Wednesday 12 March 2008

A Fantasy in Kathmandu

An Irish proverb says "Níl breith ar an chloch a chaitear" : no taking back the stone, once thrown. For poet, Cathal Ó Searcaigh the stone has been thrown. There is no going back. The controversial film about his travels to Nepal, which he tried to prevent from being shown, was screened last night on RTE1.

In the course of the film Ó Searcaigh re-iterates his love of Nepal. It is his spiritual home. The people are loving and open. They have a generosity of spirit which we have lost on the road to prosperity. And his visits there, he claims, are as much about his desire to dispense charity as about his quest for spiritual fulfilment.

The film exposes these noble musings as a lie. It turns out that Ó Searcaigh is having sex with dozens of young men in circumstances which range from questionable to unsettling. The film alleges that Ó Searcaigh met young men at a campus and invited them to his hotel for lessons. They were to bring their books. But once in the room, the books were not required. It is not entirely clear whether Ó Searcaigh would coax, coerce or intimidate his young prey into having sex. For sure, promises would be made - a new bike, new clothes, or college fees. And some victims later spoke with anger about how they were manipulated and confronted with sexual advances which they were ill-equiped to deflect.

One poignant scene in the film reminded me of the vile sex tourism that is rampant in SE Asia. Ó Searcaigh and his so-called friends are in a cafe having an ice-cream. Seated beside Ó Searcaigh is a boy, the latest catch. He wears a sullen look and his gaze is in the distance. Laughter and wisecracks cackle around the table, but the boy is not involved. He sits in silence, fidgeting loosely with his ice-cream. He wants to be somewhere else. Momentarily he turns his face towards Ó Searcaigh, who good-humourdly winks back at the boy. But the boy instantly turns away, still wearing a cheerless expression. The poet rejoins the conversation as if the snub had never happened. And in his mind it hadn't.

Ó Searcaigh seemed both naive and out of touch with reality. Naive because he allowed a film maker to accompany him at close quarters when anyone else would want to ply this indecent trade far away from prying eyes. And here is where it seems the poet has lost touch with reality. He has been visiting Nepal for 10 years. Over the years he probably grew into the role of rich, powerful westerner, lord among the poor and destitute. He seemed to relish their overdone welcome, their flattery, and their servitude. It as if gradually, as time went by, he slowly went blind to their fawning, servile behaviour. He would have found that he could indulge his sexual desires on young men who are innocennt, vulnerable and compliant. Over the years, the poet was sliding into a fantasy. These were real friends. This was real affection. This was real charity.

Ó Searcaigh was jolted out of his spell only when Ní Chianáin confronted him at the end of the film. She brought up the sex, she mentioned the exploitation, she recounted the boys' stories. The poet was agitated and shaken. The noble ideals collapsed into a seedy, insatiable appetite for fresh young men. The spiritual journey was sex tourism. And both we, and perhaps Ó Searcaigh himself, are confronted with the reality that he is a man of letters, eccentric, gay, otherworldy, pensive, dreamy, but also a callous and rather sad, sexual preditor.

One hopes that at least this sorry affair will prise open that ring of silence around all forms of sexual exploitation. Ó Searcaigh's shabby antics are not that different from what happens thousands of times every weekend all over Ireland, where young vulnerable women are bought and sold shamelessly and with impunity. We all know that many of these women suffered abuse as children, many more are drugs dependent, and still more live under the constant threat of violence or worse. Those who patronise these poor creatures are morally equal to Ó Searcaigh.

Though homosexual acts are illegal in Nepal, we should remind ourselves too that Ó Searcaigh has not been convicted of committing any crime so he should now be allowed to get on with his life. He violated natural justice and was unlucky enough to get caught, and he will now pay with his reputation, as a citizen if not as a poet. But instead of being the object of our collective moral outrage, Cathal Ó Searcaigh should be a reminder of the complexity and injustice of sexual exploitation.

Update: The orignal draft of the last paragraph erroneously assumed that homosexual acts were not a crime in Nepal. In fact, Nepalese law proscribes "unnatural sex" which is aimed at homosexual acts. As such, a homosexual act is punishable by law, though in December 2007 the Nepalese Supreme court ordered the government to ammend the laws to remove any discrimination against homosexuals. I made this ammendment on foot of a comment by Elizabeth here at GUBU. More information here .

Update 2: For a discussion about the film itself, Ní Chianáin's motives and methods, and some of the wider issues which the film invites but does not tackle, see this at

1 comment:

Tomaltach said...

This morning Senator Eoghan Harris was criticising the film. His central point was the exploitative nature of the relationship between the rich West and the poor Rest. "Everytime you go on holidays to a poor country, that's exploitation" thundered the senator with that inimatable tone of righteous superiority. Sadly, his opposite number, Quentin Fotrell, failed to rebute this humungous pile of horse litter.

First, tourism is a key pillar in the economy of many poor countries, including Nepal.

Second, the wider argument about East West trade is very complex, but most economists would now agree that in the medium to long term it is a benefit to poorer countries - as long as the rules can be reasonably fair. Hundreds of millions have been lifted out of absolute poverty in China and SE Asia since they were drawn in to and embraced the recent wave of globalistation. That is not to say exploitation, the infamous shoe factories etc, don't exist. But without them, those people would starve. It is for their society to address the inequality, with as much of a nudge from the West as we can apply politically.

But Third, and not least. What sort of absurd, fucked up, relativistic value system can equate me spending my honest tourist dollars in Nepal with a sexual preditor paying young men for sex?

The Senator, as one letter writer to the Times put it a few months ago, has disappeared up his Eoghan Harris.