Friday, September 27, 2013

Bang It Like Bonham

Bang It Like Bonham
by David Calleja

From the age of 15, I wanted to be a drummer. In class, I would draw myself in stick figure form, holding two sticks in the air, ready to thump the skins hard. But my parents could not afford to buy me a drum kit and lessons were too expensive, so I made my own, wedging the ends of art paintbrushes between slits of wood to use as cymbal stands. My older brother’s ABBA records were transformed into makeshift cymbals. An empty Vaseline jar became a snare drum and an empty tin of powdered chocolate milk drink served as the bass drum. I used two pens as sticks, and in absence of a bass pedal, my knee would thump on the carpet.

Every night after school, I listened to the radio and practised. One evening I tuned the radio to a station that played rock music from the 1960s and 1970s. For me, it felt like stepping into a time machine. When an echoing voice on the radio announced, “And now a Led Zeppelin triple play”, I held my breath. Then the symphony of guitar riffs, wailing vocals and thumping drums smacked my ears so hard, I felt as if I had been struck by lightning. I had just experienced “Whole Lotta Love”. My sheltered Catholic upbringing meant that I did not understand what the lyrics “Shake for me/I wanna be your backdoor man” referred to. In spite of my naivety, I found a modus operandi for listening to rock music. For years to come, I would devote many hours absorbing complex symphonies, partnered by lyrics about the mystic East, Nordic gods, the blues, and sojourns with women. All of this from the band that I branded The Real Fab 4, whose discs I wore out and replaced. It made me obsess about playing the drums one day, just like John Bonham. But it took several years, and the opportunity arose in the unlikeliest fashion.

In late 2003, I accepted a job teaching English to primary school students from ethnic minority backgrounds in Chiang Rai, Thailand. On an evening ride into the city centre, I happened to get a flat tyre outside a venue called The Cat House. The bar's name sounded more like a stripper's venue, but since I did not know how to repair a puncture, I walked inside and looked around for help, but there was none to be found. It seemed as if I had stepped into a 1970s themed bar, for it possessed an alluring charm. A sign reading “Have A Jam With Sam” made me relax a little, for I knew it was not a sleazy premise. Photos of a band were plastered across the wall. That is when I caught sight of amplifiers, an electric piano, guitars, and a drum set. Could this be the night for me?

Dear Sam, whoever you are,’ I thought to myself, ‘Please let me play the drums. It has been my boyhood desire.' My dreams must have echoed because a guy with short black hair and a moustache tapped me on the shoulder, startling me. It was Sam, the bar owner.

Yes, can I help you?” Sam said to me in a low voice.

I told him about my dilemma with the flat tyre, but he did not know how to deal with it.

Well Sam, can I play the drums?” I asked him. Instead of rejecting my request, he asked me to sit down with him so he could tell me about the place, a polite way of saying no.

I wanted to offer something different in this street,” he began. “Farang (foreigners) come here with big dreams of opening a bar and think they will get rich. But it costs a lot of money for licence and they complain nobody comes.” He got up from the table, walked to the bar and retrieved a black and white photo. It showed a long-haired man on a bicycle, guitar slung over his back, mountains in the distance. “You see this photo? That’s me in Kashmir, 1970s. I went there before I met my wife. I had long hair and my good luck charm,” Sam said, pointing to his moustache, a once-thick plot of hair cover his upper lip now trimmed to look more refined.

What impressed me was that he cycled to Kashmir, let alone India. What intrigued me was the motive for him doing so.

I wanted to visit Kashmir because of the song.”

Sam was referring to the 1974 song by Led Zeppelin. It stunned me that a song could drive an individual to a particular destination so desolate; this was the first time I had ever met anybody who admitted this. “Because of Led Zeppelin, I took my guitar with me everywhere. I was a big fan.” He spoke of the desolate roads, stopping in villages to eat, sleep and play music reminded me of the lyrics in Kashmir, speaking of a windswept, sunburnt place that once had a magical air about it. “If the chance comes again, I would return. But now I have this bar and my wife. Much harder now,” he added.

At that moment, two guys came through the entrance and greeted Sam, who introduced me to the two guys that played in his bar. The first man had shoulder length blond hair sprinkled with tinges of grey. I immediately thought of him as being an aggressive individual who could be confronting. “I’m Den,” he said, while shaking my hand roughly.” How are you doin’, brother?”

Fine thanks,” I responded, even though my arm felt like it had been pounded.

I’ve been playing in bands for 30 years, mainly back in Los Angeles. But I moved to Thailand for the easy life because I hated the traffic and people,” Den added. He played lead guitar and cited Eric Clapton, Chuck Berry and Marvin Gaye as influences. But as he constantly flicked his hair from side to side, and had an arrogant swagger about him, I paid no attention to his musical prowess. I nicknamed him Maestro. The second guy, Charlie wore thick-rimmed black glasses and played bass guitar. He was much quieter, nodding his head and smiling to acknowledge my presence. Charlie seemed more comfortable in a science laboratory, wearing a white coat, surrounded by beakers, Bunsen burners and microscopes. I felt like I could get along with him more than Maestro.

I waited inevitably for the secret question. When nobody said a word for 30 seconds, I took the initiative and stated that I wanted to play the drums with their band. But Maestro queried my motive.

David, why do you want to play the drums with us?”

I wanted to say that I had resorted to making my own drum kit out of household objects, or that the flat tyre on my bicycle was no accident, But I explained that drummers could silence and erupt musical lovers in one breath, and that a musician armed with two sticks possessed as much power as a soldier and his firearm. It was the most garbage I had ever spun in my life.

David,” Maestro said, “To play the drums, it is not about how loud you can sound. You have to be part of a machine that works harmoniously.”

A machine? What machine? Certainly not a car, I thought to myself. Nor a robot. Instead, I declared that a drummer is the backbone of a band, supporting all other body parts. That was enough for Maestro; he said I could join. The excitement I felt tore through me; finally, my dream was about to become reality.

It is one thing to talk about being in a band, but playing the part right is much harder for a beginner. Hopping behind an instrument that takes up so much room, especially a set of drums which look so imposing, is like learning to drive a tank. I felt out of my depth. The urge to play had disappeared because I would be shown up for a time waster. Maestro, Sam, Charlie and I had an auspicious beginning, taking 5 minutes to agree on a song to play. A middle aged man who had wandered in unnoticed and taken a seat yelled out, “Sing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’”. Even the audience was getting restless, so it was a relief when Sam played his guitar, followed by Maestro and then Charlie on the bass, I hesitated several times before entering. Even without a major audience, stage fright had taken hold. To overcome my adversity, I started banging the drums, hoping to establish a rhythm. Maestro and Sam cast glances in my direction, a sign to slow down. But I kept feeling restless, and after 2 minutes I hit a cymbal so hard with my drumstick, sending it flying. Thankfully nobody was hurt, but it brought proceedings to a halt.

I… I’m sorry guys, the stick slipped,” I said quietly. But Maestro was furious and he wanted to make it clear who was boss.

"Who do you think you are, John Bonham?" Maestro yelled at me, his face turning bright red. "Get outta my sight. NOW."

There were 10 steps between the drums and the bar. What should have taken no more than 3 seconds felt like it had been prolonged due to the tense atmosphere. Maybe I should have gone home with a flat tyre, but looking outside, I could see the rain coming down hard. The bar was closer and considerably warmer. Maybe one drink would soothe everything over.

When the Maestro pulled up a chair and sat next to me, I expected a blasting, but he adopted a conciliatory tone.

"David, when you play, you have to feel the beat and keep in time with everybody. Remember, we're a machine. Everybody relies on each other.” Maestro said. He slapped my back, urged me to drink up and get back to my seat.

All right, everyone. Let’s go again.” Maestro called out. Turning to me, he said,“David, remember what I said – timing.” I nodded, psyched myself and then waited.

OK David,” Maestro shouted. “Hit it.”
Then stage fright got to me. I sat motionless, in a trance-like state. Charlie looked at me, I stared across to Sam who shrugged his shoulders as if to say, ‘Don’t ask me’.

Maestro started to get edgy. “Come on, I haven’t got all night.”

For one hour, I pounded those drums and worked myself into a groove, feeding off the guitars, bass and vocals. Communicating with a series of appreciative nods and smiles from other band members, culminating with a mid-song grin from the Maestro, my confidence had improved. Maybe playing the drums could be more than about getting together with like-minded individuals. It is possible to have fun. This is when I decided to undertake the glory pose, just like the stick figure drawings I used to sketch in class. With one swift action, I shot up from the chair and raised my arms, ready to deliver a thumping conclusion to a song that we had been playing for 10 minutes. But Charlie's mobile phone rang shortly after I had jumped off my stool. My concentration lapsed for a second, just enough time to lose balance, knock over the bass drum and cymbal stand. Sam open his mouth and gasped, horrified to see his equipment tumbling over. But Maestro's reaction frightened me; the manner in which he threw the guitar strap over his head and carried the guitar by the neck had turned me into a target. My brain told me to hide, yet my body was incapable of moving, gripped by fear.

It had now come to the moment of truth, only half a metre separating us. I pictured myself drowning in tidal waves of his dripping sweat, seething at the veins bursting from his neck whipped up a frenzy.

David, I told you once to concentrate. But you did not listen,” Maestro yelled. I told him to calm down, a move which only increased the tension.

Who asked for your opinion?” Maestro screeched. He turned to Charlie and Sam and said,”I cannot have this wise guy playing in my band.”

And this is where I fought back. “Your band? These are not your instruments, and we are not your robots.”

Nobody spoke for a few seconds, not even Maestro. We seemed content to see who would lose their cool first, but the unknown customer in the background, bored with either the lack of action or music, or the quality of his beer, started chanting “FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!” Maestro had a sadistic look in eye; he wanted to swing the guitar at me. Conflict resolution in Thailand, however, does not favour any form of combat; saving face and resolving differences peacefully is the emphasis. I used this to my advantage, demanding that before I leave, I wanted to play the drums on one Led Zeppelin song. Maestro was not so accommodating. “I don’t play Led Zeppelin and even if I did, you would not be playing,” he stated.

That sentence should have ended everything, but he made a crucial error in declaring a weakness; not playing the music of a universally idolised band. I downgraded him from Maestro to Scheister.

And you call yourself a musician. Not one Led Zeppelin song. Unprofessional,” I said. I wanted to continue, and the curse words would have oozed out, but Sam intervened.

Please, no fighting,” he growled. It may have been the first time this normally placid man lost his temper in public. Maestro and I agreed to cease hostilities with each other, ending what had promised to be my transformation from dreamer to achiever. The bubbling tantrum petered out to a tea party, a somewhat premature conclusion to my burgeoning music career.

I dropped the idea of playing drums, but not because of lack of faith in my ability. I realised that my purpose in Thailand was to communicate confidently in the form of teaching English to young learners, a role that requires as much nurturing and dedication as it does talent. Nearly ten years have since passed, and it is the wisdom of Led Zeppelin's song Over The Hills And Far Away that provides inspiration for self-belief:

Many dreams come true/And some have silver lining/I live for my dream/And a pocketful of gold.

These are great words to live for and beat your own drum to, no matter what the focus is. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Bovine Intervention

Bovine Intervention

by David Calleja, Foreign Policy Journal

December 29, 2008

Underneath the burning sun, the village traffic consists of malnourished cows with ribs sticking out of their bodies heading towards rice fields. They are being marched along a track covered in rocks and dust under the watchful eye of their owner. Sometimes it is an adult at the helm; other times a young boy or girl carrying a scarf weaving apparatus is responsible for supervising the herd. Occasionally, a lone cow breaks from the pack to search for vegetation or garbage to eat in a residential yard, and is unphased by the bamboo whip cutting sharply through the air and whacking the side of its body or legs.  
I became accustomed to such sights and sounds while working as a volunteer English teacher in the village of Tropang Sdok. Sreat, a local resident, spent time sharing his experience of working in the fields during the rice planting period. It also presented me with the scenario to examine the relationship between humans and cows.  
“To us, cows are a part of the family,” Sreat told me. “But in the same way that a parent disciplines a child, if we are prevented from doing our work, we have to let the cows know.”   
“Do you whip them? How often?” I asked.  
“Yes, we whip their legs to tell them to move faster. They do not feel it, but I still feel bad because cows experience pain too,” Sreat continued. “Considering how much they are loved, farmers feel guilty about using a bamboo stick, but it is the only way to stop them from running away.”   
Rather than being a form of punishment by defining the relationship between animal and farmer and reinforcing the belief of humankind’s superiority over animal life, it is a reminder to the beast that during the wet season, time is precious and that much work lays ahead to plant rice between June and November. The coming harvest season will provide Cambodian families with the staple food that guarantees survival, and the manual labor that cows and oxen perform in pulling ploughs and softening the earth is the backbone of the rice planting season. 
Farmers in the rural Cambodian district of Roviang have a high degree of love for bovine creatures. Owning a cow opens the doorway to obtaining more respect in society, for they will be capable of cultivating their fields to grow rice and feed their family. However, ownership also allows farmers to generate more wealth. The average price of a cow fetches $USD300, approximately one year’s salary for Cambodian workers. Since cows breed at a rate of every 9 months, this income generation has the potential to multiply numerous times.   
Tropang Sdok’s male farming population consists of 99% of the 100 families living in the village, so nearly every man has spent some point of their life as a rice farmer leading cows into the fields.   
“In Cambodia, every man is a rice farmer at some point in their life because all Cambodians like to eat rice. It is our most important food,” Sreat explained to me. “But without the help from our cows, we cannot work the land.”   
For a young man of 23 years, Sreat is familiar with the grind of rice planting and the reliance of his family’s prized cows. During the rice planting season when he was not at school, Sreat’s day would begin at 5am with the sunrise, when he would gather the cows and lead them to the family farm to work on the fields. He would spend an average of 8 hours in the fields, planting rice and ensuring that the cows ploughed enough land to prepare for planting crops. The clay surface, mixed with rains that measured up to the knees in the height of the wet season, would present difficulties, for the land would be too soft for crop preparation. Also, persistent rain would result in mass flooding of the rice fields, followed by prolonged periods of dry weather.    
“What is the main task that the cows do?” I asked.    
“They pull the ploughs that make the land more fertile for planting rice stalks and allows for the rain to enable the crops to grow,” came Sreat’s response.  
Sreat admitted to me that in recent years, farmers were very worried that uneven distribution of rain meant that crops would often die early, normally within 2 or 3 months of being planted. This would drastically affect the total amount of rice. Eager to know the social connection between male farmers en route to the fields, I queried Sreat on what farmers talked about and how often he took part in such discussions.   
“We always talk to each other because it makes the long walk more bearable,” Sreat began. “After we acknowledge each other, as soon as farmers meet, the conversation focuses on rice planting. We talk about whether we have grown any more crops, or how much land we have left to cover.”  
Was there a competition between farmers as to who could produce the most rice in the quickest time?   
“No, but occasionally we make jokes between each other as to who may be the slowest. When the weather is hot, we need to make the best of a long day,” admitted Sreat. Being the youngest of the farmers in the midst of most conversations and always mindful of the respect paid to the elderly men who farmed full-time for a living, Sreat found himself being good-natured on days when he was singled out by the more experienced men.   
“We cannot answer back to the older men in Cambodian culture. We are not allowed to be rude to anyone that is older than us. Doing so meant that we would be looked down upon and if rumors about my behavior reached home, then my parents would not be happy with me,” he said.   
“So who gets the blame if not much work is done?”   
Sreat’s answer to me was simple. “We blame the cows, because they cannot answer back.”   
Farmers understand the importance and value of cows to their families, but the limits of their work are set by the ability of cows to prepare the ground for them. At some point, cows undertaking hard labor feel the threshold of pain in the same way that human beings get tired when they are working in the sun. Due to the lack of vegetation and grass in the dry parts of Cambodia, cows do not appear anywhere as healthy as their Western counterparts, and seeing ribcages exposed is an example of shortfalls in livestock feed and water. Cows from as young as one year experience this, yet they are still asked to go and do work on the farms day in and day out.  
Sreat went further to explain that when farmers would seek shelter in isolated pockets of the property at hourly intervals, cows would remain in the sun and stand resiliently in a huddle, knee deep in water, looking in the direction of empty fields. I wonder if this represented a longing to escape to a simpler life in the same way that poor workers dream of emigrating to developed nations, or employees think of retiring from their jobs to travel worldwide and seek greener pastures themselves.   
“At the end of our day on the farm, we round up our cows and head home. Usually we know when cows feel tired and overworked because they moo loudly. Calves cry by mooing longer,” said Sreat. “They miss their mom and want only to return to a peaceful field, where they can stay close to their parents. They are just like Cambodian children.” 
It may be difficult to comprehend the logic of tough love and how it affects the relationship between farmer and animal, but to understand the dynamics of acquiring a cow in a village where income levels are too low to afford bulk purchases of valuable livestock, non government organizations operate animal husbandry projects designed to provide a greater number of families with opportunities to generate more income and increase standards of living. One such scheme is the cow lottery. 
Organizing and facilitating a cow lottery operates in a manner similar to a regular random draw numbers game. Numbers are written out onto a piece of paper, rolled up and placed into a bowl before each entrant would be invited to draw a number out. The winning ticket holder is entitled to own the cow for 9 months in what is similar to a leasing scheme, but instead of paying the market price of $USD300 for the bovine, the winner would only need to pay 31,000 Cambodian riel ($USD7.75).   
After 9 months, the holder would be required to give the cow back to the NGO and another lottery would take place for the benefit of all community members. This maximizes the chances of spreading wealth within the community and ensure local ownership of a treasured resource. One of the key concepts that ensures long-term income generation is that the cow lottery winner is allowed to keep the first born calf permanently. Subsequent calves born in the same litter will become property of the host organization on behalf of the community. Eventually, the calves will be available in future lotteries.   
On the day that I observed the drawing, 38 people, one representative from each family showed up. It was to be conducted inside the grounds of a pagoda that serves as a community meeting place. Next to the statue of an upright Buddha wer four photos of donors contributing the most money towards the construction of the pagoda, and beneath the images a list of everybody who gave money. Some of the participants already had a cow, whereas others did not have one and saw the lottery as a one-off chance to generate income through means other than growing vegetables for sale at the local market. Children played gleefully on the equipment outside, oblivious of the events being undertaken.   
Formalities commenced with a series of speeches in Khmer to thank everybody for showing up and inform participants of the process and spirit in which the lottery is to be conducted. Any visiting dignitaries or foreigners observing the day’s events are also expected to say something, regardless of the language which it is spoken. The message will be relayed in Khmer for the benefit of the participants, but even if it were not translated, the speech’s completion will always result in polite applause from the audience, out of respect. The general message is that one day, it is hoped that everyone will get a cow; but if you do not, your opportunity will arrive someday in the future.   
From my own perspective, I wanted to wish good luck to everybody, and for the winner, to please treat this cow as if it were their own child and this cow’s life as if it were their own life.  
One of the greatest difficulties for village families to is to adequately clothe, feed and educate their children. But for the eventual winner, a 38 year old woman with four children, her winning number presented an economic lifeline and instant change in fortune for her growing children, as well as herself.   
Hopefully, the lottery will also be a guaranteed ticket for the cow’s tranquil existence.


Encounters With Rogue Monks in Ho Chi Minh City

Encounters With Rogue Monks in Ho Chi Minh City

by David Calleja, Foreign Policy Journal

July 30, 2013
Ben Thanh Market, Ho Chi Minh City.

In the lead-up to Tet, the aisles of Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, are tough to navigate through. It requires patience and tact to squeeze between shoppers clamoring for food, gifts, and ornaments. Catfish wrestling in empty plastic tubs wriggle to the beat of loud pop music, while battling with stall owners bargaining with vendors. The entire country seems to be on the move to ancestral homes in country provinces, preparing for massive parties. For the uninitiated, Tet is a festival with the importance and activity of Easter, Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Independence Day rolled into one.
Amid the chaos, I am drawn to the sight of an elderly man standing in a middle of an aisle, even though passers-by seem to be avoiding him. Perhaps his wrinkled face presented a snapshot of wisdom, which does not fit in with the fast-changing commercial hub of Vietnam. Or his grey and orange wrap-around robe, a symbol of the faith he represented, fit in well. Instead of holding out alms for collecting money, he cupped his hands together. He must be a monk, I thought to myself. But why people favored crabs, catfish, and cabbages over humanity was something I could not comprehend. Inspired by the spirit of Tet, I made it my mission to demonstrate a good example to others in the market and donate some money. As expected, I questioned my logic and sanity. Was he really a monk? The color of the monk’s robes were not consistent with the mustard and burgundy colors I regularly associated with Buddhist monks. Maybe it was a different sect of Buddhism. But I remained determined to put my good deed into action, have it noticed and start a chain reaction.
I waited for him to face me before approaching him. It’s all about timing, I reminded myself. Five minutes passed; plenty of shoppers were more interested in looking at the ground as opposed to his face. I was not getting attention, either. Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out a 20,000 Dong note ($1), and took five measured steps forward. I felt confident in holding my money out far enough to be seen without being concerned about being robbed. A few more steps, but still no eye contact from the monk. So much for timing and tact; it was now time to be brave and break with conformity. Just put the money in his hands, greet, and be gone. No time to worry about personal glory and being showered with praise. This is a market, I told myself.
As I got to within two steps of the monk, he finally recognized me, cupped his hand, and smiled. He knew what my plan was all the time. After I had handed over the money and delivering my greeting, I came to the conclusion that my so-called reconnaissance mission to inject some foreign-led humanity seemed more like a failed stunt. I needed anonymity and food to settle my fast-beating heart and mask my shame.
I retreated to a nearby stall to eat, or ‘assemble’ a banh xeo, a savory pancake filled with shrimp and alfalfa sprouts, wrapped in lettuce leaves and dipped in spicy fish sauce. As opposed to my hyped up act of kindness, I impressed with my culinary, handling chopsticks with relative ease. A middle-aged Vietnamese woman sitting opposite me asked where I refined my chopstick skills, whilst shielding me from numerous beggars asking for money, telling them in a straightforward manner to leave me alone, or at least, that was what her tone implied. Perhaps these beggars had heard something about or watched my generosity with the monk and wanted a piece of the action, too.
“You must be careful here,” the lady said to me. “Some of these people will do anything to take money from you.”
“What will they do?” I asked, half expecting a lecture. Maybe this lady had seen me get sucked in.
“Anything, sometime(s) they pretend to be a monk” she said. ”Poverty encourages desperation.”
Damn my stupid generosity and wanting to make a difference in Tet. Whatever street smart credibility I had built up over the years had just been destroyed. I kept asking myself why anybody would dress up as a monk to take money from another person. But then he did not physically steal it from me. I offered the 20,000 dong note. It reminded me of the saying “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Obviously the alarm had gone off and I missed it when it counted. Seclusion seemed like a more viable option.
In the sapping humidity, the 10 minute walk to a nearby café tested my patience. Normally, I would have headed to the nearest bar for a drink, but my pledge was to remain alcohol-free in Vietnam, a real challenge considering the price of a beer was 10,000 Dong, or 50 cents. Hence began my addiction to cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee)I chose a nearby café, attracted to its outdoor wooden chair setting and a shaded area which offered protection from the heat. An iced coffee and a nice place in the shade to reflect on the day passed thus far.  But that peace was shattered by another monk seeking my attention. He, too, wore the same colored robes as the monk in Ben Thanh Market. Still smarting from what happened earlier, I cautiously greeted him in the manner of pressing my palms togetherHe returned the gesture and smiled. This monk, however, was more forthright. He sat next to me and called over the owner in Vietnamese, who quickly returned with two menus.
The owner, a rough-looking middle-aged woman, said to me, “I get you cà phê sữa đá. The monk wants to talk with you.” She then barked an order at one of her waitresses who nodded and rushed off. The monk adjusted his spectacles, smiled and to my surprise, pulled out a stash of posters, calendars, and amulets. This man is no monk, I thought to myself; he is a salesman.
We sat there exchanging awkward smiles. Not much talking done here. I sensed that the café owner would act as the interpreter, negotiator, and stand-over woman. She spoke with the monk, leaving me to smile foolishly and try to guess what the two were saying. This took place for nearly five minutes, by which time a waitress had returned with my iced coffee and placed it in front of me together with a serviette.
The owner said in a sharp tone, “Today is your lucky day.”
‘I have had one of those already,’ I mumbled to myself, before saying “Why is that?”
“Because the monk wants you to buy something from him. Good luck for you,” the owner said.
As soon as I started saying, ‘Here we go again,’ the monk started showing me his wares. I refused to focus on each poster, calendar, and amulet laid out in front of me, in case it indicated that I wanted to buy something. He should have been at Ben Thanh Market, not a café. I can sense that he was frustrated that I refused his inclinations to purchase anything. In a desperate attempt for me to pay for something, the monk grabbed the menu, pointed to Ca Phe Sua Da and made a drinking gesture. He wanted an iced coffee, just like me. I did not know how to react. I thought that he was not allowed to have dairy and caffeine. I was very tempted to say something, but backed out, realizing that I would earn the owner’s wrath and the monk’s displeasure. Then the monk made his move. He leaned over, snatched my iced coffee and then started sipping from the straw. All I could do was watch in amazement as he slurped away, conversing with the café owner in between drinks. The sweet taste of iced coffee on a hot day should have been comforting my parched lips, not this religious salesman.
By this time I had seen enough. “The monk stole my coffee,” I shouted, breaking the first rule of life in Vietnam – shouting does not guarantee you victory in anything.
“You did not have to greet him the way you did,” the café owner said to me. She was unfazed by my child-like tantrum. “It meant that you give everything to him. It’s your own fault.”
Of course it was a lie. If my coffee was fair game, would Freddie Freeloaded the Monk reach for my personal belongings? I hurriedly moved across the seat, holding on tight to my wallet and passport, which were in a day pack protected with a lock. I even contemplated taking the matter to the tourist police, but did not expect anyone to believe that a man in robes posing as a monk stole my coffee. I felt cheated and handed my money over to the café owner, with a greeting to wish my iced coffee all the best.
“What you say?” the owner asked, not sensing my disappointment.
Tell the monk to enjoy my cà phê sữa đá,” I said, smiling before walking away.  The only way I could cleanse myself was to attend a Buddhist temple, and hopefully meet with a real monk. But after two false starts, could I tell the real deal from the imposters? There was only one thing for it.
I hailed a motorcycle rider, who handed me a helmet.
“Where you go? I take you boom boom pretty lady, good smoke,” the driver said to me.
“Xa Loi Pagoda, please,” I said bluntly, who threw a helmet to me, disappointed that I would not take part in some form of debauchery. This must have influenced his riding technique.
We swerved through gaps and ran red lights at leisure. In Saigon, this is tantamount to kamikaze road behavior and begs for an accident, but somehow nothing came of it. I found it more amusing that he was able to accelerate to greater than 40 km/h, in spite of all the traffic. Amidst the motorcycles pushing to move forward, he squeezed into non-existent empty spaces, laughing off the occasional aggressive word directed at us. This is all in a day’s work for a motorcycle rider.
The Xa Loi Temple is hidden in a small back street just outside of District 1. I paid my rider the fare, complete with my baby-like Vietnamese language pronunciation of “Cám ơn”, (pronounced gahm uhn, meaning ‘thank you’). He ignored my attempt at gratitude, as if to say “I did not save your life.” However, he watched on in amusement as a small girl cursed me at the temple gates for not buying incense sticks. I mistook her for a regular street beggar. When I discovered that nobody else sold them, I returned to her and asked for a packet. She agreed, but for an increased price. Having been conned by two so-called monks, my descent into a clueless tourist convert had now commenced.
In front of the main monument, I lit the wrong end of the sticks. I knelt incorrectly and embarrassed myself by interrupting other attendees, asking them what order I should undertake the ritual. After I had fished praying, the xe om driver who brought me to the pagoda walked up to me and asked if I was married. When I said no, he added, “What woman would marry a man who cannot light his stick?”
I was taken aback. All I wanted to do now was seek refuge in the temple, where I could safely reflect upon my encounters with the bogus monks and hope for enough moral strength to get me through the day. After finishing my tasks, I stood on the balcony and stared intently at a durian tree while listening to the sounds of children laughing and screaming from a nearby primary school, before a bell started ringing. Finally, from the peaceful surroundings of a temple, protected from the hectic street life in Ho Chi Minh City, I started to form an image that I could identify with. All I needed was to see a monk. Instead, two local women, introducing themselves as Thao and Tran, joined me. They wanted to know my motivation for coming to Vietnam and what I thought of the country. My explanation was brief, saying that I had been once before and had wanted to return. They showed me samples of bracelets, necklaces and baby clothes they made as part of their small business enterprise.  The bracelet was made of fiberbrush and tiny bells with intricate and colorful designs.
As Tran handed me a business card in the shape of a basket, an elderly monk appeared from a room. He looked like the same guy that I donated money to at Ben Thanh Market. But Thao refuted my claim.
‘No, not the same person. This man never leaves pagoda,’ Thao explained to me. ‘The monk you talk about pretends to be a monk. Wait here.”
She disappeared down a hallway and into a nearby reading room, returning one minute later with accompanied by another monk with a chubby face. The two had a brief chat in English about the man I had spotted at the market. He confirmed my fears.
“We know that man who begs, he pretends to be monk so he will get money. You should not give him any.” the monk said to me. “We call him the Market Monk.”
When I raised the point about the monk who took my iced coffee, once again he confirmed that the man in robes was an imposter.
“That man is The Thieving Monk”, the chubby monk said. “Where did you meet him?”
“In a café near Ben Thanh Market,” I said.
The chubby monk nodded his head. “You should stay away from him.” He then smiled and walked away to the reading room.
“Was that the leader?” I asked. Tran nodded and said to me, “We call him the Queen of Monks because he is beautiful, always smiling.”
I did not notice a smile on his face when he warned me to keep away from scammers in robes, but maybe that was the whole point. And then I recalled the sentence that the lady said to me earlier in the day, “Poverty encourages desperation.”
In this city, it seems that every monk has a name. Today it was clear what my name was – mud.


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Book Review - Escape From Camp 14 by Blaine Harden:

ESCAPE FROM CAMP 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West
By Blaine Harden
Published by Viking

Review by David Calleja

Escape From Camp 14 begins with a statement by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the official mouthpiece of North Korea’s regime. It reads, ‘There is no “human rights issue” in this country, as everyone leads the most dignified and happy life’. By their reckoning, the astounding memoirs of survival in the country’s most notorious political prison, Shin Dong-hyuk, read as little more than a fairytale.

But according to Human Rights Watch, more than 200,000 civilians in North Korea are locked away in these death camps.

For decades, three leaders, North Korean officials have denied their existence, while continually rounding up civilians from all parts of society and locking them away for subjection to various forms of torture. But in 2007, Mr. Shin’s treacherous flight on foot through North Korea, China, South Korea and finally the United States of America, is the most truthful description of one man’s journey through hell on the path to a new life.

Camp 14 could easily be taken straight from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the “irredeemables” are born into slavery. These are grounds where food was scarce and pregnant women disappeared. Subsequently born and raised in Camp 14, Mr. Shin’s crime was to have been labelled a “bad seed”, a product of having previous family members categorised as enemies of the state. Under an archaic law created by the country’s Eternal President, Kim Il-sung, any traitor and their family members had three generations sent to a gulag to breed out the “tainted blood”.

Since Mr. Shin never knew what parental love meant, he viewed prison guards, as his parents, accepting their orders without question. The only chance to cleanse his tainted blood would be to denounce his family. When Mr. Shin learned that his biological mother and brother were stealing food and plotting to escape, he reported the details to a prison guard, but was accused of being party to the plan. After a horrific interrogation where he was hung upside down over a roasting fire with hooks inserted into his abdomen, Mr. Shin’s “reward” was a front row seat at the execution of his mother and brother.

 One quality about Mr. Shin is that his resolve never weakened. If anything, he felt indifferent to the suffering around him, a consequence of being indoctrinated to recite the camp’s 10 commandments or risk being “shot immediately”. At an inspection while in first grade, he watched a pistol-bearing guard order a 6 year-old girl to kneel before the class, who then beat the child to death with a pointer for hiding five corn kernels in her pockets. Mr. Shin had become desensitised to violence, a result of being treated more like an animal rather than a human, incapable of trusting anyone. This all changed, however, when a man named Park shared Mr. Shin’s cell.

A Pyongyang-born former public official educated in eastern Europe, Park opened up Mr. Shin’s world to new ideas. He learned of Pyongyang’s whereabouts and that the world was round. The two developed a brotherhood and iron-will to survive. Between Mr. Shin’s expertise of every inch within Camp 14 and Park’s knowledge of the outside world, an escape attempt seemed possible. But Park was killed within inches of freedom. Mr. Shin survived by using his companion’s corpse as protection while digging under the electric fence.

Having risked his life to get out of Camp 14 and then stealing food and clothing to trek across North Korea, Mr. Shin made it across to China without being detected. But his “poor North Korean defector” story did not attract much sympathy from ethnic Koreans and locals alike, a reaction borne from apathy and fear of reprisals from Chinese authorities, who were returning escapees to North Korea. With nearly all hope lost, he reluctantly trusted a South Korean journalist working in Shanghai to join him in a taxi and ride to the gates of the South Korean consulate, a move that led to the journalist being punished by local authorities after Mr. Shin recuperated in the consulate of the land he once believed was “the enemy”.

As Mr. Shin would soon discover, landing in the capitalist South Korea to start a new life did not automatically heal all scars. His nightmares from the past – executions of his family members, images of Park’s death, and thoughts of the torture his father underwent as payback for Mr. Shin’s escape, started to catch up with him. The paranoia which offered him protection behind barbed wire imprisoned him in a land where he was supposedly free. Mr. Shin had no social life and slumped into depression. And as a defector, he never felt welcome in South Korea, weighed down by a sense of inferiority compared to local compatriots. He later jumped at the chance to volunteer for a not-for-profit organisation in Los Angeles, to raise greater awareness about the plight of North Korean defectors, but for a time failed to find the spark in motivating target audiences to do more and inspire change. In one instance, a Korean-American teenager asked if he had fought for the North Korean Army. It is a shame that when North Korea is mentioned in western countries, the first images that come to mind are images of rocket launches, goose-stepping soldiers marching alongside military hardware, or even Team America: World Police’s lampooning the late Kim Jong-il.

Mr. Shin’s words about how he coped through the ordeal are sickening and blunt. The writing style adopted by the author, Blaine Harden, is straightforward and designed to shock. Mr. Harden, a veteran reporter for PBS Frontline, interviewed Mr. Shin for over two years, forcing him to recall excruciating details from a man reluctant to step into the spotlight. The language and imagery is so confronting, it may have been written in blood. Equally as disturbing are extracts from former officials who fled North Korea, confirming the endemic corruption which resulted in millions of dollars being siphoned into the pockets of Kim Jong-il. Mr. Harden also analyses the wider impact of relations between Seoul and Pyongyang. He dismisses former President Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy (also advocated by his successor Roh Moo-hyun), which advocated closer ties between North and South Korea, as ineffective because it failed to raise the issue of human rights for defectors. There is no praise for the alternative hardline approach adopted by conservative leader Lee Myung-bak either. Mr. Harden’s analysis is that South Korean civilians are interested in politicians exchanging rhetoric as part of a proxy war. They want peace and economic stability, But when it comes to reunification, “not immediately” is the summary. Mr. Shin’s assessment is that the rights of defectors run counter to the interests of South Korean people; it matters to “only .001 per cent of people”, he declares.

North Korean defectors do not have celebrity endorsements to raise greater awareness for their cause, so Mr. Harden’s words and Mr. Shin’s courage are powerful ammunition, representing yet another reason to despise the psychotic regime enslaving its own people. Escape From Camp 14 rates as one of the best books ever written on the indignity of life and death in North Korea’s vast labyrinth of political prisons.



This book review originally appeared on the Foreign Policy Journal website,, on 11 December 2012.


Monday, September 17, 2012

A Visit to The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Museum

A Visit to The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Museum

by David Calleja

September 17, 2012

The stifling humidity levels and dark clouds hovering menacingly in the sky threatened to deliver one of Phnom Penh’s famous rain deluges during the wet season. I picked the wrong day to hop in a tuk-tuk and venture outdoors, stuck in traffic for more than 20 minutes. An endless sea of trucks, tuk-tuks, and cars attempted to weave around each other while honking horns, with a solitary uniformed officer trying to maintain control of traffic and enforce road rules. But his whistling and animated hand gestures came to no avail, and he resembled a conductor struggling to keep in time with his orchestra. For a brief moment, I considered hopping out and going to the local market, but I had a date with Cambodia’s violent past and backing out was not an option.

My destination was The Killing Fields, a lasting legacy of the auto-genocide planned and executed by the Khmer Rouge and its psychotic leader Pol Pot. In four years, up to 1.7 million (some estimates put the death toll at 2.5 million) people were executed or starved to death between 1975 and 1979. Officially known as the Cheoung Uk Genocidal Centre, The Killing Fields is a shocking reminder of the Khmer Rouge’s rampage. Back then, the international community was locked out and unable to intervene until the Vietnamese Army invaded in 1979. Nowadays it is a must-see destination for international and domestic visitors, an essential component in understanding Cambodia and its people. It has also been referred to as genocide tourism, a dose of shock therapy and sympathy, without wearing physical scars.

Outside the front gates, the driver said to me “You have fun today.” I smiled and thanked him. He must have taken enough people here and be well drilled. I did not tell him that I had lived in the countryside for a few months. To him, I was another gawking tourist.

My stomach churned once I walked under the entrance gates, a sign of intimidation. A group of men in the distance spotted me, and one man instantly decided that I would be his prey. He had broad shoulders and moved like a predator. I froze, wondering if I had looked at him the wrong way. Was he a plainclothes police officer or a gangster, I asked myself? In Phnom Penh, anything is possible. Making a hasty exit was not an option; I thought I was going to crap my pants. Destiny had cast the dice; life would end the grounds of a mass slaughter. My uneasiness subsided only when the man faced me and shook my hand. There was no smile, however.

“Welcome to the Killing Fields. The Khmer Rouge killed my parents here. Today I will show you where.” With that sentence, Sroun gestured for me to step where he stood. I was unprepared for his next question, “Why did you come here today?”

I opened my mouth but nothing came out. He did not wait for me to answer.

“If you feel any pity, then don’t. If you are not sure why you came here, then please leave because you won’t learn much. My English is not good like yours, but the books you have read about how many people die (sic) in Cambodia cannot tell you about life. That is what I offer you.” For somebody who claimed not to speak English well, he certainly used the power of direct language effectively, much better than me. Pointing into the distance, he said, “You see here, many people come because they watched movie ‘The Killing Fields’. It makes them cry.” He clenched his fist and beat it on his chest. “Not me,” he said. “Bad man not let me go. But maybe one day, I will get out.” The ‘bad man’, he said, was Pol Pot.

Sroun made his living as a guide, and also drove motorcycles at night to make ends meet. His family came from Phnom Penh, making them prime targets for the Khmer Rouge, but avoided giving away too much about his family. “Not in the mood today. Friendships take long time, take little steps first,” he explained. As for speaking about his own time growing up, he said that it had too many bad memories, adding only that the Khmer Rouge robbed him of his adolescence. It seems that too would have to wait. What I had come to learn about living in Cambodia is that there is plenty of time, and schedules are made to be broken. So I would have to be patient. “You don’t need my life story…yet.”

Everywhere we walked were open pits that looked like bomb craters. Prisoners from the nearby Tuol Sleng Prison would be chained together, lined up and beaten with clubs before being shoved and buried inside the graves. More than 120 graves exist across the Killing Fields. Recent rains had resulted in sparse patches of grass growing across the pits. Every time I passed a grave, it spooked me. Every crunching noise sounded like a bone; any dampness on the ground felt like puddles of blood, not rain. My eyes darted everywhere as I moved slowly. Sroun noticed my anxiety. “Are you scared?” he said with a sadistic grin. I nodded. There was no way I could pretend to show any macho tendencies. I focused on the butterflies patrolling the air as if they were on patrol. They too could sense I was out of place. What could I ask Sroun that he would be prepared to talk about? I turned to Sroun and asked him how he felt about being a guide here.

Sroun’s eyes bulged wildly. “Look at what Pol Pot gave us. Bad man (Pol Pot), he say Cambodia will be world’s strongest country thanks to revolution, but he make Cambodian kill Cambodian. Why? Cannot imagine.”

“Did you know of families that were killed?” I asked him.

“Yes. Here, everybody knows someone who lost family or knew somebody killed by the Khmer Rouge,” Sroun answered. He told me told me of one family who was exterminated. The parents, he said, were accused of stealing food and confessed in a self-criticism session, part of the daily brainwashing routine to love Angka. “Khmer Rouge say to us, ‘You don’t need parents, only Angka.’”

“What was your secret in surviving?” I quizzed.

“(To) shut up. Look when they say, speak when they say, breathe when they say,” Sroun said. Learning to be dumb takes more skill than being smart.

When we reached a spot not far from the watchtower which provided power to inflict electric shocks on inmates of Tuol Sleng Prison, Sroun paused for a moment, then squatted on his knees. “This is where I found my parents,” he said. “They were buried with many others.” He cannot recall the year they were killed because he was separated from them. “Too long ago. But in 1980, I volunteer to dig up bodies.”

I asked how they died. “Hit many times with big stick all over body and left to die,” he retorted. Sroun did not know he had dug up his parents’ bones until tests came back confirming the bones were the remains of his mother and father. They were more among more than 20,000 people to meet a similar fate.

I wanted to know what went through his mind at the mind and how he reacted.

“When the Khmer Rouge ran Cambodia, we were not allowed to cry. I never express my feelings, or I would be dead,” Sroun admitted to me. “So I said nothing. But many years later, Kofi Annan (former Secretary-General of the United Nations), asked me, ‘how can Cambodian kill Cambodian?’ That is when I learned how to cry.”

As he said these words, a sense of relief came over me. Maybe I had broken the ice with him, and we could converse. But as we headed to a building which housed the skulls of thousands of victims bludgeoned to death, Sroun’s eye bulged a second time; he had spotted somebody holding a skull with a large crack on top, posing with the peace symbol as his friends took photos. As the skull passed into the hands of a group member, who then planted a kiss on the skull’s cheek, Sroun he exploded in a rage of English and Khmer words. He had clearly been angered by what he saw. The offending group member caught kissing the skull bowed his head in shame and held out the skull for Sroun to collect and return to its rightful spot. His companions had already left and he ran off to join them.

Once Sroun had returned, he returned in a huff and spat on the ground. “Fuckers,” he said. “I hope they got their blood money’s worth.” For all I know, that skull could have belonged to his mother or father.

Now was probably not the right time to ask Sroun about his opinion of Pol Pot, but I took a chance.
“David, I am angry that he got away. I want him to tell me why he killed so many Cambodians. But he escaped. When Saddam Hussein died in Iraq, I cheered because the Iraqi people got to see justice. I looked at Saddam on television and saw the body of Pol Pot. And Saddam’s death made me smile because I imagine Pol Pot hanging. Everyone was hostage to that bad man.” It seemed fitting that the last words I heard from Sroun were part of his trademark phrase that described a leader who must count among the world’s most brutal dictators.

With a promise to share more about his life on a second visit, we shook hands again. I offered Sroun money for donating his time, but he refused to accept the cash, saying that if money could not bring his parents back, he did not want my money. And with that, he returned to his quarters. But my day was not complete. It was time to take the march and absorb the grotesque images spread across the vast lands of an abandoned high school turned into a death factory.

Known as S-21, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a memorial for men, women and children held in inhumane conditions. Meticulous records of more than 16,000 prisoners are kept on premises, along with more than 10,000 identity photos. Classrooms became torture chambers, displaying leg shackles, water board apparatus, and diagrams and models of how confessions were extracted demonstrating how interrogations and tortures were carried out. Outside the building, a sign warning prisoners of the expected behavior is a cruel commemoration of the interrogator’s limitless powers to inflict pain for even the slightest indiscretion. Visitors are warned not to smile, speak loudly, laugh, take photographs or film footage did not stop visitors from following these rules. But anybody spending only a few hours breathing in the horrors of the decaying building would not be water-boarded, given electric shocks or strapped in shackles. The building’s perimeter is still surrounded by razor wire.

I joined the line, shuffling between rooms as the floor made a whooshing sound with each footstep. Any other noise would attract an unwanted gaze. Everybody was in a trance, carefully studying graphic images. I closed my eyes and felt the whips slicing the air hard enough, causing it to bleed. The thought of screams and cries of mercy from inmates freaked me out, as I am sure it did to others as well. Nobody dared try and hurry the line’s progression of the line. This is a building capable of spooking even the hardened individual. But as I neared the boards which showed the identification photos of each prisoner, it became too much for one elderly woman. She fell to her knees and began screaming hysterically, begging to get out. We all froze, ill-equipped to handle such an emergency. Two employees who arrived also watched the woman wail. They too stood motionless, unsure of what to do. Everybody felt sorry for the woman but did not intervene. It took several minutes before she was calm enough to be led away.

To me, it seemed like being a part of a funeral procession. I heard the sobbing of some people in line; they were clearly distressed, if not overwhelmed. I wondered if it was going to affect me too. Two images—a young woman holding a newborn baby, who looked much older than her age would have suggested, and an old man with his brains hanging out of his skull, finally eroded my courage. A sickening sensation came over me and then I collapsed. It took me a few minutes to come around and realize what had happened.
“Wake up! Are you alright?” is the first sentence I remember hearing upon regaining consciousness. With a head that felt like concrete and wobbly legs, I lacked the strength and balance to sit up properly, so I lay on my back and resigned to being the circus freak. Curious on-lookers huddled together, wondering what had just taken place. They were eagerly anticipating my first words. I managed to slur one sentence; “I was sick near The Killing Fields”, hardly a profound statement.

As I made my way back to base later that afternoon, I remember the driver trying to convince me to go shooting AK-47s at an undisclosed location for the cost of one dollar per bullet. But in my woozy state, I said that I had seen enough horrors for the day. Genocide tourism offered an escape clause allowing me to make a hasty exit if I could not handle traumatic visions from Cambodia’s darkest days.

Published on Foreign Policy Journal: 


Thursday, July 5, 2012

Film Review: This Is Not A Film

DVD Review: This Is Not A Film (2011) – Iran, Farsi language, 75 min.
Review by David Calleja

What do you get when two directors get bored and cannot agree on what they want to do? They record each other filming and send a powerful message in the process. This, however, is no ordinary filming session.

You can physically imprison a person’s movements and thoughts, but the most innovative individuals will always find a unique way of expressing themselves.

In a career spanning more than 20 years, Iranian film director Jafar Panahi has delivered insightful movies such as Crimson Gold and Offside. But This Is Not A Film, a documentary chronicling a day in the life of Panahi while under house arrest following a raid on his apartment in 2010, may be his best remembered work. It may also be his last.

Allegedly downloaded onto a USB stick and smuggled out of Iran in a cake box bound for France, This Is Not A Film illustrates how devoted Panahi is to film making, in spite of the risks and battles he has encountered with authorities, the legal system, and his own emotions. It offers a simple view into his sheltered existence, hurriedly making phone calls to people wishing to visit him, checking out news updates on heavily censored websites, or feeding the family’s pet iguana, activities which occur while Panahi is waiting for his appeal against a prison sentence and lengthy ban on making films, writing screenplays, and giving interviews.

Having been refused permission for a film and subjected to a raid on his Tehran apartment by authorities, Panahi refuses to be silenced, explaining to his co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb that he will read and act out the screenplay in a space no larger than the rug in his living room.

As Panahi re-visits the forbidden film’s script which landed him in trouble, he connects with the plight of his character, a girl who plots to escape from her family home after being refused the chance to study liberal arts at a university in Tehran. He enters into immaculate detail about the character’s emotional distress and descent into madness, shortly before adding that reading a film out is just as effective as making one, and then walking away in frustration. We sense that the ideas flowing from this script would have been a grand finale.

In capturing Panahi’s emotions, Mirtahmasb does well in ensuring that Panahi discusses what is most important, as well as revealing secrets that have made Panahi a leading director. When Panahi is filmed taking images on his iPhone, and then explains the rationale, we learn about his techniques. “Shoot the screen,” Panahi says to Mirthamasb, pointing to his television during a scene of Crimson Gold, a young woman sprinting across the corridors of a building, columns resembling prison bars in the foreground.

“This actress didn’t need to make any certain face to show her anxiety. Those vertical lines in the location…supplement her mental state.” He turns back to his own dilemma of reading his screenplay within the limitations of a rug, posing dilemmas and challenging himself. The professor is at work, with his loyal assistant behind the camera dutifully observing the outcome. Panahi appears as a resolute man, but at the stake the bigger issue of freedom of expression, and he fears as much for the future of the film industry, more so than his own fate.

In his relentless pursuit to leave a footprint with this film, Panahi finds himself behind the camera after Mirtahmasb leaves for the day, striking a conversation with a young garbage collector inside an elevator. As the unassuming young man talks about his life ambitions, Panahi regains his customary seat in control. As the two men exit the elevator, Panahi asks his subject, “What are you going to do when you finish school?” “The first thing I will do is find a place with peace,” the young garbage collector answers back.

It is a wonderful sentiment which presents Panahi with one final chance to record a street scene during Persian New Year fireworks celebrations. That is, until the stark reality re-appears with Panahi being reminded of the possibility of being caught. This sudden ending, leaving viewers in limbo is an appropriate ending considering the sentence faced not just by Panahi and his colleagues, but by anybody who speaks out unfavourably. It reminds us that the phrase ‘And they all lived happily ever after’ is a fictional concept associated only with the magic generated by planet Hollywood.

Call it a film, documentary, effort, or diary captured on camera, the end result is that This Is Not A Film is a powerful snapshot, mirroring what society has become at a time when Iranian movies are gaining more praise worldwide. Sadly, directors risk paying a hefty price for exercising creative licence and daring to challenge the status quo. This is reflected during the closing credits, when nobody, apart from Panahi and Mirthamasb, is publicly named. Panahi is a distinguished film maker whose greater battle is one about human rights, as much as it is about events affecting his own life.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Night at the Theatre With Vietnam’s Water Puppets


A Night at the Theatre With Vietnam’s Water Puppets

by David Calleja, Foreign Policy Journal     

June 14, 2012

On a warm evening in Hanoi’s Thanh Long Theatre, the best way to cool off and be entertained is watch a few wooden characters tell a story while floating in a shallow pool. In a few minutes time, a performance will breathe new life into legends and folklore dating back from the Lý Dynasty which ruled Vietnam between 1009 and 1225. The tales are about life in northern Vietnam’s rural landscape. For me, it will be a new method of learning history.

Originally, water puppet shows were strictly for hamlet dwellers, celebrating the arrival of spring or a major festival (Contreras, 1995, 25). These days, performances are for the benefit of visitors wishing to expand their cultural appetites, and I am waiting patiently for my serving.

The puppets will undoubtedly be the main attraction, but who is pulling the strings? The real geniuses are hiding their identities behind bamboo blinds disguised as backdrops of well-known landmarks such as the Truong Tien Bridge in the city of Hue. The men and women responsible for the puppets’ flawless movements of puppets will have their moment to bask in glory, but now it is time for the stars to take to the stage. Little is known about their techniques, but the mystique associated with the Vietnamese art of water puppetry only adds to the anticipation of a memorable night ahead.

As a non-Vietnamese language speaker and with nobody to translate for me, I rely on my observation of the puppets’ antics rather than the dialogue. The audience is introduced to Teu, a jolly-looking man in a red gown who will narrate the evening’s proceedings. This is a guided tour about peasant life in the rainy season near the Perfume River. Men toil the fields with their buffaloes and women plant rice. There is a high expectation of a good crop yield. Unfortunately, the peace is disrupted when a duck goes missing, causing uneasiness in the village. As villagers become more suspicious of each other, a struggle develops between landlords and farmers. It takes the arrival of the dragon, signaling the commencement of Tet, or Vietnamese New Year, to ward off evil spirits which nearly engulfed the village. The arrival of three other mythical creatures, the unicorn, phoenix and tortoise, represent qualities required for village dwellers to preserve prosperity and good health. The story is as informative as it is heartwarming.

It is hard for me to pick a favorite moment, but my thoughts turn to one scene which emphasize the true purpose of water puppetry; satire. It involves an intriguing battle between a farmer and a fish. The farmer stands in the river, basket poised, ready to land a lethal blow, but his foe averts the enemy on several occasions. So daring is the fish, he taunts the farmer by swimming around him and underneath the boat which the farmer used for transportation. With one last desperate lunge, the farmer slams the bamboo basket too close to the boat, mistiming his attack and hitting the head of his fellow fisherman who is sitting in the boat, earning the audience’s laughter. While the farmer is ashamed of his inability to hunt food, it is the background score that gives the scene a feel of slapstick comedy.

The use of Cheo, a style of folk music performed with a small orchestra, is crucial in providing dramatic effects to keep the audience’s attention. Comprising of woodwind and percussion instruments, the musicians rarely look at the audience, instead channeling all their energy in crafting each note in conjunction with the movements taking place on the water. Their contributions power the show through to the finale, one which pays homage to the reluctant heroes of the night – the puppeteers, who emerge from anonymity to reveal themselves to the public.

When the curtain is raised, the puppet masters smile nervously and bow to the spectators, who in turn reciprocate their appreciation by showering the puppeteers with applause. These silent stars have played an important part in reinvigorating history, a task that modern cinema or even a western-style theatrical adaptation may not have been capable of accomplishing. In the sink-or-swim environment of live entertainment, each of these humble individuals have passed the test of making a lasting impression on how to portray history and legend in a manner certain to leave a lasting impression in my mind.

My final act for the night is to spend a few minutes at Hoam Kiem Lake, reflecting on what I have taken away; the deft handwork of puppet operators, an introduction to traditional music, and a fresh approach to reinforcing how much farmers dedicate their lives to treating the earth and water like their own children. This is a gift passed down through the ages, one which feeds my desire for a more thorough investigation into a mysterious yet elaborate art.

Alas poor Teu, I knew him well, for he was a great host, even if he had a wooden exterior. But he certainly did not have a wooden heart when it came to sharing a passion for storytelling.


Contreras, G. (1995), “Teaching About Vietnamese Culture: Water Puppetry as the Soul of the Rice Fields”, The Social Studies, Volume 86, Number 1. Pg. 25.