Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The International Reaction

I've been meaning to write about the reaction over here to Saddam's execution, and today seemed like a good day to do it.

Maisnon and I were in Mysore watching CNN the morning he was hanged, and if you were watching, you probably remember Anderson "Call me AC" Cooper, first thing after the announcement, broke to Detroit where a bunch of Iraqi Americans were dancing on the streets. Okay. That's one reaction, and surely great for War on Terror PR. That's not so much what happened here.

The newspapers were literally cover to cover stories on every aspect of the execution. "Pakistan, one of the United States' number one allies in the war on terror, denounces the execution." "President Bush decided to go to sleep early on the night of the execution." The Regional section, the Business section. Omg the Editorial section.

However reliable the Letters to the Editor section of any paper may be, the ones here (I've gotten a few different newspapers at my hotels down here) are largely filled with anger. Most say that yes, Saddam was a brutal dictator and should have been punished for his crimes, but believe that Bush, too, should pay for the "blood on his hands." Many, many call for him to be hanged, as well. One Op-Ed calls him in passing "The First Lord in the War on Terror." There is strong sentiment here that Bush (yes, that Bush did this, through puppet judges) executed Saddam specifically - specifically - to escalate tensions in the middle east.

The other night I was enjoying my fresh grilled fish dinner on the beach in Cochin, and talking a bit with the host, who had sweetalked me into having dinner at his cafe. He turned out to be quite the interesting young man, just about to graduate with a degree in commerce and off soon to get his MBA, then hopefully off to the US or UK. After dinner he joined me while I finished my beer...

[Okay, quick sidebar: There is apparently some regulation about beer on the beach, I assume because of the glass. The only beer they seem to sell in India comes in large 600ml bottles, so I ordered some Golden Tiger or some such, and soon a teapot appeared on my table. A white Victorian style teapot. My host arrived with my beer and proceeded to fill the teapot with the ale and then, THEN, he comes back with a coffee mug. A COFFEE MUG WITH HAPPY CARTOON COWS ON IT. Out of which I drank my alcohol on the beach. A little boy came by to hawk his wares to me, pointed to the teapot, grinned and said, "Special tea??"]

So anyway. Eventually we turned to politics, or specifically, the US invasion of Iraq, because what else is there to talk about in the world anyway (god, except Somalia, are we really going to do this - again??). We were of the same mind, that yes, yes, Saddam was a brutal dictator, but Bush has totally and utterly fucked up that region for a long time. And of course I mentioned my own hatred and how I didn't vote for him either time. He said, "It's good you weren't here last week. After the execution there were riots here, and locals were following the tourists, asking where they were from, and if they said the US they'd heckle and follow them to their hotels." Later I passed a sign erected in the road (that I took a photo of) that had a picture of Saddam claiming he was a martyr and that Bush will pay. Though, in many more, and many more nasty, words.

And everyone asks you where you're from. The shopkeepers use it to get you talking, random people on the street, the children, everyone. I've already lied twice when I wasn't sold on the person's character, except this one shady guy asked me if I was from the UK, I said yes, and then he started following me and quickly uttering words in a different language until I turned around and said, "Enough!" and he laughed and walked away. Nice.

So, then I get to Calicut yesterday. I'd read beforehand that there was a big Arab Muslim population in Calicut, but I really didn't think much of it. People also told me there was shit to do in Calicut, that it was just a "beach town." But I was hitting it up at the end of my whirlwind tour of Kerala, so a couple of days on the beach doing nothing but reading sounded perfect. No such luck. Aside from any politics, the city just has this vibe to it you feel as soon as you drive in the city lines, I'm not sure why. Then I realized that 85% of the women are covered head to toe, and it's fucking sweltering outside. And it's not a beach town, it's an ugly urban center that happens to be on the seashore. After I checked in the concierge was like, "you should go to the beach now, it's sunset, and there's a carnival down the road."

We pull up and it looks fun, there's a ferris wheel and some other rides, and lots of popcorn vendors and such. Every inch of the beach, of course, is completely covered in trash. As soon as I step out of the car I get stares. This is not unusual, except...it is. I'm used to the stares by now, they've largely been ones of curiosity, or, you know, the occasional man with his tongue wagging and staring obviously at my chest, but the fact that most men are pigs is a cultural universal. These stares are hostile. They're "who's the outsider" looks. The muslim women are still covered head to toe on the beach, and I'm dying because I threw my hot pashmina around my sleeveless top. In fact, there are very few women at all, and they're all with men, which leaves 90% of the beach large groups of men, and the place is absolutely packed. I get hostile, intense stares all the way down to the shore. I am totally and utterly uncomfortable; I feel down right vulnerable, with my driver way back up in the parking lot and not a can of mace on me. I'll be honest and say that my imagination could have eventually gotten the better of me, but I don't think I'm really one to see anti-Americanism where there is none, especially after almost three weeks of being stared at in every town I pass through. I was sitting on the packed sand, with people within 4-5 feet on all sides of me, all just staring unsmiling; no one talked to me, the children didn't smile or wave. It was actually kind of terrifying, and I got right the fuck off that beach.

While we were waiting in a traffic jam in the parking lot, a young girl about the age of eight decided to stand outside my car and stare at me. Children everywhere here will stare, then if they're timid, shyly wave or smile. She didn't. She glared at me from under her headscarf, while she held this plastic bucket with a lid under her arm. I don't know where this girl's parents were because she clearly wasn't homeless and wasn't trying to sell anyone anything. So yeah, I started to wonder what the hell was in that damn bucket. Ten minutes is an immensely long time for someone to stand within arm's reach outside your car door and glare at you with her hand on the lid of that bucket. I'm not sure how I can describe how unnerving it is to be in a situation like that, where you want to assume the best from people - and surely that's what I've been met with this entire trip - but to have prejudices creep in because fuck, that's what the world is like these days.

So, thank you very much, Mr. Bush, for making my international travel easier. I was going to stay in Calicut two days, but after the beach and then another terrifying trip to the internet cafe (where I was going to write this post but was kind of shaken up and wanted to clear my head first), I checked out early the next morning.

For what it's worth, I have some of the papers from after the execution in my suitcase, if anyone is interested in reading them when I get back.


At 1:41 PM, January 09, 2007, Anonymous roonie said...

Ms. HG, this post scared the shit out of me for you. I was afraid they were all going to come after you, or at least the little girl with the death grip on the bucket of steaming hot lava. Maybe you could wear hijab (the scarf over your head) at the very least in those very Muslim regions? At any rate, I'm glad you got out of there.

At 6:34 AM, January 10, 2007, Blogger maisnon said...

Dude, I could go for some "special tea" right about now!!

Re: Saddam, there were posters up all over Kochi with his picture on them. I took a picture of one of them and I am hoping to have my mom translate (as I am 100% illiterate in Malayalam.)


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