Cambodia Then; Gaza Now

On July 4, 2006, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights issued a press release: An Israeli helicopter gunship had fired a second rocket on the Islamic University campus in Gaza; Atfaluna institute for children with hearing disabilities was damaged due to sonic booms earlier in the week; and two bombs had been dropped on Dar Al-Aqram School.

It is easy enough to view the damage to these structures as something that can be rebuilt if all we see is the physical; it is far more difficult to grasp the unmistakably metaphor of such destruction. The metaphor is a calculated strategy that has been employed repeatedly over centuries by forces seeking dominance: “Destroy cultural continuity and you can destroy the community; strike the repositories of learning and culture; break the thread.” One of the most unfathomable aspects of recent events is why the U.S. does not call out these crimes against humanity as the unmistakable metaphors present themselves.

I can’t help thinking about my dear friend in Gaza who recently received her MBA in library science. Last year in August, she sent me pictures of herself along with other members of the library staff. There they were, smiling, calmly cataloguing and shelving books in preparation for the opening of the new learning facility for the children of Gaza. I have thought back on those pictures on many occasions. It is hard to image the type of unshakable courage and persistence of vision a person would have to maintain in order to go to work every day, submitting one’s self to the precision of the Dewey Decimal System, all the while, everything around you is in militaristic upheaval with no apparent end in sight.

Cambodia Then

Two decades ago, I sat on a plane headed for Ithaca, New York. I was on my way to Cornell University to view Cambodian palm-leaf manuscripts with Sos Kem. The manuscripts had been rescued following the genocidal rampage and the attempted cultural cleansing of the Cambodian people by the Khmer Rouge in the mid-70s.

Cornell has played an instrumental role in rehabilitating Cambodia’s library and archival infrastructures. When the outside world arrived in Phnom Penh to assess the destruction, the National Library of Cambodia was being used as a piggery, and its courtyard, a place to raise chickens. Of the books that remained on the library shelves, pages had been torn out to help fuel indoor cooking fires and to fashion cigarettes. After 1979, the end of Year Zero, only two of the original forty staff members returned to the Library.

A little boy was sitting next me on the plane and he was very curious about my reading materials. He ask me where I was going and why; he was going to see his grandparents. I wanted to be honest but not shocking. I slowly slid into the story of genocide in Cambodia during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. I told him a group of people led by a man named Pol Pot decided to reverse everything in the Cambodian people’s lives. To do this, they attempted to destroyed all the objects, artifacts, forms of entertainment, social services, and other privileges a culture collectively enjoys. I told him that it was a concerted effort to disconnect the people; if they could disconnect the people by the very things that provided them continuity, the Khmer Rouge believed they could control them.

I showed him what I had with me: pictures of the library in disarray (he was visibly upset by the sight of pigs running through a library; he attended a private school and this was not how they treated rooms where their books were kept). I explained to him how even the publishing houses were destroyed so that new information couldn’t be produced. People who wore glasses and/or who spoke other languages were killed because these characteristics were thought to signify formal education and intelligence . He sat silent for a very long time and then replied, “Oh, I think I know why this man Pol Pot did this.” I ask, “Why?” The boy answered, “He wasn’t very smart and so he didn’t want other people in his country to be smart either.”

His mother, who was sitting in the row in front of us and who had been listening the whole time, twisted around to hear what might be said next. The boy’s conclusions made sense, as far as crimes against humanity can ever make sense to the historical mind, and yet this was a vital juncture in the telling of the facts that make such occurrences more hideous and unfathomable to the human heart.

“Yes,” I said, “that would make sense but this is not the case. Pol Pot spoke fluent French and was educated by a Catholic college in Cambodia before studying in France. He read Verlaine and Nietzsche, in short, he knew better. And this makes it all the more inexcusable; Pol Pot tried to take away the people’s cultural continuity; he destroyed their books so they could never return to the place they had been for thousands of years.”

LARAY POLK is an artist, activist and founder of the Dallas chapter of Women in Black. She can be contacted at laraypolk@earthlink.net.



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