Every major trip has rocked and challenged some belief or opinion I have held and never had to cheek where it had really come from and whether it was my opinion or whether it had been passed down to me and I had absorbed it without test or analysis.
My trip to the Yemen put the notion of democracy under the spotlight, and the fact that we, in the West, try to impose it with unchecked arrogance and self-righteousness on countries and nations who have organically developed other, sometimes similar, systems that work for them and are culturally more acceptable to them.
The still existing tribal clan system in the Yemen gives every person within it a position that is recognised and protected and anchored within the laws of the sharia. We may not like those laws, but they are the result of their realities, and they work very well indeed for them; there are no left-out stragglers like in Western democracies. Down-and-outs do not exist because the system prevents anyone falling outside any communal safety net. While successive governments in the UK have tried to stigmatise beggars by taking a blaming approach, the fifth pillar of Islam demands charity to those less fortunate than ourselves - and it works, and removes helping other people from making it into a personal decision of approbation or opprobrium.
The imposition of democracy from the centre brought strife, resistance, confusion and refugees no longer belonging to and cared for by any clan. While democracy may well be the best system we know in practice, we should stop transplanting it with crusading fervour where it supplants moral, social and political systems that work perfectly well in other cultures, even if we can't readily understand them without necessary context. Islam proves to be much more of an integrated political, social and religious system than we can readily understand, since we divide and separate social and moral systems into political and religious spheres not understood elsewhere. We bomb the Gadaffis of this world in their desert retreats and kid ourselves into thinking it is any different from muslim fundamentalism putting a price on Salman Rushdie's head or the Spanish Inquisition prescribing the right way of thinking.
My trip to India, by contrast, put the whole big idea of religion and spirituality under the spotlight. I idly flattered myself for so many years that, being an independent thinker, I can only be an agnostic, if not an atheist - it is almost a rite of passage, a sign of intelligence. But never before India did I feel at a gut level the immense importance of spirituality in everybody's lives, the fact that it is not just a luxury one can drape oneself in like some new fancied Western fad as so many Westerners do in a self-help-book kind of way, only to instantly turn it into another thing that has to be spread to other, apparently unenlightened people, instead of ingested and lived by themselves.
When I saw in one large field all the creatures of the world, including man, sharing a limited space without fear or favour, be it an elephant, a peacock, a springbok gazelle, a desert fox, rats, cows and buffalo, even a camel and ploughing oxen with a man bearing down on a wooden plough, it was a utopian, paradisical vision I shall never forget - like in the small areas amongst the Bishnoi bribes to whom all forms or life are sacred and no killing of any kind takes place. I began to understand that this was more, was bigger than a little contemplative religion 'on the side', in order to feel complete, and to be taken out of its slumber at pre-scheduled times for relaxation or periodic purging purposes. It was a whole, well-thought-out, balanced, organically grown, all-embracing, integrated system that was clearly lived out socially and politically, I was impressed and humbled at the same time. Another conceit knocked on the head, that all life necessarily has to be at the expense of another's. I began to realise that there is a place for spirituality, a proper place for it in all our lives, and there is room for it even inside my godless soul. My best friend calls it 'the place with no words'.
Some of the insights I have gained and by which I feel truly enriched I could never have reached without travelling, by assiduous study or sympathetic interest alone. It takes the confrontation of the encounter and the act of travelling to shake and test all our opinions and beliefs, most of which we cannot consciously account for, yet call our own, or even glibly vote for when called upon to stand up and be counted for your beliefs.
And now Cuba, after only a few days, is proving a massive shock to the system, to everything I have ever believed in politically and socially, again without checking it or testing it in the fire of a different reality. Cuba is a wonderful place, and could be a social utopia - and in many ways it is - in a way no Western democracy has achieved. The last great pure ideological experiment on our globe is being lived out before our eyes 'in real time' - and it's going wrong, gone wrong, it seems! Once understood in its noble objectives, the success of the experiment becomes so personal you don't want it to go wrong, you want it to pull through. A 'special period in time of peace', Fidel Castro, affectionately known as EI Barbudo (the Bearded One), called it to help his people focus their sacrifices on the greater objectives of creating a third way of living, the Cuban way, that does not sell out to the motive of greed as mainspring of capitalist prosperity nor pledge itself unthinkingly forever to the kind of ossified communist institutionalism that suffocates all original thinking and creative, individual enterprise. I just hope that whatever or whoever one day will follow Castro, at 73 still in rude health, will not sweep away the stupendous, outstanding social achievements made - achievements made on the backs of so many individual sacrifices, achievements like free education from the cradle to the grave, continuing education for life only recently extolled as a worthy goal in our society, free, first-rate health service and complete equality between all shades of colour from pitch black to English-Rose white as well as total equality between the sexes. The government even decreed in an instinctively traditionally macho society that men must do 50% of domestic chores.
Such gains that are clear to see and manifest: the entire population is enjoying a life expectancy surpassing that of the US by 2 years! But at what a cost to generations of people whose personal, private, individual aspirations have been entombed forever. It seems grotesque that we should see the US as the supreme manifestation of personal freedom of the individual when their citizens are most definitely not allowed to exercise their freedom to travel to Cuba, not at any cost, unless giving up their passport for a Canadian one or entering via another country, and when their trade sanctions terrorise even third-party countries in Europe, who would like to trade with Cuba.
And yet, what an amazingly bubbly, exuberant, friendly people the Cubans are, in spite of it all! Absolutely overwhelming! Although they ache under their hardships, I have never met such happy, lovely people as here. Yet, their lacks and needs are dire and oppressing and felt universally; few but inherently so happy people would put up with poverty artificially imposed across the spectrum of the population for the common good, in the noble pursuit of true egalitarianism. As they are all in the same boat, nobody seems to envy their neighbour for anything, making for a unique helpfulness to each other in their manifold ways of 'resolviendo', getting by inventively.
As a tourist one can only feel thoroughly guilty, without being able to do anything about it at all; you can't even make amends on a personal level by inconspicuous consumption if you wanted to because there is a strict segregation, and as a tourist you can't get ordinary things, only luxuries, and as a local the other way round. The opulent restaurant buffets laid on for tourists creak under their own weight and must be eaten in the same way that 'prizes must be won' in our capitalist acquisitive societies. It is that kind of coercive logic! And non-collusion with the system leads to inexcusable waste, without helping anyone, as there is the strictest code for the staff not to sponge off the scraps wasted by overfed tourists, while the rest of the population bob along below the poverty line separately. Two rations of pork per year, 7 eggs maximum per month, and jail sentences for the private purchase of beef is the lot of the locals.
Resolviendo is the art of getting by with ingenuity, inventiveness to stretch a fortnight's subsistence wages to last for a month. Yet, any sound of music from anywhere nearby starts off serious hip-rolling and whole-body involvement in instant dancing by young and old alike, as if touched by magic. No wonder the Cubans themselves say the best things in life are free and not subject to rationing - sex and music. While calories are expended with precarious abandon, it would seem, happiness and contentment are created and a community spirit welded that makes all people true compañeros - fellow-beings in communion with each other no matter what age, status or shade of colour. it is a concept they call 'callejeando' - impossible to translate but something like 'hanging out in the street to enjoy life and have conversations with others'.
Cuba being officially atheist, Castro was recently asked by a forward, intellectually mischievous Western journalist what his notion of heaven was: in his urgent, insistent, worryingly spell-binding, forever didactic, fingerwagging way, he replied 'callejeando' - hanging out on a street corner and having a good chin-wag or debate with the person next to him, as hundreds of people do every day in the vast outdoor living room of the 14 km long Malecón of Havana, the wide boulevard bounding the city against the wild waves of the Atlantic crashing over the walls and spraying over 6 lanes right up to the hollowed out, dilapidated, gracious old Spanish mansions on the other side. This is where people walk, talk, go fishing from, jump into the sea from, make impromptu music, immediately dance to it, hustle tourists for good conversation and the odd 'take-it-or-leave-it' 20-dollar trick; this is where loving couples press into each other in greater public privacy than their single-room homes shared with the rest of the family could ever afford them, and where people like innocent 'children' of any age tremendously enjoy having the Atlantic waves gush up against the wall and soak them to their skins while 'rust-bucket' Ladas and ancient Chevvies chugging by dodge the water thrown across the road in case it gives them their final pneumonia.
With the temperature being a pleasant if humid 28 degrees Celsius inside or out at Christmas, I took my fever-shaking cadaver into the sun and found that, an top of everything else, I had also completely lost my voice, so having to point or scribble, causing harmless mirth from ever giggling men and women who choose to see the funny side of anybody's hardship, even their own, without guile or glee.
A futile 20 minute trip to the state shopping centre attached to the hotel complex - bread, milk and eggs had run out by 11am, left me so unexpectedly weak I had to sit down on a wall for 10 minutes - feeling absolutely wretched, with the sky revolving around my head as soon as I turned it any way. Funny thing, though, was that being a sitting target, I was, rather charmingly, with that same open, coaxing laughing approach, propositioned by a couple of stunning local belles (they might have been sisters) who hang around the international hotels for what they call a 20-dollar trick - and, by Jove, what belles! And by all the Yoruba saints of their santería religion, what possibly unimaginable 'trick'?
Gustavo, the gentle Angolan veteran pilot turned tourist guide told me, almost disapprovingly, in response to my naïve question: 'We don't eat supper, nobody does!' How then 9 long years of unmitigated food rations since the collapse of the Soviet block where the population can't afford to have supper can still produce such outstandingly curvaceous bodies carried with such natural elegance and pride and totally non-sleazy, innate, as opposed to 'put-on', provocation, I shall never know! All I knew at that moment was that I was too damned struck out by this wretched 'double-barrelled' flu/dysentery thing that marauded inside me, to manage more than a pained wry no-thank-you-maam smile, let alone any intelligent reply, so - thank Heavens for small mercies - neatly removing and saving me from all other complexities of the issue.
The little prostitution there is, much fought by the government, seems a far cry from the oversupply of every last unthinkable wish pandered to at the right price as found in some Western countries, or the horrifying availability of child prostitutes all along the German/Czech border bridging the chasm of an economic rupture line, and equally far removed from the fanciful, exploitative flirtation with Eastern submissiveness and enslavement that brings such misery on countless Thai or Indian girls sucked into the cities from the countryside. Here, the little and almost kindly soliciting one comes across in Havana, is neither aggressive not fake-submissive, but seems to be no more than another, almost disarmingly open, natural way of getting by from time to time (by both parties?), in order to mitigate hardship, without the person offering the 'trick' sliding into addictive wretchedness without a return ticket. The non-threatening nature of it, the hearty, warm smiles beamed at you, the lack of any pimping, even the social conceit one could possibly excuse oneself with of arguably helping a family in need, is enough to plant the idea in one's mind as a totally insoluble ethical dilemma, an intractable 'trick' to transact.
Back to bed - the sick bed, that is!
PS: My musings on the nature of democracy in the Yemen were written a few days before the tragic event that happened on the very same route we took from Sana'a to Marib some years ago. The group that was ambushed had not sought or had the benefit of clan protection. When we crossed this same volatile region to Marib, the seat of the legendary queen of Sheeba, our trip leader, an old hand at all things Yemeni, insisted an negotiating that our 3 vehicles were escorted by security guards drawn from the local tribe. So we had local tribesmen, armed to their teeth and kalashnikovs at the ready, riding on the rear bumpers of our 3 vehicles scanning the featureless horizon with eagle eyes while we shot across the dangerous stretch at break-neck speed on the hard sand piste, the 3 jeeps racing across the desert in fanned out formation to avoid each other's sand plumes.
This showed a proper understanding of local social customs, and sensitivity to conditions and political sentiments. We were, therefore, integrated, however temporarily, into their local social system and so kept safe from harm while the hapless group of a week ago traversed the region without such protection and without such deference paid to local sentiment; they therefore made themselves much more vulnerable than they need have been had they invoked the Islamic duty, taken very seriously by inhabitants of the desert, of protecting, even spoiling their guests with their hospitality. In the care and protection of their own local warriors, the group would have been safe. As could be seen, ordinary Yemenis, especially amongst Sana'a's more sophisticated inhabitants, were appalled at the tragedy. It most deeply offends against the profound Islamic law of hospitality that is so dear to them, and particularly to anyone of Bedouin extraction, as most Yemenis are.
The organisers of the group failed to pay the necessary respect to local sheiks, failed to enlist their protection and hospitality, and would, therefore, as in days of old, have been seen as intruders; the Bedouins may now have trucks, four-wheel drive jeeps as well as their own tanks, weapons and communications equipment, but their mentality has remained the same as ever. By not understanding territorial rules and traditional values, this particular tourist group remained outside the local infrastructure and so came to grief. Bearing in mind that at that very time British fighter planes, to their minds, had intruded and were dropping bombs further north on their brethren, isolated outbreaks of religious fanaticism were much more likely than at any other time, particularly in areas lacking the most basic educational facilities. It is as well to remember that, in their frustration at a distant government ruling ineffectively from the centre, tribes had to date carried out kidnappings chiefly in order to get the government to provide schools for their youngsters. Moreover, the victims kidnapped for a few days had always been treated excellently and released unharmed.
Scotland Yard, worse still FBI involvement, even with Yemeni government co-operation, will achieve nothing that could not have been achieved by more empathy with, and acceptance of, their tried and tested ways of social organisation shown by the group's organisers, rather than rashly enforcing their passage through a volatile region in another country, without due reference to the political, social, moral and religious code by which the tribes have lived in their various, staunchly defended territories for centuries, virtually unaware or dismissive of being part of a larger democracy for the last couple of decades.
Content © R Reisenberger, 1998