A bit of a rant today, I am afraid.
I spent the morning (well late morning), reading through the Guardian website. It is my dog-lead home. It tugs me out of homesickness and pulls me towards the park inside my head. I get some news, a bit of comedy and a sense that I am not as far away as I sometimes feel. I can almost feel the green grass under my feet when I read.
Today, Charlie Brooker refrained from his usual crazy rant to talk about a slightly mad art show, taking place in Manchester: It Felt Like a Kiss by Adam Curtis. Normally I don’t like slightly mad art shows. I find them pretentious and immediately feel sorry for all the homeless people in LA that have the same ideas knocking around in their heads but lack the academic qualifications (and money) to justify their madness. Anyhow, as I am feeling in a strangely tolerant mood today, having recently been rebuked for my anti-Australian, anti-theatrical sentiments, I have decided to be uncharacteristically open-minded about cooky art.
From what I can make from Charlie Brooker’s glowing review and the bizarre “trailer” that goes with it, the exhibition is all about how power does not just work through the law or the military but through culture and beliefs. The artist, Adam Curtis is looking at the “Pop” era of American supremacy, when the American dream infected the whole world with promise. He tries to show the ways in which this dream has now blown up around the world; how perhaps America’s optimism and self-confidence is not sustainable. In his own words (from Brooker):
“I wanted to do a film about what it actually felt like to live through that time … Where you could see the roots of the uncertainties we feel today, the things they did out on the dark fringes of the world that they didn’t really notice at the time, which would then come back to haunt us.”
It’s a common theme in Curtis’s work: he’s not interested in conspiracy theories, but rather with the unforeseen consequences of ideas throughout history, and their impact on a deeply personal level. “The way power works in the world is: they tell you stories that make sense of the world. That’s what America did after the second world war. It told you wonderful dreamlike stories about the world … And at that same time, you were encouraged to rise up and ‘become an individual’, which also made the whole idea of America attractive to the rest of the world. But then this very individualism began to corrode it. The uncertainties began in people’s minds. Uncertainty about ‘what is the point of being an individual?'”
I like this idea of story-telling and how individuals personally relate to the power of their own society, but the question that follows is who gets to write those stories…
This week, I have been reading Orhan Pamuk’s book about his childhood in Istanbul. It is a strange sort of thing; a mix between a memoir, a history of a city and an analysis of the Istanbul psyche. Pamuk writes beautifully and humorously and what’s more, there are pictures. Lots and lots of pictures! Some featuring dogs, I hasten to add.
I feel a curious similarity between his description of Istanbul and the way I perceived Cairo when I lived there. He speaks of the “Huzun” of the city, the nostalgic melancholy that hangs in the smoky air of the Bosporus, the collective feelings of a city, once great but now smouldering in ghostly neglect. Beautiful in a haunting sad way.
Cairo has the same beauty; a disordered array of historical remnants thrown haphazardly out of chronology. It is not a happy beauty; not an ocean full of blue lulling light nor a mountain top in the sun, but a sad beauty, a beauty of loss and grief. It reminds you that power comes temporarily to places, but the inhabitants of these places will forever remain in the ruins of grandeur stranded like museum pieces bolted to the floor.
As an outsider, it is easy to find this sadness charming. We take pictures of the old man sitting in his fallen-down shop, sending a text message on his phone. We find it charming and funny how modernity can creep out of the cracks of neglect. It is a beautiful scene. But it is also a beauty which we have the self confidence to enjoy. As Pamuk writes:
“Those who take pleasure in the accidental beauty of poverty and historical decay, those of us who see the picturesque in ruins- invariably, we’re people who from outside” (Pamuk, 231).
Pamuk talks about the purity of ruins and the fantasy of “Old Istanbul’ in which “poverty was to be honoured for preserving traditional identity” (235). Sometimes you hear the same sort of feeling in the words of foreigners living in Cairo and Sudan; they enjoy cultural events, when they feel they are experiencing something pure, something authentic, something truly “Sudanese”. They do not like it when there are other foreigners around because in a sense the scene has been corrupted.
On the other hand there are plenty of young Egyptians and Sudanese who value things because they are not traditional; they are Western, or at least modern. Similarly, they resent foreign portrayals of their own culture that emphasize the more traditional and ‘backward’ features. I was surprised when an Egyptian friend of mine told me she hated the Yacoubian Building, She felt that it was written for Westerners: “He is just telling them what they want to hear” Beautiful poverty. Beautiful traditions- slightly tyrannical in their attitudes to women- but nevertheless, authentic and pure! We all exoticise the Other to a certain degree. But there is a fundamental difference between the two positions, between an Egyptian or Sudanese aspiring to a Western culture and a khawaga wishing to sink into the past.
We in the West are the authors of our own cultural stories. We seldom have to cope with the readings and interpretations of others. Only once in a while do we hear what the rest of the world really thinks of us and if they say something critical, we usually put it down to jealousy or political resentment. This is because we are rich.
But this is not always the case. This is the main thrust of Pamuk’s book. He reflects that even as a Turk writing about his own city, he has been brought up to view the city as an outsider. His own literary heroes, Yahya Kemal and Tanpinar drew heavily on earlier Western accounts of the city to inform their own sense of place. He shares how these two influential writers used French descriptions of their own city to weave a beautiful but sad appreciation of their impoverishment. He writes:
“So this is how two friends living in Istanbul- one a poet, the other a prose writer- drew upon the work of two friends from Paris- one a poet, the other a prose writer- to weave together a story from the fall of the Ottoman Republic, the nationalism of the early Republican years, its ruins, its Westernizing project, its poetry and its landscapes. The result of this somewhat tangled tale was an image in which Istanbullus could see themselves, and a dream to which they could aspire. We might call this dream, which grew out of the barren, isolated, destitute neighbourhoods beyond the city walls, the ‘melancholy of the ruins’, as if one looks at these scenes through the eyes of an outsider (as Tanpinar did) it is possible to see them as picturesque. First seen as the beauty of a picturesque landscape melancholy also came to express the sadness of a century of defeat and poverty would bring to the people of Istanbul” (227-228).
(sorry for the long quote).
I get the sense that Cairo suffers from this same forced-outsider-perspective. There is a desire to be Western but at the same time, a resentment of the West. There is a desire to protect traditions but also a resentment of these traditions as a source of backwardness. Pamuk explains this external-internal gazing as a result of literary development; early Turkish writers had to draw on foreign writers in order to learn about structure and prose; there were no Turkish equivalents and Turkey itself was a brand new country at the time. But I think it goes deeper than that.
In Sudan, you get the sense that British colonialism infected society with a sense of inadequacy. During the conference I attended this week, many participants harked back to the period of British control as a time when education was much better than it is today. Sudanese translators were the best in the world. They were respected all over the Arab world for their excellent English and Arabic. Now there is a sense that this reputation has been lost, that the Arab world mocks them for their poverty (especially the Egyptians) and that they can no longer hold their head up high. But as the participant from Lebanon suggested, Sudanese are still some of the best translators in the world. They still work in all the major cities of the Arab world and they can still hold their heads up high. It is just a matter of numbers.
In the days of British colonialism, only the elite and those that showed the most promise were educated, so of course the educational system produced fine graduates. Now there are thousands of graduates every year and not enough money. It is a much harder task to ensure quaity. While I do believe that political policies of the past ten years have severely damaged the educational system of Sudan, this is not about culture. This is about politics and insufficient resources. But what results from this inadequate feeling is a mixing of nostalgia and resentment towards the West.
It expresses itself in defensive nationalism. Usually the first question, a Sudanese taxi driver asks me is “What do you think of Sudan?” They are desperate to hear that their country is beautiful. If you say something about their president or their political system, they shoot up their claws. They defend Omar Bashir with real passion. He represents them abroad. He is Sudan. They want to author their own story. They may well want the riches of the West but they want it on their own terms. Sudanese resent the ICC because it has been authored abroad. Authorship is extremely important.
Adam Curtis’ installation is all about American power expressed through American culture. It is a self-confident culture that needs not bow down to external measurements. It is a confidence built on power. But now, this self-confidence has got them (and the rest of the world) into trouble. I cannot really speak too much about the show, because I have not seen it, but it sounds fascinating (and only a bit pretentious).
In Britain, I think we lack the same level of self-confidence. We were once a powerful Empire; we are now the inhabitants of a tiny island in a very cold and wet sea. Yeah, we have our Security council seat and we do not suffer the same kind of post-Imperial poverty that the Turks must endure, but we still have something in common with Istanbul; we have a kind of “Huzun”.
Luckily ours is a self-authored Huzun. It is a self-depreciating “Huzun”. We are old and wise, not naive like the powerful Americans. We are self confident enough to mercilessly mock every inch of our social space and still feel proud to stand tall upon our mockery.
The other day, I got chatting to a neighbour about politics. I now live across the road from a political newspaper. They have basil outside their front door and I sometimes attempt to steal it. One day, I was caught by the guards and by a very friendly woman who asked me (somewhat predictably)
“What do you think of Sudan?” I was feeling in an obliging mood and replied,
“Sudan is very beautiful and its people are very kind” (this is absolutely true). She smiled, but then I added “But I don’t like the government that much.” Her smile slipped away and then her brother launched forward,
“Omar Bashir is our president.”
“I know” I replied, “And inshallah the elections next year will be fair, so we can see if he gets elected. Then we will know if he is really your president.” The man replied,
“The elections will be fair. I have no doubts.”
I disagreed. Feeling slightly worried that my supply of basil was about to be cut, I cautiously disputed whether there was freedom of expression in Sudan. I got a bit carried away in my poor inelegant Arabic and asked him whether you could march down the street with a giant placard saying that you hated your leader (as I once did in London as a student: Tony Blair, war criminal, I think my placard proclaimed- don’t blame me. Blame the over-zealous socialists who gave it me). The man thought a moment and then replied,
“But we don’t hate Omar Bashir. We love him.”
“But that’s not the point.” I said, realizing I had dug myself a basil-less hole, “There are presumably some people who don’t like him, that might even hate him, but they are not allowed to say that. You are not allowed to make fun of him. You are not allowed to say you hate him. It is not free!”
“But we don’t hate him.” The man repeated, probably feeling sorry for my own hatred of my government.
“Poor khawaga.” He might have mused. I retreated.
But in a way, I am proud that I am not proud. I think that Britain is in a particularly lucky place in history. We do not have the blind self-confidence of the Americans, but we do not have the insecure pride of the Sudanese either. We are proudly ashamed of our political system. We are extremely lucky. As David Mitchell writes:
“I’ve been to LA and it’s horrible. I don’t want to live there. I think, fundamentally, the people I want to make laugh are British. I can’t ever imagine living abroad. I love all elements of how British society lends itself to comedy – you know, it’s own sort of pompousness and self-loathing and class system and cynicism and irony: all these sorts of things are strongest here. Something like Curb Your Enthusiasm, great though it is, it’s like their first faltering steps into that world of self-loathing that we, as a post-imperial power, have been in for the best part of a century. I think the Americans will be doing some amazing comedy in 60 to 70 years’ time. But for the moment I’d say we’re in the right part of the curve of the decline of our civilisation in order to be funniest.”
Putting aside the fact that he is being extremely rude about Los Angeles, I think David Mitchell is right. In some ways, comedy needs self-loathing. But doesn’t that make us a wee sad? And aren’t we all just a bit jealous of the Americans at the moment?
They have Barack Obama, shiny and new, African American, international man of diplomacy and just damn cool. We have Gordon Brown- poor Gordon Brown- who no one really likes but everyone pities. It is a bit pathetic, our current relationship with power. No wonder you find so many Europeans reading Barack Obama’s books. We wish we could have such political love.
I used to think that the more a country expressed hatred towards its political system, the more democratic it was. I surmised that the moment people started loving their president and hanging flags in their cars, things were not looking good. During Bush’s insane popularity, even Los Angeles was full of stars and stripes. Now in Khartoum, Omar Bashir smiles from every car window. These are not good signs. Democracy is at risk.
But how do we explain Obama? The lovechild of a new America?
I suppose that in a strange way, I take comfort in the crazy racist ramblings you sometimes hear launched against him- not because I agree with their horrible sentiments- but because they show that you can still hate in America. Hating has not become illegal. That is good.
I guess I am being cynical (and having started off this post with such enthusiasm and open-mindedness! malish) but in some ways, I think it healthy when people occasionally hate their political process. It shows that there is still some spice in the system. We don’t all get along. We don’t all love our Lord and Master Gordon Brown because at the end of the day politics shouldn’t be about popularity. If we are to consent to be ruled by our leaders, they need to win our approval; not the other way round. We shouldn’t have to prove our patriotism. On the contrary, they should have to prove their competence.
So when you find yourself telling someone how much you hate your president, you must feel extremely lucky. You are allowed to hate your president.
When you hear someone else openly make fun of your president, it doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree, you must feel lucky, because you were born at a particular time in your culture’s history when you are allowed to make fun of your president.
You didn’t really earn this right. It was bequeathed by the past. It is a “happy chance” to hate. And there are plenty of people in the world still trying to build that right.