Fr. Rick Frechette is a Passionist priest-doctor (and FIRST contributor) who has been working in Haiti for a generation, running hospitals and social programs in Port-au-Prince as well as a Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos orphanage on the outskirts of the capital. One of the two hospitals he directs was destroyed by the earthquake. (Two medical volunteers from the U.S. died there.) The other, newer, state-of-the-art hospital, was damaged but it’s functioning. NBC reported on the work being done there last month. The reporter noted Fr. Rick had been taking care of his dying mother in Connecticut when the earthquake hit. She insisted he return to Haiti. He went back and forth, returning to U.S. in time to be with his mother as she died. He’s now in Port-au-Prince again and he’s updated friends and donors on the situation there. Please consider donating to Fr. Frechette’s hospital and orphanage.
My first time in Afghanistan was late winter 1968/69, making the Overland Trail fast as possible through howling cold of Central Asian steppes. Minibus from Mashhad to Heart, arriving at the border crossing: dark, dusty, cold and bleak (Later I was to discover that somehow Afghan border-crossings were always dark dusty cold bleak, even on nice summer days.) Busload of hippies pulls up at the checkpoint. Suddenly a huge Afghan officer with bristling mustaches and fierce scowl thrusts himself into the bus: “Any you got hashish?,” he screamed.
Chorus of “No,” “No,” “Not me,” “Not me, sir”—squeaky and scared. What the hell?!
“Sssooo…” hissed the officer, reaching menacingly into his jacket…”You like to buy?” He whipped out a chunk of hash the size of a loaf of Wonder Bread. “Very good, grade-A Afghani.”
Nat Finkelstein, who died earlier this month, contributed photographs and prose to “First.” He’s best known for his 60s pictures of Warhol’s Factory (such as the one above), but his life was bigger than his images. This piece, “Kandahar, 1971”, about his time in Afghanistan is from his memoir, “The 14 Ounce Pound.” (You can read another chapter here.) Nat knew this hunk of his past was pretty far gone, but he wondered if Afghanistan has “changed much in the past 1200 years.”
Uri Avnery, the “grandfather” of Israel’s peace movement, published these reflections in Israel last month during Passover week.
When this piece was first published in First, Kurt Vonnegut responded: “Where do you find all these magical writers? Nat Finkelstein’s harrowing piece would have been relevant at any time.”
A defender of Israel’s Gaza incursion emailed anti-Islamists the following excerpt from a front page story, “Fighter Sees His Paradise in Gaza’s Pain,” in the January 9 New York Times:
21 year old militant with Islamic Jihad awaits treatment for shrapnel wounds:
“Hurry, I must get back so I can keep fighting…We are fighting the Israelis…When we fire we run, but they hit back so fast. We run into the houses to get away.”
He continued smiling. “Why are you so happy?,” the reporter asked.
“Look around you. Don’t you see that these people are hurting?”
“But I am from the people too.” he said with his smile incandescent.
“They lost their loved ones as martyrs. They should be happy. I want to be a martyr, too.”
I’d seen the original story in the Times where that bright, shining smile lit up the madness of Jihadis. But there was something vital missing from the e-mailer’s excerpt. Right after Times reporter Taghreed El-Khodary entered her own story to address the happy militant – “Look around you.” – she brought readers inside the hospital’s emergency room:
A girl who looked about 18 screamed as a surgeon removed shrapnel from her leg. An elderly man was soaked in blood. A baby a few weeks old and slightly wounded looked around helplessly. A man lay with parts of his brain coming out. His family wailed at his side.
Only then did El-Khodary turn back to ask the militant: “Don’t you see that these people are hurting?”
Her story of the smiley Jihadi stuck with me in part because she nailed the pain the wannabe martyr refused to take in. But it seems the Jihadi wasn’t the only imperfect witness. I suspect the “pro-Israeli” e-mailer cut El-Khodary’s passage on the victims in that hospital because it brings home the excruciating consequences of the Gaza incursion. Jihadists who provoke Israel bear much responsibility for causing the suffering of Palestinian civilians but so do Israeli politicians and the population who overwhelmingly support the operation in Gaza.
When Alexander Solzhenitsyn died last week, we went back to Michael Lydon’s “Real Writing,” which concludes with a celebration of Solzhenitsyn’s truth-telling. Take the following excerpts from Lydon’s work as his (and “First’s”) tribute to Solzhenitsyn.
Fr. Frechette, a doctor and priest (and hero of our time) who’s worked for a generation in Haiti, wrote this Christmas reflection last December, but it will always be in season.
Beyond Baghdad: Postmodern War and Peace by Ralph Peters
Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World by Ralph Peters
Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph? by Ralph Peters
Flames of Heaven: A Novel of the End of the Soviet Union by Ralph Peters
The Perfect Soldier by Ralph Peters
The Devil’s Garden by Ralph Peters
Traitor by Ralph Peters
Faded Coat of Blue by Owen Parry
…the Cold War deformed American strategic thought and our applied values beyond recognition. From the amoral defender of Europe’s rotten empires, we descended to an immoral propping up of every soulless dictator who preferred our payments to those offered by Moscow. We utterly rejected our professed values, consistently struggling against genuine national liberation movements because we saw the hand of Moscow wherever a poor man reached out for food or asked for dignity. At our worst in the Middle East, we unreservedly supported–or enthroned–medieval despots who suppressed popular liberalization efforts, thus driving moderate dissidents into the arms of fanatics. From our diplomatic personnel held hostage in Iran a generation ago, to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack on the United States, we have suffered for our support of repressive, “stable” regimes that radicalized their own impoverished citizens. In the interests of stability, we looked the other way while secret police tortured and shabby armies massacred their own people, from Iran to Guatemala. But the shah always falls.
Would that we could tattoo that on the back of every diplomat’s hand: The shah always falls.
First Thought: if you came of age in the late nineteen sixties, the assertions about Mr. Kerrey’s participation in a massacre in Vietnam trigger very powerful moral reflexes–and it is the nature of a reflex to come into play faster than thought. Reflex condemnations of Kerrey–and reflex exonerations of him–may turn out to be right or wrong; what they cannot be are cautious and reflective.
Charles Keil emailed First of the Month a series of essays, notes and poems during, and immediately after, the war in Kosovo. Keil’s messages were marked by his determination to keep thinking–and feeling–in the face of fascism. Here are excerpts from his communications.