April 09, 2008

Clamouring to be read

Boasting tens of thousands of visitors and millions of books on display, the Leipzig Book Fair runs from the 13th till the 16th of March. A showcase of international standing, this is one of the best book exhibitions in Europe. Norbert Bugeja was there

 As I enter the main hall of the New Leipzig Fair Grounds, an irrepressible sense of exhilaration takes hold. I am at the Leipziger Buchmesse, a foremost German book fair hailed by many as the most prestigious of its kind. For three days, Ian Richie’s levitated glass hall – the world’s largest –serves as an Entrance Hall to a sprawling 20,000 square metres of printed matter. Thousands of people enter this place every hour. I inch my way forward. Journalists, TV and radio crews are there, covering a list of eminent writers: Ken Follett, Charlotte Roche, Miro Gavran, Feridun Zaimoglu. For any ardent reader, I tell myself, this is sheer gold dust.

 

Our Captivity 

I am here as the guest writer for Malta, thanks to an excellent collaboration between the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts, and the Embassy of Malta in Berlin. I will recite A Tango for the Stairs of Valletta, a lyrical triad that will feature in my upcoming collection, ‘Bliet’ (Cities), now kindly taken up by a major publisher. My first reading is at the bustling ‘Small Languages, Great Literatures’ stand. I read in Maltese, followed by a reading in German. Then I comment on my work. The audience is visibly captivated by the rhythms and sounds of Maltese. They inquire about the Mediterranean context in my poetry. Among them is Zvonko Makovic, one-time president of the Croatian PEN, and perhaps the greatest living Croatian poet. We nod at each other. I met Zvonko for the first time in 2005 at the Lodeve Poetry Festival, where he volunteered valuable comments about my writing. Zvonko is very keen on getting to know the Maltese creative milieu. At a Croatian stand brimming with translated works I spot the novelist Roman Simic, who was in Malta some time ago on an LAF/Inizjamed collaboration. He pours me a glass of Dalmatian wine. I am introduced to two Cypriot authors: Yorgos Trillidis, who quips about our desire to “become” writers of fame, and the charming playwright Eurydike Pericleus-Papadopoulou. We see a stronger network of Mediterranean writers emerging, a generation clamouring to shed obscurity, to emerge from the shadows of the world’s “official” languages, to speak of regional and cultural spaces rather than of canons and of nations. Deep down, we all know what the pickle is. We are imprisoned in the languages that contain our work, held up by the very tools that we use so deftly, hindered by the medium that nourishes us. Maltese is my national language as a Maltese citizen, and my gilded Alcatraz as a Maltese writer. The natural course of action for the Maltese writer today is to shun the shallowness of provincial rhetoric and patriotic discourse, to rebut the impulse of ramifying and wallowing in one’s own tradition, to spread one’s wings and fly into other languages. The fare will not be low-cost, but the destination is inexorable. 

 

To read, yes - but what? 

On Friday morning, I improvise my way through the labyrinth. Every publisher is here. The Reclam, Diogenes and Suhrkamp-Insel stands heave with translated editions of prose, poetry, and essays from all over the world. In an increasingly globalized book-world, every shelf speaks Translation. Translation is not an exercise any longer, but a language in itself. What’s more, it has become the language par excellence of the book fair - the ensemble of translated works available here testifies to cultures speaking across and through each other. The book fair marks a step ahead of online purchasing, or even of going through one’s local retail agent. There are people here crowding the bookshelves, handling books, poring over their content, deciding what to lump and what to dump. There are many education representatives, checking out the latest products and consulting their editors as to the adequate material to carry back home. I think of Malta where, in spite of the truly impressive improvements in our education, some dated textbooks have lingered on even as their usage blatantly misguides our students’ cognitive abilities. Are our education scouts doing their work out there, eyes peeled on the European bookshelves, sounding out the publishers in order to bring the best and latest educational material to our college and University libraries, where a number of our academic sections are desperately wanting? I watch as clusters of school children meander through the bookstands. Over here, promoting reading in terms of getting people to read will look gross and naive. Leipzig flaunts a perception of reading as a priori the principal factor in shaping healthy and judicious mindsets, especially among young readers. It is about giving our young ones the necessary tools to discern, to choose their book, the thinking skill of reflecting, as autonomously as possible, on what will be their most fruitful choices for reading throughout their lives. Giving our students the opportunity to visit these Fairs might not be a bad idea. They will obtain rich, cutting-edge exposure to the very latest publications hailing from the cultural realities of other regions and countries within their continent and beyond.

 

Next Stop, Istanbul 

Tourism-wise, if only we were to invest in such an effort, our presence as a country in large-scale European book fairs will make a lot of sense. My jaw falls as I wind my way about the Turkish book stand, a shining example of aesthetic marketing. I learn yet another lesson: online and TV advertising, bill-boards, Malta-painted buses and high-brow magazine reviews are effective – but are they as real to the potential tourist as the actual touching and handling of the Malta product even before one chooses to visit it? We need to take our movable products - our printed books, that is - out there and make them available to these eager readers. Any avid book reader who is in ‘pre-tourist’ stage will want to handle as much in-depth information as possible about their target destination. This means that one of the next steps Malta now needs as part of its tourism policy is a massive, unprecedented effort of translation. By this I mean not only translation of our writers, but of a very significant and eclectic chunk of our Melitensia and of the research work that has and is being done a propos Malta’s people, heritage and cultural present. We need to get this material, including all of those nice English-language folio editions, translated into all the major European languages, possibly even in Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese etc. If we do not have the required resources, then let us approach major international publishers who keep churning out mouth-watering print editions and e-books. Surely, negotiations at ministerial level may achieve the desired goals. Meanwhile, having myself wormed through a pile of full-colour folios, I have decided - the next holiday is Istanbul.

 

Through Bach's Back Door 

My last reading takes place at the Schille Theater, a quaint old venue almost in the shadow of the steep-roofed St Thomas Church where Bach worked and is buried, and where Marthin Luther introduced the Reformation in Leipzig. The audience is fascinated by the phonetic beauty of our language. I end up reciting, impromptu, other works I happen to know by heart. I face another barrage of questions by Lithuanian, German, Estonian listeners, asking about the Maltese literary vista. I oblige, and with pleasure, thinking about an emerging generation of writers who, with proper financial assistance in their staggering challenge of translation, may reach out to these readers and hold their own with any other literature.

I wish to thank Davinia Galea, Bernardette Glanville and Adrian Mamo at the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts for making my visit possible. I also wish to thank the Malta Embassy in Germany, especially Kornelia Klenner who, besides organizing my visit to the last detail, is busy working on bringing the young literature of Malta to the attention of German publishers and audiences. Finally, my heartfelt thanks to Dominik Kalweit and Ray Fabri, whose thorough German translations of my work have elicited many a smile, nod, expression of wonder and requests for encores from my German audiences.

 

Norbert Bugeja  in performance

 


March 11, 2008

El Comandante Calls It a Day

Castro, Fidel; Ramonet, Ignacio ed., Hurley, Andrew trans., My Life – Fidel Castro, (London: Penguin and Allen Lane, 2007), pp. 724+ 



Well, there we have it. The comandante has stepped down. And what a timely resignation it is for Fidel. Never have the whims of world power gone wonkier since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, we face a capital recession that is giving investors worldwide a boneshaking run for their money. We perceive a smoldering Afghanistan and a broken Iraqi population that leave us wondering who the bloodiest dictators really are.  And on top of that, we have to put up with a United States at its lowest ebb, headed by the worst bungler in presidential history. There has never been a riper moment for summing up the lifetime and adventures of Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz, ex-President of Cuba and leader of the Cuban Revolution since 1958. 


Sooner or later, somebody had to do this mammoth task. Fidel himself made it clear his time was too precious to lavish on writing self-narratives. But Ignacio Ramonet found a way of tapping his subject’s notable gift of the gab. The result is an assisted autobiography, with a researcher asking the questions, and Castro answering, recollecting, clarifying and fine-tuning the facts of a 49-year long stint as Cuban leader. The format suits Castro’s penchant for oratory, and readers of his 626-page, 28-chapter exchange with Professor Ramonet, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, will find in Castro’s meticulous answers that same eloquence that triggered Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s wonder at the Revolutionary’s rhetorical panache. Castro ‘begins almost inaudibly, his path uncertain, but he takes advantage of any glimmer, any spark, to gain ground, little by little, until suddenly he casts off – and takes control of his audience’, writes Marquez. ‘My Life – Fidel Castro’, is the result of some 100 hours of face-to-face conversation that an ailing Castro chose to grant Ramonet. 


In terms of research, comprehensiveness, and eliciting the finer details of Castro’s history, the biographer has produced a laudable volume. His conversation with Fidel covers his birth and upbringing in a well-to-do Roman Catholic family in Biran, his political debut as a young lawyer, and the 1953 assault of the Moncada Barracks - the event that signaled the eventual overthrow of president Fulgencio Batista and the triumph of the Revolution in 1958. Ramonet devotes an entire chapter to the 1962 ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’, that ended with Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev and Fidel withdrawing the contentious weaponry installed in Cuba that had taken the world to the verge of full-blown nuclear conflict. Another chapter is allotted to the death of Che Guevara - whom Castro bends over backwards to portray as a quasi-flawless, wholesome revolutionary mind. We are  offered Castro’s first-hand accounts of his adventures as a guerrilla in the Sierra Maestra, his initial years in power, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the biological warfare against Cuba under Nixon’s US, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, a time of hardship for Cuba that Fidel euphemistically portrayed to his people as a ‘special period’. In his first-person account as in his speeches, and perhaps out of habit, Castro often employs the ‘We’, a very perplexing mannerism, coming from the guerrilla par excellence, the comrade who swore blood allegiance to the socialist ideals and reputedly shunned the cult of personality.


Fidel speaks of the difficulties he encountered in establishing the Revolutionary administration, surviving hostilities from numerous countries, especially the crippling US embargo that is still in effect, and his own personal ordeal as a prime target of the CIA. His account of the several attacks on his life – an incredible 600 of them – carried out by both the CIA and other organizations such as Omega 7 and Alpha 66 – affords a presumably more veritable version of the intrigue unfolding behind Castro’s formidable public image. Fidel mentions, among others, an attempt to mix cyanide into his drink and a TV camera equipped with a gun trained on him during a press conference. Throughout the conversation, the Commander-in-Chief emphasizes his commitment to the revolutionary ideal of an egalitarian society, and insists that his Cuban Revolution has by now ‘fathered’ four generations of loyal, industrious companeros. Indeed, Castro’s stature, even on the international stage, subscribes to the cult of immortality. He has survived nine US presidents, and has garnered enough support from his own people and the army to keep him in power for half a century. Ramonet’s elaborate introduction to the work is as revealing as the conversation itself. He notes, for instance, Castro’s shy personality and his modest, understated approach during his direct encounters with people in town, village or rural hinterland. Moreover, Ramonet, a very respected specialist in the history of culture and geopolitics, makes a space-clearing gesture for Castro’s international standing. ‘Few men have known the glory of entering the pages of both history and legend while they are still alive. Fidel is one of them. He is the last ‘sacred giant’ of international politics. He belongs to the generation of mythical insurgents – Nelson Mandela, Ho Chi Minh, Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral […] – who, pursuing an ideal of justice, threw themselves into political action in the years following the Second World War.’


The biographer’s problem here is, of course, that his divisive subject is hardly comparable to the likes of Cabral and Mandela, except that Castro was inspired by the former and provided aid to the latter. And here lies Ramonet’s Achilles’ heel, one that may prejudice the credibility of this volume. His writing comes across as ‘making a case’ for Fidel, and very often, the work reads like a painstaking effort at absolving him. It is not a matter of the biographer’s confronting Fidel with bold questions – which he does – but a totalizing conception of Fidel leading Ramonet to state that ‘the fact is that the majority of Cubans (though admittedly not all)  are loyal to the Revolution.’ It certainly is not a view shared by many Cuban artists and writers in exile, including Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and the Cuban-born Andy Garcia, whose movie ‘The Lost City’ offers a scathing depiction of the brutal facts of Castro’s regime.


In his final chapter, ‘After Fidel – What?’, Ramonet broaches the question of Cuba’s destiny after Fidel, which prompts the Cuban leader to  spell out what will not take place in Cuba. He insists that ‘the Yankees can’t destroy this revolutionary process, because we have an entire nation that’s learned to handle weapons, an entire nation that despite our errors, has such a high degree of culture, knowledge and awareness that it will never, ever, again allow this country to become a colony of theirs’. 


Time will tell. But a reflection on Marxist socialism volunteered by Henri Lefebvre may not, perhaps, be completely misplaced at this intriguing stage of Cuba’s development: ‘Just how wide by now is the rift between the ‘real’ society rightly or wrongly referred to as socialist and Marx and Engels’ project for a new society?’ Castro will not dare answer it. Neither will Ramonet. But Castro’s intriguing account of his life certainly offers us a vital glimpse into what the world’s longest-ruling socialist revolutionary leader has realistically achieved.

 

 

fidel castro

February 21, 2008

A note of thanks

My heartfelt thanks to all fellow Commonwealth Scholars who have found the time to visit and contribute to the blog - much appreciated. Also, the number of emails you sent is encouraging! Please post freely and regularly. Feel free to suggest topics of your own, and to request a link to your own blogs/websites/online discussion fora through this one. Very best wishes in your research! N.

Write Honourable Politics

LinoSpiteri, L-Onorevoli – Stejjer li ktibt jien u ghaddej fil-politika,(San Gwann: Publishers Enterprises Group Ltd, 2007) 292+ pp. ISBN No.978-99909-0-490-1 [Hardbound edition]

 

Several of our politicians are versed in many things but the solid labour they should be carrying out. Our island teems with this species and their antics – clearly, this is its blessing and also its curse. But I will make an exception for Lino Spiteri. To have trudged one’s way through forty years of local politics - ferocious and petty as it is – and wind up at the end of it with a writing that addresses that intimate knowledge upfront, with due rigour and complexity, and still remain believeable, is in itself an achievement.

 

Spiteri’s latest collection of twenty-five short stories, titled ‘L-Onorevoli – Stejjer li ktibt jien u ghaddej fil-politika’, is his fictional rendition of several experiences garnered through a lifetime of political involvement. It follows a collection of autobiographical stories – ‘Jien u Ghaddej fil-Politika’ - published earlier last year. In a brief foreword to ‘L-Onorevoli’, the author insists that the title itself is not inspired by local parliamentarians, but the common folks (‘nies zghar’) that people his stories.The latter, he insists, are the ‘Onorevoli’ throughout his work. Spiteri constructs his social narratives around mundane situations, vignettes and characters picked from everyday life and often expressed in a Dickensian slant. In ‘Il-Ktieb ta’ Zeza’,the eponymous protagonist focuses her attentions on the new telephone directory, expecting her name to show up. When she cannot identify herself in the directory, she turns to her local parliamentary deputy who finds the entry and gives her his own copy, duping her into believing that he is presenting her with his privileged edition. His narrative method here reminds one of the ‘magic realist’ techniques utilized by the likes of Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, wherein reality is touched with hints of enchantment and fantasy. A purportedly dumb Cesarel-Ghannej in ‘Dfin fil-Mizbla’ breaks into hysterical cries and acquires speech during the murder scene at a local staging of Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’.The grotesque Ganpawl in ‘Jum il-Ministru’ is a loquacious giant with piercing eyes who barges into the narrative as he harangues a growing-and-hungry minister in the hope of landing a government job. Again, Ganpawl, with limbs resembling prickly pear and carob trees, is a cross between Babur, the hulking allegory of common man in Salman Rushdie’s ‘Fury’, and Dicken’s Magwitch, between whose legs Pip Pirrip could see the countryside for miles around. The first-person narrator of ‘Il-Kuntrattur’ is a thinly-veiled rendition of the local contractor grown to gargantuan proportions, who has to be admitted to the corridors of power. L-Azzarin and his way with firearms in the tragic ‘Omml-Azzarin’ illustrate the macabre measure to which political prerogative and expediency in the past were ready to forfeit even human lives in the name of hollow partisan credos.

 

On the other hand, Spiteri’s prose has a quality of adaptability to and endorsement of contrasting, often conflicting, perspectives. It straddles different subjectivities and realms ofexperience: l-Onorevoli, after all, is also a proper name for the politician who has ‘made it’ – more often than not, through wile, guile and Machiavellian tact. Faced with L-Imghallem, the obscure political leader in ‘F’Dell il-Muntanja’ (many of you will, I am sure, want to read him as a parable of Dom Mintoff), the young, idealistic newspaper editor outlines his ambivalent emotions towards the man. The youngster is disillusioned; the leader, immovable as a dark force in a Conradian drawing-room, is unaffected. Throughout the book, the lives of the common man in the street and the high and mighty cross each other – the bond is almost inextricable. The hoi polloi, the commoner, is attracted to, or constrained to identify with the politician and vice-versa, very often effecting one’s self-annihilation into an Other whom he would rather exorcise than incorporate. Typically, however, the ignis fatuus, the misleading light that herds the uneducated towards calamity in these stories, is politics and its big men. As the deputy tells old Zeza when he hands her the “magical” telephone directory with her name listed there, ‘[…]ara Nann, biex ma titfixkilx se nqeghedlek ritratt tieghi fil-ktieb. Meta trid issib lilek, kemm tfittex hawn biss fejn qieghed jien, imkien izjed’.

 

And finally, a word about Spiteri’s preoccupation with the political Sixties in this volume. A number of stories, but particularly ‘Zwieg fis-Sagristija’, ‘Dfin fil-Mizbla and Qniepenu Mqades’, extracted from his earlier novel ‘Rivoluzzjoni, Do Minore’ take on the stand-off between the Church and the Labour Party during those turbulent years. Spiteri’s writing about the epoch in this volume, however, is best represented in ‘Mikroskopju’. It may well be themost outstanding piece in the collection. By means of dialogue, conversation and direct speech, Spiteri recreates a scenario of idealistic, bohemian young artistes and budding writers killing time in what is presumably Piazza Regina in Valletta, as they debate the Establishment and its  champions who stand in the vicinity. The story, with its unidentified narrative voices interjecting and crossing each other, explores the dynamics of political and cultural change. Who will bring it about and who is inhibiting its course? A “decadent” bourgeois youth? The political establishment? ‘Mikroskopju’ is rich in vision and in cultural connotation.Through its poignant portrayal of another era, it achieves the signature effect of ‘L-Onorevoli’ – a politically charged portrayal of community, unassumingly pitched, but enormously relevant to the realities we inhabit today.

 Lino Spiteri


January 29, 2008

Coming to terms with Lefebvre's spaces

It is not the easiest thing in the world, coming to terms with Henri Lefebvre. I'm finding his take on perceived, conceived and lived space quite intriguing. He points out, over and over again, the necessity of understanding the different spatial domains he discusses as overlapping, traversing, mediating each other's operations. This, however, does not mitigate his rigorous commitment to classification as a crucial stage in the process of generalizing a unified theory of spatial production. While the different classificatory stages in the process are very lucid and insightful as to the complex dynamics of spatial relations in the arena of social practice and representation, they serve, I believe, to underscore the irreducibly fragmentary nature of spatial ensembles, rendering his teleological forma mentis almost absurdly self-contradictory at times. I did identify, however, with his critique of philosophico-epistemological thought, and how such a tradition essentialized a 'mental' spatiality at the expense of material relations and an elaboration of the concrete subject. 

 Off to rest. A presto! 


January 27, 2008

Santa Maria de las Cuevas, Seville

 
This is the monastery of Santa Maria de las Cuevas in the Isla de la Cartuja quarter in Seville.
Seville is one of the most intriguing cities I have visited. The commentary at the door says Columbus
lodged here for a brief period of contemplation before he undertook the voyage. 
 
No hint of blood crosses my path as I stroll along the cloister's endless orange groves on the
twelfth of April, 2005. Only blossoms, a sublime perfume of blossoms. At 5.58 pm,
as the sun prepares to enshroud the city, I take the picture that you see below.
 
At 6pm, the tiny bell signals the Angelus. La Giralda, the great Muslim minaret that is now the
cathedral's 'alminar', its bell-tower, follows suit. I shudder. This is where I come from. This hollow,
overbearing echo. This evening shudder that smells of orange blossoms.
 
Habitually, I nod and murmur the same prayer my great-great-great-great-grandpa did
four-hundred-and-forty-two years ago, as he fed Turkish slaves' heads into a cannon-barrel.
No remorse. I fill up my pipe, strike a match, gaze at the smoke teasing its way across a drowsy
Guadalquivir.
 
It is 6.05 pm, and nothing obstructs my line of vision. The first novillo, still very young but not very 
sharply horned, will fall by 6.15. I sit back and relax. The crowd shall cheer. Invariably, this southwestern
breeze will caress my nostrils with blood, freshly picked from the ranges of Miura. Ole, la muerte alegre. 
 
I wait. No eagerness, no craving. But no remorse, either. Only this memory of winds
that never travel by themselves. Never unmarked, unscented. And I shudder. The evening rustles its way 
through the groves, and as it reaches toward me, reminds me of my pipe. I need a new Zippo. A cheaper one.
Sooner or later, it will break down.
 
7 pm. I make my way back to the hotel. Death, Hemingway reminds me, is incidental to the game. So is
this muted cloister. And the shifting perfumes of an afternoon. Where is the blood that kept you awake, Federico?
Where are the secrets that burden the river?
 
I rush across Calatrava's bridge. Is this the third, fourth, twentieth taxi that I've missed? I realise I've lost count.
 
And swear. 
 
 
The Monastery of Our Lady of Las Cuevas

January 25, 2008

Beginning at the end

Four years after Edward Said’s death, Rev. Professor Peter Serracino Inglott talks to Norbert Bugeja about his friendship with this great intellectual, literary critic and tireless champion of Palestinian self-determination

 

Edward W. Said

 Edward Said has described himself as a man living in between worlds, a ‘Christian  wrapped in Muslim culture’. How do you remember Edward Said?

 I met Edward Said for the first time in Cyprus, at a conference on the survival of small  states in the globalizing world. I was invited there because of Malta’s proposal of the  new Law of the Sea. Pushing forward the idea of the common heritage of mankind  seemed to be one of the ways in which the survival of small states could occur. Said  was invited. Him being Palestinian, I Maltese, we had a common and evident interest  in the issue. In conversation, we discovered many other common interests - music, to  begin with. Although primarily a literary critic and a writer, Said was a very serious  amateur pianist who published a great deal on music. With Charles Camilleri I have  myself written a book on Mediterranean music, and have, like Said, been very much  concerned with music as a means of cross-cultural encounter. In greater depth, we  were interested in the theory of music. I presented Said the thesis that while traditional music, until modern times, was essentially an abstraction from speech, in modern times it began to be conceived of as the language of the emotions – as an alternative to scientific language. ‘Contemporary’ music is an abstraction not only from language, but from all the different sounds - which are one of the most important constitutive features of any one culture.

This is important because the general thrust of all of Said’s efforts was to ensure the survival of national differences, and to very strongly oppose the idea of a fixed national identity. In Malta there lingers the idea of some fixed Maltese national identity, consisting of Roman Catholicism, of patriotism, of loyalty to a certain, quite reasoned, concept of the family. The idea that there is a sharply defined and fixed national identity will lead to racism, to xenophobia, to hatred of foreigners, of the others. If it is strong enough it will lead to imperialism. That has been the worst feature of modern history. It still remains, I think, the biggest threat we are facing - not least of all in Malta today.

 

Said described the Palestinian cause as a ‘great moral cause’ of our time. Given the bleak prospects of Israel-Palestine today, is there space for great moral causes any longer?

Quite frankly, I do not think that the prospects of an agreement are bleak. Like Said, I do believe that the Oslo Agreements did not set things working on the right track. The roadmap chosen then was to begin to deal with relatively ‘smaller’ issues like Gaza or the Jewish settlements on the West Bank, thinking that step by step they would arrive at a global solution. It has now become absolutely evident that the reverse route should have been followed, as Said had pointed out. There should have been agreement, first, on what they wanted to get at in the end, and then to establish the steps leading up to it. At a recent meeting that I attended in Majorca, the representatives of both parties agreed that it should not be very difficult to reach agreement on a final settlement. It would then be possible to tackle the various steps leading up to it. In European meetings, I have urged the European Union to take a strong initiative in this sense. If the EU were to do so, if it did not allow the matter to be dealt with exclusively by the United States, the prospects of reaching a solution would not be bleak. It is disastrous for Israel to go on living in the present situation, and it is impossible for the Palestinians to even survive in these conditions. When both parties involved are desperate for a solution it is difficult to see that a solution could never be found.

 

Together with Daniel Barenboim, Said co-founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – a gathering of young Israeli and Arab musicians. Can this model work for Malta, in terms of lifting xenophobia and stimulating cultural interaction in our country?

I was myself instrumental in getting this orchestra invited to Malta, and it gave a highly successful performance at the Manoel Theatre in Valletta. The reception we had afterwards at my farmhouse was one of the best occasions in which one could see both very staunch Israelis as well as people who shared Said’s views about Palestine, meeting and projecting together this design for peace. It is especially relevant in Malta with regard to the so-called ‘immigrants’. They might becalled ‘irregular’, but hardly ‘illegal’. Said emphasized this a lot - that Europe cannot shrug off its colonial past, its responsibility, especially vis-à-vis North Africa. He emphasized that the North African peoples are in the situation in which they are because of colonialism, really. They cannot be said not to have a right to seek refuge in Europe. In North Africa there was a systematic attempt to destroy their culture, including its Muslim dimension. These people have an incontestable right. It is true that most of these people coming to Malta, although arriving mostly from North Africa, are from further south. However, we should all have a feeling of responsibility. We must not forget - we were ourselves partly responsible for, and certainly beneficiaries of a slave culture that existed until very recent times. We should feel this historical responsibility.

 

Discussing ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, Said has argued that ‘if one of the serious misrepresentations of the current crisis is to depict it as something coming at Arab societies from the outside, another, no less seriously false image is that fundamentalism is a sudden and therefore entirely new eruption from within.’ Are we any wiser today?

Yes, we are wiser, because we see that fundamentalism is not a property of Islam. We have seen the appalling growth of fundamentalism in the Christian world. Take the ultra-right in America, with its astonishing creations, like that of an extemely popular ‘anti-evolution’ museum done by people with a strong scientific background. Using the most technologically advanced media resources, they are presenting utter nonsense. I find this appalling. This kind of extreme right Christian movement in the United States manages to find some echo even in Malta. There is also secularist fundamentalism, which to me is equally appalling. There are many liberals, as they define themselves, who present their liberalism in just as dogmatic a way as Muslim and Christian fundamentalists. To Edward Said, these were just as frightening as religious fanatics. And why do fundamentalists get such an audience in the Arab world? I have no doubt that if there were to be democratic elections throughout the whole of the Arab world, it is the fundamentalists who would win. They are presenting a range of cases - utilizing a historical memory that points out, for instance, that when Islam was really the backbone, the law of society – in the Middle Ages – then the Arab countries were at the vanguard of the world. Said was deeply aware of and concerned about the perils of such applications, and their advantages for fundamentalism.

 

What is, for you, Said’s enduring legacy?

I have been myself greatly influenced by Said’s work on the notion of ‘beginnings’. Said distinguishes between the privileged notion of ‘origin’ and that of ‘beginning’ which is secular, a product of human activity and choice. As an initial step in the intentional production of meaning, any ‘beginning’ also sets up its own method - it contains its very design and development. I have published a book titled Beginning Philosophy, a work that addresses a ‘philosophy of beginnings’ rather than an ‘introduction’ to philosophy. I have also been attracted to Said’s work on the role of the intellectual. What makes an intellectual, he believed, is not the special discursive ability which entitles you to be a policy-maker in the political field. The intellectual’s role is that of a heightener of consciousness. He makes people aware of the complexity and interrelatedness of most issues, helps people consider the aspects which they may be neglecting in considering particular policy options. His political role is to enable what should be the substitute of the kind of centralized planning which proved so disastrous in the hands of the so-called ‘real socialist’ regimes. The intellectual carries out a work of enlightenment, so that decisions are taken with an awareness, both of the implications of a particular course of action and of its alternatives. This is the role which Said himself tried to carry out. Very often, he did not propose solutions on the Palestinian issue. He brought out the implications of the solutions being advanced, while drawing attention to the alternatives. There are many people in Malta who think that I have myself exerted the function of a policy-maker. They attribute to me the writing of party programmes, or having influenced politicians. My role has never been that of policy-making, but that role which Said was describing - that is, of developing awareness, of trying to argue against people having this fixed concept of national identity. Like Said, I have tried to get people to see the whole gamut of options that they have before them and to try to enable them to make their choices as responsibly and as consciously as possible.

 

Rev. Prof. Peter Serracino Inglott is a philosopher and former Rector of the University of Malta.

[This interview appeared in The Sunday Times (Malta), Sunday 30th September 2007]


 


Our Dinosaurs whistle Dixie

Fate, Homer writes,

T-rex on neighbourhood patrolhas given us a patient soul. So yes, those of you who still get visions of ‘99%-pure-Popolo-Maltese’ and all that, may wish to stick it out a while longer, for the future is at hand. The human species, we learn,could yet again split in two. It comes as future-shock extraordinaire, a Time Machine remake with a dash of glitz: guys, we’re talking ranks of olive-skinned hunks that will bring Brad and Leo to grovel like Abou the monkey. And, all genes being equal, the coming age will see wise, hairless giants herding flocks of smooshed Condies and Rumsfelds across the pastures of Persia.

 

Or so it seems. Oliver Curry, a top evolution theorist at the LSE, expects a genetic elite and a dim-witted, ‘squat, ugly, goblin-like’ class to emerge in the coming – well -thousands of years. The upper-class females will have the rare combination all our women dream of but very few of them actually get: the smart bombshell. The girls shall flaunt a ‘lighter, smooth, hairless skin, large clear eyes, pert breasts, glossy hair, and even features’. A sure goodbye, in other words, to the hairy horrors of the local chick seeking to seduce Lars and Thor. To top that, the superstud shall own the cream of genetic blessings – acumen, sexual prowess, zest, vitality, stunning looks and overall existential zing. According to Curry, we’re looking here at 6/7-foot, giants boasting 120-year lifespans, squarer jaws and a deeper voice. It’s such a pity, I would say, the Righties landed here so far ahead of their time.

Or pity not, maybe. For there is reason to believe, says Curry, that by then interbreeding will have ironed out all racial variations and produced a uniform race of coffee-coloured people. Well, that’s as far as the brainiacs go…. as for the brainless, I leave those to your imagination. Truth be told, you need no HG Wells to help you out with this one - the place already teems with the types. Their evolution process is well under way and sure enough, they have a knack for breeding faster than forest mushrooms.

We are, today, seeing some bizarre mutations of the latter. Not least among these are the extreme christian ‘movements’ cropping up in the United States. They pass themselves off as ‘anti-evolutionists’, ‘creationists’, ‘young-Earthists’ – you name it. By and large, these chaps reject the idea of evolution on religious grounds and read the Bible literally. The world was created in six 24-hour days some time between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago. Humans showed up on Day 6. Tyrannosaurus Rex was a strict vegetarian, chilled out with Adam and Eve, graced Noah’s Ark and managed to hang around till some years ago. And guess which beast did Saint George slay? A DRAGON? You don’say. That was a dinosaur.

Trouble is, for the Anti-Evolution minions this is no laughing matter at all. What we see in the US right now is propheteers and profiteers hobnobbing together in what promises to be yet another lucrative shot at religion business. They’ve just launched a professional, $25-27 million religious showcase – a splendidly done-up ‘Creation Museum’ in Northern Kentucky. Bloggers describe it as the creationist ‘Louvre’. It boasts a scale model of Noah’s ark, ‘animatronic’ cavemen and 80 lifesize dinosaurs moving their heads and tails and roaring. A special-effects theater has shaking seats and water-sprinklers in the ceiling that go off during the ‘flood scenes’. Another exhibit shows models of two children leaving a church whose minister still believes in Evolution. The boy is soon off browsing porn sites, and the girl on the phone to Planned Parenthood. The idea is, belief in evolution is at the root of our evils.

Mainstream scientists bemoan its opening, call it The Fred and Wilma Flintstone Museum and grumble that this is all so unbelievably twisted. Meanwhile, the place itself has grown the Midas touch. American high priests of creationism cash in on the venture, target the kids and pull out all the stops to lure in the schools, Sunday classes and young people’s groups.

It is an outrage, a thick-headed, moronic outrage. It’s hard to believe people cling to such a fiction, even as they know this is the latest businessman’s cow. That such shenanigans should thrive in Northern Kentucky comes as no surprise, but it surely is the last thing our kids could afford over here. If such anti-evolutionist tricks muddle their way through Malta as well, the only thankful party will be Ghar Dalam site and museum. Some sexing-up would suit the place fine. But otherwise, no good will come out of this.

****

In the continuing US racism showdown, DNA pioneer James Watson – yes, the chap who penned The Double Helix - has claimed that black people are less intelligent than white ones. Now that was some very rotten stuff he stirred up, as is plain to all and sundry. What no one talked about, however, was the equally obnoxious payback. Watson got fired, savaged by the media, ridiculed ,cold-shouldered on all fronts, his talks cancelled, his books turned down as if everything he had ever said or done were now anathema. It’s the scale of the reaction to Watson's outrageous comment that got so scary, a well-orchestrated, goody-goody chorus of retaliation. I found myself thinking, is this what our society needs right now, inoffensive, mealy-mouthed mumblers who never challenge anything? As professor PZ Myers of Minnesota Uni put it, ‘you have to tolerate the tenure of ass****s in order to have the possibility of heroes’.

As I browsed through Watson’s story, I thought: these antics reek of the good old days of Malta's Extreme Right and the rest of the circus. Back then, I had wanted to watch the extravaganza. I needed to read, to listen to the wholesale follies being preached, the sloppy commentaries on discussion boards, the thundering Manson-like delirium. I needed to know simply because I have the right to know. What I surely did learn back then was that the country’s ‘liberal’ powers-that-be  had deliberately closed ranks, allowing only so much information about the issue to come my way. Because, they said - after I pricked the snootier ones to hand-wringing point –a single ounce more for you would pump oxygen into unwanted agitprop.

 

Now that’s kind of primitive, isn’t it? Ave YouTube, I say, and a toast to Melita’s incredible grapevine. 


January 22, 2008

A self–critical indictment of America

Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, (London:Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Books, 2007) 184+ pp. ISBN No. 978-0-241-14365-0 (Review published in The Times of Malta, Saturday, December 22, 2007)

 

I have to confess - I found the hushed stillness of fiction in the aftermath of 9/11 almost as daunting as the very sight of the falling towers. For a time, I was almost expecting some latter-day prophet to show up and proclaim, Adorno-style, that literature after Ground Zero is barbaric as well. It is of great relief, therefore, to see 9/11 being increasingly addressed now beyond the sporadic short story and pitched in longer, more substantial narratives. Novels that take on September 11 trickle in at a steady pace. We have seen, in the past few months, the publication of Helen Schulman’s A Day at the Beach and Don De Lillo’s exquisite prose in Falling Man. The latest fictional take on the infamous attacks is Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a short but intense novella that made it to the Man Booker Prize 2007 shortlist. 

 

Hamid’s second work (his first novel was Moth Smoke) is a dramatic monologue that discloses the story of Changez, a Pakistani university lecturer who gives an impassioned account of his days as a promising analyst at an eminent New-York based financial audit firm. The setting for his tale is as spartan as his situation at the time of narration: he sits at a popular eating-place in a crowded Lahore bazaar and feeds his story into a wraithlike American listener. ‘I stared’, Changez tells him bluntly, ‘as one – and then the other – of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.’

 

It certainly is a daring statement for a young, ambitious Princeton graduate making a lucrative living in a corporate headquarters that boasts luxury bird’s-eye views of Manhattan. But then, his entire account is self-consciously provocative, as he outlines his ambivalent affinity with America. It is the tale of a budding financial adviser hopelessly in love with Erica, an upper-middle class ‘regal’ beauty from New York. Through her constant aura of detachment and eventual descent into psychological disorder, Changez’s sweetheart may well hint at that America against whom Changez develops his multiple and contradictory identities. The young employee makes a name as a rigorous analyst, unforgiving in his science, goal-oriented –a corporate recruiter’s dream come true. Things take a fateful twist on his business trip to Valparaiso, where Changez becomes aware of himself as a ‘janissary’. Drawing on the analogy with the young Christian hostages successfully trained as fierce Muslim fighters, he awakens to his situation as a US-trained agent operating for an exploitative US company against the interests of his homeland. This epiphanic trip brings his American career to an end and sees him boarding a plane back to Pakistan. Throughout his tale, Changez brings out many of the nuances that characterize the life of a visa-carrying Pakistani residing in post-9/11 America. ‘[I]t is hateful to hear another person gloat over one’s country’s misfortune’, he tells his listener. ‘But surely you cannot be completely innocent of such feelings yourself’. Do you feel no joy at the video clips – so prevalent these days – of American munitions laying waste the structures of your enemies?’

 

9/11, therefore, provokes the demise of the “American” Changez, and 9/11, even, heightens his awareness of the other scenario that unfolded while millions around the world were glued to CNN’s Breaking News. Pakistan’s stand-off with India, back then, was set to escalate into a full-blown nuclear confrontation, and this facet of events becomes the catalyst of Changez’s conversion. It was in America’s interest, he remarks, to carpet-bomb Afghanistan and then stand back as India flexed its muscles at his homeland. As a consequence, Changez mutates vertiginously, from the gifted US-trained novice learning ‘to go for the fundamentals’ in his analytical duties to a ‘fundamentalist’ campaigner for Pakistan’s disengagement from US foreign policy. If the ‘war on terror’ becomes ‘the single most important priority of the human species’, he declares, ‘then the lives of those of us who lived in lands in which such killers also lived had no meaning except as collateral damage.’

 

It is this sensibility towards the wretched of the earth that informs Changez’s narrative, and it is expressed with a self-contradicting zeal that denies his listener any character whatsoever. We never get to learn much about the latter – indeed, Hamid himself suggested in a recent interview that Changez’s obscure interlocutor is there to accommodate the reader – he becomes in a sense, a space through which anyone of us could contemplate the story. The narrator often curbs his own talk and barges onto the listener’s thoughts, instructing him every now and then to shed off his paranoia, prejudice and xenophobia. It is a technique previously utilized by Orhan Pamuk in order to portray the ambivalent nature of the ‘fundamentalist’ frame of mind.

 

‘No country inflicts death so readily upon the inhabitants of other countries, frightens so many people so far away, as America’, writes the Pakistani-born Hamid. But then he adds, through his protagonist, ‘I was perhaps more forceful on this topic than I intended’. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is effective because in its brevity it pulls off a poignant and yet self-critical indictment of post-9/11 America.  Mohsin Hamid’s depiction of a hesitant fundamentalist is itself anything but reluctant – it lays bare an astonishing insight into the complex power-mongering of our age, and is performed with a relish in storytelling that promises more of Hamid, and soon.

  (In the picture: Mohsin Hamid)

Mohsin Hamid

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