» CORRUPTION & SNOW IN ISTANBUL

Corruption is like a ball of snow, once it’s set a rolling it must increase.”
— Charles Caleb Colton

Photo EssayUnlike corruption, ethnic bigotry, national chauvinism or dubious coup attempts, snow is growing rarer in Istanbul, but one day in early 2015, it didn’t seem to interrupt the usual activities of the city’s birds, fish or fishermen. A few dogs seemed on edge, and cat sightings were rarer, but otherwise it was business as usual.

Galata Bridge fishermen on a snowy day in Istanbul. - (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

I spent about two months in Turkey in the winter of 2014/15, mostly because I wanted to visit while it was still hospitable for U.S. citizens. Numerous people I spoke with in Istanbul mentioned exiled-to-the-U.S. Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen and the “parallel state” he was suspected of operating within Turkey. The eerily unvarying invocation of this exact phrase made me wonder then how manufactured or propagandistic a concept it was, and later, in 2016, to what extent Erdogan was exaggerating and scapegoating real and perceived enemies in order to orchestrate a political advantage for himself while whipping up unifying enemies for the country to hate.

Galata Bridge fisherman on a snowy day in Istanbul. - (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Of course, a majority of Turks don’t need much help when it comes to being hypernationalistic and disliking other people and nations… Continue reading

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» DANGEROUS WORDS: A Profile of Chinese Poet and People’s Historian Liao Yiwu (廖亦武)

Three months after this was written Liao Yiwu was compelled to flee China and sought asylum in Germany. He has also since released a vivid memoir of his years in detention, For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey Through a Chinese Prison.

interview and photos by Brian Awehali,
(translation by David Cowhig)

“Why should the government fear me?” says Liao smiling, the first day we meet, along with an interpreter and several friends at a riverside teahouse outside of Chengdu, in Sichuan province. “I’m just a guy who tells stories.”

Liao Yiwu ( 廖亦武 ) in Wenjiang, Chengdu, July 2010, released under CC-by-2.0 with permission of the photographer Brian Awehali

Liao Yiwu ( 廖亦武 ) in Wenjiang, Chengdu, July 2010, released under CC-by-2.0 with permission of the photographer Brian Awehali

When I was in China last year, I heard and read many colorful stories. Here’s a strictly true one: a PRC official, speaking to a visiting US official sometime in 2010, says, in somewhat condescending fashion, “We are very impressed with the gains your country has made in its short 200-year history,” to which the US official replies,  “Yes, we are very impressed with the gains of your 60-year-old country as well.”

There are, after all, people, and then there are states. There’s the massive 5,000-year-old “culture” of China, made up of many different peoples, incorporated and renegade, spread over every conceivable terrain and holding as many or more distinct and idiosyncratic beliefs and practices as they hold in common, and then there’s the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its fractious apparatus.

Beginning around 1958, under the leadership of Mao Zedong and the PRC, a roughly thirty year war was declared on the culture, traditions, infrastructure and very memory of China: temples, libraries, museums and universities were razed; millions of intellectuals, professors, specialized workers, landowners, landlords and other “liberal bourgeois elements” were imprisoned or murdered. Thirty million people—the number almost defies comprehension—starved to death after the government outlawed private farms and forced farmers in the country to send unreasonable quotas of their harvest to the cities to feed urban workers during the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to rapidly transform China into an industrial power. Compounding the stark material realities of life under Mao, during the Cultural Revolution, family members and neighbors were turned murderously against each other in series of state-directed ideological campaigns and “purges,” and official records and memories not echoing the government’s line were destroyed.

Liao Yiwu (廖亦武) was born in 1958, almost ten years after the founding of the PRC, and his often principally embattled life and many volumes of work both cast extraordinary light on the traumatic and complex collision between the Chinese people and their modern state. He’s been imprisoned and tortured for writing and distributing his poetry, and though his work has received significant international attention and acclaim, it’s also completely banned in China.

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» THE U.S.-CHINESE MINING RACKET IN AFGHANISTAN

by Brian Awehali

On a recent trip to Mongolia, I found the place filthy with miners. I rarely come into contact with people in the mining industry, but I often read about their exploits, usually in the Wall St. Journal, The New York Times, and The Economist. So much of global politics is about competition for resources that I’ve always thought it was wise to pay attention to the aims and strategies of those tasked with acquiring and processing them. I definitely want to know what a mining executive thinks about political and economic realities, for the same reason I read the business press.

On the flight into Ulaanbaatar, I sat next to a Canadian miner employed by an Australian company, who was in the Gobi helping to set up a copper mine. He told me lots of interesting things about transnational mining companies doing business in the region. It’s mostly Chinese, Russian, Korean and French companies, and selling what’s under the ground is basically the only real business in Mongolia, though they’ll be happy to sell you a cashmere sweater or a variety of felted wool products as well:

On my flight out, I sat next to an American mining executive on his way from gold mining in Mongolia to an oil drilling gig in Kazakhstan. This second executive talked a lot about the backstory of the mining business, about corruption and bribery, and he claimed that “risk averse” U.S. and European mining companies were losing out in the resource wars. He spoke of some sordid realities of the mining business and shared stories about Nigeria, Mexico and… Afghanistan.

Afghanistan? Did the U.S. have mining operations in Afghanistan? Not exactly. But were we in the mining business in Afghanistan? Absolutely, in a manner of speaking.

“Oh yeah,” the mining executive said, leaning in confidingly: “The Chinese just won the largest copper mining bid in the world after bribing a bunch of Afghan officials, but that’s not even the worst part.” He paused for dramatic effect, then continued: “The worst part is that it’s the U.S. providing military protection for the Chinese to do it!”

Interesting. Once I got back, I started looking into U.S-China-Afghanistan relations, and found that this guy was basically speaking the truth: Continue reading

» FOOLISHNESS AND GENEROSITY IN GORKHI TERELJ, MONGOLIA

by Brian Awehali

During an extended trip to East Asia, my partner and I took a two-week trip to Mongolia, partially because our Chinese visas required it, and also because of Mongolia’s wild, largely undeveloped openness. For nature. After the extreme urban clamor of China, this sounded perfect.

Ger in Gorkhi Terelj, Mongolia, photo (c) 2013 Brian Awehali

Roofward perspective from inside a ger in Gorkhi Terelj, Mongolia, photo (c) 2013 Brian Awehali

We flew into Ulaanbaatar (UB), the capitol, from Beijing, and spent two days there before heading to the countryside. I was told by some long-timers that UB used to be attractive when the country was still under Soviet “administration,” but it’s hard to believe. Today, it’s a dusty and vegetation-free city made of large Soviet-style concrete block architecture with paint peeling off from the extreme cold of UB’s winters. Tourist-focused shops, of which there are many, hawk camel, yak or wool knick-knacks and sweaters alongside various products, from vodka to war helmets, commemorating Chingiss Khaan.

Traffic in UB is congested, and the roads, attacked as they are by extreme conditions, are in various states of decay. Air quality is exceedingly poor, owing to two main factors: the widespread use of coal as fuel for heating, and the unplanned growth of a city built for 300,000 swelling to over a million in too short a time. Mongolia only has about 2.5 million people, and over a million live in UB.

We were happy to head for the countryside. Our host and guide, Bogi, drove us several hours to the northeast, and found a “nomadic” herding family for us to stay with for two weeks. They had a ger (yurt) and agreed to prepare two meals a day for us. Perfect.

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