I normally write my column very early Friday morning and do my best to file my copy by 9 a.m. It is never less than a near miss and, to my mortification, I frequently miss that deadline. It is not only that parting with one’s text is always a harrowing experience – it is for me anyway – and that I hate to leave any work for the editor. It is not only that I try to put myself in my copy editor’s shoes and go through the five Cs check list. Is it clear, correct, concise, complete and consistent? Does it say what it means? Does it mean what it says?
It is also not only that I waste a lot of time downsizing my article to the required 850 words. For some obscure reason all my first drafts are about 1,000 words long and, as those of you who write will know, taking out 150 words that you could swear are absolutely necessary is as agonising as having to choose which of your children has to be thrown out of a lifeboat to prevent it from sinking and causing the death of all the others. No wonder that “taking out” is also military slang for killing.
It is also, and perhaps mainly, that the time-lag between my writing of the column early on Friday and your reading it on Monday may make all the difference in the world. Especially in what I called, last time we met on this page, these “fragile times”. Between my writing of the last article on Friday, January 14, and its appearance on Monday, January 17, Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia, was refused entry by France, almost came to Malta and, finally, found asylum in Saudi on January 15.
The Tunisian “jasmine revolution” set the tone of my article. Popular protests in Tunisia and Algeria throughout the previous week were a very clear sign these were not sporadic and isolated political developments. The insurrection had deep social and economic roots. It was also increasingly evident these were not passing troubles and would not just go away. More importantly for us in Malta, a stone’s throw from Tunisia, it was also clear we were close to a period of severe regional turbulence the impact of which we cannot avoid.
When I finally mailed my article to the editor early Friday morning, knowing that my reference to developments in neighbouring North Africa would be overtaken by events before it reached the reader on Monday, of course, the reader did not need my article to follow the unfolding of events in Tunisia and Algeria. Those of you who were interested and who understood the regional (if not global) importance of those events, followed them on television, radio and internet.
Nevertheless, I felt that had I been able to hold on to my article until the last moment, I would have been in a better position to argue that what was happening – what is happening – is nothing less than an epochal sea change for our fragile corner of the world. Had I known that President Ben Ali, Tunisia’s ruler since 1987, had in fact ran away from his own people, I would have been able to argue with a greater degree of confidence that, yes, things were really changing. Since then, popular protest has spread east as far as Yemen. What we should be watching very closely, however, is North Africa, especially Egypt.
How pathetically lost the governing members of our own political class are in the face of what is happening around us was crystal clear from the few words Lawrence Gonzi exchanged with Peppi Azzoppardi on the evening of January 14, when the Prime Minister mumbled something to the effect he was on call just in case President Ben Ali decided to come to Malta.
On the one hand, by referring to the Ben Ali saga, the Xarabank supremo gave Dr Gonzi a brief respite from the embarrassing questions put to him regarding the double salary he gave himself and his ministers at a time when many are finding it difficult to make do with one salary or a measly pension. It also provided the opportunity of establishing a psychological link between images of citizens peacefully protesting that same evening in Valletta with those of Tunisians rioting. The good stay indoors and the bad take to the street.
On the other hand, we witnessed a case of classic blowback. The reference to Mr Ben Ali exposed Dr Gonzi’s utter unpreparedness. Had his Foreign Affairs Minister not prepared a contingency plan? Had a position not been already worked out? France made it clear it did not wish to be embarrassed by Mr Ben Ali seeking to land on its territory. What had the Maltese government preventively decided just in case Mr Ben Ali were to ask?
But, then, though we may be slow to understand that people across the political divide are upset with what this government does and what it fails to do, we – who protect students from books and books from students – act fast when it comes to more vital issues. Take, for example, the recent urgent arrest and arraignment, on January 23 – a Sunday – of a Romanian lap dancer. The police charged her with offending morality and being dressed indecently in public after they allegedly found her giving a topless performance in a Paceville nightclub at 3 in the morning. Pronto! Who said the Maltese Establishment is inefficient?
This article appeared on Dr Vella’s regular column on The Times of Malta on January 31, 2011. You can access the original at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110131/opinion/ben-ali-and-the-lap-dancer
Speaking to the BBC last Thursday – from on board the international space station orbiting at an altitude of about 400 kilometres – European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli remarked how fragile earth looked from where he stood. I watched the live interview, breathlessly. He spoke as if he were looking at a helpless baby abandoned by its mother in a skip.
How different Mr Nespoli’s humble and humbling tone from Neil Armstrong’s macho triumphalism when, as he stepped onto the moon on July 20 (or July 21, depending on your time zone), 1969, he consigned to posterity the pompous claim: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” I remember watching that too, also breathlessly.
That was 42 years ago and a long time ago that was. The Cold War rules of the game meant no one of the two empires confronting each other could afford to utter anything but grandiloquent expressions of certitude. Statements East and West had to reflect a state of complete assurance and determination.
Plans on both sides had to be announced as inevitable. Nikita Khrushchev’s 1961 promise that the Soviet Union would attain communism by 1980 is a case in point. John F. Kennedy’s 1961 commitment in front of Congress that the US would land a man on the moon before the end of the decade was another case in point.
President Kennedy’s proposal, also in 1961, to the states of Central and South America of an “Alliance for Progress” – a vision intended to pre-empt a radicalisation of the dispossessed of that continent – was yet another grandiose case in point. Listen to the language: “…we propose to complete the revolution of the Americas, to build a hemisphere where all men can hope for a suitable standard of living and all can live out their lives in dignity and in freedom. To achieve this goal political freedom must accompany material progress.”
Listen to the grandness: “Let us once again transform the American Continent into a vast crucible of revolutionary ideas and efforts, a tribute to the power of the creative energies of free men and women, an example to the world that liberty and progress walk hand in hand. Let us once again awaken our American revolution until it guides the struggles of people everywhere, not with an imperialism of force or fear but the rule of courage and freedom and hope for the future of man”.
The 1969 Rockefeller report confirmed that the Alliance programme was a fiasco: “There is general frustration over the failure to achieve a more rapid improvement in standards of living. The United States, because of its identification with the failure of the Alliance for Progress to live up to expectations, is blamed.” It also concluded that “the United States, cannot determine the internal political structure of any other nation”.
Anyway, if things did not quite work out to plan here on earth, there was still the powerful consolation of being able to snub the Russians and place a man on the moon before them in the same year as the Alliance was proclaimed dead. Sad but grand. As Buzz Aldrin said as he surveyed the scene around the lunar landing site: “Magnificent desolation.”
The pompous certainties of the 1950s and 1960s were fuelled by extreme uncertainty. Mr Nespoli’s contemporary tone is more relaxed. We don’t feel we need to bluff anymore. Extreme uncertainty continues to rule but we are less inclined to camouflage it with a show of extreme certainty.
The fragility of equilibria – social, economic, political, ecological – has become so blatantly evident the rhetoric of certainty fails to convince. The events of 9/11, followed by the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the global economic crisis we are struggling to leave behind have discredited visions of a final post-Cold War equilibrium. History certainly did not end with the fall of the Wall.
• As I write, (Thursday), the situation in Tunisia – a stone’s throw from din l-art ħelwa – is very critical. Up to 50 people are said to have been killed by the police. A dusk-to-dawn curfew has been imposed in and around the capital Tunis. The government blames “religious extremist movements and extremist movements from the left”. Popular discontent, however, has long been simmering. Prices, unemployment, corruption, repression, these are the main issues. Education is good and the University free but graduate unemployment is estimated at 30 per cent.
The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report ranks Tunisia as the most competitive country in North Africa. It ranks Tunisia 32nd in the world in terms of competitiveness, well ahead of us, in the 52nd place. FIPA, the Tunisian investment promotion agency, benchmarks itself against regional competitors for foreign direct investment such as Malta.
A relatively high ranking in the Global Competitiveness Report, however, does not indicate social and political stability. It does not exclude social fragility. This is one reason why international competitiveness rankings are taken more seriously by politicians than by investors
• In fragile times it is good to remember these words from Barack Obama’s memorial speech last week for the Tucson victims: “…at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarised – at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do – it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”
This article appeared in Dr Vella’s regular column on The Times of Malta on January 17, 2011. It may be accessed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110117/opinion/what-to-do-in-fragile-times
philosophy, sociology, anthropology and environs
you are cordially invited to a lecture by
Mark Montebello OP
Vizjonijiet antiki tad-dinja bhala ghodda ta’ emancipazzjoni socjali llum: il-kaz tal-kultura Maja fil-Messiku.
Thursday, January 20, 6.00 pm,
LC 118, University of Malta, Msida
Mark Montebello OP, who has recently returned from Mexico, studied philosophy in Malta, Rome and Madrid and holds degrees in philosophy, theology and criminology. His research interests include the history of Maltese philosophy and the life and times of Manwel Dimech. He has worked extensively with prisoners and victims of crime.
If what is happening to this country was not of vital importance to us that inhabit it, then who could blame us if in a moment of despair we were to simply write it off as a case of a hulk ship rotting in the water, obsolete and no longer seaworthy, its engines and equipment gutted by unscrupulous scavengers, an abandoned wreck only just managing to keep afloat, a leaking container of its own putrid bilge (consisting of stubborn delusions and sheer stupidity)?
Of course, we can’t surrender to hopelessness. If for no other reason than that is exactly what the scavenging ghouls are hoping for. With no one who cares around to prevent them, they would tear the decaying hull itself apart and sell it for scrap. They would cannibalise every bit of metal, wood, canvas and bone, not excluding pallid forgotten dreams of decency that may still be hiding in forgotten corners below deck in quaking fear for their own dear life.
Hmmm… ghouls. Come to think of it, the term first appears in the English language in 1786 in William Beckford’s novel Vathek. From the Arabic ghūl (from ghāla, which translates into “he seized”), it refers to an evil spirit that robs graves and feeds on corpses. The success of Bedford’s novel owed a lot to the 18th and early 19th century fascination with whatever was imagined to be Oriental. The One Thousand And One Nights, that wonderful collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian tales brought together in the Golden Age of Islam (mid-seventh century to the mid-13th century) and first published in English translation in 1706, was a driving element in the Orientalist fashion.
The Nights is probably the earliest known surviving corpus of stories that features ghouls. The History of Gharib and his Brother Agib – in which a disgraced prince defeats a clan of ravenous Ghouls, reduces them to slavery and then converts them to the true faith – is a case in point. Readers will certainly enjoy reading this classic tale in Sir Richard Burton’s translation, available online at www.globusz.com/ebooks/1001v5/00000050.htm and www.globusz.com/ebooks/1001v6/00000011.htm. It took Scheherazade 18 of her precious nights to narrate this story to the King and the effort kept her head in place. It will only take you about an hour and is well worth the effort.
But back to “Orientalism”. Sometimes used to refer to 18th century French artists and intellectuals who sought inspiration from North Africa and the Mediterranean Levant and, when possible, toured these places, the term “Orientalism” is today mainly used to refer to a body of scholarship born with the ground-breaking study by Edward Said, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, Orientalism, published in 1978. Professor Said, a US-Palestinian, identifies a powerful Western tendency to impose its own pre-constituted images of the Oriental on colonial and former colonial peoples.
It is now a commonplace of post-colonial studies that, sadly, the “upper classes” in the colonies gradually come to identify with these stereotypes of the populations of their own countries.
Conveniently, they (imagine they can) exclude themselves from the orientalising gaze of their (former) colonial masters and look at the subaltern social groups in their countries from the same prejudiced perspective from which they – pathetic wogs (wealthy oriental gentlemen) – are seen by their said masters. Needless to say, the “lower classes” themselves in these countries will tend to adopt the same prejudices in relation to peoples from countries further to the south and east and to persons in their own country that they perceive as even “lower” than themselves.
Also needless to say, we Maltese cringe at the very idea we are or may have been interpreted in an Orientalist manner but the truth is we have and, possibly, still often are. We do not tire of quoting Disraeli’s description of Valletta as “a city of palaces built by gentlemen for gentlemen” (though there were more barefoot beggars in Valletta than gentlemen during that stifling August of 1830).
But on which promotional website do you read Flaubert’s conviction that there was “something Oriental” about our capital? Or Maxime du Camp’s view – in his Souvenirs Et Paysages d’Orient of 1848 – that although Malta was on the frontier between Europe and the Orient, the Maltese were more Oriental than European. We should be grateful to Thomas Freller for having brought these cameos into one marvellous volume (Verses and Visions. The Maltese Islands in World Literature. Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti, 2008).
The monthly Ariadne Workshops are one forum for laymen and scholars interested in deconstructing our own home spun Orientalism.
The excellent talk on The Collegium Melitense. A Frontier Mission between the Christian And Moslem Worlds given by cultural historian and social anthropologist Carmel Cassar (November 25) and sociologist JosAnn Cutajar’s engaging Let Me Learn. The Impact Of Borrowed Epistemologies On Identity And Perceived Agency (December 16) put into question, rigorously but illustrated with a wealth of archival and field evidence, received images of ourselves and indicated that progress is impossible unless we engage in more of this critical re-evaluation. See www.ariadneworkshops.com. Exorcising the demons of our culture, its stubborn delusions, is good training for challenging the ghouls.
The original of this article appeared in Dr Vella’s regular column on The Times of Malta on December 20, 2010 and may be accessed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110103/opinion/scheherazade-and-our-ghouls