Benghazi has fallen – the headline screamed. You could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a WWII flick. The world, after all, is witnessing something historic!
Can a city ‘fall’ to its own people? Yes, when the people are facing a public enemy, albeit one who is their President. An unrepentant Gadhafi is using force – air power, mercenaries – to put down the protestors. How far will the Jasmine revolution go? None can predict but the vulnerable countries have much in common.
Like a perfect storm, a confluence of factors is shaping this cascade of revolution: ossified petro-dictators, relatively high per-capita income, a youth bulge. Sociologists have long predicted that countries in which men aged 15-34 make up more than 15% of the total population face a high risk of unrest. The demographics of Maghreb and Mid-east countries are swollen with young men who are now leading the protests of the past weeks.
The Arab revolution, starting with Tunisia, then Egypt and now roiling Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, has the world riveted. And people – writers, journalists, analysts, foreign policy wonks – are all attempting to figure who triggered the revolution? Was it the vegetable seller in Tunisia who immolated himself and stirred the seething passions of his countrymen and women? Was it Wael Ghonim, the Google executive incarcerated by the Egyptian police who fired the imagination of his people? Or was it the people – young, disillusioned, wired – the Facebook generation that demonstrated to its elders that it was possible to dream and share those dreams via the internet, and organize online the execution of those dreams as well?
It is human nature to give a recognizable face to an uprising, a momentous occasion, a big event – that’s how people commit things to memory. Remember the sailor kissing his nurse-girlfriend in that iconic WWII victory kiss? Or the naked girl with peeling skin running from an air strike who became the face of the Vietnam War? History is replete with individuals whose names summon historic events: Gandhi – Indian Independence; Mandela – Anti-Apartheid; Rosa Parks – Segregation…
Amongst the faces on display in Tahrir Square was that of Che Guevara. Che was in a locket around a woman’s neck and on an another’s headband. He was reborn as a Pharaoh and a Yemeni man held up his image on a poster as he called for the resignation of President Saleh. Moroccan protestors held a banner featuring Che during a demonstration.
Just how does a godless communist become the Islamic world’s foremost role model? Why does the image of Che give voice to the frustrations of the Arab youth?
At some point in our lives, each of us has seen Che – that iconic image by Alberto Korda was on a wall poster in a friend’s hostel room, on a fading T-shirt of a class rebel, in Warholesque psychedelic posters, in the Oscar-winning Motorcycle Diaries, on postage stamps, as tattoo, or graffiti…
Ernesto “Che” Guevara was born in Argentina, trained as a doctor, and was a key figure in the Cuban revolution. While studying medicine he undertook two long journeys on a motorcycle covering 10,000 miles in which he saw practically the whole of South America. This was to fundamentally alter his worldview – two observations impinged upon him: the economic inequality of the region and the role of US hegemony in bolstering the ruling elite. If this resonates with the situation in the Arab world today, you’ll begin to glean why Che is relevant six decades later halfway across the world.
|Iconic image by Alberto Korda|
He started work as a doctor but continued to be deeply troubled by the poverty around him. A meeting with Fidel Castro, who was seeking to overthrow the dictatorship of Batista in Cuba, was to set him on the path of a guerilla leader and a Marxist revolutionary.
Che Guevara’s life is the subject of several books, essays, films. Suffice to say that he packed such extraordinary events in the less-than-four-decades of his existence that he continues to be the wet dream of Hollywood scriptwriters: an impassioned address to the UN during which time there were two failed attempts on his life, feted by French intellectuals such as Sartre and Beauvoir, travelled to Congo to help export the revolution, execution by the CIA in the forests of Bolivia – all before the age of forty.
Jon Lee Anderson is a writer who discovered the hidden location of Guevara’s burial while researching his remarkable book, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. He has covered several conflict zones in the world including Afghanistan and Iraq and says that he “kept bumping into Che”. He saw the photo of Che in the wallet of an Afghan Jihadi and Che’s book in the jungles where the Burmese guerillas were holed up.
Che Guevara, the intellectual, revolutionary, guerilla, physician, diplomat, military strategist packed several lives into one and died under mysterious circumstances. His allure has grown with time and diffused across the world. His first wife Hilda said in her memoir that Che wrote a poem which he dedicated to one of his patients, an elderly washerwoman, in which he made “a promise to fight for a better world, for a better life for all the poor and exploited”.
Che, the man and myth, represent an aspiration for a better world, a more just world. This wish transcends religion, ideology, geography and time. Governments would do well to heed that.