Tag Archives: Ottomans

Michael Eric Dayson: “Facing this unadorned hate tears open wounds from atrocities that we have confronted throughout our history.”

14 Aug

In a truly disturbing op-ed piece in the TimesCharlottesville and the Bigotocracy“, Dayson makes the same point I made in Ireland — Gimme a break; I can’t believe this is even up for discussion“.

dyson-master768White nationalists and neo-Nazis demonstrated in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday. Credit: Edu Bayer for The New York Times

“This bigotocracy overlooks fundamental facts about slavery in this country: that blacks were stolen from their African homeland to toil for no wages in American dirt. When black folk and others point that out, white bigots are aggrieved. They are especially offended when it is argued that slavery changed clothes during Reconstruction and got dressed up as freedom, only to keep menacing black folk as it did during Jim Crow. The bigotocracy is angry that slavery is seen as this nation’s original sin. And yet they remain depressingly and purposefully ignorant of what slavery was, how it happened, what it did to us, how it shaped race and the air and space between white and black folk, and the life and arc of white and black cultures.

“They [white supremacists] cling to a faded Southern aristocracy whose benefits — of alleged white superiority, and moral and intellectual supremacy — trickled down to ordinary whites. If they couldn’t drink from the cup of economic advantage that white elites tasted, at least they could sip what was left of a hateful ideology: at least they weren’t black. [my emphasis] The renowned scholar W.E.B. Du Bois called this alleged sense of superiority the psychic wages of whiteness. President Lyndon Baines Johnson once argued, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.””

From my post:

But everybody has to be better than somebody, or else you’re nobody.  So, just like Catalans have to think they’re really Mare-Nostrum-Provençal Iberians (3 ***) and not part of reactionary Black Legend Spain; or Neo-Greeks have to think that they’re better than their Balkan neighbors (especially Albanian “Turks”) because they think they’re the descendants of those Greeks; or the largely lower-middle class, Low Church or Presbyterian or Methodist Brits who fled their socioeconomic status back home and went out to India in the nineteenth century in order to be somebody, had to destroy the modus vivendi that had existed there between Company white-folk and Indians, creating an apartheid and religiously intolerant social system that laid the groundwork for the unbelievable blood-letting of the Indian Rebellion of 1857; or, perhaps history’s greatest example, poor whites in the American South (many, ironically, of Northern Irish Protestant origin) that had to terrorize Black freedmen back into their “place” because the one thing they had over them in the old South’s socioeconomic order, that they weren’t slaves, had been snatched away (and one swift look at the contemporary American political scene shows clear as day indications that they’re, essentially, STILL angry at that demotion in status); or French Algerians couldn’t stomach the idea of living in an independent Algeria where they would be on equal footing with Arab or Berber Algerians.  So Protestant Ulstermen couldn’t tolerate being part of an independent state with these Catholic savages.”

But since we’re talking about the dangerous, delusional myths people need to believe, I might as well take this moment and take one tiny issue with one point in Dyson’s piece:

“This bigotocracy overlooks fundamental facts about slavery in this country: that blacks were stolen from their African homeland to toil for no wages in American dirt.”

People might not like me saying this, or at least think it’s the wrong time.  Oh well…  Of course African slaves were made “to toil for no wages in American dirt.”  But they were not “stolen” from their African homeland; they were bought from other Africans.

Am I blaming the victim?  No.  But if that’s what it seems like, like a lot of people think I’m anti-semitically blaming the victim if I say that the idea that there’s only one God and everybody else’s is false, and on top of it that one God loves you more than anybody else, is bound to get you kinna disliked by those around you sooner or later, then that’s cool.  (Another favorite idea of mine: if Christianity makes Jews so uncomfortable, they shouldn’t have invented it.)

I wrote my M.A. thesis in Latin American Studies on Cuba, particularly on abolition, and the complex interaction between the Cuban wars of independence from Spain, a vicious struggle that lasted three decades from 1868 to 1898 when the United States stepped in and annexed all of Spain’s remaining colonies, and the abolitionist struggle to end both the slave trade and slavery itself (the Spanish slave trade ended in 1868, and slavery itself wasn’t abolished, and then only gradually, until 1886).  In brief, and with clear echoes in the American South, a creole class in Cuba was ambivalent about independence because they were afraid of being over-run by the Black Cuban majority, while a bourgeois pro-independence class didn’t think Cuba could be a democratic republic while so many Cubans were enslaved.  In the end they did what most ex-slave societies did: free the salves and import indentured workers from the English-speaking Caribbean and immigrants from Galicia, marginalizing native Black Cubans, so that all groups together could be kept in a state of seasonal semi-employment which kept wages depressed and created enmity between the ethnic groups that should have felt some socioeconomic solidarity.  Let’s not forget that the “Danza de los millones” — “the Dance of the Millions” — when sugar generated unprecedented wealth for Cuban planters, surpassing anything the nineteenth-century slave economy could produce, and made Cuba one of the richest countries in Latin America, when the beautiful Havana we now see was largely constructed — happened in the 1910s and 20s, decades after abolition.

My thesis involved a heavy dose from my advisor of reading in West African history.  So any one who knows something about that history knows that almost none to absolutely none of the Africans brought to the Western Hemisphere during the slave trade — by some estimates 12 million human beings — were hunted down by slave-hunters Kunta-Kinte-style; it would have been logistically impossible to carry so many people across the Atlantic by that method.  African slaves were bought in huge numbers, in en masse cargo-loads by European slave traders, from West African kingdoms who had enslaved them in the course of warfare between those kingdoms.  There’s a legitimate argument to be made that the European slave trade made warfare between those kingdoms so profitable that conflict between West African states became endemic.  Doesn’t absolve anybody though, not Africans, not Yankee do-gooders, who didn’t need slaves anymore because they had already gotten rich off the trade (as that great song from the musical “1776” points out: “Hail Boston! Hail Charleston! Who stinketh the most?” — see below) and could afford to get moral on the rest of us, not Protestants or Catholics or any Christians, or Muslims for that matter.

Here’s some other un-fun truths:

* Black slavery in the Muslim world never and nowhere reached the scale that it did in the Christian Western Hemisphere, but that may simply and largely be because the agro-industrial infrastructure was not present, not because Islam was more enlightened on the idea of slavery generally.  East Africa supplied the Muslim eastern Mediterranean and Arabian peninsula with plentiful slaves for centuries.  I don’t remember when the Ottomans abolished slavery, but I think it wasn’t even during the Tanzimat, but at some point in the 1908 constitutional revolution, i.e. early twentieth century.  I’m always amused at “religion of peace” Islam apologists who try and make us understand how many passages there are in Muslim scripture that deal with the fair and “humane” way to conduct war, and massacre/execution or enslavement, and I wanna think: “gee, if there are so many passages that deal with the right or wrong way to conduct war, and massacre/execution or enslavement then those things must be mighty important to this religion of peace.”

NO monotheism is innocent; let’s get that through our heads once and for all.

* I hate to burst the bubble of Muhammad Ali or Malcolm X’s souls, or that of the wacked Nation of Islam, but Islam was not the religion of your African ancestors.  (They may not have been called Cassius Clay, but it’s for sure that they weren’t called Muhammad Ali either.)  Islam took a while to penetrate as far south as the coastal regions of West Africa.  And actually, your ancestors almost certainly were the still polytheist inhabitants of the coast who might have been sold to European slave-traders by the newly Muslim kingdoms of the Sahel (currently Boko Haram country), the belt between the Sahara and the coastal jungle/savanna.  If Afro-Americans anywhere in the Western Hemisphere are at all interested in the religion of their ancestors, they should look to Cuban Santería or Brazilian Candomblé or Haitian Voudon to re-establish a historical connection; when I was researching Santería in the 90s in Brooklyn, there was a real culture war between those Black Americans who were attracted to the Cuban religion of Yoruba origins — an amazingly relaxed, open-minded group, since polytheism is an open system, where you got to experience great music and dance, once you got past the practice’s defensive boundaries — and those Black Americans who were recent converts to Islam: puritanical pains-in-the-ass, like most converts, who had learned enough Arabic to call everybody else Kafirs, and who irritated the Senegalese and Malian immigrants in New York to no end.

And Black Southern Baptist or Pentecostalist  Christianity may have originally been the “slaveowner’s religion,” but its “getting the spirit” is a purely African phenomenon that has its emotional-devotional roots in the same parts of West Africa as Santería/Candomblé/Vodoun.  Read the second to last chapter of James Baldwin‘s Go Tell it on the Mountain, which takes place in 1930s (I think) Harlem and then the last chapter of Maya Deren‘s Divine Horsemen on Haitian Vodoun.  They mirror each other totally and both pieces still blow me away whenever I read them with the closest possible artistic representation of deity possession, the most impressive discursive capturing of a completely non-discursive, intangible experience, that I know of.

Divine Horsemen

* Another bubble to burst is the “Kwaanza-ism” bubble. No African-American before President Obama had any connection to East Africa, Kenya, or Swahili.  Another geographical term — Africa — turned into a completely artificial cultural construct, as if anything that happens on the African continent is somehow connected to African-Americans.  The BBC is currently running a series on “The History of Africa” — so modest those folks over there — that, as had become common-place but I thought we had moved on from (turns out we haven’t), lumps together Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco into one “African” history instead of placing them in the history of the Greco-Roman-Christian-Arab-Muslim zone.  (Does anyone remember the height of this absurd argument: the Newsweek magazine cover with the picture of an Egyptian relief and the screaming caption: “Was Cleopatra Black?”  To Newsweek‘s credit, however, the article didn’t take its own title seriously and after going into an analysis of the African-American kulturkampf that gave rise to this question, ended simply with: “And Cleopatra?  She was Greek.”)

And does anybody still celebrate Kwaanza?

I always chuckle when people call Constantinople the city on two continents, as if the quarter-mile crossing of the Bosporus into “Asia” is some kind of massive, marked civilizational change, like the people in Kadiköy are Chinese or something because it’s in “Asia.”

Newsweek Cleopatra

This was a real train-of-thought, free-association post — many think that everything I write is — so thanks for sticking with me.  Below are some videos selections based on my continued free association process:


“Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

“Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

“Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.”

“Strange Fruit” was written by Abel Meeropol, a real shayner Yid (beautiful Jew) if there ever was one.  Read the NPR story on him that I’ve linked to.  He also adopted the Rosenbergs‘ children, Robert and Michael, after that closetted scumbag Roy Cohn (a real self-hating Jew and queen if there ever was one) had their parents electrocuted.

6-abel-meeropol-robert-michael-with-train-set-1954-_wide-3cb2d45bee8bab3d344570df91679295419dbb20-s800-c85Abel Meeropol watches as his sons, Robert and Michael, play with a train set. Courtesy of Robert and Michael Meeropol

And Maya Deren’s beautiful documentary footage of Haitian Vodoun:

See also Talking Heads’ David Byrne’s beautiful documentary, Ilé Aiyé on Bahian Candomblé.  It’s the best introductory “text” I know.  In reference to the dancing, drumming and singing, and animal sacrifice, food, alcohol and tobacco offerings that are meant to bring the god (or orisha in Yoruba) down into possession of his or her devotee, the narration includes the precious line: “They threw a party for the gods — and the gods came.”

And — on a lighter note — the great Celia Cruz below singing “Guantanamera” (you have to watch her move…wasn’t it great when women were allowed to have bodies like that? and if you have any idea what those silly kids who appear at the end are doing, please share) a song based on a poem of José Martí‘s, Cuba’s national poet and a man revered by Cubans of every color and political stripe anywhere.  In the end, Black Cubans played a significant part in the Cuban struggle, personified most in the person of Antonio MaceoAs Celia sings: “Freedom was a trophy won for us by the mambí [largely Black guerilla fighters], with the words of Martí, and the machete of Maceo.”  Yikes.  The Cuban Wars of Independence were truly brutal, often really fought with machetes, the symbol of Afro-Cubans’ cane-cutting bondage become an instrument of rebellion, but Spain’s imperial ego simply did not want to let go of “la siempre fiel” — “the always loyal” — and extremely profitable island.  1898, the year Spain had to give in, was a year that became a byword for disaster for Spaniards, and Cuba was the most lamented loss; there’s still a common expression in Spain: “Más se perdió en Cuba” — “There was more lost in Cuba” — when you want to say that “oh well, things aren’t so bad, not, at least, compared to the loss of Cuba.”  Ironically, Cuban independence was followed by a massive wave of migration to the island from Spain, largely from Galicia and Asturias, so in a weird way Cuba is the most connected to Spain of Latin American countries; a great, very unresearched musicological subject is the reciprocal exchange of musical influences from Cuba to southern Spain, especially for the gypsies of Seville and Cádiz, both port cities that were gateways to the Americas or “the Indies”, the flamenco genre “rumba” being just one indicator.

Celia was an initiated Santería priestess of the Yoruba male fertility deity Changó (you have to move a little in your seat every time you hear or say his name or you see lightning); her performances often contained dance moves associated with Changó (you have to move a little in your seat every time you hear or say his name); whether she was “mounted” by him at the time — which is the expression used to indicate deity possession, de allí Maya Deren’s reference to “horsemen” — is something only she can have known, though mostly devotees have no memory of their trance after they come out of it.  Most salsa singers since have been initiates — have to stay competitive and you only can if the gods are helping you — and the improv vocabulary and dance gestures of salsa performances are heavily derived from Yoruba Santería.   There’s one video of her singing “Quimbara” (below) where I think it’s really happening — the bending down and touching of the floor especially.

Here:

Finally, a NikoBakos memory.  Mambí was a chain of 24-hour Cuban restaurants, Mambí #1, Mambí #2 — I think there were five of them all over once heavily Cuban Washington Heights and Inwood — that used to provide me and friends with some early morning, post-salsa sustenance.  The food, like the neighborhoods, had become pretty Dominican by then, but they still made a mean Cuban sandwich.  All the Cuban restaurants I knew as a kid in New York are now gone, in Manhattan and Brooklyn replaced by Dominican plantain places, and in Queens, by one more mediocre Colombian bakery.  Schiller’s on Rivington Street still makes a good Cuban sandwich, but it’s $18.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

Turkey and Silence

6 Jan

istanbul-mourning

I’ve been silent for a year, more or less. And the reason is pretty simple: Turkey. It’s been hard to watch a country you feel (or should) so close to, are for better or worse geographically adjacent to, (mostly worse), and which is so key in every way to the subject matter and internal structure of this blog, implode in such spectacular fashion and not have something to say.

And yet I didn’t have anything to say that could do justice or offer any insights into what was happening. I look back at a blog entry from the end of 2015 about my arriving in C-Town on November 2nd, the day after Turks gave Erdoğan a parliamentary reward for inciting the unspeakable violence that had already occurred — and would soon start spiralling exponentially out of control — instead of punishing him for it, and note that I feel an internal tectonic shift towards the place and its people; a weird, kind of science-fiction-like creepiness and discomfort…City of Zombies.

But every time I’d try to say something, events would overgallop and trample me and I’d say nothing again. Instead of posting here, I started writing acerbic, aggressive-aggressive emails to small groups of friends – partly to get my bile out, partly to hurt some of them. I felt myself starting to fall back on ancestral nastiness: Greek clichés of Turks as inherently slow-geared: a kind of dumb manipulable mob, one who’ll sooner or later be steered by the powers-that-be that they revere so idiotically into finding a way to take out their society’s dysfunction on us.

It’s been nice to be in Jiannena since Christmas. (“Jianniotes’ Jianniotiko passion for their Jiannena is well-known…” states with unapologetic Jianniotiko pride the introduction to a really interesting book I’,ve stumbled across here about the little known late Roman and early Byzantine history of the city.*) It is an addictively pleasant town and on December 30th some friends of mine from Istanbul came to spend a few days with me here. We were glad to see each other. It had been a long time. The weather was chilly but bright and sunny. The raki bracing. And to show two Turkish friends around a city whose primary tourist sites are Ottoman, and its general ‘Ottomaness,’ is the kind of irony in such matters that I love.

So I think it might have been a kind of perverse blessing to be with them New Year’s morning after the Reina attack in Ortaköy. Here were two real people I love, in pain: not straw men to beat up or take out my frustrations on. And that made a difference. It slows down your thinking.  It doesn’t let you cut emotional or intellectual corners. I might actually have something to say soon.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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Ιωάννινα: Ίδρυση – Χωροταξικός Ρόλος – Μορφή της Πρωτοβυζαντινής Πόλεως (Ioannina: Foundation, Functional Layout, Form of the Proto-Byzantine City); Βασίλης Αναστ. Χαρίσης, Αρχηιτέκτων (Vasiles Anast. Harises, Architect)

Börek II — or Burek and the end of Yugoslavia

26 Aug

Börek Nein Danke

(click)

This is a piece of graffiti that appeared in the Slovenian capital city of Ljubljana in 1992, at the beginning of the worst period in the Yugoslav wars and after Slovenia had become independent. “Burek [‘börek’ in Turkish, pronounced exactly like an umlauted German ‘ö’]? Nein Danke.” Burek? Nein Danke. “Burek? No Thank You.” What a silly slogan, ja? How innocuous. What could it possibly mean? Who cares? And how can NikoBako maintain the bizarre proposition that a piece of graffiti in a rather pretentious black-and-white photograph is an important piece, in its ugly, dangerous racism, of the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Back up then. There are certain — usually material — aspects or elements of Ottoman life in the Balkans, which, even for Christians in the region, despite the centuries of unfortunate hate and reciprocal bloodletting (and no, I don’t think pretending that wasn’t true or that “it wasn’t that bad” is the key to improving relations between us all now; I think the truth is the key), remain objects of a strange nostalgia and affection. They linger on — even if unconsciously, or even as they’re simultaneously an object of self-deprecating humour or considered homely backwardness – as evidence that Ottoman life had a certain refinement and elegance that these societies have now lost. You sense this often intangible and not explicitly acknowledged feeling in many ways. Folks from my father’s village, Derviçani, for example, now go to Prizren in Kosovo to order certain articles of the village’s bridal costume because they can no longer find the craftsmen to make them in Jiannena or Argyrocastro, and they’re conscious of going to a traditional center of Ottoman luxury goods manufacture. You feel it in what’s now the self-conscious or almost apologetic serving of traditional candied fruits or lokum to guests. Or still calling it Turkish coffee. Or in Jiannena when I was a kid, when people still had low divans along the walls of the kitchen where they were much more comfortable than in their “a la franca” sitting rooms. 1* Perhaps the sharpest comparison is the way the word “Mughlai” in India still carries implications of the most sophisticated achievements of classical North Indian…Muslim…culture, even to the most rabid BJP nationalist. 2**

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There are some places where this tendency is stronger than in others. Sarajevo and Bosnia are obvious; they still have large Muslim populations though and, after the 90s, Muslim majorities. But Jiannena – which I’ll call Yanya in Turkish for the purposes of this post, the capital city of Epiros and one often compared to Sarajevo: “a tiny Alpine Istanbul” – is also one such place. Readers will have heard me call it the Greek city most “in touch with its Ottoman side…” on several occasions. You can see why when you visit or if you know a bit of the other’s past: or maybe have some of that empathy for the other that’s more important than knowledge.

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About half Greek-speaking Turks before the Population Exchange, Yanya was a city the Ottomans loved dearly and whose loss grieved them more than that of most places in the Balkans. It’s misty and melancholy and romantic. It has giant plane trees and had running waters and abundant springs in all its neighbourhoods, along with a blue-green lake surrounded by mountains snow-capped for a good five or so months of the year. It experienced a period of great prosperity in the eighteenth and especially nineteenth century, when it was not only a rich Ottoman commercial city but also a center of Greek education: “Yanya, first in arms, gold and letters…” – and, especially under the despotic yet in certain ways weirdly progressive Ali Paşa, was the site of a court independent enough to conduct foreign policy practically free of the Porte and fabulous enough to attract the likes of Pouqueville and Byron, the latter who never tired of commenting on the beauty of the boys and girls Ali had gathered among his courtiers, as Ali himself commented profusely on Byron’s own. All the tradition of luxury goods associated with the time and the city: jewelry, silver and brassware, brocade and gold-thread-embroidered velvet, sweets and pastries – and börek – still survive, but are mostly crap today, even the börek for which the city used to be particularly famous, and your best luck with the other stuff is in the city’s numberless antique shops.

ioannina-epirus-greece-the-antiqe-market-hip

identical to yiayia's belt

It also, unusually, and which I like to ascribe to Yanyalıs’ good taste and gentlenesss, has preserved four of its mosques, the two most beautiful in good condition even, and on the most prominent point of the city’s skyline.  It would be nice if they were opened to prayer for what must be a sizable contingent of Muslim Albanian immigrants now living there — who are practically invisible because they usually hide behind assumed Christian names — but that’s not going to happen in a hundred years, not even in Yanya.  Maybe after that…we’ll have all grown up a little.

ioannina165

janina

And, alone perhaps among Greek cities, only in Yanya can one open a super-luxury hotel that looks like this, with an interior décor that I’d describe as Dolmabahçe-Lite, call it the Gran Serail, and get away with it. 3***

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Digression Bakos. What’s the point? What does this have to do with Yugoslavia? I’m not digressing. I’m giving a prelude. “People don’t have the patience for this kind of length on internet posts.” I don’t post. I write, however scatterbrainedly. And not for scanners of posts. For readers. However few have the patience.

So. Croatians don’t eat börek. The prelude should have been enough for me not to have to write anything else and for the reader to be able to intuit the rest. But for those who can’t…

The graffiti on the wall in the photo at top is dated 1992, but I think it had appeared as a slogan as early as the late 80s when Slovenes and Croats started airing their completely imaginary grievances against Serbian domination of Yugoslavia and making secessionary noises. What it meant is that we, Hapsburg South Slavs, were never part of the Ottoman Empire and therefore never were subject to the barbaric and development-stunting influences of said Empire that Serbs and whoever those others that live south of them were, and therefore have the right to be free of the intolerable yoke of Serbdom. We don’t eat burek. Not only do we not eat burek, but you offer it to us and we’ll refuse in German – “Nein Danke” – just to prove how much a part of the civilized Teutonic world of Mitteleuropa we are. 4*** (I think it was Kundera who wrote about the geographical ballooning of “Central Europe” after the fall of communism, till “Eastern Europe” finally came to mean only Russia itself. ‘Cause as we now see, even Ukraine is part of Central Europe.)

Why this yummy pastry dish was singled out as a sign of Ottoman backwardness and not, say, ćevapi or sarma, I can’t say.

Cevapi54

Ćevapi — köfte, essentially — (above) and sarma (stuffed cabbage) below.

sarma raspakovana

And when I talk about Hapsburg South Slavs I’m obviously talking about Croats, because, let’s face it, who cares about Slovenes? And there may be very few, if any, compelling historical or cultural reasons of interest to care about Croatians either, except, that as most readers must know by now, I consider them the people most singularly responsible for the Yugoslav tragedy. And this post is my chance to come clear about why I feel that way. There may be lots of interpretations of what the “Illyrianist” intellectuals of Vienna and Novi Sad and Zagreb had in mind when they started spouting theories of South Slav unity in the nineteenth century; countless theories about how Yugoslavia or the original Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was formed; many analyses of what happened in Paris in 1919 and what kind of negotiations led to the Corfu Declaration; and reams of revisionist stuff written about exactly what Croatia wanted out of this union. But, for me, one basic fact is clear: that Croatians were always part of Yugoslavia in bad faith; that they wanted something out of the Serb efforts and Serbian blood that was decisive in defeating Austria in WWI, but that that something was independence, or greater autonomy within an Austria that they probably never expected to be dismembered the way it was – anything but what they felt was being subjected to Belgrade. And that became immediately clear upon the formation of the state when they – being, as Dame Rebecca calls them, good “lawyers” – began sabotaging the normal functioning of the Yugoslav government in any way they could, no matter how more democratic the Serbs tried to make an admittedly not perfect democracy, no matter how many concessions of autonomy Belgrade made to them. If there were any doubt as to the above, even when Radić and his Croatian People’s Peasant Party had turned the Skupština into a dysfunctional mirror image of today’s American Congress, even when a Macedonian IMRO activist working in tandem with Croatian fascists assassinated Serb King Aleksandr in Marseille in 1934, it was subsequently made brutally clear by the vicious death-spree Croatian, Nazi-collaborating fascism unleashed on Serbs during WWII, a true attempt at ethnic cleansing that dwarfs anything the Serbs may have done during the 90s — which is dwarfed again by what Croatians themselves did in the 90s again: the most heinous Nazi regime, “more royalist than the king,” as the French say — more Nazi than the Nazis — to appear in Eastern Europe during WWII.  And they have not been even remotely, adequately,  held to account by the world for any for any of the above; all this ignored, even as the West maintains a long list of mea-culpas it expects Serbs to keep reciting forever.

Alexander

King Aleksandr of Yugoslavia (click)

And so, when they got their chance in the 90s, with the backing of a newly united, muscle-flexing Germany, Croatians abruptly and unilaterally and illegally declared their long-wished for (but never fought-for) independence. And so did Slovenia; but again, who cares about Slovenia? It was a prosperous northern republic that may have held the same Northern-League- or-Catalan-type resentments against a parasitic south that was draining its wealth, but it was ethnically homogeneous and its departure left no resentful, or rightfully fearful, minorities behind. But Croatia knew, when it declared its independence – as did, I’m sure, their German buddies – that they were pulling a string out of a much more complex tapestry. And did it anyway. And we all saw the results. 5*****

So when a Croat says “Nein Danke” to an offer of burek, without even the slightest concern about his past reputation and avoiding any German associations, it is for me a chillingly racist and concise summation of Saidian Orientalism, a slogan that sums up not only the whole ugliness of the tragic, and tragically unnecessary, break-up of Yugoslavia, but the mind-set of all peoples afflicted with a sense of their being inadequately Western, and the venom that sense of inadequacy spreads to everything and everyone it comes in contact with. I’ve written in a previous post about Catalan nationalism:

All of us on the periphery, and yes you can include Spain, struggle to define ourselves and maintain an identity against the enormous centripetal power of the center.  So when one of us — Catalans, Croatians, Neo-Greeks — latches onto something — usually some totally imaginary construct — that they think puts them a notch above their neighbors on the periphery and will get them a privileged relationship to the center, I find it pandering and irritating and in many cases, “racist pure and simple.”  It’s a kind of Uncle-Tom-ism that damages the rest of us: damages our chances to define ourselves independent of the center, and damages a healthy, balanced understanding of ourselves, culturally and historically and ideologically and spiritually.  I find it sickening.

(see also: “Catalonia: ‘Nationalism effaces the individual…'” )

We’re signifying animals. And our tiniest decisions — perhaps our tiniest most of all – the symbolic value we attribute to the smallest detail of our lives, often bear the greatest meaning: of love; of the sacred; of a sense of the transcendent in the physical; of our self-worth as humans and what worth and value we ascribe to others; of hate and loathing and vicious revulsion. Nothing is an innocently ironic piece of graffiti – irony especially is never innocent, precisely because it pretends to be so.

And so I find anti-börekism offensive. Because a piece of my Theia Vantho or my Theia Arete’s börek is like a Proustian madeleine for me. Because I’m not embarrassed by it because it may be of Turkish origin. Because I think such embarrassment is dangerous – often murderously so, even. And because I think of eating börek — as I do of eating rice baked with my side of lamb and good yoghurt as opposed to the abysmally soggy, over-lemoned potatoes Old Greeks eat – as an act of culinary patriotism. 6****** And a recognition that my Ottoman habits, culinary and otherwise, are as much a part of my cultural make-up as my Byzantine or even Classical heritage are. Because just like Yugoslavia, you can’t snip out one segment of the woop and warf and expect the whole weave to hold together.

spinach-burek

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*1  One thing judo taught me — or rather what I learned from how long it took me, when I started, to learn to sit on my knees and flat feet — is how orthopedically horrible for our bodies upright, Western chairs and tables and couches are.  (By couch here I don’t mean the sink-in American TV couch, which you sink into until you’re too fat to get out of — that’s another kind of damage.)  Knee and lower back problems at earlier ages are far more prevalent in the Western world precisely because of these contraptions that artificially support and distort our body weight in destructive ways.  I remember older aunts in Epiros, in both Jiannena and the village, being able to sit on a low divan on the floor and pull their legs up under their hips with complete ease — women in their eighties and nineties and often portly at that — because their bodies had learned to sit on the floor or low cushions all their long and very mobile lives; they looked like they didn’t know what to do with themselves when you put them in a chair.  I’m reminded of them when I see Indian women their age at mandirs, sitting cross-legged, or with legs tucked under as described, through hours-long rituals, rising to prostrate themselves and then going down again, and then finally just getting up at the end with no pain and no numbness and no oyyy-ings.

**2  The two masterpieces of this point: the celebration of the sophistication and sensuality of the Ottoman sensibility and a trashing of Neo-Greek aesthetics — and by extension, philisitinism, racism and Western delusions — are Elias Petropoulos’ two books: Ο Τουρκικός Καφές εν Ελλάδι“Turkish Coffee in Greece,” and Tο Άγιο Χασισάκι “My Holy Hash.”  Part tongue-in-cheek, part deadly serious, both books are both hilarious and devastating.

***3  Unfortunately, to build this palace of Neo-Ottoman kitsch that would make Davutoğlu proud, one of Greece’s classic old Xenia hotels, masterpieces of post-war Greek Modernism and most designed by architect Aris Konstantinidis, was torn down, and most of these hotels have suffered similar fates throughout the country, as the nationally run State Tourist Organization was forced to sell off its assets by the privatization forced on Greece then and to this day.

Xenia Jiannena

The Jiannena Xenia, above, built in the old wooded grove of Guraba, just above the center of town, and, below, perhaps Konstantinidis’ masterpiece, the Xenia at Paliouri in Chalkidike. (click)

Eot-paliouri-1962-2

Fortunately, Jiannena preserves one of Konstantinidis’ other masterpieces, its archaeological museum, below. (click)

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****4  Ironically, the strudel that Croats and Slovenes imagine themselves eating in their Viennese wet dreams is probably a descendant of börek; and take it a step further: let’s not forget that croissants and all danish-type puff pastry items are known generically as viennoiserie in French.  So the ancestor of some of the highest creations of Parisian/French/European baking arts is something that a Slovene says “nein danke” to in order to prove how European he is.  Talk about the farcicalness of “nesting orientalisms.”

croissant

*****5  Of course, in every case, this assumption-cum-accusation, about the parasitic South draining the North of its resources, is patent bullshit.  Southern Italy, the southern Republics of Yugoslavia, Castille, Galicia, Andalusia, and the southern tier of the European Union today, may get disproportionately more in the allotment of certain bureaucratic funds compared to the tangible wealth they produce.  But they also provide the North, in every single one of these cases, with resources, labor and markets on which that North gets rich to a far more disproportionate degree and stunts the South’s growth in the process.  So haydi kai…

It’s become a common-place — and not inaccurate — observation that the catastrophic economic pressure Germany is today exercising on the nations of Southern Europe for the sake of making some sick moral point is the fourth time it’s wrecked Europe in less than a centurythe third time being when it decided, immediately upon reunification, to show the continent it was a political player again by practically single-handedly instigating the destruction of Yugoslavia.

******6

patattes

Over-oreganoed and over-lemoned — like much of Greek food — and overdone, over-salted and over-oiled, perhaps the only thing more repulsive than the soggy potatoes Old Greeks bake with lamb or chicken (though one horrible restaurant — which New Yorkers are for some reason crazy about: I mean like “take-the-N-train-out-to-Astoria-and-wait-for-a-table-for-an-hour” crazy — criminally serves them with grilled fish) is the serving of stewed meat with french fries.  You’ve hit the rock bottom of Neo-Greek cuisine when you’ve had a dry, stringy “reddened” veal or lamb dish accompanied by what would otherwise be good, often hand-cut french fries, sitting limply on the side and sadly drowning in the red oil.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

GREEK ELECTIONS: “Greek voters may be about to plunge the European Union into a full-fledged economic and political crisis.” For real?

21 Jan

Greek parliament

Don’t look to me for economic analyses. I think I had had my first credit card in college for a while, before I realized that the amount you paid back to them was more than what you bought with them. That means credit and debt – the foundations of Western Civilization – were things I didn’t understand until like my mid-twenties. So as far as economics are concerned, I generally listen as carefully as I can to those who seem remotely intelligent to me and weigh what I can gather.

Greece is shaking up the Eurozone again, because parliament couldn’t vote for a President, I believe, and parliament was dissolved and now we’re having elections on January 25th. And everyone, or many people, are trembling at the thought of a SYRIZA, the left-of-center party, victory. I don’t know why they chose to call themselves by an acronym that means “The Coalition of the Radical Left.” Paranoiacs who talk about them as if they were Bolsheviks are already crazed enough in their attacks on the party, and SYRIZA really is, just that, a left-of-center-party. They only seem radical because the “center” – in Greece and everywhere – has moved so far to the right in every sense for the past few decades.

People in Greece whose intellects I respect think that a SYRIZA government – since they are in the lead in polls – would be a disaster: they think the best route for getting Greece out of its economic stagnation is to continue to follow the austerity dictates of the so-called “Troika” — the European Commission (EC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the European Central Bank (ECB) – though Greece has followed them pretty much to the letter and steadily for the past two years, and there are more rounds of austerity coming, and little has improved. And if I ask them the more theoretical question of why Greeks should keep voting for the PASOK/ND two-party clique whose politicians have run the show since 1974 and are a bunch of almost Putinesque cronies in their brazen, shameless corruption and who got the country in the mess it’s in in the first place, they really don’t have an answer for me. One says he just doesn’t vote at all. But how fast a way is that for turning Greece into an American kind of politics-less civil society – which should be an oxymoron.

But I have reason to think that some of the people I listen to in Greece are listening to their class interests – worse, their class instincts, in the most knee-jerk sense – so I also try to listen to Americans I respect: like and especially Paul Krugman. I’ve cited him on this blog often, especially in reference to France – a country which I care about deeply – and he’s a vociferous critic of the EU’s austerity policies towards its prodigal southern and Celtic brothers. He points out that the economy of France, to speak about the center for a moment and not the perhaps hopeless periphery, and how much better it’s doing on every indicator than even Britain itself, precisely for sticking to some of its old-fashioned, socialized (not “socialist”) ideology. And to how much better the United States is doing, because, fairly or not, it sent a fresh flush of cash into its finance industry (instead of setting up a guillotine on Wall and Broad, which would’ve been my instinct) and now is probably the first major economy to have more or less dragged itself out of the hole. He’s written e-n-d-l-e-s-s-l-y about how the Great American Depression was on the verge of ending in 1936, when the government decided to “tighten belts” again and plunged the country back into the deepest economic slump ever in 1937, until it changed policies and then WWII spending ultimately saved it. And he sees the lag in Europe’s recovery, include the euro’s precipitous plunge to near one-to-one parity with the dollar, as the result — and purely — of moralizing and moralist, German-guided, insistence on austerity.

But as far as Greece goes, all the fear-mongers have brought out their heavy artillery. Maybe because I am such an economic illiterate, I recognize the psychological poker game involved in economics so much more clearly than others may. It’s amazing how the “Masters of the Universe” – these Alpha-Male studs that run our world in ways we’re too stupid to understand, because as it turns out, they don’t really understand them either – suddenly become menacing thugs or henny-penny pussies, alternating between the two, as soon as the width of their profit margins is even slightly threatened. This may be more an American problem than a European one, but I think it is what’s going on with Greece, the prospects of a SYRIZA victory and the discourse it’s generated. “Disaster” will follow. “Germans are ready to let Greece leave the Eurozone.” Frau Merkel dusts off her Lutheran-Communist pastor daddy’s sermons, and like the Biskop in Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander,” threatens fire and brimstone if Greece does not “koopereit.” “You must pay us,” say the lenders, “or it will be a disaster for all of us.” “We can’t…and won’t” say the borrowers, “and actually it will only be a disaster for you. You’ve already pushed us into a corner where we don’t have anything to lose, so…what are you going to do about that? Send us to debtors prison?” Hmmm…? Then what?

I’ve called the European Union “a neo-colonialist body disguised as the Highest Form of Western Humanism Project” before. And I can’t speak for Spain or Portugal or Ireland. But what I see the Union doing in Greece is engaging in the systematic destruction of a small economy.* By “small economy” I don’t mean a small territory of ten million with limited resources and a small-scale GDP. It’s a given that that’s what Greece always was. What I mean is a society of small-scale, personal, economic units. Some may balk at this idea, but I’m talking about something that’s one of the most positive aspects of our Ottoman inheritance. Late Byzantium was moving toward a system of large-scale landowners with an increasingly enserfed population – whether it was an organic development or the influence of Frankish feudalism is a big question. The fact, though, is that this process was arrested by Ottoman systems of land tenure and the block those systems put on the development of a landed, inherited aristocracy. And then in the twentieth century, Greece was the only former Ottoman country lucky enough to not have that small-scale type economy disrupted and perverted by the experiments of communism or even the economically statist policies that came to dominate Republican Turkey itself.

Why am I going so far back in history to talk about Greek elections in 2015? Because you might have to look that far back to see why we were spared the experiences of a large landless peasantry that could then be turned into a disenfranchised industrial proletariat – to a great extent at least; yes, there was Thessaly and there was Laurio, but nothing like what Western Europe or Russia experienced. The Greek entered modernity armed with few advantages, but one was a widespread public education system of fairly high standard for a country of its resources, the roots of which were already well-established in Ottoman times and put into systematic place almost immediately after independence. And the other was that, generally, he did so as an economically independent entity. A small-scale free peasant. A middle-class owner of some property. A “nation of shopkeepers,” as Napoleon condescendingly (and inaccurately) said of Britain. And all the better for it. Not even the sweeping flood of refugees from the Population Exchange of the 1920s with Turkey, which involved the absorption of an almost 30% increase in our population in less than five years; not even the tragic depopulation of rural Greece in the 1950s — for all its economic and military reasons — and the hideous Athens it created; neither of those massive sociological transformations changed the average Greek citizen from what he was: a free and reasonably independent economic agent of his own destiny.

THIS is what the “memoranda” are trying, and will succeed if allowed — if they already haven’t actually — in destroying. The tax on home-ownership and personal real estate is what I consider the most heinous and symbolic, even if it’s not the issue most Greeks are likely to get rabid about. Don’t ask me how: maybe the beauty of Athens had to be sacrificed to the πολυκατοικία, the apartment houses that I’ve called “cement-caves” where most Athenians and other Greek city-dwellers live, to create the domestic structure of Neo-Greek society. But what did emerge from the process of post-war Greek urbanization was a country where most people owned their own homes, and where – to a certain extent – a vertical version of traditional society was maintained. Relatives lived near each other, often in the same building, and though during the heady credit-backed lifestyle of the nineties it was common among Neo-Greeks to mock themselves for such domestic arrangements – grandma, or worse, your in-laws, living upstairs, and thirty-something-year-old kids living with their parents – I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen having come to rely on precisely those networks to survive the present crisis…and actually did back then even, before things got bad, as well: a mother-in-law that will take care of the children while mom’s working and have lunch ready by mid-afternoon for the family to share together; a sister-in-law with whom you can move in for an indeterminate amount of time till you’ve found a job again; networks that extend back to one’s ancestral village, where some lone, remnant relative has some olive trees for oil or some animals for cheese or just a bostani that can provide you with some tomatoes or cucumbers or some apricots that provide you with some jam. I remarked to others on how more civil and warm people in the public sphere seemed to be towards each other the last time I was in Greece, on what a, perhaps silent, but palpable, sense of greater solidarity people seemed to feel for one another and I got a dose of that almost instinctive Greek cynicism from most: “You’re romanticizing”… “Yeah, try going downtown during the midday rush…” But I also was witness, in a very memorable conversation, to one of those cynics getting dressed down by someone else: “Μη το λες…μερικοί έχουν βρει το φιλότιμό τους…” “Don’t say that so easily. A lot of people have found their sense of honor again.”

“Honor” is a bad translation for “φιλότιμo,” which means honor and amour propre and sense of dignity and reciprocity, all in one complex structure of emotions and social acts. Basically, “philotimo” is the sense of self-respect that’s intimately tied up with the upholding of your obligations to others that held Greeks together for centuries. All readers here know I’m a fanatic opponent of reading Classicizing virtues – or Classical anything — into Neo-Greek society, but the importance of “philotimo,” I feel, even if just discursive, even if only in its lapses, is a millennia-long constant.

The reader may be excused in thinking I’ve strayed from a basic issue of economics to an excavation of Greek cultural morals. And the truth is that I’m feeling kind of challenged right now in tying together the threads of where I’ve ended up with those I started with.

Well, here then: it’s those patterns of economic independence and the traditional bonds of morality that supported them that the Troika is determined to destroy. The Greek civil sector was not particularly bloated, not even compared with France, for example, which is my prime model for a life well-lived. And if it employed more people than it actually needed, let’s stop talking, like some are, as if it were a civil sector along Soviet lines: “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.” The Greek worker actually worked more hours than anyone in any industrialized country but South Korea – South Korea. Not efficient? Efficient for what and to what purpose? For the surpluses the Greek or other governments should enjoy? Since when is the state a business that has to pull in big profit margins and not primarily a structure for meeting the needs of its citizens? The same for the cutting of pensions that allowed older people to live in dignity and even help younger members of the family and have now been slashed by the Troika dictates? Really? Why? For whom?

And then on top of it all to tax people’s homes… We’re used to it in the United States, but I can’t convey what a sense of shock, and rightly so, this caused among Greeks – and even me. You’re going to tax me on the one roof I have over my head, the one thing I’m sure of, the one thing that I can grab at for some form of security, even if it’s Karagözi’s corrugated tin çandiri?

alexis-tsipras-neo-cvg-cvfvAlexis Tsipras

But let better minds than mine explain. This is an interview that Costas Lapavitsas recently gave a rather lame and argument-less Stephen John Sackur on the BBC’s Hardtalk. Lapavitsas is an economist, a graduate of the London School of Economics, a professor at the University of London and a columnist for The Guardian. He has the kind of intellectual confidence, articulateness and steel-trap mind that is — not just super-sexy — but is the gift of a certain kind of Greek who makes me immensely proud.  He’s an advisor for SYRIZA and I’m sure he’s detested by the party’s opponents because they can’t dismiss him as a childish, bratty demagogue the way they can dismiss Alexis Tsipras (above), the party’s actual leader, about whom I, too, have mixed feelings. There’s the BBC interview and then if you have the patience there are another interview and two longer lectures of his that get into stuff much more deeply.

 

He’s compelling…and smart…and not afraid of the truth. He makes the argument for what was always the small-scale of Greek economics: that it was never a country that lived off of large-scale foreign investment, that like I stated above, it never had a large “alienated proletariat” waiting for foreign industries to come and employ – exploit — which is precisely what the European Union wants to do to all of its southern periphery. He’s realistic; he was for exiting the Eurozone back in 2011-12, but admits it’s unfeasible now. He calmly listens to interviewer Sackur pose the smuggest kind of conventional wisdom, “but, surely…” questions, and without skipping a beat, says: “No..” and proceeds to demolish him. (His response to Sackur’s attempt to use Ireland as an example in his argument is not only point-on, but historically poignant, personally moving to me as a Queens boy, and a really satisfying little slap in the Brit’s face.**) He sees his Greece as the humanitarian disaster it has become, with a GDP that has fallen 25%, 50% youth unemployment and 25% overall unemployment, skyrocketing suicide rates and other rates of psychological diseases such as acute depression.  He says that it has moved beyond melt-down into what he calls “permafrost” and a stone from which no more blood can be drawn.*** He sees high, macroeconomic finance for the poker game it is: like I said – again – a game in which those who hold the reins of power alternately disseminate panic or fear in an intentionally self-fulfilling prophecy; and that those people are bullies, who will probably back down from their demands if a critical mass refuses to be bullied by them.

The point is building that critical mass.  And I thought I could vote in Greek elections for the first time this Sunday, but there are no consular elections for ex-pats possible with Greece as there is for a multitude of other countries — typical…  But if I could vote, I know who I’d be voting for.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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* Tangentially but, I think, not in the least irrelevant to this post…  One of the starkest lessons in geopolitics and political economy I was ever taught was when I started teaching English as a Second Language in New York’s CUNY system and realized that my Latin American students weren’t destitute, landless peasants from the Guatemalan highlands or Caracas slum-dwellers.  They were well-educated teachers, accountants, civil servants, small business owners…  They were part of a sizeable but fragile urban middle-class that the Neo-Liberalism applied to many South American economies in the ’80s trapped in a vice, and forced out into emigration.  And that’s what’s happening in countries like Greece and Spain and Ireland today.

** Meaning, that given the history of the British in Ireland, it’s a bit rich for an Englishman to be using that country as an example of “recovery.”  Yeah, Ireland is doing better.  Better because the tragic full-scale emigration of its youth has started again — something you can’t miss all around you in New York and especially in Queens — the continuation of a demographic catastrophe which first started when Great Britain practically depopulated the island by ripping apart the fabric of the Irish economy, its people and its civilization in the nineteenth century, with policies based on a moralizing, racist, Protestant set of arguments that are remarkably similar to those that Frau Merkel likes to spout about the European South today. And Lapavitsas makes that abundantly clear to him.  Plus Sackur’s whole fussy, donnish demeanor and Oxbridge accent make him so the perfect dude to cast if you need a target Englishman that you almost feel sorry for him; if I were him I’d need a drink after that interview.  See my: “The Graves Are Walking”: Was the Great Potato Famine a genocide?”  

And when I say “Protestant” in contexts like this, you can be sure — as per Weber — that I mean capitalist, for which most mainstream White Protestantism and its moral codes  — again, as per Weber (maybe a bit exaggerated) — is simply a front.

*** Or the homier example of Nasreddin Hoca and his donkey might make things clearer: Merkel, Spain, Greece and Nasreddin’s donkey

karikat__r_tan_oral

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Why the Elgin Marbles and not the loot of 1204?

3 Jan

Another tempest in a teapot about how one statue from the British Museum‘s collection was lent to the Hermitage: Greek Statue Travels Again, but Not to Greece by Steven Erlanger.

In 1811, a lone Scottish gentleman, with or without permission of the Ottoman authorities, took some of the major sculptures from the Parthenon frieze down — admitted…stunners — and shipped them back to Britain, where they’re displayed to this day.

In 1204, a motley crew of Western/Catholic armies sacked Constantinople, our capital city, destroyed more of the art and learning of the classical world in a shorter space of time than had ever been destroyed before, carried off the City’s most precious objects, and left both the City and Romania, the Empire of the Romans, one of the most long-lived states in human history, a shattered shell, which, even though the new roots of an artistic renaissance in Byzantine art and architecture were pushing forwards, not even Greek ingenuity and political prowess were ever able to put together as a viable state again.  It was the most bafflingly mindless destruction of the greatest city in the world and, by far, the most violent, and to-the-root assault our civilization has ever experienced.

An yet no one asks Italy for the return of even one piece of the looted objects, which are just sitting there, most gathering dust in the treasury of San Marco in Venice.  Are none of these items of any interest to us as Greeks?  Are none of them as beautiful as the Elgin Marbles?

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File-Horses of Basilica San Marco bright(click)

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Are they less Greek?  Why no fuss?  Why don’t we care?  I don’t support the repatriation of art works and I wouldn’t support the transfer of the objects in the San Marco treasury to Greece either.  But it should make you think.  Why?  Because we’re so effed in the head by Western Classicism, and two millenia of our history is ignored as we obsess about fifty years of the art of one city-state…out of our entire cultural experience!

And here’s an individual who thinks he’s doing us a favor — and the politically correct thing — by supporting the Neo-Greek statelet in its demands to have the Elgin Marbles returned:

‘The Parthenon Marbles: Refuting the Arguments’

– by Dr. Tom Flynn
[Dr. Flynn can be contacted at tomflynn@btinternet.com and @artnose on Twitter.
This document can be read as a .pdf in the Documents & Articles section. It can also be found on the website of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles.]

The pressure on Western encyclopedic or ‘universal’ museums to address the repatriation of cultural objects unethically removed from their countries of origin during the age of imperialism is growing ever stronger. The museums, in their efforts to resist, continue to cleave to the argument that return of even one significant object or set of objects would inevitably “open the floodgates” leading to the wholesale denuding of the world’s great museum collections.

This argument is fallacious since it implies that the majority of  museum collections were unethically acquired, which is not the case. It succeeds, however, in deflecting attention away from the dubious circumstances in which certain objects were removed from their rightful homes. Few cases are more significant in this respect than the Parthenon Marbles in London. For this reason they are of pivotal importance for the future of international cultural diplomacy.

In its effort to counter mounting public pressure to return the Parthenon Marbles to Athens, the British Museum has used a range of arguments over the years, all of which can be refuted. This perhaps explains why majority public opinion continues to favour the reunification of the Marbles as the right thing to do. Through its continuing resistance, the British Museum is failing to honour the public trust.

Outlined below are the main arguments used by the British Museum to keep the Marbles in London and the counter-arguments which support the calls for return.

1. Lord Elgin “rescued” the Marbles by removing them to safety in Britain
An argument consistently promoted by the British Museum and supported by Julien Anfruns, Director-General of the International Council of Museums (ICOM). Despite ICOM’s supposed impartiality in matters of delicate cultural diplomacy, Anfruns told the Spanish journal La Nueva España: “Had the transfer never happened, who knows if we would be able to see these pieces today at all.” In fact, the Marbles that Lord Elgin did not “transfer” to Britain and which remained in Athens, survived remarkably well and have benefited from responsible cleaning by Greek conservators using state of the art laser technology. In contrast, the Marbles retained by the British Museum were scrubbed with wire brushes in the 1930s by British Museum staff in a misguided attempt to make them whiter.

2. Lord Elgin “legally” acquired the Marbles and Britain subsequently “legally” acquired them from him for the British Museum
In the absence of unequivocal documentary proof of the actual circumstances under which Lord Elgin removed the Marbles, the legality of Britain’s acquisition of them will always be in doubt. More importantly, the fact that permission to remove them was granted not by the Greeks but by the Ottoman forces occupying Greece at that time undermines the legitimacy of Elgin’s actions and thus by extension Britain’s ownership.

3. Lord Elgin’s removal of the Marbles was archaeologically motivated
Lord Elgin’s expressed intention was always to transport the Marbles to his ancestral seat in Scotland where they would be displayed as trophies in the tradition established by aristocratic collectors returning from the Grand Tour. Nobody with genuine archaeological interest in ancient Greek sculpture would ever have countenanced the disfiguring of such a beautiful and important ancient monument in the way Lord Elgin did. For archaeologists, an object’s original context is paramount. It is telling that Lord Elgin’s son, James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin, was responsible for ordering the destruction of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing during the Second Opium War of 1860. Philistine disregard for the world’s cultural monuments seems to run in the family.

4. The Greeks are unable to look after the Parthenon Marbles properly
The New Acropolis Museum in Athens is a world-class museum with first-rate conservation and curatorial expertise. It is the most appropriate place in the world in which to display the Parthenon Marbles. Its proximity to the ancient monument — and the masterful disposition of the New Acropolis Museum’s Parthenon Galleries on the same architectural axis as the Parthenon itself — would return to the Marbles some measure of their architectural significance. While they remain in London, this aspect of their importance is steadily being erased from the cultural memory.

5. It is impossible to restore the Parthenon and thus the aspiration towards ‘reunification’ is a false one
Restoration of the structural fabric of Parthenon temple continues apace. However, the aspiration has never been to return the frieze, pediment and metopes to the original building but rather to reunify them within the New Acropolis Museum where they can be properly appreciated and understood in the context of the original building, and preserved for posterity. In London they are willfully decontextualised and misleadingly displayed with no relation to Greek artistic or cultural history.

6. The Marbles are better off in London where they can be seen in the context of other world cultures
Research on museum visitors has concluded that the average visitor does not make meaningful connections between the randomly acquired objects held and displayed by encyclopedic museums. Indeed, when given the choice between viewing the Parthenon Marbles within the artificial environment applied to them by British Museum curators and experiencing them in the city of Athens from which they originate, polls consistently demonstrate that the majority of the public would prefer to see them returned to Athens.

7. The Marbles belong to “the world”, to all of us, and should therefore be left where “everyone” can enjoy them
Now that Athens has a world-class, state-of-the-art museum in which to house the Marbles, there is no longer any justification for assuming that London is the best place for the people of the world to enjoy them. Since its opening, the New Acropolis Museum has enjoyed huge visitor numbers. It is therefore reasonable to assume that visitor numbers would increase still further were the Parthenon Marbles to be reunited in the New Acropolis Museum. Moreover, Greece is in dire need of a boost to its cultural tourism, which the return of the Marbles would help it to achieve. Anyone comparing the New Acropolis Museum, bathed as it is in Attic light, with the gloomy Duveen Galleries in the British Museum would reasonably conclude that “enjoyment” of the Marbles would be immeasurably enhanced were they returned to Athens.

8. If the British Museum agreed to return the Marbles to Athens, it would set a dangerous precedent that would “open the floodgates”, leading to the denuding of the world’s encyclopedic museums
For European and North American museums to suggest that they would be denuded is tantamount to admitting that the majority of their collections were dubiously acquired, which is not the case. It is therefore nonsense to suggest that museums would be emptied. Every request for repatriation should be treated on its own merits. The great encyclopedic or ‘universal’ museums in London, Paris, Berlin, New York and elsewhere are all subject to the laws laid down within internationally agreed legal instruments such as the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the safeguarding of cultural property. Refusing to return the Marbles sends the wrong message at a time when a more ethical approach is required over disputed cultural objects.

9. The Marbles are too important a part of the British Museum collection to allow them to be given up
The most important part of the British Museum’s work in the future will be the fostering of creative cultural partnerships with other nations. These can lead to groundbreaking exhibitions such as the Terracotta Army from China and Moctezuma from Mexico. Returning the Parthenon Marbles would open a new chapter in cooperative relations with Greece and enable visitors to the British Museum to see new objects loaned by Greek museums. Refusal to return the Marbles is hampering this process. The Parthenon Marbles display in the Duveen Galleries at the British Museum could be reconfigured using high-quality casts, properly lit. The decision to return the Marbles to Athens would be seen as the British Museum leading the way in enlightened cultural diplomacy, the benefits of which would be diverse, long-term, and far-reaching.

10. The Marbles can only be “loaned” to Athens if the Greeks agree to concede Britain’s legal ownership of the sculptures
Attaching such a precondition to a dispute over cultural property has been widely viewed as insulting and condescending and reminiscent of colonialist approaches to international relations. Seemingly intractable cultural disputes require both parties to adopt a spirit of open-minded generosity and to enter into discussions on equal terms and with no preconditions.

11. “The Elgin Marbles are no longer part of the story of the Parthenon. They are now part of another story.” (Neil MacGregor, Director, British Museum)
It is not the role of museums to rewrite history to further their own nationalistic ends. As their correct name makes clear, the Parthenon Marbles are, and will always be, integral to the story of the Parthenon, one of the finest cultural achievements bequeathed to humankind by the ancient Greeks.

Have we missed anything? Ah, yes, the sun shines more frequently in Athens. Case closed.

And here I am, not even realizing that I had written a response to this piece a while ago:

“This might be good or even be a strong case but I refuse to encourage Greeks’ obsession with these issues in ANY way.  This stuff is crack for the Neo-Greek soul.  It’s pathological and is part of the DEEP cultural fuck up of Modern Greek identity.   It’s distracting, false consciousness; it’s to Greeks what soccer is to Brazilians: cheap bread-and-circus pride.  Flynn is being far more colonialist or post-colonialist or whatever than those he so freely levels those accusations at in ignoring the ways that Western Classicism has damaged the Modern Greek spirit and made a coherent identity impossible.  Does he know that down to my grandparents’ generation the most frequent term of self-designation we used was “Romios” — Roman, because a holistic connection to antiquity, early, middle and late was a given.  But in no other part of the “colonized” world was the “colonized’s” supposed history so fundamental to the “colonizer’s” own origin myth, so the post-Enlightenment-cum-Romantic Westerners show up and we have to be who they want us to be.  Does he know what the granting of selective blessing on one small part of our historical experience, while the whole rest is disregarded as a mediaeval or Ottoman dark age, does to a people’s own interpretation of their past?  Is he even remotely aware of what — the state and ideological violence — it took to to turn Byzantines/Ottoman Greeks into Neo-Hellenes obsessed with proving their connections to a past that the West planted in their heads?  He’s unaware that the obsession with these issues approaches the level of a psychosis among Modern Greeks that has caused them deep psychological and cultural trauma that will probably never heal until the next historical revolution in Greek consciousness occurs.  In doing so, he’s being as WOEFULLY ignorant, condescending, racist, etc., about Greeks and Modern Greece as he thinks the British Museum is.”

Plus, any one who, in 2014, writes the words “bathed…in the Attic light” should be prohibited from publishing anything ever again.

My solution?  Flynn points to one: “The Parthenon Marbles display in the Duveen Galleries at the British Museum could be reconfigured using high-quality casts, properly lit.

Great.  So make two perfectly “reconfigured” models of the originals, one for the British Museum and one for the New Acropolis Museum in Athens — and light them properly.  Then take the originals and crush them into fine gravel and spread it over the driveways of Sandringham and Balmoral and let’s be done with the issue and let the conscience-ridden Flynns and other Frangoi of the world be tormented by their post-colonial guilt and leave us in peace with our neuroses — please

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

“Syria Is Not A Country” — Andrew Sullivan lets fly another one of his kotsanes and then rushes to cover his tuches

27 Jan

Sykes-Picot

He got enough flak for the post (read through all the ctd.’s too — very interesting) and I feel kind of bad giving him more after so many months, but it’s been in the back of my mind since the fall and the argument is so irritating that I had to put in my own two cents.

It seems that every Sullivan-type pundit rushed out in 2001, or more probably 2003 when they were making their Iraq predictions, and bought some book about the Paris Peace Conference: “Paris 1919” “The Peace to End All Peace” — it’s an entire genre in itself.  And there they found out about some magic secret, like in a Dan Brown novel, called the Sykes Picot line, that supposedly explains everything about the Middle East’s dysfunction, and like a little kid who realizes he’s said something that the adults have found smart or funny, they go around repeating it ad nauseum: “Sykes-Picot Line”…”Sykes Picot Line” … “this guy Sykes and this guy Picot”…”The Sykes Picot Line…”  Listen to Sullivan’s own pedantic tone:

“Syria as we now know it was created by one Brit, Mark Sykes, and one Frenchman, Francois Georges-Picot in 1920. Originally, it included a chunk of Iraq (another non-country), but when oil was discovered there (in Mosul), the Brits wanted and got it. With that detail alone, you can see how valid the idea is of a Syrian “nation” is.”

The whole point is that most of the nations of the present Middle East are artificial, colonial creations — arbitrary lines drawn on a map –and that explains everything.  First, these lines are not arbitrary.  Whatever you might want to say about Sykes or Picot, or Churchill or Lloyd George or Clemenceau — that they were gross imperialists (which is not even redundant really but simply a tautology: “The King is a gross monarchist…”) or anything else, they weren’t ignorant or anistoretoi.*  The units they put together corresponded, as so many of Sullivan’s readers point out to him, with regions with long, historically recognized identities.  Where you look at a map of the Middle East and do see straight artificially drawn lines, they were drawn through places where nobody lives.  Otherwise, within every one of those lines, there has always existed a shifting, changing, re- or de-centralizing identity, but one with clear continuities nonetheless.

(*Anistoretoi – ανιστόρητοι – is a Greek word that I like very much, because it literally means “un-historied” — historically ignorant, obviously, but there’s something about “un-historied” that just seems to me like a sharper condemnation of inexcusable lack of knowledge — no? — so you’ll see it on this blog here and there.)

Thankfully, no one says this about Egypt, because it so obviously has a longer continuous history of unified consciousness than even China.  But what Sullivan, so damn pompous — or just so gay and so Magdalen — dismisses as the “non-country” of Iraq, the flatlands of the Tigris and the Euphrates basin, even when semi-splintered into northern, central, and southern parts, as Iraq seems to be doing now, was always seen as a unit: certainly geographically but even culturally.  The two regions the Greeks called Libya and Cyrene may correspond to a west-east division that is still apparent in modern Libya (Tripoli and Benghazi), but their union is not necessarily artificial or inherently problematic.  The headland to the west of Libya we call Tunisia was the first region called Africa by the Romans, where their ancient enemy Carthage had once stood.  And the region where the northwestern section of the Fertile Crescent bends over and meets the Mediterranean has been called Syria since the Greeks and was probably seen as a recognized cultural entity far before them.  The mountainous Mediterranean littoral of this Syria — what’s now Palestine and Lebanon and maybe a new Alawite state waiting to be born — was always a space slightly apart and more heterogeneous, but Syria nonetheless.  (The arid plateau across the Jordan, inhabited by the Moabites and Edomites and Nabataeans and all those other peoples the Israelites are always defeating in the Old Testament because God loves them more, was also a region of a recognized coherence of sorts not just made up by the Brits when they decided to call it Trans-Jordan.)  Syria was the birthplace of Christianity as an organized religion.  Syria was the Romans-Byzantines’ richest and most sophisticated eastern province.  Syria was the prize catch for the Crusaders; the real studs among them who could, got themselves a piece of booty there, not the “Holy Land.”  When Zainab bears her lament to the people of Shaam (Syria or the Levant) in Agha Shahid Ali’s beautiful poem she cries out: “Hear me Syria…” addressing the people of the seat of Umayyad power in Damascus — the one in Syria — that had massacred her sacred family.  Sykes and Picot didn’t make this stuff up.

What Sullivan wants to say, and what’s truly problematic about his assertion, is that Syria is not a country because it’s not ethnically or confessionally homogeneous, and dismissing it as a state for those reasons is a far more eurocentric, and anistoreto, an idea than he may know.  Because if those are our standards for nation-hood, there are very few countries in the world.  By those standards, if Syria is not a country, then England and France aren’t countries either.  Because a polity called the Kingdom of England, or the Kingdom of France — both of which one could argue were “artificially” created by the powers that be of the time — had existed for far longer than Englishmen and Frenchmen have.  And the process by which a unified national consciousness was created to match these pre-existing political units — England or France — was a long and complex one and one that followed the particular course it did only in Western Europe and trying to force it onto the peoples of states in other parts of the world is impossible and extremely dangerous.  Forget what Sullivan thinks is the Machiavelian divide-and-rule politics of the colonizers that pitted ethnic groups in Syria and Iraq against each other; these colonizers were probably never as devilishly smart as we like to imagine them.  What Sullivan finds inconceivable is that one can be a Latakian Alawite or a Sunni from Homs or an Aleppo Christian or a northeastern Kurd and still function as a citizen of a legitimate country called Syria; that these groups have always had boundaries that fluctuated or were permeable; and, that though relations between them historically were better at some moments than others, they were brought together in this place called Syria by organic historic processes and not corraled together there by outsiders.  And by believing that it’s inconceivable they can all function as citizens of this place, he’s actually participating in the creation of a discourse that pits these groups against each other in a manner far more fatal than the supposed manipulations of the British or French.  He’s creating a poetics of sectarianism, pure and simple.  One only has to look at how reinforcing ethnic differences, often with the naive supposition that satisfying each group’s demands will lead to peace, only exacerbated the tragedy — the tragedies — of Yugoslavia in the 90s to see where thinking like Sullivan’s leads.

To his credit, Sullivan gives the Ottomans credit for maintaining a semblance of peace and stability in the region for several centuries.  But the Ottomans had molded, over the centuries, a complex and flexible system of negotiated corporatism and autonomy that recognized the different groups of their empire and yet that held them together in one unit successfully until modern nationalism started making that impossible.  What Sullivan is doing with blowhard statements like the above is just continuing that process: making it impossible for the peoples of the region that have to live together to do so peacefully and productively.

Finally, as a somewhat tangential but important aside, I’d really be interested in finding out why Sullivan doesn’t think that India is “not a country.”

And, folks, what is going on in Syria?  I’ve been in France for a month and my French isn’t good enough to follow the news and the American stuff on-line seems to have less and less coverage.  Has some sort of stalemate been reached?  Is some kind of compromise being forged?  Are people just tired?  Anyone want to enlighten me?

Where’s Charlemagne When We Need Him?

1 Jul

Huh?

Not the most brilliant thing I’ve read lately but one important, though really flawed, point:

“BY 1900, only two genuine multinational empires remained. One was the Ottoman, which was by then in the process of abandoning its traditional religious toleration for Turkish nationalism and even racism. [A completely, unfair, simplistic and un-historical assessment]  The other was Austria-Hungary, home to 11 major national groups: a paradise in comparison with what it was to become. Its army had 11 official languages, and officers were obliged to address the men in up to four of them.

It wasn’t terribly efficient, but it secured an astonishing degree of loyalty. It also brought rapid economic and cultural progress to an area extending from the Swiss border to what is today western Ukraine. During World War I, Austria-Hungary fielded eight million soldiers commanded by, among others, some 25,000 Jewish reserve officers. Thirty years later, the nation-states that succeeded the empire sent most of the surviving Jewish officers to the gas chambers.”

Unfortunately, the poison of the ethnic-based nation-state ideal had gotten too far by then.  Even the portrait of Austria-Hungary he gives us is completely idealized and existed in the form he describes for less than a century.

(Click above)

How sweet though, to have lived in a world that interesting instead of the stupefying monotony of the modern nation-state.  But that idea is so powerful — no, not because it’s natural and inborn, but because the modern, bureaucratic state was the first with the technical apparatus to impose it on its population(s) — that it deletes all historical files dealing with plurality.  Not a single European tourist who comes to New York fails to make the same comment: “Amazing…all these peoples living together…” and I want to explain that that’s how humanity lived for most of its civilized existence — or just pull my hair out — but I usually don’t bother.

But that reminds me: I do live in a world that “sweet” and “interesting:”

Mr. Deak (Hungarian?) is also wrong on an even more crucial point.  The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires were not the world’s last multi-ethnic states.  There’s still China.  Most of southeast Asia.  And Russia.  And most ex-Soviet republics.  And certain Latin American countries.  And almost all of Africa.  And Syria and Lebanon and Iraq and Iran and Afghanistan and Pakistan and the world’s great wonder, India.  Even Turkey.  (And wherever ethnic nationalism is a problem in those countries it’s based on the Western intellectual model.)  In fact, most of the world still lives in “plural” situations.  Only Europe (and even in Europe there’s Spain and the U.K.), has an issue with this concept, but it seems to be fading even there.  Its last bastion will probably be the growing number of viciously homogenized, ugly little states of Eastern Europe and the Balkans.  Which brings us back to Michael Ignatieff:

“The misery of the Balkans stems in part from a pathetic longing to be good Europeans — that is, to import the West’s murderous ideological fashions.  These fashions proved fatal in the Balkans because national unification could be realized only by ripping apart the plural fabric of Balkan village life in the name of the violent dream of ethnic purity.”

From Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism, Michael Ignatieff

 

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