CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Tempête sur Bangui by Didier Kassaï

Didier Kassaï’s Tempête sur Bangui (Storm over Bangui) is a shocking graphic novel on several levels. It’s an autobiography of his experiences of the 2013 civil war in the Central African Republic, as Séléka rebels overran the capital and toppled the government. Kassaï recounts the chaos, the violence, and the confusion on the ground through the eyes of Bangui’s residents. It truly is a graphic novel.

However, what is particularly shocking is how Kassaï draws Africans. While non-black characters are drawn in a realistic style, all the black characters – including Kassaï himself – are drawn like old “sambo” racial stereotypes.

Kassaï explains his artistic choice as a stylistic one, and connects it to the deeper ligne-claire cartoon tradition from France and Belgium. (He draws Africans in a realistic way in his other works).

“I believed this war had no face. I couldn’t recognize any of my countrymen and women back then because everybody was spreading messages of hatred, so I gave them only eyes and mouths.”

– Didier Kassaï, “This is what it’s like to be a cartoonist in the Central African Republic

But there’s something more to this – it’s a style that is instantly shocking to Western eyes, and hearkens back to Tintin in the Congo. That’s not without reason – CAR was treated by France the same way the Congo was by Belgium – divvied up as personal property for Europeans to exploit. France and Belgium left such deep lasting damage to central Africa that countries like CAR and the DRC have struggled with chronic instability and violence since then.

If you wanted to read even further into Kassaï’s artistic choice, you could make an argument that drawing Africans as a faceless stereotype shocks Western readers because it exposes that many people do see Africa as a faceless victims, rather than real individuals with their own autonomy and lives. The whole continent is often treated as an amorphous whole, and the essential humanity of the people living through events like CAR’s civil war are overlooked in a way that they aren’t for conflicts in other parts of the world (say, Ukraine).

Tempête sur Bangui is meant to shake you up, and it does.

It’s only published in French, though there’s a well-translated excerpt in English at Words Without Borders.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: What’s going on?

There’s over the last few decades in the Central African Republic there’s been fighting between Séléka (a coalition of northern Muslim rebels) and Anti-Balaka (mainly Christian anti-Séléka rebels). Things were starting to get a bit more stable in recent years, including holding elections and a major UN peacekeeping presence. However, as of 2021, former enemy rebel groups were forming alliances and actively fighting the government together. Here’s a short recap from the BBC last year on the rebel insurgencies in the Central African Republic:

The current situation is part of one larger story of instability. This history video below gives the best overall look at CAR’s history – France modelling the colony on Belgium’s Congo, WWII and decolonization, the optimism of first President Barthélemy Boganda‘s anti-racism and social policies, and his untimely death …which is where everything seems to really start to go wrong, including Bokassa’s Empire. Over the last 50 years, it’s been a confusing series of coups, crackdowns, French interventions, juntas, sectarian violence, UN interventions, and near-constant insurgencies.

There’s a ceasefire on right now that’s only partially successful, with the CAR government only having meaningful control over Bangui. The Central African Republic is an incredibly fragile state – poverty and colonialism gave the country a difficult start, and since then, it’s been grinding instability and violence.

There have been real efforts for peace and democracy, however, but it’s a slow, awkward process with many setbacks – not helped that CAR hasn’t captured the world’s attention the same way neighbours Sudan and DR Congo have.

BANGLADESH: The Clay Bird (2002)

Wow, this is a really really beautiful movie. The Clay Bird (Bengali: Matir Moina) is a 2002 movie set in the months before Operation Searchlight, the Pakistani military operation that would kick off Bangladesh’s independence war in 1971. It was initially banned in Bangladesh, but then only a few months later, allowed in theatres after a big push by Bangladeshi media and public led to a court decision overturning the ban. It was critically very successful, wining awards both at home and abroad.

Anu is a young boy, sent to a madrasa to study by his father, who has recently become much more pious and conservative. Anu’s mother is quietly unhappy in her marriage, and as Anu’s politically liberal uncle gets wrapped up in Bangladesh’s independence movement. The rising tide of politics laps at all their ankles, even at the madrasa, where teachers disagree on the future of Pakistan and the place of Islam in either a united or divided country. Anu befriends an orphan boy, ostracized by his classmates, but can do little to protect him.

Personal tragedy strikes with the death of Anu’s sister, leaving a deep rift between his parents and painful blame over her death. Then, as the killings of Operation Searchlight start, the family splits, each making different choices of what to do. Anu’s uncle is killed fighting, his father left shellshocked in the ruins of his former life, and Anu goes off with his mother as she tries to take control of her future amid the violence.

The family as a whole really is a metaphor for Bangladesh’s society during independence, but also each are truly rounded individuals, trying to navigate an uncertain future. It’s a quietly tragic film, with no real villains, just people caught in the riptide of politics and war – some sinking, some swimming.

BANGLADESH: Streetviews

There’s really good streetview coverage on Bangladesh – I went down an absolute rabbit hole poking around, there’s religious and historic sites, weird borders, stunning natural beauty and massive urban sprawl. Here’s some neat ones I liked:

In Sylhet, up in the far northeast of Bangladesh, is the Tomb of Shah Jalal. Shah Jalal was a Sufi saint and leader involved in the both the Islamic conquest of Sylhet from Hindu rulers around 1300 and the spread of Islam to the population. Ibn Battutah sought him out on his travels, and found Shah Jalal in his later years living as an ascetic.

This Shaikh was one of the great saints and one of the unique personages. He had to his credit miracles (karamat) as well as great deeds, and he was a man of hoary age.He owned a cow with whose milk he broke his fast. He stood performing prayers throughout the night, and he was thin, tall and scanty-bearded. The inhabitants of these mountains had embraced Islam at his hands, and for this reason he stayed amidst them.

From Ibn Battutah’s Account of his Meeting with Shah Jalal of Sylhet

Much more recently, Bangladesh and India finally settled their really wonky borders, transferring dozens of enclaves (including second- and even third-order ones) in 2015. Only one enclave still exists, a community called Dahagram–Angarpota, that’s a small piece of Bangladesh surrounded by India. This enclave is in spitting distance of Bangladesh, and it connected by the Tin Bigha Corridor, stretch of road that’s less than 200 metres long. The land belongs to India, but is leased to Bangladesh – but there’s still border control, and it was only in 2011 that the corridor was opened for 24 hours a day. Previously, it was only open 12 hours a day, which caused understandable hardship on residents, since there were no hospitals in the enclave at the time.

On the other side of the country, down in Chittagong, there’s what looks like a possible standoff between the Google Car and security staff at the gates of a shipbreaking yard. Note the “no child labour” sign on the gate.

A dizzying drone shot of a hazy morning in Dhaka – look at that urban density!

And more serenely, a floating night market pier in the Meghna River delta. Look around behind you for a bonus beautiful sunset.

Our in the far east of Bangladesh is the Kaptai Lake – in contrast to the massive urban density, this area is remote, sparsely populated, and largely only accessible by boat. There’s stunning natural sites, including the Shuvolong waterfall.

Back in Dhaka, I was looking through the planes at the Bangladesh Air Force Museum, and this old DC-3 caught my eye – I love these old planes. They were introduced in the 1930s, and were built until the 50s, but they’re such successful planes that many are still in active use today (like for cargo flights in the Canadian Arctic). This specific DC-3 was a gift to Bangladesh from India. It had been used to drop paratroopers during the 1971 Independence War and is one of the founding planes of the Bangladesh Air Force.

And tucked away on a side street, the oldest surviving mosque in Dhaka – the Binat Bibi Mosque, built in 1454. It’s pre-Muhgal, erected during the Bengal Sultanate. There’s an inscription dedicating the mosque to Bakht Binat, the daughter of Marhamat – it’s unclear if she funded it or if it was dedicated in her memory, but it’s likely she was part of a local wealthy family.

The streetview is from 2013, and the mosque has been in pretty poor shape, despite it’s historic value. Since then there’s been some renovations and restorations, including a beautiful new minaret. It’s hard to see updated photos, but hopefully they’ve restored and kept the two starry domes.

BANGLADESH: 1971 by Anam Zakaria

1971 by Anam Zakaria is a book deeply connected to Bangladesh, but the author isn’t Bangladeshi – she’s Pakistani. And that doesn’t mean she’s a neutral observer – this book is about the Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1971.

This isn’t a classic history book on the war, instead, 1971 is about unpicking the myths, propaganda, and national narratives around the war that have grown up in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India. All three countries have a piece of the truth and focus on what fits their side of the story the best, but together you can add up a much more chaotic and realistic picture of the war.

Partition not only split Hindus to India and Muslims to Pakistan, but divided Pakistan into two disparate wings – the Urdu-speaking West Pakistan, and the Bengali-speaking East Pakistan (which was already the product of an early partition of Bengal, solidified into Hindu Calcutta and Muslim Dhaka in 1947). Discrimination against Bengali people and language by the rest of Pakistan grew into discontent, then rebellion when the government in Islamabad refused to accept the election results that would but the Bengal-based Awami league into power. Military invention by West Pakistan into the East and the killing of Bengali nationalists and intellectuals in Operation Searchlight erupted into a brutal war, with targeted killings of civilians by both soldiers and neighbours. The war was only settled when India joined in on the side of East Pakistan, which then was able to declare victory and become Bangladesh.

Anam Zakaria travels through all three countries to interview witnesses, survivors, former soldiers, the families of victims, politicians and academics, and young students raised on each country’s narrative of the war. She gives her interviewees the space to tell their truths, but also tries to get under the easy (and contradictory) national histories and share the complex realities of this shared history and how it’s remembered.

In Bangladesh, the story of 1971 is the year of national liberation – Pakistan is the violent oppressor, and the mass killings by the Pakistani army remain as bitter memories. Travel is difficult between Pakistan and Bangladesh, and many Bangladeshis are antagonistic to Zakaria as a Pakistani when first interviewed. However, attitudes towards Pakistan and India aren’t set in stone – depending on the back-and-forth of political parties, sometimes Pakistan is the enemy, sometimes a fellow Muslim nation against India (especially in cricket).

In Pakistan, 1971 is seen as the “dismemberment” of the country, and blame is laid at India. The war is chalked up as an Indian plan to damage Pakistan by fulminating discontent and revolution in Bangladesh. In fact, it’s seen so much through the lens of India’s involvement, that it’s often described as the Third Indo-Pak War. Killings of Bengalis are downplayed, instead the focus is on the killing of Biharis (used as a generic term for pro-Pakistan non-Bengalis) by Bengalis during the war.

India as well sees 1971 as a continuation of its perpetual conflict with Pakistan, and one where India resoundingly defeated Pakistan. Bangladeshis themselves are largely seen as an afterthought, and this friendly but paternalistic attitude continues even today.

Complex histories become simplified for convenience and over the decades to match national narratives, but Zakaria lets her interviewees talk, and carefully draws out the nuance of personal experience. Tales of being saved by neighbours of the ethnic/religious group that was seeking to kill you are common on all sides, as well as the chaos of the fog of war.

It is a really illuminating book about the 1971 war and the massively different memories of it in the three countries. It’s also a really fascinating meta-study into the construction of narratives after a major event, both by people and groups. Humans are hardwired to create a coherent narrative about individual events, and to then defend that narrative, including selecting the pieces of truth that feel more “true” to the story.

BANGLADESH: Podcasts

National Martyrs’ Monument, Dhaka – Source

I got fooled several times looking for interesting podcasts from Bangladesh – there’s a lot of good stuff out there, but while the titles and descriptions are in English, the podcasts themselves are most often in Bengali – you don’t find that out until you’ve already downloaded and started to listen! While English is used in higher education in Bangladesh, despite/because of the colonial history (see French in Algeria), it doesn’t serve as a lingua franca like it does in India, as the vast majority of Bangladesh’s population speaks Bengali. That means a lot of podcasts and interviews with Bangladeshis in English are from outside sources, especially India or Britain.

BBC History Hour: The Birth of Bangladesh – A really useful primer on the creation of Bangladesh, with interviews and archival news clips. This overview covers Partition, the 1970 Pakistan election and the refusal of leaders in West Pakistan to transfer of power to Sheikh Mujib, Operation Searchlight, the Independence War, the effect on civilians (especially women), and India’s intervention on the side of East Pakistan/Bangladesh.

Cricket with an Accent: Mohammad Isam talks about the Bangladesh Cricket Landscape – I still have only the vaguest sense of the rules of cricket, but this interview with a Bangladeshi sports journalist is less on the game itself, and more on Bangladesh’s struggles to build an internationally strong cricket team, and how money and political influence play a big part in professional cricket and sports journalism in the country.

Naan Curry with Sadaf and Archit: How to eat like a Bangladeshi with Dina Begum – Another cross-border interview, this one between Indian and Bangladeshi food experts. They cover the differences between the cuisines of West Bengal (Indian side, around Calcutta) and East Bengal (Bangladesh), as well as Pakistan, and how options for South Asian cuisine are slowly diversifying in Western countries.

Desi Crime Podcast: Hercules: The Vigilante Killer – If you’re a true crime fan, this podcast covers all kinds of stories from across the subcontinent. This episode looks at the case of a vigilante killer in Bangladesh murdering men who had assaulted young women, with a larger discussion on police corruption, the crisis levels of rape in South Asia, the pressures on victims’ families, and the ethics of vigilantes.

Bangladeshi Trailblazers – Interviews with Bangladeshi entrepreneurs, with a focus on young female entrepreneurs. I listened to the episode Finding spaces in Dhaka with Farhia Tabassum, who co-founded the app Chaya, which is like an AirBnB but for photoshoot locations, and then has expanded into rentals for individuals, especially women.

The World: Tintin in Bangladesh – A short, fun podcast with radio personality Zahidul Haque Apu, who during the pandemic started drawing covers for fictional Tintin books set in Bangladesh. While Tintin never visited Bangladesh (he did go to India, Nepal, and China, among others), these are fun what-ifs. The podcast also touches on comics in Bangladesh, where Tintin is particularly beloved, to the point where people assume it’s a local comic (old colonial stereotypes aside). I loved Tintin comics as a kid – these are just great.

BANGLADESH: Bapjaner Bioscope (2015)

Bapjaner Bioscope has a lot of the Bollywood tropes that South Asian cinema is known for – dramatic fast cuts and jumps, musical numbers, straightforward morals, and creative use of camera angles (there’s a great chase scene filmed just on a GoPro strapped to the chest of one of the characters) and a long two hour run-time broken up by an intermission.

However, it isn’t a fluff piece, and this award-winning film reinforces messages of Bangladeshi identity and the country’s narrative about the 1971 Independence War from Pakistan. The reinforcing of communal identity and national narrative through popular film isn’t anything new – you see it everywhere from Uzbekistan’s historical epics to America’s Marvel movies.

The film is a small conflict writ large – a poor farmer, Hasan, is inspired to take up his father’s bioscope – a hand-cranked portable slideshow machine, accompanied by live singing and storytelling. However, the stories he shares to his villages are stories are of his uncle, an independence fighter killed during 1971…by the family of the rich landlord who owns the barren sandbank the village is on. The landlord’s family were on the side of Pakistan, and are portrayed as collaborators and stooges – with a class element as well, as it’s implied part of their wealth and control comes from this collaboration.

The whole film is available on Youtube with English subtitles – though they translate bioscope as “peep show”, which carries a totally different connotation. The film’s soundtrack is beautiful – there’s lovely atmospheric setting pieces:

Even the love songs have a similar floating beauty:

BANGLADESH: Independence, borders, and introduction of Islam

A couple interesting videos on Bangladesh to get started – first a look at Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, and how it is an extremely rare case of unilateral secession that was accepted by the wider global community. Independence movements try to secede unilaterally all the time (that is, break away against the wishes of the parent country), but since WWII, that rarely leads to acceptance as your own country by the UN or the wider global community.

India and Bangladesh used to share the messiest and most complicated border, with enclaves, second-level enclaves, and even a third-level enclave (a piece of India, surrounded by a piece of Bangladesh, which is surrounded by a piece of India, which is surrounded by Bangladesh). These borders were cleaned up recently, and but why they happened in the first place, and why it took so long to fix is up to both pre-Raj history, and India’s disputes with countries other than Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is one of the most populous Muslim countries, at around 150 million Muslims (90% of the country’s population, and Bangladesh makes up about 10% of the world’s Muslims). Bengal was a heavily Muslim region long before Partition, and the video below covers the spread of Islam into the subcontinent, the establishment of the Sultanate of Bengal, and Bengal’s incorporation into the Mughal Empire. It’s a good bird’s eye view of pre-British history.

UKRAINE: Firecrosser (2011) / Ivan Datsenko

Firecrosser is a 2011 Ukrainian movie that is both fascinating and deeply, deeply weird. The movie follows Ivan Dodoka, a Soviet fighter pilot from Ukraine, who is shot down and presumed dead on the Eastern Front during WWII. His wife, who is of eastern Tartar origin, doesn’t believe he is dead and waits for him after the war, holding off the advances of a drunken and manipulative former friend of Dodoka’s.

Dodoka is indeed alive, but after surviving German capture and returning to Soviet hands, he is sent to a Siberian gulag (a fate that awaited many Soviet former-POWs in real life). He escapes, and then the movie takes a weird turn – instead of returning to find her, he heads further east to find her family, and then through slightly unclear circumstances, ends up in being moved by locals for safety through the Russian far east, Alaska, and into northern Canada. There he tries to repair a plane to fly back to the USSR, while living in a remote First Nations community. When he learns of his wife’s death, he then stays in Canada and becomes a chief in the community.

The pacing is incredibly fast – this feels like this could be twice the length to get all the plot twists and details in. It was also a very, er, European depiction of First Nations (you could tell none of this was actually filmed in Canada) and the main Indigenous characters spoke English with stilted, over-perfect, almost American accents. Turns out all the actors were Ukrainian.

Ivan Datsenko and allegedly Ivan Datsenko – Source

The other weird thing is that this is purported to be “based on a true story” – even that is a bit of a stretch. There was a real life Ukrainian pilot named Ivan Datsenko who was officially killed in WWII. When Soviet journalists and officials came to Canada for Expo 67 in Montreal, a Ukrainian journalist claimed he met a Mohawk chief that could speak perfect Russian and Ukrainian. The rumour became that Datsenko had not been killed in the war, but instead had made it to Canada and had been living undetected among First Nations for the past 20 years.

The movie takes this for fact and interprets this as a remote nation in northern BC / Yukon – which is slightly more plausible than the Mohawk Nation, which is south of Montreal along the border with New York, and not remote at all – it’s basically urban. Any pics claiming to be him are all people with tipis and in traditional dress (or stereotypical versions of it) from prairie nations like the Blackfoot. The Mohawk, who are on the opposite side of Canada, have a different regalia, built permanent longhouses instead of tipis, and were long urbanized / victims of Canada’s cultural genocide by the 60s. But what really makes the original urban legend ring pretty hollow is that we’ve never heard of this in Canada.

We learned in school about Grey Owl, a British man who faked being First Nations, but nothing about Datsenko – and trust me, if a Soviet fighter pilot successfully faked his way into Canada, convinced the Mohawk to let him pretend to be one of them, and then was discovered during Expo 67? We love these kind of stories. He would be on every Canadian trivia quiz and there would be an exhibit on him in the Diefenbunker or the War Museum (probably next to the disguised German WWII weather station that was only discovered in Labrador in the 70s).

Still, I do like a good war movie, and Firecrosser was definitely something different.

UKRAINE: More podcasts

The Kyiv Tram CafeSource

Part 2 of interesting podcasts from and about Ukraine – Part 1 is here.

BBC History Hour: Ukrainian History Special – An overview from the BBC of major events in Ukraine’s history from the past century, with reporting from the period and modern analysis. It’s particularly the events that are well known outside of Eastern Europe: The Holodomor, Babi Yar, Chernobyl, but also Crimea as a Soviet holiday hotspot.

Remember What’s Next: The History of Ukrainian Jews – A Jewish history podcast looking at the larger history of the Jewish community in what is now Ukraine. Covers the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, the Pale of Settlement, the origin of the shtetl and Hassidism, and pervasiveness of antisemitism in both Russia and Ukraine.

Ukraine Without Hype: Russian Imperial AntisemitismUkraine Without Hype is a really good quality Ukrainian-based podcast; the first half covers recent news, including war updates, while the second half is in-depth interviews and discussion. This episode also looked at antisemitism and the war in Ukraine, building off the Russian Foreign Minister’s insane conspiracy theory comments about Jews. The episode looks at the use of conspiracy theory and antisemitism as part of “Russification” and larger Russian expansionist aims into Ukraine.

Krynytsya – The Well: War in Ukraine: Natalie Jaresko talks about what it will take to rebuild Ukraine – An interview with Natalie Jaresko, the Ukrainian Minister of Finance from 2014-2016, on what will be needed to rebuilt Ukraine’s economy once the war ends, and who should pay for it (spoiler: Russian reparations from sanctioned individuals).

Black Diplomants: War in Ukraine with Inna Sovsun – An interview in a Kyiv coffee shop with Inna Sovsun, a Member of Parliament with the opposition Holos Party and university professor. She covers how life has changed since the Russian invasion, both personally and in the workings of the Ukrainian government.

Nash Holos: Ukrainian Roots Radio – A regular podcast focused on the Ukrainian-Canadian community. There’s episodes of Ukrainian music and culture, artists and exhibits between Ukraine and Canada, book reviews, and updates on the war and helping Ukrainian refugees get to Canada.