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Vol. 9, No. 2, 2010
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Robert J. Lewis
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Charles Lewis
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Michael Albert
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from the blogosphere





David Lieber is a communications writer, translator, catophile and occasional blogger.

© David LieberThere's been a lot of talk on TV and in the press about how “dignified" Haitians have been in the aftermath of their recent catastrophe.

But my dictionary defines dignity as "the state or quality of being worthy of honour or respect."

So exactly how did those journalists view Haitians before the earthquake? Did they imagine that only some thin membrane of social order prevented the population from reverting to cannibalism?

And what's all this about "shoddy construction" and "building codes?" Were they really so unaware of the trade-offs likely when the average annual income is $1300 -- for food, clothing and earthquake-proof construction?

And why would anyone assume dignity to be in short supply in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere? Unless totally absent -- which it often is, conspicuously, in the developed world -- dignity should be correspondingly more plentiful in Haiti, under the circumstances. Poverty, tragedy and dignity have worked together very well, every day, throughout the Third World for several hundred years. © David Lieber

That's conjecture, of course, since I've never been confined to such circumstances. But I imagine I'd find the dignity necessary to endure them -- unless I’m just taking my dignity for granted, like those journalists.

I doubt Haitians are any more remarkably dignified today than they were before the earthquake. And I'm certain they're no less so than when, in 1791, they stood up to their masters and said, “Enough of this! We cleared the land, we planted the sugar, we tended it, we cut it down, we carried it to your ships and made you wealthy. It's we who've made you rich but we won’t be owned by anyone anymore. This land belongs to us from now on, not you. Get out!”

© David LieberIn fact, it would be more logical to assume Haitians’ dignity, having successfully risen from servitude to victoriously repel the European powers who had enslaved them, and to whom they actually paid restitution -- as if guilty of some wrongdoing -- with cash they couldn't afford over a period of 150 years.

Equally telling about the Haitian character, in my opinion, is the dignity they naturally accord others. English-speaking people regularly mispronounce the name of the country ‘HAY-tee.’ But the Haitian Creole word is spelled ‘Ayiti,’ which has three syllables, not two. And that word, itself, comes from the original Arawak Indians’ name for the island that was once theirs alone. It simply means ‘tall mountains’ or ‘land of tall mountains.’ Ha-i-ti.

I find that significant. Very few Arawak Indians would have been left by the time Haiti became the first independent country in the New World, so they could hardly have been in a position to insist what the name of the new country would be. But by choosing that name, the former slaves chose to dignify the memory of the original inhabitants of the island who'd been decimated, like so many of their own, and by the same colonizers.

© David LieberI know less about Haiti and the details of its current situation than the breathless journalists of CNN who've now officially pronounced Haitians to be "dignified" in their suffering. But what they were telling us, had they thought about it, should have been, “Haitians have remained dignified in their suffering.”

Not that I’m an authority, but I've been to Haiti, too. I have my own anecdotal experience of the place and was an admirer of Haitians, their popular and folk music, their painting and some of its literature for a long time before I finally visited.

That’s why, in 1996, I bought myself a ticket to Port-au-Prince. The brief two weeks I spent in there, mostly in Jacmel (near what became the epicenter of the quake) were among the most memorable of my life; a voyage into the history and personality of the marvelous -- and very dignified -- inhabitants of the Land of Tall Mountains.

Which brings me back to what irks me so much about the word ‘dignity’ as applied to Haitians in their misery. The following took place on my very last day in Port-au-Prince:

I’d been taking pictures, throughout my visit, with an unfamiliar camera that eventually became my own. I was killing time before catching my flight back to Montreal, drinking a beer on the main thoroughfare, the Delmas, in an open-air bar, observing the passing crowds through a powerful telephoto lens.© David Lieber

Across the street was a huge pile of garbage, as there was on every corner along the stretch. But at the top of the pile, I saw someone moving. I pulled focus. It was an elderly man, shirtless, standing waist-deep in the filth, his bony back to me and his arms immersed to the elbows, searching, I assumed, for what might be useful or edible.

But then he slowly turned to reveal his face. It was then that I could see the pupils of his eyes were completely white and that he was blind. Then, just inches from where he was groping, I saw a dead dog. A dirty, dead white dog.

I had the picture framed, in focus and properly exposed -- or so I prefer to remember. But I couldn't press the shutter. I concluded at the time -- perhaps explainable by everything beautifully bizarre I'd seen during the previous two weeks -- that if I were to take that picture, I'd be taking away whatever remained of the blind man’s dignity, even though he'd never have known it had been stolen by me and my camera.

Because for all I knew, the blind man may have been having a relatively good day. It was not for me, or anyone who might have seen the photograph subsequently, to judge how much dignity the man possessed or deserved to be accorded. And at that moment, he was undoubtedly worthy of my honour and respect, despite what the photograph would have suggested.

© David LieberThat's why I decided to keep the image in my mind rather than on film where it would have been arbitrarily interpreted by others, although I’m not certain I would have done the same today, under those circumstances.

Regardless. Although I’ve literally shouted for joy whenever I’ve seen images of survivors pulled from the rubble of Port-au-Prince, and although I'm happy that the world appears to have genuinely rallied to their cause, with everything else I've seen and heard about Haitians' "dignity in suffering" these last few weeks, I'm happier still that I turned my camera away that day in 1996.

About the photographs: They were taken of Haitians in Jacmel or else in Guantanamo, Cuba, which has a sizable Haitian refugee population. The woman in the top photo was Clarita, now deceased, who founded the Tumba Francesca dance school in that city.

The photo of the boy sleeping in his father's lap was taken in Jacmel. It has shocked some people, but the boy was just taking a nap and not nearly as thin as he appears in the picture.

Photos © David Lieber

Related articles:
Age of Darkness (India)
Nubian Exodus

At Play in the Garbage Fields of the Lord







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