By Charles Arthur
Brooklyn, NY: Interlink Books, 2002.
Comments by Bob Corbett
Charles Arthur has provided a wonderful brief guide for the person not familiar with Haiti. This is not a travel guide in the normal sense. There is no information about hotel prices or restaurants and the like. Rather this would be more for the very serious tourist who wants to know where he or she is going, or more likely for the missionary, relief worker or business person who is going to be in Haiti a while and wanted to be more than a complete outsider.
The work is presented in a clear fashion, well-written and informative. Arthur divides the book into six sections:
Such a book has no choice but to simply things greatly and thus those who already know Haiti will often be caught up short wanting to say, “Well, yes, but you see…..” and then would come a much longer dissertation, most of which Arthur would accept without question. But he has the task of giving someone the overview of the six gigantic topics in 99 pages!!
What I find a delight to do in reading such a book is to see exactly where I would do it differently IF I WERE LIMITED TO THE SAME NUMBER OF PAGES. That’s the rub. Most of us who know Haiti, even if we aren’t scholars, could pick up themes which Arthur treats and add intelligently to them, giving a much less simply perspective. Obviously so could Charles Arthur. But, whether we could do this in the exact same number of pages or words: Ah, there’s the fun question.
So I read the book with that in mind and must say, in Charles Arthur’s 99 pages his Haiti gets very high marks for me. My few minimal complaints would include the following:
A real challenge is to tell the history of Hispaniola/Haiti from pre-Columbian period through 2001 in 13 pages with half dozen photos thrown in. I simply love it. It would make a fantastic party game. Set the stop watch: 5 minutes max. At the end the group votes on the best history given and argues why.
If this game were played Charles Arthur would be a creditable contender. One little tidbit sort of dates me in a way. He went through the Duvaliers and on to Aristide and has some small section headings and I came to “The Coup.” I was caught up short. “The Coup?” But he just finished the section on the Duvaliers? I realized if we’re using the definite article “the,” I still think of Feb. 7, 1986 as “the” coup in my Haiti experience. Perhaps because I was in Haiti just a few days before and saw it building, perhaps because THAT coup seem to be the necessary condition for all that has followed. I’m not sure. It’s an utterly trivial point and tells us more about Bob Corbett and Charles Arthur than about Haiti. But the experience in reading amused me though neither of those two coups amused me!
In the “Intervention” section of the history, the last 1 ½ pages of his mini-jaunt into the subject, Arthur takes a rather clear and defended political stance for Aristide, Lavalas and against neo-liberalism. He makes no bones about his politics, presenting this section more as a factual report that a controversial political analysis.
This is a broad section which runs the gamut from education and healthcare, to such other huge topics as the churches, ngos, the Diaspora, human rights, deportations, drug transshipments and all. A dizzying array for 11 pages with photos. I liked it all and would think I’d not do as well in my imaginary party game competition. I would have found a way, however, to add more forcefully to his grave skepticism about education for the masses, that the schools are not simply bad, but probably so bad that their actual non-existence would be better than their current existence in the form they take. But what would I cut out to squeeze such talk in? Perhaps a bit less lashing out at foreign aid.
I liked this section a great deal and would want to say most of what he said. I’d have reorganized the order of my presentation of the same material somewhat to lay emphasis on one item. Arthur correctly cites the huge unemployment figures, and rightly stresses that this is very misleading since the informal economy exists and everyone is in some sense working all the time, thus, effectively, NO unemployed. Arthur makes a clear and accurate distinction between “employment” meaning something like the 9-5 job with guaranteed pay. Yet, I’d place that distinction about the informal economy and the technical way in which “employed” is used so that it was right at the point of the mention of unemployment figures in the 70% arena. It can be very misleading to neophytes to the Third World in general or Haiti in particular to see this official looking hard number and only later on come to the details of the nature of the informal economy.
I know in my very early and naïve days in Haiti back in the beginning of the 1980s I had read those unemployment figures and was so puzzled when I arrived in Haiti and everyone I saw, from small children to old folks who should have been sitting in a rocker with their feet up, were working like crazy from sun up to sun down. Only later did I learn this fine distinction and come to know that most of that work didn’t count as “real” employment.
Once again Arthur jumps into the thick of the political situation and describes the politics of Haiti with a significant degree of involvement on his part. I would have used my time in a much more neutral manner, but that may well be a weakness not a strength. I think it reflects more a lack of conviction on my part about what to think about contemporary Haitian politics than it is that Arthur and I see a different reality.
I was rather taken by the fact that the section of “The Future” is exactly 6 lines long. Mine would be about the same, but we’d say different things. Here he is noticeably restrained, just making a fairly obvious prediction that it is likely to be “volatile.” I would get into big trouble. My six lines would defend a political view of virtual hopelessness for Haiti, a theme that would win me few votes in my party game situation! Every time I’ve defend this view on my e-mail list I’ve gotten blasted from all sides. I’ve never revised the view, but have expressed it less often in the past few years.!
Arthur’s cultural section is one I greatly admire. He gives an admirable, fair and accurate picture of Haiti’s dominant religion, Voodoo and then adds material on the major arts, music, literature and the plastic arts. In such a short section with only 11 pages to tackle those four topics and soccer to boot, I wouldn’t do much different, just a single word. My “Voodoo” as opposed to his “Vodou.”
He says: “The real battle for spiritual allegiance in Haiti has been, and continues to be, waged by Christians against the practice of “serving the spirits,” a religion better known as Vodou.”
I would serious challenge that. Better know by whom? The mass of English speakers, and especially the primary audience of this book will most likely be seeing the spelling “Vodou” for the first time in their lives. If they know of the religion at all they will know of it as “Voodoo” the spelling of the religion of Haiti in all but specialist literature.
But, that’s a point of great debate, of course. Nonetheless I think the normal reader of this book will simply be confused by the spelling, or think perhaps it is the French or Creole spelling rather than the English one.
[Fascinating little point. While I was proof reading these comments and ran a spell check on it, my Microsoft Word program singled out “Vodou” and recommended that I meant to write “Voodoo”!!]
No matter with these tiny little quarrels along the way, and the very minor reorderings, Charles Arthur has done an admirable job of presenting Haiti to the unknowing foreigner in a very readable and good looking photo-accompanied 99 pages.
I would recommend it for any groups who are bringing new folks to Haiti, and for those of us who have friends who know of our love of and fascination with Haiti, be we citizens of this land or foreigners involved with Haiti, this book would be a nice starting point for giving these folks something to read to help them understand what Haiti is to begin with from which we could try to expand and enrich those starting points. Of course the best way to do that is bring them to Haiti and show them around. In either case Arthur’s book is a very useful starting point.
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