Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Apologies for unanswered email and blogging silence. I am behind on several things. I'm having a bit of a sad moment reading a student's essay on the supposed 'clash of civilisations': '...the 'West' is not the only area to display hostility towards 'Islam' and India is actually most hostile towards Muslims', she says.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Making stats dance

Watch Hans Rosling debunk third-world myths with the best stats you've ever seen.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Gael Garcia Bernal (drool...)

...worked in Cuba Libre on Upper Street in Islington. Moral of story: always chat up bartenders.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Sunday reading

Pankaj Mishra's indictment of post 9/11 (mostly) American fiction: 'Composed within the narcissistic heart of the west, most 9/11 fictions seem unable to acknowledge political and ideological belief as a social and emotional reality in the world - the kind of fact that cannot be reduced to the individual experience of rage, envy, sexual frustration and constipation.'

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Disorienting the Occident




I have just finished reading two of the most delightful books I will possibly ever read. The first - Ali and Nino - recommended to me by SNG, is the story of love between an Azeri boy and a Georgian girl, set in Baku, Azerbaijan, in the wake of the Russian Revolution. [Warning: plot spoilers follow, but I am so enthusiastic about this book that I cannot resist retelling the story.] Reading this book, I am reminded that the imaginative boundary between Europe and Asia doesn't just hang over the Bosphorus - it slices through the Black Sea and the city of Baku itself, so that Professor Sanin can say to his students in the Imperial Russian Humanistic High School of Baku, Transcaucasia:

The natural borders of Europe consist in the north of the North Polar Sea, in the west of the Atlantic Ocean, and in the south of the Mediterranean. The eastern border of Europe goes through the Russian Empire, along the Ural mountains through the Caspian Sea, and through Transcaucasia. Some scholars look on the area south of the Caucasian mountains as belonging to Asia, while others, in view of Transcaucasia's cultural evolution, believe that this country should be considered part of Europe. It can therefore be said, my children, that it is partly your responsibility as to whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia.'

When Ali and Nino decide to get married, the initial reluctance of Nino's parents is overcome only through the mediation of their Armenian friend Nachararyan. But the apparently well-meaning intermediary himself falls in love with Nino and abducts her in a rutput car. An incredibly cheesy scene follows, in which Ali gallops behind said car on a horse with supernatural powers, kills Nachararyan and takes back Nino. He loves her too much to kill her in defence of his honour (in accordance with the supposed tradition of his place). Instead, they flee to the mountains of Daghestan to escape inevitable retribution from Nachararyan's family. There follows a period of chaos in which rulers seem to change every few weeks. The Czar is deposed, the Russians retreat, the Ottomans advance, the Armenians flee, so it is safe for Ali and Nino to return to Baku. But it is not long before the Russians recapture Baku, forcing them to run to Persia, where Ali has wealthy relatives. Persia is a land of dreamy poets lounging around on divans reciting the Rubaiyat, oblivious to the machinations of Great Powers around them. Ali is perplexed by this state of denial, although he is happy enough with the luxurious life into which he has parachuted. Nino, on the other hand, is miserable - cooped up in the harem with only her terrifyingly efficient eunuch for company ('I'll wash and shave her myself. I see she has even got hair in her armpits. It is really terrible how in some countries women's education is neglected.') Fortunately for her, the situation on the ground changes again - following their defeat in the Great War, the Ottomans leave Azerbaijan and Azeri nationalists obtain Allied recognition for the short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic - the first secular, democratic republic in the Muslim world (pre-dating Turkey by a few years). Ali and Nino return to work for the Ministry for Foreign Affairs; things go so well, that Ali is offered a posting in Paris. Nino is thrilled at the prospect, but Ali says -

Look - I would be just as unhappy in Paris as you were in Persia. This time it would be I who would feel exposed to some malignant force. Remember how you felt in the harem of Shimran. For me it would be just as impossible to live in Europe as it was for you to live in Asia. Let's stay in Baku, where Asia and Europe meet. I cannot go to Paris where there are no mosques, no old wall, and no Syed Mustafa. I must feel Asia once in a while if I have to bear with all these strangers who are coming here. I would hate you in Paris as you hated me after Moharram. Not immediately when we get there, but some day, after a fancy dress party, or a ball, I would suddenly start to hate you in this strange world you're trying to force me into. And that's why I want to stay here, come what may. I was born in this country, and I want to die here.' She had not said a word. When I stopped she bent over me, and her hand caressed my hair: 'Forgive your Nino, Ali Khan. I have been very stupid. I don't know why I should think it would be easier for you to change than for me. We'll stay here, and not say another word about Paris. You keep your Asiatic town, and I'll keep my European house.'

Arre, kya baat hai! If, like me, you are a sucker for love across boundaries, this is a novel that will stay with you forever. The style is simple, almost naive. There's little detachment or irony, the characters are almost childlike in their innocence and stubbornness, and even their frequent essentialisations are honest, endearing, sweet. To my immense good fortune, I picked Ali and Nino off the shelves of Daunt Books in London, where the books are arranged, not by subject or author name, but by country. Sitting next to it on the shelf was The Orientalist - Tom Reiss's gobsmacking biography of the author of Ali and Nino. The authorship of the novel was, for long, shrouded in mystery. It had been penned under the pseudonym Kurban Said, but no one knew who that was. An Austrian countess named Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels, who had signed the original publishing contract, claimed to be the author. But Reiss has now shown compellingly that Kurban Said was in fact a Jew named Lev Nussimbaum, who later converted to Islam to become Essad Bey (OLIS - the Oxford Libraries Information System - lists Kurban Said's works under all three names).

Although he would later spin fantastic yarns about his genealogy, claiming to be descended from Muslim and Russian aristocracy, Lev's father Abraham Nussimbaum was an oil baron and his mother Berta Slutzkin a Stalinist revolutionary who committed suicide in his childhood. Father and son fled the Bolshevik terrors unleashed in the wake of the Revolution, travelling through the very places in which Ali and Nino is set - Turkestan, Persia and the Caucuses. In the course of the flight westwards, Lev encountered strange lands and peoples whom he would forever be captivated by - 'wild' mountain Jews, Central Asian tribesmen, even ethnic Germans who had lived in the Caucuses for centuries. Following a brief return to Baku after the declaration of the ill-fated Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan, they would flee again - this time to Constantinople with thousands of White Russian refugees. It is here that Lev's self-reinvention seems to have begun ('I believe that my life began in Istanbul. I was 15 then. I saw the life of the Orient and I knew that as much as I yearned for Europe, I would be forever captivated by this life.') Constantinople was, however, a brief stopover en route to Paris - the capital of the Emigration - but for reasons of Lev's education, the father-son duo eventually went to Berlin. Here Lev enrolled in the Russian gymnasium in Charlottenburg, where he would sit in a classroom with Zozefina and Lydia Pasternak (sisters of the more famous Boris) and 'the great blonde beauty of the class' Elena Nabokov (sister of, yes you guessed it, Vladimir).

Unknown to Lev's classmates and, indeed, anyone else in his Russian emigre life in Berlin, Lev had also enrolled himself as a student in Turkish and Arabic classes in the Seminar for Oriental Languages at the Friedrich Wilhelms Universitat, having successfully concealed from the university authorities the minor detail that he had not yet completed high school. As he puts it somewhere, 'While the teacher was explaining a geometric theorem, the Arabic grammar lay on my knees.' So much so that he would almost certainly have flunked his high school exams were it not for a particularly memorable viva in which, when asked to say something about the dominion of the Tartars and Mongols over Russia, he astounded his examiners by quoting Arabic, Turkish and Persian sources in the original languages!

Even as he was transforming himself into a professional Orientalist, Lev converted to Islam in the presence of the imam of what was then still the Ottoman embassy in Berlin. Reiss doesn't tell us much about his motivations for the conversion, but it seems to have come not just from a long-standing fascination with the Muslim world, but from a nostalgia for the cosmopolitan Ottomanism that was fast crumbling under the weight of defeat in war and nationalist revolution. I am reminded of Craig Calhoun's genealogical analysis of cosmopolitanism, which reminds us that although progressive liberals today would like to align cosmopolitanism with all things nice, historically, it seems to have flourished in multiethnic empires and come under stress from democratic revolutions demanding self-rule for the empire's various 'nations', which tended to be defined in exclusivist terms (the argument is, essentially, that democracy requires the creation of solidarity amongst strangers or, in a word, community, which is more easily constructed in exclusivist, homogeneous terms). This nostalgia for a fast-disappearing imperial cosmopolitan world made Lev an unabashed monarchist. But his political views contained rather more discomfiting inflections - his lifelong antipathy towards Bolshevism would bring him into association with all sorts of proto-Nazi groups.

The Orientalist succeeds fantastically in providing a flavour of Weimar-era Berlin, which seems to have been a fascinating, dangerous and tragic place - wracked by fighting between the Freikorps and Communist groups such as the Spartakasbund (of Rosa Luxemburg fame), but also the setting for an exciting literary and caberet scene in which Lev became increasingly prominent. Writing for Die Literarische Welt, Lev (now Essad Bey) made a name for himself as an interpreter of all things 'Oriental' - early contributions included pieces on the poetry of Genghis Khan, the Eunuch Congress in Istanbul (former palace and harem eunuchs of the Ottoman sultan, now out of work, had formed a trade organisation), Ataturk, Reza Shah Pahlavi, the visit of the Afghan King Amanullah to Berlin in 1928. Alongside these, major book-length works - Blood and Oil in the Orient (a semi-autobiographical work) as well as biographies of such disparate characters as Stalin and the Prophet Mohammed - began to appear (mostly between 1929 and '33). In short, Essad Bey became something of a literary sensation in Weimar Germany. It's not entirely clear to me who knew what and how much about his Jewish origins - he seems to have been enigmatic rather than secretive on the point, continuing to tell tall tales about his background, but not doing very much to counter the frequent allegations of fraud that were hurled at him by Muslim nationalist emigres, upset by his cosmopolitan representations of the Orient, and German right-wing nationalists, increasingly keen on outing the 'Jewish swindler'.

The pace picks up from 1933 onwards - marriage to the wealthy Erika Loewendahl shortly before Hitler's assumption of the Chancellorship, emigration to the US (where port authorities duly record the entire party as being of 'Hebrew' race - this is the era of official race quotas), boredom and heartbreak in the US, and - incredibly - return to fascist Europe. Reiss points out that while Lev excoriated Bolshevik crimes, he was not particularly disturbed by Hitler - indeed his deep abhorrence of Bolshevism seems to have blinded him to the horrors of the far-right. Listen to him say in 1933 -

Considering the present political and economic constellation, a successful communist revolution in Germany inevitably would have led to the spread of Bolshevism all over Europe and would have resulted in the destruction of traditional European culture as well as the spreading of the bolshevist wave to the United States...Germany alone was able to erect the impenetrable wall of modern nationalism stopping the conspiracy against the world hatched by the red rulers of Russia, where within fifteen years ten million people have lost their lives through revolution, hunger, civil war and terror...it is impossible to pass final judgment on Germany without bearing in mind that the National Socialist revolution has saved Europe from a catastrophe.

Most readers today will find that bizarre and deluded, but in fact - as Reiss reminds us - opinions of this sort were unremarkable in their time. In 1934, the New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize for the 'unbiased reporting on Germany' of Frederick T. Birchall who, as late as 1936, could find 'not the slightest evidence of religious, political or racial prejudice' at the Berlin Olympics. Whatever the credibility of that opinion, by 1938, it had become impossible for a Jew to continue to live in German-controlled Vienna - hence Lev's flight to Italy. From here he continued to publish under the name Kurban Said, which was registered as the pen-name of his Austrian countess friend (Baroness Ehrenfels), who would later falsely claim authorship. The reason for this rather complicated arrangement was that by this time, Jews were forbidden to publish in the German Reich, but for anyone writing in German, this was the only market. Lev died of a rare blood disorder in Italy under house arrest in 1942, aged thirty six.

This post has ended up being far too long, so just read the damn book. I am still trying to make sense of the complex, fertile, tragic and profoundly disorienting life of this Jew in Weimar Germany who converted to Islam, not because he wanted to escape the Nazis (the dangers of whom he grossly and fatally underestimated), but because he truly loved and identified with the Islamic Orient. Lev was a Jewish Orientalist in the sentimentalist sense of that word (he was a William Jones rather than a T. B. Macaulay) - a sense that remains virtually unexplored in Edward Said's otherwise groundbreaking work on this subject. The story of Lev Nussimbaum/Essad Bey/Kurban Said has taught me more about politics in the interwar world that any history book I have ever read. Great books should be like this, throwing you into the hurly burly of the world and helping you make sense of it.
[For a review of Kurban Said's The Girl from the Golden Horn, see here.]

Friday, May 18, 2007

Plato v. Aristotle

'Plato did indeed hold in the Phaedo that mental life would be much better if the bodily appetites could be put to one side insofar as possible - though even he did not maintain this position with absolute consistency...Aristotle, on the other hand, held that someone who was insensible to the full range of the bodily pleasures would be "far from being a human being."'

- Martha Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, 128

whew, cheers Aris!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Nous reviendrons, inch’Allah!

The airport in Marrakech looks like it was built by the Rajasthan PWD, but then you should never judge a city by its airport (or, speaking as a Bangalorean, by its lack of one). I have never quite been able to shake the habit of comparing new places to ones that I know well. I once exasperated a good friend by travelling halfway across the world to see him in Rio de Janeiro and exclaiming appreciatively, while we were driving through a leafy suburb: ‘Wow, this looks like Indiranagar!’ I am comforted by the thought that some of the best writers in the world have done this. (Virginia Woolf thought Athens – yes, the one in Greece – was like St. Ives in Cornwall. I suppose they both have the sea.)

Marrakech stopped looking like it was developed by the Rajasthan PWD as soon as we registered that the roads were actually very good and that they led into a cityscape, the likes of which we had never seen anywhere before. Not long after we had passed the old city’s high earth walls, we were deposited at the edge of a large square. From here, we had to walk to the hotel in which we were meant to be staying. Taxis do not venture into Marrakech’s old city or medina, but everything else does – mopeds, vans, donkey carts, bicycles, people with tiny fragile babies in cumbersome prams. This would seem unremarkable, except for the fact that the medina is an intricate warren of congested alleyways, the broadest of which are not more than ten feet wide. Opening off these are still narrower passageways, some vaulted, quieter except for the occasional two-wheeler, and lined with scores of anonymous doorways. It is impossible to guess what lies behind these. Some lead into decrepit interiors, old houses that have seen better days and have since been partitioned and sold off by inhabitants who can no longer afford to maintain them. Others conceal quiet oases of luxury – boutique hotels in old souped-up riads, their rooms grouped around courtyards with fruit trees and fountains, and furnished with the most exquisite artefacts sourced from Marrakech’s souks.

The medina’s alleys are its alveoli, teeming with life at all times of day and night. The closest I have come to anything like this is the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, but the Bazaar is a positively sedate, orderly and contained space in comparison. In Marrakech, the entire northern half of the medina is effectively one huge open-air bazaar. There is method in the chaos – the souks seem to be roughly divided into occupational zones: spices and olives, jewellery, textiles, leather, carpets, handicrafts and antiques, pottery, metalwork and everywhere slippers, slippers, slippers. But maps will only get you so far. This is the sort of place where a ball of string would be more helpful. Or children. They seemed to dart out of nowhere, knew instinctively what we were looking for and offered to lead the way. Many asked for money, and when it became apparent that they weren’t going to get much out of us asked, puzzlingly, for ‘un stylo’. These we happily dispensed, but what did they go off and do with them? Set up a thriving resale market in pens? Or doodle? The latter is an entirely likely possibility, for this is a city of designers that has survived into the twenty-first century on the strength of its artisanship. Browsing in the souks, you could be forgiven for thinking that the city’s commercial life was still regulated by medieval guilds. There is an unmistakeably pre-industrial flavour to the place, most starkly evident in the tanneries where the hides of goats, sheep, cattle and camels are soaked in pits of lime and softened with pigeon shit by men wading knee-deep in filthy, viscous liquids. The stench is so overwhelming that visitors are given pudina leaves to hold under their noses.

All roads in the medina seem to lead back to Jemaa El Fna – the square that is not quite a square, that is the throbbing heart of the medina, and indeed of Marrakech itself. The name roughly translates as ‘Assembly of the Dead’, referring to its one-time use as a venue for executions where the decapitated heads of unfortunate victims were mounted on spikes for all to see. Marrakchis display a sense of irony in retaining the name because the square is the setting for a sort of ritualised bedlam that takes place every day. By early evening, temporary shelters are erected and chairs and communal dining tables laid out. There is plenty of couscous and tagine and kebabs of many different varieties (if, like us, you find Moroccan food bland, ask for harissa), but the hungry can also feast on snails or scoop the brains out of a ram’s head (served complete with horns). Just beyond the food stalls, actors, musicians, snake charmers and acrobats entertain groups of goggle-eyed onlookers; a woman offers passers-by henna tattoos, brandishing a dirty syringe menacingly; two men lecture their audience on the workings of the human body using plaster of paris models with the outer layers helpfully cut away to reveal gory innards; Tuareg merchants sell aphrodisiacs and pills and potions for every imaginable ailment. Everyone in Jemaa El Fna seems to be in search of their fix, singing, dancing, cruising, fishing Coke bottles, smoking up, juggling, drinking tea, or just enjoying the end of another day in the company of friends. An hour after midnight, the square is empty again.

The southern medina contains many of the city’s most impressive monuments. The Royal Palace is closed to visitors, but we managed to see the 19th century Bahia Palace (a somewhat random series of oddly shaped pavilions and courtyards decorated in traditional Moroccan style). The nearby 16th century Badii Palace is a good deal more inspiring, even though very little remains of the original structure. Reputedly encrusted with gold from Timbuktu when it was first built, it was stripped bare less than a century later by a subsequent ruler, its riches used in the construction of a new capital at Meknès. Its spacious central courtyard features a massive central pool flanked by four sunken gardens. Today its only inhabitants are the storks nesting on its ramparts. We climbed up to the roof and were rewarded with a magnificent view of the surrounding areas. At this height, Marrakech is a city of storks. Considered sacred by many, the birds can be seen everywhere, tending to their enormous nests on rooftops and minarets and making proprietorial clattering sounds with their bills. Back on the ground, we soon found ourselves in the Mellah, the old Jewish quarter. Another unexpected boy-guide led us to a still functioning synagogue, excitedly pointing out Star of David tiles on the walls and proudly proclaiming himself a Muslim. Later in the souks, we bought a Hand of Fatima pendant with a six-pointed star engraved on it.

Everywhere we went, we were identified with relentless accuracy. ‘India-Pakistan?’, people would call out, as if referring to a troubled but essentially singular place. Or ‘Shahrukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan!’ Some would break into song and a few even attempted sales-pitch in Hindi. Every movie theatre displayed posters of Indian films, albeit a few years out of date. One restaurant discreetly changed its house music to play an entire CD of Kajol songs while we dined on – what else but - couscous and tagine. It was all very friendly, but I got the sense that they didn’t quite know how to place us. ‘Hindu-Muslim?’, some asked (again hyphenated, troubled). One man wanted to know the rupee-dirham exchange rate and promptly lost interest in me when I calculated that it would take 5 rupees to buy 1 dirham.

Because we were scrimping on the budget, we didn’t venture very far into the Atlas Mountains. That would have taken a four wheel drive and many more days. But even the short drive to Kasbah Telouet offered spectacular views from a highway that snaked in jagged hairpin bends through the foothills of the High Atlas. It was astonishing to be able to stand in hot, baking valleys of scrub vegetation and cactus and look at the snow-capped peaks not very far away, knowing that the great Sahara itself was only a few more hours beyond. The Kasbah (fortress) of Telouet is in such a state of disrepair that you would think it were a medieval structure. In fact, large parts of it were added in the late 19th and 20th centuries, but it has been allowed to go to seed because complicated inheritance laws mean that all members of the once fearsome Glaoui clan, who own it, would have to agree to any changes in its ownership and management. All that remains of what must once have been a magnificent structure is a central banquet hall with an ornate wrought iron window which affords breathtaking views of the valley below. We climbed to the top of the rambling structure to look at the storks nesting in its towers amidst emerald green glazed tiles on the surviving portions of the roof.

Perched on a hillock, the kasbah is separated from the tiny village of Telouet by a strip of vegetation that hugs the narrow trickle of a stream flowing through the valley. Bright green fields and gnarled white almond trees contrast strikingly with the earthy brown of a clutch of dirt poor mud huts. It is incredible how picturesque poverty can look and how ugly the concrete structures of the upwardly mobile in the village. In the dystopian novel that the scene conjured up for me, the Ministry of Tourism in some hellish neoliberal future dispatches emissaries to tear down the pucca buildings and rip out the electricity wires (except to the sole hotel in the region), so that wealthy tourists can continue to come here to gape at pre-modernity.

Our guide in Telouet was a man named Ali, who said he came from another village not very far away – one that might well not have been very different from the one we saw. Ali is Berber but looks uncannily like Thierry Henry and cuts a striking figure in the hobbit-like cloak that all Moroccan men wear. He insisted on speaking to us in English because he said he needed the practice. He struggled to find words on occasion, but thanks to his fluency in French, he would startle us every now and then by using a word like ‘anarchy’ or ‘dissension’ or ‘autarchic’. He seemed incredibly knowledgeable about the local history of the area and of Morocco more generally. He was able to tell us exactly what had happened at the Saudi-brokered talks between rival Palestinian factions that had taken place in Riyadh the previous day. When the conversation turned to Third World politics more generally, he reminded me that Tito had not been at the Afro-Asian summit at Bandung in 1955. He had read The Picture of Dorian Gray in French and when he mentioned Camus’s L’Étranger, I excitedly asked him if he knew Fanon’s Les Damnés de la Terre. This drew a blank, but, to be fair, it was probably the wrong book to bring up in an absolutist monarchy. Ali has never been outside Morocco. Not even to neighbouring Mauritania, to the border of which his brother regularly drives trucks to supply the Moroccan army fighting against Polisario.

At some point on the road west out of Marrakech, the buildings change from pink to blue and white, the air becomes cooler and the landscape more gentle and fertile. Our final destination was the pretty seaside town of Essaouira, sheltered by its castle-like ramparts from the Atlantic Ocean perpetually crashing on the rocks outside. Dinner at a fish stall on the beach was the undoubted gastronomic highlight of the entire trip. We chose our meal from the catch of the day laid out in a slithering, squelching mass of fish flesh – sea bass and jumbo prawns, lobsters, eels, shark and crabs, still moving.

Essaouria is an eclectic place. As with anywhere else in Morocco, Islam is everywhere, the architecture is Moorish, but the town has long been a favoured destination for beatniks and countercultural figures (Jimi Hendrix is said to have visited and Cat Stevens is a regular). There are hippies everywhere – local and foreign – sporting dreadlocks, smoking ganja, selling Rasta caps, bongo drums, Marley posters and reggae music. There is a sort of placidity with which all these incongruous influences seem to coexist. But this is true of Morocco itself. As the closest thing to Europe that is not Europe, the country has always occupied a special place in the Western exotic imagination. The French of course stayed to rule for more than half a century and, like imperialists everywhere, left behind hotchpotch, mishmash, multicultural melange. ‘Comment ça va?’ ‘Alhamdulillah.’ What else is there to say but ‘Nous reviendrons, inch’Allah!’

Sunday, May 06, 2007

3 Plays

Two weekends ago - A Fine Balance: Any stage production of this magnificent Dickensian book was going to be difficult. But Tamasha failed on a number of accounts, not all of which were their fault. The book works fine entirely in English, but on stage it needed to be very much more multilingual than it was. There was something incredibly odd about watching slum dwellers, beggars and street workers in an Indian city talking to each other in English. I couldn't help thinking that the play would have worked fine if it had been performed entirely in some non-Indian language - Japanese say, or Russian. English is problematic precisely because it's an Indian language, spoken by only some Indians. The actors spoke in Hindi when they addressed children and animals, but that's exactly the sort of thing Upper Middle-Class English Speaking Indians would do. (For the uninitiated, here are some UMCESI rules for multilinguality: animal and baby-talk apart, scatological terms are always in the vernacular: Salman Rushdie was the first person, as far as I know, to write 'susu' and 'kakka' into English dialogue (this single fact secured him a permanent place in my personal pantheon of writing giants); romance is often discussed in English: whatever the language of the conversation, you will always say that so and so had been 'hugging' and 'kissing' long before their 'love marriage'.) Tamasha's production was not multilingual enough and when it tried to be, it did so in a peculiarly UMCESI way.

But can drama be multilingual, particularly when it's playing to a largely British gallery? There are of course all sorts of technological fixes - surtitles and the uber cool personal display screens that I have seen only in the New York Met. But even without these, I would venture the (possibly bold and foolhardy) suggestion that the audience doesn't have to understand everything. Immediately. When asked at a session at Hay-on-Wye last year whether he would translate the Australian slang that he frequently uses in his novels, Peter Carey was resolute in his refusal. No one told me what a chevy was when I was growing up reading American novels, he shot back (a quaint example perhaps, because everyone knows what a chevy is now, but his point was that we have gotten to that stage without any writer having explained this to his readership). The Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo frequently uses Gikuyu words in his work (these appear untranslated in the English translations of his novels), and you can only guess at their meaning from context. But whatever you lose in momentary incomprehension, you gain in the experience of being immersed in a place as it is - not translated for you, the foreign reader. After all, when we visit the faraway places in which these novels are set, everything about those societies isn't fully accessible to us - even if we have a language in common - so why should we expect to understand a book or a play in its entirety? Of course the work has to strike a delicate balance between staying true to whatever it is trying to represent and making sure it hasn't lost its audience. And that audience will, in all likelihood, comprise people with different kinds and levels of knowledge.

What puzzles me is why the book works for me entirely in English, whereas the play does not. Why is it that when I'm reading the book, I'm quite prepared to believe that all the dialogue I'm reading in English is 'actually' spoken in Hindi or Gujarati, while on stage I feel the need to hear those languages (even though I don't fully understand them)? (In fact, I thought Monica Ali's attempt at multilinguality in Brick Lane fell completely flat. The protagonist's sister in Bangladesh writes her a series of letters that I found terribly burdensome to read because they are written in a strange sort of pidgin English. If the sister back home is writing in Bangla, I wished that Ali had written the letters in the same English she had used for the rest of the book, leaving it to her readers to imagine that they were written in Bangla. If the sister is writing in bad English, I wished that Ali had used a more credible pidgin - not one that was full of wonderful, evocative nouns strung together with rubbish verbs and grammar.)

The answer to the book/play puzzle, I think, is that the stage production was aiming for a sort of realism. With all that careful attention to dress and posture and etiquette and accent (though, to make things worse, one of the actors playing a hair-seller spoke in very jarring RP), and particularly given the attention paid to getting class-specific nuances and idioms right, the use of English (itself a class-specific language) by everyone, blew the whole thing apart. If this were a play entirely about the UMCESI (if this were Family Matters, for instance), it could have worked very well in English. But if you are trying to present a cross-class slice of India on stage, and if you're trying to do so in a realistic genre, you cannot escape multilinguality. Books, being books, leave more up to the reader, and in doing so, offer more scope for the suspension of reality. That's not to say that theatre has to be realistic, but this play feels obliged to, I think, because it's based on a book that is so empiricial in its examination of social relations across classes in a particularly dark period of postcolonial Indian history.

***

Last weekend -
Equus: I went to see this for all the wrong reasons, we got to the theatre late thanks to late latif NN, and I hadn't slept very much the night before. Not a very promising start. In fact, I was nodding off somewhere in the middle of the first act when Richard Griffiths spat out the word 'normal' and had me absolutely riveted for the rest of the performance. Peter Shaffer's spell-binding script tells us at the outset that Alan Strang (Daniel Radcliffe) has blinded six horses. He is taken to psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Griffiths) who agrees to treat the boy for whatever it is that's troubling him. Strang has a passion for horses - a passion that is so fierce, erotic and all-consuming that it interferes with his ability to form relationships with people. As Dysart learns more about his patient, he begins to doubt himself. Strang's wild abandon forces him to confront the tame, precise and contained life he has always lead, so that the notion of restoring the boy to 'normality' begins to seem tragic to him. Griffiths is brilliant, as always. The 17 year old Radcliffe has successfully exorcized Harry Potter and pulls off this incredibly challenging role with maturity and conviction. And he has a great body. Anyway, here are the most unforgettable lines in the play (big thanks to NK for excerpting this):

Dysart: All right! I'll take it away! He'll be delivered from madness. What then? He'll feel himself acceptable! What then? Do you think feelings like his can be simply re-attached, like plasters? Stuck on to other objects we select? Look at him! ... My desire might be to make this boy an ardent husband -- a caring citizen -- a worshipper of abstract and unifying God. My achievement, however, is more likely to make a ghost! ... Let me tell you exactly whatI'm going to do to him!

[He steps out of the square and walks round the upstage end of it, storming at the audience.]

I'll heal the rash on his body. I'll erase the welts cut into his mind by flying manes. When that's done, I'll set him on a nice miniscooter and send him puttering off into the Normal world where animals are treated properly: made extinct, or put into servitude, or tethered all their lives in dim light, just to feed it! I'll give him the good Normal world where we're tethered beside them -- blinking our nights away in a non-stop drench of cathode-ray over our shrivelling heads! I'll take away his Field of Ha Ha, and give him Normal places for his ecstasy -- multi-lane highways driven through the guts of cities, extinguishing Place altogether, even the idea of Place! He'll trot on his metal pony tamely through the concrete evening -- and one thing I promise you: he will never touch hide again! With any luck his private parts will come to feel as plastic to him as the products of the factory to which he will almost certainly be sent. Who knows? He may even come to find sex funny. Smirky funny. Bit of grunt funny. Trampled and furtive and entirely in control. Hopefully, he'll feel nothing at his fork but Approved Flesh. I doubt, however, with much passion! ... Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created.

[He addresses ALAN directly in farewell.]

You won't gallop any more, Alan. Horses will be quite safe. You'll save your pennies every week, till you can change that scooter in for a car, and put the odd 50p on the gee-gees, quite forgetting that they were ever anything more to you than bearers of little profits and little losses. You will, however, be without pain. More or less completely without pain.

Sometime last year, Stephen Fry made a
documentary on bipolar disorder, in which he asked a number of people whether, if they could push a magic button to end their condition, they would do so. Amazingly, a majority of those interviewed said no, because they felt that their creativity and passion was inextricably bound up with their manic depression. I was too frightened to understand this at the time I saw it. MM had not been keen on medication and I know that many of us continue to wonder whether things would have turned out differently if she had stuck with it. I know people who are on medication and who are making fantastic successes of their lives against the odds. But as I applauded the cast of Equus, I could not help saying to MM wherever she is, I don't agree with you and I probably never will, but I am beginning to understand.

***

Yesterday - Called to Account: the indictment of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair for the crime of aggression against Iraq. I went to this thinking it could turn out to be a deeply satisfying but essentially one-sided leftwing rant against Tony Blair. Instead, we were treated to an evening of sober, dispassionate and rather technical analysis of the lead-up to the war on Iraq in 2003. Earlier this year, two lawyers - Philippe Sands for the prosecution and Julian Knowles for the defence - interviewed around 15 witnesses on the circumstances surrounding Tony Blair's decision to take Britain into the war on Iraq. These witness testimonies were edited and gathered together into a piece of 'verbatim theatre'. That two-and-a-half hours of witness interviews could make for absorbing theatre is testimony to the gravity of the issues being discussed, and (for me) the shockingly unaccountable ways in which the most serious decisions are made at the highest levels of government in what is supposed to be one of the world's oldest continuously functioning democracies.

What makes the material gripping is that it comes straight from the mouths of many pertinent horses. There are familiar names such as Clare Short (uncannily well-played by Diane Fletcher), Richard Perle and Scott Ritter, and less familiar but nonetheless significant ones in the highest decision-making echelons (MPs, civil servants, ambassadors, journalists). All are played credibly and sympathetically - I did not find myself warming to some witnesses more than others, despite my ideological predispositions against some of them (e.g. Perle). The stage was arranged so that the actors addressed the audience as judge. No votes were taken at the end, no verdicts delivered, thereby saving the event from degenerating into a propaganda exercise. Indeed, the actors did not even appear for a curtain call. You were meant to leave with the feeling that you had witnessed a genuine hearing.

Despite the open-ended nature of the proceedings, I would struggle to understand how anyone who had listened to the testimony we heard, could have left the theatre thinking there was insufficient evidence for an indictment against Mr. Blair. It might be argued that the selection of witnesses was biased against the PM, but I think the dissident and usual anti-war suspects were more than balanced out by pro-intervention witnesses (an Iraqi exile, MPs who voted for the war and of course Perle). In any case, most of the witnesses were not questioned on their views regarding the legitimacy of the intervention, but on the specifics of the decision-making process leading up to the war.

The great virtue of presenting these testimonies as a single piece of theatre is that they piece together stories that we have been seeing in the media over the last few years - the sexed-up dossier with its 45 minute claim, the Downing Street memo, the Hutton and Butler enquiries, the resignation of Elizabeth Wilmshurst, etc. - so that we begin to see a bigger picture. (One witness memorably slammed the government's frequent claim that it has been exonerated by four enquiries by pointing out that the remit of these enquiries has always been narrow enough to prevent anyone from looking into the really important questions. It's a bit like claiming to investigate a murder by saying you've looked at the churchyard, the weapon and everything else but the accused, he said.)

For me, the most disquieting revelation was that in all the scores of Cabinet meetings that preceded the formal decision to go to war, the Attorney General was present on only a couple of occasions, suggesting that the legal status of the proposed intervention was not a major concern for Blair. The other incredibly puzzling issue is why the AG's legal advice changed dramatically from the view that the invasion would not be legal (given on March 7, 2003) to the position that it would be legal since Iraq was in material breach of the relevant UN resolutions (given on March 17, 2003, three days before the invasion). The law on the use of force did not change between those two dates. What points of fact could have changed? And where were those 'facts' obtained from, given that neither Hans Blix (then head of the weapons inspections team) nor ElBaradei of the IAEA were able or willing to certify that Iraq was in material breach. And of course there is the further question of why, if the US and the UK had intelligence on WMD (as they repeatedly claimed to), they did not share this with the UN inspectors, so as to facilitate their work? For more on the 'wretched legal advice', see chapter 11 of Philippe Sands' explosive book Lawless World.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

NEWSFLASH!

Read while preparing for class tomorrow (of course I take notes on all the important bits): 'In June 1957, when they clashed, Molotov accused Khrushchev of 'undignified' behaviour, unworthy of a leader of great power. Khrushchev went to a sauna with a Finnish prime minister in the wee hours and stayed there until dawn!'

- Zubok & Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin's Cold War (1999), 181.

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