by Ares Demertzis (Aug. 2008)
Sun setting. Long, slanting beams of dull orangeyellow radiance slash across the empty airport terminal. La Aurora. Guatemala City. There is only one other individual present, a stooped, anorexic, middle aged cleaning woman assiduously running a wide, long handled mop across a spotless floor not in need of her persistent diligence. I´m drifting in and out of a light slumber, sitting on an uncomfortable, rigid plastic chair that’s permanently locked into five others that are exact replicas of dozens lined up in faultless precision across the extensive, bare-but-for-the-chairs cavernous interior space. An almost vacant airport terminal! Travel was indeed different then, before the terrorist hijacker, murderer of the elderly, women and children was honored with remarkable cynicism, even for the jaded sensibilities of the twentieth century, with the Nobel Peace Prize: the Arab, Mohammed Abdel Rahman Abdel Raouf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Husseini, better known as Yasser Arafat.
So much history falls victim to expediency. I am certain that years from now, perhaps even at this writing, new generations will consider three hour flight check-in and invasive security procedures normal. Like schoolchildren in urban settings who color the sky grey and respond to the question “where do apples come from?” with what for them is obvious: “the super market.” It will be politically incorrect, considered xenophobic, chauvinistic and bigoted to divulge the truth: a resurgent, supremacist Muslim ideology was to blame. Islam was responsible.
Two more hours until my connecting flight to New York. Unattractive terminal for a country with such extraordinary natural beauty. Should have done what I normally do when I come through here: stay a few days; visit Atitlan, Chichicastenango, Antigua. But I´m a free lance film director; “we are all grape pickers, we go where the work is,” Orson Welles is credited with saying, and I have a job pending in Dakar. I need that paycheck; now more than ever. My real estate taxes were raised to fifteen thousand annually (I´m informed they are currently thirty five thousand for the individual who purchased the house after my divorce). Thirty five thousand dollars to the government of the United States for the privilege of a roof over one´s head! How much does one have to earn to pay thirty five thousand simply as tribute for home ownership? And you better pay up, or the unforgiving, implacable suits in skinny ties and black tie shoes will cometagetcha. At three o’clock in the morning. With guns and handcuffs. They have all the power to destroy a citizen, regardless of the Bill of Rights, written by fellows just like me, distrustful of unrestrained government. Fwbou To Kratos! Beware the State!
In some countries, such as Greece, the government considers it an obligation to provide complimentary shelter for its citizens; there are no real estate taxes for primary residences. Now, the problem isn´t so much scraping together the cash when you´re working and making money; the difficulty arises when you retire and the social security check just won´t cover the government´s financial assault. Ah, yes, of course. In its unbounded magnanimity the United States will forgive your entire real estate obligation after retirement; however they will also own your home outright after you pass away. Thomas Wolfe had it right: I can never go home again.
My “progressive,” collectively inclined, socially concerned friends ardently remind me that real estate taxes in America are destined to pay for our young people’s education; with so much investment provided, why is American education in a perpetually infamous crisis? An internet search provides the following appalling information: Fifty percent of American adults are functionally illiterate. Sixty percent of American youth drop out of school with only a useless grade school education. Of the top eighteen industrialized nations, American students rank last on standard tests. So, bro, don´t mess with my head by deceiving me into thinking my money is being spent on a brighter future for America. Education has been effectively usurped by the teacher´s union and its extensive membership, which forfeited an obligation considered as ethical as the physicians Hippocratic Oath, in exchange for pecuniary gain – and in the process, destroyed American public schooling.
Inflexible chair. My backside is going numb; should shift my weight to the other cheek. There. That´s better. It suddenly occurred to me that someone should go into competition with the government. Legally, of course, not like some folks who compete to see who can print more money. Find some venture capital and start a company that offers retirees payment of their real estate taxes in return for ownership of their home upon their demise. If I´m not mistaken, actuarial tables indicate most people live approximately ten years after retirement, so for ten years of real estate tax payments, the corporation would have a house worth substantially more than the total investment. The property could then be sold for a considerable profit. Actually, the company could be even more generous than the government, as is so frequently the case with private enterprise, by offering to provide an annual cash bonus during the life of the retiree, or a death benefit that covers funeral expenses. Ask me, I´m full of brilliant, extraordinarily bizarre ideas.
Today is Friday. Thursdays and Sundays are market days in Chichi; the entire heart of the village explodes in a festival of brilliant color radiating from intricately hand embroidered fabrics on display under makeshift canopies shading the fierce brilliance of a Mesoamerican sun. Hordes of cinammon skinned indigenous people. Buying. Selling. Occasional tourists.
Two sparkling white structures dominate either end of the square. Built on top of what are meant to be mendaciously understood as vestiges of pre-Columbian pyramids. Two Catholic churches. A round stone altar at the base of the stairs leading to each of these temples of worship (no longer crimson with the blood of sacrificed victims, now merely spewing black plumes of aromatic copal incense into the transparent air), complement the syncretism of Guatemalan pagan/Christian ritual. The faithful push their way through the teeming market, following a strident musical group in traditional attire blowing trumpets, crashing cymbals, and banging drums into the hushed and darkened womb of reverence. Strangely, there are no pews to be found in this church. The floor is strewn with a thick mantle of rose petals. Dark women squat in front of lighted candles, their lips moving in unvoiced supplication to their eternally worshiped divinities, acknowledged on different occasions by different names.
An ancient, wrinkled man leans against a wooden railing limiting access to that place of priestly labor enclosing the altar, and dominated by an enormous wooden cross raised high against the wall. A bloodied and thorn crowned Christ sags in all too human pain and suffering, arms stretched and nailed across the transverse. The unspoken symbolism of the altar and the cross, inaccessible beyond the railing is self evident: only through intercession might one gain access to the Lord; a concept that had profound societal consequences for those peoples colonized by the mitre of Rome, in striking difference to those following the protestations of Luther. The American continent was slashed in two, as through the sharp blow of a machete. The Rio Grande would create one society to the South, genuflecting in supplicant solicitation of charity, and to the North a free, self-regulating people pursuing an individual quest for salvation and accomplishment. Inhabitants of the former would be obliged to endure merciless poverty; those of the latter, the enjoyment of the generous fruits of their labor.
The old man held his straw sombrero in one hand and raised a clenched fist to the god that failed him; he whispered a hoarse, muted protest in Quiché, his native tongue. Suddenly aware of the impudence inherent in his act, he dropped a cloudy, tear filled gaze. His chest heaving with contained anguish, he once again raised his fist in resentment, and then swiftly averted his gaze in abject defeat, frightened that his publicly displayed, disrespectful affront would transcend forgiveness. I walked away, an embarrassed witness to this most intimate grievance of an offended individual to an indifferent deity.
On a previous visit, Ana, who was my second wife, and I were driving to Chichi when our vehicle passed three indigenous women walking along the side of the road. “Oh, what a magnificent huipil!” she exclaimed. “Which one?” “The one in the center, isn´t it gorgeous?” Ana is a talented artist, unique possessor of an extraordinary eye regarding craftsmanship. I pulled the car over on the shoulder and waited until the women approached. They didn´t understand Spanish, nevertheless, I indicated to the one in the center that I was interested in purchasing her garment. She thrust out her hand, palm up, and I placed on it quetzals, the country´s currency, one bill after the other. At a determined amount of her choosing, she folded her fingers over the money and pulled the huipil over her head, removing it in one graceful motion. Bulky breasts hung deep over a distended stomach, exposing thick, black nipples, twisted from untold numbers of toothless infant´s mouths that had gummed them into unrecognizable distortion. The three women continued their trek, and Ana was thrilled with her new acquisition. From that day forward, I always returned from every trip to Latin America with a huipil for her, the collection becoming extensive. Since village women no longer take the time for careful, painstaking embroidery, knowing that tourists will buy their product regardless of its quality, Ana´s collection is today of an extraordinary museum quality.
On another occasion, I stayed in Guatemala on my return from Nicaragua, where I had just finished the principal photography in a documentary that was to play a very minor role in removing Somoza from the dictatorship of that country. The melancholic lyrics sung by my friend and colleague, Bob Seaman, in the sultry, tropical evenings as he strummed a borrowed guitar seemed somehow poignant reminders of the travails of the Nicaraguan people. The song was James Taylor´s “Fire and Rain.”
Just yesterday morning they let me know you were gone,
Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you.
I walked out this morning and I wrote down this song,
I just can´t remember who to send it to.
“Paraiso” wasn´t an exceptional film, nonetheless it was honored at a variety of festivals, screened for select members of Congress, and broadcast nationally by CBS Television. This was probably, as with Michael Moore´s and Al Gore´s interpretive fiction, more a consequence of political predilection than for any demonstrated cinematic excellence. I arrived at this conclusion by taking into consideration the subsequent overwhelming self righteousness of mainstream American media regarding Iran-Contra – Reagan´s effort to correct a Carter administration principled error in national security judgment. “Rubbish! What national security are you referring to? Why don´t we just leave those people in other countries alone to do what they want with their lives, instead of always interfering?” Ah, if the solution to unrelenting international bellicosity were only that simple. It´s difficult, if not suicidal, to leave people alone when their avowed goal is the destruction of your way of life, your civilization. You don´t believe me, do you? Well, why don´t we take their word for it, why must we always insist on telling our self proclaimed adversaries that we know better; that they are mistaken in their vocal and substantial material assaults devastating American lives and property? Khrushchev said Communism would bury us. Fidel Castro, in addition to his verbal threats, implored the Russians to initiate a pre-emptive nuclear strike on New York, simultaneously supporting a Sandinista and Bolivian uprising as part of the Socialist agenda. He is now scheming with a Communist Venezuelan dictator, who is openly colluding with the Islamists to destroy the United States. The most respected and venerated Muslim religious and political leaders are assiduously working for the annihilation of a despised Western civilization, to be replaced by Islamic supremacist rule. They admit it. We smile understandingly, as with a naughty child, saying its nothing more than a temper tantrum. Now that’s what I consider prejudice: you are too ignorant to understand the significance of what it is you are actually saying. Adolf told the world precisely what was on his mind, however, also in those days, no one was interested. Or perhaps everyone assumed then, and is fervently hoping now, that by ignoring the threat it will simply vanish.
“That may be true, but their aggression is our fault. We attacked them first; they´re only getting even.” You must have been a terrible student of history. Your abysmal ignorance surpasses even the generosity of my patience; the truth of the matter is, for your edification, that everybody wants to rule the world.
It is of more than casual interest to me why the concept of a defensive shield to protect the United States from threatened or real devastating nuclear destruction should cause so much vociferous protest from the “progressive,” “collective,” “liberal,” elements in American society. I can certainly understand why nuclear armed nations or nuclear wannabe nations would object: the most sophisticated and potent modern weapon threatening Armageddon on an opponent would be rendered inadequate. They would be capable of neither effective intimidation nor successful retaliation. But what to make of the American Left´s objections?
Originally the protest concerned itself with the inoperability of the system; it simply won´t work. Subsequently, when that claim was proven false, the dominant hostility to implementation was cost. However, no thinking person can rationally accept this as a seriously considered objection. Keep in mind that those opposing a defensive shield are the same individuals whose fervent concern for individual safety compels them to clamor for seat belts, children´s car seats, and helmets for both youngsters and adults when riding their bicycles. They are those who are in favor of the American Global Poverty Act, an additional tax on Americans proposed by Barack Obama that will raise 845 billion dollars (in addition to the 300 billion currently provided in gratuitous foreign aid), to be used by the United Nations in the challenging, albeit unlikely endeavor to eliminate world hunger – assuming that a significant part of that money filters past the rapacious clutches of United Nations personnel and corrupt public servants in the recipient countries.
It´s only when incalculable lives and property will be lost in a nuclear attack on an American city that a surprising void materializes in their humanist ethics. Millions of endangered lives are somehow less important than the security of those perambulating unprotected astride their two wheelers on a lazy Sunday afternoon in the park. Or can this disregard be interpreted as a wicked entreaty – that in nuclear devastation the American villains will finally comprehend their guilt? As a nation, the United States should be concerned with the cruel, pitiless, enemy within: from the perverse, unforgiving, counterfeit Christianity of the American Negro, “God damn America!” in a selective, judgmental religiosity proclaiming that “the chickens have come home to roost,” and a Nation of Islam, the black supremacist movement, a laughingstock of authentic Muslims, resolved to fomenting racial hatredand, to a vicious intellectual sophistication acknowledging the appropriateness of mass slaughter by proclaiming those in the Twin Towers, each and every one, were “little Eichmanns.” It behooves the American people to be as distrustful of the fifth column in their midst as the observable Muslim peril; those who dance in glee at the massacre of infidels.
Notwithstanding Robert Redford and Michael Moore, among those privileged elites who have expressed publicly their socialist political predilection, that majority of Americans without a predetermined ideology should recognize that the world will tremble in fear if any of these callous monsters, foreign or domestic, represent the future of civilization. To appreciate the peril, simply evaluate the human condition in the nations where their likeminded ilk, who provide the inspiration, are currently in power. Disregard all that multi-culti, relativist nonsense you were brainwashed with in school. No need to be politically correct; use your common sense. Feel free to judge the existence of the citizens of those failed states under your inquiry in terms of personal autonomy, the right to unconstrained travel, freedom of expression, freedom of the press and internet communication, accountability of public servants, protection under laws not written and approved by a corrupt and self serving leadership – and applicable to every member of the society. All nations are not equal. All governments are not similar. There is no comparative equivalence acceptable as regards the brutality of oppression. Unlike the Biblical Essau, let us not profane our hard won, celebrated heritage in exchange for a bowl of lentils.
Personally, I suspect the desperate adherence to an ultimately indefensible opposition by the American Left for a nuclear shield is simply a means to avoid confessing the true and covertly held aspiration of a projected agenda by their leadership cabal. Because as they say in the current vernacular: this resistance to America´s security by American Liberals is a no-brainer. It is rapidly becoming an open secret that Western leaders have determined to forsake national autonomy and take their citizens, albeit kicking and screaming in opposition, into a new world order; a one world, one government conformity. A new Western civilization. In pursuit of peace and justice, of course.
The question: what is ultimately to be achieved by limiting the defensive capability of the United States? The answer: the continuation of an international “balance of power,” maintaining a to-date successful scenario of “mutually agreed destruction” that perforce limits unilateral action. However, this policy is effective only when dealing with allegedly rational governments; what are the options when rogue nations or terrorist organizations, some with an apocalyptic vision of human existence, acquire nuclear capability?
Currently, eagerly seeking to create an uncertainty regarding the commonly accepted permanent demise of Russian-American military parity, mainstream media breathlessly informs us, with barely dissimulated enthusiasm, of every insignificant “resurgent” Russian accomplishment that portends the revival of a previous nuclear grandeur; an amusing old mainstream media informational theatre, comparable to a mother proudly showing off her progeny after school with a silver star pasted on the forehead.
For those proposing a collective, one-world government, an American Achilles heel is indispensable to controlling the suspect, individualist driven “schemes” of the only remaining superpower. Among Americans who maintain a laudable distrust concerning their government, shared by myself and many of the signatories to the Constitution, are unfortunately also those who find it more than acceptable to expose their own vulnerability; to risk themselves, their families, and the nation, rather than provide the military advantage of a nuclear shield to their leadership. Jimmy Carter was one of these; I suspect his elimination of the draft had much to do with a strategy meant to be purposely injurious to the manpower requirements of the military, thereby limiting the probability of American adventurism in subsequent administrations. He was mistaken; the American military continued to be well supplied, albeit as an all-volunteer army.
The New Concept: If we are equally weak, we can negotiate a fair agreement. Fair has evolved into the new code word for a one-world, collective endeavor; the new mantra. Fair. As though the risk involved is no more than losing a baseball game. Fair, a peculiarly contemporary, Western concept.
The Nicaragua project was important for me because at the time the elimination of all dictatorships was an imperative to my way of thinking, regardless of whether or not they were “our” dictators. After the Sandinistas imposed their absolute rule on the country, I asked my friend and client, the Liberation Theology Maryknoll priest who conceived of the strategic value inherent in the production of this documentary, if the new Communist government would be as thoughtless as Somoza´s, and permit me to make an anti-Sandinista film during their reign – given that they had simply replaced one dictatorship with another. I don´t remember getting a reply. Perhaps Somoza wasn´t thoughtless, it´s possible he was simply accommodating to Washington´s sensibilities; after all, the detention of an American film crew for the simple offense of taking pictures could prove inconvenient to a government dependent on American largesse. So true is this, that when Carter decided it was time for Somoza to go, and for the Sandinistas to rule, the transformation was immediate.
Dictatorships of the Left have never suffered such existential dilemmas; the entire world expects and accepts their authoritarianism as natural – necessary in fact; heaving a theatrical sigh of relief for public consumption, and lauding tolerant “restraint” when the violence and bloodshed are kept to an acceptable minimum. I like Miguel. I consider him a friend. There are other valuable facets to an individual that transcend politics. To paraphrase the immortal words of Voltaire: I may not agree with what he says, but I will give my life for his right to say it. I am reminded of another quote, this one from the Argentinean butcher of Cubans in Fidel´s crucible, “El Che” Guevara, referring to Guatemala’s failed Communist uprising: “Arbenz didn´t execute enough people.” Fidel didn´t repeat that error. The “right wing” Batista´s bloodless coup was followed by the homicidal, sanguinary carnage of the “left wing” Castro brothers.
Bob Seaman was working with me on the Nicaragua job. When we wrapped shooting on the final day, he asked me what flight I had booked for my return to New York. I told him I was going to Guatemala for a few days, and he asked to accompany me. “I think you should know that when I travel it’s on fourth class busses, and I stay in crummy places, in remote villages, mingling with the natives.” That was fine with him.
The bus to Atitlan was jammed with the poor, their chickens and pigs; personal belongings wrapped in unwieldy cloth bundles, sealed with large knots. The air was heavy with the musky aroma of human perspiration and pungent animal odor; the natural, undisguised perfume of living organisms. The mountain roads were frighteningly narrow, without barriers to prevent a drop over the rock faced cliffs; we rolled and swayed on worn out springs, bald tires teetering to the extreme edge of each precipice, provoking imminent extinction. The passengers communicated with each other in Tz´utujil, their native tongue, which I didn´t understand, however it was obvious they found the two corpulent Gringos, squeezed uncomfortably together on a narrow seat designed for slighter people, humorous. I smiled at the questioning dark eyes of the pretty indigenous girls, and they sustained my look, in innocent contrast to the mestizo city girls who swiftly avert their eyes in patently self conscious sexual understanding; unspoken innuendo may be inaccurately interpreted in a surprising visual contact. At night the bus was dark, the rectangular cubicle silent, except for an occasional snore. We penetrated the deep shadow cast by a soaring volcano; on passing its silhouette, a brilliant round hole perforating the nigrescent dome of the sky burst piercing white light into our black interior. Seaman woke up and looked out at the looming volcano, the full moon, and a shimmering Lake Atitlan stretching away into the distance. “Holy shit!” he exclaimed in awed wonder, and went back to sleep.
There are twelve villages spaced around Lake Atitlan, each named after one of the Christian Apostles, each with its own distinctive, identifying manner of dress. We got off the bus in a village across the lake from Panahachel, the major town where all the hotels are located and the tourists gather. This small community had the only hotel on this side of the lake, a wooden structure that was two stories high, teetering precariously to one side; it had been a familiar abode for me on previous occasions. We ate a thin slice of hard, overcooked meat on a brightly colored plastic plate with shredded lettuce for one quetzal each. The beer also cost one quetzal. We were preceded by a heavy set woman lighting the way with a candle up to the second floor on rickety stairs that slanted precariously, nonetheless sustaining her considerable rotund burden. The second floor consisted of a series of doors, each approximately six feet from the other, reminiscent of prison cells, that opened into narrow, rectangular rooms. The rooms were separated one from the other with rough hewn boards that fitted inexactly against each other, leaving large gaps. She opened the padlock to our room and gave me the candle. I gave her one quetzal in payment for the lodging. I had the impression that the cost of anything was, ultimately, one quetzal. She bid us a courteous good night.
Inside the room were two cots positioned against each lateral wall, a stand with a pitcher of water, and a bowl to wash up in the morning. We flopped on the stretched burlap of the cots fully dressed and I blew out the candle. Seaman confided to the impenetrable darkness surrounding us: “This is great. What a wonderful trip. The only thing that’s missing is two American girls.” I closed my eyes. “If only we had two American girls here this would be outstanding!”
“Shut up and go to sleep!”
The light of dawn filtering through the cracks of the exterior wall woke me. My colleague was still curled up on the cot with his eyes closed. I poured some water into the basin and splashed my face. “Psst! Psst!” I turned to see him with his head against the slats separating our room from that next door. “Psst! Psst!” Seaman repeated, indicating I should do the same. I also pressed my eyes against the uneven space between the wooden boards and cheerfully watched two blonde American girls dressing.
The airport cleaning woman accidentally poked me with her broom, rousing me from my reverie. “Clumsy bitch. That’s why she’s working this job instead of being a brain surgeon,” inexplicably ran through my mind. I found the notion humorous, and laughed audibly. The woman looked at me anxiously, and scurried rapidly away, repeating what seemed to me to be a nonsensical phrase, “quaquaqua!” Synapses are tricky little critters; you can never predetermine what association they will make in a given nano second.
Tired. Exhausted would probably be a more accurate description. I was now fully awake and stood up, more to exercise numb buttocks than for any desire to walk. Back in the cafeteria for another cup of undrinkable American coffee. Aluminum tables and more plastic chairs. I poured a lot of white, refined sugar into the watery liquid as a thickener, and to add some taste. From the time I was eight or nine years old my father would on occasion give me that special look that meant he wanted me to prepare his coffee. Viscous, black Greek coffee. Heated in a copper briky with a long handle that prevented the burning of my fingers. In Greece it’s known as Greek coffee. In Turkey it’s Turkish coffee. The Arabs call it Arabic coffee. When Islam, in a previous era was once again menacing Western civilization, and unlike today reaching only to the gates of Vienna, the infidel defenders noted that prior to each devastating assault the Turks would consume a “black soup,” that they imagined was to provide energy and courage. That black soup was coffee, which the Viennese adopted and is now known to the world as Viennese coffee.
Most people think croissants are French. They aren’t. They´re Austrian. Before dawn, bakers throughout the world prepare the large variety of breads to be consumed at breakfast. In Vienna, with the insatiable, brutal Muslims clamoring outside its walls, menacing and intimidating the populace, the bakers of Vienna continued to perform their vocation. On this particular morning they heard odd noises from beneath the bakery floors and alerted their army to the Turkish tunnels being excavated beneath the city in a clandestine effort to breach the fortifications. The Muslims were vanquished, and in celebration, the Croissant was born: the crescent moon of Islam to be consumed by victorious infidels for breakfast.
Some consider me an ambulatory encyclopedia of useless information.
I watched the cleaning woman as she continued to ply her unceasing labors at the other end of the terminal; she occasionally glanced in my direction apprehensively. I assumed, with a more than fair degree of certainty that she considered me insane, which caused me to erupt in vocal, sustained and raucous mirth. I laughed so long and so hard that she mysteriously vanished. The reverberations of my amusement startled a white dove that had apparently been furtively inhabiting the upper reaches of the terminal; it initiated an alarmed and erratic flight.
Unlike Estragon and Vladimir, in a little over an hour my plane will come and I will finally board my flight to New York.
If you enjoyed this story by Ares Demertzis and want to read more of his work, please click here.