Last week’s decision in the case of the two Thais found guilty of raping and murdering a British tourist must have set some sort of record. The crime was committed on new year’s day and by 18 January the perpetrators had been detected, captured, tried, and sentenced to death. The only reason the sentence has not been carried out is that by law the convicted men are allowed a month in which to lodge an appeal, which they have done.
Graft, corruption, nepotism, ineptitude, and that is only internally. Loss of any idea on how to move towards peace, or showing control of its authority, made it inevitable that the PNA should loose to Hamas by a landslide. The Palestinian people are sick of all the corruption and in-fighting which had habitually characterised the domination of Fat'h for the PNA.
Israel and the Americans may say that they will “not deal with terrorists” but I can’t see how they can maintain that position for long. If Hamas manages to handle the peace process as skillfully as it fought the election there may be hope for real progress. Certainly more than with Yasser Arafat’s cronies representing the Palestinian people.
Here is the view from the Palestinian blog I just mentioned:
Hamas's electoral success took everyone by surprise, writes Laila el-Haddad.
Just when you think you have things figured out here, they turn topsy-turvy on you.
In a matter of a few weeks, Sharon becomes comatose; the Palestinian streets go from chaos hinging on anarchy to an unsettling calm and then the Islamic group Hamas, contesting elections for the first time and thought to be lagging behind Fatah by every measure, sweeps the first parliamentary elections in 10 years, shattering the ruling party's long grip on Palestinian politics.
Welcome to Gaza.
The latest events can only be described as a political earthquake, both locally and regionally. Not only are these the first truly democratic and hotly contested elections in the Arab Middle East, but also the first time an Islamic party has come to power through the system and the popular will of the people.
To say we are entering a new stage is an understatement. Everyone knew Hamas would do well in these elections and that they would constitute a significant challenge to the ruling party. But this well?
Esmeraldas, Ecuador’s only predominantly black town (rumoured to be peopled by decendants of a wrecked slave ship in the 1820s) is a strange place. I visited it in 1995 as a sort of literary pilgrimage to Thomsen and, well, let’s just say I wish I hadn’t.
Living Poor is part journal, part anthropology, part journey of self-exploration, full of Thomsen’s tragi-comic attempts to organize his bemused neighbours and his relentless quest to understand the economics of “living poor”.
Here he is at the beginning of his stay:
A newcomer to the town I decided that drinking beer every day, simply for the taste, would be ostentatious, and I gave it breaking up, breaking my pledge at first only two or three times in moments of depression when I would sneak a quart of the lukewarm stuff into my house and sit in a dark corner living a private life. I also avoided the Saturday night blow-outs, mainly because they didn’t look like much fun, containing such a burden of desperation and frustration as I had never known. I was also a little afraid of the Policia Rural, one the town’s more enthusiastic drinkers, who after a few beers would walk up and down the street shooting off his revolver.
On Saturday nights I was caricature of a Peace Corps volunteer, giving English lessons to the smaller kids while outside life whirled and pulsed in the streets. The children would stand it as long as they could and then dash off to join the streets. Well, anyway I thought, I must be making a good impression in the town.
One day I heard Alexandro apologizing for me to one of the fishermen. “It’s his religion”, he was saying. “It is forbidden by his religion.”
“What’s forbidden?” I asked him later.
“Well, you don’t drink” Alexandro said. You lead a very sad life, a very unnatural one. You have refused to take a woman in to cook for you and tend to your needs. Some of the people think you must be very sad here. I tell them it’s your religion."
What raises Thomsen’s book above most reminiscences of aid workers is that he was a 48-year-old California pig farmer when he went to Ecuador, so he brought to his village a breadth of experience, wry sense of observation, and a seemingly limitless dose of human empathy lacking in many fresh faced recruits.
I hadn’t thought about old Moritz for a long time, but when a friend told me about her trip to Ecuador over Christmas I thought I’d look him up on the web. I knew that Thomsen had remained in Ecuador after his Peace Corps stint, writing more books about the country, and that he had died there in the early 1990s.
That’s pretty much all I knew, until I encountered a very depressing article by someone who met him in his last years, published in Salon. The opening paragraph sets the tone:
I remember him looking down from the window of his flat in Guayaquil, like some old, pathetic Rapunzel with no hair to let down. He was 75 then and stubbornly holding on, his lungs ravaged by a lifetime of smoking, his body broken down by an old age spent toiling on a farm in the jungle. In the manner of old men, his nose and ears had outgrown him; hair had fallen out of his scalp in great patches, casualty to jungle rot; his eyes watered incessantly and he mopped at them, while he read, with a sponge. He didn't just look old -- he looked ancient, ruined.
Reading the Salon article and thumbing through Living Poor again, I started to wonder whether the Philippines, where the economics of living poor are much the same as in Ecuador of course, has its own Moritz Thomsen buried somewhere. James Hamilton-Paterson’s Playing with Water is a thoughtful book and there are similarities between the two writers. Still Thomsen seems to me the greater, not just in his understanding of humanity, but in the depth of his immersion. Hamilton-Paterson writes from an outsider’s perspective, yet by the end Thomsen seemed to have become one of the poor he first went to observe, cheated by his business partner, and dying of cholera, the classic poor man’s disease, in 1991. Dying poor in fact. He may not have achieved happiness, but he remained a questioning soul to the end. His preoccupation was:
"to make sense of death ... to die at a good time, logically, putting finally some sense of order to a life that has been as ridiculous, as chaotically meaningless as anyone else's."
I have been spending time, both literally and vicariously, in Malacañ Palace. The book of that title, authored by Manuel L. Quezon III, Paolo Alcazaren, and Jeremy Barns, provides a hugely enjoyable slant on the last 250 years of Philippine history through the windows of a house originally built as a riverside home by a wealthy Spanish merchant in the 1750s. (It also explains why a "g" is often attached to the name.)
As you would expect (and deserve for the hefty price tag) Malacañ Palace is stylishly written and sumptuously illustrated with prints, photographs (old and modern), and plans. Of the prints, I particularly liked those showing the dynamic Pasig in its pomp as a main thoroughfare for the city (and we have EDSA) and some of the sepia prints and coloured postcards from the American era.
The book is crammed with fascinating anecdotes. Here is Josephine Bracken, shortly after the execution of José Rizal, giving the representative of the King of Spain a piece of her mind:
The Governor-General requested her to leave Manila and in the event doing he would pay her passage and all she wanted. He stamped his foot and said it was very ridiculous that a woman should engage in war, that the English were very wrong in allowing her to do so. The English of course liked war instead of peace. She replied by stamping her foot and saying that she didn’t care: she was not afraid of him. She did not respect him as Governor-General. When she bade him goodbye he was on very friendly terms with her. She told him that if he was offended with her he could take her out and shoot her as her husband had been shot. She said “My husband died innocent, and his family is willing to die as he has done. “ If it was too much trouble for him to take her out to the place of public execution he could shoot her where she stood …
All right, Josephine! What a woman she was.
Fast forward 60 years or so and who does this remind you of?
[T]he mark left during the Garcia administration was nothing short of disgraceful. Most of the Palace grounds were open to the public, who had been allowed to become a rabble and turn the lawns into something resembling Coney Island fairground. Cars were parked indiscriminately and the grass had been turned into brown dust, there were soft drinks stalls, hamburger stands and a kind of restaurant, not even a first class restaurant, as Mrs Macapagal said with feeling.
Yup, that is the president’s mum giving us a clue where she got that famous mataray spirit from.
Even the footnotes are full of historical nuggets (I particularly liked the potted history of the Kraut family, of “Kraut Compound” fame).
OK I have a couple of quibbles, but they are minor.
First, as the book points out, President Estrada was the fourth president to have to leave the Palace for reasons of war or revolution (the others being Quezon [escaping from the Japanese], Laurel [from the Americans], and Marcos). Estrada's departure is described as being “by the back door” but I wonder why the authors did not make it clear that he actually left, as visitors always used to come and go, by the river. The Estradas’ sad boat journey to San Juan, waving at imaginary crowds of supporters, was a curious, bathetic, end to such a tumultuous fortnight.
Second, no index. Grrr.
Malacañ Palace can be read in Sunday, but it will stay with you for longer than that. Anyone with the slightest interest in Philippine history will enjoy this lovely book.
As for my recent experience of Malacañ, about 10 days ago Frayed, some of her family, and I visited friends of her parents in a house inside the Palace grounds. The evening was elegant in the extreme, and I saw some works of art that I never, ever, would have imagined seeing in a private sala. In fact as we sipped on our delicious French wines, I couldn’t help thinking that we were probably a lot more comfortable than many inhabitants of the rambling palace, with its “cramped quarters, mosquito-infested halls, dank air, crumbling fabric and the perpetual foul smelling floods”.
At a drinks party last night my neighbour showed me her cell phone. The image on the screen was of an ultrasound scan showing a foetus in the womb, her grandson to be exact. So this kid was a text message before he was even born.
It even occurred to me that, as the cell phone belonged to a member of a leading political clan, I might have been looking at one of the leaders of the country, perhaps even a future president.
My oldest friend has been digitizing his photograph collection and fragments of long ago have been showing up every morning in my in-box. This is my favourite, the room where I spent my last two years at university. Here is where I studied, dreamed, did a lot of things I am not going to list on this blog, and waited in the dark for the cheapskate downstairs to put 50p in the electricity meter.
Before I went to sleep last night I picked up a collection by Cavafy, the poet laureate of time passing. I opened it on this poem, which struck me as rather eerie.
Thanks to John P for the “distillation” and to my companion from that little room we shared for all the great times.
Following The Recipe Of Ancient Greco-Syrian Magicians Constantine Cavafy
Said an aesthete: "What distillation from magic herbs
can I find - what distillation, following the recipe
of ancient Greco-Syrian magicians - that will bring back to me
for one day (if its power doesn't last longer),
or even for a few hours,
my twenty-third year,
bring back to me my friend of twenty-two,
his beauty, his love.
What distillation, following the recipe
of ancient Greco-Syrian magicians, can be found
to bring back—as part of this return to the past—
even the little room we shared."
I love cradling the squat brown bottle in my hand, seeing the beads of condensation gathered around the engraved logo, feeling the first slug hit the back of my throat … most of all, I love San Miguel Pale Pilsen for the very reason that Filipinos are deserting it in droves, because it is quintessentially and timelessly Filipino.
Unfortunately, quintessentially and timelessly Filipino is not what today’s beer drinker is looking for. According to yesterday’s paper:
San Miguel Pale Pilsen, the flagship beer of San Miguel Corp. in the ubiquitous squat brown bottle, has seen its market share dwindle to a record low of 29 percent as of September 2005, according to records obtained from the Bureau of Internal Revenue.
Asia’s oldest brew, Pale Pilsen, which is exported to other countries and rated as one of the world’s largest selling beers, has been on a downtrend since 2001, when its market share hit 50.76 percent—and further tumbled to 39 percent in 2003.
From 50.6% to 29% in four years is a precipitous decline. There is nothing surprising about this though. Like beer drinkers from Covent Garden to Greenwich Village, Philippine drinkers are looking for that chic beer style. I can’t blame them. When I lived in Britain, my fridge was full of French, Czech, and German beer, not Carling Black Label.
However, when it comes to the squat brown bottle I’m bucking the trend. I guess I’ve drunk more San Miguel Pale than any other brand and I’m not stopping now! Apart from the attributes I mentioned above, San Miguel Pale Pilsen tastes better better than any beer I know. I shall just have to drink harder to make up that deficit.
Actually, I have my own theory on why sales of Pale Pilsen have dropped in recent years. Here's a clue:
I know that you are all dying to read my witty and erudite insights into the
differences and similarities between India and the Philippines, but that seems too much like hard work, so I’ll distill all our shared observations from three weeks into one word: moustache.
Man, they love their ’taches over there. Of the 3 million Keralan men we saw, I think five had a clean shaven upper lip. Yet I can go for weeks in Manila without seeing a moustache (and, given the ridicule I have been subjected for my own whispy efforts in that direction I ain’t ever gonna see one in the mirror).
There you have it: India, moustache; Philippines, unmoustache. What more can you possibly need to know?
Like many other old ‘uns, in my youth I spent most of my money on vinyl records. I then spent even more in my middle age buying the same music on CD. Despite this, I’m still kulang many of my favourite albums—e.g., the Creation Rockers series of early reggae records, Charly R&B reissues from the 1970s, and all my 45s—simply because they have never been reissued on CD. I know that you can digitize vinyl because a friend made me a CD like that once (merci, John P!) but the process seemed such a hassle I never looked into it.
I was therefore delighted to see from Gigi that for $150 you can buy a USB turntable that will produce MP3s from your vinyl records. For about a day and a half, I wandered around in a trance, rockin’ along to my old Niney the Observer songs.
Unfortunately, it gradually dawned on me that after 10 years of chaotic student and semi-student living, 5 years of Singapore’s humidity, and 15 years of my Mum’s attic, my beloved vinyl could probably provide me with a couple of songs and 10 days of rifle fire and white noise. In fact I might as well take out 15 crisp $10 bills out from the bank, arrange them in the toilet bowl and pull the plug.
Ah well, nice thought. Perhaps some of you may find the turntable useful though, it’s a cool idea.