A 1979 'Project' with Ousmene Sembene
(From the Ambassador's Journal)
So many dictators and rulers are being ousted now, beginning with presidents ben Ali of Tunisia, and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, with Western powers pushing for regime change in Tripoli and other states which do not bow to Washington, from Morocco to the border of Iran and the Indian Ocean. It reminds me of an afternoon, while sipping coffee with Ousmene Sembene, Africa’s legendry filmmaker and a prolific writer and sensitive trade unionist rolled into one, at his sprawling residence in Dakar during my posting (1978-81) in Senegal (West Africa.)
In 1979-80 a dethroned Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran was running from pillar to post for treatment of his cancer and a safe haven, so in a lighter vein, we discussed a possible project to provide security, safety, healthcare, entertainment and other facilities for kings, dictators and other rulers ousted from their thrones and palaces or self-exiled. Perhaps an exception could be made for top class white collar ‘gentlemen’ con-artists likely to be or already unveiled for criminal activities.
The Shah had lost control over Iran after daily protests and serial killings and fled from Tehran in mid-January 1979, abandoning the fabled Peacock throne. Two weeks later Ayatollah Khomeini returned from Paris to Tehran, and was thunderously greeted by several million Iranians.
The hollow royal regime structure collapsed quickly on February 11, when revolutionaries and rebel troops overwhelmed troops still loyal to the Shah in armed street warfare. After a national referendum, Iran became an Islamic Republic on April 1, 1979, with a new theocratic constitution making Khomeini the Supreme leader of the country in December 1979. It shocked the western world but there was little chance of restoration of the Pahlavi dynasty. The Shah was USA ’s gendarme in the region and along with the Saud dynasty ensconced in Riyadh, both protected by Washington to allow Western exploitation of the region’s energy resources and keep out the Soviet influence during the height of the Cold War rivalry. USSR had made inroads by helping nationalist and socialist regimes in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.
The Shah was looking for medical treatment and a sanctuary to escape Shia revolutionaries determined to take him back to Tehran for trial for the loot and tortures carried out by Iran’s security services, Savak trained by CIA, which acquired such notoriety in recent years by creating Gulags at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bagram and torture rendition black holes around the world.
From Panama where the Shah found himself, following intervention by his erstwhile friends in President Jimmy Carter’s administration, he was allowed to enter United States for treatment of lymphatic cancer. But this enraged the revolutionaries in Tehran, who seized the US embassy and demanded the Shah's extradition in exchange for 50 hostages. Washington refused.
After being refused sanctuary by his erstwhile friends around the world ,the Shah was eventually given shelter in Egypt by president Anwar Sadat, where the Shah breathed his last on 27 July 1980 (the US government froze tens of billions of Iranian funds as they have now of Libya. The US government has a black track record of confiscating other people’s money while dictators are so accused by western leaders and its corporate media.)
At that time it was quite common for some African rulers being over thrown, some while on official visits abroad, others while still in their own country. For example, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana was ousted in 1966 while away on an official visit to China, but Guinea Conakry’s president Seiku Touregave him refuge and made him co-President.
Of course we did not go into too many details but felt that an entrepreneur would probably buy an isolated island financed by a mafia style conglomerate with ill-gotten wealth and hired guns so common in Africa then. Since the US led illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its brutal occupation, Pentagon, and other agencies now extensively engage mercenaries, even for duties normally performed by GIs. They are in brief outlaws, responsible for brutalities in Iraq and elsewhere and do not figure on the pay rolls as regular soldiers.
Of course now with a raging revolt across the Arab world, the safe haven proposal needs a fresh look. Until now many Muslim leaders have been granted sanctuary in Saudi Arabia, like Uganda’s Idi Amin and Pakistan’s former premier Nawaz Sharif after he was ousted by Gen Parvez Musharraf. Now the General himself is at a loose end and in exile, travelling around from US to London to Dubai. But what will happen if Saudi Arabia itself gets caught up in turmoil, where Tunisia’s former President Ben Ali is now sheltered.
The Marmara Sea across Istanbul has many islands; one was used to imprison Turkey’s ousted democrat party leaders in the 1960 coup, two of whom were later hanged. Turkey’s political leaders after the 1980 coup were also imprisoned there but none was hanged. Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the outlawed Marxist Kurdistan Labour party (PKK) in Turkey has been imprisoned on the Imarli Island since 1999.
After Iran’s 1979 revolution Muslims became unwelcome in USA. Almost anyone with a beard in info-challenged US population, was looked upon with suspicion, as an Iranian, as a Muslim and dangerous. After 9/11 it has become even worse. Quite often Sikhs, even US citizens have been targeted and even killed.
While islands near Istanbul in Turkey remain a possibility the proposal for a well-guarded private island with its 24/7security and health and hospitality facilities remains to be seriously revisited, which must not be too far away from land for provisioning food, personnel and other requirements.
I was very fortunate to have known and earn friendship of Ousmene Sembene and his family during my stay in Dakar. He was warm, witty and considerate, mostly seen with his curved pipe.
Ousmene made Africa known through his philosophy and ideas via the medium of his realistic films. His fame spread around the world. Before my arrival in Dakar, he had been the chairman of the jury at India’s 1977 Film Festival. This provided me an opportunity to meet with him and befriend him. He would sometimes attend my receptions and dinners, even with his family which he rarely did elsewhere. He also opened his residence and hospitality on weekends, where I would meet intellectuals, lawyers, judges, film makers and writers not only from Senegal but from other countries in Africa too.
Like many genius filmmakers, Ousmene was his own producer, director, screen writer, editor and other aspects of film making, rolled into one. Once I sat alongside him, while he discussed various aspects of his next film project with his assistants. It was quite an education.
Once he took me and my son Tinoo to atypical Senegalese wrestling festival, similar to the ones in India, where first the budding and juniors exhibit their skills. Finally the two top contestants would appear. What a spectacle it was. He explained all the finer points of Senegalese style wrestling, the role of giri-giri, traditional magic, ancient tribal and other rituals, with the two sides trying to call the spirits to aid their combatant and curse the opponent. Giri-giri experts aka Gurus chanted power endowing mantras, tied bands around the arms, neck and the head and sprinkled special libations over the heads of their wrestlers.
Like many such bouts elsewhere, the main bout after lots of noise, chanting and screams ended rather abruptly. After slapping hands against each other and circling around each other for some time, the winner adroitly pulled the overextended loser over to his side, who crashed to the ground, a trick often employed in the Japanese Sumo wrestling and is common in Indian style of wrestling too. While the loser lay pathetically sprawled, the victor was taken around the arena as have been gladiators and victors in sports and games throughout history. The noise decibel level was similar to fairs in India and wrestling matches for the Bharat Kesri crown. It was quite a spectacle and shall remain etched in my memory for ever.
Once when passing by Ousmen’s residence one weekday, I decided to drop by. But when I reached the door of his study, I saw him immersed in absolute concentration writing his next novel or short story. He was almost swaying sideways, up and down like a Hath Guru Yogi in meditation. One look made for my quick disappearing act. I went over to sit with his wife, a beautiful, intelligent and charming Afro-American.
With Indian films and music being very popular in Senegal, as almost around the world, now even in north America and West Europe, to introduce friends to the range of Indian music I regularly taped cassettes with music pieces beginning with popular film music, even Asha Bhonsle’s rock and roll number, then gradually progress to singers like Mukesh, Rafi, Talat , Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar; then Begum Akhtar, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and others, with separate cassettes for Indian classical instrumental music. Once when I told her that Lata was the most popular singer in India and even elsewhere too, she remarked that the other one (Begum Akhtar) was better. Sometimes we even played scrabble. Once when I defeated her twice, she was not very amused.
Ousmene Sembene, who died in 2007 when 85 years old was born in 1923 in Ziguinchor village in Senegal’s southern province of Casamance. Son of a poor fisherman, he was expelled from school for fighting with his French teacher and sent away to his father's family in Dakar. He studied while doing odd jobs and watched films in the evenings. He was conscripted in the French armed forces and during WWII served in France and Niger.
With little prospects in Senegal, after being demobilized, Ousmene stowed away to Marseille. He worked as a docker for 10 years until 1960, when Senegal became independent. His first novel Le Docker Noir (the black docker) written in 1956 was based on his experience of a dockyard strike in Marseille. A fiercely proud man, when slighted he fought back and showed me big scars on his back received during fights as a docker.
His second novel was based on the 1947 strike against the French along the Dakar-Niger railway (in which he had taken part). Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu (God's Bits of Wood) was written in 1960; a moving story of women participation and liberation in a historical process.
After his return to Senegal in 1960, Sembene decided that for his message to spread in Africa and elsewhere, he should translate his ideas and stories into films medium to reach a wider audience including rural, often illiterate, public in and outside Africa. He studied at the Gorky film institute in Moscow under MarcDonskoy. His film making career began with two short films; Borom Sarett (1963), about a taxi driver whose cart was confiscated for entering an exclusive housing estate previously occupied by the French and the new Frenchified African ruling elite. His second film, Niaye (1964), was a denunciation of the hypocrisy of traditional African tribal chiefs.
After independence, Senegal like most former French colonies in West Africa was ruled by former French educated local elite, somewhat like the Indian Civil Service members, who with the new French speaking black local elite occupied positions of power. President Sedar Senghor, his French wife, and other senior ministers and civil servants went to France for summer vacations as in the colonial past. Many ministers were provided with efficient pretty French secretaries and French advisers called co-operants, who really ran the show and protected French economic interests. Inspite of best efforts by me and Tata’s representative who used to visit Dakar once a year, we could not sell one Tata truck against French Berliot truck domination. In neighboring Gunea - Conakry, upset with the declared independent policy by President Sekou Toure, the French before handing over power even pulled out electric power and telephone sockets.
My love for the game of bridge and twice a week bridge tournaments, brought me in contact with French and local Frenchified ruling elite in business, trading and at the university, which I found very useful in my diplomatic work. Later in 1987-89, when I told newly recruited Indian diplomats at the Indian Foreign Service Institute, I was establishing in New Delhi, that bridge could be a useful tool, as playing golf was in east Asia, for establishing contacts and friendship with local power elite and avoid hitting the bottle in capitals with little work, my seniors in the External affairs ministry were far from amused.
Coming back to Sembene, his first feature film, La Noire de... (Black Girl) made in 1966, was the first ever feature produced and directed by an African. Shot in black and white, it is a searing account of the isolation of a young black domestic servant working in Antibes. Indians would not make a film on Indian maids working in the Gulf under similar conditions.
"For us, African film-makers, it was then necessary to become political, to become involved in a struggle against all the ills of man's cupidity, envy, individualism, the nouveau-rich mentality, and all the things we have inherited from the colonial and neo-colonial systems," Sembène stated. (I recall some local nouveau-riche proclaiming at their dinner that their salad was imported from Marseilles. There are similar stories among India’s crass and vulgar nouveau-riche too.)
The ‘Black Girl’ was followed in 1968, by the international success Mandabi (The Money Order) based on his novel LeMandat (1966) which narrates the residual ill effects in post-colonial Africa on the lives of ordinary people. Shot in two versions - French and Wolof, the main language of Senegal - it won a special jury prize in Venice.
Sembène's films and writings were always aimed for the Senegalese public ("Africa is my audience, the west and the rest are markets"). They were imbued by his politics and his understanding of the contradictions of a rapidly transforming continent. Emitai (1971) confronts the problems and legacy of French military conscription in Senegal. His film Xala (1974) based on his 1973 novel uses xala, the ancient Senegalese curse, which renders a smug westernized black bourgeois businessman impotent on the day of his wedding to his third wife. It is a metaphor for the adoption of western values and processes. In Ceddo (1976) Sembène brings out the confrontation between African traditions and Christian and Muslim efforts to impose their mores. It refers to the African collusion in supplying slaves to the European slavers. The film was banned by the Senegal government for some years. Sembene gave me signed copies of his books Xala and God's Bits of Wood.
Perhaps his greatest film 'Camp de Thiaroye' (1988), was based on Senegalese soldiers return from Nazi prisoner-of-war camps. When the soldiers revolt at the drastic cuts in their severance pay, the French army attacks the camp with tanks leaving few alive. It is a complex and searing condemnation of colonialism based on true history, and was banned in France until late 1990s, although it had won the jury special grand prize in Venice. In Guelwaar (1992) erroneous burial of a radical Catholic priest in a Muslim cemetery leads to mayhem. L'Héroïsme au Quotidien (1999) describes the heroism of African women in their struggle against subjugation: Faat Kiné (2000) has a single mother with two children and two ex-husbands balancing tribal customs, male prejudice and contemporary aspirations, while Moolaadé (2002), shot in Burkino Faso when he was 82, is an unambiguous condemnation of female circumcision. Aimed at all African audiences, it won the Certain Regard prize in Cannes in2004.
Sembène's main themes were; colonialism, tradition, capitalism, patriarchy, religion – portrayed use and misuse of power, whether by whites or blacks. His work is not about Africa against the west but also of Africa discovering itself in an ever-changing world. He sought to speak to "all those exploited and silenced by the combined external forces of colonialism and the internal yoke of African 'traditions'."