Dany Laferrière. translated by David Homel. the world is. around me. A Memoir of the Haiti Earthquake - PDF

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Dany Laferrière translated by David Homel the world is moving around me A Memoir of the Haiti Earthquake Life Returns Life seems to have gotten back to normal after decades of trouble. Laughing girls stroll

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Dany Laferrière translated by David Homel the world is moving around me A Memoir of the Haiti Earthquake Life Returns Life seems to have gotten back to normal after decades of trouble. Laughing girls stroll through the streets late into the evening. Painters of naïve canvases chat with women selling mangos and avocados on dusty street corners. Crime seems to have retreated. In lower-class neighborhoods like Bel-Air, criminals aren t tolerated by a population exasperated by everything it has gone through over the last fifty years: family dictatorships, military coups, repeated hurricanes, devastating floods, and random kidnappings. I ve come for a literary festival that will bring together writers from around the world to Port-au-Prince. It is an exciting occasion: for the first time, literature seems to have supplanted politics in the public mind. Writers are on television more often than elected officials, which is rare in a country with such a political temperament. Literature is recovering its rightful place. Back in 1929, in his lively book Hiver caraïbe, Paul Morand noted that in Haiti, everything ends with a collection of poems. Later, Malraux, after his last journey to Port-au-Prince in 1975, spoke of a nation of painters. People are still looking for the 13 [ the world is moving around me ] reason behind the high concentration of artists in such a small space. Here in Haiti, a country that occupies just a third of the island it shares with the Dominican Republic, in the Caribbean Sea. The Minute I was in the restaurant at the Hôtel Karibe with my friend Rodney Saint-Éloi, the publisher at Mémoire d encrier, who had just come in from Montreal. Under the table, two overloaded suitcases filled with his latest titles. I was waiting for my lobster (langouste, on the menu) and Saint-Éloi for his fish in sea salt. I was biting into a piece of bread when I heard a terrible explosion. At first I thought it was a machine gun (others will say a train) right behind me. When I saw the cooks dashing out of the kitchen, I thought a boiler had exploded. It lasted less than a minute. We had between eight and ten seconds to make a decision. Leave the place or stay. Very rare were those who got a good start. Even the quickest wasted three or four precious seconds before they understood what was happening. Thomas Spear, the critic, another of the friends I was with, wasted three precious seconds finishing Dany Laferrière 14 his beer. We don t all react the same way. And no one knows where death will be waiting. The three of us ended up flat on the ground in the middle of the courtyard, under the trees. The earth started shaking like a sheet of paper whipped by the wind. The low roar of buildings falling to their knees. They didn t explode; they imploded, trapping people inside their bellies. Suddenly we saw a cloud of dust rising into the afternoon sky. As if a professional dynamiter had received the express order to destroy an entire city without blocking the streets so the cranes could pass. Silence When I travel, I always keep two things with me: my passport (in a pouch around my neck) and a black notebook in which I write down everything that crosses my field of vision or my mind. While I was lying on the ground, I thought of those disaster movies and wondered if the earth would gape open and swallow us up. That was my childhood terror. We found refuge on the hotel tennis courts. I expected to hear screams and cries. There was none of that. In Haiti, they say that as long as no one has screamed, death isn t real. Someone shouted that it was dangerous 15 [ the world is moving around me ] to stay under the trees. That turned out not to be true. Not a single branch or flower moved during the forty-three seismic disturbances of that first night. I can still hear the silence. Projectiles A 7.3 magnitude earthquake is not so bad. You still have a chance. Concrete was the killer. The population had joined in an orgy of concrete over the last fifty years. Little fortresses. The wood and sheet-metal houses, more flexible, stood the test. In narrow hotel rooms, the TV set was the enemy. People sit facing it. It came right down on them. Many got hit in the head. The Ladder We slowly got to our feet like zombies in a B-movie. I heard cries from the courtyard. The buildings at the rear and to the right had collapsed. These were apartments rented by the year to Dany Laferrière 16 foreign families, most of them French. Two teenage girls were in a panic on their second-floor balcony. Very quickly, people looked for a way to help them. Three men took up position at the foot of the building. Two were holding a ladder. The young man who d had the intelligence to go looking for the ladder climbed to the top. The older girl managed to step over the balcony railing. She made it to the ground. Everyone gathered to help her. The young man climbed up the ladder again to bring down the younger girl, who refused to leave the building. She insisted on waiting for her mother. No one knew there was a third person up there. The rescuers worked silently, sweating. They had to act fast because the building, on its last legs, could come down at the slightest vibration. The teenage girl screamed that her mother was inside. She had tried to escape down the stairs and had gotten trapped. The girl was crying and pointing to the spot where her mother had disappeared. From the garden, we watched the girl who believed that if she came down, we d forget all about her mother. Everyone was working feverishly since the earth had trembled again. The mother managed to free herself by breaking a window. She rushed to her daughter who still refused to climb down until she did. Only when her mother was on solid ground did she accept the ladder. 17 [ the world is moving around me ] A Small Celebration A woman was pacing with a crying baby in her arms. I took him and tried rocking him. He stared up at me with his dark eyes like a frightened mouse. His attention was so intense it intimidated me. The woman told me she was his babysitter. His parents were at work. She had just finished giving him his bath when the room started rocking. She kept running into the walls, but never let go of the baby. She tried to leave the building through the stairway. It was blocked. She went back to the room and managed to balance the baby on the window ledge, then slipped down to the balcony of the floor below. Then she climbed on a chair to get the baby who, miraculously, had not moved, as if he understood the gravity of the situation. Once she had him in her arms again, he began screaming as if he were being thrust into boiling water and had been going on like that for the last two hours. His parents arrived in a panic. I could scarcely imagine their fear as they drove here. They left the car doors open in the middle of the street. The woman gave them their baby and they danced with a wild kind of joy, holding him close. An aftershock interrupted their small celebration. Dany Laferrière 18 The Hotel Employees Impeccable in their uniforms, the hotel employees never lost their composure. There was a little panic at the beginning, but mostly from the guests who were running in every direction. Some had to be rescued from their rooms because they refused to come out. They were found walking in circles or sitting on their beds with stunned expressions. I watched the staff do everything possible to provide a decent level of service. Maybe the fact they had a function to fulfill helped them walk straight, while the guests went staggering past. As soon as someone was hungry, they would arrive single file with platters of hors d oeuvres that they lined up on a broad table. They were preparing a reception in the big meeting room by the restaurant. The food was ready. Now we could enjoy it. Near the low gate that led to the tennis courts where we had taken shelter, the security guards stood. They did their best to reassure the customers. I say customers rather than tourists, since the latter are rare in Haiti. Instead, you find members of the many NGOs that have sprouted up over the last decades, sun-tanned journalists who haven t gotten around to leaving the island and foreign businessmen talking in low voices over breakfast with Haitian politicians bathed in sweat. In the garden, the hotel owner went by, inspecting the damage. Walking slowly, his face care-worn, he seemed lost in thought. I d 19 [ the world is moving around me ] have given anything to know what was going through his mind. The damage was not just material. In less than a minute, some saw their lifelong dreams go up in smoke. That cloud in the sky a while back was the dust of their dreams. The Bathroom I imagine the fear of people who were in the bathroom when the earthquake struck. Everyone was caught off guard, but those who were in the shower must have experienced pure panic. You always feel more vulnerable naked, especially covered in soapy water. A lot of people, in their hurry to get out, left the water running. Objects The enemy isn t time, but all those things we ve accumulated with the passage of time. Once we start collecting, we can t stop. Every Dany Laferrière 20 object demands another. That s the portrait of a life. They ll find bodies by the door. A suitcase next to them. Where Are You, Honey? It s very rare for all the members of one family to be together in the same place, at the same time, in a big city. Especially at 4:53 in the afternoon. People have left work, but they haven t gotten home. No one can be completely sure where the others are. In a family that s trying to make ends meet, if the mother is in one place, the father is somewhere else. Never both in the same spot. The children hang out after school. Only the grandparents are at home. All around me, people were shouting into their cell phones. Where s your brother? Where s your sister? Mama, answer me, please! Where are you, honey? Have you talked to the kids? Where should we meet? The conversations ended with the shouted observation, as if the other party could hear, The line s gone out! They tried to borrow someone else s phone. The problem was widespread. They paced, feverishly pushing buttons on the slender object that could put them in touch with someone close to them. Picture an entire city where everyone is trying to 21 [ the world is moving around me ] find a family member or a friend. They shout louder and louder into their phones. They hear the other person less and less. They lose patience. People are concentrated on their personal dramas. Language is whittled down to the essential. Then comes silence. Night Most residents of Port-au-Prince spent the first night outside. The previous nights had been chilly. This one was warm and starlit. I hadn t slept outside since childhood. Lying on the ground, we felt each of the earth s convulsions in our very being. Our bodies were one with the ground. I was pissing against a tree when my legs started trembling: the impression that the earth was shaking. I walked through the garden, amazed to see that the most fragile flowers were still hanging from their stems. The earthquake attacked what was hard, solid, what could resist it. The concrete fell. The flowers survived. Dany Laferrière 22 Time I never knew sixty seconds could last so long. And that a night could be endless. No radio: the antennae have fallen. No TV either. No Internet. The cell phone network is gone though we had time for a few quick calls to the people who matter most to us. A strange moment when we realize we ve lost the ability to contact people far away from here. All those wires that link us are cut. We can communicate with those immediately around us, who can hear our voices, but no one else. Human time is now contained in the sixty seconds that the first violent tremors took to change our lives. Place When it happened, people were scattered here and there: at home (the grandparents and the sick), at school (those slow to leave because class ended an hour earlier), at work (the best employees are often the last to clock out), in the supermarkets (those who have steady pay), in the outdoor markets (no danger for anyone there), in the streets (more than half of the population). 23 [ the world is moving around me ] An enormous number of people were caught in the monstrous traffic jams that paralyze Port-au-Prince during rush hour. The uproar suddenly stopped at 4:53 in the afternoon. The fateful hour that cut Haitian time in two. We gaze at Port-au-Prince with the stunned air of a child whose toy has just been accidentally stepped on by an adult. The Radio A car parked by the sidewalk, its motor still running. The radio was playing. People have stopped bothering to cut the engine when they leave their cars. I was trying to get news of other parts of the city. People wanted to know how bad the damage was. But I heard only static, or a pre-recorded program. I turned the dial and tuned in RFI (Radio France Internationale) that gave no news of the earthquake, at least not yet. I turned off the radio. Where was the driver? People were figuring it was less dangerous on foot. They left their cars behind and took to the road, often with no destination. People who had never done more than a hundred meters on foot walked kilometers that night and felt no fatigue. Their minds were so upset, they lost all awareness of their Dany Laferrière 24 bodies. Two groups of people who seldom rub shoulders in this city: those on foot and those who own a car. Two parallel worlds that meet only by accident. You can t know your neighbor if you drive through the neighborhood, said a grieving mother who lost her son. She said that the poorest residents whom she had never met before, even though she passed through the area twice a day were the first to support her when she learned that her son was dead in the wreckage of his house. For once, in this city ruled by social barriers, everyone moved at the same speed. A Prayer Night falls suddenly as it always does in the tropics. We whisper our fears to each other. Now and then, we hear a muffled cry: someone has managed to reach a family member on the phone and has gotten news. A young bank clerk tells me he is afraid to call home for fear of what he might find out. His family lives in Pacot, one of the hardest hit zones. I don t know what to say. Suddenly, a man gets to his feet and begins telling us that the earthquake is the result of our unspeakable behavior. His voice rises in the night. We quiet him down because he s waking the 25 [ the world is moving around me ] children who have just fallen asleep. A lady tells him to pray in his heart. He walks away, insisting that you can t ask the Lord s forgiveness in a low voice. A group of girls launches into a religious song, so soft that some adults manage to fall asleep. Two hours later, the air is full of noise. Hundreds of people are praying and singing in the streets. For them, this is the end of the world announced by Jehovah. Next to me, a little girl wants to know if there will be school tomorrow. A breath of childhood settles over us all. Animals Dogs and roosters kept us company through the night. The Portau-Prince rooster crows whenever he feels like it. Normally I hate this habit. But that night, I listened for his cry. We didn t hear cats meowing. Port-au-Prince is more a dog city. Dogs, most often in the streets, survived, while the cats that hid under beds and in closets didn t make it. As for the birds, they took flight at the first movement of the earth. Dany Laferrière 26 The Crowd On that first night, the city was filled with a disciplined, generous, and restrained crowd. People ceaselessly moving with other-worldly determination. They seemed unconcerned with the pain they bore with an elegance admired the world over. The rest of the planet was glued to the small screen, watching the strange ceremony wherein the living and the dead mingled so perfectly they couldn t be told apart. Malraux, just before his death, traveled to Haiti because he felt that the painters of Saint-Soleil had intuitively discovered something that makes all struggle against death fruitless. A secret path. People were amazed by that ability to remain in the wreckage so long without eating or drinking. That s because they re used to eating very little. How can they take to the road and leave everything behind? They have so little in the first place. The fewer objects we possess, the freer we are and I m not singing the praises of poverty. Haiti s misfortune was not what moved the world: it was the way the Haitian people stood up to misfortune. We gazed with wonder as the disaster revealed a nation whose rotten institutions prevent it from coming into its own. When those institutions disappeared from the landscape, even for a moment, we discovered a proud yet modest people through the clouds of dust. 27 [ the world is moving around me ]
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