Gregoire and Jonas for New Year’s Eve, I came upon the English version of a Kapuscinski biography. It will be my plane book for Belgium Full circle…

Now, some of the quotes that jumped out at me the most, translated from French:

“My God, why have you taught me to think?! You would have done better to make me submissive like a sheep. Why have you given me such a terrible disability?” (Iranian student, dissident, torture victim. TS p 162)

We are all people…

On millions of screens, crowds of people address themselves to us, persuade us, gesticulate, grimace, nod their heads, laugh, get angry and point their fingers without us having the least idea what they are telling us, what they want, what they’re asking us to do. They seem like extraterrestrials…but they are close to us, we are part of the same species, they are made of the same flesh and the same blood, like us they move their lips when speaking and use their voices. That doesn’t change the fact that we don’t understand a word of their speeches. In what language is the universal dialogue of humanity?  … Lack of understanding and deafness grow without stopping. (The Shah, p 23)

“Xenophobia is a conviction of fearful people who feel inferior.” (The Other, p 20)

“The human being, when he is alone, is generally less human than when he forms part of a crowd, of an excited mass. Individually we are wiser, better, more responsible. Participation in a group may transform a calm and well-intentioned individual into a devil. (The Other p. 41) (Backed up when a journalist acquaintance of mine, Frédérick Lavoie, goes to lunch with a Russian neo-Nazi who is  actually quite friendly with the Asian cafeteria lady…)

…The growing inequalities of the world and especially the increasing consciousness of these inequalities. In our time, the poor try to reduce these inequalities, not in a confrontational way but in penetrating them, in migrating to richer countries.  This environment multiplies the number of contacts between humans, and the climate of this new world we will live in depends on the quality of our interaction with others, who are more and more numerous and varied…the number of people who have difficulties in describing their identity or their social or cultural affiliation never stops growing. They feel lost; they are more and more attentive to the solicitations of racist and nationalist groups who make them see in the Other an enemy, a threat, the cause of their frustrations and their fears.

(N.B. nowhere is this more apparent than right now in Greece…)

Dialogue, athough not impossible, demands significant effort, patient tolerance and a sense of agreement between the speakers. The fact of being conscious, while speaking with the other, of the fact that in speaking to this person we are talking to a person who sees and understands the world differently is fundamental to creating a positive atmosphere for dialogue.

The continuity of these efforts (at dialogue) is not only an ethical obligation but a priority of our time, a time in which everything is so fragile and so much demagogy, disorientation, fanaticism and ill will reign. (TO, 55-56)

Nationalism…is a primitve tool that crushes and flattens the image of the Other. No matter whether your interlocutor is young or old, intelligent or stupid, good or bad, only one thing matters. Is this person an Armenian or a Turk, an Englishman or an Irishman, a Moroccan or an Algerian? In this universe of exaggerated nationalism, I have no name, no age, no profession, I’m a Pole, full stop. In Mexico, my neighbours call me “El Polaco.” … the dangerous side of nationalism is that it cannot be disassociated from hatred of the Other. (64)

The foreigner, the Other, in his third world incarnation (consequently the individual the most present on our planet) continues to be seen as a research object. They are far from becoming our partners, equally responsible for the destiny of the Earth we live on. (71)

Practical matters (for reporters):

Herodotus was the first person to revel the multicultural nature of the world, the first to affirm that all cultures must be accepted and understood. Now, to understand, it is first necessary to know. (Travels with Herodotus)

“When I settle into a new hotel—which happens a lot—I like to surround myself with a certain anarchy” (The Shah)

“My first contact with this country (India) was a battle with its language. I understood that every universe has its own mysteries, to which it is impossible to accede without knowing the language. Without it, this world remains impenetrable and incomprehensible, regardless of how many years one spends there. (Herodotus, 29)

In the fact that the content of our reports comes from our interactions with people, the quality of our text is directly related to our relations with others, the nature and the temperature of these relations. We depend on people. (Herodotus, 183)

Missing the coup

I needed to come to Algiers to understand that after several years of journalistic experience, I was barking up the wrong tree. Looking at all costs for spectacular images, imagining that the images all by themselves would save me from having to do deeper analysis, I was lost. Interpreting the world through what it wants to show us, in its moments of spasmodic convulsion, while it is shaken by coups and explosions and at the mercy of smoke and flames, of dust and the smell of burning, while it is collapsing and its inhabitants in the ruins tearfully leaning over relatives’ bodies—going about that way was a grave mistake.

The right method consists of posing a question—how did we get to this drama? What are these scenes of extermination, of shouts and blood, really telling us?   What underground forces, invisible but no less powerful and irrepressible, could have given birth to this carnage? Is this the beginning of a process or the end? Is this the opening act for future developments, full of tension and conflict? Who will be there to follow those developments? Us, correspondents and reporters? Certainly not, because barely are the dead in their graves, the skeletons of burnt-out cars moved and the broken glass swept up before we pack our bags and fly off somewhere else, where other cars are in flames, other glass broken and other graves have been dug.

Is it not possible to go beyond these clichés, to free ourselves from the chain of images and to dig deeper?

As I couldn’t write about tanks, burned-out cars and shattered shop fronts, because I didn’t see anything of the sort and I wanted to justify my undisciplined expedition, I started to think about the origins and causes of the coup d’état, to look at what was behind it, what it meant, in other words, I started talking to people, taking a closer look at the people and the scene, and also reading—in other words, I tried to understand.  (233-234)

Herodotus’ travels

Herodotus travels in hopes of answering the child who asks where the ships on the horizon come from. Where do they surge forth from? Where do they sail from? So what I see with my own eyes is not the limit of the world? Do other universes exist? What universes? When I’m grown up, I want to get to know them. But it’s better not to grow up completely, better to stay a child, a little. Because children are the only ones who ask good questions and who really want to learn.

And with a child’s ardor and enthusiasm, Herodotus sets out to discover those worlds. He sees—and this is his biggest revelation—that there are many, that they are all different from each other and, above all, that they are all important.

Every one deserves to be known, because these worlds these cultures are the mirrors through which we look at ourselves, in which our culture is reflected. Thanks to them, we understand ourselves better, we understand our identity through its  being faced with others. ( Herodotus 272)

On War

The King of Kings resembles a predator on the prowl, keeping his future prey in his field of vision and patiently awaiting the moment to attack.

Of course, in the universe of humans, it is still necessary to find some pretext. It’s important that he give to his undertaking the reach of a divine or humanitarian mission. The choices are limited: it’s either legitimate defense, the responsibility to assist, or the execution of Heaven’s will. The ideal, of course, is to combine all three alibis. It’s a good thing for the aggressor to act in a halo of solemnity, for him to intervene in the role of God’s chosen one. (Herodotus, 143)

This one below reminds me of Quebec…

Human beings admire the power of others, but preferably from a distance, and refuse that this power be used on them. Every force has its own dynamic, its own authoritarian expansionism, its brutal aggression and its obsessive need for domination. It’s the law of the jungle and everyone knows it. What can the weaker ones do? There’s only one exit. Separate! In our overpopulated and increasingly violent world, the weak ones must distinguish themselves, stay on the sidelines if they want to protect themselves and stay on the surface. Human beings have a fear of being swallowed up and stripped down, they are afraid that their faces, their points of view and their languages will be made uniform, their thoughts and reactions dictated, that their blood will be spilled for a foreign cause or that they will end up annihilated for once and for all. That is the origin of their dissent and their revolt, of their fight for their independence and consequently for their language.  (The Shah, p. 23)

…and finally, a word about death.

Direct quote from Herodotus’ “Histories”:

Generally speaking, the Trauses have the same customs as the rest of Thrace, but here is how they act in the face of birth and death: the family of a newborn baby gathers around him and laments the pain he must endure because he is born, all of the calamities that may fall upon unfortunate mortals. But someone who has died is buried in an atmosphere of jokes and general lightheartedness, because, so they say, he now enjoys complete happiness, protected from so much pain. (Herodotus 160)

When I read this, I always think of Pierre’s baby nephew, his favourite nephew…when those two smiled at the sight of each other, the world lit up. Baby Jason died in September after being sick for a few weeks. I don’t think he was even six months old. I like to think of Baby Jason, laughing, free from pain…

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About msmarguerite

Young Quebec City-based freelance journalist. once and future nomad. I blog about life, about travel, about things I notice and every so often about work. I enjoy language learning, singing, swing dancing, skating and...other stuff, sometimes. My heart is somewhere in East Africa, Haiti or Eastern Europe. English, français, русский, malo slovensko, un poco de espanol, um pouco de português ndiga ikirundi, mwen ap aprann kreyòl...
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