Kanishk Tharoor’s pieces on politics and culture have appeared in publications around the world, including the Guardian, The Independent, The National, The Hindu, The Times of India, The Telegraph (Calcutta), the Caravan, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Guernica, Foreign Policy, openDemocracy, and YaleGlobal Online. His appearances on radio and TV include BBC’s Today programme, BBC News, BBC Radio Scotland and the Colbert Report. He is also a published and award-winning author of short fiction. He studied at Yale, where he graduated magna cum laude and phi beta kappa with BAs in History and Literature, and at Columbia, where he was a FLAS fellow in Persian and South Asian studies. He is currently a “Writer in Public Schools” fellow at New York University.
A review of Gabriel Levin’s elegant collection of essays on the Levant (Published in The National, 6 April 2013)
A travel writer typically ventures to far-flung lands and returns with fresh visions and understandings of places remote from his readers. Occasionally, the same feat can be accomplished by journeying into time. The poet and translator Gabriel Levin is the kind of traveller who might use ancient texts as guidebooks to the present. The past is not a foreign country for Levin – it is the only country worth visiting. In The Dune’s Twisted Edge, his collection of essays on the Levant, Levin weaves history into rich and immediate descriptions of place. When among the Bedouins of the Negev, he quotes the sand-swept verses of the pre-Islamic poet Imru Al Qays. He searches for traces of the Byzantine empress Eudocia and the Greek poet Meleager in the hotsprings of the Galilee. Traipsing around the desert in Jordan, he studies ancient rock inscriptions and reads them for meanings that can bridge the centuries.
At the core of these meandering essays is the almost impossible aspiration of sketching the sensibility of a whole region, the Levant. “How to speak of the imaginative reach of a land habitually seen as a seedbed of faiths and heresies, confluences and ruptures … ruin and renewal, fault line and ragged clime, with a medley of people and languages once known with mingled affection and wariness as Levantine?”
His elegant collection offers less of a direct response to this question and more of a delicate sketch in its sifting of the literary history of the Levant. It also traces Levin’s own intimate relationship to the region, where he found “the exhortation to make something of his life.” Conventionally understood as the countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean, the Levant has a much more intimate and transcendent meaning for Levin. Etymology in this case tells a rather lyrical story. The term Levant has its origins in the French verb for “to rise” – a reference to the rising sun, and hence the east – but Levin takes pleasure in the additional French homophone of le vent, “wind”, which stirs in him a romantic mood. “In my imagination,” he writes, “the wind, the sunrise, and the Levant were all one and the same.” The wind and the rising sun are full symbols for a region so much at the crossroads, a land so desired and so contested.
The essays in the collection range from exercises in literary criticism – an exploration, for instance, of Mesopotamian narratives of the journey to the underworld – to vivid and impressionistic accounts of Levin’s visits in the Negev, Jordan and the Galilee, to experimental poetry. Their direct connections are at times tenuous, but the various efforts here are linked by Levin’s warm style and sensitivities, the relentless claims that nature and history have on his imagination.
One cannot help but feel that Levin is a romantic in the increasingly rare, almost nostalgic 19th-century romantic sense. His experience of the joys of rural settings and vistas is as visceral as it is earnest. His own poetry (of which he has published four collections) is rife with tremulous descriptions of the natural world, especially the desert and its human and animal inhabitants. The essays in The Dune’s Twisted Edge invariably focus on areas outside the crowded bounds of towns and settlements: ancient wadis, ramshackle desert outposts and hot springs in the hills. In his deep fascination with present-day and historical Bedouin nomads, he reveals a very modern, urban longing for pastoral life. He seeks a kind of communion with the eternal, timeworn patterns of human movement and contemplation. No wonder then that he claims that both ancient Hebrews and ancient Arabs “must have had their best thoughts while herding their livestock”.
Levin also has an antiquarian’s fondness for old inscriptions and graffiti, the casual scrawls of other times. “Why is it,” he asks, “that whenever we step into the ruins of an ancient site our eyes immediately seek out ephemera peeking out from the broken columns and crumbling masonry?” In Jordan, he lovingly traces rock inscriptions in Nabatean and Thamudic script, and marvels at their scattered significance, “scant vocables dispersed across the desert’s vast theatre like the archipelagos of a fractured syntax”. In the Greco-Roman town of Gadara in the Galilee, he brings his Arab guide into the ruins of a bathhouse to examine a verse by the Byzantine empress Eudocia cut into a wall. He marvels elsewhere at the Greek inscription left by a Muslim caliph. And he savours the “shepherd’s graffiti” of the ancient Arabian peninsula that announced both the mundane (“And this is Hadir, drowsy because of illness”) and the sordid (“Z’g and Zufray have committed adultery. / And this deed stinks worse than a stinking fart”). For Levin, texts are not simply those preserved in archives and libraries and handed down through the generations; in the most basic way, texts live in the world.
Another refrain of this collection are the verses of the pre-Islamic desert poets of Arabia, the writers of qasida or lyric poetry. Most notable among these poets is the sixth-century AD Imru Al Qays, whose work has been translated and to whom he frequently refers. Until the advent of Islam, Al Qays’ verses allegedly hung around the Ka’ba in Mecca along with the poems of several other Arabian poets of the sixth century, to form a collection known as the mu’allaqat – “the hanging poems”. The rhythms and longings of this poetry are central to Levin’s representation of the “poetics” of the Levant. The mu’allaqat evoke heroism, eroticism, and solitude amid the implacable landscape of the desert. Its heroes love, conquer, and mourn across the dunes.
Modern readers will be surprised at the frankness and sensuality of some of these verses, particularly in Levin’s translation of Al Qays’ romantic escapades. “We crossed the campground and dropped / out of sight in the ribbed hollow of a giant dune, / and when I parted her braids, she leaned forward – / slender-hipped, firm-ankled, slim, egg-white, / her abdomen flat and breast-bones / buffed like a burnished mirror.” However tantalising his trysts may be, the poet is at all times aware of the threat of desolation – such is the fickleness of life in the desert, of how quickly the warmth of a nomadic society can fade into the loneliness of the wild. Imru Al Qays laments:
I’ve trekked across many a wadi
bare as the belly of a wild ass, where the lean wolf howls
like an outcast grubbing for scraps. And I said to him
when he finished his howling, “Aren’t we a pair,
the two of us hard up, living on air, and when something comes
our way, it slips through our fingers. Scavengers
will find scant pickings on your parcel of land, or mine.”
In this vein, a particularly powerful motif in the mu’allaqat is the poet’s contemplation of the abandoned campsite of his beloved. Staring at ashes and the remains of tents, the poet recalls his short-lived tryst. In Levin’s interpretation, these moments of reflection have less to do with romantic love than with the Bedouin relationship to space and place. “The ruined abode haunted by the phantom of the beloved undoubtedly served as a memory trace of those ephemeral moments suspended between gain and loss, homecoming and dispersion.”
The pre-Islamic poets did not imagine the desert as a trackless expanse, its dunes sweeping undifferentiated to the horizon. Indeed, one of the functions of the qasida was to populate the landscape with markers, from oases to landmarks to “ruined abodes.” The qasida both captured the nomadic spirit of Arabia and forged a map of the desert. Heroic poets who traversed the dunes compared their camels to ships; the neck of the camel was like “the prow” of a vessel, while the beasts themselves were akin to the “great schooners” plying the waves of the Mediterranean. Even in the desert, the sea remained an integral part of the Levantine imagination.
If part of the Levantine sensibility can be found in the Arabian Desert – “nourished by the luminous void of the Empty Quarter” – then another part faces west to the Mediterranean. In its “unifying ethos of contrary inclinations”, the Levant brings together both the mingled cultures of the sea coasts and the habits of the desert. When he travels to the Galilee in the north of Israel, Levin considers the diverse Greco-Roman imprint on the Levant. He visits the crumbling remnants of the antique city of Gadara, once home to the second century BC poet and epigramist Meleager, whose work and worldview contained strains of various cultures – including Greek, Phoenician and Syrian. Levin ponders briefly whether Meleager was “Greek” or “Syriac” in terms of ethnicity, but the question is impossible to answer. It can be so difficult in the Levant to untangle one identity from another.
Though Levin shows little interest in grappling with politics head-on, one senses his frustration with the national narrative of Israel. Part of the goal of this collection is to find a broader place for Israel in both the present and the past. Other intellectuals have sought, like Levin, to do just this, to conjure “a vision of rejuvenated Hebrew soul rooted in the heterodox pagan cultures of the Fertile Crescent”. Levin takes up this task implicitly, if not directly. He does occasionally dwell on minor political issues – for instance, the plight of the Bedouin in the Negev, bound to the paradoxical condition of “sedentary nomadism” – but he does not explicitly discuss the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict and its implications.
This reticence is perhaps in keeping with the real ambition of the collection. Levin lives in a region fissured more than most by strident claims to identity and place in the modern world. To be an Israeli is at once to be the product of the very contemporary process of nation-making and to appeal to an exclusive millennial connection to the land. Levin, whose sympathies would most likely position him on the far left of the Israeli political spectrum, seeks to build an inclusive sense of belonging and place in the Levant. His essays skirt the modern clutter of nationalisms. Through his wanderings, encounters, and reflections, they trace the contours of a broader identity rooted in the shared past of the region.
César Aira’s astonishing and playful novels (Published in The Caravan, 1 April 2013)
THERE ARE NO WRITERS TODAY more inventive and frenetic than the Argentine novelist César Aira. In The Seamstress and the Wind (1994), a man commandeers the carapace of a giant prehistoric armadillo and turns it into a vehicle to chase after his wife, who has been unceremoniously tossed about the wilderness of Patagonia by the love-lorn wind. The narrator of Varamo (2002), a low-level state functionary in Panama, is so flustered when he finds that his salary has been paid in counterfeit money that he ends up composing the most important work of Latin American poetry. In Ghosts (1990), the Chilean construction workers of a high-rise in Argentina imbibe wine that has passed through the vaporous excretory systems of ghosts, a process that makes cheap booze divine. Philosophy, science fiction, irreverent humour, and scholarly erudition steep together in Aira’s writing. This playfulness isn’t afraid of producing cataclysms. The mad scientist narrator of The Literary Conference (1999) nearly destroys the world in a bid to make a passable clone of the great Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes. (And in La Silla Del Aguila [‘The Seat of Power’, 2002], one of his last novels before his death, Fuentes returned the compliment and imagined a future when Aira wins the Nobel Prize in 2020.)
However absurd, the surrealism of his work has not prevented Aira from being taken very seriously. His adventurous intelligence has earned him comparisons to his countryman Jorge Luis Borges. A notorious literary scrooge, the late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño—a writer credited with single-handedly reinventing the image of Latin American literature around the world—grudgingly described him as “one of the three or four best writers working in Spanish today” and as the only contemporary novelist “who defies classification”.
FOR A WRITER ALREADY WELL INTO HIS 60S, this adulation comes after decades in the shade of other Latin American literary giants. Aira began his life away from the centre of things. He was raised in Coronel Pringles, a small provincial town south of the Argentinian capital Buenos Aires. Pringles often appears in his novels as a humble place, conscious of its own obscurity. As a young man, Aira made the inevitable move to Buenos Aires. There, he won the mentorship of the avant-gardist Osvaldo Lamborghini, who told him encouragingly that he was already a “great writer” and that he had more in common with Thomas Mann and Borges than his contemporaries. Thus inspired, Aira set about forging his own path on the Argentine literary landscape. He supported his writing initially through work as an editor and omnivorous translator of French and English. From the late 1980s onwards, he began to establish himself as a fixture in the world of Argentine letters, but even through the 1990s, he was dwarfed by better known figures in Argentina like Ricardo Piglia and the late Juan Jose Saer. Only in the last decade or so in Spanish—and in the last five years in English—has Aira begun to cement his place as one of the foremost novelists of Latin America and the most talked-about writer from Argentina.
The most obvious feature of Aira’s work besides its mercurial quality is its sheer, relentless quantity. He has published over 70 books since the late 1970s, at a steady rate of almost two per year. Scattered in the custody of a range of often obscure publishing houses, his catalogue suggests a writer striving simultaneously for ubiquity and obscurity. Only eight novels—a mere fraction of his industry—have so far been translated into English, most in the last seven years by the New York-based press New Directions (which has also posthumously published a great deal of Bolaño). Thanks to its efforts, Aira’s reputation has begun to grow in North America. He continues to churn out new novels, so it seems unlikely that English-speaking readers will have full access to his work any time soon; the speed of translation can hardly match his speed of creation.
What is the source of his energy? That Aira can sustain such a blistering pace of publication is a testament to his temperament, which comes through palpably in his writing: restless, curious, often impatient. It is also a measure of the consistent brevity of his novels, which rarely stray over 100 pages. For Aira, this commitment to concision is both a conceptual and an eminently practical choice. As he told the Argentine writer Maria Moreno in an interview in BOMB magazine in 2009, “with books, the thicker they are the less literature they have”. What he believes about literature often finds its way into his novels through the proxy of his narrators. The bureaucrat-cum-inventor protagonist ofVaramo espouses the same philosophy: “To be convincing, experiments must be brief; once the initial hypothesis has been demonstrated, there’s no point going on. Not to mention the risk of boring the reader.”
Aira seems as committed to not boring himself as his readers. His mode of writing, what he calls his “flight forward”, allegedly precludes serious editing and demands that he simply pick up where he left off from one day to the next, without looking back. Aira is fond of discussing this process and its vagaries—the cafés he frequents, the type of paper he uses, the necessary quality of ink in his fountain pen—to the point where all these writerly trappings seem suspiciously the stuff of PR branding. But the sense of forward momentum is inescapable in his prose, in its confidence and unpredictability.
Occasionally, as in The Seamstress and the Wind, his methodology erupts into the very narrative; as the book reaches its denouement, the reader is abruptly pulled from the fantastical wilds of Patagonia to a café in Paris, where Aira the writer struggles to summon his waiter. Elsewhere and more frequently, the imperative to move forward takes on philosophical proportions in the actions and thoughts of his protagonists. The mad scientist in The Literary Conference summarises the Aira doctrine:
In my case, nothing returns, everything races forward, savagely being pushed through that accursed valve… since turning back is off limits: Forward! To the bitter end! Running, flying, gliding, using up all the possibilities, the conquest of tranquility through the din of the battlefield. The vehicle is language. What else?
Aira’s language is often dubbed “transparent”, his sentences unadorned and straightforward, in the tradition of cerebral, high modernist literature. That description is fair, if inadequate. His voice can reach a range of literary registers, just as his accumulation of sentences can prove occasionally inscrutable and dense. In An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (2000), Aira conjures cosmic and artful descriptions of the landscape of the Andes as regarded by his protagonist, a 19th-century German painter.
“There were too many sides; the cube had extra faces. The company of volcanoes gave the sky interiors. Dawn and dusk were vast optical explosions, drawn out by the silence. Slingshots and gunshots of sunlight rebounded into every recess. Grey expanses hung out to dry forever in colossal silence; airshafts as voluminous as oceans.”
As vivid and powerful as this language is, Aira tends to use it sparingly. He is a writer less interested in producing images than generating ideas or, at the very least, small revelations that buttress his philosophy of writing. More characteristic of his style are speculative, reasoning passages like this section from The Seamstress and the Wind, when he discusses the mechanics of losing dreams.
“The kind of forgetting that erases dreams is very special, and very fitting for my purposes, because it’s based on doubt as to whether the thing we should be remembering actually exists; I suppose that in a majority of cases, if not in all of them, we only believe we’ve forgotten things when actually they had never happened. We haven’t forgotten anything. Forgetting is simply a sensation.”
The skill lies in the subtle simplicity of his prose, how he can extract so much from so little. Aira can make the obvious seem remarkable. A man very close to death in The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira(2007),“had already shed all his attributes and had become purely human”. In The Seamstress and the Wind, after describing Patagonia’s windswept remove from civilisation, he cuts against the romantic impulse with a perfect sentence, reminding the reader of an indisputable fact: “But the end of the world is still the world.”
BETWEEN GLIMMERING DESCRIPTIVE ILLUMINATION and meandering reflection, Aira does string together stories. No clear logic of realism or fantasy governs these narratives, and Aira seems disinterested in developing ‘realistic’ psychology in his characters. There is a general Kafkaesque quality to the inexplicable movement of events, though certain novels, particularly Ghostsand An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Artist, tend to proceed in more traditional ways. In How I Became a Nun, a boy called César Aira must deal with the aftermath of his father smothering and killing an ice cream vendor in a vat of strawberry ice cream. The boy also happens to be convinced that he is not a boy, but a girl. In the hands of another writer, this gender-bending would need to be parsed and elaborated and dramatised. In an Aira novel, it simply exists as a conceit, a platform from which to launch into a particular world of his making.
This is probably what Bolaño meant when he claimed that Aira defied classification. You read Aira novels not necessarily to discover ‘what happens’ but rather what is imagined. The strength of his writing is that it manages to make the reader care less for the exigencies of story and plot and succumb to the pleasures of the narration. That does not mean that his novels lack suspense. They often brim with it. (Will the clone of Carlos Fuentes in The Literary Confluence really emerge from its embryonic techno-magic gestation? Will Dr Aira in The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira be proven a charlatan? and so forth.) But the reader is swept on by Aira’s tireless energy, the continuous forward motion of his imagination. Paradoxically for someone so ostensibly committed to this headlong movement, Aira knows how to conclude his novels. His endings are often masterful, wringing surprising emotional power from narratives so saturated with absurdity and idiosyncrasy. Nowhere is the journey more successful than in An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Artist—his best book to appear in English so far—when in a vivid scene brimming with meanings, the disfigured painter Rugendas makes first contact with the Indians of the pampas, whom he begins to sketch.
But Aira’s vocation is certainly not in conventional narratives. He made his position clear as early as 1988 when in a lecture at the University of Buenos Aires, he argued for the purity of narrative uncluttered by “explanation”. “The real story, which we have grown unaccustomed to … is chemically free of explanation. The story is always about something unexplainable. The art of narration declines as explanations are added.” This may sound rather bold and recklessly modern, but it actually marks a nostalgic turn. Curiously for a writer so often associated with the avant-garde, Aira strives to retrieve the vanished ideal of the storyteller and recover the folkloric depths of the story.
One can read the contest at the heart of The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira (the most recently translated novel, published in English in October 2012) as a parable of his literary ideology. The eponymous protagonist is a miracle worker bedeviled by his nemesis Dr Actyn, who seeks to disprove his rival’s magical powers. Dr Actyn’s tactics consist of secretly staging reality TV spectacles in a bid to entrap Dr Aira and show him to be a fraud. The protagonist must contend with the ever-present threat of cameras and microphones, of his life and work being reduced to communicable information. Modern society lusts for meaningless information and becomes saturated with narratives and explanations that limit the imaginative realm of the possible. Marvels and mysteries wither away. Much like Aira the storyteller, Dr Aira in the book is a man out of time, belonging to a previous era when “miracles were accepted as a matter of course, because the precise boundary between what was and was not a miracle had not yet been established”.
Of course, rich metaphors don’t always make for the best stories. When Aira’s novels work less well, the fault lies invariably in his solipsistic preoccupation with his own process. The protagonists of the two most recently translated novels Varamo and The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira are both creators: the former is convinced to turn his foliage of notes on various experiments in taxidermy into literature; the latter also seeks to write a book—a hardcover of at most eight pages—to explain (or perhaps actually obscure) his miraculous powers of healing. In both cases, the novels become meditations on writing novels. One imagines Aira in his café, searching for inspiration and finding it only in himself. These inward turns do not suffer from a lack of insight or wit or neat turns of phrase, but they can be rather numbingly repetitive. Readers will find themselves staring at the glittering bare bones of literary procedure. Inevitably, they will crave a little more flesh.
Nevertheless, Aira’s commitment to his process remains a strength. One of the great virtues of his style and method is its fundamental modesty. His writing makes no claims beyond its own bounds. It never gestures towards cheap sentimentality, it does not need to play with the emotions of the reader. His characters do not cry out for empathy and recognition. If you think you can learn from his writing about Argentina or Venezuela or Panama or any of the other numerous settings of his novels, you do so at your own peril. Aira may be scholarly and supremely well-read, but he is as slippery as he is learned. Rarely can a writer muster so much knowledge and wisdom in the noble service of untruth.
This is rather refreshing; when so many contemporary writers feel compelled to be true to their own lives or to their understandings of authenticity in the world, Aira simply shares the private joy of invention. As he explained to Maria Moreno, “If you’re going to express what you have inside, your opinions, what happened to you in your life, your family relationship[s], you’ll run out of that stimulus. In that sense I have no trouble, because in my work everything is invented, and I can go on inventing indefinitely.” May the tap never run dry.
A review of the Roads of Arabia exhibition at the Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC. Published in The National, 26 January 2012
The Arabian Peninsula is often overlooked in the recounting of the antiquity of the Middle East. It lingers in the shade of its more illustrious neighbours. While ancient Mesopotamia to the north and Egypt to the west are both known for their long and complex histories of cultural achievement, Arabia has a timeless quality in the imagination of many outsiders. It appears as a kind of wilderness, a place where human activity matches the temperament of nature, from the eternal movements of Bedouin nomads to the sudden eruption of the Arab conquests at the advent of Islam. Elemental imagery – dunes, sandstorms, the nodding humps of camels – screens the history of the region. Mesopotamia was once dotted with ziggurats and Egypt with pyramids. The coastal kingdoms of Yemen grew powerful and sophisticated from the trade of the Indian Ocean. By contrast, Arabia of the historical imagination seems an impermeable desert; people may have passed through, but their footprints disappeared into the wind.
Dig deeper and the region has much more to offer the historical record. In the last 40 years, European and Saudi archaeologists have uncovered a wealth of tantalising finds that propose an altogether different image of ancient Arabia. Pottery, statues, steles, jewellery, utensils and other objects excavated across the peninsula suggest a sophisticated world of bustling commerce and culture. Oasis cities straddled a web of trade routes that brought people, goods and ideas from across the ancient world to Arabia.
Much of the impetus behind these archaeological efforts has come from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is keen to populate the rather sparse landscape of its pre-Islamic history. With the kingdom’s largesse and blessings (as well as those of oil companies Exxon and Aramco), a collection of these objects arrived for the first time in North America as part of the Roads of Arabia exhibition at the Arthur M Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC. The exhibition reaches as far back as 9,000 years in revealing the little-known cultural past of the peninsula.
Just as oil attracts foreigners to Saudi Arabia today, the incense trade drew the peninsula into a lucrative relationship with the rest of the world, particularly in the first millennium BC. Made from the resin of trees in the arid, stony southern reaches of the region, incense (like frankincense and myrrh) travelled north through the peninsula to the urban centres of Mesopotamia and Iran in the east, to Egypt in the west, and even further afield, via the ports of the Levantine and Gulf coasts, to Europe and India. These “incense roads” – overland trade routes – encouraged the growth of cities and political entities, many of which will be unfamiliar to even those knowledgeable of the ancient past of the Middle East. Thanks in large part to the testimony of objects like those on display in Roads of Arabia, scholars are reconstructing their understanding of the history of the desert region. Further excavations promise to reveal more.
Unsurprisingly, numerous incense burners crowd the cases of the exhibition. Early examples were often carved from stone, engraved with ritual images, invocations of a deity, or simply the names of their owners. A two millennia-old limestone burner found at the southern site of Qaryat Al-Faw boasts a carving of a serpent running up one side of the bowl, from where smoke would have snaked upwards. Incense fuelled the economy of ancient Arabia, but it also bookended human life, the sacred and the profane. Priests burned aromatics ceremonially to honour the mixed pantheon of pre-Islamic Arabia. At the same time, a more earthly and urgent use drove demand for incense. In crowded towns and settlements, it helped mask the stench of sewage.
The mundane has only so much charm. As is often the case with such exhibitions, you find yourself peering at innumerable pots and bowls and cups, clay fragments and shards of stone, the stuff of long-gone kitchens and workshops. It can be amusing to imagine a merchant in an oasis town sipping from one of these vessels or a matriarch leaving an offering to a household god in an earthenware dish. No doubt these objects have tremendous value for historians in grasping the styles and cultural diversity of ancient Arabia. But the imaginative experience far outstrips the aesthetic. In comparison to the equivalent ephemera of daily life from neighbouring regions, many of these examples of Arabian pottery are rather dull and unprepossessing.
There are exceptions, of course, such as a striking 5,000-year-old object from Tarut Island on the Gulf coast, not far from Bahrain. The conical chlorite vessel is formed of two entwined snakes that taper to the upper rim. They stare at each other with mouths agape, like laughing lovers in a close embrace.
More compelling still are the items that reveal the breadth and activity of the ancient Arabian world. A tiny lapis lazuli statue of similar age (and also found in north-east Arabia) depicts a man wrapped in the robes and cowl of a devotee. The stone most likely came from Afghanistan, illuminating by its presence the extent of connections to the peninsula.
Arabia was not simply bound to far away places by material links. The Al-Hamra cube, a pedestal from a temple in Tayma in north-western Arabia, shows the great mingling of cultures that occurred along the incense roads. Egyptian and Mesopotamian motifs coincide with imagery referring to the local Arabian deity Salm. Greco-Roman influences abound in other finds, from steles excavated in Thaj in the north-east to a 2,000-year-old bronze statue of Heracles – a club over one shoulder, the pelt of a lion flung across his arm – discovered in the southern site of Qaryat Al-Faw. Another seemingly Greek-influenced object in the collection once served as a leg of a bed. It was a small statue designed in the shape of a woman, modestly clutching the hems of her garment.
Artists and sculptors of pre-Islamic Arabia were committed to producing representations of the human form. A number of striking examples feature prominently in the collection. These include the “colossuses” of Dedan, towering sculptures from the north-west of the peninsula, made around 2,000 years ago. They are no longer intact as they presumably once were, but exist now as a series of headless torsos and correspondingly disembodied heads. There is something rather eerie in staring at one of these glowering giant heads – the flat terrain of its face cratered by two shadow-filled eyes – and wondering if it once belonged to that muscular torso in the next room.
More powerful still are the 6,000-year-old steles that greet visitors at the front of exhibition. These haunting human figures of mysterious purpose were excavated in different parts of the peninsula. They were fashioned by artists who overcame the primitive means available to conjure the most remarkable faces, at once abstract and yet full of expression. The star of these three steles has an open-lipped and almost pained look on its tilted face, stick-like arms clasped over its stomach as if it had a bellyache. It is uncanny to gaze at something so far removed in every way from our present and still experience a moment of recognition.
The steles would have been made long before the incense roads arose in prominence, in a time of stone tools and arrowheads, not caravans of frankincense and myrrh. But if many of the items in Roads of Arabia don’t have an obvious relationship to the ferment created by the incense trade, what are they doing there?
One can’t help but wonder whether all these objects truly belong together. While the exhibition insists upon a certain narrative unity, the diverse provenance of these objects pulls away from that cohesion. The collection really stems from various periods and three distinct zones of pre-Islamic Arabia: the north-west around the ancient city of Tayma, the north-east near the Gulf coast, and the south, principally around the site of Qaryat Al-Faw. An alphabet soup of peoples parade across these places: the Lihyanites, the Minaeans, the Nabataeans, the Gerrhites and so on. Their relationships to each other, if they had much interaction at all, remain unexplained and largely undiscussed.
While incense may have been important to all these peoples, they are united in this exhibition purely by an accident of modern geography. The physical remains of their cultures happen to all be found in Saudi Arabia. The curators try to turn this accident into destiny. The latter section of the exhibit departs completely from the bulk of Roads of Arabia, taking the visitor to a time after the advent of Islam when the peninsula’s incense roads had long disappeared, to be replaced by routes of pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. In this way, Arabia appears as an eternally cosmopolitan place, attracting the attention of the world both in its millennial pre-Islamic epochs and its more recent Islamic past.
The hopeful argument of the exhibition is bluntly clear, and becomes increasingly so the closer you get to the end. It draws an unswerving line from the inscrutable steles and looming heads of distant pre-history to the present, claiming all these fragments of other worlds as its own.
Roads of Arabia concludes with a strange coda, a room dedicated to the Saudi royal family and the founding of their kingdom. Flags, documents and other effects of the nascent kingdom line the displays. These trappings of the modern state include the vestments of its first monarch, Abdulaziz ibn Saud: his sword, a maroon cotton robe, a glove and a falcon stand.
This is a peculiar way to end the exhibition. It transforms the emphasis from new revelations about the antiquity of Arabia to a rather over-determined and straining vision of the pre-history of the Saudi state. But nation-states do not have pre-histories; they only propose imagined narratives of the past to burnish themselves in the present.
Such a telegraphed rationale only does a disservice to the wealth of compelling objects in the collection. The charm of visiting a museum and inspecting arcane artefacts lies not in being told their meaning.
Rather, it stems from being afforded the freedom to find their possible meanings, to draw imaginative connections and parallels. But an overweening emphasis on the nationalist narrative makes this difficult. When all roads lead rigidly to Riyadh, the possibility of such an experience withers away.
In the presidential elections, states matter more than individual citizens. The national vote is fragmented by the archaic electoral college system that is fundamentally elitist (Published in The Hindu, 1 November 2012)
The U.S. Declaration of Independence may claim that “all men are created equal,” but the country’s voters certainly aren’t. In American presidential elections, states matter, not individual citizens. The archaic electoral college system splinters the national vote into 51 separate elections (the states plus the capital, the District of Columbia). A victory in each of these polls wins the candidate a certain number of “electors,” an invisible species of political being who seem to exist merely as points on the television graphs that will besiege the American public on November 6. This manner of electing the president can produce situations, like George W. Bush’s victory in 2000, in which the loser actually wins the popular vote; Bush did not have a popular mandate, only the dubious blessing of a majority of the country’s faceless electors. The great absurdity of the system is not simply that it disregards the will of the people, but that it cheapens the very act of voting.
As early as May of last year, pundits were confidently isolating the seven or eight “swing states” closely split between Republican and Democrat-leaning voters that would determine the 2012 vote. Predictably, it is mostly in these states — the likes of Colorado, Florida, and most importantly Ohio — that the election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is being contested. While the candidates lavish their treasure on a handful of swing states, political tumbleweed blows through much of the rest of the country.
The candidates don’t bother wooing voters in “safe” states. Here, in New York, the election is a fait accompli. New York — along with several other dense, coastal states — has long been destined to vote for Obama. Some of the country’s most populous areas, including its biggest cities, are therefore entirely overlooked by the campaign (in 2008, 98 per cent of campaign funds were spent on just 15 states). The “undecided” Midwestern voter looms large in the American imagination, while the denizens of its cities — its centres of change and innovation — recede into the background.
The system discourages electoral participation in places where one candidate expects to enjoy a healthy margin of victory. It reduces the presidential campaign to a series of cynical calculations. The votes of people in states leaning strongly in either direction weigh far less than those of voters in swing states still “in play,” so the former can be safely ignored.
Why should the votes of a few count more than the votes of others? Like much else in the politics of this country — such as the sanctity of firearms — the logic of the electoral college system lies in the early years of the American republic. Politicians and thinkers of the time briefly considered the popular vote as a means to elect the president, but eventually dismissed it. They feared that without proper national parties already in place and with a largely agrarian electorate, the popular vote would only encourage crude regionalism; voters would rally around familiar candidates, a habit that would inevitably favour the bigger, more populous states at the expense of the smaller ones.
The spectre of regionalism no longer looms over the nation. Both the Democrats and the Republicans, two incredibly developed — perhaps overdeveloped — national parties, are established in every state. Americans themselves are far more mobile than their late 18th century predecessors. This continent of a country is now bridged by highways of asphalt and broadband.
More than anachronistic, the electoral college system is fundamentally elitist. The “founding fathers” did not trust the general public. To curtail the full power of a popular vote, they instituted the intermediary screen of “electors.” Writing in the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton defended the rationale for the system by arguing that the electors “will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary and violent movements.” From its advent, the electoral college system was conceived to keep the people at bay. A popular vote, in the view of the Framers, would only open the door to tyranny and mob rule.
AMERICA HAS CHANGED
Contemporary defenders of the electoral college tend to be right-wing. They may not use the same language, but they too fear the implications of a popular vote. Were a system of popular vote in place, candidates would be forced to spend more time in densely-populated areas, particularly in multicultural cities like those on the coasts.
If you listen to much of the rhetoric of these presidential campaigns, America can appear as a land of cornfields, church steeples, and sleepy small towns. It is not. A popular vote would encourage a more inclusive politics, and not just pander to the parochial interests of a few states. The concerns of the urban poor, of immigrant communities, and other oft-neglected constituencies would have to be better addressed by candidates of both parties. The tone of American political discourse would shift ever so slightly to the left.
Introducing the popular vote in the U.S. presidential elections is not at all an outlandish possibility. Already, nine states have passed a law that would force electoral votes in each state to be delivered to the winner of the overall popular vote and not to the winner of the state election. Several more states must pass the law before it crosses the threshold of operability, but it has already stirred the ire of the right wing. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell bloodily urged his comrades to fight its progress: “We need to kill it in the cradle before it grows up.” If not strangled in its infancy, the popular vote movement promises a more democratic future for a republic stubbornly set in its idiosyncratic ways.
Occupy Wall Street staged a rebellion against corporate corruption and economic inequality in Manhattan’s parks and streets, but the battle for the city began with nineteenth century electrification of Broadway. (Published in Guernica, 15 October, 2012)
To wander Manhattan is to step into the modern fulfillment of an earlier age. The hurtling traffic, the stylish storefronts and bars, the pyramids of cupcakes, the lantern light of iPhones—it may all seem dreadfully contemporary, but its antiquity lies in the time of steam. “New York is a product of the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution,” Lewis Lapham observed in the fall 2010 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, “built on a standardized grid, conceived neither as a thing of beauty nor as an image of the cosmos, much less as an expression of man’s humanity to man, but as a shopping mall in which to perform the heroic feats of acquisition and consumption.”
If the lust to acquire and consume is one defining feature of the city, so too is its complement–deprivation and economic disparity. David Harvey, author of Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, describes Manhattan as “one vast gated community.” He describes the process by which the rich push the city’s less well-off to its peripheries and take hold of urban life. Tracing the history of urban uprisings from the 1870s to Occupy Wall Street, Harvey argues that cities have long been contested spaces, where the interests of money collide with the public good. Beginning in the late nineteenth-century—when modern New York took shape—one finds the dawning sense that for the city to be made safe for consumption and its contented, bourgeois destiny, it needed to be purged of the blemish of the poor.
For Industrial Revolution-era exponents of this belief, the spectacle of “acquisition and consumption” was one of arresting beauty. Were you to climb the spire of Trinity Church in lower Manhattan in 1872, you would have an uninterrupted view north along Broadway as far as Grace Church on Tenth Street. That vista, hemmed on both ends by Gothic steeples, offered a glimpse of the awesome scale of New York. Man shrank into the precision of the pumping city. “The long lines of passers and carriages take distinct shapes, and seem like immense black bands moving slowly in opposite directions,” wrote James D. McCabe, a nineteenth-century chronicler of the city. “The men seem like pigmies, and the horses like dogs. There is no confusion, however. The eye readily masses into one line all going in the same direction. Each one is hurrying on at the top of his speed, but from this lofty perch they all seem to be crawling at a snail’s pace.” Broadway had real power, absorbing the frantic striving of the individual into the rhythm of a city so much larger than him. It was, in McCabe’s words, “the most wonderful street in the universe,” dwarfing all other European or American rivals in “the extent of its grand display.” Broadway was “a world within itself.”
What sparkled in those two marvellous miles between the churches? What great display condensed the wonder of the universe into this single stretch of New York street?
Shops, of course. McCabe, the author of the guidebook Lights and Shadows of New York Life(1872), delighted in listing the proliferating stores that studded Broadway. There at the corner of Grand Street sat “the beautiful marble building occupied by the wholesale department of Lord & Taylor.” On Prince Street you would find “Ball & Black’s palatial jewelry store.” Passing theatres and hotels—the St. Nicholas, the Comique, the Metropolitan, the Olympic, and so on—you would finally reach “an immense iron structure painted white,” the vast edifice of A.T. Stewart’s Retail Store, one of the city’s first department stores, occupying the entire block between Ninth and Tenth streets. “It is always filled with ladies engaged in ‘shopping,’ and the streets around it are blocked with carriages. Throngs of elegantly and plainly dressed buyers pass in and out.”
McCabe dropped quotation marks around the word “shopping” because it was a novel activity. As a pastime (and not simply an exercise of necessity), shopping came into its own in the second half of the nineteenth century, when consumer-citizens, liberated by the mobility of the street car and the new safety offered by gas and electric street lamps, found disposable time and income to spend on the stuff of the industrial age. Shopping reflected the growing prosperity, elegance, and aspiration of New York. Broadway lay at its heart. “Jewels, silks, satins, laces, ribbons, household goods, silverware, toys, paintings… rare, costly, and beautiful objects of every description greet the gazer on every hand. All that is necessary for the comfort of life, all that ministers to luxury and taste, can be found here in the great thoroughfare.”
On Broadway, “no unsuccessful man can remain in the street. Poverty and failure have no place there.” One finds in McCabe’s guidebook an early example of the very bourgeois faith that we are what we buy. Broadway was, in his view, much more than a street. As a triumphant expression of both progress and prosperity, the spectacle of consumption was the defining scene of the age.
Today’s New York, where the belief that you are what you buy has been taken to an absurd extreme, might be familiar to McCabe. According to the CUNY-based urban geographer David Harvey—a contemporary Marxist scholar of the city—the “quality of urban life has become a commodity.” Ambitious consumption in New York encourages the sort of vacuous pursuit of fashion that prompted Ian Schrager, a slick hotelier and developer, to write: “Nationality and class have been replaced by lifestyle.” The ideal New Yorker has no past and no background, only a wallet and a will to buy.
New York recedes for those without ample wallets and appetites. According to Harvey, Manhattan has become a “gated community.” In Rebel Cities, Harvey sketches a bleak picture of the modern city. New York, he explains, is only one example of a universal trend. Growing inequality splinters all the major metropolises of the world, separating the wealthy from the rest across social and geographic divides. Dispossession, as much as consumption, is the logic of the city; the general public has a diminishing stake in urban activity and increasingly remote access to urban life. A tireless hunger drives this process onward. Harvey argues that since the Industrial Revolution, cities have been the principal site where capitalism sustains itself, used by financiers and developers to “absorb surplus capital.”
Writing in 1872, the genteel McCabe would never have used or even considered this language. But the New York he envisioned foreshadowed the city it would become.
Away from Broadway’s storefronts, the uptown dames in their carriages, and the gas glow of the marquee, the city was a far darker place. McCabe mustered the courage to explore the less fashionable regions of the city (many of which were “within pistol shot” of Broadway), but not by himself. He only ventured into “terrible and wretched” districts like the Five Points and the Bowery in the company of police officers. “No respectable person can with safety visit them, unless provided with a similar protection.”
What was particularly galling for McCabe was the closeness of poverty and destitution to polite wealth. Since the late nineteenth century, writers have described New York as a city unique in the density of its contrasts, its landscape of extreme differences. One could stand in the Five Points, at the intersection of Park and Worth streets, “in the midst of a wide sea of sin and suffering, and gaze right into Broadway with its marble palaces of trade… and its roar and bustle so indicative of wealth and prosperity.” The narrow gap between the two worlds was one that “the wretched, shabby, dirty creatures who go slouching by you may never cross.” McCabe journeyed to the Five Points in part to achieve some measure of authority as a guide to the city, but Christian pity also directed his creeping adventures. He praised the efforts of various missionary and church groups bent on cultivating order in the benighted parts of the city. Their work formed the only bridge between the “realm of poverty” and that of virtuous money—realms that lived so near and yet apart. But he despaired for their Sisyphean struggle: new waves of migrants always poured in, encrusting the slums with desperate activity and equally desperate idle.
McCabe marvelled that such “misery” could fester right beside Broadway’s march into a future of happy consumption. The city lost its efficient grid only blocks away from the stately avenue, narrowing into a warren of ragged slums, home to sprawling families and one-room shacks, sweaty life on the pavement, and a honeycomb of murkier tunnels beneath. “It is a strange land to you who have known nothing but the upper and better quarters of the city.” There is a fevered quality to his descriptions of the Five Points and the nearby Bowery. “Decency and morality soon fade away here,” he wrote. “Drunkenness is the general rule.” Bands of street musicians haunted the ramshackle squares with “discordant strains.” From the cellar saloons rushed the sounds of “fearful revelry” and “hot foul air,” which carried the promise of vice and disease “inhale[d]… with every breath.”
Much of Lights and Shadows does not consist of these explorations of New York’s teeming slums. McCabe was more interested in describing streets like Broadway, the city’s grand buildings, celebrity businessmen and media moguls, and the various gradations of society among the well-to-do (he sneers at those families who added a “van” to their names to affect membership in New York’s ancient Dutch class, the Knickerbockers). But when he enters the Five Points or the Bowery or the wharves or other cramped, scruffy parts of the city, his writing becomes repetitive, a litany of heinous deeds and miserable creatures all bound by his hopeful belief in their Christian redemption.
I try to imagine him, flanked by stocky policemen, as he strode through the Five Points: a gentleman with notebook in hand, regarding the inhabitants of that quarter as if they were inmates in a prison, or beasts in a zoo. And I like to think that some of those “wretched, shabby, dirty creatures who go slouching by” may have occasionally stopped slouching, straightened, and looked him in the eye.
The people of the impoverished regions of New York City unnerved McCabe, and through him, his readers across the country. “Every tongue is spoken here,” McCabe wrote of the Bowery, by “men from all quarters of the globe, nearly all retaining their native manner and habits, all very little Americanized.” These included “the piratical looking Spaniard,” “the gypsy-like Italian,” “the chattering Frenchman,” “the brutish looking Mexican,” and “the sad and silent ‘Heathen Chinee.’” Yet even in their differences, the denizens of the Bowery found a kind of solidarity perceptible to an outsider like McCabe. “They are all ‘of the people’. There is no aristocracy in the Bowery.” A danger lurked in this rough egalitarianism of the slums, a danger beyond the usual peril of pickpockets, knives in the dark, drunkenness, and riotous blasphemy. Much more worryingly, the motley poor all seemed to boast a seditious streak, to wear, as McCabe observes with alarm, the “irresistible smack of the Commune.”
McCabe published his guidebook a year after the Paris Commune of 1871. For over sixty days, the working classes of Paris seized the city and seceded from France. Informed by various strains of leftist politics, the Commune implemented a range of measures radical for their time, many of which would still be considered radical today.
The New York press was shocked by the sweeping implications of the Commune’s actions, like the strict separation of church from state, the empowerment of women, and the restructuring of commercial relations, which in sum amounted to a cavalier assault on the establishment. It demonstrated to a writer for Harper’s that the French were “ignorant, angry… and inflamed by crude theories.” Particular bile was reserved for the many women who played prominent roles in the defense of the Commune. Harper’s accused what were known as the “Amazons of the Seine” of being “coarse, brawny, unwomanly, and degraded” and “ten times more cruel and unreasonable” than the male communards. The New York Herald described female participants as “debased and debauched creatures, the very outcasts of society.” From the perspective of moneyed New York, the Commune inverted the moral universe, plunging Paris into the frenzied dystopia of the unwashed masses.
Mingled glee and relief greeted the demise of the Commune when, two months later, the Prussian-backed forces of Versailles broke through and slaughtered tens of thousands of people—rebels and civilians alike—in retaking the city. Harper’s crowed: “The effort of the Commune ends, therefore, without the least sympathy or respect.” The Nation claimed in an editorial that “it would be difficult to produce from history an expression of selfishness narrower or more material, more short-sighted and more devilish in its intensity, than the organization which has just perished in the flames of Paris.” There were a few dissenting opinions, including those of observers who had seen the achievements and struggles of the “communards” with their own eyes, but these were swallowed in the overwhelming tide of contempt for the Commune.
The eruption of the Commune in Paris shook New York’s chattering class, and for good reason. Every day and around every corner, New Yorkers saw the contradiction of life in their own big city—that treacherous slip of space between wealth and poverty. There was no real hinterland in New York, no world of remote existence totally obscured from the bourgeois gaze; slums like the Five Points, after all, leaked into the side streets of Broadway. The wealthy often supported the work of religious missions not simply out of Christian charity, but to stave off the threat of rebellion at home.
Like many of his peers, McCabe found offense (and threat) in the coexistence of these two worlds, in how life in the Five Points lurched on wholly indifferent to the prosperity and refinement of the grand avenue. Where Broadway ran wide and straight, the Five Points dissolved into a series of dark turns. Where the former boasted department stores and other shrines to the new cult of consumption, the latter belched with the excess of another kind of public life: beer gardens, bawds, beggars, and street bands, days and nights spent quietly and loudly in the open. As McCabe saw it, the poorer parts of the city smouldered with an “air of unrest.” What was the gleaming vision proposed by Broadway if it could be so ignored, even overshadowed, by the darkness nearby?
Paris in the mid-nineteenth century had proposed its own solution to this problem. In the decades preceding the Commune, Paris underwent a drastic overhaul now known as “Haussmannization,” named after its architect, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann. The gnarled medieval core was levelled to make way for a network of wide boulevards, neat parks, and orderly buildings, the new “city of light.” Haussmann’s Paris was cleaner, more efficient, and ostensibly easier to control; the demolished warrens of alleys and irregular streets had long offered sanctuary to urban rebels. It was also more expensive. Rents rose precipitously, and working class people found themselves expelled to the outer arrondissements on the periphery of the capital.
A more stratified, utilitarian city, however, was not immune to rebellion. According to David Harvey, the Paris Commune was in part a response to the project of Haussmannization, to the alienation of the poor from their own city. Harvey argues that the rebellion of the Commune in 1871 was one of the first expressions of the “right to the city,” of people reclaiming urban space as their own. Barricades blocked Haussmann’s boulevards. Local councils organized the provisioning and defense of each neighborhood. The Commune may have collapsed in bloody defeat, but it became, for social theorists and activists, a model of political mobilization in the city.
In Rebel Cities, Harvey draws a winding line from the barricades of Paris to the 2011 occupation of Zuccotti Park, a tiny square on Broadway near Trinity Church. Harvey describes both the efforts of the Commune and those of Occupy Wall Street, however short-lived, as struggles over the meaning of the city: Who should have access to the city? What is the purpose of public space? Should only the doyens of the market have the power to decide the structure of urban life? Or should, in some fashion, the rest of us?
These questions were as present in the 1870s as they are now. In McCabe’s view, the city had two faces. One was exemplified by Broadway, with its gleaming shops thronged by elegant customers. Consumption made it a marvellous place. The other New York lay in the slums of the poorer neighborhoods, like the Five Points and the Bowery. Nothing redeemed this side of the city. It condemned itself through its strangeness, its cantankerous squalor, its queer heterodox life, the primordial rhythms of its debauchery and struggle. And it occupied prime real estate that would be better used, borrowing Harvey’s jargon, “mopping up the surpluses of capital,” that is, in being developed to produce greater value for owners and investors. McCabe notes approvingly the astronomic rise of the price of a building bought and renovated by a Christian mission in the Five Points. The neighborhood needed wholesale change. As far as he was concerned, New York was not big enough for two New Yorks.
Slum clearances levelled most of the Five Points by the end of the nineteenth century. Fifty years later, Robert Moses—New York’s answer to Haussmann—in his own words “took a meat axe” to many parts of the city after World War II. Inequality both in the United States and in New York City widened sharply since the late 1970s when the country turned to the right, away from modestly redistributive, social democratic municipal politics. The 1990s witnessed Rudy Giuliani’s crusade against panhandlers, prostitutes, and the scruffy poor. Real estate prices soared in post-9/11 New York, and even after the recession, huge tracts of the city remain inaccessible to many of their former inhabitants.
Like Paris, New York has largely banished its poor to its extremities. Economic inequality long existed in Manhattan, but its staggering scale (the top 1% of the city earn 44% of its income) is new, as is the stark geographic division of its regions of wealth from those of comparative poverty. For most of the history of the city, rich and poor areas abutted each other with relative frequency. No longer. New York has its hinterlands now. It is almost impossible for a humble middle class, never mind working class, family to live anywhere south of 125th Street, or to settle west of the Lower East Side projects on the East River.
The process we through gritted teeth call “gentrification”—but should rename dispossession—has long preoccupied Marxist thought. A robust skepticism of “urban renewal” and attempts at “modernisation” runs through Harvey’s work. In the name of public health or beautification, people are relieved of their homes and their livelihoods, only to be shunted further from the life of the city and to find themselves in conditions often no better, if not altogether worse, than those from which they came. Harvey quotes Friedrich Engels on Haussmannization: “The scandalous alleys disappear to the accompaniment of lavish self-praise by the bourgeoisie… but they appear again immediately somewhere else… the breeding places of disease, the infamous holes and cellars in which the capitalist mode of production confines our workers night after night are not abolished; they are merely shifted elsewhere!”
You don’t have to subscribe to the gospels of the left to see the continuing truth of Engels’ observation. What happened to the Five Points is all the more visible in cities in countries like India. For the sake of building a “better city” (and of capitalizing on land and property prices), slum clearances scattered the poor from the flyovers to make way for shopping malls, chrome offices and high-rise apartment complexes. Which in turn, in their increasingly distant, panting remove from the air-conditioned world of the middle class the poor can never hope to access.
No one should be envied for living in slums and favelas. But the impetus to clear them is only thinly moral. For the wealthy, slums are an an embarrassment, an inconvenience, or a source of dread. They seem to be an aberration in the urban scheme. In our modern cities, the poor should be kept out of sight and, worse, out of mind.
Urban life should require the awareness and experience of the difference of others. Much has been written about the demise of truly shared public spaces in cities. Privatization and commercialization, pollution, policing measures, and the growth of the internet all encouraged the public to retreat from their streets and squares. Urban planners in the metropolises of the “global south” routinely overlook public space altogether, building cities out of knotted highways, shopping centres, and high walls. Public spaces of course exist in New York, but they are often strictly manicured or quixotically regulated or, like the High Line, simply spaces to pass through, not assemble in. The city at all times steers its residents and visitors towards consumption. The smartphone has only encouraged this: New York becomes a place of destinations, not paths; replicable activities, not experiences; a map of amusements to be pinned and tagged rather than a city to be known and unknown.
McCabe, roaming the city in the 1870s, was horrified by the entrenched poorer neighborhoods and their ramshackle village-like public life, for which there was no bar to admission. Enamoured with Broadway and its stores, he found no value in the egalitarian clutter of the Five Points. Today’s New York is a vindication of McCabe’s preferences, it is a city where consumption reigns supreme. All other forms of public existence shrink: parks shut every evening with grim discipline, benches vanish from the avenues, the working poor—let alone young people or the homeless—have little room in a New York so thoroughly mediated by acts of spending, “the modus vivendi under the boot of the modus operandi,” as Lewis Lapham describes it. Yelp won’t help you find a stoop.
Harvey fears that in New York and elsewhere, the city has lost that fundamental element that energized urban life since classical times: the agora, the open air commons. New York, he has said, has plenty of space for the “the assemblage of tulips and so on, but we don’t have a place where people can assemble.” The way a city encourages us to live shapes both how we relate to each other and our politics. In the city, “the neoliberal ethic of intense possessive individualism, and its cognate of political withdrawal from collective forms of action, becomes the template for human socialization.” For city dwellers to change their cities (and in so doing, change themselves), they must first turn to their neutered squares and parks and reclaim them as political spaces.
Harvey celebrates the occupation of Zuccotti Park as just the kind of real and symbolic act necessary to turn the tide. Occupy Wall Street sought to “convert public space into a political commons, a place for open discussion and debate.” An Athenian agora emerged in the glass canyons of lower Manhattan.
I spent quite a bit of time at Zuccotti Park, but not enough to cast myself as some committed tribune of the occupation. I was but another happy barnacle, clinging to the hull of the OWS movement. While those around me debated the ins and outs of the occupation, its prospects for growth, the challenges ahead and within, and so on, I was content to simply soak it all up. Mine was a cheery, casual sort of connection to the park. As someone who grew up in New York City, I felt a refreshing sense of relief more than anything else. The park offered a rare escape from the eternal clamour of acquisition. I recalled what Henry James wrote upon returning to New York in 1904, after decades away. He perceived the asphyxiating modernity of the city as “the endless electric coil, the monstrous chain that winds round the general neck and body.” Occasionally, however, he would find quieter, older streets in Greenwich Village that reminded him of his childhood there and promised a reprieve, however brief, from “the awful hug of the serpent.”
For about two months (the same duration as the Paris Commune), a parallel universe arose in Zucotti Park, a moneyless space where people gathered to exchange ideas and be warmed in each other’s company. We assembled there for the sake of the very idea of assembly. However inchoate, the park put forward an alternative vision of urban life, of what it meant to be part of a community of strangers.
“Liberty Square” would have survived if not for the late-night crackdown that expelled the permanent occupation in November 2011. Without this symbolic and logistical locus, much of the energy drained from the OWS movement. No number of marches or rallies can compensate for the bold claim of urban space made truly public, an act that succinctly summarized the inequity in American society while dramatizing a means for its redress. The occupation was the argument.
All sorts filtered through the park: scruffy young anarchists, workers on extended lunch breaks, schoolteachers from the outer boroughs, students from universities near and far, and the much larger undefinable mass of everyday people. In a neighborhood now uniformly the quarter of bankers and financiers, OWS was a reminder of that world of difference purged from the city. McCabe would have been appalled. It was almost a throwback to the late nineteenth century, when the Five Points lurked just blocks away, so perilous, so loud, and so other.
(A review of Pankaj Mishra’s “Ruins of Empire.” Published in The National, 15 September 2012)
In 1988, Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping promised his Indian counterpart Rajiv Gandhi that the next century would be the “Asian century”. The claim may have seemed risible to many in the West but subsequent decades of economic transformation in China and India have turned the narrative in Deng’s favour. Asia, we are told, is very much on the rise. With the endorsement of barrages of statistics, business punditry and insistent animal metaphors (tigers and pandas, elephants and dragons), Asia’s giants lumber onto the international stage. The phrase “Asian century” is now a feature of Sino-Indian bilateral relations, underlining not so much an aspiration but a description of the world both countries believe they are in the process of making.
But have we already lived through an “Asian century”? According to the Indian essayist and author Pankaj Mishra, the past has been misunderstood. “For most people in Europe and America,” Mishra writes, “the history of the 20th century is still largely defined by the two world wars and the long nuclear stand-off with Soviet communism. But it is now clearer that the central event of the last century … was the intellectual and political awakening of Asia.”
This awakening is the fluid, breathless subject of his new book, From theRuins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia. Facing the challenge posed by western imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, intellectuals from Egypt to Japan engaged in frenetic debates about the past and future of their societies. Their responses to the West would pave the way for Asia’s eventual decolonisation and independence. Many of these innumerable thinkers and writers are largely unknown in the West but Mishra sees the necessity for this intellectual history in such ignorance. To understand the “rise of Asia” in the present age, we must turn to its first fumbling struggles with European imperialism.
Asia’s grappling with the West is not a new topic for Mishra. An earlier book, Temptations of the West, offered several glimpses of life in contemporary South Asia that loosely attempted to answer the question: “How do people with traditions extending back several millennia modernise themselves?” He roams small, dusty Indian towns, flirts with Bollywood actresses, skulks in the gloom of an Afghan village and commiserates with frustrated Tibetan activists. In the case of the Afghan peasant, the West may be something concrete: the strafing Soviet helicopters, the tide of US weapons that fuelled the anti-Soviet mujahideen and the more recent silent menace of American drones. In other situations, the West represents something altogether more amorphous. It is not so much a geographic place or a cluster of governments but a series of phenomena: the hardening of once-nimble religious traditions into ideologies like political Islam and Hindu nationalism, the spiralling inequality caused by economic liberalisation and the implacability of robust nation-states. Mishra sees all these examples of “modernity” as indicative of the indelible effect of the West on the lives of South Asians.
In Ruins, Mishra takes the opposite approach to the same question while broadening its scope. Where Temptations sketched the lives of everyday people, Mishra’s latest effort remains very much in the realm of rarefied ideas. It is history, not reportage. It eschews intimate conversation and description for sweeping summary and synthesis. And it takes as its period not the small glimmering of a single life but the broad arch of centuries.
The West’s era of dominance in Asia began in earnest in the mid-18th century, with the inroads of the British East India Company into Mughal India. By the time of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, the British had considerably strengthened their hold over swathes of India, while other European powers nibbled around the edges of the continent. The 19th century witnessed the implacable advance of industrialised western might, with China brought to its knees by commercial and legal concessions, Japan forcefully opened up to the world by American gunships, the Dutch in Indonesia, South Asia ruled in its near entirety by the British, the French in South East Asia, Central Asia swallowed by Russia and the lands of the withered Ottoman Empire either under formal or de facto European control.
The coming of the West shattered many of the certainties that sustained political life across the continent. Local observers watched as sprawling, complex polities like the Ottoman, Mughal and Qing empires were cowed by much smaller, but more muscular, European nations. The inability to resist the encroaching West plunged Asian thinkers into introspection. They critiqued not only foreigners and colonial agents but the local rulers who had allowed Asian societies to slide into relative weakness.
One significant response to western power came from militarist reformists who sought to match the organisational and technological superiority of European states. Western modernity presented itself in this regard, not in cultural terms but, rather, as a question of technical capacity: the ability to mobilise resources, energy and collective will to bolster the strength of the nation. Writing about the failed Indian Revolt of 1857, the Urdu writer Abdul Halim Sharar claimed that British victory was inevitable. “The world had assumed a new pattern of industrialised civilisation and this was crying aloud to every nation. No one in India heard this proclamation and all were destroyed.”
The impulse to borrow from the West sprung from this sense of Asia’s acute organisational deficit. “European forms of political and military mobilisation, financial innovations and information-rich public cultures of enquiry and debate,” Mishra writes, “fed upon each other to create a formidable and decisive advantage.”
Encouraged by a new generation of reformist thinkers, both the Ottomans and imperial Japan pursued agendas of reform in the mid-19th century, known respectively as the Tanzimat and the Meiji Renewal, to bring their societies in closer step with the capabilities of the West. More slowly, China established military academies where European trainers schooled a new generation of officers and revamped the Chinese army. Under British colonial rule, India developed some of the trappings of the modern European state, including railways, a regimented administrative bureaucracy, universities and a large and noisy print culture.
Within the space of half a century, Japan transformed itself from a closed feudal state to an industrialised, expansive force able to compete with Europe. Its victory in the Russo-Japanese war in 1905 shocked the world and stirred the imaginations of Asian anti-imperialists everywhere.
Mishra begins his narrative with this seminal event, cataloguing the various giddy reactions to Japan’s triumph around the continent. “We are dispelling the myth of the inferiority of the non-white races,” the Japanese essayist Tokutomi Soho wrote. “With our power we are forcing our acceptance as a member in the ranks of the world’s greatest powers.”
Various young thinkers and leaders, from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – eventually the founder of modern Turkey – to Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong, to Mohandas Gandhi and a teenage Jawaharlal Nehru – India’s first prime minister – all found great promise in the Japanese success. It suggested to Nehru the prospect of “Indian and Asiatic freedom from the thraldom of Europe”.
The Japanese way offered one vision of how to fend off the West. By adopting European military, bureaucratic and financial structures, and consolidating the power of the state, Japan had emerged as the only Asian country capable of competing with Europe. Political exiles flocked to Tokyo. Their publications dreamed of an Asia born anew, galvanised by Japan’s rise.
The Russian-born “itinerant cosmopolitan” Abdurreshid Ibrahim is representative of the eclectic and broad-ranging political affinities forged in Tokyo at that time. He came to Japan in 1909 after preaching the oneness of Asia while travelling through Muslim communities from Arabia to Siberia. It was the “opposition among Asian peoples” in his view that allowed “western powers to invade the East”. “Bringing about the union of Asian countries to stand up to Europe,” he argued, “is our legitimate means of self-defence.”
Japan inspired other realisations in those who found refuge there. The Chinese reformer Liang Qichao – one of the more prominent figures in the book – fled to Japan and attracted a circle of devotees. He saw great advantages in Japanese authoritarianism. Qichao was convinced that his compatriots were not yet ready for political freedoms. “The Chinese people must now accept authoritarian rule,” he wrote. “Those born in the thundering tempests of today, forged and moulded by iron and fire, they will be my citizens, 20 or 30, 50 years from hence. Then we will give them Rousseau to read, and speak to them of Washington.” A century later, Chinese officials still defer the chaotic freedoms of a more democratic system.
At that time, authoritarianism was also the defining feature of many European states. The perception of “westernisation” in Asia rarely had anything to do with liberal political freedoms. There was no necessary link between the West’s hard power – its industrial and military muscle – and its avowed, soft Enlightenment virtues.
After all, colonised peoples from Egypt to the Philippines were treated to much of the former and precious little of the latter. Many Asian reformers hoped to replicate the West’s strong, efficient state institutions, while disregarding its cultural claims, the sanctimonious paeans of its “mission civilisatrice”.
Other thinkers rejected the offerings of western modernity in their entirety. The Muslim philosopher, polemicist and agitator Jamal al-Din Al Afghani – another of Mishra’s major characters – argued that the supposed gifts of European technology and sophistication were actually calculated to leave Asian societies weaker. Born in Iran and educated in India, Al Afghani was another of the period’s worldly, peripatetic intellectuals. He would spend much of the latter half of the 19th century living across the Muslim world – Afghanistan, Iran, Egypt and Turkey – and even a stint in Paris.
Al Afghani’s experiences in India, in particular, sharpened his critique of western hypocrisies. According to Mishra, he argued “that the British improved transport and communication in order to drain India’s wealth to England and facilitate trade for British merchants. Western-style schools … were meant merely to turn Indians into English-speaking cogs of British administration”. Anti-imperial critics baulked at the notion that Asians should be grateful for railways and colleges. These were only further links in the chains that bound them to the acquisitive aims of western power.
Mishra credits Al Afghani with encouraging generations of Muslim thinkers to re-imagine the legacy and future possibilities of Islam. Al Afghani was hardly a dogmatic traditionalist. He was deeply critical of what he perceived as stagnation in many Asian societies. But he dismissed the notion that imitation of the West would reinvigorate the Muslim world. The task at hand, he argued, was to remember the dynamism inherent to Islamic history and tradition, and marshal it in grappling with the modern world. His renovation of Islam was part of a wider trend; across Asia, intellectuals reinvented their Confucian, Buddhist and Hindu traditions as alternatives to European civilisation.
Asian thinkers saw the desolation at the heart of some of the West’s most cherished ideas. Liang Qichao’s mentor Yan Fu, once a proponent of liberal individualism, lamented that “western progress in the last 300 [years] has only led to selfishness, slaughter, corruption and shamelessness”. Sun Yat-sen dismissed European civilisation as “nothing but the rule of might … such a civilisation, when applied to society, will mean the cult of force, with aeroplanes, bombs and cannons as its outstanding features”.
Moved by the horrors of the First World War, the Bengali thinker Bhudev Mukhopadhyay argued in Mishra’s paraphrasing that “the innate human capacity for love had stopped, in Europe, at the door of the nation-state – it was the end point of Europe’s history and its endless conflicts”. What offended Mukhopadhyay even more was the West’s ability to mask its material ambitions in morality. “Whatever is to their interest, they find consistent with their sense of what is right at all times, failing to understand how their happiness cannot be the source of universal bliss.”
Where reformers believed Asian societies needed to adopt European-style state structures, more strident critics saw the European nation-state as the evil troubling Asia. The nation-state lay at the root of all ills: the bloodbath of the First World War, the rapacious, mechanised pursuit of financial profit, the stirring of race-consciousness and bigotry. Resisting the West, and escaping its bloody fate, required thinking beyond its categories.
This was obviously easier said than done. Asian intellectuals developed two large, complex and, at times, muddled ideologies to address the problem – “pan-Islamism” and “pan-Asianism”. The former remains relevant today. Al Afghani and many of his acolytes saw Islam as an antidote to the destructiveness at the heart of Europe. Religion provided a logic of connection to a wider community that was not based on language or race.
“Pan-Islamism” took various forms in the interwar period, from the Khilafatist movement that sought to preserve the Ottoman sultan as caliph to the eventual agitation by Indian Muslims for a separate homeland that would become Pakistan. The descendants of Al Afghani’s circle developed political Islam in numerous directions. One hears the echoes of their intellectual ferment in the Iranian revolution that toppled the Shah, in the moderate politics of Turkey’s current Islamist ruling party and in the cosmic fire and brimstone of jihadists like Osama bin Laden.
“Pan-Asianism” seems today like an altogether absurd enterprise; what could feasibly bind a continent of the immense size and diversity of Asia? But in the first half of the 20th century, the notion of an Asia united in some form or the other occurred to many. Sitting in a British prison in 1940, Nehru dreamed of a strongly allied continent. “My own picture of the future is a federation which includes China and India, Burma and Ceylon, Afghanistan and possibly other countries.” He was no doubt inspired by the broad connections of sympathy and support that bound Asians together in their anti-imperial struggles.
As an ideology, however, pan-Asianism had dubious uses. In previous decades, rebel intellectuals from across Asia gathered in Japan to discuss how to end western hegemony. They knowingly and unknowingly ended up implicated in the Japanese imperial project. Pan-Asianism became the moral cloth that veiled the harder thrust of Japan’s ambitions. Its armies swept through parts of East Asia, committing numerous atrocities, but often defending their actions by invoking the Asian cause. In 1943, “the liberation of Asia” became the official goal of Japanese involvement in the Second World War.
By this time, the intellectual content of pan-Asianism had evaporated. Its original proponents, like the Japanese artist Kakuzo Okakura, had imagined Asia as united by harmonious, spiritual traditions antithetical to the brute violence of the West. “Asia is one,” he wrote in 1903. “Arab chivalry, Persian poetry, Chinese ethics and Indian thought, all speak of a single Asiatic peace, in which there grew up a common life, bearing in different regions different characteristic blossoms, but nowhere capable of a hard and fast dividing line.” Europe, on the other hand, was splintered by “hard and fast” dividing lines, its numerous antagonistic nationalisms. The Indian Nobel laureate and writer Rabindranath Tagore, a friend of Okakura’s, likewise believed in the warm unity of Asia’s various traditions of compassion and wisdom. They were anathema to the nation-state, which was “a machinery of commerce and politics turn[ing] out neatly compressed bales of humanity”. “When the idea of the Nation, which has met with universal acceptance in the present day, tries to pass off the cult of selfishness as a moral duty … it not only commits depredations but attacks the very vitals of humanity.”
Tagore was inevitably depressed by the rise of nationalism after the First World War in his native India, China and elsewhere. Though an unstinting critic of western imperialism, Tagore never believed that national ideologies would redeem Asian societies. He blamed Japan’s embrace of the trappings and deeds of western power for the nationalist trend. “The New Japan is only an imitation of the west,” he said disparagingly in Tokyo. He later wrote: “I have seen in Japan the voluntary submission of the whole people to the trimming of their minds and clipping of their freedoms by their governments … the people accept this all-pervading mental slavery with cheerfulness and pride because of their nervous desire to turn themselves into a machine of power, called the Nation.”
But Tagore cut a lonely figure. When he toured China and Japan in the 1920s, he was famously met with derision, scorned as the voice of a defeated country, as a babbler of spiritual mumbo-jumbo, as a threat to the rejuvenation of Asian nations. He returned to India embittered and fearful that in Asia, the nation-state had irrevocably won.
Various robust nationalisms guided Asia out from the yoke of western power. Those beliefs continue to fuel motivations and aspirations in the continent. Mishra notes that “Asian countries appear more outward-looking, confident and optimistic” compared to their western counterparts. “The rise of Asia,” he writes, “and the assertiveness of Asian peoples, consummates their revolt against the West that began more than a century ago; it is in many ways the revenge of the East.”
That revenge was at least partially the gift of the West. The nation-state remains the chief legacy of that period. It is the indelible imprint of Europe on a continent where the nation-state and all its associated structures and ideologies were previously unknown.
What has been lost? One of the many feats of Ruins is to reveal the astonishing and busy world of connections that linked the continent before the Second World War. As mentioned, Tokyo was home to writers and activists from all corners of Asia. After their failed 1857 revolt, Indian Sufi rebels fled to Egypt, where they continued to stir opposition to the British. Japanese idealists sowed anti-imperial rebellion in the Philippines. Journals published in the Middle East were read in East Asia and vice versa, while one of the first rhetorical broadsides of Iran’s 1906 constitutional revolution was fired from a journal in Calcutta. Thinkers across Asia maintained an intimate familiarity with the events and debates of other places. They saw themselves in contexts far larger in scope than those of their respective societies.
There are few contemporary equivalents of this trans-Asian intellectual life. If you spend time within a country such as India, it’s striking to see how confined most conversations and debates are. The technologies of globalisation – satellite television, telecommunications, a booming print culture – have conspired to create insular, self-sustaining national cultures, amplifying the clutter of the country while narrowing the frame of reference. Globalisation can throw up as many barriers as it flattens.
Tagore and other pan-Asianists did not succeed in mounting a real challenge to the advance of the nation-state model. Pan-Islamist ideas often congealed to buttress particular national identities. The revival of Confucian, Buddhist and Shinto traditions in East Asia has in the long run strengthened affinity to the nation, rather than transcended it. Asian thinkers could not produce any broad alternative to a world fragmented by European-style nation-states.
This, in Mishra’s view, constituted “an immense intellectual failure” that had “profound ramifications for the world today”. He argues that “no convincingly universalist response exists to western ideas of politics and economy”. When Indian and Chinese leaders next meet their delegations of military officials, technocrats and businessmen, they will no doubt invoke the collaborative aim of an “Asian century”. Mishra would have us consider if such an “Asian century” is possible at all.
The mounting interest in football marks a curious phenomenon in American mass culture (published in the Telegraph)
|The US national team, 2012|
In the Bhutanese film, The Cup, a restless young monk overcomes the dual obstacles of tradition and technology to screen the World Cup in his Himalayan monastery. Gathered about a television set, his fellow monks are warmed in football’s glow. Watching the World Cup offers relief from the routine of their isolated existence. But it is not simply the sporting spectacle that compels them to break old habits and wrestle with reluctant TV aerials. More than its drama, football provides those in the monastery with a window to another world, one far removed from their mountain perch.
What was true for the celluloid monks is also true for many of us living in less remote places. Football fans of my parents’ generation can recall how they stayed up late into the night, leaning their heads against the mantle-piece-sized radio, listening to the crackle of the latest results from half a world away, odd words spoken in stiff accents that became quickly familiar — Wolverhampton, Blackpool, Tottenham. A few years ago, I was surprised to find myself escaping the heat in Cairo by sitting in a cafe where men were busy shouting at an ungainly, muddy battle on the screen, a match between Aberdeen and Motherwell in the dim reaches of Scottish football, all faithfully commentated in Arabic. There seemed to me then something uncanny about the scene, about the lines — however tenuous — being drawn among cities and peoples. But such ties are almost boringly normal for football fans. It would be silly to inflate the significance or strangeness of these connections, to dwell too long on the fact that people in a wintry English village may watch a match take place in Angola (as I’ve also done) or that somebody in Shanghai can stay up all night to stream Argentinian club football. For football fans, globalization is something thoroughly mundane and barely novel.
Yet it is striking to see the rise of a football following here in the United States of America, a country that has never known the sport’s culture of casual global connection. Football’s profile has grown immensely in recent years, despite competition from more traditional, established sports. The streets of New York have been lined with bars proudly broadcasting the matches of Euro 2012. During the 2010 World Cup, it was impossible to walk in some parts of the city without hearing the drone of the vuvuzela. Football is making significant inroads into the American hinterland. Media doyens now recognize that football is no longer the niche preserve of cosmopolitan elites or immigrant communities, but rather an increasingly mainstream passion. For the first time ever, an English domestic league game was broadcast this year on network TV, normally home to the biggest sporting events in the country.
This was unimaginable in the early 2000s, when football matches hid in the obscure climes of satellite TV and pay-per-view, and when the country’s traditional antipathy to football reigned supreme. The tribunes of American sport routinely derided football for its stalemates, its limited climaxes, and its seeming lack of physicality. Among the more vehement of the sport’s critics, the anchor, Jim Rome, described the game as an “insidious plague” that “will never work in America.” A more fundamental, visceral sentiment lurked behind the bluster; the world’s game was simply ‘un-American’, and, equally, it was ‘American’ to dislike football.
Rome and other pundits are fighting an uphill battle. Though football still labours in the shade of other sports, it is now a growing part of mainstream America. Mounting interest in football marks a curious, new phenomenon in American mass culture. For most of its existence, America has seen itself as a continent of a country not only in its geography, but in a much wider sense. It has been big enough to satisfy its own cultural needs. This is still apparent in various arenas, from the glitz of Hollywood and the entertainment industry to the relative insularity of contemporary American literature, to its many idiosyncratic sports. The incredible diversity of its people and the wealth of its cultural achievements have long encouraged many Americans to see their country as a world in itself. In this, if nothing else, the world’s biggest superpower is not altogether different from the Himalayan monastery in The Cup: within their confines, both cultivate a monastic sense of fulfilment.
Football, by necessity, broadens the picture. It represents a world apart from and independent of the US. Its greatest stadiums sit in alien, foreign cities, its players speak a babel of languages, its fans behave in ways unrecognizable to the average American spectator. Unlike golf and tennis, football has not been sold to an American audience on the back of local heroes; there is no real football equivalent of Tiger Woods or Andre Agassi. A sprinkling of American footballers may ply their trade in the big leagues across the Atlantic, but their moderate success has little to do with the game’s growing popularity in the country. Football is one of the first major cultural phenomena to be embraced by Americans even though their country is largely an accessory to its evolution and drama. Americans don’t look at football as a mirror in which they see themselves, but rather — like the monks in the monastery — as a window to the outside world. In this way, Americans join the vast majority of football fans elsewhere who access the international sport at a certain inevitable remove. Whether watching the World Cup or the English Premier League, they often follow teams and players that have no meaningful ties to their own countries. In their burgeoning relationship with football, Americans are becoming more like the rest of us.
This shift in American public culture echoes a larger transformation. More Americans own passports, travel abroad, and consider leading their lives in other places than ever before. Indeed, the election of Barack Obama symbolized to many that America was slowly climbing down from its pedestal, that it would begin to take its place in the community of nations as a country amongst others, not a country apart. Obama’s presidency has done little to vindicate that belief. But in smaller, modest ways, through football, for instance, Americans may be beginning to change the way they see themselves in relation to others. As the young monk in The Cup knew so well, there is a world waiting beneath the mountain.
(Published in The National, 12 May 2012)
When I was a 10-year-old tourist visiting London’s museums, I had a nationalist episode. It began, somewhat narcissistically, with the coins of Kanishka, the ancient king after whom I and all the world’s Kanishks are named. Something stirred in me. “Why are they kept here and not in India?” I asked my mother (never mind that the historical Kanishka hardly ever set foot in what is now India). I marvelled at the curving sword of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, austere and proud, reduced to forlorn captivity in the display case. “Why is it here?” I trembled. And then I found Tipu Sultan’s tiger, a fierce mechanical beast engineered to ravage a wooden British soldier. That was the final straw. The very symbol of Indian resistance to British conquest now lay caged in London as an eternal reminder of our defeat. Quaking with rage, I approached the nearest security guard. “Give it back!” I yelled. “Give it back!” He refused to oblige me.
But my childish protests augured the changing spirit of the times. A rash of similar demands – more sophisticated and reasoned than my own – prompted a group of agitated museum directors to issue a defensive proclamation in late 2002. Dubbed the “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums”, it united venerable institutions in cities across Europe and North America, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the Louvre in Paris to the Hermitage in St Petersburg. The directors responded to what they perceived as a fundamental threat to the existence of their museums: the righteous calls and legal attempts to “repatriate” artefacts.
The success, for instance, of Turkey in forcing the return of the “Lydian Hoard” (hundreds of stunning objects smuggled illegally from Turkey’s Usak province during the 1960s) from the Metropolitan Museum caused a panic among curators whose collections kept countless objects of dubious provenance. What else could they lose? The Greeks clamoured for the Parthenon Marbles, those ancient statues and friezes that British antiquarians happily gathered from Athens in the 19th century, when bagging antiquities was one of the more benign pastimes of European tourism. A slippery slope yawned perilously before the museum directors. If it’s Greek busts today, would it be African bronzes tomorrow, Indian mechanical tigers next week?
At stake, in their view, was the very possibility of a museum that sought to house the cultural heritage of the globe. Yes, the directors acknowledged, the world’s treasures had tumbled into their holds in often unscrupulous ways. But over time, these objects had “become part of the museums that cared for them”. The museums themselves offered “a valid and valuable context for objects that were long ago displaced from their original source”. This context was what mattered. The directors argued that by bringing together such a wide range of cultural artefacts under a single roof, the “universal” or “encyclopaedic” museum created a unique laboratory for the imagination. Within its hallowed halls, visitors could assess the world’s differences and similarities, ultimately reaching finer understandings of what it meant to be human. The directors concluded grandiosely: “Museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation.”
Nearly a decade after the declaration, the debate about who has the right to own what is as contentious as ever. The Getty Museum in Los Angeles found itself entangled through much of the 2000s in a legal battle with Italian and Greek cultural authorities, who claimed (correctly) that the museum had knowingly acquired looted antiquities. After decades of struggle, Peru secured an agreement with curators at Yale University’s Peabody Museum for the conditional return of objects taken from the Incan city of Machu Picchu during digs in the early 20th century. Many other countries are working through existing legal channels – established by a series of Unesco conventions – to retrieve artefacts held in western collections. And the Greeks still want their marbles back.
Other disputes over cultural property take place not in the court of law, but that of public opinion. At the auction in 2009 of the estate of the French designer Yves Saint Laurent, a Chinese collector named Cai Mingchao submitted winning bids for two 18th-century bronze heads. He subsequently won international headlines by very publicly refusing to pay for them. French soldiers pillaged the sculptures from an ornamental water clock during the looting of the Summer Palace outside Beijing in 1860; some of the heads eventually found their way to Saint Laurent’s private collection.
Bit by bit, Chinese collectors have attempted to reassemble the 12 heads of the clock. Though they have limited artistic value in the eyes of scholars, the heads are powerful nationalist symbols. According to Cai, their dispersal represented an act of violence and theft against the Chinese people, one that could only be righted by their repatriation. “I want to stress that this money cannot be paid,” he said. How could anybody – let alone a deceased French celebrity – have the right to sell items that were never truly theirs in the first place? Cai styled himself as a patriot. “I believe that any Chinese person would have stood up at that moment. I was merely fulfilling my responsibilities.” He became an instant national hero.
Like all effective ideas, nationalism works at both the level of the head and the gut. We see ourselves as Indians, Chinese, Greeks and so forth, emerging from particular geographies and histories. Cultural property, whether books or jewels, friezes or bronze heads, does more than simply represent that particular national experience; it viscerally becomes the nation. It demands protection. A streak of hypocrisy underlines this possessiveness. There was outrage in India when an American collector in 2009 decided to auction a few of Mahatma Gandhi’s personal effects. Yet only a trickle of Indians visit Gandhi’s national museum in Delhi every year. As I demonstrated in my strop in London, “our” objects never seem to matter more to nationalists than when others have them.
The question of whether an object rightfully belongs somewhere is immense and perhaps impossible to answer. Can the present easily claim the past? Does a nation state that has only existed a short while have an intrinsic right to objects that predate it by centuries, if not millennia? Is political geography enough to determine what we can own and who we are?
The UN’s cultural body Unesco is rather unambiguous on some of these questions. The cultural heritage of a state is first that which was “created by the individual or collective genius of nationals of the State” and, second, artefacts “found within the national territory”. The first definition is perfectly logical. The second invites far more scrutiny, particularly from James Cuno, one of the more vehement defenders of the “encyclopaedic” or “universal” museum. Cuno is leading the fightback against the nationalist trend. Having run a number of august art institutions in Europe and North America, he has manned the barricades of the debate for much of his career.
He was recently appointed president and CEO of the Getty Trust, an institution that found itself at the heart of cultural property disputes in the last decade. To this new job, Cuno brings his tenacious advocacy for the cause of world museums. His books on the subject of cultural property – Who Owns Antiquity? (2008) and an edited collection of contributed essays Whose Culture? (2009) – mount an uncompromising defence of western cultural institutions and practices.
Cuno’s latest effort, Museums Matter, is similarly insistent in its belief in the promise and importance of such museums. The encyclopaedic museum offers a quietly radical vision of the nature of human history and society, in which culture is not a badge to wear, but simply something to be shared. In his words, museums “encourage identification with others in the world, a shared sense of being human, of having in every meaningful way a common history, with a common future not only at stake but increasingly in an age of resurgent nationalism and sectarian violence, at risk”.
Cuno believes deeply in this unifying, global function of the museum. It represents the supposedly noblest sentiments of human history. In making his case for the museum, Cuno quotes a range of humanist intellectuals, from the ancient Cicero (“I am a human being; I think nothing alien to me.”) to the Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (“My countrymen will truly gain their India by fighting against the education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”).
His lofty globalism is as idealistic as he imagines nationalism to be crude. Cuno thinks it absurd that nation states can covet antiquities found in their territory. Italy, for instance, did not exist 2,500 years ago when a Greek-speaking sculptor made a statue of Aphrodite in Sicily. Likewise, the medieval miner who found the peerless Koh-i-noor diamond – now residing in the Tower of London – would not have thought of himself as Indian in the way Indians do today. Cuno rejects the notion that nation states enjoy a seamless, obvious connection to their past.
In Cuno’s view, nationalism is inevitably a detrimental force in human affairs, engendering violence and all sorts of ugliness. In the aesthetic realm, Cuno argues that a nationalist understanding of culture makes true knowledge impossible. Looking through the prism of a modern national identity is no way to grapple with the complexity of artefacts and their makers. Nationalism requires that culture is “something into which one is born, something one cannot change or rise above through the exercise of free will and reason”. It flattens the potential meanings of art to the mere expression of a particular identity.
What would a nationalist museum – this great bugbear of Cuno’s – look like? Recently, I had the chance to visit the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. You roam the cavernous spaces beneath its hovering modernist roof as one might explore a great spaceship fallen to earth. The museum keeps the world’s largest collection of art from “pre-Columbian” Central America (that is, from before the arrival of the Spanish), what amounts to a dizzying number of sculptures, friezes, paintings and other objects. You move through elegant room after elegant room, experiencing the various regional cultures of Mexico before arriving finally at the central hall. In this gallery at the heart of the museum, you find the art of the Mexica people (also known as the Aztecs), who ruled an empire from what is now Mexico City and whose symbols are still used by the Mexican state.
It was a revelation for me to see the sheer quantity of work, its great variation and grace. The museum left me breathless.
Cuno, however, would struggle to find satisfaction in this museum. He might bristle at the positioning of objects as only representatives of the nation and its parts. I imagine he would resent the rather heavy-handed centrality of the Mexica gallery, with the peripheries of Mexico radiating out from it – as if the current political structure of the country was prefigured by centuries of art history. And he would lament the missed possibilities. Wouldn’t these objects find much richer meanings if they sat alongside the work of others, of many others? In Cuno’s mind, only the encyclopaedic museum properly liberates art and allows it the possibility of continual reinterpretation.
Cuno roots his idealism in the 18th century Enlightenment, whose intellectual and moral innovations still define the shape and ambition of the universal museum. This period witnessed the emergence of some of today’s great institutions, including the British Museum in London, “the first true public encyclopaedic museum”. While its counterpart in Paris, the Louvre, began life as a nationalist museum committed to presenting a vision of French history and culture, the British Museum looked outwards. The museum embraced an optimistic Enlightenment faith in individual reason and scientific progress. It hoped to organise and display for the wider public the history and culture of the world. Its founders were mostly private citizens, including the relentless collector Hans Sloane. At his death, the contents of Sloane’s collection ranged from “a device made from elephant bone with which the women of the East Indies scratch their backs” to “the stuffed skin of a rattlesnake” to “an Egyptian mummy”.
Over subsequent decades – and as the collections of European museums swelled with the spoils of 19th and early 20th century empires – the British Museum and its equivalents proliferated departments and divisions. According to Cuno, the Enlightenment pursuit of knowledge remained the museum’s guiding ethos. Cuno insists that while today’s universal museums undoubtedly carry the “legacy of empire,” they were at no point the “instruments of empire”. He is sorry for the excesses of western colonialism and aggression in the last 200 years, but he will not apologise for the grandeur of the West’s museums.
Responding to various academic critiques, Cuno argues that universal museums are not ideological. They do not force a single argument upon visitors. Instead, they foster a secular spirit of “non-dogmatic” debate. Universal museums provide visitors with a diversity of possible experiences and interactions – from ogling Japanese woodcuts to shying away from Viking swords – but they do not direct visitors. They do not inexorably tell you what to think. Anybody who has spent significant time in such sprawling museums knows this to be mostly true. Impatience as much as intellect controls the way we tour the galleries. As the art critic Adam Gopnik has observed, “It seemed to me that your experience of walking through the museum was that you made up your own story and you did it simply by not paying attention to things that didn’t interest you.”
Of course, Cuno does believe universal museums have a consistent effect on their visitors. The museum-goer’s trip through the halls is a kind of sweeping journey, which opens “one up to a greater appreciation of unity imagined among different peoples and cultures”. The world becomes smaller as we study the illuminated manuscripts of cloistered medieval monks and those of dreaming Persian ateliers, or as we contemplate the poignant solemnity of Mesoamerican and West African sculpture. Other places seem less distant, other people less fundamentally “other”. In modest and less modest ways, we accumulate knowledge, we light our imaginations, and we change.
This certainly can happen while navigating museums like the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum. But one of the great charms of visiting these museums is not embracing human “unity”; it is instead the impression of awe at the unfamiliar, the wonder of difference, whether simply the difference of the past, the difference of elsewhere, or both. There isn’t anything unfortunate about sensing this gap between us and others. Kwame Anthony Appiah, the renowned philosopher of society and “cosmopolitanism”, recognises that “people are different, the cosmopolitan knows, and there is much to learn from our differences”. Cuno sees the universal museum as a cosmopolitan space, broadly inclusive but still perplexing and provocative enough to foster curiosity, debate and learning.
When art is displayed through a nationalist framework, it does none of this. The objects appear simply as footnotes to the story of the nation. No comparisons can be made with others, no connections drawn. Visitors imbibe a sense of the particularity of a single culture, not the dynamism and openness of all culture. Cuno fears a future of neglected and maligned universal museums, when people around the world might consume art and history only in so far as it serves a national narrative.
He recognises that globalisation in the 21st century is a complex process. On the one hand, buoyed by urbanisation and expanding telecommunications, new robust nationalisms are on the rise in many countries, including China and India. On the other, the accelerated movement of people, ideas and material around the world has little respect for borders. According to the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai – who Cuno quotes religiously – globalisation unsettles national identities and encourages “post-national social forms” in all walks of life. Cuno believes that even though it predates the modern nation state, the universal museum best embodies this aspect of our times. It is a space that is open, diverse, argumentative, and ever in flux.
How many museums fit the bill? How many would Cuno be happy to describe as “universal” or “encyclopaedic”? He never tells us exactly, but it is clear where most of them are (or at least most of the ones worth mentioning). They are in Europe and North America, in old imperial capitals like St Petersburg, Paris and Berlin, world cities like New York and London, and in lesser metropolises such as Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles and Toronto. Cuno defends the right of these museums to be as they are, to remain the inheritors of a bygone era when the West indisputably dominated the world. But even Cuno would admit that with America fretting about (and Europe convinced of) decline, the future of the encyclopaedic museum lies elsewhere.
Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi will offer one glimpse of the possible evolution of the universal museum. Where museums normally arrange objects by civilisation, region, period, or some other such category, the Louvre Abu Dhabi will adopt a “museographic approach”. It will display all its objects and art in chronological order, so that a visitor might find, for instance, medieval Indian bronzes near Byzantine Greek icons, or beside Chinese paintings. According to the curators of the museum, this scheme “will make the museum truly universal, transcending geography and nationality” as it presents all human culture in one seamless continuum.
In Museums Matter, Cuno applauds the arrival of the Louvre and bats away suggestions that the museum veils the aspirations of French foreign policy. “Whatever the French state’s political ambitions,” Cuno writes, “in my experience the state is absent from one’s experience of the Louvre and its collections. It is the objects that hold one’s attention.” Given the museum’s novel curatorial order, I expect visitors will experience its contents comparatively, exploring how cultures overlap, exchange, merge with, and diverge from each other.
It can only be a good thing if venues with similar offerings develop elsewhere in the world. Cuno suggests that museums always reflect their settings; New York’s sprawling and diverse Metropolitan Museum echoes the tremendous cosmopolitanism of the city itself. As metropolises in other continents grow into the 21st century’s world cities, Cuno imagines that the likes of Sao Paulo and Mumbai will develop the worldly museums to match their global swagger.
In this way, the Louvre Abu Dhabi represents a phenomenon that Cuno hopes becomes more common: ambitious, innovative universal museums outside the West. This will only happen slowly. I cannot envision a time in the near future when any institution in the former “developing world” will rival the great museums of the West. There will be no return to the ease with which the British Museum, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum and others built their collections in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Thanks to cultural property regimes enshrined in international law, it is that much harder now for objects to cross borders. Gone are the days when intrepid and arrogant European collectors could stride about the world, taking whatever they liked for the edification of those at home.
Nevertheless, universal museums – however modest – are emerging in what were once peripheral or colonised parts of the globe. With greater access to the joys of such collections, the heritage of the world will increasingly be for the world, and not simply for those able to visit old centres of power in the West. Cuno, too, hopes for such an outcome, but he is more interested in checking the scourge of his nemesis, nationalism. “The collective, political risk of not having encyclopaedic museums everywhere possible – in Shanghai, Lagos, Cairo, Delhi, and all other major metropolises,” he writes, “is that culture becomes a fixed national culture, with all the dangers entailed.” There seems to be little risk of this happening in Abu Dhabi, where the Louvre will encourage a fluid, global vision of culture, one that complements the diversity of its host city.
An essay on the refurbished “Islamic art” galleries of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (published in the National)
During the past decade of fulminating and fretting, those of us who live in Europe and North America have become quite familiar with the term “the Islamic world”. Rarely do a few words try to say so much. The phrase scrapes by as a kind of shorthand, an easy way of fusing geography and sociology.
It allows us to speak in the singular about a great profusion of peoples and places. The “Islamic world” is not simply a space where 1.5 billion Muslims happen to live, but a space that can be understood in generalisations. We hear of the Islamic world almost always in reference to its political and social problems: the plight of democracy in the Islamic world, the crisis of women’s rights in the Islamic world, the rise of extremism in the Islamic world, and so forth.
The Brookings Institution, a leading Washington think-tank, maintains a division to study the thorny subject of “US relations with the Islamic world”. This broad remit still seems logical to many politicians and commentators – never mind the diversity of Muslim communities and countries across the globe, or the vastly different levels of religiosity and freedom from Indonesia to Somalia to Morocco.
Strangely, the “Islamic world” has no real counterpart in the 21st century. It is untenable now to speak of a “Christian world”, or a “Buddhist world”, or even a “Hindu world”. In each case, the adjective proves entirely insufficient, even misleading in understanding the noun – can millions of people be distilled to their faith? And yet the “Islamic world” has proved a more resilient concept, routinely invoked by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Some institutions are wary of the vagueness of this language. Eight years ago, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art closed the galleries then known as the “Islamic Wing” for renovation. They were reopened this November under a new name. Visitors now pour into the redesigned permanent collection of “Art from the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia”.
What the galleries’ new name has lost in brevity it gains in precision. There is safety in inelegant fact. A monolithic Islam does not loom over the exhibition. The collection’s numerous books, rugs, and pots – the holy trinity of much Middle Eastern and South Asian art – appear as representatives of particular periods and places, from early medieval Spain to Mughal South Asia. As you move through the various galleries, you travel from region to region, dynasty to dynasty. The emphasis here lies in the diversity and complexity within the cultural heritage of Islam. Navina Haidar, the curator of the collection, insists that the Islamic world is “not one world, but many; not another world, but our own”.
Anybody should want to claim the exquisite world of this exhibition as their own. To roam the galleries is to drift from wonder to wonder. A 12th-century incense burner from Seljuk Iran is shaped like a lion, engraved in fine filigree. When used, it would breathe smoke through its bronze teeth. Turn the corner and you come to a cavernous room filled only with carpets, each several centuries old. They tumble from ceiling to floor like waterfalls in imperious red and gold cascades. Elsewhere, an astrolabe from medieval Yemen demonstrates both aesthetic and scientific accomplishment, with inscriptions dancing over the careful gradations of the cosmos. The viewer can easily get lost in all the shimmering ornamentation. There need be no reason to immerse yourself in the collection apart from surrendering to its undeniable beauty.
Of course, it would be silly to pretend that there is no unifying logic at work, that somehow Islam can be erased from the framework of the exhibition. The objects on display were all produced in the cultural centres of Muslim-dominated societies over a period of 1,300 years, beginning with the first caliphate. Magnificent editions of the Quran gleam in nearly every room, testament to the spread of the religion across Eurasia. One text, pinioned open in the first room of the exhibition, is the size of an adult torso. Another, embossed with gold leaf, could fit comfortably in your palm.
The written word, so central to all the Abrahamic faiths, threads through the entirety of the collection. You can follow the journey of the Arabic script over time and space, from the sturdy Kufic of 9th-century Mesopotamia, to the floating Nastaliq of medieval Persian courts, to the grace and command of the signature of the emperor Suleiman the Magnificent, who presided over the apogee of Ottoman Turk grandeur. Suleiman traced his descent to the steppes of Central Asia, ruled from the old Byzantine cosmopolis of Constantinople, and lorded over a polyglot and multi-confessional empire of Turks, Slavs, Greeks, Jews and others. And yet the imprimatur of his power lives on most vividly in the curves of the Arabic script and his dutiful invocation of the Prophet Mohammed and of God.
At the same time, many, if not most of the objects on display have little to do with Islam, piety, religious affiliation or fervour. A playful, almost secular spirit infuses much of the exhibition, its emphasis on the art’s dynamic character and openness to external influences. This is in part the deliberate choice of the curators. The renovated galleries contain only a tenth of the 12,000 objects in the possession of the museum’s department of Islamic art. Curators agonised over which pieces to include and exclude. A few different decisions could have drastically altered its vision of Islamic cultural history.
But the exhibition’s make-up also reflects how so much of the cultural production of the “Islamic world” was not self-consciously religious. One of the tricky consequences of accepting the genre of “Islamic art” is that the very category often forces us to interpret cultural objects as expressions of faith, affirmations of Islamic identity. This was evidently not always the case. Take, for instance, the collection’s preponderance of images, particularly manuscript illuminations. Thanks to recent episodes like the 2005 Danish cartoon riots and the firebombing of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo this November, Muslims are painted in the West as radically intolerant of images. More broadly, varied humanism is said to be the preserve of western art, rigid subservience that of Islamic art. The rich iconographic traditions of many Muslim societies across Eurasia belie such a simplistic notion. A stream of illuminations runs through the exhibition. For this visitor at least, they comprised the most arresting sights on display.
A range of subjects leap from the old pages. At the siege of Baghdad, Mongol archers shoot arrows at refugees trying to swim in vain across the Euphrates. From an Arab medical textbook, a long-haired doctor stirs a bubbling cauldron. A sneaky voyeur, peeking from a tower window, watches women bathe in a red Persian palace; the women tug at each other’s hair, their clothes strewn and tangled by the side of the pool. Images from various editions of the Shahnama – the Book of Kings, the Iranian national epic and a ubiquitous presence in the exhibition – chronicle the deeds of pre-Islamic warriors and wizards. Elsewhere, two Indian water buffaloes fight, heads bowed, muscles rippling. Frantic bystanders whirl around them, men in awe of the very natural world they are struggling to contain. Over the centuries, the painting lost much of its inlaid gold leaf, leaving its figures all the more beautifully rendered, their lines of movement and expression deepened in the ochre dust.
The illuminated manuscripts reveal not only carnal, historical and mythical imaginings, but a deeper world of cultural mingling and change.
During the rule of the Mongol Ilkhanids in 13th-century Iran, Chinese styles crept into Persian miniature: elongated eyes and round faces become the standard of beauty, while natural scenes take on the tremulous quality of Chinese landscapes. Another illumination shows a European-style ship, its rigging, masts and sails meticulously traced, with the biblical story of the “seven sleepers” inscribed on its hull. Moving further east, illuminated miniature reached its most sophisticated heights in the ateliers of the Mughal rulers of South Asia. Unlike the heavy profundity of Safavid Persian art, Mughal paintings tend to be lighter and airier, their figures more freely in motion, shaded with delicate textures and bolder colours. In many cases, Mughal artists were not Muslims but locals of other religious backgrounds, schooled in both Persian and indigenous traditions of painting. Their subject matter was often decidedly non-Muslim. One miniature in the collection depicts the Buddha in a moment of epiphany seated beneath a tree.
In one of the final galleries, you find an image from a Persian biography of Krishna – a central figure in Hinduism – composed and illuminated in the workshops of the 16th-century Mughal emperor Akbar. The blue-skinned Krishna holds up the mountain of Govardhan with one hand to protect human beings from the vengeful rain of the sky god Indra. It is a marvellous, uncanny scene. Deer and leopards quizzically leap up and down the ravines of the mountain. Beneath it, men, women and children of all colours, facial types, beard lengths and turban styles huddle together.
The scene is a fitting conclusion to a tour of the exhibition. Though imagining an episode from Hindu mythology, it offers an apt metaphor for the Islam the curators seek to represent; what may seem from the outside an implacable monolith actually contains a world of restless, teeming difference.
Kanishk Tharoor is a “Writer in Public Schools” fellow at New York University.
As the world watches, can the Wall Street protesters make enough noise? (Published in The Caravan, 1 November, 2011)
Most demonstrations are held with the conviction that they serve a cause far bigger than the sum of their parts. I have seen many examples of this faith in the United States: the three pro-Palestinian pensioners who every Sunday berated passers-by in my glacially indifferent college town; the meagre picket lines of union workers at a doomed New York City hospital, shivering under the nose of a giant inflatable rat. They were sustained by the hope that their demands would be met, but also by the belief that they represented something larger: that they were not a lonely few, that they stood for all colonised and oppressed peoples. Or that they went on strike to protect the dignity of all labour. Clutching worn placards and shouting tired slogans, did they ever wonder if their pious efforts had all the impact of trees falling in a silent, unknowable forest?
The current Occupy Wall Street protesters in the US have an indefatigable, brazen belief in their broad relevance. The optimism is electric, the excitement contagious in the regular assemblies, rallies, and marches that have captured public places and public attention. Occupy Wall Street activists see themselves as part of a historical moment of social unrest around the world. Themes of universality and ubiquity shade much of the movement’s rhetoric. “All day, all year, occupy everywhere,” goes one chant. “The whole world is watching,” insists another.
Somebody must be watching. Less then one month after the initial occupation of lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street stirred a day of coordinated protests across continents. On 15 October, demonstrators flooded the streets of cities in the United States and Europe. In New York, they stormed the iconic Times Square. In London, they rallied in front of St Paul’s Cathedral. In cities in Spain and Greece, thousands flocked to central squares.
The protests borrow from an increasingly familiar global style of rebellion. Placards bearing the words “We are the 99%” (Occupy Wall Street’s defining slogan) appear in London, in Germany and elsewhere. Occupy Wall Street protesters compare their encampment in Zuccotti Park to Tahrir Square in Cairo. Activists called 15 October a “global day of rage”, invoking a term often used during the Arab Spring. The “people’s mic” (a form of throaty Chinese whispers used to make up for the lack of a PA system, because New York City law requires a permit for “amplified sound” at demonstrations) is now a feature of gatherings in other countries, even when protesters have access to mics and loudspeakers. Methods and philosophies of organisation spread across borders. I sat in New York’s Washington Square Park in mid-October, watching protest organisers teach fresh-faced students the various protocols and hand-signals that comprise “direct democratic process”. The same gestures and procedures have been used across Europe in building ostensibly leaderless (“horizontal” and non-hierarchical” in the activist dialect) movements. Both the form and content of all these protests have gone viral, speeding around the globe in an age of hyper-communication.
But beyond talk of “memes” and “inter-connectivity”, the protesters feel tied together by shared circumstance. “The rapid spread of the protests,” Occupy Wall Street organisers announced on their website on 15 October, “is a grassroots response to the overwhelming inequalities perpetuated by the global financial system and transnational banks.” Though there are obvious differences between each national situation, many grievances are held in common: the rejection of the ideology of government austerity; the critique of the relative impunity afforded to the financial establishment; and the fatigue with sclerotic political systems.
If you go to Zuccotti Park and shuffle between the ad hoc cooking, sleeping and computing areas of the camp, you will invariably bump into a Dutch television crew or Japanese journalists or a team of Spanish radio reporters. The notion that “the whole world is watching” isn’t entirely fanciful. Such enthusiastic interest instils confidence in many activists involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Their cause has huge appeal. After all, people from around the world help the occupiers of Zuccotti Park in numerous ways, including by ordering them quantities of pizzas and Mexican tacos from local restaurants. (Thanks to credit cards and the Internet, the 21st century brings us the solidarity of the dialling finger and the take-out menu.)
Of course, there are many people not persuaded by these demonstrations. The most common criticism of the uprisings is that the protesters have a tenuous interest in policy-making and don’t always seem to maintain coherent agendas. This certainly seems to be true of Occupy Wall Street, which has released a rather broad manifesto called the “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City”. But the wide range of demands included in the document is deliberate. The movement intends to remain as inclusive as possible as it builds strength, frustrating the media, but winning more supporters. Still only in its infancy, Occupy Wall Street will sharpen as it grows.
Others criticise Occupy Wall Street and their counterparts in Europe by springing to the defence of the banks and financial institutions under attack. This debate will continue to rage, with armies of statistics mobilised on either side. My general sympathy lies with the protests and the protesters: more should be done to curb the power of finance capital, to minimise spiralling inequality, to allow lives of dignity for the poorest in these societies and to disentangle money from electoral politics (particularly in the US).
At the same time, these movements—despite their global pretensions—have not grappled with the implications of major, over-arching global change. You do not have to embrace the neoliberal vision of the world to recognise that a significant shift in wealth and power is taking place in the 21st century. The only time I have heard any discussion of China or India or “outsourcing” was at a march organised by unions; other Occupy Wall Street activists have nothing to say about the changing dynamics of the international stage. Does the purported “decline of the West” and the “rise of the rest” mean anything to the protesters in Times Square in New York or Syntagma in Athens? The economist Nouriel Roubini and others have argued that growing economic inequity in Europe and North America helped cause their systemic crises. Yet countries home to even greater, more glaring inequality (like Brazil and China, not to mention India) currently sustain fairly stable economies and growth rates. From the perspective of Shanghai, Singapore or São Paulo, a rally of Occupy London activists in front of St Paul’s Cathedral may seem like little more than pointless raging at the fading of the light.
All politics, even those of a global protest, are local. The movements in Europe and America were conceived in national contexts and will only be fulfilled within them. In that narrower arena, the enemies are clearer and the battles can be fought. These protesters do not need to see the forest to make noise amid the trees.
Published work includes “Tale of the Teahouse“, which appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review‘s Summer 2008 issue, won the Emily C. Belch prize, and was nominated for a National Magazine Award; and “The Loss of Muzaffar”, which won a prize in The Atlantic magazine’s nation-wide student writing contest, won best fiction in the Spires Inter-collegiate writing contest and was published in First Proof, a Penguin anthology of new fiction from India.
RT @brendankoerner: A macabre fairy-tale element to this story of young Dagestani men vanishing into the forest: http://t.co/Hes45qzv6Q
@DantonsHead should be! Email me deets!
RT @robertwrighter: In Pakistan alone we've killed more people with drones than died in 9/11 -- 175 of them children http://t.co/PL48gNaMb0…
@DantonsHead we still have to play a qualifier so who knows... may still be joining you on Thursday nights
RT @FunnyGooner: Happy St. Totteringham's day everyone
RT @arseblog: I love Koscielny
RT @tejucole: David Shulman's account of classical Kerala drama. Read last year. So good that I reread it last week. http://t.co/ks34XvBZna
"The real hero of Herodotus’ Histories... is Persia itself." Daniel Mendelsohn's wonderful essay from five years ago. http://t.co/Y6fyLychxu
@Sarah_LaBrie not before a catch up!
@fabwrite more like wishful thinking
According to the Roman orator Dio Chrysostom, India had rivers of milk and olive oil, its people lived 400 years, and nobody ever got sick.
“I would behead him. Then I would cut his body to pieces and throw them for the dogs” Revenge & justice in Bangladesh http://t.co/bd01j6pWZz
RT @JasminRamsey: Eduardo Galeano: The Life and Death of Words, People, and Even Nature http://t.co/V1je0ZyJTn
RT @ishaantharoor: latest in @TIME, where @dedalvs discusses inventing the languages in @GameOfThrones http://t.co/94DqaEUHsf
@dave_sfx @danhancox think the east India club is totally separate from the bedraggled and forgotten little India club :)
RT @zseward: Death toll from last week's garment factory collapse in Bangladesh now officially over 400 but likely to rise above 1,000. #ma…