Clash of Cultures

Afghanistan,Iraq and North Korea—countries where death or suppression often assumes the form of numbing statistics. But beyond the numbers is another toll: that of cultural dislocation

Written by L A Times,Washington Post | Baghdad/kabul/seoul | Published:March 3, 2009 1:11 am

•Even with more than 2 million Iraqis displaced from their homes by war,it’s practically unheard of to see a family living on the street in Baghdad’s bustling downtown. So residents of the City Center district have been shocked by the predicament of 48-year-old Allia Abbis Ali Kassem Tibiti and her parents. For about two months now,they’ve made their home on the steps of the shuttered Rashid Theater,on the bank of the Tigris River.

Their encampment,flanked by two police checkpoints,consists of a clump of battered mattresses and dozens of cardboard boxes,plastic bags and dented water bottles.

On a recent afternoon,Allia Tibiti prepared a stew of tomatoes and vegetables on a small gas stove as her father and mother,both 65,huddled beneath blankets and stared vacantly at the traffic rolling past.

The Tibitis say they are not only without a home and money,they are also without a country. “We are Chinese,” Allia Tibiti said with excitement. “We want to go home to China,but we cannot. We are not Iraqi,we are Buddhists. We want to go home to Tibet.”

Allia Tibiti acknowledged that she and her parents were born in the Iraqi holy city of Karbala and that they cannot speak a word of Chinese,but she insisted that is their homeland. Her grandfather came to Iraq from Tibet in 1910 and settled in Karbala to teach school,she said.

“You see,we are originally from China,” she said. As evidence,she hauled out a plastic bag filled with paperwork and extracted three Iraqi travel documents. The papers said they were all born in Karbala. Under the heading of nationality was the notation “claims to be Chinese.”

Allia Tibiti then pointed to a walled compound across the street: the Chinese Embassy. Three years ago,the family met with officials there and pleaded their case,she said. “We gave all of our documents to the previous ambassador and they did nothing,” she said angrily.

A spokesman at the Chinese Embassy expressed surprise that they were claiming to be Chinese. “If I claimed to be from America,would you believe me,” he asked. LATWP

•There’s one bookstore where you’ll never,ever find a copy of The Bookseller of Kabul. That would be the Bookseller’s.

The literary feud that erupted with the book’s publication more than five years ago still endures—at least from the perspective of Shah Muhammad Rais,who hated his depiction as Sultan Khan,a liberal intellectual in public but a tyrant in his own home.

The author is Asne Seierstad,a Norwegian journalist who had come to Afghanistan in late 2001 to cover the fall of the Taliban government. On arriving in Kabul,she encountered Rais,the erudite,English-speaking proprietor of the city’s best bookshop.

Seierstad asked if she could live for a time with Rais and his family to document their domestic life as the country and its people emerged from harsh Taliban rule. Without hesitation,he agreed.

The result: a memorable portrait of a man who had fought for freedom of expression in Afghanistan but oppressed and repressed the women of his own family. The Bookseller became a runaway bestseller and was translated into more than 30 languages.

Rais says Seierstad willfully misinterpreted almost everything she witnessed,failing to take into account deep-seated social customs and the traditional roles of men and women in Afghan society.

Now Rais has a literary riposte: a slim English-language volume that tells his side of the story. Stacks of the book,titled Once Upon a Time There Was a Bookseller in Kabul,are displayed front and centre in his bookshop. “It is the only way I have to reply to all the things she said about me,” said Rais,a soft-spoken,portly man.

Rais’s family is scattered now,his first wife and three children in Canada,the second wife and two other children in Oslo. Two grown sons help Rais run the business.

Rais acknowledged that The Bookseller brought him a measure of fame he would have otherwise never achieved. People who haven’t read the book—and occasionally,some who have—will turn up with a copy for him to autograph. He always refuses.

•In one of Sun Mu’s best-known paintings from his ‘Happy Children’ series,uniformed North Korean kindergartners sing like birds huddled together on a clothesline,their beaming faces so alike they could be clones. At the bottom of the posterlike image,a red slogan leaps out against a yellow background: “We are all happy children!”

When Sun Mu,an artist from North Korea,first exhibited paintings like this in Seoul two years ago,the police showed up to investigate. They had been tipped off by viewers who missed the intended irony. After all,rapturously smiling child performers are a familiar feature of North Korean pageants,and the style mimics posters celebrating the North’s authoritarian regime.

“I’m not pro-Communist,far from it,” said Sun Mu,36,who fled North Korea in 1998 to escape famine and arrived in the South in 2001. “When people look at my paintings,I hope they can hear the children asking,’Do you really think we’re happy?’ ”

Sun Mu,who was trained to create posters and murals for the Communist government,is the first defector from the North to have won fame as a painter in the South by applying that same propagandistic style to biting parodies of the North Korean regime.

His renown,however,is shaded by political concerns. In addition to adopting a pseudonym,he refuses to allow his face to be photographed,afraid that the family he left behind might face reprisals for his art.

So far,however,his signature work has been the ‘Happy Children’ series,with its relentlessly smiling North Korean youngsters. Sun Mu said he used to wear that smile himself. “In schools,they teach you how to smile that regimented smile–there’s a certain way to shape your mouth,” he said.

Later,while serving in the North Korean Army,Sun Mu was assigned to create propaganda paintings.

At an exhibition in 2007,South Korean viewers objected to a Sun Mu portrait of Kim Jong-il that carried the title “God of Korea.” They apparently did not notice that the North Korean flag in the background had been hung upside down. Sun Mu is undeterred. “I cannot help being political,” he said.

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