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5.0 out of 5 stars Review in the Journal of Haitian Studies, 14 Jun 2004
By A Customer
This review is from: Haiti in Focus (Paperback)
Reviewed by LeGrace Benson, Arts of Haiti Research Project, Ithaca, NY.
People going to Haiti for the first time will often use the internet. There they will find everything from the United States Department of State advisory, which is usually something on the order of "Don't even think about it," to glowing reports of agricultural and crafts festivals to summaries of the history and politics. Some will find email "Corbettland" where they can post inquiries, receiving in return a wide array of expert or less-informed advice. Some may be fortunate enough to be acquainted with a seasoned traveler or native who will point their responses toward what is needed by this particular traveler at this particular time. It is advisable to do all of this, and to know that none of the information and advice will prepare one for the maiden voyage or flight to the usual ports of entry. Only the tour boat leisure travelers who are told that the peninsula Labadie near Cap Haitien is "an island off the coast of Hispaniola" miss out on the rich encounter with sights, smells, sounds and aggressive human contact that greets and sometimes overwhelms a traveler at Port-au-Prince airport.
Of books that purport to give a novice a useful overview of the country there are few. General guides to the Caribbean often do not even include Haiti. Two well-known travel series leave Haiti quite outside. A third gives no mention except to include a photograph of a colorful tap-tap bus with its destination, Port-au-Prince flourished on the side. Yet another dedicates two pages mostly to listing all the reasons not to go there. There is one, however, that provides several pages of up-to-date and fairly detailed information, including a couple of snippets of history and culture. In mainstream travel Haiti is not now a tourist destination.
That is almost true. There are several lovely, unspoiled beaches for those who treasure the experience of the oceanic littoral itself over the excitement of crowds, souvenir shops, casinos, and expensive seafood restaurants. A map printed in Germany in 2001 has little palm tree symbols marking 18 beaches. The same map identifies two nature parks (there are more now). The few "eco-tourists" who return from hikes in these parks are as excited by the rare flora and fauna as they are proud of having accomplished the physical challenge. These wilderness trekkers call to mind the eighteenth century alpinists, whose ecstatic reports of their adventures turned Switzerland, Austria and Southern Germany into one of the most visited areas on earth. There are a few history tourists, including such folk as the wealthy Canadian who was visiting each of the World Monument Sites. He was on his way to the Citadel, and regretted that he had found but little in the way of readily available information about its history.
There are also a large number of people traveling to Haiti not usually identified as tourists. Their main purposes are to build schools and latrines, assist in religious missions, render medical services, plant trees or provide agricultural advice and aid. Yet they too do their share of sight seeing, souvenir buying and restaurant adventuring. In fact, nearly all the blan (foreigners) one sees are these pale, sturdily-built, modestly clothed North Americans, their faces grave even when smiling from under their wide straw hats. In the last several years since the embargo made it impossible for the galleries and souvenir shops in a provincial city like Cap Haitien to stay in business, these are just about the only tourists visible in the Tourist Market.
Conversations with a range of visitors and tourists reveals that they have widely varying knowledge about Haiti. Some have almost no information at all, and what they do have tends to be misinformation or disinformation. Others have many facts in hand regarding the special tasks they have come to accomplish, but nothing of a broader context within which to understand where their efforts fit the larger situation. Some of those who have been at pains to read and seek widely in search of a comprehensive picture still report that the fine texture of the actual experience is quite beyond the most thorough preparation. That would probably be true for any other country, Scotland to Tibet, depending upon how much cultural and geographic congruence there might be with the traveler's homeland. No book or conversation can do the job, yet something is needed.
Charles Arthur has brought together a comprehensive set of reports. His table of contents sweeps across "Land and People, History, Society, Economy, Politics and Culture." On the first page of his introduction, he notes, "Haiti's relative inscrutability and obscurity means that in a world of increasing uniformity, it is one of the most authentic countries the intrepid traveler can visit in the western hemisphere." Such a sentence will be invitational to those who are jaded with the sort of tours found on the internet or in a travel bureau. It will hold out a promise to those who may be going there to work. It is also reassuring to read much further on that "...visitors should note that Haiti continues to be statistically less dangerous than Kingston [Jamaica] or Miami." (Imagine reading that in the US State Department Travel Advisory!)
There are less than one hundred pages for the author to give enough background and foreground to prepare the visitor. For book that fits comfortably and lightly in a backpack, Arthur provides a newcomer with sufficient information to get a start, and to have enough facts at hand to begin questions to old hands. Anyone who has taken on the task of writing anything at all about Haiti, and to be serious and accurate, knows that the process often leads to a temporary dismay in the face of bewildering complexities. Moreover, primary and secondary sources sometimes seem to conflict as often as they agree. In such a broad account as this one, there are bound to be questions that experts in particular fields would want to question. For example, recent research on the Taino, as well as some earlier findings by such historians as Jean Fouchard, indicate that these natives may still have been identifiable as late as 1840. They probably did not disappear shortly after the Colombian incursion, but this detail is unlikely to be needed or useful for most readers. Economic historians would probably give alternative descriptions of what Arthur calls "repayment of debt" to France by President Boyer, preferring the term "reparations." Some would want to point out that in the same era, the new country to the north paid no such "debt" or "reparations" to Mother England. Some may see "stranglehold" as a harsh and possibly misleading term for late nineteenth and early twentieth-century German enterprises, which for whatever good or ill did give Haiti an international commercial and diplomatic line outside the hemisphere, not tied to its former colonial status.
Those interested in Haitian art, as a surprising number of visitors are, will perhaps be disappointed that less space is devoted to this than to contemporary politics. He repeats the use of the adjective "colonial" to refer to the architecture built after 1890, well after the French retreated. Many of these edifices actually came in as prefabricated units from the United States. One architect has asserted that often these charming gingerbread houses were basic Sears Roebuck dwellings, modified by local builders. Nearly everyone calls this architecture "colonial," but it may be time to divest Haiti of this lingering bit of mistaken baggage. Arthur may have been told by knowledgeable people that the metal sculptor Georges Liautaud was "...groomed by the Centre d'Art," a characterization that suggests a kind of polishing and even mannering. But the late Jason Seley who was at the time teaching sculpture at the Centre related that Liautaud, as well as the other sculptors in metal, wood or clay, plainly had their own strong, personal visions of what they wanted to do. The role of the Centre, according to Seley, was to provide a bit technical advice and to stand back to let things happen as they would.
These are quibbles and perhaps differences of opinion concerning a representation that clearly is a result of a great deal of serious preparation by Charles Arthur. Let the scholars debate over the paragraphs that catch their attention. For the first time visitor to Haiti, for those who want an overview when Haiti comes up in the news, and for those whose main work may be something like establishing a new diary industry or planning a water catchment project, this book is an excellent starting point. That is not to dismiss its importance for anyone of any academic discipline or professional group who becomes interested in Haiti. Arthur writes from a point of view that holds in high regard Haitian energy, creativity, sheer endurance and a remarkable ability to keep on keeping on. His sketch is necessarily broad, but he has accorded the care that bespeaks his regard.
Arthur, optimist as he seems to be, nevertheless describes the trials and tribulations that historically and in the present ravage this land and these people. He describes the links between economic and ecological disaster unsparingly, and is realistic in his "What can be done?" Perhaps many readers will follow that question with the next one: "What should I do?"
Arthur will be glad and not at all surprised to know that the excellent black creole pig, whose apparent demise he reports on page 42, is as durably adapted to the environment as he describes. Not to worry: enough of them were in what one might call "maroonage" when the USDA was stomping about with their sacrificial auto da fe barbecues. Now the pigs are back all over the place. May it be so for the people of Haiti. Read this book and go see for yourself.
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Haiti in Focus by Charles Arthur (Paperback - 18 Feb 2002)
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