Teaching and Living Totalitarianism in a World Heritage Site

by Ayanna Yonemura

On Saturday, July 8, the United Nations’ cultural agency, UNESCO, added Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, to its list of World Heritage sites. Despite the wars that have plagued Eritrea’s short history, Asmara’s modernist and art deco architecture remain amazingly well-preserved. For six months in 2002, from the moment I woke up, during my walks through town to teach at the University of Asmara and while I ran errands on its main avenue, Asmara’s architecture dazzled me. However much I admire it though, this extraordinary aesthetic beauty doesn’t prevent me from thinking of my Fulbright months in Eritrea as my time of teaching and living totalitarianism.

Living in the Italian totalitarian era-constructed environment added a bizarre twist to my surreal and disturbing experience of Eritrea’s totalitarian political environment. Teaching about Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin’s regimes as part of a modern world history course was part of my unplanned participant observation of living under a totalitarian regime; as was lodging for four months in a government-owned hotel, the Emba Soira. Experts describe much of Asmara’s notable architecture with words like “futurist” and “bold” and, while the hotel hasn’t garnered the same amount of attention, they would be similarly impressed with the Emba Soira’s interior.

The hotel interior’s main feature is streamlined, light, wood furniture coordinated in every room throughout the hotel from the restaurant, lobby and bar on the main floor to the two stories of guest rooms. Pastel-trimmed Italian linens and modern light fixtures gently accent the furniture. Visually, it was like living in a dream. While the phones were tapped, at least the hotel staff let me know if I had gotten phone messages—a courtesy I did not enjoy when I rented an apartment and shared a phone line with my landlady.

Located on the Horn of Africa and with a lengthy Red Sea coastline, Eritrea is the world’s third youngest country after East Timor and South Sudan, and government officials have spent many years of the nation’s short history lobbying UNESCO for Asmara’s World Heritage site status. Italian architects and Eritrean laborers built most of Asmara’s remarkable architecture in the 1930s during Italy’s totalitarian years under Mussolini (1922-1943) and while Eritrea was an Italian colony, 1889-1941. Italy lost Eritrea in WWII.

After Ethiopia annexed Eritrea in 1962, Eritrean guerrilla fighters waged a thirty years war for independence that ended in 1991 when they defeated Ethiopian forces. In 1998, Eritrea fought a border war against Ethiopia. I set off for the Fulbright on New Year’s Eve of 2001, a year after this latest war’s ceasefire, having postponed my original departure date after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001.

I had postponed my trip, because while most of the world focused on New York in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Eritrea’s President Afewerki seized the opportunity to crackdown internally. Students of the University of Asmara, his nation’s only university, were among the groups whom he targeted. The university students spent several months under armed guard in an Eritrean desert, literally one of the hottest places on earth, doing forced labor. Teaching at the university was a condition of receiving a Fulbright in Eritrea, and I had looked forward to it. I delayed my departure until the President released the students.

Once I reported at the University of Asmara, I was given the assignment of teaching modern world history to former guerrilla fighters who were, then, government employees at the Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs. I knew that my students could quickly report every word I said during lectures to the authorities. Following my predecessor’s syllabus as the department chair had instructed, we spent weeks on the German and Italian totalitarian governments of the 1930s. As I lectured about these historical European regimes, I could not help but think of that I was living in a very similar moment. While I described the characteristics of totalitarianism, the parallel examples of Eritrea immediately came to mind. Each time I mentioned “totalitarianism,” I preceded it with “German” “Italian” or “European” making an effort to implicitly but, consistently, stress that I wasn’t talking about Eritrea. I’m sure that at least some my students made the connection but, of course, we never discussed it or anything that was happening in Eritrea.

 

Eritrea Pics 2002
The author (center) with Dr. Gordon Sato (right), the founder of a non-profit dedicated to aiding Eritreans, and one of Sato’s staff members (left) along the Eritrean coast of the Red Sea.

 

Having been a German Studies major as an undergraduate, East Germany was my only reference point for navigating Eritrea. I had learned about its secret police and its state-controlled economy and propaganda through East German literature and some day trips into East Germany, but my studies were limited. As an American who had grown up in West Germany and California, my understanding of anything like a police state was superficial. Still, that limited knowledge gave me some context, some framework, for understanding when the Eritrean government banned Ethiopian music, listened to my phone calls, and I strongly suspect, sent a spy to chat with me at a cafe. Even in friends’ homes and cars, we whispered any unflattering comments we were brave enough to make about the president. I even averted my eyes the time I had to walk right by him to get to the restroom at a restaurant.

My research agenda suffered. The paranoia of librarians kept me out of the main archive for most of my stay and, trained to take copious ethnographic notes, I wrote down almost nothing, aware that government agents had showed up at the home of a previous foreign researcher and confiscated her notes. My notes, in the wrong hands, could lead to the imprisonment or death of Eritrean friends or colleagues. A U.S. security officer had warned me, “Perception is reality.”

For years, fear for friends and colleagues prevented me for publishing anything about Eritrea. Now, it seems that almost every Eritrean I know has escaped. My graduate school buddies successfully sought political asylum long ago and recently, while living in Kenya, I met young Eritreans whose affluent parents had bought their escape and bribed their way into Kenya. Still, during their flights, they were beaten up. In Kenya, they ran businesses but had no legal rights to own a business as they didn’t have legal papers to live or work there.

Since its people voted for Independence in a 1993 referendum, Eritrea has been a one party state and has had the same president, President Afwerki. In 2015, the UN accused the Eritrean government of pushing its people to migrate in order to flee human rights abuses yet also punishing those who try to leave the country without government permission. Then as now, Eritrea is high among the countries of origin for people applying for political asylum in Europe, in the US and, even more so, in East African nations like Ethiopia. Eritreans also make up a disproportionate amount of the African refugees crossing the Mediterranean and in many European camps.

“Cynical political travesty” is how the Eritrea government characterized the 2015 UN report. In 2016, the UN released another report on Eritrean human rights violations to which a New York Time’s opinion piece responded with, “. . .things aren’t as bad as the report claims.” In June 2017, Newsweek published an article on Eritrea called “Africa’s North Korea” citing the Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index.

The UNESCO decision to place Asmara on the World Heritage list is rare positive publicity for the Eritrean government, which responded with a celebratory press release. I doubt if anyone who has been to Asmara would argue about its incredible beauty. Recalling it, I feel in awe of how architecture and design can lift the human spirit, but my strongest memories are of living and teaching totalitarianism.

Ayanna Yonemura holds a Ph.D. in Urban Planning, a M.A. in African Studies and a B.A. in German Studies from the University of California. She has been honored with two Fulbright Fellowships and a Civil Liberties Public Education Fund National Fellowship. Currently, she teaches Ethnic Studies at California State University Sacramento.

Welcoming Martha and the Slave Catchers — Harriet Hyman Alonso’s Books

My new book, Martha and the Slave Catchers will be published on November 7, 2017, by Seven Stories Press. It is available for pre-ordering at several on-line stores. I know that it has been quite a while since I’ve written anything for this blog, but I’ve been hard at work preparing my first children’s novel […]

via Welcoming Martha and the Slave Catchers — Harriet Hyman Alonso’s Books

Teaching Peace and Ethical Memory with Voices of Vietnam

By Patrick Chura, University of Akron

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., a black granite wall listing the names of all 58,286 American war dead, is 150 yards long; if a similar monument were built with the same density of names listing the three million Vietnamese who died in the same war, that wall would be four and a half miles long. The beautifully designed Veterans Memorial in Washington—a place of reflection and reckoning about a national atrocity—speaks profoundly to Americans, insisting that the United States search its conscience and confront the truth about itself. The fact that it does not acknowledge the Vietnamese is not surprising, but it reminds us that remembering only “one’s own” as narrowly defined by national borders leaves room for more cosmopolitan forms of memory.

During a five-week Fulbright lecturing grant at Ho Chi Minh City Open University in May-June 2016, I taught a course on American Literature of the Vietnam War for 22 Vietnamese undergraduates. In the first stage of our work, we read and discussed American literature and music. (The students loved Pete Seeger, by the way.) The second stage of the course shifted the focus, requiring the students to conduct oral history interviews with parents, grandparents or other Vietnamese who remembered the war, and to translate those interviews into English. These interviews were used immediately in the final stage of the class: the creation and performance of an oral history “memory play” about the conflict referred to in Vietnamese history books as The American War.

Realizing that this plan asked a lot of the students, I devised a short rationale to provide clarity and motivation (for them and for me), as we began. After holding up a copy of Viet Than Nguyen’s recent study, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of the War and explaining that Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American whose novel The Sympathizer had just won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, I recited a statement I had silently rehearsed a few days earlier on the flight from Hong Kong to Saigon: “Nguyen says that Ethical Memory of war remembers one’s own, but does not fail to remember others as well,” I said. “This course asks you to remember others—Americans. It also asks you to remember your own—Vietnamese—in order to help Americans remember others.”

The play we made together, Voices of Vietnam, in War and Peace, is the product of their interviews and translations, and my editing and scripting. The play promotes Ethical Memory by speaking the truths of the Vietnamese people while evoking the humanity, and inhumanity, of soldiers and civilians on all sides of the conflict. It was performed in June 2016 in an on-campus auditorium at Ho Chi Minh City Open University, using a minimal set and simple staging, by student-actors who had been rehearsing for only a few days.

At the opening of the play, each student carried a single white flower onstage and placed it in a vase that remained in view throughout the performance. The six scenes that followed offered perspectives perhaps unfamiliar to Americans, describing viewpoints that have not been acknowledged by the English-speaking “memory industry” epitomized in American war films. Voices heard include those of a Vietnamese draft resister, a female doctor who worked for the Viet Cong, and a grandmother who kept books for the American military at the Saigon airport from 1956 until 1973. Voices of Vietnam explores striking cultural differences but also confirms that the prevailing American view of the war—a political and moral failure that left a young generation scarred and stripped of illusions—is largely shared by the Vietnamese.

At the end of the play, the students retrieved their flowers, presented them to an invited guest and led that guest forward. I gave this explanation of the play’s Epilogue: “You have been listening to the students speak your voices, the voices of Vietnamese who remember the war. Now you will speak the students’ voices. Please don’t be shy about coming up on stage.” As their own words became our text, I could see pride on the students’ faces. When they said, “This is my voice,” there was strong emotion, made stronger by the fact that speaking out is still closely monitored in Vietnam. Also lending power were the words themselves, the student-written “appeals to ethical memory.” Here is a sample of those appeals; words about war from Vietnamese 20-year-olds:

Thảo Quy: I did not comprehend the war until I talked to my parents about it. Its brutality is beyond imagination. There are still misunderstandings and untold stories. War has no heroes and no right side. War is wrong. War does not bring peace. The young must understand so as not to repeat. Silence explains nothing.

Le Thanh Tan: The husbands, wives, fathers, sons and daughters who lie beneath us can’t rise again to tell untold stories. But we can find them again in your voices, your stories. Some now want to go to war again; both the young and the old can be childish and naïve. So open your hearts and tell us your stories.

Hồng Loan: War is loss—friends, family, dream, and hopes. We are still affected after 41 years. Agent Orange victims suffer and leftover bombs have killed thousands. Teach the young the value of human life. Whether you are soldiers or farmers, from North or South, Vietnamese or American, we need to hear your voices, for a better future.

Gia Hân: Why did the U.S. fight here? They killed many, including my grandfather, and the consequences of dioxin remain. My father’s house was burned 3 times by bombs. My grandparents had nowhere to turn, they were poor and hungry. History books are not enough. Talk to your elders. Sympathize with them. Problems aren’t solved by fighting but by talking.

Watching the students perform and seeing the audience captivated by how openly they were speaking remains my favorite Vietnam memory. I was grateful to the students for stepping out of their comfort zone to do something in an academic setting that went beyond what they thought was possible. I had told the Vietnamese students that their play would “help Americans remember others,” which meant that U.S. students would perform it also. When some of my Akron undergraduates came down with acute cases of stage fright, I used the bravery of the Vietnamese students as motivation.

We performed the play in Akron on November 9. In a discussion with the audience afterward, someone asked the cast how it felt to speak the voices of Vietnam. Several students said that the experience was “eye-opening.” One remarked thoughtfully, “When you have to present someone else’s story, someone else’s feeling, there is a seriousness to it.” Another said, “This — performing this play — has been a way for us to go back and trace a dark part in our nation’s history and also grow more empathy.” I shared these responses by email with a Vietnamese colleague I’d met during my stay in Ho Chi Minh City. He wrote back, “I’m very moved to learn that the U.S students found performing Voices of Vietnam ‘eye-opening’ and that is has developed a mutual understanding between seemingly old enemies.”

A key defining trait of oral history is how effectively it countermands state-sponsored narratives that glorify war. At our June 2 performance in Vietnam, an audience member stopped me during intermission. “Do you know what you’re doing is strictly forbidden in this country?” he asked. Then he said that the play wasn’t “true.” I said something like, “It’s the truth of the people affected by the war. All we’re claiming to do is to express what people said, so it’s automatically the truth. We’re speaking the words of people interviewed and the play is about what they said.” That automatic truth, I think, is what Viet Thanh Nguyen has in mind when he writes, “telling family war stories . . . is an important way to treat the disorder of our military-industrial complex.”

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Image courtesy of Patrick Chura

Perhaps projects of this type can help students see history from another angle and teach peace for the future. Fundamentally about words, oral history plays embrace simple staging and are adaptable to groups of almost any size and composition. Young people may speak the voices of the elderly, males may speak female voices and vice versa. In our production, a Vietnamese grandmother was played successfully by a young man of 19. By allowing students to imaginatively inhabit the Other—especially those of differing ethnicities, nationalities, gender identities and age groups—oral history readings foster social awareness and cultural sensitivity.

Educators who are interested in using Voices of Vietnam in the classroom may write me for a copy at jpc@uakron.edu.