Monthly Archives: November 2006

Black Death Zerstörungsroman on a Plaque, 1349

In Derbyshire …, the most eloquent set of mortality statistics are in a small parish church where a plaque commemorates the Wakebridge family’s brush with annihilation in the summer of 1349.

  • 18 May, Nicholas, brother of William
  • 16 July, Robert, brother of William
  • 5 August, Peter, father of William and Joan, sister of William
  • 10 August, Joan, wife of William and Margaret, sister of William

William himself survived the pestilence.

SOURCE: The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time, by John Kelly (Harper Perennial, 2006), p. 226

UPDATE: I concocted the pseudo-German term Zerstörungsroman ‘destruction-novel’ as the opposite of Bildungsroman, a German term applied to novels about personal growth, education, and development. I was trying to capture the opposition between ‘coming of age’ and ‘falling apart’ (or the ‘age of destruction’).

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Undermining Democracy in East Timor and Bosnia

In all the UN administrations, the vast network of human rights protections leaves little space for any local accountability. As Seth Mydans noted in the New York Times, one critical problem with the UN protectorate’s nation-building attempts, involving an overhaul of every aspect of East Timorese society, has been that ‘relatively few local people are being given important roles in the planning and running of the reconstruction effort’. While UN bureaucrats took on the roles of district administrators, the leading political group in East Timor, the National Council for Timorese Resistance (CNRT), was ignored by the UN and refused office space in the capital Dili. There were daily protests at the UN’s high-handed rule over the territory. Jose Ramos Horta, CNRT Vice-President, complained: ‘We saw time going by and no Timorese administration, no civil servants being recruited, no jobs being created.’

The Bosnian example is probably the most revealing, as after six years of international rule the problems of external regulation are becoming clearer. The constantly expanding role of the multitude of international organisations has inevitably restricted the capacity of Bosnian people to discuss, develop and decide on vital questions of concern. At state level, the Bosnian Muslim, Croat and Serb representatives can discuss international policy proposals under the guidance of the [UN] Office of the High Representative, but at the most can make only minor amendments or delay the implementation of externally-prepared rules and regulations. Even this limited accountability has been diminished by the High Representative who has viewed democratic consensus-building in Bosnian state bodies such as the tripartite Presidency, Council of Ministers and State Parliament as an unnecessary delay to imposing international policy. Compared to the swift signature of the chief administrators’ pen, the working out of democratic accountability through the joint institutions was seen as ‘painfully cumbersome and ineffective’. At the end of 1997, the ‘cumbersome’ need for Bosnian representatives to assent to international edicts was removed and the High Representative was empowered both to dismiss elected representatives who obstructed policy and to impose legislation directly. The international community thereby assumed complete legislative and executive power over the formally independent state.

The Dayton settlement for Bosnia, like the Rambouillet proposals for Kosovo, promised the decentralisation of political power and the creation of multi-ethnic administrations in order to cohere state institutions and provide security to ethnic minorities and safeguard their autonomy. However, the experience of Dayton suggests that the outcome of the framework imposed will inevitably belie any good intentions that lie behind it. Minority protections, promised to the three constituent peoples under Dayton, have not been delivered under the international administration. At state, entity, city and municipal levels, a clear pattern has emerged where elected majorities have been given little control over policy-making. However, this power has not been decentralised to give minority groups security and a stake in government but transferred to the international institutions and recentralised in the hands of the High Representative. Today, the international community regulates Bosnian life down to the minutiae of local community service provision, employment practices, school admissions and sports. Multi-ethnic administrations exist on paper, but the fact that the consensus attained in these forums is an imposed one, not one autonomously negotiated, is important. Compliance with international edicts imposed by the threat of dismissals or economic sanctions does little to give either majorities or minorities a stake in the process, nor to encourage the emergence of a negotiated accountable solution that could be viable in the long term.

The institutions of Bosnian government are hollow structures, not designed to operate autonomously. The Bosnian state Council of Ministers with the nominal role of assenting to pre-prepared policy has few staff or resources and is aptly described by the Office of the High Representative as ‘effectively, little more than an extended working group’. Muslim, Croat and Serb representatives have all argued for greater political autonomy in policy-making, and have attempted to uphold the rights protected in the ‘letter’ of the Dayton agreement against the ad hoc reinterpretation of international powers under the ‘spirit of Dayton’. As an adviser to former Bosnian President Alijah Izetbegovic noted, there is a contradiction between the stated aims of the international protectorate and its consequences: ‘A protectorate solution is not good, because the international community would bring all the decisions which would decrease all the functions of Bosnia-Herzegovina institutions. The High Representative’s mandate is actually an opposite one, to strengthen the Bosnia-Herzegovina institutions.’

The frailty of Bosnian institutions has perpetuated the fragmentation of political power and reliance on personal and local networks of support which were prevalent during the Bosnian war. Both Susan Woodward and Katherine Verdery provide useful analyses of the impact on Bosnian society of the external undermining of state and entity centres of power and security. The lack of cohering political structures has meant that Bosnian people are forced to rely on more narrow and parochial survival mechanisms, which has meant that ethnicity has maintained its wartime relevance as a political resource.

It would appear that the removal of mechanisms of political accountability has done little to broaden Bosnian people’s political outlook. The removal of sites of accountable political power has, in fact, reinforced general insecurity and atomisation which has led to the institutionalisation of much narrower political relations in the search for individual links to those with influence and power. The narrowing of the political domain and reliance on individual survival strategies has assumed a generalised pattern across society. The ‘new feudalism’ noted by some commentators and the continued existence of weak para-state structures in Muslim and Croat areas of the Federation are symptomatic of the vacuum of integrative institutional power at state and entity level rather than some disintegrative dynamic.

The Dayton process has institutionalised fears and insecurities through high-handed international rule disempowering Bosnian people and their representatives. With little influence over, or relationship to, the decision-making process there is concern that entity boundaries or rights to land, employment and housing can easily be brought into question. The extended mandates of the international institutions have undermined the power of the main political parties and their elected representatives but have not created the political basis of a unitary Bosnia, except in so far as it is one artificially imposed by, and dependent upon, the international community.

Under the human rights international protectorates there is a high level of external regulation but little democracy and no mechanisms through which the rights administrators can rebuild fragmented societies. While mainstream commentators conflate human rights with empowerment, self-determination and democracy, there are few critics who draw attention to the fact that the human rights discourse of moral and ethical policies is essentially an attack on the public political sphere and democratic practices. The result is a ‘hypertrophied public realm’ with the political arena reduced to a narrow one of international officialdom with extensive powers wielded in isolation from wider society, and an ‘atrophied public realm’ in the sense of a loss of citizenship with collective political society reduced to reliance on personal and parochial networks. In fact, the time scales for external administration have been extended as society becomes increasingly atomised. In Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor external regulation has been highly destructive of the political sphere as increasing levels of civil interaction have come under regulatory control.

SOURCE: From Kosovo to Kabul and Beyond: Human Rights and International Intervention, new ed., by David Chandler (Pluto Press, 2002/2006), pp. 204-207 (reference citations removed)

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Sun Yat-sen’s Bodyguard, Cohen Two-Gun

My historian brother alerted me to a fascinating far outlier, Two-Gun Cohen. Here’s the beginning of his entry on Wikipedia.

Morris “Two-Gun” Cohen (1887 – 1970) was a Polish-born adventurer who became a bodyguard for the Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen and a general in the Chinese army.

According to a biography written by Charles Drage with Cohen’s assistance, Morris Cohen was born in London to a family that just arrived from Poland.

Morris Abraham Cohen was actually born into a poor Polish-Jewish family in Radzanów, Poland. Soon after his birth in 1887, the Cohens escaped the pogroms of Eastern Europe and emigrated to London’s East End.

Cohen loved the theaters, the streets, the markets and the boxing arenas of the English capital more than he did Jewish day school, and in April 1900 he was arrested for picking pockets. A judge sent him to the Hayes Industrial School for wayward Jewish lads. When he was released in 1905, the Cohens shipped young Morris off to western Canada with the hope that the fresh air and open plains of the New World would reform his ways.

Cohen initially worked on a farm near Whitewood, Saskatchewan. He tilled the land, tended the livestock and learned to shoot a gun and play cards. He did that for a year, and then started wandering through the Western provinces, making a living as a carnival talker, gambler, grifter and successful real estate broker. Some of his activitites landed him in jail.

Cohen also became friendly with the Chinese exiles who had come to work on the Canadian transcontinental railroads. In Saskatoon he came to the aid of a Chinese restaurant owner who was being robbed. Cohen knocked out the thief and tossed him out into the street. Such an act was unheard of the time, as few white men ever came to the aid of the Chinese.

The Chinese welcomed Cohen and eventually invited him to join the Tongmenghui, Sun Yat-sen’s anti-Manchu organization. Cohen begun to advocate for the Chinese.

Cohen fought with the Canadian Railway Troops in Europe during World War I where part of his job involved supervising Chinese laborers. In 1922 he headed to China to help close a railway deal for Sun Yat-sen with Northern Construction and JW Stewart Ltd. Once there, he asked Sun for a job as a bodyguard.

In Shanghai and Canton Cohen trained Sun’s small armed forces to box and shoot, and told people that he was an aide-de-camp and an acting colonel in Sun Yat-sen’s army. His lack of Chinese — he spoke a pidgin form of Cantonese at best — was thankfully not a problem since Sun, his wife Soong Qingling and many of their associates were western educated and spoke English. Cohen’s colleagues started calling him Ma Kun, and he soon became one of Sun’s main protectors, shadowing the Chinese leader to conferences and war zones. After one battle where he was knicked by a bullet, Cohen started carrying a second gun. The western community began calling the gun-toting aide “Two-Gun Cohen.”

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Rural Malay Reactions to Islamicist "Resurgents"

I noted various changes in the fieldwork site of Bogang (Negeri Sembilan) between my first period of research, from 1978 to 1980, and my second, from 1987 to 1988. First, the public address system housed in the village mosque and used to call people to prayer was always operational (and set at a higher volume) during the second period, in sharp contrast to the situation during my first fieldwork, when it was typically out of order. Second, the quintessentially Islamic salutation “assalamualaikum” was far more frequently used, and other Islamic symbols and idioms permeated local discourse. Third, young male dakwah [‘evangelical’] adherents now appeared in the village on a fairly regular basis to “spread the word.” And fourth, the dress of girls and young women had become much more modest, and some of them had taken to wearing the long skirts, mini-telekung (head coverings, like those worn by Catholic nuns in the United States), and other headgear donned by female dakwah adherents in the cities.

Transformations such as these are in some respects superficial, but they are important public markers of the shifting religious climate in villages like Bogang. Other, less “tangible” changes include the further delegitimization of spirit cults, shamanism, and other ritual practices subsumed under the rubric of adat [traditional custom]; the development of non- or arelational forms of individualism, realized by conceptualizing serious wrongdoing (such as the harboring of spirit familiars [pelisit]) in terms of “sin” (dosa) rather than “taboo” (pantang [larang]); the emergence of a more pronounced pan-Islamic consciousness, a key feature of which is greater awareness of current trends elsewhere in the Muslim world, where Islamic resurgence, efforts to forge worldwide Islamic solidarity, and radical separation between Muslims and non-Muslims is the order of the day; heightened concern with demarcating local (i.e., intra-Malaysian) boundaries between Muslims and non-Muslims; and, related to this last point, greater suspicions of all non-Muslims, as expressed in the intensified bodily vigilance of males and females alike.

While many of these shifts are broadly compatible with the stated objectives and overall agendas of dakwah leaders, we should not jump to the conclusion that ordinary Muslims are firmly behind or centrally involved in the resurgence. Indeed, we should start with a clean slate and the most basic questions: How are the legal and other initiatives cited earlier being received by ordinary, especially rural, Malays? And, more broadly: What is the nature of ordinary, particularly rural, Malays’ perceptions of and attitudes toward the resurgence? The answers to these questions are elusive for two reasons. First, some of the legal and other initiatives noted earlier are of very recent origin and have yet to have their full impact in rural areas. And second, such questions have been largely ignored in the literature, even though most observers are well aware that Malaysia’s Islamic resurgence is a predominantly urban, middle-class phenomenon.

The short, admittedly imprecise, answer to the question regarding ordinary, especially rural, Malays’ perceptions of and attitudes toward the resurgence is that, while some of them support it, many, perhaps most, are clearly hostile both to various elements of the movement and to the state agents and others who endorse it. This hostility exists even though ordinary Malays experience Islam as central to their daily lives and cultural identities, and embrace in principle most, if not all, efforts to accord Islam greater primacy among Malays and in Malaysia generally. In Bogang, for example, many elders lament that those who have sought to sanitize local religion by cleansing it of its “parochial accretions” are ignorant not only of the true teachings of Islam, but also of the ways of local spirits (jinn); these elders hasten to add that the neglect of spirits due to the nonperformance of rituals such as berpuar and bayar niat has led to repeated crop failure and, in some cases, the demise of rice production altogether.

Others speak scornfully of the fact that members of certain dakwah groups (for example, Darul Arqam [now banned in Malaysia]) have thrown their televisions, radios, furniture, and other household commodities into local rivers to dramatize their disdain of the polluting influences of Western materialism and to underscore their commitment to returning to the pristine simplicity of the lifestyle of the Prophet. These dramatic gestures were highly publicized—and undoubtedly exaggerated—in the government-controlled national press at a time when the government was actively attempting to discredit the more radical elements of the movement. Though practices such as these are not typical of the dakwah movement as a whole, they loom large in some villagers’ perceptions of the resurgence in its entirety. More to the point, they fly directly in the face of the most. pressing concerns of rural Malays, especially the poorest among them, who seek to improve their standards of living—ideally to attain middle-class status through the acquisition of more land and other wealth-generating resources—and who struggle desperately to avoid further impoverishment and proletarianization.

Other residents of Bogang talk about the sexual inappropriateness and hypocrisy of the members of some dakwah groups (Darul Arqam?) who, according to villagers’ understandings of accounts in the local media, allegedly engage in “group sex” while enjoining fellow Muslims to observe strict sexual segregation. Still others feel that the dakwah emphasis on sexual segregation is largely redundant, since sexual segregation has long been a feature of rural Malay society. Perhaps more important, they feel that it represents a glaring example of the resurgents’ ignorance of rural Malay culture and yet another indication of their profound hostility to it.

SOURCE: “‘Ordinary Muslims’ and Muslim Resurgents in Contemporary Malaysia: Notes on an Ambivalent Relationship,” by Michael G. Peletz, in Islam in an Era of Nation-States: Politics and Religious Renewal in Muslim Southeast Asia, ed. by Robert W. Hefner and Patricia Horvatich (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1997), pp. 241-243

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Grand Sumo Tournament Synchronized Upsets

After Day 9, it seemed that the three top Japanese ozeki (champions) and the recent Estonian rookie Baruto would dog the heels of the undefeated Mongolian yokozuna (grand champion) Asashoryu, but then all four stumbled at once on Day 10. Ozeki Chiyotaikai (now 8-2) lost to sekiwake Miyabiyama (5-5), ozeki Tochiazuma (8-2) lost to once-ozeki Dejima (7-3), ozeki Kaio (8-2) lost to fellow ozeki Kotooshu (7-3), and up-and-comer Baruto (8-2) lost to fellow up-and-comer Homasho (9-1), who is now just one step behind Asashoryu. So, it’s still a comeback for the Japanese rikishi, but just not the higher-ranking ones. Last tournament’s phenom, the tiny Mongolian Ama, is at 2-8 this time around, and the Georgian komusubi Kokkai finally broke his 9-game losing streak by lengthening Iwakiyama‘s losing streak to 10.

UPDATE, Day 11: Most of the pack that stood at 8-2 lost again. Only Kaio “protected his 2 losses” to stay in 3rd place at 9-2, behind Homasho at 10-1 and Asashoryu at 11-0.

UPDATE, Day 12: Asashoryu (12-0) handed ozeki Kaio his 3rd loss, dropping him back with the rest of the former contenders, while ozeki Tochiazuma (now 9-3) handed Homasho his 2nd loss. Unless Homasho wins his next 3 bouts, and Asashoryu loses his next 3, the Mongolian grand champion looks to cruise to another tournament victory.

UPDATE, Day 13: The leaders are now Asashoryu (13-0), Homasho (11-2), and Kaio (10-3). At the other end, Iwakiyama (1-12) finally won a bout. The grand champion will cruise to his 19th tournament championship unless he loses his next two bouts, while Homasho wins his next two and then demolishes Asashoryu in a tie-breaker at the end of the basho.

UPDATE, Day 14: Asashoryu (14-0) has clinched it. Homasho (12-2) will likely win the Fighting Spirit award and a higher ranking on the banzuke. No one else has fewer than 4 losses.

UPDATE, Day 15: No surprises. Asa finished at 15-0. Homasho (12-3) won the prizes for both Fighting Spirit and Technique.

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Black Star Journal on Mugabe’s Zimbabwe

Africa-blogger Black Star Journal notes that the floor just keeps dropping below Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. The death rate in Zimbabwe—at 3,500 every week—now surpasses the death rate in Darfur, Iraq, or Lebanon; and average female life expectancy—at 34 years—is now the world’s lowest.

What makes this disaster more tragic and outrageous is that it’s largely Mugabe-made. The economic and food crises are largely his fault thanks to his attacks on large industrial farmers, food producers who were also significant employers. The AIDS pandemic isn’t necessarily his fault but his oppression and the economic crisis have forced large numbers of qualified medical professionals to flee the country….

3500 black Zimbabweans are dying every single week because of Mugabe’s policies. But Mugabe went after WHITE farmers in his land ‘redistribution’ program (ie: redistributed to his cronies). And Mugabe’s ‘liberation’ movement (from the 1970s) went after white imperial rule.

As a result, Africa’s so-called intelligentsia has largely given him a free pass. I can honestly say that few things enrage me more than when educated and normally reasonable Africans provide nothing more than shameless apologia for this guy.

Never mind that white farmers merely had to flee the country. The worst victims of Mugabeism, the dead and starving, are black….

But with tragic symbolism, at least one profession is booming: undertakers.

A real nail in the country’s coffin.

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No Island Is an Island, Not Even Simunul in Tawi-Tawi

Tawi-Tawi lies in the southwesternmost corner of the Philippines, only miles from Sabah, Malaysia. Over three hundred islands are located in this province, most of them small and uninhabited. The island of Tawi-Tawi is the largest of these islands. The Sama are the predominant ethnic group of Tawi-Tawi Province and live along the coast of Tawi-Tawi Island and on the shores of the many small islands that surround it. The island of Bongao (pronounced “Bunggau”), located on the western tip of Tawi-Tawi Island, is the provincial capital and regional center of trade.

Simunul Island is seven miles south of Bongao. The island is only fifteen square miles in size, but it contains fifteen barangay (communities) and is home to over 25,000 people. With its swaying palm trees and turquoise-colored sea, Simunul is picture perfect. There were moments during my fieldwork there when, watching the sun set over the sea and listening to the call to prayer, I believed that Simunul was a timeless, distant place. As a coup was attempted in Manila, as Iraq invaded Kuwait and the Gulf War ensued, and as the Soviet Union collapsed, life went on as usual in Simunul.

Or, I should say, life went on as usual for me. People of Simunul were aware of these world events and understood that they would soon experience the ripples of their effects. After the coup attempt in Manila, more people planted cassava because they realized that political instability in the capital would result in inflated food prices. Likewise, the situation in the Middle East caused the price of gasoline to rise, requiring people to pay another five pesos to travel to Bongao.

The Sama of Simunul, concerned about their kin who work in Middle East, closely followed the events of the war announced over the radio. One man was convinced that if a world war ensued, Simunul would be one of the first places to be bombed, as a result of its strategic importance. This conviction is less absurd when one considers that the Japanese invaded Simunul during the Second World War, that Simunul was the training ground for President Marcos’ covert Operation Merdeka [an attempt to “liberate” Sabah] in 1967, that the people of West Simunul participated in the Moro National Liberation Front from 1972 to 1974, and that the Philippine Navy shelled West Simunul because of this MNLF activity. The people of Simunul do not “go off to war” in foreign lands. Unfortunately, national and international violence has a way of coming to their small island.

While I could thus pretend to be on a remote and isolated island, the Sama with whom I lived could not afford the luxury of such an illusion. The seas I perceived as clear, tranquil, and little-trafficked were actually swirling ocean currents that for centuries have been drawing the Sama into contact with a succession of outside powers. Simunul is not and has never been an isolated enclave.

For centuries the Sama of Simunul Island were subjects of the Sulu Sultanate. This sultanate emerged in the fourteenth century and was dominated by the Tausug people of the island of Jolo (pronounced “holo”). The Sultan of Sulu administered the Tausug, Sama, and Bajau people of the Sulu Archipelago by assigning datu, traditional regional leaders, to specific regions. These datu were usually Tausug men who were subordinate, loyal, and accountable to the sultan.

The Sama also have ties to the Malays of Sabah, Malaysia, with whom they have a lively and profitable trading relationship. This relationship continues today in spite of the national boundaries that separate Malaysia and the Philippines, and the laws that define their trade as smuggling. Currently, almost half of the Simunul population lives and works in Sabah, where they easily find jobs in lumber mills, restaurants, and shops. The wages are quite high in Sabah, and consumer goods are much cheaper than in Tawi-Tawi. When the Malaysian government cracks down on illegal aliens, the Sama are shipped back to Tawi-Tawi, only to return days later aboard the boats of traders/smugglers. There is thus a steady traffic of people and goods between Sabah and Simunul.

The Sama are also oriented toward Mecca. Mecca is the ponsot dunia, or navel of the world, for these Muslims. People pray toward Mecca, sacrifice to travel to Mecca as pilgrims, and, when they die, are buried with their bodies facing Mecca. The Middle East is not only a center of Islam, however. It is also a center of employment. The Sama began sending people abroad in 1975. In 1990 about 14 percent of women from Simunul between the ages of twenty and forty worked in the Middle East as domestic helpers, midwives, and nurses. Seven percent of men of the same age group worked in the Middle East as laborers.

The people of Simunul are oriented toward the United States as well. After the Spanish-American War of 1898, the United States took possession of the Philippines. After many violent military acts, the Americans “subdued” the Muslims of Mindanao and Sulu, a feat the Spanish had failed to accomplish during their three-hundred-year reign in the Philippines. Employing a policy of attraction, the American government instituted public schools throughout the Philippines. In 1918 the United States built an elementary school in Simunul. Shortly thereafter, children continued their studies in a high school located in Jolo. By the 1930s the Sama themselves were becoming teachers and replacing the Americans and Christian Filipinos who taught them. Today, about 30 percent of the adult population of Simunul has had some college education, and half of this number are college graduates. Their ability to speak English fosters an awareness of and participation in world events and discourses.

These seas of strong currents carried Tausug datu to Simunul and brought American teachers and administrators to Bongao. These seas carried furtive traders and workers to Malaysia and brought pilgrims to the Persian Gulf. These seas also brought foreign Muslims, carrying the Word of Islam, to the people of Simunul.

One of the first of these foreign Muslims was a man the sarsila (local histories) identify as Sheik Makhdum. According to the sarsila, Sheik Makhdum arrived in Simunul aboard an iron ship but, once in sight of the island, walked the remaining distance on the water. He taught the people of Simunul about Islam and impressed them with his supernatural abilities. Sheik Makhdum built a mosque for his followers, carrying tree trunks from the jungle to the seashore as if they weighed no more than matchsticks. The pillars of this mosque still stand today, serving as a testament to the presence and the power of Sheik Makhdum. These pillars have been dated to the fourteenth century and support the claim that this is the oldest known mosque in the Philippines.

Many Muslim traders and missionaries followed Sheik Makhdum to Simunul, some of them spending their lives on the island. The descendants of these missionaries have a special status in the community and are believed to be direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.

After the Second World War, many Muslim Filipinos were educated in madrasah (schools of Islamic learning) in Jolo and Basilan. These learned men became missionaries and traveled throughout Mindanao and Sulu to teach people about Islam. Four of these missionaries found their way to Simunul and spent years living with and teaching the Sama.

SOURCE: “The Ahmadiyya Movement in Simunul: Islamic Reform in One Remote and Unlikely Place,” by Patricia Horvatich, in Islam in an Era of Nation-States: Politics and Religious Renewal in Muslim Southeast Asia, ed. by Robert W. Hefner and Patricia Horvatich (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1997), pp. 184-187


Filed under Islam, Malaysia, Philippines