Thursday, January 15, 2009

Fratricide in Allah's Name, A Look At Algeria and Thoughts of China

Years ago, when China was off limits to American citizens, I spoke to an au pair maid who took care of the children next door to me Since she was a German citizen, she had been admitted to China with her parents and traveled extensively there. Because she was accustomed to western style parliamentary democracy, the ubiquitous personality cult of Chairman MaoTse-tung was extremely jarring to her sensibilities.

One image from our conversations that remains with me to this day is her recollection of a long train ride through China. Throughout the ride, there were shades on the windows that were controlled by the conductor and not by passengers. The reason for this was that long stretches of landscape near the train tracks were deemed incompatible with the image China in the sixties wished to project to the outside world.

When I open a newspaper or turn on the television, I am keenly aware of the vast stretches of planet earth that are deemed "not newsworthy" and passed over in daily news coverage. In many cases, there are wars or natural disasters that might be considered less consequential than even the latest celebrity gossip.

As I turn the pages of a news magazine, the image of remote control shades on the train in China flash back from my conversation with the au pair maid on the beach so many years ago. As I chafe at the editorial parameters of news media, the shades on a train in China seem to be an apt metaphor for the blinders between the front and back pages of the daily newspaper.

Nowhere is my sense of manipulated perceptions more acute than the Middle East. In and around Israel, the impression is created that this is the atrocity of the century, an event that establishes Israel as being on par with Hitler's Third Reich.

As I elbow my way through a shuk full of hucksters, trying to sell me their sad tales of victimhood, the numbers don't add up. Even their supporters collapse under the weight of their own absurdity, by claiming in one instance that by their failure to rape Arab women, Israeli soldiers proved themselves to be racist.

Meanwhile, in the Congo more than five million people have been killed in ten years. The total dead in all of Israel's wars since 1948, Arab and Jewish, civilian and military is 120,000 people. Annual Congolese deaths in the last ten years outstrip the annual death rate all of Israel's wars since 1948 by a ratio of 2500 to one.

The Congo is rich in natural resources. Additionally, it has agricultural potential. I am not capable of the intellectual contortionism that would be required to dismiss racism as a reason for the world's indifference to Congolese suffering.

Meanwhile in Algeria, a conflict has dragged on since 1991. In that year an electorate that was bone tired of grinding poverty and byzantine corruption voted in an Islamist government. Acting on the basis of an ancient Arab proverb "A Smith Wesson beats four Aces.", the Algerian military staged a coup d'etat and barred the Islamists from taking power. Since then, between 150,000 to 200,000 people have been killed in the conflict. There were numerous instances in which entire villages were targetted.

Unfortunately for the Algerians, there is little interest in stopping a civil war. A prerequisite for international intervention seems to be a conflict between two national groups or an invasion of one country by another. Perhaps if Israel would invade Algeria, the world might finally start to notice the tens of thousands of deaths that have left it unmoved until now. The death toll in Algeria climbs by the year with no effort from even the Arab world to arbitrate a conflict that has been so costly in both human and economic terms.

I watched the introduction to a Journeyman Films documentary about the Algerian civil war that put a human and geographic face on this little noted conflict. The European country with the most interest in and involvement in Algeria is France, which ruled Algeria for well over a century. With tens of thousands of Algerians living in France, there is ample interest. Journalists are also afraid. There have been assassinations of public figures from Algeria. The long arm of the assassins has even reached into Paris, where Cheb Hasni, a renowned Algerian singer was assassinated.

Watching the documentary about Algeria affected me in an unexpected way. One brief sequence showed Algerian journalists who were covering events from within the country for a newspaper called Al Wattan (The Fatherland). A number had been killed in action. All had been targetted by either the government or the Islamic rebels for assassination. Rather than melt into an obscure profession, they remained at their posts.

When I read about American journalists who fear nothing more than being kicked out of the press section on Obama's airplane, I am ashamed. When I compare America's pampered journalists to Algeria's austere and intrepid press corps continuing at their posts despite fear for their lives, I am humbled. The comparison makes America's fourth estate look like a pack of squabbling children fighting over pieces of Turkish taffy. The average American news reporter would need a cherry picker to stand tall enough to shine the shoes of an Algerian journalist.

In the age of the internet, we are no longer like my German friend the au pair maid whose view was limited by remote control shades on her that was train passing through China. We have the world wide web as a tool with which we may bend the slats in the venetian blind of media censorship. In order to pry the shades, however, we must be motivated to do so by knowledge of a world outside and the desire to know of it. I hope through this article to pique my reader's curiosity about the world outside the media spotlight. At least as important as the facts being presented is knowledge of the reasons why particular facts are deemed convenient and relevant while others are excluded.

As David Duchovny says on X Files, "The truth is out there".

In honour of the journalists and entertainers killed in the Algerian conflict, I am presenting the following music video from Cheb Hasni.

No comments: