Easter Sunday: April 20, 2014

For those who celebrate it… Happy Easter, everyone. This blissfully quiet long weekend in town continues. It seems our entire neighborhood has migrated, except us. We are enjoying it.

Finance Minister Peter Phillips.

Finance Minister Peter Phillips.

Budget anger: On Thursday, Finance Minister Peter Phillips told Jamaicans how he plans to finance the 2014/15 budget. His announcement of a “progressive” tax on bank transactions has gone down like a lead balloon among Jamaica’s middle classes (let’s just call them the “working poor.”) The levy on withdrawals from deposit-taking institution and encashment from securities dealers is expected to raise J$2.3 billion – about one third of the announced tax package. As I write, some are questioning economist Dr. Damien King’s interpretation of that word “progressive.” Attorney at law Marc Ramsay (now here’s another Jamaican blog you should follow – http://www.marcramsay.com) is encouraging Jamaicans to sign an online petition that is circulating protesting the taxes. Actually I believe there’s more than one. Dr. King says: “It’s progressive because the poorest hardly use banks so they will pay zero. Use of banks rises with income…”  Hmm.

Why the bitterness? It’s something called distrust. Young Member of Parliament and State Minister Damion Crawford tweeted that he didn’t know what all the fuss was about, adding fuel to the fire of discontent. But Jamaicans all know about two things: corruption, and tax dodgers. When are measures going to be taken to address these issues? I understand that would be difficult and costly, so let law-abiding Jamaicans suffer with new tax measures. One man said on television that he is going to start saving his money under his mattress. Jamaicans already pay very high bank charges (this is a government tax, of course).They are anxious about a pending large increase in electricity bills. The prevailing mood is a simmering anger. Meanwhile, at the end of 2013 the Gleaner reported from the Auditor General’s report: “Eleven importers who owed the Government some $1.2 billion in general consumption tax (GCT) and other taxes from 2011 were still able to get waivers valued at $4.2 billion in the last financial year.” It’s against this kind of background that Jamaicans feel they are being unfairly treated, again.

I am told a "phablet" is a medium sized tablet from which one can make phone calls. OK, then.

I am told a “phablet” is a medium sized tablet from which one can make phone calls. OK, then.

“Phablets,” Minister? Oh, there is no customs duty on “phablets.” This is the first time I have ever heard this word. Where did you get it from, Minister Phillips?

The inflation rate for the fiscal year ended up at 8.3 per cent, just below the target range of 8.5 per cent to 10.5 per cent. For this and more economic data, http://www.digjamaica.com is an excellent source, by the way.

Members of the Alpha Boys' Band play for The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on their arrival at the Norman Manley International Airport a few years ago. - Winston Sill/Freelance/Gleaner

Members of the Alpha Boys’ Band play for The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on their arrival at the Norman Manley International Airport a few years ago. (Photo: Winston Sill)

On a positive note: Good changes are taking place at Alpha Boys’ School, which was recently dragged into a completely unnecessary controversy. Apart from the Alpha Boys’ School Radio (which I recommend highly!) and a new music studio, a screen-printing training program will set up shop soon, with support from the Digicel Foundation and others. The football field is reportedly once again in very good shape. After all, “Onwards and Upwards” is their motto!

Fire and pollution… The Riverton dump again. (Photo: Twitter)

Fire and pollution… The Riverton dump again. (Photo: Twitter)

AGAIN? So soon? Yes, the Riverton City dump (and I wish the officials would stop calling it a “landfill”) starting burning again on Friday night – fifteen acres of it. This close-up photo was taken by a news team who visited there yesterday. Now, the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) says the fire is “contained” (but not necessarily out) and I hear there was nasty smoke billowing out up to last night. How could this happen again?

The drought deepens: It is hot and it is windy in Kingston. We can literally feel the yard drying out, minute by minute. But we must – must – conserve water, as supplies are getting alarmingly low in both the reservoirs that serve the city. They contain about three to four weeks’ worth of water, we understand. This is frightening. Montego Bay got some rain yesterday, but the capital city desperately needs some really good, heavy showers.

Disturbing: I was surprised and disturbed by a full-page article by the Sunday Observer’s “Editor-at-Large,” an all-out ad hominem attack on former Deputy Commissioner of Police Mark Shields. The editor did not like Mr. Shields’ concerns over a sensational, front-page report in the same newspaper last week, making certain allegations relating to the Vybz Kartel murder trial (I did not write about this as I considered it irresponsible journalism myself). Mr. Shields suggested the report was indeed irresponsible, in that it put peoples’ lives at risk. The editor’s vitriolic response was unnecessary and very unpleasant, indeed. Come on, Sunday Observer… As I have said in previous blog posts every week, you can rise above the gutter. Don’t dig yourselves in deeper.

Easter recommendations and kudos:

Alpha Boys' School Radio

Alpha Boys’ School Radio

I’ve been listening to some great roots reggae, ska, dub, you name it today on http://www.alphaboysschoolradio.com. Yes, the Alpha Boys’ School Radio station is up and running online; you can even download the free mobile app for your android or iPhone. Find them on Twitter and Facebook. Tune in! According to the radio station, Alpha Boys’ Band started in 1892 with drum and fife; then got some brass instruments from the United States. The boys found out then that it was “a lot of hard work, a lot of practice.” 

Free at last! Superintendent Rudolf Edwards (right) of the Tamarind Farm Adult Correctional Centre seems quite pleased as he joins Gillette Ramsay (left), a volunteer with Food for the Poor Jamaica, in sharing the good news with one of the three inmates. (Photo: Gleaner)

Free at last! Superintendent Rudolf Edwards (right) of the Tamarind Farm Adult Correctional Centre seems quite pleased as he joins Gillette Ramsay (left), a volunteer with Food for the Poor Jamaica, in sharing the good news with one of the three inmates. Food for the Poor paid the fines of 21 prisoners to ensure their release for the Easter holiday.  (Photo: Gleaner)

Food for the Poor Jamaica has done its twice-a-year routine, ensuring the release of 21 prisoners who were unable to pay fines for minor offenses and ended up in jail. So they are enjoying the Easter weekend with family, now. Thank you!

Remember the Coptics? As the debate on ganja legalization/decriminalization continues, fellow blogger Barbara Blake Hannah reminds us of a piece of history: the emergence of the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church in eastern Jamaica during the seventies, and the impact this had on Jamaican society and politics. Read more at http://barbarablakehannah.wordpress.com/2014/04/20/remember-the-coptics/ 

I love this photo of Antoinette Wemyss-Gordon, the first female Commanding Officer of the JDF Coast Guard. (Photo: Gladstone Taylor/Gleaner)

I love this photo of Antoinette Wemyss-Gordon, the first female Commanding Officer of the JDF Coast Guard. (Photo: Gladstone Taylor/Gleaner)

Many congratulations to Antoinette Wemyss-Gordon, who has become the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) Coast Guard’s first female Commanding Officer. What an achievement! Interestingly, she says women should not “rely on their femininity” when seeking to advance their military career. Male colleagues, she adds, “expect you to behave equally like them, like just another officer. That’s where you earn your respect.”

It’s very sad that four Jamaicans were murdered on Good Friday. Among them, a teenage boy and a friend who were reportedly targeted by robbers in Clarendon. Another teenager was injured. My condolences to the families who are mourning this weekend:


Phillip Douglas, 24, Farm/May Pen, Clarendon

Omar Joseph, 16, Farm/May Pen, Clarendon

Owayne Barrett, 33, Old Harbour, St. Catherine

Nigel Steele,Old Harbour, St. Catherine

Unidentified man, Nain, St. Elizabeth

On the road: A 69-year-old woman was killed in Chudleigh, Manchester on Thursday. The driver was apparently speeding, hit a wall, and the woman who was a passenger was flung out of the car. Was she wearing a seat belt? In any case, can we please just SLOW DOWN? And another young policeman was killed that day, while riding his motorcycle in Kingston. I hope everyone is taking care on the roads this holiday weekend.

Good Friday Music

Good Friday is almost over. It has been blissfully quiet on our usually busy street. The only sounds have been the springtime wind in the trees, the song of the “nightingale” (our mockingbird) perched on the lamp post, and the occasional, obligatory bark from our dog, when she felt she really had to register her presence. You would never have thought you were in the city, at all.

The fantastic German tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal in the Metropolitan Opera of New York's latest production.

The fantastic German tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal in the Metropolitan Opera of New York’s latest production. (Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera)

At the end of the afternoon, we felt as if we were awakening from a very long meditation. We had played our entire four-CD set of Wagner’s “Parsifal.”  We often don’t get past the first CD, but when you listen to it in full, it slowly and steadily seeps into your soul and your heart. It is sublime. It is hypnotic. It requires focus.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

OK, I know Richard Wagner doesn’t have a good “image.” Unfortunately, Adolf Hitler was a big fan; some of Wagner’s own views were controversial to say the least. Hitler thought Wagner’s epic operas fitted in beautifully with his concept of heroic Germany. And Wagner was not a particularly lovable person. But then, nor was Johannes Brahms, who wrote such fine music but was a miserable, bad-tempered man.

Flower maidens try to lead Parsifal (Jonas Kaufmann) astray. (Photo: Sara Krulwich/New York Times)

Flower maidens try to lead Parsifal (Jonas Kaufmann) astray. (Photo: Sara Krulwich/New York Times)

But if we can (please) put all of that on one side, “Parsifal,” Wagner’s last opera, is more than just an opera. At five and a half hours long, it is a journey. It took Wagner four years to compose. At its first performance at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth in 1882, he was already ailing. It is based (loosely) on a thirteenth-century epic poem called “Parzival,” about one of the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table, but there is much more to it.

A scene from "Parsifal."

A scene from “Parsifal.” (Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera)

A part of Act 3 is called “Good Friday Music.” It was actually prepared as a separate piece, and it’s the scene where Parsifal arrives at the Castle of the Grail (the Holy Grail or chalice) and rests in a meadow filled with flowers.“This is Good Friday’s magic spell” (Karfreitagszauber), says the knight Gurnemanz. In 1865, Wagner wrote to his friend and patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria: “A warm and sunny Good Friday, with its mood of sacred solemnity, once inspired me with the idea of writing Parsifal; since then it has lived within me and prospered, like a child in its mother’s womb. With each Good Friday it grows a year older, and I then celebrate the day of its conception, knowing that its birthday will follow one day.” 

The final act is filled with hope, redemption, and a kind of emotional and spiritual cleansing, hard to describe. Here Parsifal holds the Holy Grail. (Photo: New York Times)

The final act is filled with hope, redemption, and a kind of emotional and spiritual cleansing, hard to describe. Here Parsifal holds the Holy Grail. (Photo: New York Times)

If you read the story of “Parsifal,” you might think to yourself: “What the heck?”  This opera may sound like a sort of religious hotchpotch, with maidens and knights thrown in; but it is not. The music transcends and blurs the lines. The final Act simply shimmers with emotion, with hope, redemption and all those wonderful words that give our lives meaning. And I don’t see it as a purely “Christian” work; Wagner was not particularly religious, but interested in spirituality in his later years. He was reading the work of Persian Sufi poet Hafez at the time, and was apparently planning to write an opera about the Buddha.

Evgeny Nikitin as the magician Klingsor in "Parsifal" at the Metropolitan Opera of New York. (Photo: Sara Krulwich/New York Times)

Evgeny Nikitin as the magician Klingsor in “Parsifal” at the Metropolitan Opera of New York. When we saw the opera at Covent Garden in London many years ago, the Jamaican-born Willard White played this role. He was very sinister, indeed. (Photo: Sara Krulwich/New York Times)

“Parsifal” is not easy to understand, and draws on many cultural references. There is magic. There is darkness and fear; there is passion, and even an (attempted) seduction scene. It could actually have a lot of appeal for younger audiences, given the enormous popularity of “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Game of Thrones” and other lengthy, vivid and powerful fantasy narratives. However, it requires huge amounts of patience, and the attention span of our young people does not extend to well over five hours. It unfolds slowly. Slowly, and beautifully.

The opening Vorspiel (Prelude) of the opera is calm and stately. “Parsifal” ends on lingering, peaceful notes. It is springtime, the weather is sweet, and all’s well with the world.

I hope you had a wonderful Good Friday.

P.S. To our great chagrin, the current Metropolitan Opera of New York production – with the stunningly charismatic and accomplished tenor, Jonas Kaufmann in the title role – was not among the operas chosen for the worldwide HD live broadcasts. I can understand why; its length is a major drawback for that kind of thing. But I am so sad that I will not be able to see the wonderful Mr. Kaufmann – whose performance in Massenet’s “Werther” was exquisite – as the wandering fool Parsifal in our local cinema. Never mind. 

Tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the latest production directed by Francois Girard at the Metropolitan Opera of New York. (Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera)

Tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the latest production directed by Francois Girard at the Metropolitan Opera of New York. (Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera)

Alpha Boys’ Home Statement by the Sisters of Mercy

MY DEAR READERS: This is a statement from the Sisters of Mercy, who administer the Alpha Boys’ School for abused and abandoned boys on South Camp Road in Kingston. Alpha Boys’ is an educational institution founded by Jesse Ripoll in 1880s. It has a tremendous tradition of musical accomplishment. For more information on this wonderful place, go to: http://www.alphaboysschool.org

I am also publishing below the statement a column written by Jean Lowrie-Chin in yesterday’s “Jamaica Observer.” This column also makes it clear that Alpha Boys’ has been struggling financially for years; but despite the closure of its residential program there is much hope for a new and brighter future for Alpha boys. 

Let us show the Alpha Boys – and all our children, especially those in State care – more love, compassion and respect.

The Sisters of Mercy are forced to break our silence in the face of unfortunate statements on the Alpha Boys’ School and resulting media commentaries, including a shocking cartoon, which have been disrespectful and have caused great stress to our students.

It is bad enough to make harsh remarks and direct hurtful “humour” towards adults, but when directed at children, it is irresponsible and indefensible. We wish to express our sadness at this turn of events on behalf of Alpha students and children in State care everywhere in Jamaica.

The untruths and half-truths that have been voiced and published in the press about the closure of the residential programme at Alpha Boys’ School have caused serious damage to our boys who are presently living at Alpha. We seem as a society to be unable to strike a balance between fair political comment and good journalism on the one hand and sensationalism in politics and journalism on the other hand opting only for sensationalism. Let us stop blaming the victims in this case and bring the voices of reason to bear on what is a very positive and life-giving move for the future students at Alpha Boys’ School.

The Community of the Sisters of Mercy have made a decision regarding the closure of only the residential programme at Alpha Boys’ School based on many factors related to finance and personnel. These are not new problems and over several years we have raised the issues of inadequate finance and social misbehavior to the attention of both Governments. The residential program at St John Bosco Children’s Home in Mandeville which is also operated by the Sisters of Mercy will continue to provide residential care to over 100 boys.

However our decision is now timely in the present climate and direction of the Child Development Agency’s (“CDA”) new thrust toward foster care and family reintegration: our decision goes hand in hand with the CDA’s thrust to put the responsibility for child rearing back into the home. Support services will also need to be a part of this transition.

The restructuring of Alpha will facilitate the Sisters of Mercy along with the Ministry of Education and HEART to offer remedial education for more than 200 boys, along with technical and vocational education. Our renowned music education will also be expanded to include radio, sound production and commercial components.

Truth – “What is truth”? Pilate’s dilemma comes to mind as we read and heard the words of those who testify against our management of the Alpha Boys’ School. We hope this statement will address that question, and that all parties will allow our precious children to receive the respect they deserve.


15 April 2014

Sister Marie Chin, Regional Administrator

Religious Sisters of Mercy,

“Alpha”, 26 South Camp Road

Kingston 4.


Mercy alive and well at Alpha Boys’ School

Jamaica Observer, Monday April 14, 2014

AFTER almost 130 years of nurturing Jamaican boys, the Alpha Boys’ School is closing its residential facilities. On the positive side, however, the school will expand its educational offerings. You would think that an institution like Alpha would have no difficulty receiving a decent subvention for its good work. But, like many others of its kind, it has been struggling financially.

“We understand that the decision to close the residential part of Alpha Boys School has been subject to misunderstanding and misinterpretation,” commented Sister Marie Chin, area administrator of the Sisters of Mercy, when I called her after hearing the reports. “We appreciate this opportunity to explain that the closing of the residential part is due to a constellation of factors that are as much social as they are economic.”

She said pointedly: “The problems that have arisen in this programme did not materialise overnight; nor do they belong solely to Alpha Boys’ School. They have grown exponentially alongside the deterioration of societal values and norms, our seeming incapacity to halt our country’s downward spiral into alarming dysfunction, and inadequate government funding to meet the social and developmental needs of our people.”

It seems that the Minister of Youth and Culture Lisa Hanna may have misunderstood the situation, as she ascribed the change in operations to deviant behaviour among the students. Sister Susan Frazer, the administrator for Alpha Boys’ School, wants to make it clear that it is a small minority that gives cause for such concern. The students are deeply hurt by this comment, so we hope that the minister will explain to them, that her sweeping statement resulted from a misunderstanding.

Thank goodness the great Usain Bolt lifted their spirits when he visited Alpha Boys School last Wednesday and presented gifts to all.

“The Sisters of Mercy remain firm in their long-time commitment to boys at risk,” said Sister Marie Chin. “Neither Alpha Boys’ School nor St John Bosco (which the Sisters operate in Manchester) is closing. In fact, Alpha is undergoing a restructuring that will enable the ministry to help more boys who are at risk. Part of the restructuring will include closing the residential part only of Alpha Boys’ School as the Sisters of Mercy join with the Ministry of Education and HEART to offer literacy, numeracy and remedial educational along with technical and vocation education for more than 200 boys.

“With the escalating cost of living over these last years, the amount of funds that Government has given per capita to private children’s homes, such as Alpha Boys’ School and St John Bosco, for housing, clothing, food, and education has proven to be woefully inadequate,” said Sister.

After several attempts to address this situation the Sisters of Mercy have had to acknowledge some hard facts: “Our childcare system is broken, and we can no longer continue doing business as usual. It is no longer enough to simply provide beds for our children. We must seek alternative ways to enable our vulnerable children to enhance their potential as human beings and to become employable and responsible citizens capable of taking their rightful place in society. And, with the changes we are initiating, we are pursuing that path.”

Alpha Boys’ School graduate, the legendary musician Winston ‘Sparrow’ Martin is the bandmaster for the school and outlined the plans for the expansion of their cherished and esteemed music education which has developed such other talents as Cedric ‘Im’ Brooks, Dwight Richards, Lennie Hibbert OD, Tommy McCook, Don Drummond, Johnny ‘Dizzy’ Moore, Rico Rodriguez, Winston ‘Yellowman’ Foster, Dizzy Reece, Lester Sterling OD, Dalton Browne, Nicholas Laraque, Leslie Samuels, Harold McNair, Wilton ‘Bogey’ Gaynair, Bertie King, Leslie Thompson, Damon Riley, Tony Gregory, and Leroy Smart.

They have played with many top bands, including Bob Marley and the Wailers, The Beatles — yes, those world-famous Brits — and our legendary Skatalites. Alpha past students have worked with or now work with Beres Hammond, Beenie Man, Jimmy Cliff, Stephen Marley, Damian Marley, and Nomaddz.

“The future developments at Alpha Boys’ School mean larger numbers of students will be able to take advantage of a comprehensive music industry training programme at the school,” said Sparrow Martin, “including but not limited to: training in performance; work in the newly created sound studio; radio technology; as well as the ‘business’ of music and recording”.

He said that Alpha Boys’ School Radio (http://www.alphaboysschoolradio.com/), features local and international productions and has been gaining worldwide popularity, with over 60,000 unique listeners. Many of them have contributed to the recently completed Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign which will enable the school to build its own radio studio. Here, the students will be trained in production, presentation, promotions, and programming.

Thanks to the Jamaica National Foundation, the school is also developing a state-of-the-art music recording studio, where there will be instruction in recording techniques, audio engineering and audio production.

“Alpha now has its own top band, the Alpha All Stars, a touring band consisting of Alpha graduates playing jazz, ska, rocksteady, and reggae,” said a proud Martin. “The band will be an opportunity for Alpha alumni who demonstrate an ability to perform and will facilitate the transition from school to work. This is a music enterprise, so instruction will include an introduction to and practical experience in contracts, booking, licensing, promotion, and publishing.”

Additionally, students will be trained in screen-printing, woodwork, general maintenance, landscaping, hydroponic farming, and other skills. It is a model that has worked well at St John Bosco, where farming, meat processing and catering are helping that residential facility, also run by the Sisters of Mercy, to be self-sustaining. It is noteworthy that the catering manager there is none other than Newton Coote, who was rescued at seven years old after his hand was set on fire by an abusive father. Newton, who is now 40, is an exemplary leader at Bosco.

Clearly, mercy for Jamaica’s children remains alive and well with the Sisters. Alpha Boys’ School will continue to educate and train Jamaica’s boys so that, like Sparrow Martin and Newton Coote, they can become responsible citizens, embracing the dignity of honest work and enjoying the fruits of their success.

Jean Lowrie-Chin

The (Un)bearable Lightness of Being

I put the bracket in the title above, because at this stage I am not sure whether it’s bearable, or not.

It’s not so easy to center yourself, to find and explore your inner self. For me, the hard part is the physical part.

The lovely practice space, evening time. (Photo: Facebook)

The lovely practice space, evening time. (Photos from Facebook page)

So it was with some trepidation that I first approached the TrueSelf Centre of Being, a haven of tranquility among tall trees and many birds in uptown Kingston. I was attracted by an invitation to join a special Yin Yoga session for activists, conducted by a gentle Canadian woman with blonde dreads. I consider myself an activist, more or less. It was a long evening, with the whistling and chirruping of crickets and frogs as a soundtrack and the scent of candles and incense wafting across the space. But I hardly noticed the time passing. We did a lot of noisy exhaling. Our teacher propped me up on occasion with various objects, to prevent me simply toppling over in embarrassing fashion. I realized I can hardly sit cross-legged any more.

After that, I felt ridiculously stretched and at the same time loose and relaxed. I spent the following day feeling very comfortable with my body (apart from aches and pains here and there). So I ventured to dip my toes in again, and this time it was Kundalini Yoga – a morning session, complete with birdsong. This was possibly the most rigorous workout I have ever experienced – including those hectic aerobics sessions I used to attend in my younger days. I have all kinds of things wrong with my back (I won’t bore you with details). By the end of the class, it had been twisted, stretched and massaged in a hundred different ways, while sweet and soothing music murmured to me in the background. For the next two days, my muscles quietly complained to me – including some I never knew existed – but I felt great. Invigorated inside and out.

Some of the lovely items that bring my stiff old body some comfort!

Some of the lovely items that bring my stiff old body some comfort!

Looking out...

Looking out…

Yesterday, I took my husband along to a Tai Chi session. We are both complete novices, my only brush with martial arts having been a huge enthusiasm for judo at high school in England. We were both nervous. We both, of course, found it ridiculously hard even to walk in the correct way from one end of the room to the other. For those who don’t know, or have never practiced yoga (or tai chi): None of it is as easy as it looks. It is incredibly demanding. You find yourself in an impossible position where you are supposed to have reached the floor – and you are only half way down. And then you remember – oh, I’m not breathing! Breathe…

I have seen people doing Tai Chi in the park; it looks so easy and relaxed. Well it isn’t easy, although one day it might get easier. We are both determined to try. If at first you don’t succeed…

At the end of our Tai Chi class, we went outside onto the lawn. Grey clouds floated around, serving no useful purpose. With our toes deliciously tucked into the thick grass, we raised our arms and faces to call down some rain. Later that afternoon, large warm drops of rain fell for five minutes, and then stopped. No, we were thinking of a bit more than that, Oh Rain God.

Did I mention that all of the above has been an uplifting experience? Truly. My head feels clear and alert, and the rest of my body is trying hard to catch up. I could get addicted to this.

Moreover, Deepak Chopra is starting one of his online meditation series on Monday. “You will hear a soft bell…” In the end, both my mind and body will feel so light, I might just float away.


The TrueSelf Centre of Being is on Facebook, and you can contact them at (876) 819-7899 or trueselfpractice@gmail.com. Do some good for yourself and sign up for a class today! 

The Centre's peaceful garden. (Photo: Facebook)

The Centre’s peaceful garden. 






Rastafarian Thoughts on Reparations (A Re-Blog)


The issue of reparations for slavery has been much in the news, following further Caribbean Community (CARICOM) discussions this month, and much media commentary. CARICOM has adopted a “10-point reparatory justice framework, presented by Professor Sir Hillary Beckles, head of CARICOM’s Reparations Commission” according to reports. The Caribbean leaders are hoping to hold talks with Europe on the matter in June. Since this issue is likely to recur throughout the year in our local media, I am adding this to the mix of commentary: The views of members of the Rastafarian community (and herself) from Barbara Blake Hannah’s excellent blog. Good food for thought!

Originally posted on Thru Red, Gold & Green Spectacles:

Through RGG Specs RASTAFARI REPARATIONS        The topic this week is Reparations, about which I am famously (and infamously!) known for having written “Forgive Slavery, Forget Reparations” – a 2006 article that gained me not only further notoriety, but my first death threats. I had begun my article with the firm statement that the call for reparations was completely justified due to the horrors of the trans-Atlantic trade in Africans, their inhuman and brutal enslavement in the Americas and the free labour that developed and enriched Europe for 300 years. If ever there was a just cause, it was the need for a retribution – even perhaps revenge – for a most terrible act against humanity, it was for slavery. The call for Reparations is a basic principle of the Rastafari faith, whose principles I accept. JARM logo (2)

But, having taken up the Reparations banner from 2001 to 2007 in my effort to…

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Oh Happy Day

If I went out on the streets of Kingston today and asked random people, “Are you happy, at this moment?” I am sure I would get a variety of responses. Some would scratch their heads, others give a wry laugh. While a few might say, with some degree of certainty, that they were in fact happy at that particular moment, there would, I suspect, be a lot of “ifs” and “buts” involved.  If you asked children, they would be more straightforward, as they always are, and give you an honest answer. Yes or No.

Bob Marley had a great smile - well, he seemed to laugh a lot, right?

Bob Marley had a great smile – well, he seemed to laugh a lot, right? And a love of life…

Well today – Thursday March 20, 2014 – if you didn’t know already, is International Day of Happiness. The United Nations Foundation has teamed up with the irresistible Pharrell Williams (who should have won an Oscar the other day, in my view, for his film music) in a vibrant campaign to put smiles on people’s faces. You can see more, and donate at 24hoursofhappiness.com. I have to admit that replaying his song does that for me – and did  you know there is a Jamaican version? It’s rather short but delightful and you can find it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFugJzhrsUM Oh, and the Guardsman Group in Jamaica (yes, security is big business here) has released a really fun video today, too.

Happy Pharrell. Can't go wrong with this message.

Happy Pharrell. Can’t go wrong with this message!

As the United Nations website says: “Lasting happiness does not come from what we consume, how we look or how much we earn. But, let’s be honest, you probably knew that already!”  Well, I hope we do.

By the way, Pharrell has also launched another project, which I find rather interesting. It’s called “i am OTHER” (iamother.com) and you can find it in all the social media. It’s an effort to expose and encourage the work of unusual and creative people who are “doing their own thing” in different fields (and also, of course, it promotes his latest album, but I hope it is more than that!) Do check it out.  “We are proud to be different and believe that individuality is the new wealth.” Nice!

The World Happiness Report is a product of the UN's Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN).

The World Happiness Report is a product of the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN).

So then, back to happiness. The World Happiness Report 2013 had some people rather baffled. But it makes interesting reading. In case you are wondering, Jamaica is about half way down (or up) at #75 out of 156 countries. If you are talking Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago is some way above us at #31 and then there is Suriname at #40. European (especially Scandinavian) countries dominate the top ten, along with Canada and Australia. Israel and Costa Rica are right up there, too. The criteria used are GDP per capita; healthy life expectancy; perception of corruption; freedom to make life choices; generosity; and social support. 

Jamaica's VIsion 2030 is available online at http://www.vison2030.gov.jm

Jamaica’s VIsion 2030 is available online at http://www.vison2030.gov.jm

This rather ties in with some thoughts I have been having on Jamaica’s “Vision 2030.” The Happiness Report attempts to measure human wellbeing across the globe, and hopes this will be used as a policy-making tool by governments seeking to connect with the people, so to speak. There are some thoughtful discussions on things like values. And one very important discovery: with at least one in ten human being suffering from serious mental illness globally, mental health is a key factor that is not being addressed by our leaders. This is certainly true of Jamaica.

Can we stop trying to chase the bluebird of happiness? (Photo: Isidor Jeklin/Cornell Lab of Orinthology)

Can we stop trying to chase the bluebird of happiness? (Photo: Isidor Jeklin/Cornell Lab of Orinthology)

For the skeptical (and I am not short on that quality either)  - we know, “happiness” is not an over-the-rainbow bluebird thing, always to be pursued, always elusive, sitting there on the horizon waiting for you to catch up with it. And there is no automatic “happiness switch.” There is nothing worse than forced jollity. As the Dalai Lama so wisely put it: “Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.”

Surely the Dalai Lama is one of the happiest people on the planet. Do you ever see him not smiling or laughing? It's infectious. (Photo: Mads Nissen/EPA)

Surely the Dalai Lama is one of the happiest people on the planet. Do you ever see him not smiling or laughing? It’s infectious. (Photo: Mads Nissen/EPA)

I remember distinctly that Bobby McFerrin song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” that was played ad nauseam on Jamaican radio in the aftermath of Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. I love Bobby, but in the midst of considerable trauma and suffering it was just too much. It actually hurt. 

International Day of Happiness 2014

International Day of Happiness 2014

But… I defy you to watch the global version of Pharrell’s video and not break out in a grin, or even laugh out loud. It’s at 24hoursofhappiness.com and it keeps changing as the time zones change. Currently it’s up on a mountainside with a bunch of crazy skiers in the snow. There’s a video from Antarctica – complete with whales and penguins. And there’s an edited version that simply flies around the world (thought I caught a glimpse of Jamaica in there). Yes. That’s happiness. It may only last a few minutes, but it’s there. And as a social media fanatic, this page encapsulates everything that I love about the connectivity and creativity that makes the world go round.

Just because he's cute and a little bit eccentric… I give you Mr. Pharrell Williams, again.

Just because he’s cute and a little bit eccentric… I give you Mr. Pharrell Williams, again.

A comment by the rather marvelous Mr. Williams really touched me, as I watched a video of his surprise visit to a school that had done a “Happy” video (yes, there are hundreds of them on YouTube). The Man With The Hat told the rather over-excited students:

“The point is…the journey. If you can enjoy the journey, then you can enjoy your life.”


Of Ports, Pinnacle and Paradise


I am sharing this first blog post on the First of March from a good friend. She has a keen eye and sharp intellect and is a woman of strong faith, too. I do hope you will follow her – and look forward to the next post!

Originally posted on Thru Red, Gold & Green Spectacles:

Little-Goat-Island--A-S COAL INSTEAD OF CORALS     This week brought the shocking news that the proposed mega-port logistics hub to be build by Chinese company CHEC will include a coal-fired electricity generating plant. If the news of the total destruction of the land, fish sanctuaries and coral reefs is not enough, Jamaican citizens will experience the smoke, ash and waste products from the world’s worst fossil fuel. With all the sunshine and land available, I wonder whether China could not have been persuaded to use some of its millions of surplus solar panels to construct a solar power plant for the controversial project. I wonder too if the proposed ‘Chinatown” city for the project’s Chinese staff will also be powered by this plant.

The smoke rising from the coal furnaces will either blow east to Kingston, west to St. Catherine or directly up to the Sligoville hills, and Pinnacle. It all…

View original 1,215 more words

Save Goat Islands 3: Jamaican Voices, And How You Can Help

I just shared with you two items that I hope will help you to understand many of the issues and the current situation regarding the proposed development of the Portland Bight Protected Area (specifically around Goat Islands) for a transshipment port by China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC). As has been repeatedly noted, the Jamaican Government has been extremely reticent in disclosing any details on the planned development, and has blocked requests by the Jamaica Environment Trust for information. Meanwhile, I am sharing with you comments from Jamaicans, obtained from social media – in particular, from the petition website at change.org. I have not shared their names but I think they speak for themselves.

How Can You Help?

Read the Briefing Paper on the Goat Islands/Portland Bight posted by the Jamaica Environment Trust on http://savegoatislands.org, where you can find updates, articles and much information, including ways in which you can help. The link is here: http://savegoatislands.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Goat_Islands_PBPA_Briefing_Paper.pdf

Become a member of the Jamaica Environment Trust! Volunteer, or make a donation… Visit the JET website at www.jamentrust.org for more details.

Buy a Save Goat Islands T-shirt – available via the online form in Jamaica (J$1000) or in the U.S. for $15 at this link: https://www.booster.com/savegoatisland. See the Save Goat Islands website for further details.

Share the short animated video “Don’t mess with Goat Islands,” created by Jamaicans. Here it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7wAg7y3h2A (It’s very catchy, I warn you!) Lyrics: Inilek Wilmot; Vocals: Quecee; Music: Jeremy Ashbourne. Animation: NivekPro Animations. A new, beautiful PSA video can also be seen at http://savegoatislands.org/photos-videos/videos/

Thousands of people from Jamaica and around the world have signed the petition on change.org, here: http://www.change.org/petitions/no-to-port-on-goat-island-jamaica-no-trans-shipping-port-portland-bight-protected-area-jamaica?share_id=eqkTTbjcGd&utm_campaign=autopublish&utm_medium=facebook&utm_source=share_petition  If you have not signed it yet, please consider doing so and share with anyone who may be interested. It includes many heartfelt comments from supporters, as well as additional articles and information. Please add your thoughts, too!

Write to Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller; President/CEO of the Port Authority of Jamaica Professor Gordon Shirley; Dr. Omar Davies, Minister of Transport and Works; and Robert Pickersgill, Minister of Land Water Environment and Climate Change. Contact information is at savegoatislands.org.

Write to the newspapers: the Jamaica Gleaner (letters@gleanerjm.com) and the Jamaica Observer (editorial@jamaicaobserver.com). If you are overseas, please spread the word online via the media, etc… Please also call radio and television stations to raise the issues.

Join the Facebook page: No! To Port on Goat Island Jamaica. It is updated daily with news, relevant articles and updates, including links from many of our supporting organizations – plus archived information that you are unlikely to find anywhere else. Please also join the Facebook pages of the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation (C-CAM), the NGO that manages this Protected Area; and of course that of the Jamaica Environment Trust, which spearheads the campaign in Jamaica.

Follow @SaveGoatIslands and @jamentrust on Twitter.

The Voices of Jamaicans (just a few of the comments over the past two weeks):

“Jamaicans need to wake up. This large state-owned Chinese corporation has no interest in the people of Jamaica, its history or environmental sanctity.”

“We need to safeguard our environment and natural beauty for future generations to enjoy.”

“This is my heritage!”

“Because I still live on planet Earth and want to see the other species allowed to live here too.”

“Preserve the land: preserve our heritage: preserve our people.”

“This area is close to the family of my mother and is important to my cousins.”

“I believe in sustainable living.”

“This is important to me because plants and animals are just as important to the survival of the world even thought they may seem like they ‘hinder development.’”

“I support the protection of all reserved lands, untouched lands and endangered species.”

“I live in Jamaica, I don’t want it to be destroyed over foolishness.”

“We are selling out our birthrights and destroying our natural heritage. Let’s keep fighting for all the voiceless flora and fauna.”

“We need to protect our waters and endangered species!”

“The land is already protected, it’s the law, it’s for the people of Jamaica. Why give it to some foregin country, which doesn’t care about our land.”

“We have to protect the environment for future generations.”

“The Government still has NOT told us what the tangible benefits to Jamaicans will be. I’m sure a lot of money will be made … but relatively very little will be staying in Jamaica.”

“Many fishermen will be jobless if we do not take a stand.”

“Once destroyed it cannot be had again, at least not in the lifetime that we will have, should it be destroyed.”

“Our Country our Future.”

Photos by Max Earle, Ted Lee Eubanks and myself.











Recording our Ancestors: Part 2

“I never met my grandfather.” 

So said Joseph de Leon, of Queens, New York. He and his son (also called Joseph) were among a group of American Jewish volunteers working at the Jewish Cemetery in Orange Street, Kingston. The group, led by Rachel Frankel, visited Jamaica last month; this was their seventh consecutive annual visit to the island, to painstakingly record the rich Jewish heritage to be found not only in Kingston, but across the island.

Joseph de Leon (left) and his father Joseph stand with the grave of Joseph Sr.'s grandfather at the Jewish Cemetery in Orange Street, Kingston.

Joseph de Leon (left) and his father Joseph stand with the grave of Joseph Sr.’s grandfather (also Joseph) at the Jewish Cemetery in Orange Street, Kingston. Grandfather Joseph died in 1962, so this was in the more modern side of the cemetery.

Joseph Sr. discovered during his explorations that not only his grandfather, but his great-grandfather and grand-uncle also had their final place of rest at Orange Street. He and Joseph Jr. also found two infant graves. He was himself born in Jamaica; the de Leons were merchants. He started researching his family through the genealogical websites (and there are several excellent ones) and has not stopped.

Tumbling down: Part of the older section of the cemetery. As you can see though, the brick perimeter wall is in good condition.

Tumbling down: Part of the older section of the cemetery. As you can see though, the brick perimeter wall is in good condition.

The large cemetery is still not full. One half of the space is taken up with graves prior to 1880 – red brick tombs with marble slabs on top. Some of the bricks are tumbling down. Many of the beautifully inscribed marble tombstones have slipped. They lie cracked, in one, two, or several pieces, discarded. Some are propped up against the bricks. It’s like walking through lives that are now in pieces, and I felt the strong urge to straighten them all up and rebuild everything and make it new and neat and tidy. The newer half is white and shining and neat in the sunlight. The grass is neatly cut. There are no trees, but I met an old dog resting quietly in one corner, in the shade of the perimeter wall.

I met Amy Wachtel, from New York. She has long, thick brown hair and a warm and lively smile. Why is she volunteering in Jamaica? “Because I am a Jewess,” she said, and because of my love of reggae music – I am in the music business!” This combination of factors was more than enough to bring her to Jamaica. She is familiar with the long-established music stores in Orange Street; she’s an expert and an enthusiast. Amy (aka“Night Nurse”) broadcasts a weekly show (Mondays from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m) on http://www.radiolily.com called “Rockers Arena.” The station broadcasts live from the front window of Miss Lily’s Variety (130 West Houston Street, if you are in New York) – a well-known store and restaurant. Amy concentrates on “classic” reggae – roots rockers and the like. Miss Lily’s website notes: “Amy believes that reggae is a soothing, healing, uplifting music.” 

Amy's weekly "Night Nurse" show.

Amy’s weekly “Night Nurse” show.

I know it’s a cliché, but it’s certainly a small world. We are more connected than we think; and music has a way of doing that.

A note on the children’s graves: These were in a separate section of the cemetery, and they made me feel sad. Of course, infant mortality was much higher in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many of the children’s graves were of the red brick variety, but the clean and well-kept marble tomb of “our little pet” was most touching. Rudolph Jacob Salmon died on April 17, 1875 aged six months and five days.

The children's section. The tombs so touchingly small...

The children’s section. The tombs so touchingly small…

There is a period of mourning in Jewish tradition, which reminded me of the Jamaican “Nine Night” or “Dead Yard,” an extended wake. “Sitting Shiva” is a  seven-day period of mourning, during which relatives gather at the house of the deceased, say prayers and eat and drink.  Nowadays, though – as with Jamaica’s Nine Night – it is not practical or economical, and only done for one night.

I wonder

I wonder what kind of young woman was Alexandra Sarah Abraham, who died at such a tender age?

I had an interesting chat with Rachel Frankel, the group leader, on the Jamaican and Jewish people’s approach to history. Why, I asked myself afterwards, are Jamaicans so ambivalent about their history?

Well, history is unforgiving. You can’t rewrite it; it is what it is. And Jamaica’s history is especially brutal. For Jamaicans of African descent, family history was cruelly broken by the Middle Passage and further torn apart by the daily horrors of slavery. From then on, it became the history of an oppressed people. Colonial history is not palatable; Jamaicans bear the names of their slave-masters and it’s incredibly hard – well-nigh impossible – to trace your ancestors back more than a few generations.

But there are stories – individual stories – that can be salvaged. We can start, I firmly believe, by recording the histories of our ancestors – our own family members – both recent and more distant, as far as possible. There is archival material available. I would also suggest just sitting down and talking to elderly people that you know; whenever I have visited the Golden Age Home, too, I have become aware that the residents have so many – so many! – fascinating stories to tell.

Personally, because of my father’s great interest in genealogy, I grew up with family stories (some of them not very edifying, and some downright peculiar). But the stories anchor you. Your ancestors made you who you are. This is why I was particularly distressed to hear a recent conversation on radio with the former Mayor of Kingston Desmond McKenzie regarding the May Pen Cemetery in West Kingston. It is still used, but has become a kind of nightmarish wilderness, where criminals reputedly hide – a place of fear. I will refrain from telling some rather horrific stories about its condition and its use in recent history. If the government cannot afford the occasional “bushing,” whereby men with machetes clear the overgrown tangles of vines and “macka,” then couldn’t some of the residents keep the graves of their family members clean? Or are they just to be abandoned forever?

An old picture postcard - what May Pen Cemetery used to look like.

An old picture postcard – what May Pen Cemetery – where some well-known Jamaicans are buried – used to look like. Now it is chaotic, wild and not a place anyone would take a stroll through.

People move on, and the times move on. We must all create our own history, starting today. We owe it to our ancestors. And we owe it to our ancestors to preserve their memory. That’s just my view.

Joseph de Leon Jr. makes notes.

Joseph de Leon Jr. makes notes.

Simply "Baby."

Simply “Baby.”

"Our Little Pet."

“Our Little Pet.”

A broken grave.

A broken gravestone.

Amy (foreground) and her colleague Lisa recording details of one of the graves.

Amy (foreground) and her colleague Lisa recording details of one of the graves.

Postscript: Do you know which Jamaican Prime Minister has Jewish ancestry?

Very recently, the Spanish Government decided to offer Spanish citizenship to the Sephardic Jews that it persecuted and expelled centuries ago. This would presumably include those who fled to Jamaica. According to a Jewish website, “522 years after King Fernando II and Queen Isabella I signed an edict ordering the expulsion of Sephardic Jews, the government in Madrid approved a law permitting the descendants of those expelled to claim Spanish citizenship without conceding the citizenship of the country of their residency.” There may be huge bureaucratic challenges, but let us see how this works out. [Quite reminiscent of the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290; they were readmitted by Cromwell centuries later, in 1656. History is a funny old thing, isn't it?]

I wanted to glue these pieces back together...

I wanted to glue these pieces back together… A Nunes Henriques of Spanish Town.

The Danger of Indifference: Some Thoughts for the Week

“I came to a conclusion that the peril threatening human kind today is indifference, even more than hatred.”

This article (with video and audio) about holocaust survivor, writer, poet and human rights activist Elie Wiesel, comes from WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station. You can read and hear more at http://www.wbur.org/2014/02/10/elie-wiesel-visionariesI feel compelled to post it here, because I feel that this apathy, this “I don’t care,” is becoming a growing global affliction. It is certainly present in Jamaica, in so many ways, so many situations. Indifference to suffering and injustice and pain. And there is also the violence: “Haven’t we learned anything?” asks the Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Another Peace Prize winner Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said “Hate is too great a burden to bear.” Yes, hatred is a burden. But, as Mr. Wiesel notes, it takes a lot of energy to hate. Indifference is easy, it requires no effort. Therefore, I would suggest, it is even more insidious. 

Much food for thought.

BOSTON — Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel witnessed the unimaginable when he was only fifteen. And what he saw has defined his life ever since.

Wiesel was born in 1928 in Sighet, Transylvania (now Romania). His father was a community leader and a Zionist. His mother espoused the religious beliefs of her father, a Hasidic farmer. The young Wiesel studied Judaic texts, sang, played violin and dreamed of conducting an orchestra. Then in 1944, Hitler’s Final Solution reached his remote town. Wiesel’s family and neighbors were herded into cattle cars destined for concentration camps. Wiesel never saw his mother and one of his sisters again.

A young Elie Wiesel. (Courtesy Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity)

“In those places, in one night one becomes old,” Wiesel said during a recent interview in New York. “What one saw in one night, generations of men and women had not seen in their own entire lives.”


One night, Wiesel’s father, ill with dysentery, was swept away to the crematorium while his son slept in the bunk above. When he was liberated from the Buchenwald camp in 1945, Wiesel made a vow of silence not to speak or write about his experiences for 10 years.

“I wanted to be sure to find the words, the right words,” Wiesel said. “I’m not sure I did. I have doubts. To this day I have doubts, because there are no words.”

This April 16, 1945 U.S. Army file photo shows prisoners of the German Buchenwald concentration camp inside their barracks, after U.S troops liberated the camp. The young man seventh from left in the middle row bunk is Elie Wiesel. (AP)

This April 16, 1945 U.S. Army file photo shows prisoners of the German Buchenwald concentration camp inside their barracks, after U.S troops liberated the camp. The young man seventh from left in the middle row bunk is Elie Wiesel. (AP)

After World War II, disgusted, heartbroken and alone, a teenage Wiesel went to Paris. He studied at the Sorbonne and found work writing for Israeli and French newspapers. Then Francois Mauriac, a prominent French writer, convinced Wiesel to finally put pen to paper. The young survivor called his tale “And the World Remained Silent.”

“I was saying, ‘Look, it happened, and the world knew,’ ” Wiesel explained.

But he couldn’t find a publisher. “They said it’s too sad and too morbid,” Wiesel recalled about the rejection letters.

Eventually, Hill & Wang agreed to publish the dark memoir, but Wiesel was told to rename it. “La Nuit,” or “Night,” hit bookshelves in 1960.

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”

Wiesel said it took five years to sell 3,000 copies. But eventually “Night” became a bestseller, and it’s still taught in classrooms around the world.

Professor Michael Dobkowski has been introducing undergrads to Wiesel’s slim, 116-page memoir for 35 years. He teaches classes on the Holocaust at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y.

“It drags you into this anti-world, into this upside down universe that we understand the Holocaust to be now,” Dobkowski said. “And it does so by stories, which I think is one of his great gifts.”

Dobkowski witnesses the book’s sobering effect on his students year after year. And the professor says it changed the course of his own life when he first read it as a student (and self-described Wiesel “groupie”) in the 1960s. Dobkowski calls it “the first Holocaust narrative” and says it put the atrocity onto America’s cultural radar.

As a professor of 38 years at Boston University, Wiesel also touched thousands, including Martha Hauptman. She was his personal assistant for 27 years.

“I stayed with him because he was not only an inspiration to all of his students, but he was an inspiration to me,” she said.

Hauptman started working with Wiesel after taking the first class he taught at BU in 1976. She described Wiesel as an accessible, moral model and vividly remembers the wisdom he passed on to his students — including, “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.” 

Wiesel has delivered countless lectures about the tempting but dehumanizing power of apathy.

“I came to a conclusion that the peril threatening human kind today is indifference, even more than hatred. There are more people who are indifferent than there are people who hate. Hate is an action. Hate takes time. Hate takes energy. And even it demands sacrifices. Indifference is nothing, but indifference to hatred is encouraging hatred, and is justifying hatred. So what we must do — I mean your peers and mine – is fight indifference.”

Wiesel also told his students that he didn’t want his past to become their future, Hauptman recalled, adding, “This is how I see the visionary in him, because that’s what he really believed. And he would say, ‘Do something, anything, start somewhere, anywhere.’ ” And Hauptman said they did.

Professor Michael Zank, director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies at Boston University, is gathering reflections from former students and academic peers who’ve been deeply influenced by Wiesel. Zank counts himself among them. When he first read “Night” back in Germany, where he was born, he remembers being touched by its tone. Wiesel asks questions, Zank suggested, for which we know there are no answers.

“Instead of drawing your attention, for example, to images of horror, [Wiesel] tries — like Primo Levi — to conjure the human being confronted with horror and restores the humanity to that human being,” Zank elaborated. “He wants us to look beyond the dehumanization that is associated with genocide and see the person.”

But Wiesel’s sphere of influence expanded greatly after he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. The committee called him a “messenger to mankind.”

In humbly recalling the moment, Wiesel said, “That day the world listens. That day. The next day they forget — but that day they listen.”

And they continued to pay attention to Wiesel. When an international crisis erupted, media calls would flood the professor’s office, seeking his response. He used the Nobel Prize money to create the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity with his wife of more than forty years, Marion. Wiesel has spoken out against torture, persecution and genocide in places such as Cambodia, Argentina, Rwanda and South Africa. Even so, Wiesel questions how much influence he’s actually had.

“Not enough really. I’m not playing with false modesty, but the decision makers, I’m not sure I affected them,” he mused.

In a speech at a 1985 White House ceremony, Elie Wiesel pleaded with President Ronald Reagan to abandon a scheduled stop at a military cemetery during his coming visit to Germany. (AP)

In a speech at a 1985 White House ceremony, Elie Wiesel pleaded with President Ronald Reagan to abandon a scheduled stop at a military cemetery during his coming visit to Germany. (AP)

Which isn’t to say he hasn’t tried. He’s had a knack for using public events to make face-to-face requests of decision makers — like the 1985 White House ceremony where he unsuccessfully lobbied President Ronald Reagan to cancel his trip to a cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, because Nazi SS soldiers were buried there. And at the dedication of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993, where he implored President Bill Clinton to stop the bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia.

Wiesel actually played a major role in creating that now-iconic D.C. museum. President Jimmy Carter recalls asking Wiesel to chair the Commission on the Holocaust and the Memorial Council charged with overseeing its design.

“I knew that he had a terrible personal experience in the Holocaust itself,” Carter said in a phone interview. “And I didn’t know if he wanted to take on this emotional responsibility.”

Wiesel said yes, but was determined to create not just a memorial, but something more ambitious: a center of learning and research dedicated to preventing further atrocities.

“A memorial unresponsive to the future would violate the memory of the past,” Wiesel said. Today, two million people visit the Holocaust Museum each year.

President Carter also asked Wiesel to advise him in the creation of The Carter Center for human rights.

“I’ve learned to appreciate his objectivity,” President Carter said. “An objectivity heavily oriented with idealism. I think he has always exemplified — at least in my experiences with him — a commitment to peace and to justice and to basic human rights.”

The two elder statesmen haven’t always seen eye to eye, especially regarding the tensions in the Middle East. Others have taken issue with Wiesel’s stance on Israel, his spiritual home.

“I think there is an unwillingness on Professor Wiesel’s part to speak about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Joshua Rubenstein, who directed Amnesty International’s northeast office for 37 years.

“[Wiesel] expresses his sadness over the suffering of course, and the conflict and the violence, but when he’s been approached to speak about Palestinian suffering he has deferred,” Rubenstein said. “He’s said he really would only want to be critical of Israel in Israel. This has disappointed many intellectuals and activists in Israel itself who have a great deal of respect for Wiesel but expect more of him.”

Rubenstein points to the controversial full-page ad Wiesel published in 2010 in The New York Times. In it he wrote, among other sentiments, that Jerusalem belonged to the Jewish people.

“I don’t speak or write to please or not,” Wiesel said when asked about reactions to that and other times when he’s courted heated disagreement. “I speak or I write about things that matter to me and that are therefore essential to me. If they pleased some people, and displeased others, too bad, or too good.”

President Obama and Elie Wiesel at the memorial site for the “Kleines Lager” (Little Camp) inside the Buchenwald concentration camp near Germany where Wiesel was imprisoned as a child. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

President Obama and Elie Wiesel at the memorial site for the “Kleines Lager” (Little Camp) inside the Buchenwald concentration camp near Germany where Wiesel was imprisoned as a child. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

Speaking to BU Professor Michael Grodin revealed a different side of Wiesel.

“I think most people associate him with the Holocaust, which I think is understandable but unfortunate,” Grodin said. “It doesn’t capture who he is as a person.”

Grodin, a practicing psychiatrist, has known Wiesel for years. (Wiesel wrote the introduction for Grodin’s 1992 book, “The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code,” which he said put him on his academic path.) Grodin teaches classes on bioethics in the context of the Holocaust and works with victims of trauma around the world, including the dwindling population of Holocaust survivors. Grodin said Wiesel always responds to letters and phone calls from others who suffered through brutal treatment in the concentration camps.

“He’s a pretty serious guy, but, you know, he has these moments where he opens up and he’s transported back to Romania and the old country,” Grodin said. “When you start to sing songs, particularly in Yiddish, you can start to see he lights up. And he takes himself back to that place. He’s a child again, an adolescent.”

Sitting in his foundation’s office on New York’s Madison Avenue, the spry 85-year-old Wiesel considered the world today, and his penetrating eyes darkened a bit. In the wake of our contemporary wave of tragedies, including 9/11, he laments that his central humanist messages have not been heard.

“Otherwise why should there be such an obsession with violence these days?” he asked. “Don’t we know? Haven’t we learned anything? That is my question and my despair.” 

At the same time, Wiesel holds onto hope and still maintains an unfailing faith in humanity’s potential. He told me his students are his life. When asked if he wishes he’d done anything differently, Wiesel said of course he did.

“It wouldn’t be normal not to regret or have remorse,” he said. “Meaning, have I really written or said the right way about certain things? Did I use the right words?

“At night they come to haunt me — the words I have not used,” the poetic and prolific writer admitted.

But the words Wiesel has used will carry on — and there are a lot of them. He’s written more than sixty books, and says he is always working on the next one.

Wiesel Elie