Category: Human Rights

Néstor Fantini Entrevista – El testimonio de un sobreviviente y su lucha permanente por la memoria (por Yamila Musa)


Néstor Fantini

08/09/2020

(Entrevista – Néstor Fantini) El testimonio de un sobreviviente y su lucha permanente por la memoria 

Entrevistado por Yamila Musa

 

“Los soldados nos golpeaban, torturaban y fusilaban”, relata Néstor Fantini, ex preso político de conciencia durante el golpe de estado de 1976 en Argentina. Durante esos años cargados de terror y atrocidades, conoció a su ex mujer a través de cartas, y fue quien encabezó su liberación junto al grupo de Amnistía Internacional. Una historia de militancia, denuncias y lucha por los derechos humanos, una historia política y de amor.

Cuando fue detenido antes del golpe de estado de 1976 era un estudiante-trabajador muy joven ¿Cuáles fueron los ideales que lo llevaron a militar a tan temprana edad? 

Muchos factores. Es muy difícil identificar una o dos variables, porque probablemente a otra persona no le impacte de la misma manera. Son experiencias multidimensionales. Pero quiero aclarar dos cuestiones fundamentales, una es a nivel emocional, cuando viajé en una oportunidad al norte de Argentina, a Salta, a visitar a mis tíos, fue mi primer contacto con ese otro mundo. En ese momento, yo vivía en un barrio de clase media, iba a una escuela americana, así que en cierta forma desconocía esa otra parte. La población indígena, los coyas, la miseria, ver los niños en una situación que de pronto me impactó profundamente. La otra cuestión es a nivel intelectual, por haber asistido en la secundaria al Liceo Militar General Paz, a los 15 años hablaba de seguridad nacional, economía, etc, con profesores que después se destacaron mucho en áreas de la política o seguridad del país.

En esa época nos hablaban de instituciones democráticas, de los valores fundamentales de los respetos al individuo, y por otro lado veíamos líderes militares que reprimían, era una contradicción total. Eso fue en el año del golpe del general Onganía, donde comenzaron una serie de gobiernos militares que duraron hasta 1973. Evidentemente, no tenían ningún tipo de representación.

Estas dos cuestiones junto al contexto histórico que se estaba desarrollando,  donde hubo grandes cambios en el mundo, era toda una situación especial que se sentía, y en el caso de Córdoba era muy fuerte. Cuando se dió el Cordobazo en mayo del ‘69, salí por las calles de la ciudad a caminar y al preguntarme sobre todo lo que había ocurrido, justamente coincidía con ese cuestionamiento que se venía dando. Una realidad multidimensional que impactó en mi generación.

Durante el proceso militar por órdenes del general Menéndez, 31 compañeros que estaban detenidos con usted en la UP-1 fueron ejecutados ¿Qué marcas le dejaron estos hechos perpetrados por el terrorismo de estado? ¿Siguen siendo determinantes en su vida? 

Durante el año del ‘76 después del golpe militar, se ejecutaron esos 31 compañeros, y por supuesto que quedan secuelas muy profundas que no se borrarán nunca más. Después de esa experiencia, los que sobrevivieron en mi generación comenzaron a vivir de nuevo. No solamente hay que hablar de las 31 ejecuciones, sino de los 30.000 desaparecidos, de los miles y miles de exiliados, de las personas torturadas, de los centros clandestinos de detención que aparecieron en las distintas partes del país.

En definitiva, lo que ocurrió en la UP1, fue un pequeño microcosmo de lo que estaba ocurriendo en toda la Argentina. Nos han quedado muchas secuelas y ellas se traducen en la alta tasa de mortalidad de gente que ha estado detenida, de prisioneros políticos, en la alta tasa de enfermedades físicas y en lo que hace a problemas emocionales que muchos ex presos políticos experimentan todavía. Hay una gran cantidad de estudios conectados con eso. En mi caso personal me ayudó mucho que desde que salí de la prisión política hasta la actualidad siempre hablé, participé en foros y ámbitos, y pude articular mi experiencia. Todo esto cumplió una función altamente terapéutica. Pero de todos modos, los efectos siguen, te los pueden decir miembros de mi familia. Tuve cuatro matrimonios y eso no es casualidad, sino que tiene que ver con la experiencia que viví.

 

El amor y la libertad

 

Se casó con Mev Porter, encargada del grupo de Amnistía Internacional que encabezó una campaña por su liberación ¿Cómo vivió esa mixtura entre una historia política y una historia de amor? 

En realidad el nombre de ella es Mary Evelyn Porter, mi ex esposa y la madre de mi hijo. En un momento de su vida, realizó un viaje a Londres para visitar a su tío, ex embajador británico, quien le aconsejó que se uniera a la nueva organización que había surgido en ese momento, llamada Amnistía Internacional (AI).

Ella se incorporó al grupo que recibió el caso mío y comenzaron a trabajar intensamente. Se juntaron con mi madre que también estaba organizando campaña. De esa manera, el grupo Al me adoptó como prisionero de conciencia y cumplió un rol fundamental. 

El año 1976 fue el más dramático, el más intenso para los que estábamos en la UP1 porque fusilaron a los compañeros, a Miguel Hugo Vaca Narvaja, Pablo Balustra, entre otros. Vivimos una situación de constante terror, miedo. Los soldados nos golpeaban, torturaban y fusilaban. En un momento me trasladaron en avión al sur de la Provincia de Buenos Aires, a la Prisión de Sierra Chica . Salir de la jurisdicción de Menéndez era tener una posibilidad de sobrevivir. Me enteré que había sido adoptado como prisionero de conciencia y comencé a recibir visitas, surgieron pequeños eventos que me generaron muchas preguntas, como por ejemplo, cuando cayó un representante de la Cruz Roja Internacional a entrevistarme, era para asegurarse en qué condiciones físicas y mentales me encontraba, y eso fue una muy buena señal porque en cierta medida garantizaba y documentaba que estaba con vida.

A los pocos meses me llevaron en un camión con otros detenidos políticos, incluyendo mucha gente que estaba adoptada por el grupo de AI, y me trasladaron a la prisión política de la ciudad de La Plata, la UP9. Comencé a tener una serie de facilidades, comparando lo que había sido el centro de exterminio en Córdoba. Empecé a desarrollar una relación con Mev, ella me escribía cartas, se las mandaba a mi hermana que se encontraba en Brasil y hacíamos la triangulación. Mi hermana las transcribía y me las mandaba como si fueran de ella, porque solamente podíamos recibir cartas de familiares. De esa manera, empezó una relación respecto a los libros que estábamos leyendo, sobre la experiencia mundana, y también con doble sentido articulando algunas ideas y preocupaciones.

El 14 de julio de 1979 efectivamente salí de la prisión política. Estaba mi madre con Mev, y ese fue nuestro primer encuentro. No me dejaron salir del país, me pusieron en libertad vigilada, pero me transfirieron a Buenos Aires. Temía por mi vida, por cosas que me sucedieron en Córdoba.

Mev viajó varias veces desde los Estados Unidos a Buenos Aires, porque ella estaba activamente trabajando con grupos de derechos humanos. Era una situación muy riesgosa para una joven, estaba exponiendo su vida valientemente y desinteresadamente. Luego, cuando quedé en libertad total porque salió el decreto presidencial, tenía tres visas y elegí irme a Canadá, con un programa político que era para ex prisioneros argentinos políticos. En Canadá comenzamos una relación, nos terminamos casando y teniendo un hijo, Jonathan, que es el orgullo de nuestra vida. 

 

Transmitir la memoria

 

En la actualidad ¿Se define más como argentino o como estadounidense? 

Creo que en este mundo de globalización, donde todo es tan instantáneo, transnacional, la cuestión de nacionalidad ya no tiene el mismo sentido que tenía hace 50 años atrás, pero uno sigue siendo argentino, porque el factor cultural es determinante, y más en gente como es mi caso, donde toda la formación fundamental se dio en ese país.

Por otro lado me siento profundamente de este mundo, porque aprecio muchos componentes de este país, me siento muy cómodo. Lucho para que haya una mejor distribución de la riqueza, para que las instituciones profundicen las experiencias democráticas, y lo hago a través de mis escritos, como editor de HispanicLA, y a través de otras editoriales muy fuertes. También, cuando doy clases de sociología, critico la situación autoritaria del régimen de Donald Trump, que nos está llevando a una crisis institucional inaceptable.

¿Cómo vivencia desde lo personal estos ideales de países políticamente contrapuestos? 

No son tan opuestos, en absoluto. Si bien desde el rincón argentino podemos ver a la gran potencia imperialista que ha causado tanto sufrimiento a lo largo del siglo XX en diferentes partes del mundo, por otro lado, la historia argentina también está llena de sufrimiento, de atrocidades.

Si entramos a hablar de lo que hizo Argentina, con el genocidio de los aborígenes, la década infame, la época de 1955, la de 1970 con la dictadura cívico militar, realmente está llena de crueldades como la están la de todos los países. Estados Unidos, por supuesto que tiene el genocidio de los indígenas, el pecado original de la esclavitud afroamericana, toda una serie de elementos que en definitiva muestran la necesidad de continuar empujando a una agenda donde se haga énfasis en la importancia de las insituciones democráticas, el respeto al individuo, a la justicia social. En este país, se pelea por lo mismo que se pelea allá. 

Como docente y escritor ¿Qué legado busca transmitir a la sociedad? 

Lo de escritor, el haber jugueteado en algún momento de mi vida con las letras, haber sido parte del grupo literario,  siempre ha sido algo bastante marginal. Durante muchos años, organizamos la peñas literarias llamadas La Luciérnaga, en donde participó gente que ahora es destacada, relacionada a la literatura, música, artes plásticas. Fue una experiencia muy linda pero siempre fue una cuestión no fundamental. Para mi una cuestión primordial desde la época de la dictadura fueron siempre los derechos humanos, ¿en qué ámbito?, ¿en qué foro puedo articular la denuncia?. Si eso implica enseñar en la universidad, lo hago como lo estoy haciendo ahora, si implica armar un grupo literario lo hago, adonde se proyecte esa inquietud y los respetos por los derechos humanos lo hago. Si implica trabajar con Amnistía Internacional también trabajo con ellos. Para mí va a ser fundamental hasta que muera, denunciar lo que le pasó a esos 31 compañeros en Córdoba.

 

BIOGRAFÍA 

Yamila Musa nació en Villa María, ciudad de la provincia de Córdoba. Con sólo tres años, comenzó su formación en Declamación y Arte Escénico. Esto la llevó a proyectarse en la comunicación integral, por lo cual concretó sus estudios de Licenciada en Comunicación en la Universidad Nacional de Córdoba. Al finalizar su carrera universitaria se trasladó a la Capital Federal en búsqueda de nuevas oportunidades. Realizó diversos trabajos relacionados al sector de la cultura, entre ellos como Directora de Producción de la Película “La Invención de Borges” del Director francés Nicolás Azalbert. Actualmente es Periodista & editora de la revista The International Literary Quarterly,  y colaboradora de la Fundación Cineteca Vida.

Freedom for Patrick Zaky, an article by David Garyan

05/09/2020
Ravenna, Italy

 

The Case of Patrick Zaky and Giulio Regeni

Freedom for Patrick Zaky

It’s been over half a year since Patrick Zaky, an Egyptian graduate student at the University of Bologna, was arrested in his home country in early February. After enduring human rights violations for months and going through arduous legal proceedings, Zaky was at last given permission to see a family member on August 25th—his mother.

Although the 27 year old has committed no crime, both abroad and at home, the Egyptian state has handed down various charges, accusing him of disseminating fake news and attempting to incite protests without permission. His defense team has argued that these accusations are unfounded.

According to Amnesty International, Zaky’s family only received “two short letters” out of the twenty he had sent to them. The Italian newspaper il Post has likewise reported that although he’s generally in good health, he has lost weight and is worrying about the future of his studies, asking how long he will be unjustly detained. The photo below is a recent one from the Patrick Libero Facebook page.

Every picture of Zaky before his arrest certainly depicts a happier individual and what else do we expect when there isn’t yet the potential 25 year sentence hanging over him? Let’s hope for the best and pray that the Egyptian government finds the good sense to release this innocent young man very soon.

Amnesty International is working hard to gather 118,000 signatures in order to try and secure his freedom; thus, signing the petition will not only prove to be an act of tremendous help for Zaky’s legal team but the gesture would most certainly also boost Patrick’s morale and that of his family. The petition can be accessed on the official Amnesty International page, and as of today, it’s only 638 signatures short, with 117,362 already having been collected.

Thank you to all who’ve given their time to make this goal possible.

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with a full collection, (DISS)INFORMATION, with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.

 

The Armenian Diaspora in South America, an article by David Garyan

September 4th, 2020
Ravenna, Italy

 

The Armenian Diaspora in South America

With its population at just under three million, Armenia, like Israel, holds the distinction of having a diaspora which is substantially larger than its number of inhabitants residing solely within their respective national borders; with regard to the aforementioned countries, there are very specific reasons for this population imbalance—genocide and discrimination in general being the main factors that drove people away from the places in which they were being persecuted—the search for a more peaceful life somewhere else.

In the Middle East, the UN-approved partition of Palestine in 1947 ultimately led to the creation of Israel in 1948. Since this establishment of an independent state for the Jewish people, more than three million individuals have made the decision to move.

The Law of Return, passed in 1950, played a large part in this process, essentially giving Jews the right to come and reside in Israel, along with gaining its citizenship. These efforts were incredibly successful, which is why, as of today, the country’s population stands at approximately five million—and still its diaspora around the world is far greater.

A similar decree for Armenians was enacted by Stalin in 1945, authorizing individuals living abroad who wished to return the right to do so. Those who had been displaced by the First World War and the genocide, thus, began to arrive in large numbers, but the program wasn’t as successful as its more famous Israeli counterpart. The photo below (dated 1947) shows a group of Armenians waiting in Naples before their scheduled departure for Armenia on a Soviet Rossiya ship.

Armenia’s diaspora—when viewed in relation to its home population—is even more pronounced than the Jewish one, constituting more than ten million people—three times the amount residing within the homeland’s borders. More recent events, such the 2018 Velvet Revolution, which brought about the peaceful dismantling of Serzh Sargsyan’s corrupt government, have actively encouraged further repatriation from the Armenian community, but it hasn’t been substantial; and perhaps this isn’t necessarily such a bad thing as this article will attempt to demonstrate.

The fact that countries like Ireland, Italy, and Lebanon also have diasporas which are much larger than the population living within their own respective national borders illustrates that migration is multifaceted, complex, and can’t simply be reduced to genocide alone. Although famine and lack of economic opportunity did drive Irish migration in the 19th century, many Italians, for example, wanted to purchase land—they, hence, migrated to America in order to this earn this money and subsequently repatriated after achieving their goal. As it did for the Irish, however, the lack of economic opportunity also played a large part in driving permanent migration for those arriving from Italy. When the country was finally united in the 19th century—officially becoming the so-called nation of Italy in 1861—not everyone went on to feel “Italian” as a result.

It’s important to understand that even today, the people we call Italians generally associate themselves more with their respective regions than the country as a whole; the presence of countless dialects (many of them different enough to be their own language) are evidence of this incredible variety. Even the dialects themselves have variation—there’s a difference, for example, in the way Sicilian is spoken in Palermo and how it’s spoken in Catania. Hence, the popular joke people often make is that before unification (which resulted in the imposition of a standard “Italian” language on the whole territory), people from Naples and Milan, for instance, would have to speak French in order to understand each other. Furthermore, the famous line delivered shortly after Italy’s unification by Massimo d’Azeglio further emphasizes the idea of how nations really are artificially constructed, and, in fact, not as old as we believe them to be: “We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians.” Thus, we can say that while the aforementioned territory witnessed the rise of ancient civilizations like the Romans and Etruscans, the united “country” of Italy itself is less than 200 years old.

Why this long aside, which, at best, only slightly relates to the topic? The answer is that contrary to the current position of the Armenian government, too much repatriation may not be a good thing because while it would most likely benefit Armenia as a nation, it still remains to be seen whether those who return home will feel “Armenian” themselves. More importantly, the positive influences and impact which the diaspora makes on other cultures would also greatly diminish, if not disappear as well. The way Italian-Americans like Amadeo Giannini (founded Bank of America—the largest bank in the country) and Antonio Meucci (credited by the US Congress with the invention of the telephone) have gone on to create a positive image of their people abroad, so, too, Armenians have done a great deal in cultivating a good impression of their people outside the respective borders of the home nation.

The contribution of Armenians towards the betterment of US society is already well-known: Raymond Damadian, for example, invented the MRI machine, which has given countless medical professionals around the world greater capabilities to diagnose and treat patients. Thus, Damadian (pictured below with a prototype of the machine) is known as “The Father of the MRI.”

Apart from civilian contributions, Armenians have also made positive contributions in America’s armed forces—Ernest H. Dervishian is one such example. For his service in WWII, he received the nation’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor, incidentally for his heroic actions “in the vicinity of Cisterna, Italy,” according to official military documents. The photo below shows General Eisenhower meeting with Lieutenant Dervishian on his visit to Richmond in the 1940s.

Dervishian and Damadian are but two of the lesser known figures of Armenians making positive contributions towards the betterment of North America (in particular the US); therefore, the aim of this article will be to highlight the contributions made by Armenians in South America, a continent which has received less attention in this respect.

The largest Armenian community in all of Latin America is in Argentina and numerous prominent individuals have come out of there as a result. Perhaps the most notable figure is Alejandro Yemenidjian (also known as Alex); although many people are familiar with him, few know that he was actually born in Buenos Aires and not in the US. Furthermore, those who have absolutely no idea who Yemenidjian is will surely know the company for which he once served as director from 1989 to 2005—MGM. He was also the co-owner and CEO of the famous Tropicana Las Vegas resort. A good friend of the late billionaire Kirk Kerkorian—who himself purchased MGM in 1969—Yemenidjian was essentially employed by the man responsible for building the modern Las Vegas. As the executive, Yemenidjian’s duties were to oversee the day to day operations of MGM studios, and as director, he was also responsible for managing the operations of MGM Resorts International. At the time of its opening in 1973, the MGM Grand was the biggest hotel in the world, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal, which also wrote the following about Kerkorian: “In Las Vegas, he built three hotels that were the largest in the world in their time,” further highlighting the role which the late billionaire played in shaping the city. The Tropicana Las Vegas lies in the heart of Las Vegas Blvd, not far from the neon-green lights of the MGM Grand.

Armenians in Argentina also excel in sports and the most prominent athlete is tennis player David Nalbandian, who won the Tennis Masters Cup (ATP Finals) in 2005 after beating Roger Federer. Without a Grand Slam or Masters Series title to his name, Nalbandian became the first player to win the cup without having initially acquired one of the two aforementioned titles. His highest ranking was third in the world.

Despite the number of prominent Armenians which exist in South America, it would be improper to talk about their contributions without mentioning those of the ordinary people (I use this term in the most positive sense). Indeed, the vibrant Armenian community which exists in Buenos Aires is just one example of how the diaspora has secured its presence in the city outside of sports and entertainment. The Colegio Armenio De Vicente Lopez, for example, serves kids who are in preschool up to the secondary grades, providing kids not only with a quality education but also functioning as a cultural center where such arts as dancing and singing are promoted.

A street called Armenia, in the Palermo neighborhood of the city, traverses roughly twelve blocks, and likewise bears witness to the Armenian presence in Buenos Aires; nearby there’s an Armenian plaza and also the Cathedral of St. Gregory the Illuminator, along with a restaurant and various shops; there are three other Armenian churches in the city, but this one is the most recognizable.

The South American country with the second-largest Armenian population is Brazil. It should be noted that although they have a formidable presence in São Paulo, there aren’t many Armenians to be found throughout the entire country. The city’s diaspora community can be traced back to the 1920s.

One of the most notable displays of Brazilian solidarity was the renaming of a metro station—originally called Ponte Pequena but changed to Armênia in 1985, paying tribute to the Armenian immigrants who helped in its construction. In return, Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, renamed one of its squares after Brazil.

There are prominent Armenian personalities as well. Krikor Mekhitarian, born in São Paulo, won the Brazilian Chess Championship twice and he’s only 33 years of age as of today. Another recognizable personality is Stepan Nercessian, a Brazilian actor who also entered politics later in his career. As of 2019, he was still making movies, although he no longer seems to be involved in government.

Elsewhere in South America, in this case Colombia, a town with the most curious name exists. Nicknamed “Miracle City,” Armenia, is located approximately 300 km southwest of Bogotá, sitting at a height of almost 1,500 meters above sea level, with a population of over 300,000. Noted for its excellent coffee growing industry, it’s no surprise, then, that this town would be named after a country whose people are great lovers of strong coffee themselves. Despite thousands of kilometers diving the two Armenias from each, the city and country nevertheless share a history. When on January 25th, 1999, a strong earthquake rocked the capital of the departamento of Quindio, more than 1000 people died and over 200,000 found themselves homeless. The event, as scholar Vartan Matiossian wrote in his article, “An Enduring Myth: The Origin of Name ‘Armenia’ in Colombia,” put the name “Armenia” back on the map, given how just over ten years before, Armenia had suffered its own massive earthquake, killing thousands and leaving thousands more homeless. The photo below depicts a scene from the devastation in Armenia—Colombia, that is.

According to Matiossian, the fact that Armenia, Colombia “re-established itself with both speed and determination is a testament to the gritty fortitude of the Armenian population, many of whom played an active role, in literally, piecing the city back together,” hence the nickname “Miracle City.” Exactly why, however, the city bears a name of a country and people who are almost nowhere to be found in Colombia is a case that has puzzled the scholar as well: “Its presence in a South American country without a significant Armenian population has brought up various conjectures.” One hypothesis states that the town was renamed in honor of the Armenian Genocide victims, but this can’t be true because the place acquired its name in 1889; another theory is that it was named after the ancient kingdom of Armenia, but this is also inconclusive. What’s of greater interest, however, is the fact that, according to Matiossian, there’s actually another Armenia in Colombia, roughly 300 km north of the Quindio one:

Given that Colombia, as mentioned before, is a country where Armenians are practically non-existent, one does wonder: Why did the nation honor Armenia not once, but twice? In Brazil and Argentina, for instance, where the population is substantial, we find no examples of entire cities being named in this way—surely there are streets and even metro stations, but entire cities? That has yet to happen. It seems there really is no verifiable answer that Matiossian can give as to the reason for the names, except the case of Colombia’s love for coffee, which the Armenians do indeed share. As Matiossian writes, “Stocks in Colombian light coffee are known in New York’s Coffee, Sugar and Cocoa Exchange with the acronym MAM (Medellin, Armenia, Manizales)” and likewise the great writer Paul Theroux wrote the following in his book Riding the Rails with Paul Theroux, which was also used by Matiossian as an epigraph introducing his essay: “He worked in Cali but did not like picking coffee in Cali. The pay was poor and the coffee was not much good either. ‘Armenia is where the best coffee comes from,’ he said. ‘It is the best in the whole of Colombia.’ In Armenia the pay was better—the highest prices went for Armenia’s coffee.” I think coffee, at this point, may be the best explanation for why the Colombian town was given its respective name.

Last, but certainly not least, is Uruguay, which in 1965, became the first nation to recognize the Armenian Genocide on the fiftieth anniversary of the event. Although Armenian immigrants had been making their way to the country’s shores as early as the 19th century, it wasn’t until after the genocide that large numbers of people began settling there. Uruguay, in that sense, is home to one of Latin America’s oldest Armenian communities, with several churches, organizations, and cultural centers in existence.

By no means is this an exhaustive presentation of the positive contributions which Armenians have made in South America. In fact, many of these things are already widely known—the real aim of this article was to demonstrate that despite the improvements which the Velvet Revolution of 2018 made in Armenia with regard to human rights, political freedom, and the fight against corruption, it should perhaps minimize its focus on repatriation, given how much impact the diaspora has been able and continues to make all across the world. Indeed, Armenia needs all the talented people it can get; however, Armenians themselves likewise need a strong diaspora to ensure the survival of their respective cultures, all unique in their own way; thus, it’s precisely the community abroad which plays an essential role in exposing the customs and traditions of the respective nation to others—whether through art, scientific innovation, business, or politics; all this is being achieved as we speak.

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with a full collection, (DISS)INFORMATION, with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.

The Rohingyas and Their Plight of Denial: An Armenian Glance, an article by David Garyan

August 26th, 2020
Ravenna, Italy

 

The Rohingyas and Their Plight of Denial: An Armenian Glance

On August 24th, I received an email from one of the representatives of Free Rohingya Coalition, an organization which, according to its own webpage, describes itself as a “network of Rohingya activists and friends of Rohingyas who share common concerns about Myanmar’s on-going genocide and the need for Rohingya survivors to play an active role in seeking a viable future for their group,” inviting me to join an event called “FRC Global Virtual Rally to Commemorate Myanmar Genocide of 2017,” which would take place on Facebook Live the following day.

Not only as a descendant of genocide survivors, but, also, more importantly, as a student of human rights at the University of Bologna, I certainly felt sympathy for the plight of the Rohingyas. It’s incidentally the University of Bologna which conferred Aung San Suu Kyi (the Nobel Prize laureate who’s now the State Counsellor of Myanmar) with an honorary doctorate in philosophy—a regretful decision given the fact she’s been largely silent about these issues. Our cohort signed a petition asking the university to strip her of the aforementioned degree, but that’s really another matter.

Although the blood of our own cause is now fully dry on the pages of history, having occurred over a hundred years ago, genocide remains genocide—nevertheless, it’s hard to deny that the more recent the tragedy is, the more immediate and pressing its concerns are. At the same time, the old argument of what happens when we constantly relegate history to the dustbin in favor of the future also remains—horrors of the past are both repeated and simultaneously also seen as something new, mostly because people forget that these “current” events are just repetitions of the past situated in new circumstances. Yesterday they killed people with swords; today they kill them with guns.

Let’s, however, return to the argument, which isn’t about the relevance or irrelevance of tragedies; what it’s really about is the Rohingyas who’ve been systematically persecuted by the Burmese government and continue to suffer. The genocide could be said to have begun in October 2016 with the military crackdown of the Muslim population in the northwestern region of Myanmar. The UN, various newspapers, and independent journalists have documented the crimes and reached the conclusion that the military’s actions constitute genocide.

Sexual violence, burnings, and forced displacements are just some of the tactics employed by the government to institute its policy of ethnic cleansing. The government, naturally, rejects any notion that it’s committing genocide and, in this respect, denial is precisely the final stage of genocide.

The argument about denial being just another form of ethnic cleansing holds for this reason: First you literally destroy the people, then you metaphorically murder the memories of the event by denying that the crime ever took place. The noted UCLA Professor Emeritus Richard G. Hovannisian said the following regarding denial: “Following the physical destruction of a people and their material culture, memory is all that is left and is targeted as a last victim. Complete annihilation of a people requires the banishment of recollection and suffocation of remembrance.” It will certainly take some time before the actual killings of Rohingya people stop and the genocide moves into a space entirely governed by philosophical annihilation—cleansing through rationality, if you will; after more than a hundred years, this aforementioned “logical” frontier is the one on which the Armenian Genocide is now currently occurring, with the government of Turkey doing everything in its power to silence all research which has already produced conclusive proof about the matter and continues to do so. But again, current events are always more pressing and so here’s another image from Myanmar.

In the past, the Institute of Turkish Studies, a United States research foundation established in 1982—with the help of a three million dollar grant from the Turkish government—occupied a considerable space in various history and Middle East departments, issuing scholarships to undergraduates, providing grant money to researchers, and giving language study awards, among other things, in order to “influence” both students and professors in how they approached the sensitive issue of the Armenian Genocide. Thus, it’s no longer a secret that in the late 80s, the government of Turkey began founding chairs and sometimes even entire institutions focused on Turkish language and history—the most prominent example being the Atatürk chair in Turkish studies at Princeton University—along with a research center in the Capitol called Institute of Turkish Studies. Many prominent academics—and by no coincidence whatsoever also the most fanatic deniers of the Armenian Genocide—ended up being products of those departments; Justin McCarthy, Heath W. Lowry, and Stanford Shaw making up some of the more well-known examples. In 1985, Lowry was the key figure in convincing roughly seventy academics to sign a statement arguing against the recognition of the Armenian Genocide—something which was printed in the New York Times and the Washington Post.

It was a great victory for the Turkish government, but sweet success didn’t last too long. Just over ten years later, the New York Times ran an article called “Princeton Is Accused of Fronting For the Turkish Government,” in which it was discovered that “the university accepted $750,000 from the Government of Turkey to endow a new Atatürk Chair of Turkish Studies in the Department of Near Eastern Studies and hired a professor, Heath W. Lowry, who had worked for the Turkish government, as executive director of the Washington-based Institute of Turkish Studies.” A year later, in 1997, UCLA returned a one million dollar grant given to them by the Turkish government to create a department in Ottoman studies after an investigation revealed that scholars who attempted to use the archives in Istanbul wouldn’t be allowed to access any material that could be sensitive to the tragic events of 1915.

Even more poignantly, in the year 2000, three years after UCLA had returned the one million dollar “donation,” when the US House of Representatives was scheduled to discuss the Armenian Genocide resolution, a Turkish politician by the name of Şükrü Elekdağ openly admitted that Lowry’s 1985 statement had not only become irrelevant but furthermore useless because not one of the original 69 signatories besides Justin McCarthy had agreed to sign a similar declaration.

In a surprising move, Turkey ceased funding the institute in 2015, yet its policy of denial has continued in more subtle, nuanced ways.

The country’s main strategy has always been to sow doubt in the minds of both ordinary citizens and scholars regarding the events of 1915, which is the real reason why it calls for repeated historical investigations—not in the interest of truth but to fish out academics willing to “interpret” the facts in ways which would justify Turkey’s stance of denial on the issue.

And who better to do the interpreting than historians? In a healthy academic environment, interpretation is precisely what’s necessary to arrive at an objective conclusion, but in the hands of those seeking to distort history, this very same “interpretation” also works very well if you have people who are willing to play ball only for your side—the latter type of interpretation and historical “research” is precisely what the Turkish state is after, mainly because it has already lost the main battle long ago; in this respect, various governments such as France, Germany, and more recently the US congress, have implemented legislation recognizing the Armenian tragedy as a genocide.

Furthermore, the International Association of Genocide Scholars wrote the following in a 2006 open letter: “Scholars who deny the facts of genocide in the face of the overwhelming scholarly evidence are not engaging in historical debate, but have another agenda. In the case of the Armenian Genocide, the agenda is to absolve Turkey of responsibility for the planned extermination of the Armenians—an agenda consistent with every Turkish ruling party since the time of the Genocide in 1915.” Pretty strong statement, I would say.

Victories like the ones I’ve mentioned have, thus, forced Turkey to look for other ways to sow doubt in the minds of both people and academics, which brings me back to the case of the Rohingya; in this sense, I must ask why a spokesperson for Anadolu Agency was so enthusiastic to speak on behalf of the aforementioned oppressed and to defend them against the horrors of ethnic cleansing when they themselves have devoted numerous pages to doing everything possible to manipulate and discredit the validity of the genocide their own government has committed? Taking advantage of the fact that it’s utterly impossible for the Free Rohingya Coalition to do complete background checks and investigate all of the panelists which they either invite or those who submit unsolicited proposals to speak, Anadolu Agency must have slipped through the cracks, but I really can’t say for sure. In all honesty, with regard to our Turkish friends, I don’t know which scenario we’re dealing with here, but I don’t believe the organization responsible for protecting the Rohingya is to blame in this matter. After all, Anadolu Agency did agree to broadcast the event “through its 13 world languages programme,” probably bringing considerable attention to the plight of Rohingyas, but we must nevertheless question Turkey’s motives for doing so.

As far as motives are concerned, let’s begin here: When reading any Anadolu article regarding the Armenian Genocide, one initially does get the sense that they’re simply reporting on the incidents surrounding the event, but a simple search reveals that the news agency hasn’t published a single piece regarding the positive gains Armenian activists have made in securing justice for themselves—no, all the reports are either about an obscure “expert” challenging the events, Turkish officials slamming other countries that go on to recognize the events as genocide, and, likewise gleefully reporting on those nations which have refused to recognize the plight of the Armenians. Not a single article in the style of their Rohingya campaign can be found on the Anadolu Agency website regarding the need for justice in the case of 1915; nor is there anything about the necessity to help Armenians in their cause—not one piece. I’m tempted to ask: Why is their solidarity nowhere to be found in this particular case?

In that sense, I wasn’t surprised to read the following in a scholarly article by the Turkish intellectual Dağhan Irak: “the state-run media Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) and Anadolu Agency (AA) companies have been subsidized and restructured in line with the government agenda. These public news producers, especially during the most recent term of the AKP government, have been controlled by officials from a small network close to the party leadership.” Since the official government line has always been to deny classifying the Armenian tragedy as genocide, it’s no surprise why Anadolu Agency takes such a passive-aggressive view towards the issue.

More pertinent to the point, however, is their strategy to deflect their campaign of historical distortion by precisely supporting the causes of other populations who’ve endured genocide—people like the Rohingya—in order to give the impression that their editorial policy really isn’t based around genocide denial. In other words, by supporting the campaign for justice with respect to other countries, Anadolu Agency tries to portray itself as a benevolent force which is only out to seek truth and that no matter how negatively it portrays the struggle for recognition on the part of Armenians, this is more about the doubtful validity of the Armenian Genocide itself and really has less to do with its own dishonest stance on genocides in general.

Again, nothing but negative coverage of 1915, and, in fact, Armenian issues in general is published. Accusations of Armenians keeping their genocide archives closed (which as we already saw is an issue that Turkey is really guilty of), Spain’s rejection of Armenia’s genocide motion, and the tired old Turkish national line of propaganda, which is copied and pasted verbatim into at least four other articles I’ve read—excellent state-sponsored journalism:

Just to drive the point home, here’s another article about Anadolu Agency’s gleeful reporting about Serbia’s rejection of the genocide bill—with the same copied and pasted journalism as the Spanish article.  They really need to pay their writers better.

And for a good laugh, here’s the Dutch version of good old copy and paste journalism so graciously provided to you by the Turkish state.

And since we’re already having so much fun exposing the assembly line tactics of state-sponsored journalism factories, why not show this one about the Swiss as well?

As already stated, these “joint commissions” are dishonest ways to try, for the last time, to rewrite the honest scholarship which has already been done numerous times in this area. “Good” historical research which has gone so far as to make a definitive statement on an issue really doesn’t need to be repeated for the millionth time. In other words, why is it considered a downright insult to form those so-called “joint commissions” to verify the veracity of the Holocaust while the attempt to do the same for the Armenian Genocide is seen as a normal occurrence?

It’s no surprise, then, that Turkey is now finding different ways to make itself look like the good guy—standing up and speaking on behalf of other groups currently experiencing genocide while doing everything in its power to silence the people against whom the state has committed violence itself. It’s hard to imagine who they’re trying to fool, but, like the academic “bribery” campaigns of the 80s and 90s, this too shall pass.

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with a full collection, (DISS)INFORMATION, with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.

Cancel Culture Salad: Women, The Confederacy, Tupac Shakur, Barack Obama, and Robert E. Lee, an article by David Garyan

July 28th, 2020
Ravenna, Italy

 

Cancel Culture Salad: Women, The Confederacy, Tupac Shakur, Barack Obama, and Robert E. Lee

In one of the most empowering moments for women not just in the US, but all across the world perhaps, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took the House floor and issued one of the strongest statements not only in defense of herself, but she also spoke in a way that gave voice to countless women who’ve had to endure similar insults, such as “disgusting,” and “fucking bitch,” which were just two of the remarks that Congressman Ted Yoho directed at her. Subsequently, Yoho attempted to justify himself by stating the following: “Having been married for 45 years with two daughters, I’m very cognizant of my language. The offensive name calling, words attributed to me by the press were never spoken to my colleagues and if they were construed that way, I apologize for their misunderstanding.” Little did the man know that he was dealing with an empowered individual who wasn’t going to concede an argument simply because, at 29, she became the youngest woman to ever serve in the US Congress while Yoho has been married for 45 years. In a charged speech, Ocasio-Cortez addressed the Congressman’s remarks in the following way: “Having a daughter does not make a man decent. Having a wife does not make a decent man. Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man.” Indeed, this isn’t simply what we want from our women today—it’s what we expect in the 21st century, and rightly so.

Still, is it possible to say—without defending Yoho—that individuals can’t be reduced to one action, that they’re incredibly complex, that people who aspire to goodness and even those who actually manage to achieve great things do have flaws, sometimes even serious ones? In the age of cancel culture, we need to be incredibly careful about choosing the conditions, traits, and characteristics with which to measure the so-called “goodness” of people. With regard to misogyny, things still haven’t improved much in the way men treat women. The president’s well-known 2005 remarks in the presence of Billy Bush that were revealed during the 2016 campaign highlight this problem very clearly—while many men today might not be so vocal as Trump about their desires as they were in the past, it’s unlikely to believe that male psychology itself has changed very much. Thus, while grabbing them by the pussy is perhaps not something males are comfortable expressing right now, it’s nevertheless something they’re comfortable thinking in private.

Whatever the case may be, this article is neither meant to defend sexist men, misogyny, Ted Yoho, nor is its purpose to justify occasional insults by men towards women simply because all individuals possess “complexity.” What this article will attempt, however, is precisely to take the first step in proposing the following: People should try their best to move beyond an individual’s flaws—even at times when those shortcomings are quite serious—but only if said individual would never wish harm upon someone had they not been in the state that caused them to insult or hurt another human being, whether voluntarily or out of ignorance.

The fact that every person has flaws is nothing new; however, the harsh nature of how we’re perceiving these shortcomings—the overemphasis on people’s negative traits—isn’t a recipe for success either. As an idealist, one perhaps too far on the side of Don Quixote, I’ve always wanted individuals to be more or less perfect, and that’s perhaps why I’ve struggled with friendships, relationships, and other basic human engagements all my life. It’s disappointing when people don’t live up to expectations; at the same time, it’s extremely exhilarating when someone you know does measure up to your level of perfection—if only for a little while; a day after my 33rd birthday, I think I’m really beginning to “accept” that; naturally, this is something I’ve known for a long time, but there’s a big difference between knowing something (or someone) and actually living with it (or someone); the former implies distance while the latter implies complete intimacy. In no way should the meaning here be construed purely on the basis of human relationships; in fact, my point is meant to be understood philosophically.

I’ve always been fascinated by the demons that afflict individuals and also my own suffering. In a short story called “Cynthia,” written by Aldous Huxley and published in the collection, Limbo, the author wrote the following: “I can sympathize with people’s pains, but not with their pleasures. There is something curiously boring about somebody else’s happiness.” The story is about a man named Lykeham who projects an image of perfection onto a woman he admires and also himself; the narrator who flashes back to the story which occurred fifty years ago eventually makes it known that Lykeham is neither the Apollo he describes himself to be (probably closer to Hephaestus) and we likewise get the sense that the woman too may be far from perfect herself, mainly because “here was chaste Cynthia giving herself to him in the most unequivocal fashion.” Either way, this article is also neither about Aldous Huxley nor is it about whether beauty plays any role in a man’s ability to attract women. What this article will attempt, however, is take yet another bold step: To argue that Aldous Huxley was on to something when he contrasted the way we perceive human beings in our own imagination and how, in turn, those human beings actually are in comparison to those imagined realities we hold in our heads.

Besides just an artistic fascination with people’s demons, along with the narrow focus of how suffering may contribute to the creative process for artists, I really didn’t start thinking about the issue of flaws very seriously until I rediscovered the music of Tupac Shakur. Before I even begin the main discussion of our topic (finally), I must first take the time to settle an unrelated issue: Contrary to what many people, along with the staff at Billboard (who don’t even include him in their ten greatest of all time) like to believe, Tupac was the most remarkable and illustrious rapper of our time. No one in the history of rap (for better or worse) even came close to displaying the type of lyrical and musical range that Tupac showcased during his short 25 years of life—not to mention starring in six movies (three released posthumously).

It’s precisely this musical “range” that will help not only drive but round out the argument already introduced. Let’s begin matters this way: Any genuine fan of the great rapper knows that there really isn’t one Tupac, but, actually, two such personalities—perhaps it’s for this reason that his name appears as 2Pac on almost every album, including one of his best-selling, All Eyez On Me.

What I mean to stress is that the man embodied, to an extreme extent, the classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde attributes that are, in fact, found in all individuals, perhaps not in the same degree, but this really isn’t the main point. The more relevant thing to say would be the following: As I listened to songs from the great rapper in the spirit of Dr. Jekyll and others recorded with the sensibilities of Mr. Hyde, it quickly occurred to me that Tupac, in the 21st century, could either have been the most gentle feminist or the cruelest misogynist—depending on which part of his catalog you burned or destroyed and which musical legacy you left for the cancel culture generation to discover. Ultimately, however, it would be senseless to erase any part of Tupac’s artistic output to try and rewrite or even revise his legacy, again for better or worse. Music, unlike statues, is much harder to tear town, and perhaps it’s because of this timelessness that we must confront the man known as Tupac Shakur and deal with him in terms of “Keep Ya Head Up” while also reconciling ourselves with “Wonda Why They Call U Bitch” and “There U Go,” a song in which he says “Can’t turn a ho into housewife,” and this isn’t even the worst line on this particular tune.

Let’s however start with what I consider Tupac’s greatest recording and perhaps even the most powerful song in all of rap—that would, naturally, be the aforementioned “Keep Ya Head Up.” I can think of no other rapper, especially one so “masculine” as Tupac, who could even begin to approach the type of tenderness that he displayed in the aforementioned track. Released when he was only 22, the song discusses poverty, racial injustice, but most of all it focuses on the plight of women, which will be a general theme throughout the article. The misogyny in early rap music is rampant; from music videos sexualizing women to promoting unchecked promiscuity on the part of the male—all while calling women who act the same way sluts—Tupac is but one piece in this puzzle. The difference, however, is that, unlike the rest, he had a vulnerable side to him that almost no one during the gangsta rap era came close to possessing. Even today, one is hard-pressed to find an artist who’s willing to risk the type of vulnerability that Tupac offered in one of his sincerest songs.

Since Mr. Hyde is never far away, however, the opposite side offers the other extreme—Tupac’s rampant sexism and misogyny; even if we continue with the theme of women and skip perhaps the cruelest diss track in rap history, “Hit ‘Em Up,” where he insults the rap group Mobb Deep, a member of which, Prodigy (now deceased), suffered from sickle-cell anemia (again probably not the worst thing he did on this particular recording), Tupac’s “range,” so to say, really becomes apparent. In the song “Wonda Why They Call U Bitch,” he portrays women who sleep around as the embodiment of vice—without realizing himself, perhaps, that he was glorifying the “playa” lifestyle on almost every track; the double-standard is so blatant here it’s surprising that an intelligent individual like Tupac never questioned his own logic or perhaps didn’t even realize the hypocrisy. All that, even, wouldn’t have been a problem had he not insulted a Civil Rights activist by the name of C. DeLores Tucker in the same song.

It’s true that after marching alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965 and forming the African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom in 1990 with 15 other African American men and women, Tucker dedicated the remaining years of her life to speaking out against the misogynistic and sexually explicit lyrics of gangsta rap. In turn, according to 2005 Washington Post article, “Rappers called her ‘narrow-minded.’ Some ridiculed her in their lyrics. She was sued by two record companies.” In one of his other misogynistic masterpieces, “How Do U Want It,” which is in many ways far less offensive than “Wonda Why They Call U Bitch,” Tupac gives a clue as to the reason for his anger: “Instead of tryin’ to help a nigga, you destroy a brother,” meaning that Tucker’s refusal to support black rap artists was a stab in the back, mainly because a great number of them, like Tupac, had come from impoverished backgrounds and her desire to silence their message was an attempt to subjugate the black nation and keep it from being empowered, an ideology which, according to the rappers, ran contrary to her own civil rights values of free speech and expression.

It should be noted that the ten million dollar lawsuit Tucker brought against Tupac for both songs was eventually dismissed in court, which, ironically cited the same reasoning as he did for its dismissal. According to the RCFP (a non-profit organization press organization founded in Washington D.C. in 1970): “In explaining its holding in an unpublished opinion, the court wrote that the reference to Tucker ‘did not tend to injure her reputation, her business or profession, or expose her to public hatred, contempt or ridicule and thus were not defamatory.’ The court described the reference to Tucker as an opinion ‘that Tucker was out to hurt rather than to help her fellow African-Americans.'” Along roughly similar lines, an LA Times article appeared which described the civil rights leader’s own failures and faults—being fired by Philadelphia Governor Milton Shapp for allegedly asking “state employees to write speeches for which she collected $65,000 in honorariums, some of the money from charities under her supervision.” Many rap artists, thus, justified their accusations on these grounds but what Tucker’s actions in fact do is simply confirm the message of my entire article, something that Sandra Mills, her campaign manager during the good activist’s failed bid for Congress, echoed in the same LA Times piece: “Everybody has some baggage in their past and in C. DeLores Tucker’s case, the baggage is in bad property management, but I don’t see how that diminishes in any way the public service she is performing for African Americans by fighting against the negative lyric content in rap music.” In the same sense, we may apply this to not only Tupac, but all the others like him who’ve at some point in their lives striven for a better world in which no one can really be perfect.

Now, let’s slow down a minute; no one wants to rehabilitate Robert E. Lee, for example, just because he stated the following in an 1856 letter written to his wife: “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country.” Similarly no one wants to romanticize the entire Confederacy simply because at one point in 1864 Patrick Cleburne, an Irish-born American Major General in the Confederate Army, once wrote a pamphlet urging Jefferson Davis to arm the slaves and free them after the war. Indeed, even the Confederacy and the people who served within it were incredibly complex; nevertheless, there’s a fundamental difference in the way we must apply this logic for our purposes—while the Confederacy can’t get a pass, because it was fighting to protect slavery, individuals like Tupac and others who championed and continue to fight for a better world do deserve some latitude for their shortcomings because they were doing precisely that: Using their power or art to change society for the better.

It may often be the case that it’s too late for art to change society—the only thing it can achieve is remind people of a horrific past in the hopes that its message can prevent similar things from happening again at some point in the future; if art has such power, perhaps we can interpret its ability to renew society as a genuine way to reform the world at large, but prospects remain bleak. In the song, “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” Tupac raps about a twelve year old girl who gets pregnant. Loosely based on a true story of a person the same age, a New York Times article which Tupac had supposedly read or heard about talks about a girl who is “already an orphan, a rape victim and a mother. Now, two days after her newborn son was rescued from the maw of a trash compactor, she has become something more—a symbol of the violence that stalks the young in some corners of this city.” Such instances of violence, despair, and hopelessness are precisely the things which Tupac wanted to highlight—it was his way of bringing more attention to these issues.

It might not be Tupac in his most tender moment, but the level of social awareness in the aforementioned song is high, speaking in the most modest sense; likewise, in a very conservative manner, the track “Run tha Streetz,” is the exact opposite of “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” to say the least. Tupac wastes no time telling listeners in the opening lines exactly where women stand: “the secret on how to keep a playa / some love makin’ and homecookin’, I’ll see you later.” Not to mention he later repeats the fact that women should prepare meals for him—this time saying please. Tupac’s assumption that women must stay in the kitchen is yet again not the worst thing that happens on this track but it nevertheless astonishes—how could a man with such sensitivities, the man who wrote “Keep Ya Head Up” and “Dear Mama,” stoop so low? To his credit (whatever is left of it in this instance anyways), Tupac does, at the very least, feature a female vocalist (Michel’le) on this track, and she raps the following lines: “it’s a man’s world / But real women make the shit go around.” Once more, I wish to stress that complexity within individuals doesn’t simply excuse whatever mistakes they happened to make; what it should do, however, is give us the opportunity to think about the demons which many good people have; as I’ve said, we can excuse these negative qualities, if, overall, the person has for the most part dedicated themselves towards fighting for justice.

Speaking of struggling for a righteous cause, no one else in Tupac’s family (except the man himself) embodied that trait better than his mother, Afeni Shakur. Having joined the Black Panther Party in 1968 at the age of 21, she wrote for the organization and eventually became a section leader for the Harlem chapter. Along with other Black Panther members, she was arrested in 1969 and subsequently charged with multiple counts of conspiracy to blow up police stations and other public places in New York. Already pregnant with Tupac during her trial in 1971, she chose to represent herself, interviewing witnesses and arguing in court. A 1971 New York Times article states that she, along with the other members, were acquitted and that Mrs. Shakur was “eight months pregnant, [and] represented herself during the trial.” The latter alone, without the former, would’ve been a major accomplishment by itself.

Recognizing the struggles which his mother endured to raise him, Tupac wrote “Dear Mama” as a tribute to the most meaningful woman in his life. Additionally, like in “Run tha Streetz,” he naturally mentions that a woman cooks for him (in this case his mother); however, this naturally has no sexist or misogynistic undertones because, firstly, he talks about himself as a child, and, secondly, he also mentions that his mother “comes home from work late,” meaning that, although she lives in poverty, she’s an empowered individual because of her capability to both work and prepare a good meal for her son—one of the traditional values of motherhood.

As already mentioned, one of the lines in “There U Go” is “Can’t turn a ho into a housewife.” The line is very denigrating because many prostitutes don’t consciously choose to be one—they’re often forced into the profession by proxy of human trafficking or because of poor financial resources, as Tupac himself admits in “Brenda’s Got a Baby.” Furthermore, the fact that his own mother, while never being a prostitute, herself had to undergo hard times and poverty, makes it even stranger that Tupac would speak of women in this way, especially since his mom did manage to overcome difficult obstacles while also being able to raise a child. The song goes on to state blatant hypocrisies such as this:

We’re to assume that only men have the right to be irresponsible in clubs, to stay out late, dress up in flamboyant ways, and so on. The double-standard is so blatant that Tupac himself admits it: “It’s all good, ’cause there you go / Me I’ma still be a player, all day baby.” There’s a fundamental disconnect between the type of leisure that Tupac allows himself (and by extension all men), and the type of activities that women are supposed to partake in (staying home, cooking, and raising children).

A lesser known song in Tupac’s catalogue called “Mama’s Just a Little Girl,” from the posthumously released 2002 album Better Dayz, has a somewhat similar message to “Brenda’s Got a Baby.”

However, despite the fact that the baby also dies in the end, Tupac concludes the song with a heartfelt message, along with the fact that he’s probably the only figure in gangsta rap to use the archaic word “thee” in a song:

The rose that grew from concrete is the most powerful metaphor, in my opinion, that Tupac ever created; it’s a genuine poetic image in the sense that it can live without music or even his lyrical ability. As Tupac stated numerous times, the phenomenon of a rose growing from the concrete is something so strange and distinct—for this to happen the rose must have a type of will to live that’s unequaled by the majority of life. He wrote a poem by the same name, further symbolizing the message that unique and beautiful things can come from hostile environments, but, likewise, stressing the fact that phenomena like these require the greatest willpower on the part of such individuals in order for them to grow in environments everyone claims they can’t survive in.

The final song I’d like to contrast is “How Do U Want It.” I’ve purposely chosen to end on Tupac’s Mr. Hyde side to really symbolize the fact that people who are in essence good, those who strive for a better world, and those who actually do make some positive changes within it, aren’t perfect—they may even have, as in the case of Tupac, very serious flaws, but this shouldn’t stop us from celebrating these individuals freely without ourselves being harassed, cancelled, or humiliated; anyways, all this is really material for the conclusion, so let’s discuss the actual song before we pursue those matters further.

As we’ve already seen and as Tupac himself stated on numerous occasions, he was someone who appreciated women, for better or worse. The song can, perhaps, be considered a parallel of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” for the rap community. It celebrates the female form, sexuality, and worldly pleasures in general—probably to an extent which crossed a few boundaries that Gaye’s song didn’t; I say this only because in a track which talks about casual sex with multiple women and hitting “switches on bitches like I been fixed with hydraulics,” Tupac, somehow, finds a way to diss the ever-present C. Delores Tucker, who was already an unattractive woman of about 69 at the time Tupac released the record in 1996; surely, I don’t have to explain the relevance of the age in this matter.

Additionally, the fact that Tupac includes a mention of Bill Clinton in a song about wild sexual escapades is also a statement to his, should we say, talent? I can’t speak for Bob Dole, but it seems that contrary to Tupac’s premature criticism, the jolly Bill Clinton of forty-nine years really wasn’t too old to know how the game is told, given that his decision to have an affair with a twenty-two year old intern called Monika Lewinsky doesn’t really favor Tupac’s assessment so well, although in his defense, the good rapper himself had already been dead for three years at that point.

Well, it’s always good when humor can be brought into a serious environment, but returning to weightier issues, Tupac is the best person to illustrate why we must give people with serious flaws a chance. I’ve said it and I’ll repeat it again: Tupac was the greatest rapper in terms of lyrical composition and delivery, along with being the most influential spokesperson for social justice in that genre. He was a real artist—an actor, a poet, and a soldier for peace, even though his post-imprisonment career began to symbolize the latter less and less. Still, there’s evidence that Tupac wanted to walk away from the gangsta rap lifestyle. Even before signing the actual contract with Death Row Records, his manager and two of his lawyers, “argued vigorously with Tupac about his decision to go to Death Row,” according to a 1997 New Yorker article called “The Takedown of Tupac.” The late rapper, while still in prison, responded to his manager, Watani Tyehimba, in the following way: “I know I’m selling my soul to the devil.” Suge Knight paid Tupac’s bail in exchange for Tupac’s services at Death Row.

Charles Ogletree, his criminal and civil defense lawyer is quoted as saying the following: “I remember seeing him just before his twenty-fifth birthday. He felt it was a glorious day. He never imagined he’d live to be twenty-five—but there was a sadness in his eyes, because he still had these chains binding him. This [Death Row Records] was not where he wanted to be. I said, ‘You can be anything you want to be.’ He said, ‘Can I be a lawyer?’ I said, ‘You’d be a damn good lawyer!’ I sent him a Harvard Law School sweatshirt.” Had Tupac fulfilled his dream and actually become an attorney, what would he have said about the times we find ourselves in? There’s that would make one believe he didn’t have the intellectual capability to attain academic success—just watch this 1992 MTV interview in which he was already speaking about the dangers of living in a Trump-influenced environment, even going so far as mentioning the mogul’s name—and you’ll be convinced by the way he articulates his points that the man was clearly no idiot. Certainly he had flaws and yes he was reckless, but we shouldn’t burn half his catalog and write him out as a human being because of them. When I do wonder what Tupac would’ve said about our times, I watch this video and it becomes apparent that it’s not difficult to image his own take on the Black Lives Matter movement and social unrest in general.

If the previous statement and interview, however, didn’t do much to convince, perhaps a more “reputable” figure might. Here’s what President Obama himself had to say in Rolling Stone about the so-called “woke” culture back in 2019: “The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you. I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media—there is this sense sometimes of the way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people, and that’s enough. If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself. Did you see how woke I was, I called you out. Then I’m going to get on my TV and watch my show … That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.” It’s always nice to see that a former president (and a sane one at that) can confirm what you have to say. So let the outrage come. I can handle it.

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with a full collection, (DISS)INFORMATION, with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.