Tag Archives: Paris

Jeremy Scahill — sometimes the only guy that seems to really know what’s going on — from “Democracy Now”

15 Jan

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The gunmen who attacked Charlie Hebdo staff, Chérif and Said Kouachi, were killed by French police on Friday following a three-day manhunt. Shortly before his death, Chérif Kouachi told a French television station he received financing from the late Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by a U.S. drone in Yemen in 2011. Both brothers reportedly traveled to Yemen that same year and had weapons training in the deserts of Marib, an al-Qaeda stronghold. Meanwhile, a video released over the weekend shows Amedy Coulibaly — the gunman who killed four hostages at a kosher supermarket in Paris — pledging allegiance to the Islamic State. In a statement to The Intercept, a source within al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack, saying: “The leadership of #AQAP directed the operation, and they have chosen their target carefully as a revenge for the honor of Prophet … the target was in France in particular because of its obvious role in the war on Islam and oppressed nations.” We speak to the reporter who broke this story, The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill, about al-Awlaki’s background and the Paris shooters’ claims of militant ties.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, a massive march across France, close to four million people, took place. That march took place two days after the gunmen who attacked Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine, Chérif and Said Kouachi, were killed by police after a siege at a printing works following a three-day manhunt. Minutes after the print shop assault, police broke a second siege at a kosher supermarket in eastern Paris. Four hostages had already died there, and the police killed the gunman, Amedy Coulibaly. France has announced it’s deployed 10,000 soldiers on home soil and posting almost 5,000 extra police officers to protect Jewish sites, some 700 Jewish schools.

On Friday, Chérif Kouachi said he received financing by the Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. He had made the assertion on a television station before his death. Reuters is reporting both brothers who carried out the attack against Charlie Hebdo traveled to Yemen in 2011 and had weapons training in the deserts of Marib, an al-Qaeda stronghold. Meanwhile, a source within al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, has provided the website The Intercept with a full statement claiming responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack. Jeremy Scahill was the source of information in this country about that.

Jeremy, talk about what we know about these attacks.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, first of all, there is a built-in motivation for a lot of different groups to try to take responsibility for these kinds of attacks, because there is a turf war going on between ISIS, the Islamic State; AQAP, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; old-school central al-Qaeda, which is a very different organization now than it was under bin Laden now that Ayman al-Zawahiri is in charge of it. France has been actually fighting its own war in Mali and elsewhere in Africa, using drone strikes and attacks and supporting the United States battling against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. So, we have to take everything that all of these groups say about this, you know, with a great deal of skepticism.

But what is clear to me, both from the reporting that we’ve seen at other news outlets and also from my own sources, is that AQAP, at a minimum, had these brothers in a camp, a training camp in Yemen, provided them with training, discussed with them, I understand from sources inside of Yemen, the idea that they should be attacking media outlets that have published the image of the Prophet Muhammad, particularly those that have published the image of the Prophet Muhammad in a demeaning or what they consider to be a disgraceful manner.

You know, the context of this, Amy, is that in June of 2010, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula released its first issue of a glossy, very fancy, designed magazine in the English language called Inspire. And in that magazine, they had an image that was centered around the idea of a cartoon crusade. And they called on Muslims in the West to avenge the reputation and the sanctity of the Prophet Muhammad by going and killing cartoonists who were participating in a “Draw Muhammad Day”—and the show South Park on Comedy Central did a whole issue about this, where they mocked the Prophet Muhammad—and they actually published a list of cartoonists, some of the cartoonists, that had drawn the Prophet Muhammad in this manner, including a woman in Seattle, Washington, named Molly Norris. And she had to go underground and change her name and received federal protection from the FBI. And I think, to this day, she still is underground, believing that she remains on this hit list. So this was something that was a major campaign initiated by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And my understanding is that these two brothers were doing this in concert, to some degree, with AQAP.

Now, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula officials have told me that “We directed this attack.” That’s very—

AMY GOODMAN: How did they get in touch with you?

JEREMY SCAHILL: I mean, I don’t want to discuss—as the CIA says, I don’t want to discuss sources and methods. But I will say this about the source. I’ve spent a lot of time in Yemen, including in areas controlled by al-Qaeda, and I would never just print something that I received from a random person whose identity I couldn’t verify. Also, this isn’t a source that just popped out of thin air for this story. This is—this source of this information is someone that in the past has given me information about what al-Qaeda was going to say or the fact that al-Qaeda was holding particular hostages before it was made public, as a way of validating that they in fact are—do have access to the highest levels of debate and discussion within the leadership of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

But I should say, just by way of context, well-placed sources within AQAP saying this is not an official statement from the leadership of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And before we go sort of all in and say, “Yeah, this is—this definitely was AQAP that directed this plot or financed this plot”—the normal way that AQAP would validate this would be to release statements and audio or video recordings through their official media channels. They have their own online television station. They have their own way of releasing things on discussion boards. Over the past year, they’ve started to shift more to Twitter in terms of announcing—making pronouncements or announcing actions that they’ve taken, hostages that they’ve taken, assaults or raids inside of Yemen that they’ve conducted.

So, what I’m going to be looking for in the coming weeks is if there’s a martyr video that was filmed in Yemen by either of these brothers, or if AQAP is able to produce photographs of them at a training camp. That’s what happened when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up the airplane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. After that happened, AQAP eventually took responsibility, and then they began to release media showing, “Hey, this guy was with us in Yemen,” and they actually released a martyr video where he, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, this young Nigerian man, explained what he was going to do and why he was going to do it. So, until that happens, I think that what we have here is a very reliable source, in terms of accuracy within AQAP, saying this, and now the U.S. is saying that they believe that—that their working assumption is that AQAP was involved.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, that, the underwear—the so-called underwear bomber, it’s just coming out now, actually shared a room in Beirut, Lebanon, with [Said Kouachi, one of the two gunmen involved in the Charlie Hebdo attack].

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, my understanding is that both Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and at least one of these brothers spent time at Iman University in Sana’a, in Yemen. And that’s a university founded by a cleric named Zindani, who is a very, very famous radical Yemeni preacher. He denies that he has any ties to terrorism, but his message is definitely in sync, more or less, with groups like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And John Walker Lyndh, for instance, studied at that university. It definitely is a place where people go and then somehow find themselves going to training camps inside of Yemen. The idea that they would have been there at the same time, if in fact everything we understand to be true about these brothers is true, would not be surprising at all.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you were in Yemen. You were investigating the drone killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, as well as his son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who was 16 years old, born in Denver. Talk about these connections that they’re talking about right now, the actual meeting that Awlaki had with one of the brothers.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Allegedly, yeah. Well, and first of all, just to give context on who is Anwar al-Awlaki, you know, The New York Times had a front-page piece on this over the weekend. The Washington Post had a big piece on it. CNN is now running this big profile of Anwar al-Awlaki. And a lot of what is being said about Anwar al-Awlaki in the media is sort of what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness,” you know, where like it’s sort of true, they’re kind of getting it right, but there are tremendous factual inaccuracies that actually are very relevant to understanding any potential role played by Anwar al-Awlaki here.

First of all, Anwar al-Awlaki was an American citizen who was born in the United States. His father was a very well-respected—is, still alive—very well-respected Yemeni diplomat and scholar, who got his master’s degree in the United States and had intended to live in the U.S. And then the family went back—

AMY GOODMAN: He was a Fulbright scholar.

JEREMY SCAHILL: He was a Fulbright scholar. And he also—he had multiple master’s degrees in the United States, and remains a very dignified, respected member of Yemeni society. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Anwar al-Awlaki’s father.

JEREMY SCAHILL: This is his father, Dr. Nasser al-Awlaki. And so, the family is here for some years. Then Nasser al-Awlaki goes back to Yemen, because he was a water specialist, an engineer, and tried to help deal with the crisis of water shortage in Yemen, which is perhaps the greatest threat facing Yemeni society right now, not terrorism, but its lack of actual potable water. So the family moved back there. Anwar al-Awlaki was young. He goes to school there at a bilingual school with the elite of the elite in Yemen. In fact, he went to school with the future head of Yemen’s intelligence agency, who would be one of the main collaborators with the United States in trying to hunt down and kill Anwar al-Awlaki in a drone strike.

Awlaki then returns to the United States, goes to university in Colorado, was not a particularly religious guy, becomes sort of radicalized by the Gulf War in 1991, when George H.W. Bush ordered the invasion and bombing of Iraq in response to Saddam Hussein’s incursion into Kuwait. And al-Awlaki starts to become involved with antiwar activities, ends up going to a local mosque on an invitation to speak there and becomes interested in the idea of actually becoming a religious scholar and studying to be an imam. And so his life takes a dramatic shift, and he ends up becoming an imam.

He and his family—at this point, he gets married. He’s in San Diego. Two of the 9/11 hijackers were people that had been at his mosque. The 9/11 Commission determined that Awlaki didn’t have any sort of conversations with them beyond clerical conversations that like a priest would have with a parishioner somewhere in the Catholic Church, but nonetheless that’s something that keeps being brought up, that Awlaki had connections to the 9/11 attackers. If we want to talk about that and say that that’s evidence of something, we should also mention that at a time when 9/11 attackers were going to mosques where Awlaki was the imam, Awlaki was also invited by the Pentagon, shortly after 9/11, to give a lecture at a luncheon at the Pentagon. And he in fact went to the Pentagon, at the invitation of a senior Pentagon official, and gave a lecture about the state of Islam in the world today.

Awlaki was clearly angered by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He defended the right of the United States to go into Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda and denounced al-Qaeda as fake Muslims. This was all in the aftermath of 9/11. He was on NPR. He was profiled in The Washington Post. He was considered a legitimate part of the commentariat in the United States post-9/11, as a person who was brought on TV shows to make sense of the position of Muslims in the world post-9/11. And part of the reason he was invited on these media outlets is because he was condemning al-Qaeda. He was condemning the invasion of—or, excuse me, he was condemning the use of Afghanistan as a base to plot the 9/11 attacks.

Then Iraq gets invaded. Then Abu Ghraib happens. Then we start to learn about CIA torture sites around the world. We start to see Muslim prisoners in orange jumpsuits with hoods being brought. Then there’s desecration of the Qur’an that happens. And you could see Awlaki becoming radicalized by these policies. And he goes back to Yemen, and basically didn’t know what he was doing with his life. He got involved with some real estate and other things. Then he starts—he basically starts using YouTube and the Internet as his online mosque. He already was known around the world for sermons he had recorded on CDs.

And part of the reason he became so popular in the Western world is because not only was he fluent in both English and Arabic, but he spoke in the language of the street. He would make pop cultural references. He would sort of mimic the way that Malcolm X spoke, in terms of his riffs and other things. He would make references to international football teams and matches, and make comparisons with—you know, when you’re trying to spread the religion, you don’t wait to show up like the post office, you want to go at it like FedEx. And he would sort of—you know, he was a guy who, I think, has an appeal to particularly younger Western Muslims.

And, you know, I listened to many, many, many, many days’ worth of Anwar al-Awlaki’s preaching. And up until the invasion of Iraq, there was very little that you could look at and say, “Oh, here’s a guy who is going to be very anti-American.” In fact, Awlaki supported the war in Yugoslavia. He was on the same side as the United States in Bosnia. And, in fact, you know, Awlaki was calling for Muslims in the United States to fight the jihad against the Catholic forces of Croatia and the Orthodox Christian forces of Serbia, and he was on the same side as the United States. The U.S. was raising funds to arm Bosnian Muslims to fight in that war. They were on the—the U.S. was on the same side as Anwar al-Awlaki and Osama bin Laden in the war in Yugoslavia in terms of the position that they staked out on Bosnia.

Once Awlaki starts, though, preaching against the U.S. wars and saying that Muslims have a right to fight the jihad against the United States, he became a public enemy, similar to what the U.S. did with Saddam Hussein. When he’s our guy doing our kind of repression, we want him. But if he crosses that line and affects U.S. or international oil interests, he’s now tantamount to Hitler. That’s similar to what happened with Awlaki. The U.S. then has Awlaki put in prison inside of Yemen for 18 months, where he was held in solitary confinement for 17 of those months. He was interrogated by the FBI while in that prison. And then, when he was released, he was a totally changed man.

AMY GOODMAN: Where was he held?

JEREMY SCAHILL: He was held in a political prison inside of Yemen, in Sana’a, Yemen. And, in fact, I reported in my book that when the Yemeni government wanted to release Awlaki, that John Negroponte, who at the time was a senior counterterrorism official under the Bush administration—and, of course, one of the butchers of Central America during the 1980s—John Negroponte had a secret meeting with Bandar Bush, the Saudi diplomat very close to the Bush family, where he—and the Yemeni ambassador, where John Negroponte said, “Our position is that we want Awlaki kept in prison until all of these young Western Muslims forget about him.” This is a U.S. citizen who was being held in a prison in a human rights-violating country on very flimsy charges that he had intervened in a tribal dispute, and a senior official intervenes to say, “We want our citizen kept in your prison without any trial for five years, until people forget about him.”

When Awlaki eventually was released, he was a totally changed man and began increasingly to cross the line from praising people fighting against the United States, in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, to actively calling on people to come and, as he put it, fight on the fronts of jihad in Yemen or elsewhere or in your own country. And this is where he really became considered to be a significant threat by the United States, that his words—not his actions, but his words—were going to inspire lone-wolf acts of terrorism inside of the United States.

And when he really rose to international prominence was in November of 2009, when Army Major Nidal Hasan, who was a U.S. military psychiatrist that had petitioned to try to have some of his patients prosecuted for war crimes after they described to him what they had done in Afghanistan and elsewhere, he—Hasan had written—

AMY GOODMAN: This is at Fort Hood.

JEREMY SCAHILL: This is at Fort Hood, Texas. Nidal Hasan had written to Anwar al-Awlaki a number of times, praising Awlaki, offering to give Awlaki like a human rights prize of $5,000. Awlaki writes back to him and says, “Give it to the orphans and widows.” Awlaki basically was treating Hasan like kind of a disturbed character. But if you read media accounts today about Anwar al-Awlaki, they say he directed the Fort Hood attack. The declassified emails, that the U.S. government has declassified, between Anwar al-Awlaki and Nidal Hasan do not show that at all. In fact, they show Nidal Hasan as sort of an unstable stalker who’s trying to get Awlaki to like him, and Awlaki is sort of dismissing him.

Now, was Nidal Hasan inspired by Anwar al-Awlaki’s preaching and teaching to do what he did at Fort Hood? Absolutely, no question whatsoever. Anwar al-Awlaki was clearly saying—and Awlaki, in the aftermath, praised it and said, “What Nidal Hasan did was right, but I didn’t tell him to do it.” And Awlaki was not a guy who wouldn’t claim responsibility for things that he actually did. He admitted that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was one of his students. Now, that could mean something very serious. It could mean that he was a student, and he said, “Hey, to do something like AQAP wants you to do, to try to blow up this airplane, is acceptable under Islam, because they’re attacking us, and under these codes of the Sharia, it’s fine to do.”

But to say someone directed a plot, in the case of the underwear bomber or in the case of Fort Hood, that’s just not proven. And if we want to say that we live in a society based on the rule of law, if there’s all this evidence that Awlaki was operational within al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, why did the United States never charge him with a crime? If I were a prosecutor, I would have tried to indict Anwar al-Awlaki for directly threatening the life of this American cartoonist in Seattle. Why was he never indicted? We indicted Osama bin Laden. We indicted John Walker Lindh. Why would they not indict Awlaki? If all of this evidence that The New York Times and The Washington Post and CNN now today claim that the U.S. has had for a long time, why was there never an indictment on Anwar al-Awlaki? What did the president of the United States serve as judge, jury and executioner of an American citizen? Why did the United States advocate for a human rights-abusing government to have one of their citizens placed in prison for indefinite detention, when he hadn’t yet been charged with a crime by the United States?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what’s the answer?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I think that the U.S., on the one hand, was afraid of Awlaki’s words. They didn’t want to give him a platform in a trial. I think they also wanted to continue to be able to monitor him to see who he was working with and who he was meeting with. And I ultimately think that they—that the calculus was, if we were to capture this American citizen, this is not the same as putting Osama bin Laden on trial, this is not the same as putting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on trial. This is an American citizen who speaks very articulate, fluent English and would probably have an incredible defense team. So I think part of it was that they never wanted him to see a day in court.

Now, I found Awlaki’s words and his involvement with a number of people who went on to commit acts of terrorism or mass violence reprehensible. That’s not the point here. The point is, if you’re going to make these allegations, you better be able to prove it. So, if Awlaki did in fact meet with either or both of the Paris shooters, that’s a relevant part of the story, but what I know from my reporting on the ground about the underwear bomber is that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was a deranged young man, and AQAP wanted to make sure that he followed through on his plot. And my understanding is that they brought Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to Anwar al-Awlaki to essentially either groom him or to act as a sort of Islamic therapist who was sort of trying to get his mental health back up so that AQAP could do what they wanted to do with him. That’s my understanding of the role Awlaki played with AQAP, is that he was a guy who would help facilitate these people going to AQAP, but not that Awlaki was picking the targets or running the show.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break. When we come back, we’re going to talk more about Chérif and Said Kouachi, about Amedy Coulibaly. Now, the French government and governments around the world are looking for Hayat Boumeddiene, the woman who they say was related to Amedy Coulibaly, not clear exactly what her role has been. They say she left France, went through Turkey, possibly is in Syria. And the person who has fallen off the map is the 18-year-old Hamyd Mourad. The day of the attack on the satirical magazine, on Charlie Hebdo, they said that he was driving the car. But he turned himself in and said, “I was in class,” and many of his classmates tweeted this same fact. We haven’t heard about him again. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. The winter 2014 issue of Inspire, the English-language magazine of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, features an image of a Muslim man praying next to a pressure cooker, above an image of a French passport. The image is accompanied by text that reads, quote, “If you have the knowledge and inspiration all that’s left is to take action.” Last spring, Inspire magazine published a “wanted” poster showing the name and photograph of Charlie Hebdo editor Stéphane Charbonnier, who was killed in last week’s attack.

Our guest for the hour is Jeremy Scahill, who is co-founder of The Intercept, where his most recent article is “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula Directed Paris Attack,” according to an al-Qaeda source. His latest book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. His film, nominated for an Academy Award, by the same title, Dirty Wars.

OK, Jeremy, if you can talk about, first of all, that latest Inspire magazine and what we know about the relationship between these attackers in France, who killed 17 people, and their relationship with AQAP? And also, where does ISIS fit into this?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right, well, let’s take that on first about ISIS. You know, the man who did the siege at the kosher market released this martyr video that he recorded after the Charlie Hebdo offices were attacked by the two brothers. And it was like a hastily put together thing, where he put a picture of an Islamic flag on the wall behind him, and he did some exercises in front of it, and then he pledged his allegiance to Baghdadi, you know, and the caliphate trying to be established by the Islamic State. I wouldn’t read too deeply into his role with the Islamic State. It’s possible that there was, that he had gone and had some participation with members of the Islamic State. It’s also more likely that he was inspired by this and was trying to basically project an image that he was part of a bigger effort around the world to avenge the honor of the Prophet Muhammad and that, you know, this was sort of his last stand and that he was going to be a martyr. But, you know, the—

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go—

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: —to the French media outlets, you know, broadcasting extracts of this video, reportedly to be Amedy Coulibaly. He said he had synchronized the attacks in Paris with the Kouachi brothers and that he was in allegiance with the Islamic State.

AMEDY COULIBALY: [translated] You attack the caliphate. You attack the Islamic State. We are attacking you. One cannot attack and get nothing in return. So you’re playing the victim as if you don’t understand what was happening for some deaths, while you and your coalition, you heading it, you regularly bombard over there. You have sent forces. You are killing civilians. You are killing fighters. You are killing.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Amedy Coulibaly, apparently, and not clear even who he made this video with, if he make it with someone else, which brings in this—the woman who they originally said was in the kosher supermarket with him, and perhaps had killed the French policewoman the day before. But it turns out they now say she had left like January 1st or January 2nd. They say she might be his girlfriend, his common-law wife, and may have made her way through Turkey to Syria.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, and, I mean, I’m—I think we all need to be very careful in speculating about—you know, in the immediate aftermath of things like this, they go and they sweep up all sorts of people, and they make allegations that these individuals may be tied to it. And we heard—I mean, if you watch in the minutes after this happened, you start to hear that there are other attacks that may be underway and that there is going to be multiple cells that are going to be attacking Paris tonight and that they’re looking at this network of people around them. I mean, that’s what happens in the aftermath of shootings like this. They scramble to try to find anyone connected to the individuals that they know were involved, you know, and in this case you had three people that they definitely knew were involved with tremendous acts of violence and mass murder. And, you know, a lot of people get swept up in that net.

So, what her potential role in this is, we don’t know. I mean, they’re putting a lot of scary images of her on television, showing her with a crossbow pointed at a camera and showing images of her with some of the suspects in this case. I don’t think we know enough yet. I mean, my understanding is that the—

AMY GOODMAN: And she’s totally covered there; you don’t even know if it’s her.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. I mean, it could be anyone. And the—but that the intelligence that they have about her whereabouts is largely from signals intelligence and tracking the position of a phone that she apparently, until a few days ago, still had on her.

AMY GOODMAN: And Turkey saying that she had come through.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, Turkey, and they’re saying that maybe she’s already in Syria. But again, all that is speculation. And, you know, the scaremongering machine is in full effect. It’s not to say that there aren’t scary people on the run or that there aren’t potentially dangerous people on the run. But if you watch, as I know you do, like if you watched big corporate media coverage over the weekend, it’s Fear, Inc., you know, and they’re just revving up the fear engine again. This is a serious incident. People need to be brought to justice for this. Anyone involved with it does. But, like, the fear is counterproductive. France deploying 10,000 soldiers on the streets of its city, I mean, this is—the state will always look for a reason to overreact and to sweep up civil liberties. That’s what we saw in this country after 9/11. We’ve never been able to roll it back. That’s exactly what’s happening in France right now.

AMY GOODMAN: How do they prepare for future attacks?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, the discussion you would hear on big corporate television about that is going to be about how do we defend our society, how do we integrate these networks, how do we do surveillance on these people. You know, this is probably going to be an unpopular thing to say, but I’ll say it because I believe it: The only way I think we’re ever going to effectively be able to confront this kind of terrorism is to take away the justification or the motivation of people who are not already sort of committed radical individuals who believe that what they’re doing is justified and they’re not afraid to die.

You know, the Taliban fighters always say, you know, “We love death as much as you love life.” But a lot of these people who do these attacks, something happened in their life somewhere—similar to what happens with school shootings here, you know, what happened at Columbine. I liken a lot of these guys to people who go through some kind of period where they’re lost in life, and then they’re falling. Who catches you when you fall? A lot of times in a society that’s been decimated, a religion that’s been humiliated, people are looking for some kind of greater meaning, and there are a lot of people willing to take advantage of them.

But in a broader sense, what we’ve done since 9/11, and actually going back well before 9/11, with the unquestioning support for Israel, with the drone bombing campaigns, with the invasions and occupations of countries, with the torture of prisoners around the world, we have projected a message that we are at war with a religion. When Rupert Murdoch, the most powerful media figure in the world, goes on Twitter and uses the word “Moslem,” but says that basically all Muslims are to blame for this until they stop it, that’s not lost on people around the world. And Bush used the word “crusade” in the early stages of the post-9/11 aftermath. So, I’m not saying that any of this is justified as a result of U.S. policy. But if we really want to confront this, we have to understand our own role in legitimizing it.

AMY GOODMAN: It was interesting to see Hollande in the middle of the line of world leaders, and on one side of him, just a few leaders down, is Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and on the other side, the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. Well, Netanyahu, one of the biggest war criminals in the world for his—what he’s doing in Palestine. I mean, it’s shocking that someone like him is accepted as like someone who has any business being in a march about defense, freedoms or human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about the connection between ISIS and AQAP. Is there competition? Are they joining together? And to get out there, as we get to the end of this hour, even Boko Haram, I wanted to ask if you see any possible—even if they don’t start out linked—I mean, what hasn’t even been covered in the last week, the possibility that Boko Haram in Nigeria, where we have both reported, killed possibly 2,000 people.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah. I mean, these are heinous, heinous criminals, Boko Haram. But also, you know, just not to get inside baseball about Nigerian politics, but how is it that the Nigerian state—Nigeria has the most powerful military in Africa, is deployed around Africa in so-called humanitarian missions. How is it that the Nigerian military is not able to confront Boko Haram in any effective way? I’m not alleging there’s a conspiracy here, but I guarantee you that very powerful individuals in Nigeria are allowing this to happen or looking the other way, similar to what happens with the Saudi royals with acts of terrorism around the world, where, on the one hand, they say, “Oh, we’re with America, and we denounce this,” on the other hand, their cousin is one of the major funders of it.

You know, to answer your question—and we only have a little bit of time left—about ISIS, AQAP, Boko Haram, al-Shabab and others, those groups are all united in a very generic sense of perceiving that there is a world war against Islam and that they’re going to fight all of the nonbelievers, and that they’re not just going to defend themselves, but they’re also going to actively promote and project their interpretation of Islam on the world. On a micro level, the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are fighting a turf war, and AQAP is aligned with other al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations throughout East Africa, North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and a few other spots around the world. They’re battling for funds from the diaspora. They’re battling for supremacy. It’s not an active military battle right now. It’s largely a propaganda battle waged on Twitter and social media and through official pronouncements.

But at the end of the day, as the AQAP source told me, “It doesn’t matter to us who did the shooting at the kosher market or if he was working with another group; what matters to us is that he did it, and that he was a Muslim, and that he declared that he was avenging the Prophet Muhammad. And that’s more important to us than who directed this.” That, I think, is probably a widely shared sentiment across a number of these groups, many of which have issued statements praising it, but stopping short of saying, “Hey, we did this.”

AMY GOODMAN: Will there be an intensification of the drone strikes in Yemen now?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yes. I mean, there already has been in recent weeks. And let’s remember, too, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, if they are behind this—

AMY GOODMAN: We have one minute.

JEREMY SCAHILL: —this would be their deadliest external attack that they’ve been able to orchestrate or sort of plot or be involved with, you know, since Obama started bombing Yemen and since the creation of the group. And they’ve had a number of failed attempts. The vast majority of people who have died at the hands of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are Yemenis and are other Muslims. But we don’t talk about that. The day the French shooting happened, AQAP attacked a police academy and killed 30 people in Sana’a. It wasn’t even a blip on the radar of media coverage. You know, and so, when we look at the future of what Obama is going to do there, if they go after them, they’ll go after them for this. They won’t go after them for killing other Yemenis or troops that are actually being funded by the United States inside of Yemen. It’s only when they scare us in our own languages or in our own societies, and the response is often disproportionate and ends up killing a lot of innocent people.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think ISIS and AQAP are coming together?

JEREMY SCAHILL: No, I don’t. I don’t think they are, but I think they’re both happy that this happened.

AMY GOODMAN: And who do you think these three brothers—the two brothers and Coulibaly thought they were working for?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, we have their own words. They said that they were doing it on behalf of al-Qaeda in Yemen. They claim that they were financed by Anwar al-Awlaki, who was close to al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is telling me that they played a role in this, al-Qaeda in Yemen. I think until there’s an official statement, we won’t know. But for now, I think we should take seriously what they’re saying, but also in the context that a lot of people have an agenda to say, “Hey, we were behind this,” and those brothers had an agenda to say, “We are operating as part of a bigger network,” because it helps in propaganda.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of the The Intercept. His recent article, we’ll link to at democracynow.org. His latest book, Dirty Wars.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“Paris sera toujours Paris” — sorry, couldn’t resist…

17 Oct

…a Gallic guilty pleasure.

Philopomeon writes on: “Magnificent Turks and the Origins of this Blog”

3 Jul

In one more, just can’t keep ’em from coming, comment on “Magnificent Turks and the Origins of this Blog,”  Philopomeon writes:

“Oh wow, and don’t get me started on the “you don’t know OUR history” stuff from them. For them basically the years 600 AD to 1821 are a blank spot with some vagueness about a “Greek Empire” and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks”

And the massive gap doesn’t even seem to register with them or concern them.  Too much sloppiness to fit into the orderly narrative boxes they like.

It’s actually quite astonishing: where the narrative line doesn’t follow Glorious Greeks to Evil Turks to meh Independence, they’re as historically ignorant as many Americans.

BLUEMOSQUEZIMG_D950Interior of Sultan Ahmet mosque. (click)

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

Return to Paris: “Ode to the Classic Bistro”

19 Jun

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From the New York Timesan article by Elaine Sciolino that makes me physically hurt not to be there again…

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Money quote:

“None of that for me. Call me old-fashioned, but my idea of the perfect bistro is a place where the dishes are traditional, the ingredients seasonal, the service attentive, the price acceptable and my relationship with the chef close enough that I can visit the kitchen when the meal is over. Julia Child put it best in her posthumous memoir, ‘My Life in France’: ‘The kind of food I fell in love with,’ she wrote, was ‘not trendy, souped-up fantasies, just something very good to eat.'”

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(All photos by Ed Alcock for The New York Times — click)

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“Magnificent Turks” and the origins of this blog

11 Jun

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(The photo above and all photos in the main body of this post, are of the Šarena Džamija in Macedonian, or Alaca Cami in Turkish, which means “The Decorated Mosque,” an eighteenth-century masterpiece of Ottoman Folk Baroque in Tetovo, Macedonia.  The photos interspersed between the footnotes are of the Bektaşi Harabati Baba Teke on the outskirts of Tetovo — two of the loveliest places I visitted on this trip.  Click on all.)

From Rebecca West’s Black Lamb, Grey Falcon:

“It is impossible to have visited Sarajevo or Manastir or Bitolj or even Skopje, without learning that the Turks were in a real sense magnificent, that there was much of that in them which brings a man off his four feet into erectness, that they knew well that running waters, the shade of trees, a white minaret the more in a town, brocade and fine manners, have a usefulness greater than use, even to the most soldierly of men.”

Yes, again…  West is prompted to make this comment in I can’t remember what city in Macedonia because the book is huge. Always super-astute, she identifies something really profound about Turks: essentially, what’s known in classical Japanese aesthetics as “bushi-no-nasaké” – “the tenderness of the warrior.” I don’t think that needs to be explained any further. Afghans have this quality, and the autobiography of Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty, his Baburnama, where he talks about the blood and fear of war with true horror in one passage and the sweetness of his beloved Kabul’s melons, its ice-cold waters and the handsomeness of its young men in the immediately following, is probably the most striking literary example of this aesthetic strength outside of anything written in Japanese I would imagine. (Complicated: the fact that it’s a quality most highly present in strongly homoerotic environments or cultures.) I remember sending West’s passage to one of my best friends in Istanbul when I read it and she wrote back and said: “I wish there were even a trace of that sensibility left here.” And I think she was being a little unfair and also suffered from the near-sightedness we all do when we’re immersed in an environment and really can’t see it objectively. To begin with, at least as far as C-town is concerned, it’s hard to build a city for fifteen million in fifteen years and maintain any kind of sensibility at all, so something has inevitably been lost in the dizzying pace of progress in contemporary Turkey. But it isn’t hard to see if you just look a little: a sensuality, an alertness to beauty and material comfort of all kinds, despite some overdone glitz, that comes at you from nowhere often – of course from Turkish women, some of the world’s most impressive for me, but even from the most macho (and some of the world’s most impressive) guys, which is when it’s really beautiful and almost disconcertingly lovely: an aesthete’s attention to detail; a sudden, completely unsolicited, solicitous gesture of smiling generosity; a strange soft politeness and sensitivity, which the sound of the language, especially in the City’s accent, only adds to… A “tenderness.” That of a complete man. Which is what the Japanese meant.

But my reasons for posting it now have nothing to do with my friend or with Turks really. I had been looking for an opportunity to post this passage at some point because it’s essentially the seed of this blog. I thought maybe on some anniversary in April, but Easter posts always get in the way then. What gave me the impetus to post it now is finding the beautiful “Painted Mosque” in Tetovo in Macedonia and the Bektashi Harabati Tekke on the outskirts of the same city, because both structures or compounds are the purest embodiment of the observation West had made of Turks some eighty years before.

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Why did the Jadde grow out of this particular quote? I’ll start from the beginning.

Four, five, maybe even six years ago – I think it was 2008 – a group of Turkish historians of Ottoman art and architecture completed a massive and what sounds like a seriously respect-worthy encyclopaedia of all the Ottoman monuments of the Balkans. I heard about this from Greece, however, in an email from a fairly out-there nationalist who has since grown exponentially deranged, that went out to friends, and friends of friends, and acquaintances, and acquaintances of acquaintances, with the pompous subject line: “The Falsification of History!” No explanation of why the work of serious Turkish scholars was false or a process of falsification. No explanation at all; and, really, I can’t even remember what the tirade in the rest of the email went on about. I wrote back (“Reply all”) and said: “Good for them. Why don’t we do it too?” And then I remembered the above passage about “Turkish magnificence” that West had written while in Macedonia and I sent that out right after.

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The response blew my mind. Dostoevsky said that hysteria was God’s gift to women. But watch certain kinds of sports fans or listen to a certain kind of nationalist and you’ll see that maybe it’s the y-chromosome which carries this gift of the Lord’s. Or maybe Samuel Johnson was wrong in calling “patriotism the last refuge of scoundrels” and should have dubbed it the “last refuge of hysterics.” I was called a traitor. I was called an idiot. One person wrote to tell me that he might agree with some of what I said (I hadn’t really said anything – Rebecca West had) but that I was so aggressive that he wasn’t going to stoop to my level. One guy wrote me an email most of which sounded like it was lifted out of the literature and billboards of Samaras’ (now Prime Minister) simultaneous Macedonia/Elgin Marbles campaign that made an international rezili of us in the nineties when he was Foreign Minister (*1), telling me to “read some history” and “that if you don’t know your history you’re nobody; you’re pathetic my friend — you and your ‘magnificent Turks.’” Now, when a Neo-Greek tells me that I don’t know my history, the hair on the back of my neck stands on end, because even when they come out of the country’s best schools (”…oy, I should cough…” as a certain old Jewish lady I knew liked to say), like this guy has, the “history” they know – or choose to know — are just the national mythologies. I actually really felt sorry for him to be honest, not even insulted, because, like I said, this was a circle of friends of friends and there was a good chance that he would eventually get to know more about me some day and then he would feel r-e-a-l-l-y dumb for doubting either my historical knowledge or my sense of cultural consciousness. I hear he’s a nice guy. He later apologized for calling me “pathetic” but insisted that we still disagreed completely – “diagonally” was the term he used in Greek. I didn’t bother to ask what it was we still disagreed about exactly. And I also won’t tell you who most of these people are professionally because it’ll send chills down your spine.

There were no explanations coming anyway. What was “false” about this project? Were these academics impostors or clowns? Why was I “pathetic?” What was it that I didn’t know supposedly? What was the “diagonal” disagreement about? that the Ottoman was a civilization? What? Explain. Just like I never got an explanation for why my Genocide post was “enraging”…. εξοργιστικό…. other than that it takes away someone’s claim to victim status, nothing was clarified here either, except that one shouldn’t stand anybody saying anything positive about Turks.

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Eventually an attempt at explanation (talk about “pathetic”) came from the original sender, who we’ll call “The Messenger” from now on. “Of course, I support the preservation of art” – he wrote: the classic, vapid introductory caveat of every ideologue; Hitler loved art too; that’s why he bombed the shit out of Piraeus but didn’t touch Athens – “but I can’t tolerate the turning of every little stone into an Ottoman ‘monument.’” Had he seen this encyclopaedic project first-hand? Did he know that any of the entries were just “little stones?” I doubt it. But then came the real point, the following completely strained and muddled analogy: “And when it comes down to it, the preservation of the art of the burglar must take second place to the art of the owners of the home that was burglarized.”

Got it, right? The burglars are the Turks. Understood? Even if we overlook the fact that the primary genetic material of modern Turks is made up of the converted and Turkified peoples that already inhabited the Balkans and Anatolia (2**) — they’re us and we’re them essentially, on some deep level there’s no “they” there; does that not create even the tiniest bit of empathy and identification? — the Turks, and Islam, have been in the Balkan peninsula for six centuries. They’ve been in Anatolia for nine. But for the Messenger, they’re still burglars. They first appeared on the record in the history of southwestern Asia as military slaves, I think, in when? the 7th century? If we count Turkic peoples like the Bulgars, Cumans and Pechenegs, they’ve even been in the Balkans since the 6th century. When do they get their green card?

So this is the essential irrationality of these people’s thought pattern and it’s what makes their arguments descend into crazed incoherence so dramatically fast. They’re not angry at a policy or an act or a group, really, or even a politician or another nation even. They’re angry at gigantic, abstract historical phenomena: the spread of Islam; the westward movement of nomadic tribes from East Asia in the first millennium – shit like that. Which are phenomena that, admittedly, we may have been on the uncomfortable receiving edge of, and — you know what? — yes, cause me occasional sorrow too: the loss was great. (Though we maybe were given much through these processes, also, if you’re willing to see.) But, “ὅτε γέγονα ἀνήρ, κατήργηκα τὰ τοῦ νηπίου” – “when I became a man I put away childish ways” (that’s Paul, I Corinthians, 13:11, since none of these types will know where the quote is from or even if it’s from the Bible very likely) and started looking for ways to handle that sorrow more productively instead of angry — which I had never felt — ranting — which I had never done anyway. But when you listen to these guys you get the distinct impression that you’re watching someone whipping air, or digging a hole in the water as the Greek has it. Because you’re listening to the rant of someone stuck on what he thinks is the losing side of history, and who insists on continuing to act like a loser – and thereby remaining one — by whining and hating. And if you confront them too intensely, they just get nasty because they hit a wall almost immediately; they have nowhere to go rhetorically. I was in a comfortable living room in Athens last month, having drinks and a perfectly civilized – I thought, at least — conversation and listening, I think, to Hadjidakis or even Chet Baker. And I said, for some reason – I can’t remember the context: “Obviously the single largest ethnic group, if not the majority, of the population of Greek Macedonia were Slav-speakers until the beginning of the 20th century, until they were chased out or massacred or exchanged and the considerable remnant terrorized into being afraid of speaking their language or even of openly being who they were.” And I immediately got a traditional warm Balkan reply from this τάχα sophisticated Athenian and Kollegiopaido: “Bre haydi, go fuck yourself, malaka!” Not because this person doesn’t know that what I said was true, but because I had dared to say it so bluntly. And instead of getting up and leaving, or staying and breaking some teeth for being spoken to that way, I was silent. “We were persecuted and thrown out of so many places too!” And then you realize you’re talking to someone who has descended to the level of a fourth-grader and that it would be child abuse to continue.

So rather than waste too much more time in exchanges or situations like that, I finally got my act together a couple of years later and started this blog. I wasn’t going to continue writing or responding to these people individually: narrow-minded and locked in their ideological boxes and — most irritatingly — profoundly provincial and ignorant of certain things and yet simultaneously convinced of their status as the crème de la crème of their segment of Athenian society. (They’re big fish in a little pond and when they get thrown into the ocean they don’t even realize it.)  I was just going to put my ideas out there and anybody who wanted to could do what they felt about them.

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There are two basic components on which these individuals’ thought worlds rest and are designed and constructed. One is their complete lack of empathy, or even the capacity for the slightest identification, with those different from them. I understand not everyone can be from New York, where you’re not only confronted – in the flesh – with the entire rest of the world from the moment you’re conscious of your environment, but confronted as well with the stories of loss and tragedy and deprivation or just frustration and lack of opportunity –again, in the flesh – that brought both you and all these others together here in this city. And you don’t have to be as peculiarly sensitive to these issues as I am. But unless you have an anvil for a head, or no heart at all, it’s impossible to be a New Yorker and not recognize that, though your story may be distinct, it can’t be privileged in as facile a manner as it can when you’re home locked up in your little mono-cultural society. (3***)

And the “in the flesh” part is what’s crucial. People like the Messenger, or Mr. “Pathetic,” feel an instinctive, knee-jerk negativity towards Turks – or anybody else — because….

they’ve never LIVED them, or VISCERALLY lived ANY kind of DIFFERENCE, at ALL, in ANY  REAL way. (4****)

I’ve already written extensively about how the young people of my village, with one-fifth the education of these cosseted bureaucrats (much less a kid like my nephew Vangeli), are more cosmopolitan and open about the world because they’ve lived bi-cultural existences in Albania since their first breath, even if it’s with people they may not particularly like. If anything, the kids of Derviçani would silently ignore The Messenger and his preachings. And if The Messenger dared to get angry and nasty and foul-mouthed with them because his prophecies weren’t being heeded, as he always does with everyone who doesn’t fall at his feet when he speaks, he would be roughly escorted out of the café or bar they would happen to be in, in New York Irish pub style, by a couple of big Derviçiotika djovoria (5*****) — believe me, they’re good stand-ins for Irish pub bouncers, take a good look at some of them in my photos — and quite possibly at knife point just to make sure the message got through. They don’t take kindly, as I don’t, to being told what to feel or think by Athenian amateur “intellectuals” or what they more frequently refer to as “butterboys.” But there are even more dramatic examples I know, intimately, of people having lived amidst ethnic conflict from birth and then — as per Paul in Corinthians – having grown up.

My father grew up in that same village under much worse conditions: conditions of almost constant, chronic – and fatal — communal violence between his communities and the surrounding Muslim villages. During periods of extreme tension, for months or years at a time, a man didn’t leave his village’s boundaries without a rifle visibly slung over his shoulder and cartridge belt across his chest and the women never left at all. And this is the 1920s and 30s we’re talking about, not the eighteenth century. My father could easily have interpreted everything he and his family suffered then, and later under Albanian communism ( see: Easter Eggs…) as something inflicted on him by Albanians or Muslims. But he never did. One of his best friends in New York was a man I used to call Kyr’ Meto (Mehmet), not only an Albanian Muslim but a Çam, in fact, from the Albanian tribal group that were driven out of Greece and massacred by our righteous, right-wing resistance during WWII. They would tease each other, even, in a kind of morbid tragic-comic way of dealing with their shared painful past. My father always greeted Turkish or Albanian Muslim or any Muslim friend in my house with almost more warmth than he did others, as if slightly overcompensating with them were a balm for the pain or the fear of the past — or as if he felt the backwardsness of the old hatreds and they were now more a source of embarrassment than anything else — and with a genuine amused affection and nostalgia and interest in interaction with them, visitors from what was now a lost world. I remember him tearing up once (only on the side and with me, of course, not in front of anyone else) because a Turkish friend of mine had baked a spinach börek for him. They may have been the enemy once; but even as the enemy, they were real people to him, that on some perverse level he “missed,” and now the “enemy” part didn’t even count any more.

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My godfather was from a much more privileged, cosmopolitan environment.  His family was from a village near Isparta in western Anatolia. But the son of an Ottoman military doctor (which probably would make him a traitor in The Messenger’s eyes), he grew up in Konya and Aleppo and Beirut and finally Smyrna, where he lived a charmed life – the son of a rich Greek doctor in 1910s Smyrna and a promising violin student at the city’s conservatory. All this came to a nightmarish end with his father and brother-in-law hanged from the balcony of his house, the inferno and horrors of the Smyrna waterfront and refugee destitution in Athens. Yet it was the politicians who “never really hurt for the land and its people” — the Greek politicians — and had brought such total, scorched-earth disaster down upon their heads that he would constantly curse. Not Turks. He would kill for any opportunity to speak Turkish. He practically swallowed whole a Turkish friend of mine once, whom I had brought to meet him in Greece (admittedly a very beautiful one – the one who had made the börek for my father) and she in turn was dazzled by his strange, now slightly warped Ottoman Turkish. As conservative an old man as he was, he was, in fact, so old that he was still pre-nationalist in many ways and had no patience for what he felt was the ridiculousness of Greek nationalism. He would often say to Greeks – (slightly in a spirit of provocation and infected with that condescension that certain old Anatolian refugees or Polites – or even Cypriots today — feel for what they consider the backwards, ignorant inhabitants of the Greek state: “We taught them how to dress; we taught them how to conduct business; we taught them how to eat; we taught them how to wash themselves…”) – that he wasn’t sure whether he should consider himself a Greek at all, but maybe should just call himself a Turkish Christian. There were no smiles all around when he’d say things like that, but he got a kind of malicious, gleeful satisfaction from it.

Reflex hatred, despite their experiences, was just not part of their composition, like it is for The Messenger and his ilk. And needless to say, they would both have found it laughable that someone had freaked out — και τάχα μωρφομένα παιδιά — because eighty years ago a middle-aged English woman had written that Turks had good taste.

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The second, and I’m not sure I would call it a basic building block but it’s certainly a primary characteristic of these people, is related to what Benedict Anderson once wrote in his groundbreaking Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (6******), and that is that (I’m paraphrasing here): “The nation-state pretends to be the guardian of your culture and traditions whereas, in reality, it’s the enemy of the old ways.” I’ve always thought this the key to the strange contentlessness of nation-state nationalism. All these people who wrote me — the Messenger and his crowd — are, as is usual in these cases, from the more déracinées middling-bourgeois classes of their society and, other than a certain requisite amount of feta that gets put away in each household, there’s a certain indifference to and ignorance of any form of Greek tradition or life at all, and there exists only that same locally inflected form of post-bourgeois, consumer lifestyle that one finds among this class everywhere in the world, including both the tragic and comic consequences of their somehow thinking that their lifestyle puts them on a par with comparable classes in Paris or London or New York.

This was the class of young Athenians who mocked us relentlessly as Greek-American teenagers in the 70s, because we both knew and liked the dances and musical traditions of our parents’ regions and because we both knew and enjoyed the light Greek popular music of the time, which was, in fact, in its Golden Age during that period. I think we forget the degree to which Greek music of any sorts had come very close to dying out completely among these social strata until the rebetiko revival, which started in the 1980’s — and just refuses to die — because rebetiko was a tradition that was perfect material for middle-class white-boy appropriation (like jazz, the blues, and later rap and hip-hop in the United States): it provided all the discourse and attitude of subversiveness and marginality without any of its risky realities. Later, when by the nineties, the little girls of this class could be found dancing çiftetelia on the tops of bars in Mykonos (badly, of course; the thread had been cut by then and there was no regrafting the branch back onto the trunk of tradition), it was hard for me/us to contain our laughter or control the reactions of our stomachs.

Then there’s their complete indifference to the Church. And I’m not talking spiritually; I could give a shit about them spiritually or about the state of my or their or anybody else’s souls. Or religiously, a word whose meaning I don’t even understand.  I’m talking about the Church as a cultural institution, of which one cannot remain so profoundly ignorant and consider himself Greek. Period. That’s an unalterable, non-negotiable secular article of faith for me.  Sometimes I don’t like it either; but whether we like it or not, this institution: its philosophy, art, architecture, music, poetry and theater, were what the Greek world poured the by far greatest parts of its cultural energies into for close to two millenia. I know it’s a difficult leap to make from that; Holy Mother Russia for example, had the time and luxury and power to remain deeply Orthodox and yet take from the Western world the forms and genres she needed to make them her own and create the dazzlingly rich literary and musical culture she did for herself. I wish we had had a Dante or a Chaucer or a Boccaccio or a Lermontov or Pushkin to set us on the road to a modern literary culture, but we didn’t; we had to wait till the Generation of the 30s to produce anything even resembling a coherent modern prose and poetry tradition. We had to make the jump from the essentially mediaeval mind-set of late Ottoman Hellenism directly to modernity and in trying to make it were tripped up, on top of it, by the Classicism forced down our throats by the West.  As a result, the average member of The Messenger’s class is profoundly ignorant of any aspect of Church tradition, but will, in ways which make you cringe in embarrassment, take great pride in pointing out to Americans that the columns on a Greek Revival home in Princeton, New Jersey, for example, are “Greek” columns of the “Ionian order,” like the father in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”  The Messenger himself spent this past Holy Week sending out YouTube videos of Greek Air Force flight formations as a form of holiday greetings. I responded that I didn’t know what these could possibly have to do with this time of the year and asked why he was sending them to me and he got angry and sarcastically replied: “Ok, I’ll only send you ecclesiastic hymns from now on.” This is obviously a sarcastic reference to my supposed “religiosity” – which he probably considers a combination of passé Greek diaspora churchiness with a healthy dose of American “Jesus-Loves-Me” thrown in. I wrote back that I had never posted a single ecclesiastic hymn on my blog and that whenever I did post on a particular religious holiday it was to place it in a wider context of the myriad connections it usually has to other civilizations more than anything else. In fact, almost all the religious music on my blog is Black American Gospel or R&B. And if The Messenger or Mr. “Pathetic” or any of their buddies do know any ecclesiastic hymns, other than the first bar of “Christos Aneste,” which they’ve heard on those three and only three minutes, when, at midnight on Easter, they even set foot near a church, they’re welcome to send them to me.

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I talk earlier about certain historic processes, great losses of ours, causing me sorrow too. And, in response I’ve spent the greater part of my adult emotional and intellectual energies trying to build some sort of rickety bridge to those lost places – even if the only thing I have to show for it is this amateurish blog — and to the peoples with whom we lived in those spaces and with whom, over these spaces, literal and symbolic, we slaughtered each other in such staggering numbers for so numbingly long a time. But The Messenger and Mr. “Pathetic” don’t give a flying shit. A lost Byzantine world or even the lost world of Anatolian Hellenism mean nothing to them, other that just a reason for Turk-hatred and nothing else –read on if you can.

Because THERE…is that deeper indifference that stuns me often; and that’s not just an indifference to a certain body of cultural tradition, but to the bearers, the people themselves, of those traditions. This, again, is the natural outcome of being obsessed with the state of the State, while being almost completely indifferent to the cultural content – which is its people — of the State. The Messenger is obsessed with what’s good for the State, but is almost completely stumped if you ask him what his vision is for the Hellenism that this State is supposed to contain and defend.  I remember a characteristic attack of hysteria on his part in which he was screeching: “And I don’t give a shit about Anatolian Hellenism or Politikes Kouzines or Loxandres!!! (7*******) I care about what’s good for Greece!!!”   And this was always clear: that, taking this particular case, if the completely moronic plan for the 1919 invasion of Anatolia had worked, it would’ve been good; if not, as it wasn’t, then fuck the lot of them; bring them all to Greece and start again. The Fatherland is what counts. These are exactly the thought processes of Venizelos himself, without a doubt one of the slimiest dressings-up of two-penny Cretan machismo into a frangiko tuxedo that ever left its trail of slug-juice across the international stage: “Let’s try this insane idea and if it brings me greater glory and only then Greece, ok.  (I mean, damn, I even had to suck off Lloyd George in Paris to support me on it.)  If not, we’ll figure something else out, like up-rooting one-third of the Greek world – the most dynamic and productive part — from their aeons-old ancestral hearths and destroying forever the civilization and culture they had built in those places.”  “In place of that civilization,” which is not reconstructable in another place – places, lands, cities, forgive the New-Agey tone, have an energy, an identity, that don’t allow you to just put them together again somewhere else – “I’ll have myself a homogeneous and distinctly more governable Greece,” thinks the Great Cretan Father “and I’ll deal with the Jews of Salonica my way (politically disenfranchising them and allowing a series of vicious pogroms against them which would release the frustrated energies of the Anatolian refugees I was responsible for creating); I’ll conduct some completely gratuitous political purges and brutal Third-World-style monkey trials and executions so that I can blame the failed vainglory of my plan on the Monarchists, thereby perpetuating into the late twentieth century the polarization of Greek politics that I’ve been the primary creator of…those pesky Slavs in Macedonia will probably have to be taken care of by another generation… But I’ve certainly done my part in bringing myse…errr…the Fatherland peace and glory and order and progress and – just watch and see — they’ll even name a big airport and a big ole boulevard in Belgrade after me when I’m gone.” And there is a big ole boulevard in Belgrade named after the Cretan manga, which is quite apposite actually, because stirring up dangerous passions and delusions among his people and then abandoning them to ruin does make Venizelos very close to a Greek Milošević; they might want to think of a Milošević Boulevard in Athens too, or a Karadžić Avenue, just in honor of the spirit of Greco-Serbian friendship. And if you wanna go beyond Greek-Serbian palishness and broaden things up ideologically, a Tudjman Street would not be such a bad idea either.

Likewise The Messenger. All during the nineties, after the terrors of communism had passed the inhabitants of my father’s villages spent years of anxiety caused by a new fear: that the Albanian government would take advantage of the general chaos in the Balkans at the time and expel them from their villages into Greece – one fear replaced by a new anxiety. Only after 1997, when the Albanian state collapsed on all imaginable levels, and then things slowly stabilized, did this new fear subside, partly because the Albanian military itself had collapsed as well and all its weaponry, down to tanks, were completely looted from one day to the next. This flood of weapons is what caused the radical escalation of the Albanian KLA’s (Kosovo Liberation Army) violence in Kosovo, but in a land where a man’s rifle was “better than his wife” as an Albanian song puts it, it may have been the reason for the final coming of some sort of stability, for reasons that would make an NRA member’s heart sing: if there were any ideas about expelling Greeks from their villages, the knowledge that they, like almost everyone else in the country, now had a couple of Kalashnikovs along with their old hunting rifles buried under their houses’ floorboards definitely put a halt to any such radical plans.

But even despite this second wave of terror my people experienced, The Messenger stands at my side, about ten kilometers from Derviçani, where my ancestors held on tooth and nail to their land, their religion, their language, for centuries – as every other people have the right to — looks out over the valley of Dropoli and thinks out loud: “These borders could have been drawn to better advantage for us. All that was necessary would’ve been a few key population exchanges…”

He. They. Simply. Just. Don’t. Care. They care abut the Fatherland (or in The Messenger’s case, calling it the Vaterland at this point might be more apposite) and that it comes out on top. What it does to the civilization it’s supposed to defend, what the content of that civilization even is, what it does to the souls of its inhabitants, don’t matter. Das Vaterland über Alles. Nation-States, sadly, as in the analogy I made at the top of this post, are a whole lot like professional athletic teams. “Why do you love this team? It’s from my city. And? Your city has two or three of these same teams; why do you love this one? Everybody in my neighborhood does.  So?  Because my father did. And? Well, just because…ok… χέσε με τώρα… Fuck off now…what are these questions about anyway?”  You ask for meaning — like in the living room where I was told to go fuck myself — from something meaningless, and ultimately, the only response you’ll get is rage. The rage of the mute.

Again, I said I wasn’t going to tell you who these people are professionally, but those who know me already know and the rest can probably take a not so wild guess. Let’s just say, as I must have made obvious, that they consider themselves the defenders of the Fatherland’s interests abroad. So for them to have something to defend, the Fatherland must have some enemies — or just not very cooperative neighbors — because if not, what would they be defending? Nothing. And then they’d just be living the life of a glorified bureaucrat. And where’s the glamour in that?

Or as the poet said: “Οι άνθρωποι αυτοί ήσαν μια κάποια λύσις.” “Those people were a solution of some kind.”

The Staurodromi, Pera, June 2014

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1 * In the nineties, Antones Samaras, now Prime Minister, was Foreign Minister and he put all of his energies into preventing the recognition of Macedonia as an independent state by that name, and forcing the issue of the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece; this is when plans for the new museum of the Acropolis were set in motion, which I just won’t go into, despite the fact that I admit it’s an impressive building. It has a hall of models of the Elgin marbles, that’s waiting there, for the return of the real ones, like Miss Havisham and her moldy wedding cake, spitefully waiting with her clocks stopped in her the fading beige wedding dress, for the bridegroom who, believe me guys, the Brits are never going to let come. And good for them and rightly so.

We never had a defensible point about Macedonians’ use of the name Macedonia for themselves. We may have had a point about Macedonians appropriating the completely Greek cultural phenomenon of Alexander the Great as their own – despite the cosmopolitan he, Alexander, later, clearly became, when he recognized the beauty and superiority of the cultures of the East he had conquered (but of course, we ignore that part of his story). Where we may have really had a point is that all this indicated irredentist intentions on the part of the new Macedonian state, on lands which may have been ethnically Slav-Macedonian until recently but now were clearly not. But we didn’t emphasize that or put it at the forefront of our argument.  Instead, as if it were still 1810 and some crazy Philhellene Wittelsbach were king of Bavaria, we tried to play the “The Ancients” card with the rest of the world. Instead of taking the lead, at a time of horrendous instability and bloodletting in the Balkans, and attempting to be arbiters of some kind of peace, as the most stable state in the region at the time (can you imagine?) we “donned our ancient fineries” as the Xarhakos song from Rebetiko has it, which only left the rest of the world, as Misha Glenny says: “confused and bored.”

This imbecilic persistence in the idea that claiming Greek antiquity as our own is going to gain us prestige and preferential political treatment from the West is beyond just neurotic; it’s pathological.  And yet no Neo-Greek can seem to understand how pathetic and comical it seems from an outsider’s perspective.

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2 ** A lot of Turks don’t like this argument either, because they think you’re calling them gavur tohumu or something. Official early Turkish Republican historiography had Turks arriving, as they now are, and gloriously conquering Anatolia and the Balkans, though there was never any explanation as to why Turks here – especially the Great Father himself – didn’t look anything like the Turks who lived in the places where they had come from (though the answer could probably be found if you got deep into Sun People/Sun Language theory and historiography, which, if you’d you’d like to do, be my guest).  Of course, nobody really believes this any more; when you have Bosnian restaurants and Kosovar Albanian fraternal organizations, or Circassian youth groups, you have a society that’s admitted that it comes from diverse sources in a manner much more mature than that of Greece – and that that’s no shame. But I can understand Turks getting defensive about it; Greeks have started saying this about Turks a lot lately and mostly it’s in a negative spirit, as a way to delegitimize them as some sort of mongrel race, or the: “See, Sinan was really Greek” argument. But it’s an odd and very stupid argument for Greeks to make, since we, as a former “absorbing,” Imperial people ourselves, are also a very complicated ‘mongrel’ mix, as the huge variety of our own physiognomies proves: “See, Basil I was really Armenian, and the Comnenoi were really Vlachs,” for example.  But there’s no talking logic to things as rootedly irrational as racism and nationalism.

3 *** I wrote once in an old post about Greek racism, when Golden Dawn violence was at its height, that:

“I’m from a city where you stop being a stranger the second you arrive, maybe, as many say, because nobody can really be bothered to give you a second thought.  “We may not be very nice, or smile, or say ‘Good Morning’,” wrote Pete Hamill, “but there’s always room.”  But I don’t believe that New York is tolerant just because everybody’s too busy to be intolerant.  I believe there’s a sadness behind New York cynicism and irony and supposed “world-weary stoicism” that few people really understand, but if you feel the city in your gut and it’s not just a cool glamour-spot for you, then you know.  You can hear it in people’s voices, in the accent, in their body language and facial expressions, and in the kindness and blunt bursts of warmth you’ll suddenly get from where you least expect it.  It’s the sorrow of exile — and the wisdom it forces on you.  He may not know a word of whatever it was his great-grandparents spoke or seen even a picture of the land they came from, but every New Yorker carries a bit of that sense of loss in him and an innate knowledge of what drove him and his away and brought them here: the destitution of Ireland, the grinding poverty of Sicily, the fear of just being Jewish in Russia, the terror of being Black in Georgia, the violence of Colombia…  You think it’s romantic; it’s not.  (In fact, there’s lots of research out there now suggesting that repeated external experience can and does become codified as genetic information that is then transmitted from one generation to the other.)  Every New Yorker just knows it’s the human condition.  So when the next stranger comes along, he nods, says hi, and goes about his business.  Maybe takes a curious interest in where the new guy is from and learns a little something about the world; maybe helps him out if he can.  Of course, it’s now a cliché to say that New York isn’t America; but it’s just as true that it couldn’t exist in any other country.

“How Greeks forgot the “sorrow of exile” is beyond me.”

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4 **** You feel this innate inability to experience the Other in the gut in this entire class of Athenians or urban Greeks generally, because the complex they’re burdened with, like the middle-classes of all semi-developed countries,  is that they’re always looking for petit bourgeois status points in everything they do and the rest falls outside their blinkers. They’ve been everywhere and have seen everything it seems, but have felt nothing. The great test for me, of course, is New York. Now, if you don’t understand that the great glory of New York is the dialectic between its glamorous, high-fashion, high-finance, high-cool end, and its popular, working–class, thriving immigrant metropolis end – neither of the two poles on their own, but the incredibly fecund dialectic between the two — then you’ve understood nothing about New York and might as well, as Nasredddin Hoca says, “go home.” And it’s so obvious that the great majority of Neo-Greeks who visit are so completely interested in just one end of that polarity that they’re not even worth considering as people who have truly appreciated the city. Colombian and Mexican friends who live here and have visitors come tell me the same thing: “They only wanna see what’s cool, so they can talk about it when they get home.” In other words, middle-class white boys from underdeveloped countries are all the same. It’s always the odd German or the curious French or Japanese couple — or two Turks once on 74th Street! — who have taken the subway out to Jackson Heights or Flushing and are prowling around for good Mexican or Indian or Chinese food or just the feeling of coming out of a subway stop and being in a completely different country. Neo-Greeks visitors, in fact, are so clueless about New York City, that they don’t even see that New Yorkers themselves now consider Astoria one of the city’s hippest neighborhoods, and instead they’re embarrassed by its old-fashioned immigrant Greekness; they can usually be found in a tourist trap neighborhood like Greene or Mercer Streets somewhere…looking for shoes.

As for The Messenger, he has a job that many would kill for, that posts him in various interesting cities around the world. Maybe not Paris or London or New York or Berlin, but cities and countries interesting enough that most of us would jump at the opportunity to go work there for a while. He hates all of them. Within two weeks of arriving he’s come up with his own elaborate, and always scarily racist anthropology of the country: why the city is boring and disgusting; why the food is disgusting; why the people are inherently, genetically morons and fools. He lives in each for up to two years at a time and hasn’t made a single friend in any of them. They’re all too boorish for him.

His criterion for loving a city is that he can get köfte and french fries at four in the morning. The only city worth living in for him is Athens. Now Athens is not an immediately loveable city by any means. It’s an acquired, and not easily acquired, taste and I for one happen to genuinely love it. But it’s the ugliest city on the European continent that doesn’t have war or a megalomaniacal communist dictator to blame for its hideousness and, as I’ve said before: “It probably takes first place among Europe’s cities in imagining itself as far more sophisticated than it truly is.” I love it…but can we get a reality check here, please?

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5 ***** These low stone walls here (shown above), boundary markers between individual properties, are called “djovoria” in Dropoli, the region where my father’s village is; I’ve never heard the term used in other parts of Epiros. The men of Derviçani are also known as “djovoria” or “a Derviçiotiko djovori.” The meaning of this moniker is probably clear. It implies thickness and strength and stubborn immobility, a dude who’s probably not too bright, but who, like a genetically gifted wrestler or judoka, has a low center of gravity that’s hard to knock down and take to the mat. “Άντρα άπ’τη Δερβιτσιάνη, κοπέλα από τη Γοραντζή, γαϊδούρι άπ’το Τεριαχάτι κι άπ’το Λεζαράτ’ σκυλί.” “A man from Derviçani, a girl from Gorandji (the neighboring village which is considered not only far more elegant and sophisticated than Derviçani, but also to have the prettiest girls in the region), a donkey from Teriahati (because it’s inhabitants were considered docile and somewhat dumb) and a dog from Lezarati (long story: this is the neighboring village and competitor in the ongoing, still violent feud…because they’re considered turncoats, having converted to Islam in recent memory, which in these parts means the eighteenth century). And this is a saying that’s not from Derviçani, but from the other villages of the region. In fact, almost all the other villages of Dropoli consider themselves culturally superior to the brutish brawlers of Derviçani, but because it’s the biggest and northernmost Greek village, they’re considered the frontline, dumb grunt infantrymen of Christian Dropoli, and are granted grudging admiration for that – if nothing else.

6 ****** Types like “Mr. “Pathetic” are always telling you to read history, yet outside of standard Greek sources, they have read nothing…by which I mean nothing. They know none of the literature of modern nationalism, like Anderson or Hobsbawm  or or Gellner or Ignatieff; they’ve never read any of the writers on Balkan nationalism in particular, Glenny or Judah or Todorova. And they haven’t even read the works of scholars that have dealt with Modern Greek nationalism almost exclusively in their work, like Michael Herzfeld or Anastasia Karakasidou, a Greek anthropologist who studied in the United States and who was physically threatened and practically had to go into hiding after her dissertation was published in the late 1980s, because it dealt with the continued presence of Slav-speakers in Greek Macedonia; even the informants in her research who had told her they still speak Bulgarian better than Greek came out and officially denied her and the information they had given.

What’s the history I’m supposed to know again, Mr. “Pathetic”?  Let me know.

And what have you read lately?  Tell me.  Nα μαθαίνω κι εγώ…  

(Those scholars’ names are linked to their Amazon pages btw; don’t be scared…try…there’s nothing to be afraid of…)

The Messenger, of course, reads nothing but military history.

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7 ******* Politike Kouzina I’ve never seen, but it’s a film that I’ll admit sounds like the kind of sappy, faux-nostalgia, Greek-Turkish “brotherhood” corniness that makes me ill.  Maria Iordanidou’s novel Loxandra, however, is a masterpiece.  It’s often — and very  mistakenly — taken lightly because it’s a glimpse of life in late nineteenth-century Constantinople as seen through the eyes of a middle-aged Greek housewife, whose primary daily preoccupation is whether she should buy small mussels for lunch and fry them or big mussels and stuff them, or whether the eggplants in market are of the right fleshiness to make a decent hünkar beğendi yet. Yet through her daily preoccupations, deeply intelligent observations are made about nationalism, about ethnicity, about co-existence and inter-ethnic relations and about the compromises we make – often in the face of terrifying violence – to go on, not only living with others, but to continue seeing them as human. Together with Polites’ Stou Hadjifrangou, and to some extent, Theotokas’ Leones, it’s far smarter on all those counts than anything by Benezes or Sotiriou or any other book of the “Anatolian martyr” genre that usually fills about one-third of the average Greek bookstore. And in the best Greek Constantinopolitan tradition, huge sections of it are hilariously funny as well.

Of course, since it has no bearing on the good of the State, The Messenger doesn’t give a damn about any of this, or everything that was lost in the destruction of that world.  He’s angry at the destruction because his animosity can feed off of it.  But what it was that was actually destroyed, he is completely indifferent to.

Κι’αυτά.  Bu kadar, as they say.

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“All that is good is inherited…” — Nietzsche, Paris and me…

12 Apr

1 Nietzsche, Friedrich - Portrait, 1860

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Rereading my post on leaving Paris: “Leaving…” (March 2), particularly the phrase: “And all marked by the supremely intelligent understanding that it all starts on the surface — that that’s what counts — and that it works its way down from there,” —  and all of my posts on France: “Toulouse: Who ever lov’d that lov’d not at first sight?” , it struck me how colored they were by early university readings of Nietzsche, particularly these two passages from The Will to Power, here taken from Walter Kaufmann’s translation, emphases from the original:

       “Beauty no accident. The beauty of a race or family, their grace and graciousness in all gestures, is won by work: like genius, it is the end result of the accumulated work of generations. One must have made great sacrifices to good taste, one must have done much and omitted much for its sake – seventeenth-century France is admirable in both respects – and good taste must have furnished a principle for selecting company, place, dress, sexual satisfaction; one must have preferred beauty to advantage, habit, opinion, and inertia. Supreme rule of conduct: before oneself too, one must not “let oneself go.” The good things are immeasurably costly; and the law always holds that those who have them are different than those who acquire them. All that is good is inherited: whatever is not inherited is imperfect, is a mere beginning.

       “In Athens, in the time of Cicero, who expresses his surprise about this, the men and youths were far superior in beauty to the women. But what work and exertion in the service of beauty had the male sex there imposed on itself for centuries! For one should make no mistake about the method in this case: a breeding of feelings and thoughts alone is almost nothing (this is the great misunderstanding underlying German education, which is wholly illusory): one must first persuade the body. Strict perseverance in significant and exquisite gestures together with the obligation to live only with people who do not “let themselves go” – that is quite enough for one to become significant and exquisite, and in two or three generations all this becomes inward. It is decisive for the lot of a people and of humanity that culture should begin in the right place – not in the “soul” (as was the fateful superstition of the priests and half-priests): the right place is the body, the gesture, the diet, physiology; the rest follows from that. Therefore the Greeks remain the first cultural event in history: they knew, they did, what was needed; and Christianity, which despised the body, has been the greatest misfortune of humanity so far.”

and:

“One thing is needful. “Giving style” to one’s character – a great and rare art! It is exercised by those who see all the strengths and weaknesses of their own natures and then comprehend them in an artistic plan until everything appears as art and reason and even weakness delights the eye. Here a large mass of second nature has been added; there a piece of original nature has been removed: both by long practice and daily labor. Here the ugly which could not be removed is hidden; there it has been reinterpreted and made sublime… It will be the strong and domineering natures who enjoy their finest gaiety in such compulsion, in such constraint and perfection under a law of their own; the passion of their tremendous will relents when confronted with stylized, conquered, and serving nature; even when they have to build palaces and lay out gardens, they demur at giving nature a free hand…  For one thing is needful: that a human being attain his satisfaction with himself – whether it be by this or by that poetry and art; only then is a human being at all tolerable to behold. Whoever is dissatisfied with himself is always ready to revenge himself therefore; we others will be his victims, if only by always having to stand his ugly sight. For the sight of the ugly makes men bad and gloomy.”

It’s easy to mock these — Nietzsche is an easy and cheap target — grandiloquent, sweeping statements of aristocraticness from a man who, in reality, was a socially inept, painfully shy and anxiety-ridden pastor’s son, who got through most of adult life on mountains of “mother’s little helpers” and whose last, lucid moments of consciousness of the world were spent weeping next to a dying horse on a street in Turin.  But I say more the mangia that accrues to him for seeing and calling life and existence as he felt them to be — or should be ideally —  even if he himself could not be that heroic ideal.  And not doing what most of us do: cater our credo and worldview to match what we already know are our limitations.

All that is good is inherited: whatever is not inherited is imperfect, is a mere beginning...” seems particularly true to me, as unfair as it must seem to some.

Paris chairs Rebecca Plotnickil_570xN.269434329photo: Rebecca Plotnick

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Leaving…

2 Mar

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It gets harder to leave Paris every time.  That my departure falls exactly on the eve of Lent today makes it a bit more melancholy but a bit easier to take as well.  “Here,” I think, “I’ll lose this for now; maybe again soon I’ll have it back.”  Like any Lenten action, you might have to have it taken away to keep the edge of your love for it sharp and even.  I dunno.

I don’t need to tell readers that I’m totally unembarrassed by my sheer, sappy sentimentality and ready-to-die-for loyalty to this city.  You can keep the unkempt disorder of dank, mouldy London and its claustrophobic spaces and the nightly threat of getting the shit beaten out of you at 11:00 when the pubs close (I’ve never in a lifetime in New York City, even as a teen during the Dark Ages of the seventies and eighties, felt that kind of menace on that kind of regular basis) and whatever it is that everybody suddenly decided is so cool about it since the nineties.  You can keep sehr-hip Berlin with everyone in their funky Libeskind glasses and with that constant annoying earnest look, or the architectural wonders of Oslo and the new cosmopolitanism of the Rotterdam waterfront or the New Pittsburgh — or friggin’ B-a-r-c-e-l-o-n-a — or any of the other newly minted urban centers that found some way to remake their grimness over as cutting-edge in the post-industrial world and that supposedly left Paris behind in the dust.  I’ll take her over any of them at any time.

Something here, if you’re susceptible to it, makes you sick forever.  Forever.  It’s a promise of perfection, of a possible and absolute Attic kind.  Of perfect image, of perfect moment.  Of what Hadrian felt for Athens, having just seen a stage production of Yourcenar’s book here.  In Athens, a young man bending over to lace up his sandal.  Here, a girl wrapping her scarf; the posture and composure of the kid refilling your glass — that twist of the wrist that slays; the highly conscious, almost Japanese rituals of courtesy exchanged with even everyday shopkeepers.  Some fleeting view of what the civilized ideal looks like, rushing past you in a furtive but powerful array of images all day and all night.  And all marked by the supremely intelligent understanding that it all starts on the surface — that that’s what counts — and that it works its way down from there.

New York holds out a radical promise too, but of a very different sort, and New York makes it clear that you’ll have to suffer so much to obtain it that you’ll be too exhausted to actually live it in the end. And I’m from there anyway and don’t have that outsider’s magic belief that some kind of fulfillment is waiting for me there “if only just…”  Just nothing; it’s just my hometown; superior to all the rest — obviously — for the simple reason that it contains the whole world, but really just home.  Queens.  Here it’s not about something you’re expected to achieve necessarily; it’s about being part of a life as it should be lived.  There’s no being more specific than that; it’s just the way things should be.  The myth is so overpowering and myth is our only reality anyway and when, of course, it falls short, as everything in a fallen world does, that doesn’t heal the sickness.  It just makes it worse because the temptation to keep wishing the moment frozen grows as any real possibility of that recedes.  And I guess that means ultimately that the secret of what makes leaving Paris each time that much harder is just age.

I discovered a cousin I had never known before who lives here, an experience like finding a beautiful old photograph of someone you don’t know in a shoebox in the back of a closet.  “…you’re never through with the city…” she wrote me, after we had had coffee one morning.

Insha’allah.

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