Monthly Archives: April 2006

For my Cuban readers

Dreaming in Cuban: The Cuban and Cuban-American Palimpsest

Many questions arise from the story of Cuban “exile.” The most significant are the issues of ethnic and cultural identity and nationalism, and their subsequent position in the Cuban experience both inside and outside of Cuba. While cultural identity most often represents unity, nationalism and the political aspirations of various groups that share a certain cultural identity represent a break in this unity, often resulting in, as is the case with the Cuban revolution, the exile, either voluntary or forced, of the anti-revolutionary factions. In this manner, the unity between national and ethnic identities is shattered, and new identities arise, such as the one adopted by Lourdes Puente in Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban – a novel of Cuban memory and Foucaldian “counter-memory” – the “transformation of history into a totally different form of time” (Foucault 160).

In analyzing García’s characters, their pasts, and the complex web of interactions between them, we must take into account the role of history, both collective and individual, in the shaping of beliefs as well as relations, thereby defining a palimpsest – not just of Cubans living in Cuba, but also of Cubans with alternative identities: “Cuban-American” such as Lourdes, and non-opinionated Cubans, mostly of the third generation that remembers little of the anti-revolutionary exodus, such as Pilar. It is important to note, however, that Pilar, despite being of the third generation of a Cuban family in exile and having been only two years old when her parents decided they would leave Cuba, claims that she “remember[s] everything that’s happened to [her] since [she] was a baby, even word-for-word conversations” (García 26). In fact, Pilar never mentions any of the “word-for-word” conversations that she claims to “remember.” It is not unusual, given the amount of existing Cuban revolutionary propaganda calling the “exiled” Cubans “traitors”, to consider her recollections of that day as the products of “collective memory” and “collective feelings” of those who lost a part of themselves to the revolution, only to replace it with a new identity upon arrival on the opposite shore.

The parts that the exiled characters in García’s novel have lost in Cuba to the Cuban revolution are, albeit being replaced by a new identity that might perhaps provide some closure, part of their existence even as Cuban-Americans. For Lourdes, it is a sense of loss that is coupled with feelings of insecurity that leads her to follow her daughter’s each and every thought and moves. She has given up a logical support of the possibility of differing views in favor of absolute truths, of a false dichotomy, or as her daughter says, “[her] views are strictly black-and-white. It’s how she survives” (26). Thus, for many of the characters in the novel, the past occupies a primary position in the interpretation of the present and the hopes of the future. For Lourdes, it is that moment in her past when she was sexually violated by the soldiers of the revolution that defines her political stance and possibly her identity as a “Cuban-American” and not just a Cuban national of the United States. One pointer to the significant role her past plays in her adoption of the Cuban-American identity is her insistence on the American “ideals” of capitalism, when not even Pilar, who has been brought up in America has adopted that radical an attitude. For Lourdes, however, the Cuban identity is not as immediately and directly important as is her American identity, for it is the latter that has allowed her to escape from the images and scents of oppression in her past.

By drawing a family tree and introducing to readers members of a family split across borders, García is essentially attempting to deal with the intergenerational and intragenerational past and conflicts. The past, however, is not restricted to Celia del Pino and her children, but extends to include her grandchildren, who are also separated due to the political conflict, albeit in a manner different from the separation of their parents, for Pilar had never met Ivanito or his sisters, whereas Lourdes had spent a significant portion of her life in the presence of her sister Felicia. This separation of family members is symbolic of the separation and finally the breaking apart of the community that had previously been held together by the cultural “glue.” The breaking up of the “national fantasy” as David Mitchell calls it in his essay “National Families and Familial Nations: Communista Americans in Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban” (55) has therefore signaled the end of a cultural unity within the context of nationalism – for the two factions, one represented by Celia and the other by Lourdes are the complete antitheses of each other and share the ethnic identity only at face value, as that identity is no longer put into practice for the unity of the nation that would in turn represent it.

García focuses her novel of cultural, political, and personal awakening thematically on the representatives of the three generations of the Del Pino family: Celia del Pino the revolutionary grandmother, Lourdes Puente the capitalist mother, and Pilar Puente the aspiring punk artist. While the character of Felicia is central to the theme of spirituality and “magic” and might occupy a significant amount of physical space in the novel, her existence is not central to the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary movements, although she is an anti-nationalist in her own right. In addition, her character has more personal and cultural implications than political, and while her death leaves behind questions of closure, it does not have a significant consequence on the other characters’ perspectives in terms of their familial struggles the borders of which are defined by national conflicts. In the same manner, Ivanito plays a minor role, although not insignificant if we are to make a futuristic interpretation of the novel, for he is the hope of a future that is defined by an identity that is attached to the mother – the mother being Felicia, and the symbolism being the “mother country.” Ironically, Felicia’s death is coupled with Ivanito’s separation from the motherland, and he is no longer the future hope for reconciliation between the “two” families and the two communities in the larger political sense, as the cycle of blaming “the other” continues with Pilar’s “betrayal” of her grandmother.

It is significant that Pilar is the one who has the power to decide Ivanito’s future and consequently the future of the split between the two parts of the family, as his exile would have many consequences on the relationships between these four characters. Ivanito here then makes his entrance into the central circle of characters; but his presence there only lasts for a split second during the suspense of Pilar’s confusion as to who she owes her loyalty to – her grandmother who has sacrificed so much to and for the revolution or her mother who has often bullied her in order to assert her ultra-capitalistic views. Celia’s inability or refusal to understand Lourdes’ radical anti-revolutionary stance might be attributed to her lack of knowledge of the past that is haunting her daughter. This inability to speak of the unspeakable and the confinement to the expression of past injustices in the form of radicalism in the present has had a destructive effect on the understanding between mother and daughter in the familial context, and between the Cubans who remained on the island and those who left for the safety and promises that the other shore allegedly offered.

Lourdes “wants no part of Cuba, no part of its wretched carnival floats creaking with lies, no part of Cuba at all, which [she] claims never possessed her” (73) and in refusing Cuba, she is rejecting that which she claims is an amalgamation of lies presented in the form of carnival floats that are designed to distract the masses and prevent them from looking behind and seeing the suffering of the people and their pasts haunted by the loss of not only loved ones but also of a membership in a community that was based on cultural traditions rather than economic policies.

In Lourdes’ refusal to accept that Cuba ever had a place in her heart lay a renunciation of that which she has decided was responsible for the traumatic experience, the country rather than the soldiers, reconciliation rather than bitterness. In reconciliation she sees no hope, and she circumvents it by attempting to force Ivanito into exile. The question then remains, does Lourdes find closure and reconciliation in that act? García notes in a conversation with Professor Scott Shibuya Brown, that “each of [her characters] needs to be a heroine, to believe she is doing the right thing, choosing the only path to a kind of personal redemption” (255); thus, Lourdes believes that her personal redemption is in saving someone else from the brutality that she was subjected to. In doing so, she does not appear to be concerned with the effects of such an action on her mother; she is solely concerned with the future that Ivanito represents, both for himself and for her. However, she fails to take into account the fact that in escaping from the ghosts of the past by exiling the present from the possibilities of a future in Cuba, she is opening the way for new ghosts and fresh hauntings for actions that shattered the hopes of the present to destroy the ghosts of the past. Lourdes has chosen “counter-memory” over memory – her sense of history has been transformed from a factual account of events that have transpired and identification with the history of “her people”, into a dissociative movement that seeks to destroy historical identity and establish in its place personal narratives that speak for past injustices.

While there is no pointer as to whether or not the cycle of haunting has been broken, in the end we are left with the knowledge of a sense of closure that Celia experiences, symbolized by the act of dropping her drop-pearl earrings into the sea in a gesture of personal awakening and reconciliation with the dreams, longings, and yearnings of the past and the reality of the present. The lack of insight into the thoughts and feelings of the remaining characters does not act as a limitation, but as a powerful message that aims at highlighting the gesture of letting go in order to regain oneself, in the process adding another history to the palimpsest of Cuban struggle and identity.

References

Foucault, Michel. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. New York: Cornell UP, 1977.

García, Cristina. Dreaming in Cuban. New York: Ballantine Books, 2004.

Mitchell, David T. “National Families and Familial Nations: Communista Americans in Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. 15.1 (1996): 51-60.

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Update

Changed the theme. Kinda got bored of the other one. I like the new one better, although I guess the 3-column design was more appropriate, as I have too many links, and many (including myself) hate scrolling down a huge list every time they want to access a certain feature. That's the only downside. I've tried to put the most important ones at the top. Unfortunately, the categories will have to go below the links.

I apologize to my dear and faithful readers for not updating this blog. I've been busy and haven't exactly been able to stay on top of everything. But, I've been enjoying lots of curry and tandoori.

A confessions post soon to come! Stay tuned, folks! You will receive the shock of your life! (OK, not that I matter that much, but still, I like to feel important… and let me tell you, there's some fierce competition when it comes to that!)

WTO ATTACs

Some leftist pseudo-leftist activists have been unable to conceal their excitement about a new campaign on (well, supposedly against) WTO initiated by ATTAC. The latest development on this topic is a release/statement that outlines the goals of a campaign titled "Lebanon is not for sale". First of all, there is something unsettling in the title; the statement basically insists on the national/istic character of the campaign as opposed to its broader class nature. Second, the actual contents of the statement – I will go through this point by point to show that this campaign, and ATTAC in general, is really irrelevant when it comes to the struggle against WTO.

ATTACKING the ATTAC

Long-term goal #1: "If there’s credible evidence that Lebanon is going to suffer from joining the WTO we will work on opposing the accession."

Again this is put in vague terms; which communities and classes in Lebanon does it refer to? Is Lebanon one economic entity? And even if yes (which is not true, but I will give you the benefit of the doubt), is there any doubt that joining the WTO will result in economic imperialism? Why is there even talk about "credible evidence"?

Long-term goal #2: "If Lebanon is going to join anyway, we will try to define and act on the best terms of accession to the WTO."

Yes, that is some campaign against WTO (note that they do define their campaign in terms of opposing the WTO, i.e. "contre l'OMC"). First you doubt that the WTO will harm "Lebanon" (??) and wonder if there is any "credible evidence" on that, then you say that if it's going to happen anyway you will work on the best terms of accession (defeatism extraordinaire). Best terms? Some anti-WTO campaign indeed. Why don't you admit it, your primary aim in launching this campaign was – at best – this point (actually, you are not even passively anti-WTO. I will accuse you [yes, I will] of being actively pro-WTO), and you included the first one with the purpose of attracting activists and media attention.

Concrete (??) demand #1: "Ask for an Impact assessment before joining (Calling for a proof that we have nothing to worry about + See other countries suffering from WTO)"

Idiots. Proof that "we" (assuming again there is one economic entity in Lebanon called "we") have nothing to worry about????

Concrete (??) demands #2 to #8: (see original text)

You have all these demands and you're still waiting for "credible evidence" that joining the WTO is a bad idea? Again, IDIOTS.

Goal-attainment method #1: "Networking locally & Internationally (Link up with International movements)"

You will probably find other anti-WTO WTO groups and campaigners. Your best source of contacts will be: http://www.wto.org/

Goal-attainment methods #2 to #4: (see original text)

Blah blah blah blah blah. Are we there (in the WTO) yet?

Aren’t you bored, already?

I don't know about you, but I am quite sick of hearing the same thing over and over again (under different headings/titles). No, I am not talking about Lebanese newspapers. I am talking about leftists' redundancy and the attempt to paint the movement as an intellectual one (as if that means that one knows one's facts). Moreover, I feel that such strict adherence to intellectualism is the result of the inability (or unwillingness) to address issues that should be or should've been addressed. That is not to say that intellectualism should be abandoned altogether. All I'm saying is that there is a place and time for everything. But it seems that some people and groups in Lebanon are in love with the concept of idolizing "intellectuals" and think that activism is all about bringing "renowned" speakers for talks at this or that university. What pushed me to write this entry? Well, for starters, there is a talk at AUB tomorrow, and the guest speaker will be talking about "U.S Oil Corporations in Iraq". Like we've never heard of that 10 billion times. You know, even the local shepherd Mkha'il (believe it or not, his sheep still graze here in Qornet Shahwan) knows about U.S oil corporations in Iraq. Come to think of it, I suppose I suffer from bias against shepherds or something.

And then of course there are the Chomskyites (did I say some people have Chomsky patches on their jackets?) who seem more keen on turning leftist groups into Chomsky fan clubs (in addition to March 14 fan clubs). Well, I never liked the guy to be honest. I think he's a boring speaker and in fact a boring writer (except for his excellently-documented book The Fateful Triangle) and a very classical thinker. I have been reading Class Warfare, a collection of his interviews with David Barsamian, and ironically he struggles most with the question of feminism. I quote:

DB When you were in Chicago in October, a woman in the audience asked you, in a pretty straight-ahead question, how come you don't factor gender into your analysis? You pretty much agreed with her, but you really didn't answer her question.

In fact, I've been writing about it quite a bit in recent books in connection with structural adjustment, globalization of production, and imposition of industrialized export-oriented agriculture. In all cases, women are the worst victims. Also in some of these latest articles. What we discussed the other day about the effect on families is essentially gender war. The very fact that women's work is not considered work is an ideological attack. As I pointed out, it's somewhere between lunacy and idiocy. The whole welfare "debate," as it's called, is based on the assumption that raising children isn't work. It's not like speculating on stock markets. That's real work. So if a woman is taking care o a kid, she's not doing anything. Domestic work altogether is not considered work because women do it. That gives an extraordinary distortion to the nature of the economy. It amounts to transfer payments rom working women, from women altogether and working women in particular, to others. They don't get social security for raising a child. You do get social security for other things. The same with every other benefit. I maybe haven't written as much about such material as I should have, probably not. But it's a major phenomenon, very dramatic now.

All of this is a major phenomenon in contemporary American affairs and in fact in the history of capitalism. Part of the reason why capitalism looks successful is it's always had a lot of slave labor, half the population. What women are doing isn't counted.

DB I've never heard you, for example, use the term "patriarchy." While not wanting to hold you to the fire with particular terms, is it a concept that you're comfortable with?

I don't know if I use the term, but I certainly use the concept. If I'm asked about what I mean by anarchism, I always point out that what it means is an effort to undermine any form of illegitimate authority, whether it's in the home or between men and women or parents and children or corporations and workers or the state and its people. It's all forms of authority that have to justify themselves and almost never can. But it's true, I haven't emphasized it (Class Warfare, p. 53-54)

Now, I had a mini-debate with a Marxist (or a communist or a Trotskyist or a Leninist, who knows, depends on the day, I guess) on feminism, and he insisted that patriarchy not only was not responsible for the prevalent class structure, but also that it did not factor into class relations. I challenged him to respond to my points but so far he has not. He seems to be one of those "here, read this, so and so [a woman] says that patriarchy has nothing to do with this". So I ask, "how does that prove that patriarchy has nothing to do with it?" I get the following reply: "I'm telling you, she's a woman, and if a woman said that about patriarchy [and feminism] then it must be true". Umm, I guess that would have many implications. Just imagine a Palestinian on Israeli government payroll claiming to be a "moderate Arab" and saying that Israeli policies do not play a negative role in the conflict. Just imagine and compare. Will my beloved progressive Marxist communist Trotskyist Leninist [or some other-ist]ever come out and say, "he's a Palestinian, and if a Palestinian said that about Israel then it must be true". Now I am counting on the Chomskyites to come out and say that "Chomsky is a man, and if a man said that about patriarchy then it must be true."

I shan't bore you more with boring themes. I believe that patriarchy has been talked about too much and done nothing about – at all. This is actually the problem with feminism and feminists. Besides, can't you men-hating feminists hear, some men (Marxists communists Trotskyists Leninists [or some other-ists]) are actually complaining that feminism is "reverse sexism". They insist they are not indoctrinated with patriarchal values but are, ironically, concerned with "reverse sexism" and "reverse sexism" only. I am not sure how a Marxist communist Trotskyist Leninist [or some other-ist] who does not acknowledge the sexist nature of class relations would know what "reverse sexism" is about. Pulling a rabbit out of a hat is not that difficult a trick, I suppose.

It's a shame that I will be unable to attend this ever-creative talk tomorrow. Instead I will be enjoying a day-long trip to Jbeil (Byblos) with some company. Seriously though, I am in a very cynical mood, so it's actually good that I will be unable to make it. After all, I wouldn't want to spoil it for some of our "progressive comrades" who would be listening attentively and taking down notes so that they would go around and say "I was there when so and so said this!"

Now if you'll excuse me, I will go and mark some papers. Did I say undergrads here at LAU don't know how to put two words of English together properly? But what am I saying? This is heresy! I am insulting those prestigious Lebanese schools (I must be pro-Syrian?), International College, Saint Joseph, Jesus & Mary, among others. Shame on me. I will get lost now.

Pedestrian bridges? Nah, too many stairs

There is a timely article on The Daily Star website about pedestrian bridges in Lebanon. Timely because I've been thinking about it for the past two days. I was driving on the highway yesterday, and had to hit the brakes as hard as I possibly could, because a pedestrian actually jumped in front of the car, trying to cross the highway. This of course necessitated that an entire column and row of cars hit the brakes one after the other, creating a mini-traffic jam. Now usually I am very understanding and patient, but not when there is a pedestrian bridge only 1 metre away from where the pedestrian is crossing the highway! This was exactly the case yesterday, and in fact today I saw another pedestrian do the same thing. This is the norm and not the exception. The pedestrian bridges are crying out loud, begging, "use us", but their cries fall on deaf ears. So some say that "[n]ot many people use the bridge; they feel it's easier to cross the road because there are so many stairs". No kidding. I mean, what is it that they were expecting, a stairless pedestrian bridge? And then they would complain about how difficult it was to use it because the arch was too uphill. OK look, it might not be the best thing but at least the government has done its part in many places, and why aren't people in these areas, who were the ones complaining about the lack of a pedestrian bridge, using them?? Come on, what were they expecting, that the government install escalator bridges like they have in Vegas? And I mean, I am for making roads and bridges and public places as accessible as possible to disabled and elderly people, but there are certain realities that you have to face, and the fact that it can't get any better than having a pedestrian bridge is one. Lighting is of course do-able, but I am not sure what could be done for elderly people who would be unable to climb all those stairs. I guess their best bet is to get a service (cab), or avoid going to these places. I mean, you can't exactly have a pedestrian crossing on a highway… And what about youngsters and middle-aged people who don't use the bridge? They need to be educated about the dangers of crossing the highway – before it's too late for many of them. It is, above all, a very selfish act. Let's say that one doesn't care if one is hit by a car while crossing the highway, but what about the danger such an act poses to the driver(s)? What about the trauma and fear they would go through? The daughter of a good family friend of ours once hit a pedestrian who was crossing the highway right beneath the pedestrian bridge. The pedestrian did not make it, and she (the driver) was traumatized beyond repair. First of all she had to go through so many legal procedures, and there was the threat of imprisonment, but even after these were all resolved, the emotional pain and trauma, and constant fear made her sick… Soon after, she was diagnosed with diabetes.

So does the problem end with the construction of pedestrian bridges? I see so many of them, and they are used by a tiny minority (probably 5% of pedestrians who need to cross the highway). This is an issue that needs to be seriously tackled by public education. The problem goes beyond the lack of bridges. It is more about stupidity and ignorance. Often (in the case of male pedestrians) it is an issue of "proving one's masculinity", so using the bridge is deemed as the "feminine" thing to do. To all those people who can use the bridge but who won't for one reason or another, I say that you are idiots for caring more about what others think is right than doing what you think is right.

The bridges, ahh yes, the bridges… they are begging to be used.

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Lebanese Jews series- III

alliancekind.jpg

Kindergarten children at the Jewish Alliance school, 1954 (Beirut, Lebanon)