Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 July 2003
Issue No. 645
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Politics & imagination: after the fall of Baghdad

The new crusades are upon us, says Ammiel Alcalay*. George W Bush's inscription at Auschwitz, "Never forget", was meant to accomplish exactly the opposite: to obliterate the idea of all memory other than newly minted official memory, to destroy any narrative that goes beyond idolatry, beyond the superficial image captured in a sound bite or an orchestrated video clip

Following the events of 9/11, I began writing regularly for Dani and Feral Tribune, two of the leading papers in Bosnia and Croatia, since I was having a difficult time finding an outlet in the United States to write what was on my mind. In a column called "Politics & Imagination", I wrote that 9/11 represented not only a massive failure of intelligence gathering and security institutions, but something much deeper, a failure which was conceptual and systemic, permeating what Americans have allowed to enter their imaginative framework.

From our present perspective, as the media bombards us with insidiously more violent forms of ignorance and misinformation and the United States government continues reapportioning the boundaries of the Middle East, it is almost inconceivable to think about the cultural space of other times -- the late 1950s to the late 1960s, for instance, when that space was occupied by texts sympathetic to and emerging from the cauldron of decolonisation. Books like Henri Alleg's The Question, Pierre Bourdieu's The Algerians, Pierre Vidal Naquet's Torture: Cancer of Democracy, Simone de Beauvoir and Gisele Halimi's Djamila Boupacha, Albert Memmi's The Colonizer and the Colonized, the writings of Frantz Fanon, Gillo Pontecorvo's film The Battle of Algiers -- these and many other works were readily available in the United States and formed a critical mass of resources related to a contentious political reality that could neither be ignored, trivialised, or theorised out of existence.

Some of our last stabs at radical internationalism may have been the efforts of the Black Panther Party, following in the footsteps of Malcolm X and several generations of black thinkers and activists, to establish diplomatic and cultural ties with newly independent states in Africa. It is tremendously ironic that, while COINTELPRO, the FBI's covert operation to subvert domestic political activities, worked tirelessly to place an irreconcilable wedge between Jewish and African Americans in the United States, the Moroccan Jewish intellectual and future political prisoner Abraham Serfaty delivered a "salute to the African-Americans" at the 1969 Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algeria. But by this point, American soldiers were fighting amongst themselves almost as fiercely as they fought the Vietnamese. Alliances splintered as the country divided itself bitterly over the ever more pointless last years of the war in Vietnam. Many veterans would return home to the charred ruins of deindustrialised cities and towns, drifting into drugs, drink and homelessness, as representations of their brave struggles in the anti-war movement would be distorted, manipulated and, ultimately, turned against them.

United States policy shifted completely towards Israel following the June war of 1967 -- from that point on, almost everything coming in to the United States from the Middle East would be viewed through the filter of the mainstream Zionist narrative, from political history to the structure of the novel or the subject of poetry. Identity politics and nationalisms of all stripes came to dominate North American discourse, eventually settling into a version of autistic "multiculturalism" effectively cut off from access to useful forms of democratic power at the national level. The issue of Palestine would become the great American litmus test, permeating many aspects of American intellectual and political life with an aura of collusion and collaboration. Very few public voices rose to the occasion to face the realities of Israeli occupation and influence for what they were, and lobbying power parlayed itself quite fluidity into the general policing of not only intellectual but conceptual boundaries -- certain things simply became unimaginable, while other things, like the possibility of legalised torture applied to those considered "terrorists," have become quite real following 9/11.

The covert wars of the 1980s gave way to the first made for television, fought at prime time bonanza, the Gulf War. It is no accident that the only US president to mention Vietnam in an inaugural address was George Bush the father, when he said: "The final lesson of Vietnam is that no great nation can long afford to be sundered by a memory." From 1990 until 9/11 and the assault on Afghanistan, Arabs and Islam -- through ubiquitous stereotyping, slander and suppression of the realities of Palestine -- were reshaped to fit the mould of a relentless and unyielding enemy or relegated to a binary formula whose default could only be either the "victimised Muslim" (as in Bosnia), or the "evil-doer" Muslim (take your choice). The new crusades were upon us, culminating in the fall of Baghdad and George W Bush the son's subsequent visit to Auschwitz. His inscription at the site, "Never forget", was meant to accomplish exactly the opposite: to vilify Saddam while erasing the fact that the United States was an eager accomplice to his crimes, to promote Poland at the expense of France, to obliterate the idea of all memory other than newly minted official memory, to destroy any narrative that goes beyond idolatry, beyond the superficial image captured in a sound bite or an orchestrated video clip. Such oblivion can be the only road map to Palestine since, as the Lebanese-American poet Etel Adnan has written: "Palestine is a land planted / by eyes / refusing to be closed."


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Any attempt to retrieve the cultural and political complexities of the Arab, Middle Eastern or Islamic world during this period is a formidable task, particularly because the United States, unlike France or England, has not -- at least until recently with the advent of first and soon deposed viceroy Jay of Mesopotamia -- carried out a direct and long-term colonial occupation in the region. While conventional wisdom has it that culture and writing are too marginalised to matter, I would say the opposite holds true since it is precisely through cultural work that disruptions and interventions can occur, that assumptions are challenged. In many ways, the United States is still living out the aftermath of the Cold War, and our cultural borders are still heavily policed. The very precise actions and inactions of the US and British military forces in Iraq confront us with the fact that this has also been, in no uncertain terms, a culture war, a clash of civilisations. By guarding the Ministry of Petroleum in Baghdad and allowing the museums and libraries (not to mention the hospitals) to be looted, burned and, in some cases, utterly destroyed, a very clear message was being sent: only the West is capable of preserving this heritage, whatever of it happens to survive.

Lebanese video artist and writer Jalal Toufic has pointed out that the seemingly unending proliferation of new museums and libraries in the West, along with the cataloguing and inventorying of books and objects (such as in Macmillan's Dictionary of Art in 34 volumes, with 41,000 articles, 6,802 contributing scholars, and 15,000 black and white illustrations), must be seen in light of the fact that, at the same time, "Afghans, Bosnians, Iraqis, etc. have been divested of much of their artistic tradition, not only through material destruction, but also through immaterial withdrawal."

This concept touches upon an essential aspect of cultural commerce and transmission, and refers to what Toufic calls "a surpassing disaster", those historical moments when peoples undergo cataclysmic collective traumas. Once a collective has undergone such a surpassing disaster, the materials of their tradition (language, idioms, perceptions, legends) become unavailable, or "withdrawn". The withdrawal occurs, not just through destruction, but through official appropriation. The journey back towards repossession or even finding access points into materials that were purportedly one's own, given the new post-disaster conditions, is by no means a simple process. Handing down an ossified tradition may be even worse than losing it altogether and starting from scratch, as Toufic alludes in recounting the circumstances of "a Kashaya Pomo chief and scholar" who "expressly discontinued the transmission of a tribal dance. Something must have indicated to her that the discontinuation of the transmission of the dance would be less detrimental and problematic than its handing it down."

It is no accident that the sudden surge of interest in translation and information from and about the Arab world, slowly building since 9/11, has peaked at the moment of utter defeat, when Iraq has been subjected to severe humiliation, vanquished by the former ally of their most bitter oppressor, asked to feel liberated by those who starved and suffocated them through a decade of the most draconian sanctions ever devised; at a moment when even once legitimised, Western witnesses of Palestine's decimation have been banished from the arena of testimony, and a "solution" can, yet again, be imposed.

How are those of us involved in transference and translation to react under such circumstances? Have we perhaps reached a point where NOT translating or providing access to works from the Arab world might be the more legitimate act? Have we all simply become lap dogs, ready to jump at the first opportunity given to peddle our wares as imperial curios? And when we decide to participate, how can we insulate and protect these works from subjugation, from being, literally, eaten alive?

My own sense of this is that, living, as we are, in the heart of the empire, we must discover new ways to both renounce and take up power. The insularity of American intellectual life presents very real political problems and writers have a crucial role to play in disturbing this deadly slumber. By repopulating cultural space with the banished and the obliterated, writers can reassert the absolute value of individual experience in a political context, as a political context, as a road block to be avoided or ignored at one's own peril. But even here, the act of transmission is not innocent and must be permeated with the kind of vigilance that recognises, as the American poet Jack Spicer once put it, that "There are bosses in poetry as well as in the industrial empire."

To encounter the work of a writer like Abdellatif Laabi (Moroccan poet, novelist, playwright, journalist, translator, editor, and former political prisoner), is to erect a true picket line against these bosses, to reclaim some part of our own suppressed and isolated humanity and participate in the human race. When Laabi writes: "We will need a nakedness / that even our skin cannot distort," he offers us entry, through his own suffering, back into the "infinite crumbling world" we are continually being taught is out of our hands and no longer worth struggling for. When we read of the Syrian poet, activist and former political prisoner Faraj Bayraqdar "inventing an ink from tea and onion leaves" so he can write poems on cigarette papers, we feign indifference at our own peril.

In the imposed monolongualism of these United States, it is, indeed, very difficult to get news that matters but such writers provide it, not as yet another exotic amusement but as a direct challenge to our own intellectual and ethical priorities. While we might be closer to understanding a history we want to call our own, the United States remains deeply entrenched in its isolation, despite its global military, corporate and cultural reach. At the same time, as we all know, the concentration and consolidation of power in media and publishing has reached unprecedented levels, while the channels through which translated texts or autonomous representations of other cultures can be transmitted and see the light of day have almost been completely cordoned off. So the translation of writers from parts of the world that we directly effect and are directly effected by us is not some esoteric branch of literary studies -- it can be an intervention at the very heart of the media machine that would foist its version of events upon a population incredibly well trained in the art of consumption, in the replacement of real choices for choices across a tiny spectrum of difference -- CNN instead of FOX, one brand of cereal instead of another. Faced with this assault, the ways we define what information is and where we go to find it are essential survival skills.

The world we now inhabit unquestionably has much less physical public space to operate in, despite the Internet and the ease of crossing continents if you hold the right documents. Apparently less commercial intellectual and creative arenas exert their own forms of self-selection and exclusion: academic discourse often interiorises, domesticates, ignores or theorises work whose original intentions were clearly public and political; innovative writers often jettison anything that seems conventional or has narrative content. In the United States realm of creative and intellectual life, the excision of work by Vietnam veterans, suppressed people, political prisoners, and writers involved in popular movements around the world, from Central America to the Middle East, particularly Palestine, the issue most central to maintaining US domination over global narratives and realities, maintains the illusion that we are "exceptional". The profound lessons that can be learned from writing emerging out of such circumstances -- about the function and ethics of writing and literacy, the place writing can have as testimony, and the relationship between a writer and his or her potential or actual audience -- can only be learned by those searching in earnest. As these narratives fall through the cracks, the right to narrate and intervene slowly erodes, creating a vacuum filled by the discourse of "experts".

These experts continually tell us that the Arab world has no Solzhenitsyns or Havels. The facts, unfortunately, get very much in the way of such a patently misleading assertion but these facts are not at all that easy to get a hold of. The number of writers, intellectuals, and political activists in the Arab, Middle Eastern and Islamic world who have been censored, imprisoned, tortured, assassinated or disappeared constitutes one of the great human sagas of our times, but there is no single place to go and find this narrative. How did we get to this point? How have the real issues at stake in the contemporary Middle East been made invisible to the North American public? There is, of course, the usual villain, in the form of the media machine. But there is, as well, a massive failure and acquiescence on the part of American intellectuals, a true lack not just of responsibility but of response, on the human, creative, historical and political levels. As the US government and media prepare us to accept more and more perverse acts carried out in our names, the need to systematically excavate and represent this human archaeology is absolute and essential, and should be placed in the realm of public health. While those involved in cultural transmission and translation always face the risk of appropriating, trivialising or displacing a work from an environment of crucial importance to one of potential indifference, the risks of not doing such work, it seems to me, are far greater. Inaction, indifference and the lack of solidarity or even curiosity marks something much more ominous -- it marks the presence of a picket line that we have internalised and constructed in our very imagination, and that we either fear crossing or forget even exists.

* Ammiel Alcalay is a writer and translator. His books include After Jews & Arabs, Memories of Our Future, and From the Warring Factions; he teaches at Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center in New York.

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