March 23, 2007

Bernard Lewis at the AEI

Bernard Lewis has been a Professor of History at Princeton since before your blogger was alive. He is a respected historian and researcher within the field particularly of Ottoman history. Lewis is also a political pundit and it is in respect of this activity that I want to analyse something that he recently wrote. Recently he delivered the Irving Kristol Lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, to an audience which included members of the institute and politicians including the current American Vice President. The lecture's basic thesis is that traditional Islam and Christianity have always been clashing, that the recent events in the Middle East and recent immigration to Europe are only read through the meme of this kind of clash and that the only way out of this situation is an appeal to western notions of freedom and knowledge.

Professor Lewis is a wise and learned man, but I feel compelled having read this lecture to reiterate the judgement of another expert on the Middle East, Professor Juan Cole about a recent piece that Professor Lewis published. Cole argued that

Bernard Lewis's What Went Wrong? is a very bad book from a usually very good author. How a profoundly learned and highly respected historian, whose career spans some sixty years, could produce such a hodgepodge of muddled thinking, inaccurate assertions and one-sided punditry is a profound mystery.

To me Professor Cole's judgement stands of that book but also of the lecture that Professor Lewis delivered earlier this month. Professor Lewis's lecture is shoddy and doesn't work either in relation to the evidence that he uses or in relation to the way that he deals conceptually with the world of Islam.

Lets start with the evidence. Professor Lewis at one point discusses the way that assimilation of Islamic cultures into the West will not work. He discusses what he defines as constructive engagment and uses an example from the 12th Century to suggest that you can never trust a Muslim and that constructive engagment is useless:

A term sometimes used is constructive engagement. Let's talk to them, let's get together and see what we can do. Constructive engagement has a long tradition. When Saladin re-conquered Jerusalem and other places in the holy land, he allowed the Christian merchants from Europe to stay in the seaports. He apparently felt the need to justify this, and he wrote a letter to the caliph in Baghdad explaining his action. I would like to quote it to you. The merchants were useful since "there is not one among them that does not bring and sell us weapons of war, to their detriment and to our advantage." This continued during the Crusades. It continued after. It continued during the Ottoman advance into Europe, when they could always find European merchants willing to sell them weapons they needed and European bankers willing to finance their purchases. Constructive engagement has a long history.

There are two obvious problems with this- the first is very simple quite what relevance does the fact that someone lied in the 12th Century have to the way we live now. I could if I was being an Iraqi insurgent argue that the British have always unjustly occupied places, they did in America in 1770- I'm not sure that anyone would take that argument seriously. Neither should we take Professor Lewis's argument seriously- Saladin's behaviour has no more relevance than Lord North's behaviour in working out how people are acting now. Furthermore on the simple facts of Saladin's behaviour- the fact that someone writes a letter saying something does not transalate into the fact that they beleive what they wrote. Take Saladin writing this letter, its perfectly conceivable to me that this was a political gesture, an explanation of why he was trading with the infidel rather than part of a grand strategy. But even if Professor Lewis is right about the intentions of Saladin, what it says about the modern day is not obvious to me.

The conceptual problem that Professor Lewis has within his talk is that he uses a couple of examples from now or from the Middle Ages and labels those examples Islam. His talk is full of expressions about what 'they' or 'them' will do. Sometimes that 'they' seems just to be fundamentalists who are led by Osama Bin Laden, sometimes its the whole immigrant population within Europe, sometimes its the entire Middle East. There is a further issue here: he talks about Islam a lot but mentions not a single example from east of Iran, not a single example from such vast Islamic communities as those in India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Bangladesh and so on. Islam in the world of this lecture is an abstraction which is timeless, geographically changeless and threatening. Professor Alam in another review of Lewis's work put this perspective quite well when he suggested that

His objective is to whittle down world history, to reduce it to a primordial contest between two historical adversaries, the West and Islam.

It appears that Professor Lewis has not changed his practices- the AEI lecture contains an account of endless struggle between two concepts Islam and the West. Professor Alam is right to state that there is more to the world than that, there is also more to Islam and more to the West than the monoliths that Professor Lewis invites us to view.

Some will say no doubt that this is unfair- this was not an academic lecture but a lecture to a popular audience. I think though that that is wrong- it is neccessary for people to get it right when talking to a political audience- especially an audience which includes the Vice President of the United States- Professor Lewis attempts to deal with the current problems within Islam and doesn't mention economics, the political structures within the Islamic world or indeed any other factors beyond the fact that 'they' follow a certain religion. His argument is misleading and damaging- his audience would have been better not to hear it.

Its interesting that it is also self defeating- at one point in the lecture Professor Lewis states that

There are many religions in the world, but as far as I know there are only two that have claimed that their truths are not only universal--all religions claim that--but also exclusive; that they--the Christians in the one case, the Muslims in the other--are the fortunate recipients of God's final message to humanity, which it is their duty not to keep selfishly to themselves--like the Jews or the Hindus--but to bring to the rest of humanity, removing whatever obstacles there may be on the way. This self-perception, shared between Christendom and Islam, led to the long struggle that has been going on for more than fourteen centuries and which is now entering a new phase. In the Christian world, now at the beginning of the 21st century of its era, this triumphalist attitude no longer prevails.

Its interesting that he says this. There is an element of truth to the fact that both religions can have this missionary aspect- though whether they have it as part of their essense is another matter. What Professor Lewis and his audience though might well wish to ponder is why Christianity at the moment is not aggressive and why some Muslims are- Professor Lewis seems to think that both religions have the same aggressive potential, so why the difference? Furthermore why are so many Muslims in the world, the vast majority very peaceful? What are the factors that move people to violence? Religion doesn't seem to be a big predictor. According to Professor Lewis two religions have the potential to violence, one though doesn't realise it and one does. And even within the one that does 'do' violence, most of the beleivers aren't violent. Wouldn't it be more interesting to research the other factors- rather than just dismiss Islam as violent. By Professor Lewis's own argument more than a missionary religion creates the potential for horrific violence within a society. Maybe if next time he spoke to political leaders he informed them of those factors his lecture might be a bit of a better model for them to follow.

Professor Lewis's lecture was lazy. It was not thought through and it was given to an audience who are important indeed crucial, they must know the truth and must be told it. For an academic to give a paper to the Vice President of the United States is a high honour and to live up to that honour your duty is not merely to speak well but to speak the truth. Professor Lewis paints with such broad brush strokes, is so confident in using scraps of evidence to back up mountainous assertions and so certain about the essense of Islam that he has lost his ability to provide his audience with a useful template to build policy out of. This talk suffers because of grand problems in the way that evidence is presented to the audience, but furthermore because it treats all Muslims as having an essense which is the same rather than recognising that the Islamic world is complicated, historically contingent and geographically various (just like the Christian (or Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish) world). It is as if Professor Lewis was presenting himself as a caricature of what his old adversary Professor Said used to lambast- this was an orientalist lecture. The sad thing about it is at moments in the lecture, one sees a man of great erudition and someone who can obviously write well, it would just be good to see that erudition and skill harnessed to a less orientalising theme.

March 22, 2007

Macavity the Chancellor

The Devil's Kitchen is a scurrilous but often humerous attack blog- this offering about Gordon Brown though is brilliant- I think he got it via Iain Dale and a Tory MP but having said that the Devil lays out the poem really well- as a take off on T.S.Elliot's poem about the mystery cat Macavity, it really does mock our Chancellor brilliantly. Generally I'm not particularly more aggressively anti-Brown than the majority are- but this effort captures something about Brown's political behaviour and is well worth the read and chuckle. Now someone needs to do it to Cameron or Ming...

Foucault's Footnotes

Its not often I just link to an article, but Andrew Scull's work on undermining the factual basis of Michel Foucault's book, Madness and Civilisation, is very well done. Foucault's essential argument in the said book was that madness was a construction of our cultural environment. What Scull does is demolish the factual basis upon which Foucault's work rests- he goes after Foucault's footnotes- it is a fine example of the way a thesis can be destroyed by a historian just going through the empirical work of examining the citations. The overall thesis and historical image once detached from reality then become not meaningless but useless as an analytical tool to understand the past with- their empirical basis undermined they float off to join the suggestions that Arthur conquered Burgundy, that Alfred burnt the cakes and that Britain was founded by Brutus.

Of course the philosophical points that Foucault makes, so far as they are unrelated to the empirical evidence, are left untouched. That is also part of the nature of a true scholar- you undermine what you know about and you leave the business of analysing the things that you don't know about to others more learned than you. In that way this article exemplifies best technique- it is empirical, it is thorough and it deals only with those subjects within the author's competence.

March 21, 2007

Academic Freedom

Dr Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford, and the Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell had an interesting exchange yesterday in Westminster Hall about academic Freedom (further details can be found on Dr. Harris's website). Evan Harris drew to the minister's attention the recent case of Dr. Matthias Kuntzel, the case of Professor David Coleman at Oxford University and the case of the Chester University which acknowledges academic freedom so long as that freedom does not conflict with the ethos of the University, similar regulations have been brought in by Canterbury Christchurch University to protect the peculiar Anglican institutional arrangements of the University. Dr. Harris submitted his opposition to no-platform policies against Hizb ul Tahrir as well and the Minister agreed that all these cases represented things that the government was worried about.

There is a lot here- and we need to work out what exactly is at stake in each and every case. Dr Harris fundementally is right- from the 12th Century Universities have been the places where new ideas have largely been generated- great academics from Newton and Vico in the 17th Century forward to the Feynmans and Nozicks of our own day have illuminated the world in ways that in their own day were seen as controversial. Defeating an academic argument does not mean depriving the arguer of his or her employment but defeating the premises of the argument. Within academia, the environment of journals and seminars gives us the mechanism to do so- for example in my own discipline history, presenting a paper in Cambridge or at the Institute of Historical Research, both of which I have done, is an experience which can be crushing if you dare get anything wrong or dare misplace a fact let alone the entire basis for your theorising.

Dr. Harris is also right that part of life in a university is going to be the intrusion of crazy groups like Hizb- unless the government makes them illegal, they should have their place on Campus. Sinister behaviour can unite them and other more attractive sounding groups. University is about intellectual growth for the students concerned, part of the process involves hearing charlatans in order to recognise in the future what charlatans are. It is not for universities whose role is to encourage discussion to limit that discussion, nor is it the role of student unions, filled in my experience, with many either silly or immature individuals to decide what is or is not acceptable to be heard- that is a matter for the government and the courts. As far as possible Universities ought to be places where all the idiotic stupidities in the world congregate and are defeated by the truest method, before which they all crash down, the power of reason. Freedom of speech need not mean forced listening- if Hizb doesn't get an audience tough, indeed if particular bodies like the student union don't wish to fund such a meeting, tough but noone bar noone should be able to stop that- a meeting say of Hizb ul Tahrir or the BNP- which is allowed under the law of the land.

As to ethos, no University can be a university truly if it stakes its position upon an intellectual orthodoxy- as foolish as the Papal courts which prescribed Galilei Galileo such a university would find itself very swiftly doing something idiotic. Canterbury University to deserve the name should employ Richard Dawkins right away in order to vindicate the idea that the institution is committed to understanding the world and not to indoctrination- the only ethos that should lie behind University life should be the search for the truth. No intellectual establishment be it school or university can remain credible and retain a 'Christian ethos' or a 'Muslim mission' or indeed an 'atheist purpose'- to do so immediately limits the field of discussion and consequently means that the institution is unable to function properly. The only ethos for any university should be that all its students, all its academics are able to search for the truth. In one sense therefore this requires one ammendment- if an academic proves unable to teach all his or her students equally for any reason- if for example he demands that Muslims leave the class or if she demands that men leave the class- then in my view they can be sacked. Not for the view notice, but for the inability to carry out their job to the best of their abilities- ie the inability to treat their students as students instead of as members of a sub group.

There is one way that Universities can and should discriminate and that is by intelligence. It isn't true that freedom of speech means that any fool can or should get a job or give a paper. There are accepted rules about the way we discuss things, not the conclusions but the way we talk in academia. In history, a paper which lacks footnotes, replete with anachronism, which talks in sweeping generalisations about 'Islam' or 'the West' or 'the Slavic soul' or any such mystical nonsense deserves to be dismissed and its author dismissed with it (unless they can prove upon empirical evidence that what they say is right!) Similarly a scientific paper that does not mention experiments or mathematics, deserves as David Hume once famously said to be cast to the flames. Creationists should be able to get PhDs of course- but not by writing despite all the evidence that fossils date from only the last 3,000 years or denying the clear evidence that the big bang happened.

Once you have passed through the process of getting an academic degree or getting an academic job, you do have an authority on the other things that you say. Doing a PhD say is a discipline which teaches you about the way that evidence works and the way that it coheres towards a thesis. Almost noone who has not done a PhD has produced an 80,000 or 100,000 word treatise which has been vetted by leading specialists in the field and tested rigorously. Consequently when someone like Dr David Coleman speaks for Migration watch- he should be allowed to mention his PhD and his job, by doing that he says that I have actually done serious work and am not just some journalist who has read three books and knows no more what good research is than what a Unicorn looks like. However having said that, someone with a PhD can be an idiot and Dr Coleman's credentials should not deprive him of criticism.

Academic Freedom is a tense subject at the moment- from all sides the fundamentalists are rising once more to threaten the space in which conversation happens. From all sides we are informed that a certain discussion impinges upon the freedom of those that hear it- that a certain discussion for example over the Iraq war is treason. We ought to be perfectly aware that there is a space for conversations and that space is limited by law, anything that the government declares to be illegal is so, but anything else is legal and should remain so. There are questions about how far the law reaches- but those questions are not to be resolved by anyone not in the government, least of all universities or their students.

Dr Harris represents one of the most prestigious universities in the world, he is right to raise this in Parliament and this blog wishes that Universities around the country and around the world listen to the Liberal (in all senses of the word) Member for Oxford West and Abingdon.

Winter Light

Ingmar Bergman's films often dwell on the world and what it would look like without belief in God. Winter Light is one of the most successful and stark of these meditations on the world as it might exist without the grace of God or indeed without the grace of redeeming human emotions. Opening in a church service where the parishioners cough and badly sing through the spectacle of communion, closing with a church service delivered to a congregation of one, the film explores a period of a mere three hours, but a three hours packed with incident, with declarations of love and rejection and with a tragic suicide in the face of despair about the purposelessness of existance. Everything exists inside a bleak Swedish winter, where everything is barren, in a town that is decaying and within the minds of characters who have none of the alacrity of youth or the acheivement of age to reconcile them to a world grown as cold as the winter skies above them.

Throughout the film Bergman balances between two sides of the same sentence. Going back to his previous film, Through a Glass Darkly which finished with the sentiment that God is love, Bergman attempts to balance in Winter Light one character who beleives in God and another who beleives in a self denying love. The priest who has lost his wife and his congregation stands and sits and thinks almost alone in his church, confessing to all and sundry the fact that all he can hear, all he can perceive is the reality of God's silence. The world for him has become quiet and he finds now no words even to express sympathy or even pain. Left with guilt but without forgiveness, his soul is rendered an arid wasteland, unable to offer sustenance to his parishioners. Tomas, the priest, admits at one point that God for him is a distant father- authoritarian and harsh and forever a source of guilt and not comfort. His lover Marta points out to him that the one part of his faith that she cannot understand is the fact that whereas he beleives in God, his belief in Christ is purely academic. She on the other hand beleives in a self denying, self sacraficing love which goes beyond the mere impulse of humanity and into a cause for which she wishes to live. Desiring to find a cause, she prays to a God that she does not beleive in and receives the cause of loving a man that does not love her, of sacraficing herself to a deity that does not care.

Some of the most powerful imagery within the film is scriptural- it moves upon the famous line of Christ on the cross, 'Why hast thou forsaken me', a line repeated throughout the film. The theme of the silence of the beloved, the silence of God runs right through the film. Partly an image created by a cinematographic technique, the use of long and almost uninterrupted soliloquays and the lack of successful communication amongst the principals and partly the image is created by the stark bleakness of a Swedish winter but the question is always there. When will God talk to those that serve him, that love him? Bergman captures something here about the religious experience- the experience of doubt- he does not develop or seek to develop easy answers to the way that man might depend on God.

The film though is a trajectory as well as a still. There is a movement through the film- the priest decisively rejects Marta, arguing that he finds her repulsive. He tells her, filled with contempt, finding her personally irksom and physically she disgusts him. The contempt that echoes through his voice at this key point in the plot, where he tells her of what he thinks of her is amongst the most brutal rejections of anyone in contemporary cinema, as she plaintively asks him towards the end 'Could it get any worse'. Rejection is here made explicit- her love offered earlier in the film is thrown back into her face, seen as an insult, an attempt to control him. Her love though is also an effort to provide her own life with purpose- she is possessive, she wishes to be with the beloved no matter what he thinks, she wants understanding and wants a kind of consideration that is an invasion of his freedom.

Marta's crisis is preceded by Tomas's crisis. For he faces the fact that he cannot minister- he tries to help Jonas a man whose doubt is sending him straight to suicide. Jonas sees the possibility of nuclear war as being a final apocalypse which brings home to him the futility of all human construction and building. Though he loves his wife, though he enjoys his job and is successful within it, Jonas sees all that he is building and constructing as subject to the whim of far away authorities. Deprived of any security, Jonas therefore wishes to kill himself. Tomas's attempt to make him see the value of his life fails, Tomas fails because he himself cannot aid anyone in doubt- he cannot provide consolation and admits that he only lives on because one must live on. Such frail justifications cannot save Jonas, and Bergman implies cannot save man from the misery of his own futile existance.

The sadness of rejected love is brought forth perhaps most convincingly in two speeches at the end of the film, one by the sexton and one by the organist. The sexton speaks of Christ upon the cross, the full speech is quoted on here, even if you don't watch the film but are interested in religion, it is worth reading. As a meditation on the true suffering endured by Christ on the cross, that it wasn't the torment neccessarily but those words, Why hast thou forsaken me?, which marked the bottom of his torment, the bottom of his existance when even the son of God turned his mind to God and found no consolation, no presence amongst the encroaching darkness of his existance. Nobody has captured that better than Bergman in this film, as the lame sexton recounts his own reading of scripture taken exactly literally, the torment that the silence and absense of God is, the torment that some theological authorities have described, rather than the traditional fiery pits, as the true essense of hell.

Framed by the ceremonies of the communion services in two different village churches in rural Sweden, the film offers little comfort. However the little that it does offer it offers through the counterposition of the two services, the movement between them symbolises a kind of provisional and not very satisfactory answer to the mystery of God's silence. I mentioned two conversations- in the second of which the organist offers to Marta worldly consolations. He tells her to leave, tells her that the sentiment that God is love, that loves proves the existance of God is an ultimate failure, an ultimate 'drill' which serves merely to convince the credulous, contemptuous of Tomas's love for his ex-wife, he leaves Marta with his contempt, referring to her both as a 'little woman' and as 'Florence Nightingale'. In this he echoes what Tomas had said to Jonas about his own religion, how it was an illusion formed out of the love he had for his first wife. He echoes what Tomas says about the priesthood to Marta in bitterness, that it wasn't his choice to enter the ministry but his father's choice. Bergman gives us the strength of a reductionalism untinted with sentimentality. But Bergman does not leave us with this speech of cynicism- something else finishes this film.

For we finish not with the speech but as the film opens, with a service. But this service unlike the first one is given to a congregation of one- the organist beleives that because the one is only Marta and she is part of the 'sheep pen' that there needs be no service but the vicar carries on to give it, Marta asks God if only they could beleive and have some truth and in truth little more truth is left at the end of the film than at the beggining save for this: the priest at the end of the film gives a service only to Marta. The last close up before the vicar begins the service is upon Marta's face tilted upwards, stained with tears but looking upwards towards the altar. It isn't a satisfactory resolution but in some sense this gesture bound in with ceremony and formalism is a kind of starched feeling emmitted from Tomas towards Marta. In a sense, what we are left with is the sense that giving the service represents a kind of love- fittingly the last lines of the film are the traditional lines of the service, 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts', a ritual in service of God but now a ritual imbued with a kind of consideration- Marta isn't in the sheep pen, she deserves a service.

Bergman therefore offers us in this film both the ritual of Christianity and the selfishness of love, but in a sense in the last scene they are bound together, the ritual acquires humanity, the love for a moment unselfishness. Whether that state can last in the world as it is, in the bleak Swedish midwinter, or whether Tomas's God will resume his fatherly distance and Marta's love its selfish clinging nature is left uncertain. Indeed whether in the last moment of the film, it is God that inspires Tomas's act of forgiveness- we do not know, as Marta says at another point of the film that is an explanation that goes beyond what we can say.

This film is amongst the most brilliant ever made- scarcely a shot is wasted, every actor gives a performance which gives life to this drama about meaning and about the soul. More than that though Bergman maps out the sadness of human minds lost in the torment of existance- lost in a hell of soliloquays, lost in what a modern psychologist would easily describe as depression. What he does also though is give us an affirmation- however weak we may feel it- that the acts of love, the acts of consideration, the ritual of personal relations however weak and however futile they seem do have a meaning. The human condition might be summed up with Christ's words on the cross or Job's to the heavens or the sexton's to the priests, that loneliness and sense of bereftness, that sense that God and man are blind to our suffering, that the world ressembles not so much a cradle for the human soul as a gallery where anonymous judges patroll the rim and look inwards upon us, lonely in the centre as we try to explain ourselves. But over and above all there are some acts of kindness, of love, we close not upon a cynical speech but upon the last service. God may or may not exist, he may or may not have stopped speaking, all we have to suggest he might is the love that we feel and act on between ourselves.

March 20, 2007

Interesting discussion on the BBC

Steve Richards and Peter Oborne exchanged insults this morning on the BBC Today Program. Its not an incredibly interesting discussion but it does reveal something. Richards wants to give the benefit of doubt to politicians whereas Oborne beleives that Richards is basically a stooge for the political classes. My own opinion tends towards Richards- partly because they are all the same as the others argument actually ends up being very kind to many politicians because it doesn't expose them to scrutiny. Its very easy to make a politician look corrupt- exposing the fact that they are wrong takes much more work especially if you are willing to admit that they are well intentioned is much more difficult and much more interesting because it reflects the truth more in my opinion.

I should have noted earlier that I missed the today program and owe this item, though not my interpretation, to reading Iain Dale.

March 19, 2007

Pacifying Stalin

One of the biggest historical controversies of the last fifty years has been the beggining of the cold war- historians on both sides have led the charge, arguing either that the United States was right to protect its allies in Western Europe or on the other that the Soviet Union was right to think that it needed a buffer between it and the West. Professor Geoffrey Roberts from Yale University has recently written a book about the era and has summarised part of his conclusions about the relationship at the centre of the era, between the American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Russian leader Joseph Stalin in this article. Professor Roberts suggests that Roosevelt had the ear of Stalin and that his strategy of appeasing the Russian dictator was a success, he beleives that Stalin genuinely beleived in a rapprochement with the Western allies. Professor Roberts beleives that the death of Roosevelt and the events after 1945 led to the increased alienation of Russia from the Western Alliance and an increased paranoia and defensiveness within Russia.

Its interesting to read Professor Roberts's account- definitely its a mistake to see Roosevelt through the prism of the cold war. Yet he left me unpersuaded that there could ever have been an alternative to the cold war. What Professor Roberts leaves me in no doubt about is that Stalin's motivations were predominately based upon an ideological assessment of the world around him. He beleived that capitalist powers behaved in certain ways- that they were aggressive and required imperialist expansion to survive. Consequently in my view, and in Professor Roberts's view, Stalin really wanted as much of Europe as possible to be communist. (Professor Roberts beleives that Stalin would have been happy with a 'social democratic' Europe- given that much of Europe was 'social democratic' and given what happened to social democrats in Eastern Europe, I'd have a different counter factual position). Its my inclination that no American President and definitely no British Prime Minister could have let that happen- the cost of not being firm might well have been a war further down the line. The cost of being firm though may well be that Stalin's mindset about capitalism became fossilised- contact could have persuaded him otherwise, we'll never know but my inclination would be to bet the other way.

It is an interesting article though and Professor Roberts's book looks intriguing too- the period is a fascinating one because the decisions made in 1944-7 governed the shape of the rest of the twentieth century.

Atiq Rahimi Earth and Ashes

Atiq Rahimi is an Afghan who now lives in France. Earth and Ashes is a deceptively short novella but a very impressive contribution to the way that we think about war and society. Rahimi writes here about a family in his native Afghanistan that is split and sundered through the effects of war. The novel though isn't about that temporal and physical separation as much as it is about the psychological dramas that grief produces. Rahimi subtly guides us into the mind of the novel's protagonist, a grandfather going with his grandson to visit his son and his grandson's father to tell him about how war has effected them. But inside that very simple story Rahimi actually endeavours to do two much more interesting things- as well as many others that I'm not able to narrate effectively here.

The first is that he uses the narration of the story to demonstrate to us the way that war effects consciousness. The narration is all in the first person, it mixes dream and reality in a sequence- you get no warning about the transition from what is to what appears and back again, you have no idea at various moments about whether what you are reading is a dream or a reality though by the end you perceive a very certain and simple storyline. He writes like shrapnel- by which I mean that he writes presenting us with shards of a consciousness blown apart quite literally by the force of tragedy. At one point, the only real character outside the family presents as a truism that grief can be water and spirt out of your eyes, that it can be a sword which swipes and stabs or it can be a bomb ticking in silence and then exploding. Very much what we have here is the discontinuity which every image- the eye weeping single tears, the sword making single thrusts and the bomb exploding concrete into shards- involves. The way that grief is discontinuous- that in moments it can be forgotten or can be realised in fond memories, then in moments can wrack the conscience in different ways, then take the image of a lost and loved one and in a different context express itself as a desire for revenge upon that lost or loved one for leaving so quickly and so unexpectedly is all contained in this slim knowledge. The narrative is as broken up as the soul of the grandfather who speaks it.

The second major aspect of this story is that at its end, the goal to which the grandfather, our narrator proceeds, is a goal he turns down. He refuses it because he sees that some members of his family have not paid their tithe of grief. Throughout the story, anger at those who cannot feel, anger at those who inquire without knowing the story he has to tell, anger at useless comiseration comes through. The grandfather whose mouth expresses the tail has a silent fury about him- he wants to blow the world and its pathetic consolations sky high, he wants to see those who can truly greive the way he can, truly see their world come to an end like he has seen his come to an end. He wants to speak to his family who have suffered like him and when he finds that members within his family have not suffered in the same way, how for them the events which have destroyed him have become part of a normal working day, he feels wrath. He feels angry with his grandson who cannot understand because he is too young and because the grandson is become deaf and cannot be made to understand. In a much more profound way though the grandfather as he says himself has become deaf whereas his grandson can hear- like a blind man, blinded by a day's events, he wonders in a valley of the sighted and feels both envy and wishes that they shared his condition so that someone might understand. Because they do not pay the proper tithe to death, he reckons that they cannot understand his grief and cut away in the loneliness of his tears and his dreams, his mourning becomes the expression of a solitude passing our understanding.

Death and the way that society copes with it are things that to us living in the peaceful west it is difficult to understand. Reading this short novel, one remembers that Afghanistan has suffered many times over the last fifty years- that its history has been a history of conflict, disaster and the resulting trauma. The fact that by the end of the novella, our character refers to his grief as a bomb which might go off at any time- is a pointed reminder that grief and trauma can have political consequences. Understanding the way that grief gives way to desperation, that trauma produces problems for us to navigate as people and politicians is amongst the first steps to wisdom and Rahimi has provided us with an apt guide to the Afghan dimensions of loss, regret and sorrow.

March 18, 2007


A new round up of the best of the British Blogosphere from the wonderfully named blog the dustbin of history is here. It includes a post from this blog but from many other great blogs- a piece on John Aubrey the blogger is well worth scanning through for example.

Polls in Iraq

A Poll of 5,000 Iraqis seems to suggest that over 60% of them think that life is now better than under Saddam- I don't have the time to analyse this right here and now- but if its true it represents much better news than we have been used to receiving out of Iraq. I have lots of doubts though about the method to collect the poll and the people interviewed, plus it gives us a stationary view and doesn't suggest the trend line or that the policy options George Bush chose for dealing with the militias are right. But having said all of that- it is a rare piece of what might be good news from Iraq.

Labour History

Blair is now slowly becoming a thing of history- as are many of his closest advisors and ministers. Not to mention the fact that the Brown accession looks much more troubled than it used to, with many commentators beleiving that Brown may only remain Prime Minister for a couple of years not a couple of terms. Slowly the controversies that used to dog the body politic are becoming a thing of history and new controversies are arising in their place- but that leaves us now at a point where we can begin the long business of assessing Blair, Blairism and New Labour as phenomena.

Ross McKibbon has begun just such an assessment in the London Review of Books. I find much that he says convincing- new Labour has not been as focused on equality as previous Labour governments and has presided over an uneasy synthesis of Thatcherite economics and increased public spending. There have been some rather spectacular errors- the invasion of Iraq, both in its planning and its execution, has not been a success by any terms. The Blair government has seemed to be too close for much of the electorate or indeed any party in the political spectrum's comfort to George Bush and the Republicans in the United States. What Britain has gained for its close adherence to American foreign policy is not clear- Britain's diplomatic clout is not obvious and for many Sir Christopher Meyer's portrait of Blair as a starstruck teenager worshipping power has become more and more convincing. There have been successes as well. People underrate how Blair has helped the country become more liberal, more accepting over his years of power. Economic success, born of luck and continuing Tory economic policies, has been a feature of the Blair years too. Perhaps most emblematic has been a difficult relationship with the two chief dissident forces within the state- the judiciary and the civil service. Blair has appreciated the role of neither and seems to regard all professional bodies and groups with a degree of scorn only matched by his close predecessor Margerate Thatcher.

All in all as Blair's reign fades out towards the sunset- his retrospective will be written by more and more individuals. My own sense at the moment remains confused- and this piece therefore is confused. Dr McKibbon has begun a work I fancy which it will take years and many hands to finish.