I haven’t seen Grigore or Sam in years. And look, I had the illusion that they would be my friends forever. Maybe they still are, Grigore drinking a beer in a bar in Bucharest, Sam watching a sunset at the temple of Neak Pean in Cambodia. But these are connections made before social media. With luck, they survive in the ether.
Their memory came this week as we flirted with a fragile, infamous and bumbling threat of censorship in our unstable daily lives. THE sheet covered well the recent attempt to ban artists on Lollapalooza from expressing their opinions. And that trigger took me back to Grigore and Sam.
Much has been written about the pointlessness of such an act, not to mention the eternal stupidity of trying to stifle a youth movement by banning its manifestation (the empirically proven answer is always to draw even more attention to the object of the ban). But Sam and Grigore brought me another perspective on the mess.
Sam was the son of Pol Pot’s “revolution”, one of the greatest historical atrocities of modern times. A leader of the Khmer Rouge, his brutal dictatorship (1975/79) killed somewhere between 1.5 million and 2 million people — a staggering number, not least because it was about a quarter of the country’s population at that time.
A guide in his mid-thirties, Sam (a Western codename that facilitated his contact with tourists) was more reserved than most Easterners. But through some inexplicable channel, he felt free, after some coexistence, to tell a little of his story.
In the worst periods of the Khmer Rouge, Sam would spend days, weeks, with his mother and sisters in a hole, waiting for his father to return with food. A turn that, let it be said, she was not right.
And the reticent tone in which he described everything to me was shy and angry, as if even years after the threat of repression had been lifted he was still afraid of words. Not unlike how Grigore vented to me.
On that same trip, around the world in 2004, I was introduced to him in a cafe that certainly no longer exists, called Turabo, in the old center of the Romanian capital. We connected right away and I soon saw that he wanted to talk about Bucharest, but not about the things my official guide, Cornel, was introducing me to.
Leaving Turabo one afternoon, he took me to an uncle’s tailor shop nearby, with the impossibly charming name of Casa Elegantei. I was introduced to the little old man who couldn’t get out from behind his sewing machine and I heard the saddest stories of a family that almost disappeared.
Grigore’s father, brother, sister, uncles and cousins had disappeared under the atrocious regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, absences he learned to live with, but not get used to, in his childhood and adolescence. Narrated to me with whispered rage.
His fear was the same as Sam’s: that someone would hear everything and punish him. At Grigore’s request, I didn’t even mention our meeting in the book I published about that trip. This is the first time I’ve shared their stories with anyone.
And I do so because the specter of censorship, the specter of prohibitive force in the face of any narrative and the fear that this, in the long run, can provoke, returned to haunt Brazil last Sunday. The danger has been removed, today you can’t even find news about it in the home of the day.
But with any new threat like that, I’ll be reminded of Sam and Grigore again. Because I’ve seen what it’s like to live in fear of saying things. And that has no place in the world we want to know.
LINK PRESENT: Did you like this text? Subscriber can release five free accesses of any link per day. Just click the blue F below.