Writer Pico Iyer looks to the quirks of the her­mit king­dom as the ba­sis to ex­plor­ing an age-old ques­tion.

The Peak (Singapore) - - Contents - TEXT PICO IYER

Pico Iyer looks to the her­mit king­dom in an­swer­ing an age- old ques­tion.

We’d just emerged from a long and rather liq­uid din­ner on a barge along the Tae­dong River, in the heart of North Korea’s show­piece cap­i­tal of Py­ongyang. Two wait­resses had fin­ished join­ing our English tour guide, Nick, in some more than bois­ter­ous karaoke numbers. Now, in the bus back to the ho­tel, one young local guide broke into a heart­felt ren­di­tion of Danny Boy. His charm­ing and el­e­gant col­league, Miss Peng – North Korea is no neo­phyte when it comes to try­ing to im­press vis­i­tors – was talk­ing about the pres­sures she faced as an un­mar­ried woman of 26, white Chanel clip glint­ing in her hair. An­other of our min­ders – there were four or five for the 14 of us, with a cam­era trained on our ev­ery move for what we were as­sured was a “sou­venir video” – kept say­ing, “You think I’m a gov­ern­ment spy. Don’t you?”

We did. We knew that just be­hind the glit­tery Potemkin sur­faces of this city, in 2014, was a dev­as­tated land­scape of star­va­tion and op­pres­sion. We guessed that the fel­low pas­sen­gers who’d greeted us so warmly (in English) in the show­case sub­way cars were very likely ac­tors in­structed by the gov­ern­ment to im­per­son­ate reg­u­lar folks. Most North Kore­ans aren’t even al­lowed to set foot in the citadel of fu­tur­is­tic high-rises and a 105-storey tourist ho­tel that looks to be semi-per­ma­nently un­fin­ished. This wasn’t my first trip to Py­ongyang – I first went there in 1990 – and I never for­got that ev­ery chore­ographed step was de­signed to send for­eign­ers home with the same Dis­ney-wor­thy images.

But I was back in North Korea be­cause nowhere I’d been asked such search­ing ques­tions about what be­ing hu­man truly in­volves. Nowhere so unset­tled my easy as­sump­tions about what “re­al­ity” re­ally is. The peo­ple around me clearly wept and bled and raged as I did; but what did it do to your hu­man in­stincts to be told that you could be sen­tenced,

per­haps to death, if you dis­played a pic­ture of your mother – or your grand­daugh­ter – in your home, in­stead of a photo of the Fa­ther of the Nation? Did be­ing hu­man re­ally in­clude not be­ing per­mit­ted to leave your home­town, and not be­ing al­lowed to say what you think?

I’ve never doubted that hu­man­ity is a priv­i­lege, even if we, as the an­i­mals who think, are also the crea­tures who ag­i­tate, plot and fan­ta­sise. Gov­ern­ments try to sup­press this at times, and many of us in the freer world now im­prison our­selves by choos­ing to live through screens, or to see through screens, like the Bud­dhist dem­a­gogue Ashin Wi­rathu who, in de­fi­ance of the shared hu­man­ness that the Bud­dha worked so hard to elu­ci­date, com­pares his Mus­lim neigh­bours in Myan­mar to wolves and jack­als. More and more of us th­ese days seem to be liv­ing at post-hu­man speeds de­ter­mined by ma­chines, to the point where we barely have time for kids or friends. But if we’re feel­ing less than hu­man — or pre­tend­ing we can en­gi­neer mor­tal­ity away — for most of us it’s a choice we’re mak­ing, and can un­make to­mor­row.

In my home of more than 30 years, Ja­pan, no­body thinks twice about be­ing mar­ried by a ro­bot or apol­o­gis­ing to a pen­cil af­ter you throw it across a room. My neigh­bours rat­tle on cheer­fully about “2.5 di­men­sional char­ac­ters” and “demi-hu­mans”; their gov­ern­ment has ap­pointed the mouth­less car­toon cutie Hello Kitty and a 22nd-cen­tury blue ro­botic cat named Do­rae­mon as cul­tural am­bas­sadors. Lines be­tween an­i­mate and inan­i­mate run dif­fer­ently in an an­i­mist Shinto uni­verse where – you see this in the beau­ti­ful films of Hayao Miyazaki – ev­ery blade of grass or speck of dust is be­lieved to have a spirit.

In Ja­pan, as in its neigh­bour North Korea, a hu­man is of­ten taken to be part of a unit, a voice in a choir; her


job may be to be in­vis­i­ble, in­audi­ble and all but in­dis­tin­guish­able from those around her. At the Fam­ily Ro­mance com­pany in Tokyo, 1,200 ac­tors stand ready to im­per­son­ate, for a price, a child’s ab­sent fa­ther, for years on end, or a wife’s adul­ter­ous lover. The Henn-na Ho­tel in Na­gasaki de­scribes it­self as the world’s “first ho­tel staffed by ro­bots.”

But all this means only that the bound­aries of what it is to feel hu­man emo­tion are stretched, to the point of in­clud­ing motes of pollen or the rail­way car­riages peo­ple bring presents for. Even the dead are treated as hu­man in Ja­pan. Af­ter my mother-in-law passed away in Fe­bru­ary, her clos­est rel­a­tives never stopped chat­ter­ing to her, setting out a glass of her favourite beer next to her cof­fin, ap­ply­ing blush to her waxen cheeks. My wife still puts food out for her fa­ther five years af­ter he was placed into the earth; this month our son will re­turn home be­cause his de­parted grand­fa­ther and grand­mother are be­lieved to be vis­it­ing for three days then as well.

To me this only con­firms the vis­ceral sense many of us have that ho­li­ness and hu­man­ness may be more closely en­twined than we imag­ine. Speak­ing to the Dalai Lama for 44 years now, I’m of­ten most touched when he stresses how mor­tal he is, some­times im­pa­tient, some­times griev­ing, just like all the rest of us. I keep re­turn­ing to the nov­els of Gra­ham Greene be­cause he re­minds us that a “whisky pri­est” can get drunk, ne­glect ev­ery duty, even fa­ther a child, yet still rise to a level of kind­ness and self­less­ness that a pi­ous car­di­nal might envy. It’s in our vul­ner­a­bil­ity, Greene knew, that our strength truly lies (if only be­cause our ca­pac­ity to feel for ev­ery­one else lies there, too).

For more than 30 years now I’ve been trav­el­ling – to Ye­men, to Easter Is­land, to Ethiopia – to see what hu­man­ness might be, be­neath dif­fer­ences of cus­tom and cir­cum­stance and race. I’ve watched young moth­ers dodg­ing bul­lets, chil­dren liv­ing in garbage dumps, those whom disease has left far from most of the ca­pac­i­ties and re­straints we as­so­ciate with be­ing hu­man. If cir­cum­stances change, how­ever, I never doubt that the hu­man­ness of just about ev­ery one can be re­cov­ered.

The first time I vis­ited North Korea, 24 years be­fore my evening on the barge, my guide led me, dur­ing my last af­ter­noon in the city, up to a hill. It was just the two of us. Be­low were the cut­ting-edge (if of­ten un­in­hab­ited) sky­scrapers, the amuse­ment parks and spot­less, wide boule­vards his gov­ern­ment had created out of what, only 35 years be­fore, had been rub­ble, a de­mol­ished city in which, North Kore­ans claim, only two build­ings re­mained up­right.

My guide wasn’t un­worldly; he’d stud­ied for three years in Pak­istan and spoke Urdu and English. He knew that his sense of what it is to lead a hu­man life was very dif­fer­ent from mine. But what he said was: “Don’t listen to my pro­pa­ganda. Just tell your friends back in Amer­ica what you’ve seen here.”

Was he go­ing off script for a mo­ment – or only of­fer­ing an even craftier set of lines his di­rec­tors had given him? I couldn’t tell. But I could feel that he was ap­peal­ing to some­thing hu­man in me and what­ever un­der­stand­ing two hu­mans can share, even if they come from op­po­site worlds. Of­fi­cial Py­ongyang seems the last word in in­hu­man­ity to me, but as my guide kept wav­ing and wav­ing good­bye while I passed through im­mi­gra­tion, I felt with fresh power, how no one can fully de­prive us of our hu­man­ity but our­selves.

Pico Iyer is the au­thor of many books, in­clud­ing The Man Within My Head, The Art of Still­ness and the forth­com­ing Au­tumn Light, a book on Ja­pan.

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