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Mali, North Korea and the Confluence of Histories

February 2nd, 2013 No comments
A protestor marching on Benghazi’s corniche on March 9, 2011 defaces as 1 dinar note featuring Muammar Qaddafi to shown his disdain for the Libyan dictator at the height of the Arab Spring movement. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

A protestor marching on Benghazi’s corniche on March 9, 2011 defaces as 1 dinar note featuring Muammar Qaddafi to shown his disdain for the Libyan dictator at the height of the Arab Spring movement. This image to me epitomizes the concept of my article featured below. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I had a couple of long term projects published at the end of this past week. The first was an examination of the little known history conjoining Mali in West Africa with North Korea in Northeast Asia over at Asia Times Online. I discovered this newly built part of Bamako while riding around on my fixer’s motorcycle last year when we were trying to organize a semi-doomed trip toward the front line with MUAJO et co up in Mopti Region.

Screen shot 2013-02-02 at 8.14.31 PMThis spot I found (linked, left) in the Malian capital is called Carré des Armées (Army Square) and it was built by a North Korean state enterprise (not as if Pyongyang encourages private enterprise). As I begun to play with the idea of doing a full length article on the topic, it dawned on me that Mali and North Korea had a shared history dating all the way back to Mali’s independence from France in 1960.

Not exactly a topic for broad mass consumption, I know, but for those who it may interest, I think it’s a fascinating topic. It also speaks to a lesser understood phenomena of how ties forged in the heat of the Cold War still can very much exist in a post-Cold War world.

The ties between North Korea and Mali certainly may have lessened over the decades and have changed in their orientation (started out as political and military in the 1960s, now more transparently financial-the same goes for Mali’s relationship with China). One of the key differences between the relationships between North Korea and China with an inherently unstable state like Mali is that seemingly no circumstances would or will derail ‘business as usual.’

Just for argument’s sake, I honestly think that if Ansar Eddine and its Salafi allies had somehow managed to capture Bamako and miraculously gain some kind of political legitimacy that over time Beijing and Pyongyang would still send delegations back to Mali to get their business interests on track. After all in 1960, the government of Modibo Keita was deemed a righteous, radical enough anti-imperialist government by Kim Il-sung and co to forge ties on the other side of the world. Maybe the anti-imperial tenets preached in the context of  Salafiyya-jihadiyya would be revolutionary enough for the Beijing’s politburo and the DPRK’s Workers’ Party of Korea to be able to keep infrastructure projects going uninterrupted. Who’s to say….

The second was a passion project nearly 14 years in the making about the history and symbology of all the war zone/quixotic regime currencies have managed to collect in my travels over the years featured in The Christian Science Monitor. It spans from an out-of-circulation Iranian rial I obtained in Tehran in 1999 to a Libyan 1 dinar note I saved from Benghazi in 2011.

The depiction of Philip the Arab on Syria’s 100 pound note is an indicator of the deep historical ties between ancient Iran and Syria. In a rock carving at the Naqsh-e Rustam necropolis in southern Iran’s Fars Province, Philip the Arab is shown along with the Roman Emperor Valerian the Elder as they bow before the Persian king Shapur I the Great. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

The depiction of Philip the Arab on Syria’s 100-pound note is an indicator of the deep historical ties between ancient Iran and Syria. In a rock carving at the Naqsh-e Rustam necropolis in southern Iran’s Fars Province, Philip the Arab (kneeling, far left) is shown along with the Roman Emperor Valerian the Elder (center) as they bow before the Persian king Shapur I the Great (mounted). Damascus’s employing Philip the Arab is likely no accident. Unlike the Saddam-era old 25-dinar note in Iraq depicting the Battle of al-Qadissyah showing an ancient Arab (Iraqi) enmity toward Persia (Iran)–Hafez’s al-Assad’s mortal enemy in the inter-Ba’ath rivalry–Syria’s 100-pound bill emphasized Syria and Iran’s ancient, shared history…in which Roman Arabia (present day Syria) is the supplicant. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

Not a project that even the most ambitious young turk with a fancy master’s degree fresh out of Georgetown or Columbia could have done. It’s a bit of a blood, sweat and tears project in that sense and I was thrilled to have it come to fruition. I’ve dealt with countless fast talking money changers, sky rocketing wartime inflation, crossed borders only opened when regimes were in the process of being toppled and made all sorts of other absurd, laborious entreaties to obtain this collection.

Many of these specimens were lost for years or so I thought, until I uncovered them last fall in a musty storage locker and began to examine them one by one. I then realized they merited an article treatment on their own.

Most of these notes (except the Qadaffi-era dinar which is still in circulation pending the release of new notes by Libya’s central bank) are long out of circulation. And more importantly, each banknote tells a story both in its iconography laden artistry and in the circumstances in which I obtained it. The 20th anniversary of the Shia Islamic revolution in Iran, the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan, the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, and so forth.Screen shot 2013-02-02 at 8.18.11 PM                                                                                                                                                                       

Mali Malaise

June 13th, 2012 No comments

Mali’s deposed president Amadou Toumani Touré, well known for his close ties to Qaddafi, was apparently in bed with another one of the world’s late dictators, Kim Jong-il. I happened upon this in a new area of Bamako at the end of a lengthy Chinese-built bridge. There I found an area out of character with the rest of the city called Army Square with a cluster of monuments that looked more at home in Pyongyang than Mali’s capital. Upon doing just a little digging, sure enough, they were built by a North Korean front company called Baikho S.a.r.l. that was doing projects for ATT right up until the March 22 coup d’etat. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

I have an article out today on CNN.com’s World page from my trip to Sévaré.

Barcelona- Wanted to post some more images from my two weeks in the broken, beautiful Malian republic. I’ve noticed that there seem to be two black-or-white schools of thought on Mali: it is painted as either not nearly as bad as some media reports and politicos have been suggesting or as Mahamedou Issoufou, president of neighboring Niger has recently stated “It [Mali] is not just a threat for the region, but the world.” The ‘West African Afghanistan’ meme has thus been circumambulating the web. There are a couple of problems with the writing and reporting situation on Mali.

One is that the majority of reports about this troubled state are written by those who are either not in the country at present, or as I suspect, certain think-tank types who have never been there in the first place, instead relying on a mix of regional state media sites and rebel statements via their own sites to inform them of what is going on there.

The other issue is that it seemed to me after going to the trouble and expense of actually going to Mali, the CNRDRE junta does not want journos in their midst whatsoever.  My first day in Bamako I went out cautiously with a very small camera to try and feel out the city. I approached what appeared to be a small pro-junta gathering on an open, public street in front of the National Assembly.

Before I could even raise my lens to take a single frame, a pair of plain clothes Sanogo guys promptly escorted me out of the area, telling me that one cannot simply begin shooting photos in Mali of anything remotely political in nature without first seeking permission. Doesn’t sound like the echo of a functioning democracy, does it? According to a good many Bamakois, not only is the north lost, but no one knows when the democratic process will return to Mali.

In sum, Mali is simply a difficult place to both write about and report from.

The FT’s Xan Rice did a nice little article about the weeping Mali billboards dotting Bamako’s roadsides. I featured one of them in my Christian Science Monitor piece which is linked two posts down from this one. Oh and you are interested here and hereare links (en Français)  about the North Korean firm that was (or is?) active in Mali under ATT. Wonder if Sanogo will maintain ties with Kim Jong-un?

In unrelated business I’m cited by UPI in their article “U.S. risks getting dragged into Yemen war” stemming from my Fahd al-Quso piece in Asia Times Online last month.

This is a bronze of General Abdoulaye Soumaré courtesy of Pyongyang. Soumaré was Mali’s first chief of army staff after independence from France in 1960. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

Hideous, unfinished LAICO (Libyan Arab Investment Corporation a.k.a. Qaddafi clan) hotel on the northern bank of the Niger River, Bamako. The hotel apparently was being built by a Chinese outfit but the project appeared to be stalled for quite some time. Not surprising considering Qaddafi met his maker outside Sirte last year and ATT is in exile. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

The Statue of the Victory. Not sure what victory it is referring to but it caught my eye because of the Kalashnikov. I never stop being fascinated by the concept of the Kalashnikov-once a symbol of a creeping Red Army-as an icon of Third World liberation. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

Everything that you take for granted in the West, even the smallest thing, is a challenge of some sort in Mali. Everyday when walking around the city I found myself leaping over these open sewers while taking the shortest routes from A to B. Here, my taxi driver jumps an especially big one after leaving the cab to relieve himself. The roadsides make convenient commodes. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

Trucks heading south after getting through the checkpoint outside Sévaré. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood