Brett Skarbakka is a photographer currently based in Hanoi, Vietnam. His project, 11 Days, “is a quiet memorial to a past scarred by terrific violence, a present changing by acceptance, and a personal way for me to contemplate the conflicting messages of shrouded histories.” We settled in for lunch in a Hanoi pub and compared our memories of the Vietnam war as young boys growing up in the States. From his web site:
Born in 1963, my early childhood memories are filled with images from the Vietnam War. This war, and the media portrayal of the conflict in Southeast Asia has always colored my perception of the people and landscapes of the region. Currently, as an American living in Hanoi, I am constantly brought full circle from the impressions of my past to the realities of the present. In some attempt to reconcile these conflicting perceptions, I have mapped out and photographed the devastating bombing routes of operation Linebacker 2, also known as the 11 day war, fought ground to air over Hanoi during Christmas 1972. This series is a quiet memorial to a past scarred by terrific violence, a present changing by acceptance, and a personal way for me to contemplate the conflicting messages of shrouded histories. All images are taken in areas and districts surrounding Hanoi. The mapping of locations was a result of research into war archives and advice and stories from local residents.
I asked how the idea for his photo essay took form.
So first of course was the inkling of the idea, which happened in New York. To come over here and, I thought, documenting a culture in transition, blah blah blah. And that just ended up being cliché because everybody and their mother walking around here thinks that that’s what they’re doing. And then I decided to do research, and then of course I met my wife, and that gave me access to and involvement in the family. And then the research went a lot deeper because I was able to talk to people personally and it got away from being an art project and turned into a pursuit. It started out as an academic exercise. And it ended up being something I was involved in psychologically.
And what was it that drew you emotionally to want to pursue it once you were here?
Our histories were so intertwined and I grew up, I was born in 1964, so my formative years, I was raised with the television beaming explosions up the Hàn River and into Haiphong and the bombings.
My brother was an anti-war activist. One of my earliest memories was, you know, there was the whole generation gap thing going on at that time. And my parents’ generation was the World War II, Holocaust generation. You know, you support your country right or wrong, even though they were liberal Jews in New York. Why I remember this, I don’t know, my mother opened her dresser drawer in the bedroom, screaming at my brother because he had a button. The button said “LBJ” and for ‘B’ it said “Bombs, bullets, bullshit.” And to her, that was just a direct affront to the family.
I guess the problem came when I realized that all I was doing was regurgitating information that I’d been taught and trying to give back the same imagery that we’ve all seen. Because I got married here, I became involved and realized there was a change on a much more fundamental level where everybody was just moving on. The world here has nothing to do with forty years ago. It’s absolutely gone. It’s ghosts, is what it is. And I realized that I was carrying a different image than the people who had been directly affected.
It’s probably a generational thing. In Nicaragua, I’d talk to an 18 or 20 year old and what the United States means to him is, you know, how is Kobe Bryant doing this year with the Lakers? Am I going to get an Apple or a Dell? And I really love this new HBO series on DVD. That’s what America means to them. So part of it here is a generational thing. It seems like you have teenagers who are like, “Dude, why are you talking about that shit?” And, second, people in their forties are like, “Yeah, terrible period, let’s move on.” It’s been forty years. And, by the way, they won the war. And I don’t know if there’s some kind of Buddhist, Asian, Vietnamese cultural thing that’s like, “Live in the moment, forgive, and don’t dwell on the past.”
Yeah, there’s lot of moving on and forgiving. And if they do hold onto it, a majority of them are willing to try to look past and not dwell on it. There seems to be a level of understanding that a lot of these events, weren’t the responsibility of the individual. They don’t have a tendency to look at a person and say, “I identify that person with what happened.” I’ve been here a while. I don’t see any of that. Usually they are able to look past and look at it as a bigger picture situation. That it’s part of a situation that’s much bigger than an individual. And I’ve had no problem with anybody, even one time. The whole time I’ve been here. That’s significant.
What story did you try to tell with those eleven pictures?
Well, each one was chosen for a day. Because each day was an action in a campaign that hit this region particularly hard. And they nicknamed it the eleven day war. So my idea was to go out there and to basically find the locations, which I did. I researched and then I mapped out all these places and took the motorcycle out, traveled all over the area and found specific areas, particular places and locations. Then I used those for photographing the essence of something that doesn’t exist. I mean, it’s all gone. And that’s why the photographs don’t show anything. It’s like photographing a phastasm. As something that looks different from different people’s memories, but you go out there and it’s a field. It’s a field, it’s a house, it’s a tree.
It’s an interesting aesthetic disconnect between the pastoral scene and the horror of what was done.
Well I’m not interested in horror. That’s already been done.That’s what we get inundated with on a daily basis. That’s CNN. That’s propaganda. Yeah, it’s reality, but nothing is more boring than war horror, I think.
Just last night, I don’t know why it affected me so much, but there was a YouTube video. I don’t even know why… I think I was looking for Apocalypse Now videos. This YouTube video about a B-52 carpet bombing. And of course, you know what that looks like. And you see all the bombs going off. And the comments were mostly very jingoistic, country boys, saying, “Yeah, we should fuck up communists, Muslims, ISIS. Without the liberal media, we would’ve fucking won.” And they were just getting off on the scenes of destruction, and they just wanted more of it.
The absence of things is a thousand times more powerful than the presence of things. Yeah, certainly, we can look at, I can show you where there’s craters, I’m not even interested in the crater. I can show you where people are still digging land mines out in Laos. I can show you those places. But I’m not really interested in those land mines either. And I’m not interested in those craters. What I”m really interested in is the presence of absence. And I think that that’s most important. That’s what I struggle for with this particular project.
What was your desired effect on the viewer of those photos?
You know, the imagination is the most powerful thing. And if you don’t show anything, how powerful is the imagination? So we look at something, we look at a trace of something. We look at something that doesn’t have a real form anymore. What does the imagination do to that form. so your imagination is going to go much further than what my pictures can ever do. And if I give you nothing, how strong is that going to be? That was my biggest question, so I went to these places. I give you nothing, except for the event and the location. Then what does your mind do? What happened there? What was really the truth behind that? That’s more powerful than I give you as many explosions and craters and… Apocalypse Now scenes as you want. But that’s why I did it.
What was the reaction of older members of your Vietnamese family to your work or the things that you’re exploring?
Oh, they just look at me with amusement. (Laughter.) They just kind of wonder… At first, it was problematic because I was hiding behind the camera because I was unable to…I couldn’t relax. I was crossing between the two, making the bridge between the two cultures. And I could not relax. They just thought I was weird, you know. I just always had the camera with me and eventually they kind of realized that I was just going to be doing stuff and I just might happen to have a camera. And at that point, it no longer mattered. Nobody was really thinking I was weird, they just thought, “Oh, there he is again with his camera.” And then it became normal. Then as I became part of the communities… Now I just walk around freely and they just expect me to do whatever I do because that’s who I am.
So in the years that you’ve been married, have there ever been pointed conversations from any of your older male Vietnamese relatives who served in the war, on the North Vietnamese side, who have a bone to pick with you for being an American?
Oh yeah, yeah, it’s really interesting. I mean, they’ve been curious. They’ve wondered about things and they’ve asked if my parents were involved, things like that. But there haven’t been any bones to pick, no. There’s been curiosity. There’s been curiosity and maybe like what I think, and how do I feel. There’s been curiosity, what am I doing here? (Laughter.) They probably don’t get the whole art for art’s sake thing, just like some of the projects I’ve done. They say, “Oh, you’re taking pictures, how are you making money from this?” (Laughter.) You know?
Yeah. It doesn’t.
“If you’re not making money, why are you doing this?” It’s nothing I ever have to explain because nobody’s ever really… They figure I’m doing it for whatever reason. A lot of them know that I’ve got work, that I do shows, that a lot of this stuff has been out. They kind of think that’s interesting. In the beginning, they kind of just thought I was weird. Now they just expect it. No, no bones to pick. Not at all. In fact, mostly everybody just would like to hang out with me and get drunk and talk. We all get drunk and we’re all best friends all of a sudden.
Check out Brett’s website at www.brettskarbakka.com. Brett received his MFA in combined media from Hunter College before embarking on what he thought would be a one year documentary project in Vietnam. 5 years later he is still exploring the mountains, jungles, and coral reefs of Southeast Asia. He has given talks at Prescott College in Arizona, and the Hanoi Academy of Fine Arts. He has shown work in Redbird editions, f-stop Magazine, Forward Thinking Museum, Fotofilmic, Emergency Arts in NYC, and Hunter Time Square Gallery, as well as various other venues and publications. The interview was transcribed by Afterparty project intern Kayley Ingalls.
In my travels, I ask most every Muslim I meet about Islam and the Quran. In every case, I am told that Islam is a religion of peace, often with great passion. I approach those answers skeptically, as public relations for the religion. And then you meet men like Dr. Saber Perdes, CEO of Kabul’s Jumhuriat Hospital, a short walk from Chicken Street and my adopted Shar-e-Naw neighborhood. Being in the presence of a man like Saber, I think, if this man exemplifies what Islam is about, sign me up.
The historiography of how I ended up in his office goes like this: Afterparty project backer and old friend Forrest Wright introduces me to his sister Leslie for my research on the Kosovo war who then introduces me to Shqipe Malushi, who spent years running workshops on issues like women’s rights in Afghanistan. An Albanian American, she is beloved by Afghans. If you assume to know Shaira, her honorific Afghan name ( “The Poetess”) people drop everything and make themselves available.
I walk to the hospital, where I am kindly and efficiently treated by Saber’s staff. He welcomes me to his office and apologizes for the short delay. And then schools me on Afghan public health, the real power behind the Taliban and how Islam informs his work as a medical professional. He begins with his extraordinary personal history.
I’m a physician by training, but I am not practicing medicine right now. I studied primary school and then high school, and most of my faculty of medicine in Pakistan as a refugee.
Why were you a refugee?
Because of the war. First, we were displaced from Kabul to another province in 1985. Then in 1988, we moved to Pakistan. We lived in a refugee camp where there were no facilities, where life was so hard and most of the people were living in poverty. I can recall the days when I went to the English language classes. I took four classes of English language obtaining the first or second position, but I couldn’t continue due to financial problems. My father was keeping a farm of honey bees and we had a lot of honey at home, but we couldn’t’t sell it. So, it was a hard life. I didn’t give up and my family supported me.
Was there something about your experience in the camp, seeing the suffering there, that motivated you to want to get into medicine?
In fact, at that time, the situation got difficult in Afghanistan because there was the civil war in the early 1990s and then later on there was Taliban and we didn’t have a specific future to look to. The only two fields that were bringing in money were engineering and medicine as everyone needed that, even Taliban needed a doctor to be employed. Since my elder brother was a doctor and I had worked with him at a clinic as an assistant for some time, I was motivated to study medicine. In Afghanistan, when you obtain the highest marks in the university entry test (Kankor), then you go to the school of medicine. So mostly it’s the cream of the crop. Until 2001, I understood Basic English, but I couldn’t’t talk for more than a minute. Then, when I was in the final class of my medical courses, I decided to continue studying the English language. I went to a very famous center, it was called ELP. The International Rescue Committee had established the center in 1985. I got admission and they told me that the new class would start in 45 days. I said that’s fine, I just want to pay my money so that I will come and I will make sure that I take that class. Before that, I had procrastinated for a long time saying that I will do it this year, next year…
As a medical professional, is English important for understanding research?
At that time, it wasn’t important since all of our classes were in local languages and the professors tried to prepare notes for us. We had very few reference books, but the professors were not asking for them. They would give us a reference like, “If you want to study more, you can read this book.” It was not a required reading. It was just recommended reading. But I thought that if I studied English, it would make me stand out among my classmates. And when I completed my classes in July of 2002, not only did I get the first position, but also I made a record score for that center, which was 98% in Advanced Level 2. And it motivated me a lot. At that time, there was the collapse of the Taliban’s government and I came to Afghanistan. I started teaching English and I did my residency at different hospitals in Kabul. Still, the financial status of the family was not good. I was receiving some money from my brother while I was teaching English and doing little works of translation services. So I started to translate one of the articles for a kids’ magazine called Parwaz which means fright. And when I translated that article, I think they paid me ten bucks. And they were translating one article every two months, so ten bucks in two months. It was pocket money for me. And I was traveling mostly on my bike to different areas of Kabul. It was not crowded like this. There were very few cars and I could ride my bike even in front of the US embassy as the roads were open. Now, they are all closed to the public. By teaching English and doing some translations, I improved my English language capacity. In 2003, I got a chance to do interpretations in a workshop, which was about the constitution in Afghanistan.
I think it was March or April 2003. An organization called FNST was administering the workshop. They tried their best to find two interpreters, but they found only one. They couldn’t’t find another one, and finally they picked me up because they just wanted to fill the second slot. They didn’t believe in my skills. Although one of the bosses of that organization was a close friend, he had never given me a chance before that. So, there were two interpreters at the workshop. The other interpreter had worked with international organizations and he had spent some time in Australia. When I heard about him, I prayed a lot to Allah, I said, “I don’t want to be ashamed in front of an audience of sixty people.” The German facilitator was a very kind person, but he was very strict, he was to the point, and he was speaking outstanding English. His name was Mark Killer. So he was really a killer. (Laughter) During the workshop, we were taking sessions. And I clearly remember that during one of the sessions, Mark asked the audience a question and the audience responded in a very different way than he had expected. And then Mark told the respondent that if I ask you, “What are dogs?” you respond to me that, “Hens lay eggs!” They are totally irrelevant. The other interpreter couldn’t pick the words for “lay eggs”. Maybe he didn’t know the specific expression. He said, “Pardon?” And Mark told him again and then he translated that into something wrong. And among the audience, there were people who knew English and they laughed. Mark asked, “why are you laughing?” They said, “the translation was not accurate.” When the workshop finished, he tapped me on the back and told his people, “whenever I come to Afghanistan, this person should be my interpreter.” It was a great moment of boosting self-confidence, and also a great moment of appreciating what I had learned. Since then, I have served as an interpreter at different events. I had the pleasure of doing simultaneous interpretations at very high level meetings where the vice president and other high level people from different ministries and the parliament were present. Shaira was one of the facilitators who came to Kabul and GTZ hired me as a part time interpreter. I remember that when I was hired, there was another interpreter as well. So I was their standby interpreter. And when I did interpretations, they liked me and after some time, she kicked out the other interpreter and I worked with her for a long time.
To come to the point, I see that the English language and computer skills have helped me a lot during my career. In 2009, I got a Fulbright Scholarship and I studied Masters of Public Health at St. Louis University in Missouri. My concentration was health policy. I finished with a GPA of 3.9 and distinction at comprehensive exams.
Can I ask you a question about the Taliban? It’s an odd question. You mentioned that of course everyone, including the Taliban, needed healthcare. What was the attitude and the quality of administration of healthcare in the country during the time of the Taliban? Besides being a bit severe in their theology, were they good administrators or was the country basically in a state of collapse and chaos during those years?
As I’ve heard from people who have worked with them, they were not good administrators. When they needed something, they were just giving orders. Like, “We need this in a very short time!” They were respecting doctors because of the profession. That’s what people say about them.
Did you consider, I’m sure you would have had no problem with a visa, did you consider not coming back?
No. Even though I was told several times, “If you stay here, it will be good for you”, I preferred to come back home. There is no doubt that the quality of life is better there, but my people need me. Life is very short. We should be in service of those who need us the most.
How long have you worked at the Ministry of Public Health? And in what capacities?
I joined the Health Promotion Department of the Ministry of Public Health in late 2006 and I worked there until I left for US in Aug 2009. When I came back to Afghanistan, I joined the Health Economics and Financing Directorate (HEFD) as an intern in Jan 2011.
During my first week of internship, I was offered a full time job and I accepted the offer. After working for six months as a Health Economics Advisor, I got promoted to the position of Health Economics Unit Head. I worked for three and half years at HEFD and then I was selected as a Director/Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of this hospital through an open competition. I joined Jumhuriat Hospital in mid-September 2014.
This money was for the Health Policy Project (HPP). And it was up to the government how they wanted to spend it. We had a say in managing that fund, or I would say in at least prioritizing the areas where it should be spent. One of the areas was to support nine of our staff members who were full time based at MoPH. I was happy that I was receiving a competitive salary which met my needs. However, I never acted as a USAID official. I have always stood out as a Health Economics Unit Head because I had a governmental position there. I had a P2 form, which means that I was a civil servant, but only the salary came from the Health Policy Project. I was not reporting to the health policy project. I was only sending them my monthly attendance sheet for the reimbursements. You’re right that there are mixed feelings in some cases with the money that comes from other donors. If I worked for a bank, I would definitely have that kind of a feeling as I don’t want to take money that comes from interest.
For religious reasons or political reasons?
For religious reasons! I don’t like to be paid from interest because I believe that interest is not allowed in Islam. But if anyone donates to the health sector, we should happily accept it and then try to use it in the best possible way.
Because the need is so great.
Yeah, the need is so great and the health sector hasn’t received a lot of money. I believe that expenditures in the health sector should be considered investments. When I considered coming to the hospital, I was told that, “you don’t know about hospital management and you do not have experience from hospital management, how would you run such a large hospital?” I told them that I would try to use the knowledge that I have, combine it with the experiences of other hospitals, consider what’s not working well, and be a role model. I would not be micro-managing things, but I would be running the hospital as a leader. s I have a vision for this hospital, I believe that this hospital will be very different in five years from now. In the past thirteen years, there have been significant investments in the health sector and expansion of services, but mostly those services were expanded to rural areas and provinces under the Essential Package of Hospital Services (EPHS) and the Basic Package of Health Services (BPHS). BPHS is primary care and EPHS is secondary/tertiary care. However, national hospitals have always been ignored. We have a saying that if you are very close to someone, you could be hidden under his beard. Since I have joined the hospital, I have always tried to communicate to stakeholders at different levels and to give them reasons why this hospital needs more attention and why we need to bring in reform.
If I can ask, what’s this hospital’s position in Afghanistan and Kabul, what unique role does it play?
It is a specialty hospital and it should be serving as a tertiary care center. Although we have services that are not available in most provinces, my vision for this hospital is that we should have subspecialties. Soon, we will be inaugurating plastic surgery ward mainly for reconstruction of cleft lip, cleft palate, burns, and other issues. We have also planned gastroenterology in our proposed organogram for the next year. We will be doing trainings for our staff to do the different procedures that are required for being a specialist of gastroenterology. Research shows that majority of our patients who go to Pakistan and India, suffer from gastroenterology problems. If we have those services in Kabul, we will stop them from going there. We have also planned an organ transplant center, but that will not be operated within the next year even if it is approved by the MoPH.
Are those gastro issues caused in some ways by Afghan life, by diet or pollution or stress?
That’s a very good question. There are multiple reasons for that. Since I haven’t done a research in this area, this is my guess and also what I have heard from other people. Diet and stress could be two major causes. Patients have heartburn, hyperacidity or some other issues, but their causes are different. Most of our people like spicy food and we know that spices play a crucial role in gastric disease. Stress could also be a major cause, but there is need for research to approve or reject this hypothesis. Evidence from other countries might be available on the internet, but I haven’t searched it.
Is there research or personal perspective that you have about what are the effects on the body of decades of conflict? Even when you’re not a mujaheddin and you’re going about your daily life, does that have some long-term traumatic effect across the population? Or is that just hard to measure?
I haven’t read a research paper on this topic, but I think that there are effects of war and we can see them everywhere. Most health workers are not behaving well with their clients and with their colleagues. They’re harsh and their attitude is not good. If you reason with them for a couple of minutes, it could escalate to a very hot issue and it may end up in physical clash.
I have seen people who have gotten engaged in physical fights with physicians inside the health facilities. If you go to a shop and you ask for prices of three or four things and you don’t buy them, they will probably tell you that, “Okay, you’re not buying them. Get lost.” But in other countries, if you ask them for ten items and you don’t buy them, at the end they will give you a business card while wearing a smile. So that’s a difference we can see. The first day when I came back from US, I took a taxi from the airport. I noticed that this person was not driving well, he was not obeying the lines, he was not turning on his signals when he was changing lanes. He didn’t even care for the red light. He just crossed it. I said, “Oh my God, this person is crazy. This is not appropriate.” But after some time, I got used to it. Now when I drive, sometimes I may disobey some of the traffic rules and regulations. Behavior is contagious. It is well explained in (Malcolm Gladwell’s) Tipping Point, the book. So when someone does something wrong, the others also either get encouraged to do that or they get it without any intention. And they practice that behavior for a long time. That’s something that I have noticed from the effects of war.
So it’s not an Afghan culture thing, it’s the effects of war.
It’s the effect of war. It’s not the culture. Our culture is very rich and according to our culture, if someone comes to our home, for example let’s say you are my guest and someone comes and tries to snatch you out of my home, I can fight for you until the last drop of my blood is spilled because you are my guest. You are my honor. The effects of war can be seen in the younger generation more than the older one, because they have grown up in war.
Besides all the deaths, there must have been so many lifelong injuries through the eras of the Taliban, the Soviets and the mujaheddin. How do you and your colleagues nationwide deal with that large of a population of people who were so badly hurt over so many years?
I think people get desensitized to that. As we get insensitive to the suicide attacks and a lot of bad things that are happening. Like when I was in the US, one of my classmates invited me to a dinner party. Many other Americans were there. During our conversations, they asked me about my life in Afghanistan. I told them about how I lived my childhood. What I told you just at a glance; I told them in details. One of my classmates exclaimed “I can’t believe that you are still alive.”
Yeah. When we hear in the Western world about gunfire in a school, everyone is shocked. That is considered one of the worst things that could happen in a community. But here, a lot of bad things happen. Like, a suicide attack happened over there in the Kabul Security Department. I could see it from this chair (he points out the window to a large building nearby). And when I heard the sound of the explosion, I said, “Oh my God, it’s in the Security Department.” But I didn’t even move out of my room because I think we are desensitized to that. We somehow get used to that. We say that this is the reality of life and just accept it. Whenever something bad happens, I receive a call from my parents, they ask me, “Are you safe?” and I say, “Yeah, I’m safe.” It has happened several times that I have crossed a square and after fifteen minutes or so, there was an explosion in the same area. My parents ask “Where are you?” And I say, “I just crossed the area where there was explosion, but I am fine.”
So it’s almost like you have to hold two thoughts in your head at the same time. One, to know how to be careful and alert and to be safe. But also not to be obsessed with that and to go about your business and not live a life driven by fear.
Before the elections, I had met President Ghani twice. Once, we had a Fulbright conference and he was there for a full day with us. And then he invited a bunch of Fulbright Scholars, including me, to his home. Since he is also a Fulbright Scholar, he knew that we were a little bit different than others in terms of the way we think; the way we analyze things and see things from a different perspective. At that time, he had not been elected. We asked him if he would run for presidential elections. He replied, “I’m thinking about this. Our goal would be to reduce corruption by 60% within the next five years and then the rest of the 40% would be enough for the big sharks to move around.’” When President Ghani won the elections, I was very hopeful and I thought that he would bring a lot of changes. But I think US didn’t play the role that was expected from them. When there is democracy, if someone wins by only one vote, he is the winner. That’s democracy and US should have backed that principle.
Abdullah is a great person; he is also a doctor. But I think a car with two steering wheels will never get to its destiny. Right now, everything is going in an ambiguous direction, we don’t know what will happen. But at least I believe that if President Ghani and Abdullah are serving the country within the next five years, there will be many positive changes because both of them are determined people, they don’t give up. On the other hand, President Ghani holds others accountable. Like if we are talking with him, he will say, “what can you do?” And when we give him a word, he will take notes and then after a while, he will ask us “Why didn’t you do this?” That’s something that makes him different. He also thinks critically. The critical thinking is something that’s absent among most of our politicians. Thus, I am very much hopeful that we will have a peaceful Afghanistan after the western troops leave.
How worried are you about the Taliban can take over Afghanistan again?
It depends on their supporters. How much do they support them? I know the Taliban’s game. A game played in Afghanistan supported by neighboring countries and they didn’t even want the whole of Afghanistan to be conquered by the Taliban. If their funds are cut now, I’m sure that they cannot survive more than a month
Really, more than a month?
Yeah. As we saw in 2001, they collapsed in two weeks. No one could imagine ever that the Taliban would collapse in two weeks, and they did. Just two weeks. Now, they have funding and they are highly supported.
At that time, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and some others thought, “We better do what the United States is asking of us after we’ve supported these groups that were responsible for Al Qaeda’s attack on 9/11.” But then years passed, maybe Pakistan became emboldened to support the Taliban again. As I understand it, there were some Pakistani Taliban that were attacking Pakistani troops and that were causing problems for Pakistan as well. What do you make of that?
I pray that their numbers increase, so that they can feel it on their skin. Because Pakistani religious scholars are giving statements such as “go for jihad to Afghanistan.” But they have red light districts in Lahore and many other cities. They have a worse situation in Pakistan. No one is calling for jihad there. They are brainwashing youths and sending them to Afghanistan for jihad. If there is jihad, first they should do it in Pakistan.
The 16-year-old at the Lycée the other day blew himself up, Do you think he Pakistani or Afghan?
I don’t know about his identity. People say that he was arrested a couple of years back, but he was forgiven by (then President) Karzai. And then he planned to blow himself up this year.
Terrible. Some people in the west think that there’s something in Islam that encourages that kind of behavior. As with any holy book, there are certain phrases that people can take and say, “Here is proof that it’s a war-like religion.” Or, “They’re encouraging violence.” What, if I may ask, is your experience with Islam? How does it affect your role, your behavior as a medical professional and as a man of faith, which you apparently are, how do you look at these people who, in the name of Islam, are doing these extreme things?
I believe that Islam is not the Islam that is portrayed by extremists. Islam is always encouraging people to do good things. For every good thing that we do, we get rewarded ten times. And there is a verse in the Holy Quran that if you spend your money just for the sake of Allah, to get Allah’s blessings, you could be rewarded up to 700 times or more. This concept is explained as if you have one wheat and you cultivate it, it has seven stalks and every stalk has one hundred wheat grains. So you get 700, or more than that. On the other hand, if our neighbor is suffering from something and we do not help them, or if we eat something good and we do not share it with them, we will be held accountable by Allah. “Why didn’t you do that? Your neighbor was suffering from, I would say, hunger and you were eating a lot of good stuff.” If we cross a street and we go on the right side, we will be rewarded for that as that’s something good. Go on the right side. The routes are already set.
There are principles in Islam, for example, Tawhid. Like if someone says “La Elaha Ellalah o Mohammad ur Rasoollullah (speaks in Arabic),” it means, “We believe in only one Allah, one God and that Mohammad is the prophet of Allah” he/she is a Muslim. After that, being a good or bad Muslim depends on their good and bad actions. Calling Mohammad the prophet of Allah doesn’t mean that we deny other prophets. In fact, we as Muslims believe that Mohammad Peace Be Upon Him (PBUH) is the last prophet of Allah and we believe in about 124,000 prophets including Jesus, Noah and David.
That’s a lot of prophets.
I believe that Islam never encourages killing innocent people. There are verses in Quran which are about fighting others and they are translated as, if someone attacks you, you should defend yourself. At that time, I think there were people opposing Mohammad because they had done the worship of statues for hundreds of years and Mohammad introduced in the new religion. They felt ashamed of that and they didn’t want Islam to grow up. So the followers of other religions wanted to kill Muslims. There was the verse, if they want to kill you, you’re also allowed to kill them. That was self-defense! But some extremists are taking that verse as when you see a person from another religion, just kill them. I believe that it is just the personal interpretation of those people. Islam never encourages violence.
In Islam, there are rules set for everything and respect of elders is always encouraged. Some verses address only Muslims, others address the general humanity. In humanity, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist… everyone is included. When I talk to my people and I give speeches, I sometimes recite a verse that is about saving one’s life. I believe there is a similar verse in the book of Judaism, as well. Its interpretation is like this: “if you save one life, you have saved the whole humanity.”
Yes, that’s right.
It’s a clear verse from the holy Quran. It doesn’t say if you save the life of one Muslim, you have saved the lives of the whole Muslim community. Rather, it is about humanity, so everyone is included. The interpretation of verses from Quran makes a difference for Muslims around the world.
In the professional and medical circles that you travel in, if I can ask, what’s the attitude toward the United States’ thirteen years in Afghanistan and the decision to cut back most of the troops but keep about 13,000? Is there gratitude, is there hatred, is there a sense that it’s time to go, are there mixed feelings, is there criticism about strategy, it could have been done differently? What is the general feeling that you get about this thirteen years of American presence in Afghanistan?
I think the US didn’t want to have a very strong government in Afghanistan right from the beginning. That’s my personal opinion and I can link it to Karzai. Because Karzai had worked at very low level positions before becoming a president. Everyone knows that managing a small business or a restaurant is very different from running a country.
(Laughs.) Yeah, that’s fair.
I believe that Karzai is a good leader and an outstanding tribal person for his people, but when someone becomes a leader of a country, they should be visionary people who can think about ten years from now or fifteen years from now. For example, Karzai has always talked about fighting corruption and deploying the right people in the right places. He just talked the talk, but he didn’t walk the walk. And it was just a lip service. He didn’t have a vision for Afghanistan. I have never heard him saying that “In 2015, Afghanistan will have this, this, and that.” If I were Karzai in 2002, and I had the international assistance in different areas, I would say that, “Okay, I have these priorities for Afghanistan, who wants to support this?” Like in this hospital, if someone tells me now “what support do you need?” I tell them that I want to establish an organ transplant center; a gastroenterology ward, an allergy center; train ten of my staff members, need machinery for imaging and their maintenance; ….. etc. Each donor may pick one or two areas that are in line with their strategic plans and the hospital services will be improved before long. While the donors are supporting the hospital, I can do supervision. The same could happen to Afghanistan. He could have thought about the traffic jams, about a subway, about having our own power …. etc. We don’t have our power. We are importing energy from Tajikistan and other countries. We are losing a lot of the energy throughout the way and also we are losing the money that goes out of the country. He could have thought about encouraging the local production in Afghanistan. Right now whatever is produced, that’s not standardized. He could have thought about having a health sector that’s meeting the needs of people. I can say that he was just trying to be there or maybe he was under external pressures. Who knows!?
Is there some suspicion or disparagement of the United States, that perhaps he was intentionally their guy who could be controlled? And all this talk about democracy for much of the thirteen years is really undermined by the fact that this western power, protected by their military, decided who was going to be leading in Afghanistan?
He looked like a puppet.
So what’s the answer for your country? Is it negotiating with the Taliban? Is it taming Pakistan, as you were talking about before? Is it patience and faith? Is it more US troops? What’s the answer, do you think, for Afghanistan?
If you look at the war, it is mostly in the areas where there are Pashtuns. From the south to the east. Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul, Ghazni, Logar, Nangarhar, Kunar …etc. Majority of their population is Pashtuns and they are near the border of Pakistan. I also think that the Northern Alliance, have convinced the US military and US officials that Pashtun is Talib and Talib is Pashtun, which is not correct.
Yeah, there is that impression.
Yeah, that impression is incorrect. Because of that, we have suffered the war in these areas. Some people become Talib because either they lose their family or they don’t have any other things to do. Or they get very angry at the current government due to the high levels of corruption and bureaucracy and they say “it’s better to be against the government.” Some others get brainwashed. But when we are trying to, let’s say, fight cockroaches in a building, we cannot fight them one by one unless we find their source, where they come from. When we track them, we can find that these cockroaches lead to a specific area. We go there and we see that there is a big hole and thousands of cockroaches come out of that hole. So we have to spray something there, make sure that no single cockroach comes out of that hole again. And then try to track the rest of them everywhere. Wherever we find them, we kill them. Then it will be safe. I, as a civilian, know that there are bases of Taliban in different areas of our neighboring countries. How wouldn’t US officials know about that? Although Osama was captured and killed in Pakistan, and many other high-level Taliban might be living there. I would like to say that Pakistan is playing a double-faced game right now. They tell the US, “We are trying to fight the terrorism.” And then they are supporting terrorists “Okay, go to Afghanistan, do the jihad, they are Americans, they are infidels, kill them, and when you kill them you will be rewarded several times.” That’s it.
I like that cockroach analogy. Finally, I’m just curious about your experience in the United States. What was that like and what were your impressions of America?
I spent just under 400 days in the US in total. It was a great time, I learned a lot from my professors, classmates, and friends. It was not only learning about public health, but also I tried to serve as a cultural ambassador of Afghanistan. I attended different social events and gatherings and I delivered speeches at events where I was requested to do so. I talked to them about the differences and similarities in our cultures. Some of them had never seen an Afghan in person before. I remember that at one social event, I talked to a bunch of Americans and answered their questions. One of them said “you are just like us!” I made a lot of great friends. I had host families whom I am still in contact with. What I want to say is that there are good and bad people everywhere. Most of the people I met in US were very kind, honest and friendly.
Thanks to Afterparty project intern Kayley Ingalls for transcribing the interview and providing background research.
Jay Palevsky and I hunted down Jordan Plitteris on Facebook four decades after our last encounter. We were students at George Gershwin Junior High School 166 in the East New York section of Brooklyn. Jordan and I did our best to disrupt our classes in the most charming or clever manner possible. We finally connected in 2010 and then had lunch on a sunny Sunday afternoon at Gladstone’s on the beach in Los Angeles. When Jordan learned that I was to be in Vietnam, he connected me with Steven Herman.
This, from Steve’s bio: “A veteran journalist in Asia, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America bureau chief and correspondent based in Bangkok. His articles, columns, opinion pieces and reviews have been published in numerous newspapers and magazines including the Far Eastern Economic Review, Japan Times, South China Morning Post and the Wall Street Journal. Steve was elected for five consecutive years (1998-2002) to serve as Chairman of The Foreign Press in Japan (FPIJ).” His full bio can be found here.
We talked about Vietnam over dinner at the Essence Hotel Hotel in Hanoi.
Brian: The impression that I get is, of course, part of it is generational. A lot of those people died and so if you’re 18 years old, you’re more interested in how Kobe Bryant is doing with the Lakers, the latest American movies, and whether you got the newest smartphone. And perhaps there’s a cultural attitude of forgiveness, and an economic reality that you just have to move on, there’s a lot of American money coming into the country. But to me, after the horror of what was experienced, it is fascinating to me there is that attitude of forgetting.
Steve: Think when the Vietnam War ended, okay? Forty years ago. So unless you’re in your late fifties, you don’t have any direct experience of the Cong. And the only people that would remember who are younger would be that neighborhood got bombed, or Daddy didn’t come home. But that was the norm at the time, right? That was the experience that everybody around you was having, too. But the big picture is this: the Americans (and you can argue before that the French) were a mere blip on the radar screen of Vietnamese history. The Americans were adversaries for fifteen years. The animosity here is toward the Chinese. (Laughter.)
I know, I’ve heard that.
Because the Chinese are the giant neighbor to the north that’s been trying to eat Vietnam for 1,000 years. So whether or not people remember the war, they’re aware of the long-term of Vietnamese history. And they realize that China has posed, does pose, and will pose a perceived existential threat.
In Afghanistan you have the Pashtun looking down on Uzbeks, who are looking down on Hazaras. Is there any cultural feeling that Chinese consider Vietnamese inferior. Is there any kind of ethnic sensitivity like that?
Number one, I don’t think probably that the average Chinese gives Vietnam much thought. But if you’re a Chinese historian, an academic, a military strategist, or whatever, you look at the traditional orders of China, what the Chinese empire was, what happened to the Chinese empire, and how the tribute states of China need to be allied with China for China’s long-term stability. That’s the way the Chinese would look at it. There are books that have been written about this. I’ll tell you a story that was told to me by a young woman in her 30s whose father was shot in the leg by an American in the secret war in Cambodia in the 1970s. He was recruited into the NVA, the North Vietnamese Army, didn’t have much of a choice, and when he was able to access, for the first time, American technology (and I’m talking about stuff like wristwatches, okay?) and realized that the domestic and the Russian technology was utter garbage compared to the technology of his adversary, he then no longer believed in all the propaganda that he had been fed by the Communist Party. And to this day, he is a huge admirer of America and what it stands for. And is critical of the party that he fought for. Although he is a very proud Vietnamese. And I’m sure that is the attitude of very many people of that generation because it’s one thing to support the cause of a revolution, but after the revolution ends, then you have certain expectations of your leaders in peacetime. And I guess a lot of people here might ask whether the revolution, the victors of the war have been able to deliver on the promises they made to the people. And it’s been 40 years. Even in democracies, we have disillusionment with our leadership after a short period of time when the euphoria ends. So you can imagine looking around the world at one-party systems after many decades, and the same leadership still in place, what are the attitudes. In some of these places, they change rather quickly, in other places they change less quickly.
The irony is at the time, from McCarthy through the late 1960s and Nixon, we were warned of the the red menace, you know, “The Communist Chinese are in league with the Vietnamese and therefore we have to stop the march of communist aggression.” And in fact the Vietnamese hated the Chinese.
Right. Well, then there’s North Korea, where I’ve also spent some time.
Really? That would be fascinating.
Yeah. I was there for ten days in 2013 as a guest of the KPA, the Korean People’s Army, an elite unit.
Now there’s a place to settle down with a nice girl (we had been talking over dinner about the experience of dating in Asia for longtime western expats). (Laughter.)
Oh yeah. But I have no doubt that there are many in the government who desire normalized relations with the United States. And the reason is from the formation of the DPRK, until the collapse of the Soviet Union, they were able to play their two benefactors off one another, Beijing and Moscow. Like the Vietnamese, the North Koreans do not want to be a tributary state of China. And the sort of historical animosity and suspicion that exists here in Vietnam toward the Chinese has been… My observation is that it also exists in not only North Korea, but also South Korea. So it’s a Korean nationalistic perspective. And so, having normalized relations with the west would allow them not to be so dependant on China for so many things. So we have to realize that whatever people may think, of what designs China has on its neighbors over the long term, because of its insecurities, China never wants to be in the position that it was in during the 19th and early 20th centuries when it was colonized and divided up and was weakened, and there was a fear that 4,000 years of Chinese history was coming to an end. So I think it’s very easy to understand that Chinese mindset.
So we agree that if you are not in your late fifties, it’s irrelevant, it’s just family stories. Relevant, but, you know… And particularly if you have only been born in the last 25 years, a whole different thing. So generational things. For those who were of fighting age or older during the war, what’s their attitude?
I think mostly these people are at retirement age, practically. If you were in your 20s or 30s, in the 1960s and 70s, you’re probably now interested in what life is going to be like for your grandchildren, right? People marry young here. And I don’t think that there’s necessarily a lot of looking to the past. Obviously you’ll find this in any military around the world if you were a veteran, especially if you were on the winning side, that you’re quite proud of your service. And we see the same thing in the United States. People are very proud of their service regardlass of the outcome of the conflict. They may not necessarily agree on everything with the contemporary government, but they still remain very proud of their service. So I think, from what I can tell, most of these veterans are… The fact that you lived.
Actually, that’s an interesting point. Unlike many people the United States has fought against, they won. They can almost be magnanimous about it.
Yeah. There’s a tremendous resiliency here. And it’s been, like I said, dealing with the Chinese over 1,000 years and briefly having to grapple with the French and the Americans. I find Vietnam to be very vibrant, dynamic, quite bullish on this country in the long term. Because of the character of what I see in the people here. And I can’t necessarily say that about every country I visit. I won’t name names, but, yeah, there is something here that is special.
This is a naive touristy thing to say, the only evidence I’ve seen of communism is two or three shops selling propaganda posters.
No, there’s a lot more.
Tell me about communism in Vietnam.
I am not an expert. This is only my second visit here. There are giant propaganda billboards all over the country when I’ve been out in the countryside. There are offices of the communist party in every neighborhood. It’s a one-party state. What percentage of the economy is still in the hands of the party? I’d have to doublecheck my facts, but I think 40% of the businesses are party-owned. You’re talking about infrastructure, and then from what I can tell, looking at signs by the factories I was passing by in these industrial areas, they were joint ventures with the party itself. So yeah there’s no doubt that the party has quite a dominant presence throughout the country.
And how do they handle elections here?
This is a traditional communist state and–
You’re voting for your party candidate or your local council party member?
I don’t even know if…even China has experimented with some local elections. I’m not sure that there’s anything like that here. Certainly there’s no contested elections.
So, for example, our waitress, very pleasant young woman and she’s got a good job, seems well presented. At what point does she get in trouble with the communist government of Vietnam for saying what?
If she wrote a blog criticizing the government, she’d go to jail.
That’s heavy stuff.
Yeah. You can look it up, I dont know what the number of bloggers that are presently in jail for blogging…
So can Americans look back through some political filter and say, “See, we told you, we were trying to save these people from this kind of totalitarianism, authoritarianism, and yeah they’ve grown the economy a bit but they’ve had to suffer through this for forty years and goddamn, we gave it our best effort to try to save them from it.”
I think, I don’t think it’s possible to take a one end of the filter look at Vietnam right now in terms of US geopolitical interests. It’s very interesting, fascinating to me, that there have been overtures by the government of Vietnam to the United States looking for closer ties, including possibly the use of Cam Rahn Bay, and there’s no doubt, as I mentioned before, that the Vietnamese see China as much more of a threat than the United States. And from the US perspective, I guess there’s an open question about how we should engage with Vietnam. We have a new ambassador here, who I believe is the first openly gay ambassador.
Really? What’s his name?
I follow him on Twitter. Ted Osius III. So the question is, some people might say, “What right does the United States, after meddling in Vietnam to the point of a long and tragic war, which did not cause the communists to collapse, what right do we have to intervene in any way into this country?” And others would say, “Well, we have American principles that need to be upheld and we need to apply these principles fairly to all countries we deal with, including the issues of freedom of expression and human rights.” And there’s no doubt that there are serious problems in that area here. And the United States government does criticize, okay? But to what degree should it affect this relationship with Vietnam? And then the other thing to look at is maybe we should be more pragmatic and if we’re looking at American geopolitical interests and for those who believe that interest is trying to keep a rising China as a maritime power in check, and to reassure allies and friends and others in the region, including neutral states, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, that we don’t have treaties with, as we do with countries such as Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, Australia, that if push comes to shove, that we’re going to be there to stand up for our treaty partners and for others who would be the victims of aggression from a Chinese navy in the future. So, yeah, it’s a complicated, multi-faceted puzzle. And Vietnam is at the absolute core of that in this part of the world.
In the beginning of Nick Turse’s book, Kill Anything That Moves, he shares the story about Ho Chi Minh helping the American war effort during World War II, office of special services (OSS), and he gives a speech to a half million in Hanoi, opening with the words to our declaration of independence…
And we ignored it.
And we ignored it and we said, “Let’s help the French” and then the rest is history.
At that moment, because it’s very easy to fantasize, “This man was a great democratic patriot and if only we didn’t ignore…” at what point do you think that Ho Chi Minh really wanted to pursue American-style democracy such that if the United States said, we’re going to help these people, they helped us, the French should stay the hell out, the colonialism thing is over and we’re going to–
Which is the pressure we did put on the British at the end of World War II.
Yeah. You know, hindsight is 20/20 and looking at alternative history is pure speculation. With those caveats, I think what we can say is that I don’t think that there were a lot of things, from my study of history of the late 1940s, early 50s, about US policy toward Asia, it was just benign neglect. We were, I think, at the end of World War II when there was this big cutback in military forces, military preparedness, and…
That’s the way it used to be done right? You build a standing army when you’ve got a war and then when the war’s over, the standing army gets cut down.
Yeah. Right. Like we have nuclear bombs now. Okay. And then the threat was the Soviet Union from 1949, was that when the Soviets tested? So I think we were rebuilding Europe, we had hemispheric issues to deal with at that time, stuff that was happening in South America was much more important that what was happening in Asia. Now you look at that and it’s like, that would be considered a joke right now. We, like when the Korean war broke out, the United States was totally caught unprepared. Militarily and strategically. So when we’re looking around late 1940s, early 1950s, Vietnam, it was French Indo-China, right? How many specialists did we have in the US military or in the State Department about Indo-China at that time? And one thing you learn in dealing with the government bureaucracy, is that the problems that get the attention are the immediate crises and sort of things that may be bubbling in the long term don’t really move up the food chain very quickly or very easily. So I highly doubt that there was any… And again, you’d have consult with a specialist about this history, who has gone through all the archives, but I just don’t see that Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, at that time, that we gave him much thought.
I think that’s true. And, well said. But the moment he made that speech, do you think there were democratic instincts which became…
I would be, I don’t know. The answer is, I don’t know. But I would be… I would have my doubts. Because the way that the party and Ho rose to power was not through any sort of (laughter)–
…democratic parlays, it was by being a ruthless power, Machiavellian in the extreme. And there’s a lot out there about Ho’s, all of these, the formation of these communist parties from their time in Europe and under the French. And I…
Ho got his ideas from hanging out in cafes in Paris, right? (Laughter.)
Well, right, right. So you know, socialism was quite in vogue–
–among many intellectuals in all parts of the world in the 20s, 30s, and 40s…
Sometimes someone phrases it in a certain way and it becomes clear. Lenin was actively agitating against colonial forces, which is an obvious thing for communists to do, but if you then were under colonial rule and you see this Dutch East India Company, and the French rubber companies, and you see all these French…
The democratic nations were not where you turn to for allies for, as a revolutionary fighting colonialism.
Democratic nations either in a beneficient way or in a brutal, vicious way, as with the Belgian Congo, etcetera, were saying, “We basically want your poor people to be our indentured servants.”
Yes. And with the Belgians they were basically slaves. Period. Full stop. They were slaves. Property owned by the king, if I recall.
That’s right. King Leopold. Your national sovereignty ain’t happening. No respect for your culture, onward Christian soldiers, you’re an inferior race. So suddenly you have this revoluationary socialist ideology coming along that says, regardless of whether you believe Das Kapital, that basically the bottom line is, what did you tell me? The bottom line is I’m going to throw off the Western colonial powers? Hmm…
Yeah. And the communist internationale was in the franchise business and was looking to expand into new markets. Yeah, there was definitely a meeting of the minds there. But yeah, if you look back on history you can see that there were all sorts of opportunities that were lost and I’m not a big fan of traditional political science because I don’t consider it to be science, and I tend more to believe in the chaos theory of politics, where, you know, there’s the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings over China that can change the weather eventually in North America. And I think it’s been the same thing in history where one small event, an accident or an archduke getting assassinated or a bullet missing a president of the United States or a dictator getting up on the wrong side of bed in the morning and deciding he’s going to invade a neighbor because he had a fight with mistress number seven the night before… A lot of things happen for not rational reasons that end up having a tremendous effect on world history. And so, you know, we can speculate all day about if this had happened or this didn’t happen, yes, the outcome of the world may have been very different and millions of people might not have died, but in another case maybe something else would have happened that could have been even more catastrophic.
This interview was transcribed and fact checked by Afterparty intern Kayley Ingalls. Thanks, Kayley!
They don’t get to see magnificent new vistas or stay in hideous, cheap guesthouses…but they are an integral part of the project and seem to be having fun with it. The biggest task for now is transcription, but they are encouraged to expand to write historical backgrounders, and provide context via images and short essays and captions. They are smart, passionate about the project, eager to learn, and a delight to work with. Here are our intern bios:
Kayley Ingalls received her BA in International Studies in 2012 from the University of Chicago. Though her coursework includes African Politics, the Modern Middle East, and the Politics of Islam, she wrote her thesis on fairy tales and their increasing use as a vehicle for discussing the Holocaust. A good-natured stickler for grammar, she enjoys studying the subject casually and taking the odd class on mechanics and usage. Since graduating, she’s tried her hand at working as a Library Assistant and teaching summer school at an exclusive private school in Oakland, California.
Right now, she spends most of her time working as a paralegal and volunteering with a legal clinic in San Francisco. She dreams of exploring the world and hopes to find her place in it eventually, whether it be in writing, editing, law, or something she has yet to dream up.
As a means to escape her tiny apartment shared with her mom and sister, Anaka decided to study away from home for high school and college. She began her world travel with trips to her mother’s native Dominican Republic and hopes to continue the practice on every continent. A native of New York, she has long been surrounded by peoples of varying ethnic and cultural identities. As a result, she has developed an inclusive perspective and a sensitivity to the experiences of others.
She has also developed a wide range of interests, so while her passion is literature, she has long been fascinated by world history and international relations. While learning about world history, Anaka hopes to fine tune her writing and editing skills, and overcome her fear of technology by utilizing more modern platforms of communication.