Tiziano Terzani: a people’s reporter
‘Hello! I am Tiziano Terzani.’ With those words Tiziano burst into my life on a Sunday afternoon. He walked into my room in Saigon’s Continental Hotel to introduce himself. A younger and taller Omar Sharif in white shirt and trousers, with swept back jet black hair, a rich moustache and a thousand watt smile. Hours earlier he had landed in a deserted airport on the last Air Vietnam flight from Singapore. He was beaming like a prankster whose trick had worked. With the communist forces advancing on the South Vietnamese capital,immigration and customs officials had vanished, and with them the Black Book that would have warned them that Terzani, the reporter for Der Spiegel was persona non-grata. Strolling through the airport with no one to stop him, he felt Saigon was already liberated. It did become so three days later. On the morning of 30 April 1975 North Vietnamese tanks rumbled into town, fulfilling Tiziano’s great hope. At last there was Giaiphong (liberation). That Vietnamese word became the title of Tiziano’s book. ‘The Vietnamese were once again masters of their own destiny,’ he exulted in the book.
Born to a Florentine family of workers with strong communist influence, Tiziano grew up believing in leftwing ideology. To him, the Vietnamese were involved in an epochal struggle against imperial American power, and through his writing, he wanted to contribute to that struggle. He soon gave up his well-paid job as a salesman for Olivetti typewriters, and took up the typewriter to launch into a career of journalism – as the Asia Correspondent for Der Spiegel. Tiziano was a born storyteller and a tireless collector of other’s stories. His natural warmth and expansive gregariousness, his language skills (German, Mandarin, English in addition to his mother tongue, Italian), and his enormous curiosity were a winning combination. To this was added another gift – his family. His wife Angela and children Saskia and Folco, provided a safe haven and a focal point, which made possible his passionate pursuit of stories on long, and often perilous, voyages. Within minutes of unpacking his bags in a new place, he would hit the streets with the enthusiasm of a cub reporter eager to find out everything. Time and again I would see a crowd gather around him, telling him their stories and giving him insights that foreign correspondents lounging by the pool in five star hotels could never get.
Like a politician on the stump, he loved to meet ordinary people. He was fascinated by their stories and wanted to understand what made them tick. That often took unexpected turns. On a trip to Cambodia in 1980, the year after Pol Pot had fled to the jungle leaving over a million dead in mass graves, we were strolling in what now was a miserable shadow of a market that had been. A few emaciated women dressed in black rags sat listlessly by small baskets of vegetables or bananas. The arrival of a tall mustachioed Italian in blinding white greeting them with folded hands caused quite a stir. A thin voice called out ‘bonjour monsieur!’ Who was that? Who speaks French here? After some giggles, hiding behind scarves the caller was identified. She was the sole surviving daughter of a former officer now living with her grandma. That was the beginning of a long and emotional encounter. We asked, ‘Why not come with us to Phnom Penh where there is need for an educated person like you?’ A happy but weeping grandma readily agreed to let her grand-daughter go. But they asked how we would negotiate all the military checkpoints on the way designed to prevent unauthorized entry into the capital.
By the end of the afternoon Tiziano, aided by our Cambodian interpreter and driver, had convinced everyone that this could be done. It was a tense journey back. Nearing the biggest checkpoint manned by Vietnamese soldiers, Tiziano himself took the wheel. Pretending to be a Russian adviser in a hurry, he aggressively drove through never lifting his hand from the loudly blaring horn and our frightened Cambodian passenger crouched shaking in the back. That evening, armed with a new sarong, sandals, mosquito net and some cash, she began a new life at the Cambodian women’s association. Tiziano could not remain a dispassionate observer in the face of human misery, as was expected of his profession.
While posted in Beijing he felt suffocated in the glass bowl of the foreigners’ compound. He would put on a Chinese-style jacket and bicycle around to places where he could strike up conversations. His favourite hangout was the Bird Market where birds and crickets (ED: insects not sport) were sold. ‘You should not dress in Chinese clothes and ride a bike,’ Tiziano was warned by the police, ‘because that could suggest you are a spy.’
He was not called a spy, but in 1984 was jailed for a month before being expelled on the charge of illegally smuggling out Chinese antiques. Part of the ‘evidence’ the Chinese authorities produced was a Tanka scroll found in his home, clearly marked ‘printed in Great Britain’, and bamboo cricket cages he had bought at the Bird Market. Those who were aware of his trenchant reporting about authoritarian and xenophobic China understood the real reason for his expulsion.
Tiziano had travelled through China by bicycle and ‘hard seat’ (third class in Indian terms) train compartments to better understand the country. He found it ironic that his education was completed by his incarceration. During the whole month he was treated like an ordinary Chinese. As he wrote later, ‘Suddenly, a small window opened for me on one of the most important aspects of Chinese life: the relationship of an ordinary citizen with the police and the established power. Suddenly, I was inside the belly of the whale, able to get near that heart of darkness that is so much a part of today’s life in that country. And like a Chinese, I had no ground to stand on, no law to quote, no rights to invoke.’
Tiziano’s journey away from communism had actually begun soon after he celebrated the communist victory in Vietnam. Both of us had stayed on for three months under the new regime and witnessed how revolutionary power establishes control and relegates opponents to the dustbin of history. His enthusiasm for the liberation of the Vietnamese people, so eloquently recounted in Giaiphong! began to erode. The libertarian in him was shocked by the ruthless bureaucratic and authoritarian control over people’s daily lives. Within six years his critical writing about totalitarian rule in Vietnam had again earned him a place in Vietnam’s Black Book. However, thanks to the intervention of some friendly cadres, he was back again on the tenth anniversary of the liberation of Saigon. His disillusionment was complete. He found that one set of authoritarian rulers had been replaced by another. Communist officials from North Vietnam had installed themselves in the villas of the South’s old ruling elite. In biting cold anger he wrote, ‘A whole southern society of destitute, miserable, feverish people have been thrown into the streets where many survive by begging – a lost tribe doomed to be extinguished.’
Yet, Tiziano did not recant his anti-Vietnam war stance. In a column he wrote: ‘Should we have supported the US war effort? Should we have prevented the victory of the revolution? Certainly not! The fact that the communists have gone wrong since 1975 does not make Americans right. They should never have got into Vietnam and because they did, they are partly responsible for what is happening now.’
Tiziano’s second chance to celebrate another giaiphong came in 1991 on a visit to Russian Siberia. News reached him that the Soviet Communist Party has collapsed. Communism was dead and, with the kind of enthusiasm that only he could muster, Tiziano started on a mission to find the body of this dead beast. His amazing journey through a disintegrating Soviet Union ending at Lenin’s tomb at Moscow’s Red Square produced a remarkable eyewitness account, Goodnight Mr. Lenin.
By 1994 Tiziano, had decided he would set up the last tent of his Asian Odyssey in India. He had lived in Singapore, Bangkok, Beijing and Tokyo (he used to call Japan the ‘only successful communist country’) but nowhere had he found the human warmth and spiritualism he so craved. In India he said he had found it. ‘Where else would you hold a discussion about poetry and philosophy with a train ticket collector?’ he beamingly told me. In a way, he said, being in India felt like a kind of homecoming. By now he had swapped his white shirt and trousers for a kurta pajama and had started growing a beard.
In 1997 Tiziano was diagnosed with cancer and began a different kind of journey. He chose a simple cottage in the hills to reflect on life. The last time I saw him with his long white mane and flowing white beard, he looked like a photogenic guru from the Himalayas, where he had begun living.
His attempt to seek the solitude of the hills was interrupted by September 11. Too much was at a stake and the journalist in him could not resist returning to the fray. With the publication of his Letters Against the War, Tiziano began the last campaign of his life. This time it was not against communist totalitarians but American imperialism. He launched himself into an emotional debate with his compatriot journalist Oriana Fallaci over the merits of America’s war on terror. Indefatigably touring college campuses, schools and churches in Europe, he railed against the war. His last act of protest was to sever all connections with things American, including the clinic where he was being treated for cancer and his AT&T email server. In an email to his friends on February 19 this year he gave the reason:
‘The events of the last two years have convinced me that the greatest danger to the security of the world and the survival of our civilization is not represented by the so called "terrorism", but by the America of George W. Bush and the neoconservative project to create a global empire intended not to protect "the values of democracy" or other, but simply the standard of living of the rich against the interests of the rest of mankind.
‘In order not be an accomplice, albeit in a symbolic sense, of this anti-human, criminal project I have severed all my relationships with the American institutions. I no longer use their banks, their credit cards, the product of their junk food industry, not even their hospitals.
‘For this reason today I closed my contract also with the e-mail service of the US giant AT&T. I thank you very much. I send you my warmest greetings and the wishes that we all might one day enjoy a better world.’
Five months later, the perennial dissenter closed all his accounts with this world.
* Nayan Chanda, editor of YaleGlobal Online (http://yaleglobal.yale.edu) and former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review covered Indochina with Tiziano Terzani.