Olympics of Ethical Conduct

by Ariel Dorfman (Professor at Duke University, USA)

Who is Kailash Satyarthi? Or Juliana Dogbadzi? What about Ka Hsaw Wa? Marina
Pisklakova? Senhal Sarihan?

Let me confess that, less than a year ago, I couldn't have answered these
questions, I didn't know that Kailash Satyarthi has dedicated a whole life
to freeing millions of enslaved children in his native India, I had never
heard of Juliana Dogbadzi, how she was sold to a Trokosi priest in Ghana by
her parents when she was twelve, the degrading seventeen years that
followed, nor how she managed to escape the shrine and is now devoted to the
liberation of so many African women festering in sexual slavery. And Ka Hsaw
Wa? He's from Burma and lived for years in the jungle collecting the life
stores of some of the most exploited and repressed peasants on this Earth.
And Marina Pisklakova organized the first hot-line in Russia for battered
women. And Senhal Sarihan has ceaselessly defended political prisoners in
Turkey, as well as jailed children, Senhal Sarihan who gets up early at dawn
to gather flowers to take to the incarcerated minors so they may remember
what life outside the prison walls mights someday be like.

If I can now transcribe all these unknown names of human rights defenders,
and add some information about them, it is because I have been blessed
during the last six months with their luminous presence, listening to the
murmur of their voices, attempting to offer those voices a permanent
literary home.

This extraordinary opportunity to spend some time with them began last
March, when I was asked by Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, herself a human rights
lawyer, to write a play based upon interviews she had carried out over the
last years with a group of the forgotten and essential heroes of our time.
That book, Speak Truth to Power, also highlighted some famous activists,
like the Nobel Peace Prize Winners Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Elie Wiesel,
Desmond Tutu, Costa Rica's former President, Oscar Arias, José Ramos Horta
from East Timor and Bobby Muller from the United States. Bobby Muller? One
of those organizers of the campaign against land-mines that lead to an
international treaty to ban those machines of death and destruction. Also
interviewed were other well-known (and gentle) agitators: Sister Helen
Prejean - of Dead Man Walking fame, Wei Jingsheng, the foremost Chinese
dissident, as well as Muhammad Yunnus who has made it his task to offer
microcredits through the Grameen Bank to impoverished and enterprising women
from Bangladesh and other countries, revolutionizing millions of lives. But
most of the stories in the book have been, by and large, ignored by the
media: eminent lawyers Digna Ochoa from Mexico and Juan Méndez from
Argentina, who were tortured by their governments and nevertheless continued
to represent the desaparecidos and other prisoners of conscience, and Rana
Husseini, who investigates and assails the honor killings of women in Jordan
and Van Jones who has documented and condemned police brutality here in the
States and human rights militants from Chile and the Congo and Nigeria and
Northern Ireland and Vietnam and Serbia, and María Teresa Tula and Abubacar
Sultan and Vera Stremkovskaya, and I could go on and on, names and lives who
should be on everybody's lips and who remain unfamiliar to most of the
wounded humanity they have sworn to defend.

That was one of the reasons why I felt I could not refuse the chance to turn
their words into a dramatic piece that would draw attention to their
achievements. But I was also animated by a more personal enigma that has
haunted my adult life, the incessant question about courage and its
mysterious origin, why is it that certain human beings, when confronted by
misery and injustice and pain, risk their lives to speak out, whereas so
many others close their eyes and keep quiet. I thought that these very
special men and women could perhaps elucidate the sources of that strength,
from what internal, stubborn angels does rebellion spring?

And so I embarked on a journey with these fifty-one human rights defenders,
I accompanied their slow walk into the corridor of death and their even
slower search for hope, I allowed them to speak through me as my hands wrote
out a vast tapestry with their hidden words, a sort of spoken cantata which
interwove testimonials and poetry and narrative. And I discovered that it is
not physical death that these guardians of our human dignity most fear, but
rather indifference, that colder and more perverse and dangerous form of
death which settles in the soul when we witness something terrible and cruel
and incredibly stupid being perpetrated upon our fellow humans and we prefer
to forget those crimes, we prefer to switch the channel or go to sleep or
walk the dog.

And it was that indifference and its sad cousin apathy, that we tried to
defeat last week, the night of September 19th, when we had the first reading
of the play at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.. In order to make sure
the world did indeed listen, President Clinton had been enlisted to
introduce the evening and nine remarkable actors - Kevin Kline, Signourney
Weaver, John Malkovich, Rita Moreno, Alec Baldwin, Giancarlo Esposito,
Hector Elizondo, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and Alfre Woodard - provided their
tongues to the lives of the human rights defenders. All of which guaranteed
a television broadcast on PBS and thousands of copies of the play sent into
schools in the United States and around the world. But what made the evening
truly unforgettable were not the words I managed to transcribe or the way in
which the actors delivered the lines. When the last speech had been
pronounced, recalling that the work had just begun, that the defendants were
never really alone, that any other life than the one they had chosen would
have tasted like ashes, when the lights began to dim on the nine performers
and the show was over, that was when the real magic started. A curtain
suddenly opened and there, standing behind the Hollywood stars, were the
real defenders themselves in all their remarkable and endangered flesh , the
very men and women whose lives had just been staged.

Some were missing - the Dalai Lama and Vaclav Havel had not come and at the
last moment Judge Baltasar Garzón, the man responsible for Pinochet's arrest
in London, had been forced to cancel his appearance -, but most of those
interviewed in the book had made the trip, from Pakistan and Kenya and
Colombia and the Ivory Coast and Peru and Cambodia, a constellation of
activists and causes and countries and struggles that are all too rarely
seen together on one platform. Not just side by side in the quiet pages of a
book but bristling with energy on a real stage. And then those obscure
conquerors of fear advanced towards some of the best known faces on this
planet, towards the actors who are among the most recognized people in this
world, and greeted them and then the public and in a gesture Martin Luther
King would have enjoyed as much as Pirandello those who had carried out
during the long days of their lives the fight for human rights embraced
those who had just, a few moments before, been representing their existence.
Our astonished eyes saw Sigourney Weaver hug Dianna Ortiz, the Northamerican
nun who had been tortured in Guatemala, and Kevin Kline met the Egyptian
lawyer Hafez Al Sayed Seada, and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss put aside her Seinfeld
persona and held Fauziya Kassindja in her arms, that young woman who had,
because of her fear of genital mutilation, managed to gain political asylum
in the United States in a groundbreaking case that opened the doors to so
many other oppressed women. There were the performers and there were the
characters, mirrored and dancing together in celebration of their multiple
common causes, bodies and words, interpreters and interpreted, for five
minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes, while the spectators applauded
wildly, unable to leave the auditorium of the Eisenhower Theatre.

And seeing some of the most visible beings on this planet hand in hand with
some of those least visible, I had a biting intuition of how precarious this
moment of wonder really was, how ephemeral were these lights of publicity in
the capital of the United States. This exceptional gathering at the Kennedy
Center could well be hailed as the Olympics of Ethical Conduct, a confluence
of the best and most excellent capacity of our species for bettering itself.
And yet, it was worth wondering, at the very instant when the Olympic Games
in Sydney were being held on the other side of the globe, it was worth
asking ourselves how much attention would be paid to these other champions,
the trustees of our human dignity, in the days to come, when they returned
to their threatened existence in their insecure and faraway nations, how
many newspaper pages and how many hours of television would be destined to
disseminate the lives of Patria Jiménez and Marina Pisklakova and Raji
Sourani and Koigi Wa Wamwere and Kek Galabru, who was really interested in
their final destiny? How can we possibly be so obsessed with the drama of
who is the fastest man in the world, who can break the record for swimming
butterfly style, who can outrace all the other women in the marathon, which
team is better at handling a ball in space, how can we be glued to our
screens to see these efforts of the body, and we show such scant interest in
who is the bravest in confronting iniquity, which woman is the most
tenacious in denouncing the causes of pollution, who is the most serene of
our contemporaries in proclaiming that we cannot sleep well at night while
so many billions are spent on guns and generals and so little is offered for
schools and hospitals?

Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against the twirling and spectacular
gyrations of the gymnasts or the colossal fortitude of the weight lifters, I
have only admiration for those who defy the forces of gravity and score
points with a ball on land or water or air.

But the burning question remains there, still hangs there, it challenges our
lost souls with its terrible demands.
Who is Kailash Satyarthi? Who is Gabor Gombos? Who is Asma Jihangir?

And why doesn't every thinking human on this pitiless planet know the answer
to these questions?

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Last update:  21 Nov 2000