Bazzi Irvine is an anthropologist and archaeologist in Victoria. He has been involved with the Free Tibet movement for over ten years, first as member of Students for a Free Tibet International and later with the Canada Tibet Committee. I spent an afternoon interviewing Bazzi about his own vision of activism and accountable scholarship. First, however, we discussed the Tibet Freedom movement and Bazzi’s relationship with the cause. To start this post, I thought it might be nice for people to listen to what motivates Bazzi to continue working with the Tibet Freedom movement over the years. What follows are excerpts from our conversation.
Tibetan stories and sharing their message
In this clip, Bazzi recalls one story during his trip to Tibet. In 2012, after many years of working for the Tibet Freedom movement, Bazzi had the opportunity to travel to Tibet where he stayed by the Tibetan Monastery of Labrang in the Gansu Province. During his stay there, Bazzi met a Tibetan monk named Adam (the monk’s English name) with whom he developed a friendship. One evening while having dinner with Adam, Bazzi had quietly expressed his interest in the Dalai Llama and Tibet Freedom movement to Adam. Adam did not say to much in response.
A few days later, after the dinner, Adam invited Bazzi to have a picnic with some of the other monks in the monastery. Bazzi agreed and shortly after Bazzi and the monks piled into a car and drove out to the grasslands. There the Tibetan monks began to share their stories of Tibet and the hardships they faced under China’s rule with Bazzi, urging him to record everything in his notebook to take back to Canada. In this clip, Bazzi shares one of the stories that the monks shared with him and the message they would like the world to know about Tibet.
Kyla You have this picnic and the monks from this monastery are telling you about their experiences?
Bazzi Yeah, so we’d gone out onto the grasslands, we’d driven out of town basically, piled in this car and this one young monk….and everyone that was there really wanted him to tell his story. He was really quiet, kind of stoic…he was the youngest of them. And he was a little bit shy […] but they wanted him to tell his story and – you know my friend, the guy that I met at first? – he was translating what they were saying to me and I was feverishly writing it down, in my notebook. This guy, I guess we’ll call him Tenzin for the sake of this interview, had been picked up outside his monastery after the celebrations for the new prime minister had taken place. He hadn’t been part of the celebration, and I guess this gives some insight into the situation in Tibet, this expression of joy that – at the democratic process, you know almost no one would think of doing the same thing here, but these monks had gotten together and they were so excited to have a new prime minister that they had a celebration. When Chinese authorities got word of it, they came into the monastery and they just grabbed the first two guys that they could see. And one of them was Tenzin and he was 17 at the time. He had nothing to do with this protest but what they [Chinese authorities] needed someone to take the fall. So [the Chinese authorities] took [Tenzin] back to the detention centre and threw him in a cell and for, I guess, seven days and seven nights – for a week – for seven days straight they just beat him constantly. And [Tenzin] said that [the Chinese authorities] had burned something while he was in there – he was alone in his cell, I don’t know if – who was with him or if they got released or whatever, but they burned something in his cell and he said that it turned his skin all yellow…his eyes yellow and he doesn’t know what it was, but some noxious something.
Everyday the guard would come in and, I guess I don’t know if they wanted information or they just wanted to punish him, but they told him that he was garbage and that they could do whatever they wanted to him and they could throw him out just like garbage. And that no one would give a damn if he didn’t come back and they could do whatever ever they liked. [Tenzin] thought he was gonna die in there and everyday they’d come back and, you know, same thing, they’d beat him and then I guess after seven days they thought, “Oh, that’s enough,” and [Tenzin] got released. And that was like a year before I met him, he was 18 when I met him.
I don’t know how any of us here in Canada can – cannot imagine something like that happening – like can’t imagine something like that happening and even in light of that he said they still watched him all the time. Even in light of that he got in that car, in that dinky little taxi, piled in with all of us, drove out for a picnic, which was a litany of horrors, and they just needed to tell people and they wanted their story to get out. And they were adamant they said – they’re monks so they’re basically like university students, they’re scholars, they’re debating philosophy and they were like, “You write all this down! Make sure you get it all properly, be rigorous.” It didn’t even stop there, it was getting dark so we had to come in and we went to this tea house and then just for hours it continued. Even then they said that… what they care about most about what’s happening to Tibet is not about what’s happening to them, you know not about this personal assault, but that Tibet as a whole and the Tibetan environment were what was suffering most.
And they realized, and they made it very clear to me that why they were talking to me, why they were engaging in whatever little act of resistance this was, was intricately tied to Tibet as a whole. It wasn’t about a political – it wasn’t about China being out of Tibet’s affairs or Tibet being separate from China, it was about Tibetans being able to safe guard their home, to take care of the environment so that Tibet, which is the source of most of the major rivers of Asia…which is a really sensitive ecosystem, the grasslands, which the nomads have lived on and taken care of for generations upon generations upon generations, that their survival was what was important because that would affect the world. They had this really intricate ecological understanding of what Tibet represented to the world and this symbolic and practical place that it held. And I can never articulate, because I tell this story when I can because that is what they wanted, they really wanted it to be out there, but I can never articulate with the same detail even in his broken English, the nuance of their understanding about what Tibet means and why they were doing this and why it’s important to fight for Tibet. That it’s not for them, that it’s really for the world, it’s for what Tibet represents, it’s for the Tibetan environment. And it was just, I mean, humbling doesn’t even begin to describe that, you know? That realization.
Kyla So you’ve made this a goal of yours to share that story.
Bazzi I’ve had the chance to present that here in Victoria. I was at a conference, Students for a Free Tibet Regional Conference in Berkley a year after that and I got to share that with some of the Tibetan activists there. You know, sharing it is really important too because it makes you realize that, you know everyone can always come up with excuses or impediments to engaging with activism here. No one has time. No one has the emotional resources to be engaging with this on a significant level. But here we have no risk; here we have no real barriers to being an activist. But there where you have every single barrier imaginable. You have threat of death, threat of harm to your family –
Kyla Incarceration. It goes on and on.
Bazzi And still those monks are activists. Still those monks are doing whatever they bloody well can! And they’re still going to school, they’re still at the monastery, but you think of that and there’s no way you can say, “Oh well…maybe…I’m not feeling so enthusiastic about Tibet,” [laughs] “About Tibet’s chances this year.”
On being an activist
Bazzi There are so many different ways to be an activist. Especially in recent years, I’m not ever out on a megaphone or with so often with a placard, every once in awhile yeah, but most of the time I’m organizing the sound system, or putting in some permits for assembly or sending out emails or doing the funding documents or things like that. And there were times in the past, you know, go to a mining conference and stage direct action or political theatre or plan for hanging a banner and scaling and that’s one way to do activism, but all these bureaucratic minutia aspects to it…that’s activism too. […] But everyone has something to contribute even if they aren’t pounding the pavement out on the street, confronting people who are doing bad things. Writing a letter is still a really strong form of activism, having a conversation is the most powerful thing you can do because it’s so hard to bring these issues up and nobody likes to talk about them.
Scholarship for an activist cause
Bazzi If your scholarship isn’t for an activist cause, there’s no point in doing it. I think that’s a really antiquated and exploitative academic model, is this documentation focus. And we all fall into it: anthropologists and or in history, you know, it’s write everything down. Well write everything down, why? What are we getting at with it? And who’s it benefiting? It’s perpetuating this academic cycle of professor ships, dissertations that are a great experience for us as academics, but the people we’re engaging with if they’re not getting anything out of it, we’re using them for our own, at the end of the day, financial gain. Because academics is a career and if it’s not a career people are in it to further their career in another way even if they’re not going to be an academic. So you have to ask yourself the reasons why you’re interested in something. Objective curiosity is not acceptable anymore. […] Your scholarship has to be activist – you have to be engaged with the community.
Taking a piece with you: Community engagement
Bazzi Community engagement goes far beyond, “Oh! I’m going to write this paper so I better start volunteering with such and such cultural centre and when I’m done my paper, I’m outta there!” […] Young academics are expected to give back meaningfully so that’s what I’m calling for. I think there’s a certain bit of lenience that should be given to people who are finding their feet and realize that just because you do one paper on a certain group doesn’t mean you have to be an expert, doesn’t mean you have to devote your life to them, but I think you have to become a member of that community in a certain way or become somewhat in service of that community if you’re going to devote a lot of your time to studying and writing about them.
[…] I think it’s a lot to ask to be included in someone’s life or their work or their passions and you need to take that on a little bit and you have to take that into yourself while you’re asking for a piece of someone to achieve your ends. You have to realize that that’s a big responsibility and that means that maybe you need to carry that piece of them for longer than might be convenient…for longer than might be the scope of your project, to continue with that, hold that and pass it on to someone else. And that doesn’t mean you have to shackle yourself to it for the rest of your life, but really realize that, especially when you’re asking someone about something that’s so important to them and something that they’ve devoted themselves to, they can talk about it in a way that’s light and in a way that accessible because that’s their jobs, that’s what they do as activists, but how you can in turn serve them and serve their cause is by carrying that forward in good faith and being an advocate….in small ways or in big ways.
[…] It’s having a great community of people who you can give strength to and borrow strength from when you’re not feeling inspired because you’re doing it together. And it’s having a community that’s diverse so that includes the people that you, for academics, want to study, you need to become part of a community or you need to find a way to contribute to that community so that you can lend them strength and they can lend you strength. And that’s what keeps you going, that’s what keeps you engaged. I mean, we’re people, that’s what we’re about, our networks.
Bazzi Why are you undertaking a research project if it doesn’t mean anything to you? You’re not going to be producing good work if you can’t be reflexive, I think. Maybe you could have an argument there about objectivity versus subjectivity, but you’re going to create much better work if you’re invested in it! So find something that you can really pour yourself into, something that you can – and maybe you’re working within the constraints of a greater research project, maybe you’ve got funding to work with a certain group, but find that commonality, find how you connect with people within that group. And then give yourself to it, that’s the biggest thing. You have to give yourself to it, you can’t hold back because you’re asking people to give all of themselves to you and you have to give yourself back. So whether your personality is taking a backseat in the research, really do it justice in your work, don’t half-ass it. Don’t do that. That’s a huge insult to someone and to someone’s life work. And you can’t approach it lightly, you’re asking someone to give something of themselves to you and you need to carry that forward in whatever shape that takes. Maybe you can’t go to meetings, whatever. Check in once a year, make yourself known as an ally to that cause.
– Kyla Fitzgerald, spring 2016