At 82 years old and one of T&T’s most avid and prolific historians, Fr Michael Anthony de Verteuil CSSp, former principal (1978-1992) of his alma mater of St Mary’s College in Port-of-Spain, st
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Strange dogs were barking
Twice, the columnist Raoul Pantin has got in the back of my taxi, travelling into Port-of-Spain.
On both occasions there was some major lawlessness in the news and, on both occasions, his opening gambit was, “See everything what going on in this country? It can be traced directly back to 1990.”
In the nearly quarter of a century that has passed since Abu Bakr’s boys stormed the Red House, the spectre of the attempted coup has, for that generation, never gone away. It’s one of those things, I’ve noticed, that barely goes a week without being mentioned.
And why would it go away? It’s still there in everybody’s faces, clear as day.
Questions persist. Does Abu Bakr still control (or could at least mobilise) a criminal empire, capable of another coup attempt? Is he mid-rung, with enough longevity and power to still obtain large construction contracts for public projects? Or is he a “retired” smooth-talker with the charm, charisma, rousing voice and steely gaze of somebody totally unafraid of reprisals, despite his past actions?
I saw his ability to charm, first-hand, a month after I arrived in Trinidad.
To mark the 23rd anniversary of the coup, his Jamaat al Muslimeen, 100 strong, marched from Woodford Square, down Frederick Street, chanting “There is only one God, Allah.” The march ended at the Waterfront Towers and he leant against a wall sheltering from the rain that had begun falling on the parade as it had gone along the Brian Lara Promenade.
The members of the media appeared nervous to approach so, in my best cockney, I asked him what my editor had told me to ask: would he testify at the commission of enquiry?
“How much are they paying the chairman of the enquiry?” he replied.
“If they pay me the same, then I’ll testify.” Soon the cameras and tape recorders were gathered round, pressed in his face.
I was amazed—with 24 people having died in the coup, an essentially terrorist act—that they should brazenly commemorate the act.
As I hurried along beside the marchers I had spotted Ambassador Mervyn Assam, a man who recognises my face if not necessarily my name.
He acknowledged me, cheerful as ever, so I scuttled over and asked what he thought of the day’s events.
“If they want to march, let them march,” he said, diplomatically.
Sometimes, in Trinidad, it’s easier to let criminals off. Sometimes Trinidad even elects criminals into government, so I’m told. Abu Bakr says that’s why he staged the coup d’etat. The government-negotiated, legally-upheld amnesty paints its own picture.
Pantin argues that in a Western democracy the coup would have ended with the army shooting the terrorists.
Reading Pantin’s Days of Wrath on the beach one day, I put it down to for a second and a wave came and drenched it.
“It’s still readable,” I persuaded the book’s lender, our very own editor-in-chief, although I had to admit that Pantin’s signature—for it had been a signed copy—had been smudged into illegibility.
That the 24th anniversary of 1990 fell so close to Eid this week highlighted the evident plurality of modern Islam.
Religion and criminal gangs are odd bedfellows in most religions but, in Islam, such is its diversity, devout worshippers and secular Muslims fall under the same umbrella as political activists and even armed militant organisations intent on violently enforcing Islamic socio-cultural and religious beliefs.
No other culture or religion has seen such infighting since the days of the Vikings and their Norse gods.
Alawite and Shia government troops in Syria fight Sunnis and Islamic jihad fighters from elsewhere, including Britain.
Hamas in Palestine, committed to opposing Zionism, is at odds with its own Palestinian Authority which accepts Israel as a Jewish state.
But is Bakr (a former police officer) really a man of God or a man of the gun? How can one be both, I often wonder? God, if he or she exists, does not wish death or killing.
In as much as the Jamaat consists of black converts, would take up arms and is religiously syncretic, it is similar to the Nation of Islam; religion as accompaniment to a community-focused struggle.
The fact that Bakr is able to do and say what he pleases appears to be symptomatic of the state of Trinidadian law and order.
Promisingly, his most recent message was one of peace.
“I don’t even own a gun,” he said, “I have a heart filled with love.”
This came just days after he had promised “appropriate action” against the three highest security officials in the land, over arrests of his men at Carapo mosque.
Bakr believes he has more control over the crime rate than police do and says that he will “even co-operate with the police.”
Abu too sweet, yes.
In the same Guardian interview he called Gary Griffith a “clown.” Which begs the question, Abu for Minister of National Security?
Until next week, Inshallah.