The tanners of Zeytinburnu

Z cover

Following our visit to the Zeytinburnu district of Istanbul [1] to seek the wisdom of a senior Bektashi couple, I’ve been admiring

It’s published in a bilingual edition, lavishly illustrated, with chapters on the Byzantine and Ottoman periods, holy springs and churches, lodges and mosques, the walls, health institutions, economy and demographics, and leisure.

Zeytinburnu map

I find the exemplary diachronic ethnography of the tanneries particularly impressive (cf. the cinematic climax of Jason Goodwin’s novel The Janissary tree), in the chapter on the Kazlıçeşme quarter (pp.100–153). I suppose I’m drawn to it partly by my interest in the changing social role, and technical expertise, of low-status craftsmen in China—including household Daoists, ritual artisans, coffin-bearers and grave-diggers.

In the 15th century, under Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror, 360 tanneries were constructed in Kazlıçeşme. The great 17th-century ethnographer Evliya Çelebi described the scene:
(here and in other citations below I’ve revamped the somewhat unwieldy English translation, attempting—not necessarily reliably—to make it more reader-friendly, while inevitably sacrificing the nuance of the original)

In the Byzantine era, people coming from plague-afflicted regions could not enter Istanbul before staying at Yedikule [Kazlıçeşme] for seven days; this was called nazarta (quarantine). After the conquest, Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror resettled all the tanners and slaughterhouses to this region.

[Kazlıçeşme] is a developed town by the seaside. It has one large and seven small mosques, one inn, one bath, seven fountains, and three lodges. It has three hundred tannery shops, fifty glue workshops, and seventy string workshops. But few of the inhabitants are married; it is a bazaar of bachelors. During wartime, the town can mobilise five thousand strong tanner bachelors who are tough as iron and very courageous.

People who are not used to the foul smell of this town couldn’t tolerate it even for one moment. But for the inhabitants that smell is like musk and ambergris; they don’t like it when people who put on musk approach them. They treat others with respect and honour. They have abundant property. Their spiritual master, the late Ahi Evran, asked a caliph who was passing by with his skirt filled, “What’s that in your skirt?” He replied: “It’s kuruş (piasters, coins).” But he was actually carrying dog faeces—he gave this answer out of shame. Ahi Evran even recited prayers saying, “May Allah bestow blessings on your goods and supplies”. Thanks to such auspicious prayers, the trade of the leather workers has been prosperous, and they are always generous in treating others. Moreover, a leather trader called Hadji Ali had worked with dog faeces for forty years, and the English infidels wanted to buy his supply for forty thousand kuruş but failed to do so. This is a famous story.

A vivid image known beyond the town is the relief of a goose under the arch of a fountain, carved in white marble by a master craftsman. It’s indescribable in words; when people see it they think it’s alive. Hence the name Kazlıçeşme, Goose Fountain.

Goose relief

Source: wiki.

In another account, Evliya Çelebi surveys the trade over the wider city:

Evliya 1

Evliya 2

In that last paragraph, note the reference to the furriers on parade with their own Janissary band!  Among other guild parades that Evliya Çelebi documents are those of sable merchants, falconers, leopard- and lion-keepers, barbers, and acrobats (see e.g. Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim, eds, An Ottoman traveller, pp.24–30).

The book goes on:

People who had committed a serious crime sought refuge in one of the tanneries at Kazlıçeşme, working there so as to evade conviction and rid themselves of state prosecution. Since the tanneries faced difficulties in finding workers, they took the risk of providing patronage to criminals. Around the 1720s, this state of affairs passed to kadi registers, and the state took active measures against the brigands who had converged at Kazlıçeşme. The names of the enterprises and the workers operating in the area were recorded in an effort to stop the brigands linking up again.

123

After the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the founding of the Republic, the tanneries were modernised in the 1920s. The chapter gives a list of seventeen factories, as well as a further ninety-six workshops. Besides Muslim Turks, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews were prominent in the trade.

106

Some tanneries were still operating in the early 1990s. We read fascinating interviews with elderly workers. Saim Çetintaşoğlu (b.1932) gave a vivid account:

The gate of Kazli’s bath was next to the house where I was born. I used this bath a lot during my childhood, so I recall it very well. Its basins and even floors were covered with marble. At the place where the carpenter Nayır brothers make cupboards for leather tradesmen were the changing room and cooling room. In the boiler room, the water was boiled in a square boiler, using leather remnants and cobs instead of wood or charcoal. There was a heavy odour everywhere. The boiler that opens to the cross street was named Çıkmaz Sokak (blind alley) after this. In 1950s Münir Altıer rented the bath and turned it into a tannery. When he died, the bath passed to metal workers, who have been doing casting work ever since then, such as Kaplan Deri and Kemal Kurban.

Bath-keeper Srap Zehra, the bath employees, and Osman the Cook used to live in this building. Opposite, where the tanneries are located today, lived Artaki, who provided the tanners with egg white, egg yolk, and cattle’s blood for polishing purposes. Kazlıçeşme’s headman, the blacksmith Cezmi Öztemir, lived there too. In the building of Faik Cihanoğlu lived charcoal seller Mustafa and Murat Gökçiğdem, imam of the Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa mosque. The two-storey wooden house on the opposite corner was inhabited by Süleyman Effendi, owner of the Safa bar-restaurant at Yedikule.

Sara nightclub occupied an important place in the lives of the Kazli tradesmen. In the evenings, tanners used to go drinking there. Bahçeli restaurant, run by Pehlivan İbrahim, which one reached by climbing down a staircase near the Castle Gate, was famous as a venue frequented by tanners for drinks. Quarrels caused by the drunkards were settled at the gate of the military police to the right of the Castle Gate. Women, drinks, and insults were indispensable passions of tanners. Those who couldn’t help having a drink during working hours in the daytime stopped by Arap Şevket’s Kazliici bar.

At the site of Celil Tanatar, at the entrance to Karakol Street, was the stable of “everyone’s uncle”, the “walking bank” Abdürrahim Gezer, who was the backer of everyone at Kazli. Gezer owned two horses, one black and one white, and a fine phaeton. Originally working in the pumping business, Uncle Gezer was a benevolent Kazli property owner, an exceptional personality who had grown up among Greek rowdies and enjoyed giving money to people in need. Fifty years ago, the carts went about their work and phaetons carried passengers, bringing women to the Kazli baths from Samatya and Bakırköy. Unlike today, the passage through Demirhane Avenue was easy.

Kazlıçeşme, 1986.

Proceeding along Demirhane Avenue, on the site of Bekir Uyguner we come to two-storey wooden terrace houses. I lived on this terrace together with my father. Next door was Kirkor’s repair-house, and next to that was the three-part casting and lathing maintenance house belonging to Kazli’s backer Rami Bey. And on the site of the present Derimko was a two-storey white wooden house belonging to Kumcu (Sand-seller) Mustafa. In the red-brick house on the site of Hayati’s tannery at the beginning of Yeni Tabakhane Street resided Mustafa Ulus, the oldest and the best known machinery manufacturer. Here the houses ended and the stout-leather factory belonging to Kamhis began at the site of Alber Beresi.

Demirhane Avenue used to end at the factory of Alekos Dulos, which extended as far as Genc Osman Avenue. Because the coast road wasn’t yet built, there was no entry to Kazli through Genc Osman. The passage was made via Yedikule Gate, and one approached Demirhane between cemeteries. To the right of Demirhane Avenue was a spinning mill run by the British; in its garden was a large pool, with water channels. There were about twenty workers’ houses in a field full of trees. From this field one could get to the Kazli train station, which was in the form of a shed. At the site of Ümit Soytürk lived Muhittin Aga.

Mustafa Ulus and Dokumacılar Inn was the vegetable garden of Hüseyin Aga and Ayşe Hanım, where delicious tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, and parsley were grown. When her husband died, Ayşe Hanım sold the place to the Çengiçs and bought a four-floor apartment block at Aksaray with the proceeds; the Çengiçs constructed an inn in the garden and rented out rooms to textile workers.

Near the mausoleum of Derya Ali Baba (who endowed all his property to the leather tradesmen and was probably the oldest leather tradesman in Kazlıçeşme) was the Guild Coffee-shop, which passed by inheritance from him down to us. One climbed up to it by two staircases, and people sat on berths around the walls. The administrative room of the association was entered via the coffee-shop, and its affairs were conducted at the back of the mausoleum. Beside the room, under black fig trees was the garden of the association. Later, a cookhouse was opened for the garden workers, run by the late Ahmet Ahmet İşbilen. During the tenure of Cezmi Öztemir the Guild Coffee-shop was shut down and a building was constructed in its place; the first floor was rented to Yapı Kredi Bank, while the upper floor was allocated to the association. In this way, the mausoleum area was invigorated.

Beyond the Guild Coffee-shop were restaurants, the Kazli Bakery, the porters’ coffee-shop, the cartwrights’ coffee-shop, and the restaurant of Cemil the Cook. Next to Mumhane [Wax-house] cul-de-sac were Greengrocer Hüsamettin’s father Hadji Mustafa’s restaurant, Zemci the Butcher, coffee-maker Acem Şaban, and a large recreation area at the back of Kazlıçeşme. Next to that was Acem Süreya’s coffee-shop, with bachelors’ rooms at Taş Han [Stone Inn] above. After becoming Süreya’s son-in-law, Policeman Memduh ran this coffee-shop for many years. Along with Taş Han it was turned into a tannery, with the open space behind the fountain enclosed by a wall. This ancient fountain, which hadn’t failed to supply water to everyone for five centuries, was cast into the middle of the street; still, it hasn’t been offended and continues to function today.

 Opposite Taş Han was a wooden police station, rebuilt before 1950 in stone and brick by the Association of Leather Manufacturers. After the police station were wooden sheds. The Fatih Hotel was constructed much later. Aya Paraskeva on the opposite side faced Müezzin Hasan Street—it wasn’t covered by the Arkadaş Coffee-shop then. No tanneries were yet built in Müezzin Hasan Street. At the entrance of Hadji Mehmet Street was the workplace of Salih Usta the Carpenter, with his house above. Among the habitués of Kazli who were born in this house were Metin and his brother Alaettin, who carried the goods of many Kazli factories to the marketplace. In Hadji Mehmet Pasha Street was a rented property of Mehmet Pasha; when my father and his associate purchased this place, about ten or fifteen families had been lodging there.

The front of the rented property was open, giving access down to the sea from the hill 20 or 30 meters in front of it. The present Salhane Street and Kotra Street had not yet been created in the 1950s. In front of and to the right of the property, beneath oar-level, the seawater was deep blue where people entered the sea. From there, sweet water, like sweetened fruit juice, came to the Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Pasha Mosque. whose fountains supplied drinking water with a gurgling sound.

There was a square on the intersection of Müezzin Hasan ve Mosque Şerif. At the site of the present Sezai and Sabahattin Gülsever brothers was a wooden house, and just on the opposite corner was the fishermen’s coffee-shop. On the hill behind the coffee-shop customs officials worked. People went down to the sea by the side of this hut. Boats were pulled onto the sandy beach. Near Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Mosque, at the position of the present Rıza Pedük Factory, was a boathouse where boats were repaired and rowing boats could be protected when the sea was turbulent. In the direction of the fountain square of Camii Şerif Street were the stone-made houses of Greeks who earned their livelihood by fishing. Fifty years ago, the shores of Kazli were not yet polluted [really?—SJ]; an abundance of sea bass, mackerel, lobster, and hermit crab was to be caught. Tasula’s children Koço and Lambo used to go fishing early in the morning, putting their catch into willow-branch baskets and bringing it before Patronlar Kahvesi Tevfik to put on sale. When fish became scarce at Kazli, the famous fisherman Karaçivi and his son Panayot came over to our stout leather factory.

Among the cartwrights of Kazlıçeşme there were famous figures such as the theatre actors Naşit Ziya and Dümbüllü Halil, as well as İsmail Efendi, who made his fortune as a coachman. So that his stout leather wouldn’t get damaged, Fettah Koşar had his items carried in a coach until his death—how can one forget Fettah’s cart, drawn by white horses?

Also with roots in Kazli, our colleagues the leather tradesmen İsmail Ilgaz and Selahattin Ilgaz were born in houses next to the Kara Mustafa Mosque. Towards the fountain at Mosque Şerif, there were Greek houses on the site of the inn of Nusret Canayakın, Zeki Özzengin and Bakkalbasi. Right at the end, on the intersection of Öcal Street, we come to coffee-shop keeper Tevfik’s place, where tradesmen used to gather after the Guild Coffee-shop was shut down. In a sense it became the marketplace (stock exchange) of the leather tradesmen, where raw hides and stout leather were bought and sold. Fettah Koşar used to open the market and dictate the prices of stout leather, and lesser tradesmen would wait for his sales before adjusting their own prices. After business was completed in the mornings, backgammon parties and card-playing contests were held in the afternoons.

At the site of the gas station, opposite Tevfik’s, was the coffee-shop of Acem Dervisih, with tables and chairs placed around, surrounded by half-walls, with people drinking tea and coffee. This was the main stopover for workers and masters. At the back of the coffee-shop, opposite the police station, where Ergun Çelikoğlu now lives, resided Hüseyin the Charcoal Seller. Next to him lived Artin Usta the Cook, while Lambo the Fisherman lived above. Next to them was Koco Usta, the carpenter who made the best cupboards in Kazlıçeşme. Right next door was the workshop of Hasan Usta, then the best lathing master at Kazlıçeşme. Hasan Usta always shaved his head with a razor, walking the streets bald-headed; he had weird ideas, but he was a good master. Bachelor workers used to inhabit the three-storey wooden house on the site of the present premises of Türkiye İs Bank.

At the site of the Eren Depot, reached by following Demirhane Avenue up from Kazli cemetery, was a vegetable garden with a wood. At the site of the present leather tradesman Nezir or Caglar’ın yerinde was the pickaxe- and spade-factory belonging to Hanris. What remains from this factory is a stone wall, stretching all the way along. Further on, in Semsiye Street, were summerhouses and houses overlooking the sea. Kazli’s backer Rahmi Bey and İsmail Efendi the Grocer used to live in this street. The area from here up to Gemalmaz Street, and the places opposite it where Derby Lastik, Kadir Safak ve Hayriş dye-houses are found, were just empty fields belonging to Kör Sıddık the Coachman. Kör Sıddık used to live at the house at the beginning of Gemalmaz Street. Ali Rıza Efendi the Butcher, father of yogurt-maker Halik Efendi, the father of Ergun Celikoğlu, is said to have resided further on. Our colleague Celikoğlu was also born at Kazlıçeşme—his mother still lives here.

The editors supplement this fascinating account with further notes on the locations and characters listed.

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The oldest tanner the researchers found was Nurettin Keskiniz, whose rather more technical account describes the transformation of the business:

I was born in Yugoslavia in about 1900. Both my grandfather Musa Usta, whom I remember, and my father Ahmet Usta were tanners as well. My grandfather migrated from Leskovca to Kumanovo during [the 18]93 war and practiced tannery there. After the Balkan War they became emigrants for a second time and moved to Skopje. When I was 8 years old, while I was attending the district school, I was going to the tannery. During my holiday periods, I was doing tannery work. This means I’ve been going to the tannery for seventy-six years now; that’s how long I’ve been inhaling the smell. It’s a blessing for us. To some extent, my tanner guests and friends, who’ve been visiting over the last decade since I’ve had problems with my legs and feet, bring me that smell. All tanners carry it with them and exude it.

In 1935, when we immigrated here, Turkey was a poor country, where the rate of unemployment was very high. Production of vileda at Kazlıçeşme was too backward , and there were [only] five or six factories producing it. Because we had come from Yugoslavia as free immigrants, we had brought high-quality vileda and rubber heels with us. I had the chance of selling even these high-quality items. Mahmut Bey had not yet immigrated. Worried about the market conditions of the period, I wrote to him, “Do not disrupt your system. Things are not moving smoothly here. I will return as soon as possible.” He replied, “Assume that I have not read your letter. Drop your plans of returning here. Continue to work at all costs.” Mahmut Bey was a very experienced and far-sighted man who managed to serve as a member of parliament in Yugoslavia. He was older than me. After less than a year, he also migrated with his family to lend me a helping hand. This letter incident was instructive. A few years later, there was a coup in Yugoslavia and the Communist regime was established there.

When we arrived in Turkey, the first thing we did was to rent a shop at Kapalıçarşı, Perdahçılar Avenue. We tried to create capital by selling the goods we brought from Yugoslavia. One year later, we started to dye the tanned leather that we obtained from Anatolia, on the second floor of an inn in the Kapalıçarşı Örücüler (Weavers) Market. At one point we returned to tanning and the business went well. In the meantime, I had been going to Kazlıçeşme, the centre of the leather industry. There I talked with the tanners and did some shopping. I saw that in order to continue in the tannery business, it would be necessary to settle there.

We first rented and then bought the factory building in Çapraz Street from Rahmi Gezer, who was regarded as the mobile bank of Kazlıçeşme and who extended interest-free financial assistance to tanners. When I came to Kazlıçeşme in 1937, there was a small number of Turkish tanneries here: Rasim Gürel, Ahmet İşbilen, the Çengiç brothers, Saraç Hüseyin, Fettah Koşar, Mustafa Kantarlı, İhsan Sarı’s father. Except for the Çengiçs, all of them processed raw leather. They didn’t know about chromium tanning. But we had learned how to do it while in Yugoslavia. We had been producing chromium undercoating material and chromium Moroccan leather. In a sense, we may be regarded as one of the first appliers of chromium tanning in Turkey. Afterwards, the late Tahir Öztemir, father of Cezmi Öztemir, started to process chromium vileda together with Spitzer, one of the German masters. State Railways put out to tender a project for removing fabric-covered train seats and covering them with leather, which was more durable and clean. Luckily, we won the tender and were given the work of covering all the train seats with red and green chromium Moroccan leather.

We thus proved our talents in chromium tanning. In 1944, patent leather was in demand, but only Alecos Dulo’s firm had been processing it. Because we had been processing chromium leather, we transferred Panayot Sani, the master at Alecos Dulo, and began to process patent leather. For us, the most enjoyable years in tanning were the ones spent with the sale of patent leather. In order to buy one reel, the customers used to make a deposit and form queues to buy the goods. Panayot Sani came over and made things difficult for us. In the meantime, Hasan Yelmen began practicing tanning as a chemical engineer. Patent leather was prepared by boiling linseed oil. The first thing we asked Hasan Yelmen to teach us was how to bake patent leather, to rid us of the hegemony of Panayot Sani; after a short while, we succeeded and freed ourselves from him.

Over the following years, production of stout leather increased rapidly and the golden age began. Along with this increase, the number of tanners at Kazlıçeşme went up too. I don’t know who should come first, but I wish to commemorate my friends with this list, most of whom have passed away: [24 names]. These friends of mine used to deal with stout leather production. Among those who used to work in chromium tanning were: [19 names]. These characters sum up the Kazlıçeşme of the 1940s.

Forty years have passed, and we are now in the year 1984. The outlook of Kazlıçeşme has changed almost totally. Some old firms are now represented by their offspring. What I mean by the outlook changing is that there are now more newcomers than seniors. During this transfer, this outlook will be subject to change once more. If God permits us to live longer, I think no-one from the older generation will remain.

117Later we went into partnership with Hasan Yelmen and worked together for thirty years as Nurettin Keskiniz & Hasan Yelmen Co. When Hasan Yelmen stepped in, Panayot Sani, who had been making patent leather, moved back to his place. In those days, we could do chromium baking with the double-bath technique. But Hasan Yelmen managed to obtain better results by applying single-bath chromium baking. After he stepped in, we began to process chromium leather from sheep, designed for jackets. Thus it was we who first launched in Turkey the production of leather for jackets, which is in great demand today and which brings two hundred million USD of foreign earnings to Turkey. This is an important historical account. A Belarusian master tailor named Timochenko began to collect chromium sheepskin from us and sew leather jackets. When making chromium Moroccan leather for the railways, we had been highly skilled in the application of cellulose dye. The jacket material kept people warm, so it was in demand in the winter. Also, thanks to its cellulose finishing, it was water- and rain-proof. After learning how to sew leather jackets while working for Timochenko, Sabri Aykaç and Selahattin Tuncer left the Belarusian tailor. We supported them by providing them with jacket material on credit. Afterwards, Dona da Leon also began to sew leather jackets.

First, drivers and police officers began to wear leather jackets. The centre was established at Karaköy. In particular, the crews of the steamers that docked at the Galata quay were the first serious customers. Later, State Railways awarded the contract for purchasing leather jackets for its staff, and numerous workshops were opened at Karaköy and Mercan for the purpose. Shops were opened at Beyoğlu, where finer leather jackets were sold and this business spread among the people. Then women started wearing leather jackets, coats, and skirts, which constituted the third phase. In the fourth phase we exported leather jackets to foreign countries.

Undoubtedly the most important phase began with the entry of Derimod into leather fashion. Ümit Zaim is part of our family circle because he is the grandson of my partner Mahmut Bey, and the cousin of Hasan Yelmen. I can say that it was we who developed the leather-jacket business, and that Ümit Zaim took it to its peak. I trained many staff, both workmen and masters. Some of those we trained became bosses at Kazlıçeşme: Faik Altıer was one of our masters back in Skopje. After coming to Turkey, Rıza, Halil, Münür Altıer too worked for us. Zekeriya Tabakçı had worked for us in Skopje. Sadettin Toprak and Halil Öztürk were our patent-leather masters. Emin Sez made travels for us. Rıza Pedük worked in the emery-stone trade. I was happy to see all of them becoming bosses.

What a bustling subaltern society these vivid recollections evoke, hinting at the variety of trades centred around the tanning industry—factories, slaughterhouses, glue workshops; carpenters, cartwrights, blacksmiths, charcoal sellers; landlords, rowdies; cooks, fishermen, police posts, steamers, the railways; ambient venues like lodging houses, baths, mosques, coffee-houses, inns, vegetable gardens… 


[1] In recent years, Zeytinburnu has become home to increasing numbers of Uyghurs fleeing persecution in Xinjiang (see e.g. here). Rachel Harris’s studies of the expressive culture of the Uyghurs have expanded to their life in exile there.

The struggle for Turkey: a revolutionary female journalist

Sertels 1930s

In Midnight at the Pera Palace Charles King introduces some progressive figures in Republican Turkey such as Halide Edip and Nâzım Hikmet. Now I’ve been reading about Sabiha Sertel (1895–1968), whose autobiography

  • The struggle for modern Turkey: justice, activism, and a revolutionary female journalist (1968; English translation 2019), tells of her eventful life before she went into exile in 1950 (see website).

Written in exile in Soviet Azerbaijan, with inevitable self-censorship, it’s ably translated by David Selim Sayers and Evrim Emir-Sayers, and edited by Sabiha’s granddaughter Tia O’Brien and great-niece Nur Deris Ottoman, with helpful annotations.

Sabiha Nazmi was born in Salonica to a Dönme family, a community of Jewish origin that had long converted to Islam. In 1913, following the loss of the city to the Greek army, she moved with her family to Constantinople, “a city lost amidst the ruins of a shattered empire”.

In 1915 she married outside her Dönme ancestry to Zekeriya Sertel. While identifying with the new nationalist, secularist agenda, they would soon take issue with the new regime. As they founded the magazine Büyük Mecmua, their house became a meeting place for progressive thinkers.

Even in her Salonica childhood, Sabiha had gleaned clues that inclined her towards feminism. By now, as she wrote,

The war had also changed the lives of women. The country’s economic collapse had drawn them into public life, despite all resistance by supporters of sharia law. Women were beginning to act in ways that went against traditional norms. A small number had even started working—for the state, commercial firms, and factories. Women wanted to show that they, too, were strong and smart enough to cope with the struggles of life.

She describes the debate over women’s education; despite the arguments of reactionaries (“ridiculous and pathetic in equal measure”), it was ruled that men and women should be allowed to study together at university.

Zekeriya was imprisoned for the first time after the Greek occupation of Smyrna/Izmir in 1919. Sabiha took over the licence of the magazine, under scrutiny from the British censors. She describes her first meeting with Halide Edip:

That same day, I went to the notary’s office and finalised the transfer of the licence. Later, when I was working in the study, the doorbell rang. It was a short, slender woman dressed in a black çarşaf.
“Who would you like to see?” I asked.
“I am Halide Edip”, she answered.
I was stunned—I’d never met her before. She’d been writing for the journal, attending the secret meetings at our house and even presiding over them. I was not allowed to attend those meetings. Still, I’d been an avid reader of Halide Hanim’s novels since my childhood and was thrilled to find her in front of me like this. I asked her in. She entered and removed the top part of her çarşaf.
“How is Zekeriya?” she asked.
“I went to see him today; he’s fine.”
She asked me whom else I’d seen in Bekirağa Prison. I told her.
“What happens to the journal now?” she asked.
“I’ll publish it myself. I’m taking over the licence.”
Halide Hanim looked me up and down. “You’re just a child,” she said at last.
“I’ll grow up eventually.”
That made her smile. She asked what we were doing for the Izmir issue, and I told her about it.
“I can write your editorials if you want,” she said, adding that she’d send me an interview on the Izmir occupation.
On her way out, she said, “Tomorrow, we’ll hold a protest rally in Sultan Ahmet against the occupation of Izmir. Come along.”

After Halide’s rousing speech at the rally, she

had become a different person. She no longer entreated the sultan, sought refuge with the Entente powers, or talked about an American mandate.

As Zekeriya was released from prison, they formed a secret cell to support Mustafa Kemal’s campaign in Anatolia. Despite her opposition to the çarşaf, Sabiha discovered its usefulness when concealing letters between Halide and the National Assembly. But censorship forced the magazine to close.

In the USA
A new Turkish intelligentsia now had to be with modern learning. In November 1919, with the help of Halide Edip, the Sertels, now with a young daughter, gained scholarships to study at Columbia University in New York—at a time when Franz Boas and his students there were revolutionising the study of anthropology.

(In the right-hand photo, Sabiha is actually first on the left)

In New York Sabiha was acutely aware of the divide between rich and poor. Studying sociology, she learned to theorise ethnic and religious conflicts, as well as gender and class. She applied such learning in an immigrant neighbourhood at the New York School of Social Work, encountering poor workers. But finding that the school’s purpose was “to restrict the activities of labour and stifle any emerging workers’ movements or revolutionary tendencies”, she became sceptical of welfare organisations.

They’d come from Europe expecting an El Dorado, braving the oceans with their families in the hope of getting rich. But America had turned them into slaves; they worked at factories day and night, barely making enough to buy food. They didn’t speak the language and had no technical skills, so they were given the hardest jobs. Their labour was exploited ruthlessly. Women and men, children and elders—they were like mules at a mill, endlessly turning the wheel. […]

They worked in gardens of Eden but never touched the fruit. There was no way out. There was no way back.

Sabiha NY 1919

She needed to overcome obstacles in becoming involved with the poor Turkish community there. Acquaintances advised her:

“You couldn’t even get through the door of that coffee house. You’d be an alien to them. They don’t like intellectuals; they’re from Anatolia, from the villages. It’s even worse that you’re a woman; they’ll never tolerate a woman mixing with men. This isn’t a regular New York coffee house we’re talking about. And there’s so much cigarette smoke in there, you won’t even be able to see what’s in front of you.”

As she received letters from Turkey describing the hunger and misery back in Anatolia, she made contact with Turkish immigrant workers, eventually winning them over to labour organisation and support for the homeland. She conducted a survey including other US cities; as word spread, she visited Detroit, where it was no easy task to organise Kurdish workers toiling in the Ford automobile factory, gingerly negotiating a path through their antagonism with the Turks. She organised fundraisers for the cause in Turkey. When she returned to the USA in 1937 to visit her daughter, she found that her initiative had born fruit.

Return to the new Republic
Now with a second daughter Yıldız, the Sertels returned to Turkey in July 1923 on the eve of the proclamation of the Republic—a time when debate was wide-ranging, over topics such as the constitution, the secular-religious balance, and women’s rights. Sabiha had an offer of working for the Society for the Protection of Children. But

We didn’t know what to do with our lives. I wanted to move to a village and found a community organisation, but like any dreamy socialist, I had no idea how to do this. Like all youngster fresh out of college, I was living in a fantasy world. All I knew was that I wanted to be useful to the newly emerging Turkey.

Zekeriya was soon appointed to the Directorate General of the Press in Ankara.

This put to an end my dream of moving to a village and working among the peasants.

Still, when she followed him to Ankara, she found that the new capital was itself little more than a village.

Ankara was simply one of the countless Anatolian towns that had been neglected since Ottoman times. My train had passed through many villages and hamlets after leaving Haydarpaşa station in Istanbul, and in all of them, I’d encountered the same sight. Wherever we stopped, children with bare feet and torn trousers approached the train, begging for newspapers, cigarettes, a single cent. Village women tilled the soil in the burning sun, their faces scorched and wrinkled despite their young age. It was in their villages that I’d wanted to work. […]

It was time to say farewell to my dreams.

Sabiha broadly supported Atatürk’s agenda, but found him “surrounded by reactionaries, conservatives, and liberals”. She now designed a social survey project (“in order to cure an illness, one must first know what the illness is”), but it was soon blocked. With Zekeriya she returned to Istanbul.

I had returned from America with fanciful dreams. I had prepared to work for the good of the people in the heart of Anatolia. But now, the dream was over and reality showed us its true face. Zekeriya told me he would return to journalism, his true profession, and proposed that I work with him. This meant abandoning my own vocation. But what could I achieve in that field anyway? Teach sociology at a school? I wanted to work in a broader setting, grapple with social issues and disseminate my learning and ideas. Journalism seemed a suitable outlet for this.

Resimli Ay

In 1924 the Sertels founded the magazine Resimli Ay (Illustrated monthly), conveying progressive ideas to ordinary readers in an accessible and engaging style, aiming “to raise the people’s cultural level”. But repression intensified, and along with other progressive journalists, the Sertels were often taken to court.

From 1928, when Nâzım Hikmet returned from Moscow, he became a regular contributor to Resimli Ay, influencing a young generation of writers. Among his protégés was the novelist Sabahaddin Ali. The magazine defended workers’ rights and highlighted peasants’ issues. Sabiha devotes a lengthy section to a trial in 1930, at which her vigorous defence resulted in the prosecution’s case being dismissed on appeal.

The circle continued debating literature and socialism. Still, Sabiha reflects: “At the time, I’m sorry to say, socialist thought in Turkey was little more than romanticism.”

Under continuing police surveillance, Resimli Ay was forced to close down early in 1931. Certain press freedoms came into operation in the 1930s, and with more time on her hands, Sabiha translated several works on socialism (this study focuses on her work as translator). Zekeriya spent another period in prison, again leaving Sabiha to continue the struggle.

Besides the internal dynamics of Turkish society, with their anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist stance a significant part of the Sertels’ energies was devoted to opposing foreign domination. But as David Selim Sayers’ lucid Introduction comments,

The internal and external threat perception of Turkey’s ruling elites helped them justify a very loose attitude—to put it kindly—towards democratic values.

From 1936 to 1945 the Sertels ran the daily newspaper Tan, continuing to argue for democracy and human rights, and struggling to oppose single-party authoritarianism—which only increased after Atatürk’s death in 1938.

In 1937, before visiting the USA to see her older daughter Sevim, Sabiha held discussions in Paris on the ominous international situation. After World War Two broke out, at a 1940 trial to vilify the poet Tevfik Fikret—twenty-four years after his death—Sabiha herself came under attack for defending him. She was forced into silence several times.

Though she described the Wealth tax of 1942 as carrying “the stench of fascism”, she seems to miss the point that its main purpose was to discriminate against non-Muslim citizens of the Republic.

Among the controversial literary figures whom the Sertels championed, Nâzım Hikmet was incarcerated from 1938 until he was released to Soviet exile in 1950, and Sabahaddin Ali was assassinated in 1948.

The postwar period
After the end of World War Two, the Turkish press “stopped defending fascist Germany and jumped on the Allied bandwagon”. But the Sertels soon found that the new stirring of democracy was only a figleaf. As Sayers explains,

Leftist thinkers and activists like Serkel, who had been persecuted for opposing Nazism and the far right during the war, were now subjected to a new round of persecution for refusing to endorse the political and economic objectives of NATO and the USA.

Tan riot 1946

On 4th December 1945 the Tan printing house was demolished by a government-instigated mob and the Sertels were put on trial yet again. Though their appeal was successful, they were under ever greater surveillance. In 1946 they were arrested. At yet another high-profile trial they were sentenced, but soon released. While in prison, Sabiha continued to conduct social research among her fellow inmates.

1946 trial

The Human Rights Association was briefly launched before being suppressed. Unable to work, the Sertels’ position in Turkey was untenable.

After all our years of struggle, we’d run out of ways to defend the nation’s and people’s cause. We’d run out of ways to speak out for peace and fight for our ideals. We were exiled in our own homeland. Our days were barren and empty; our lives were without purpose.

In September 1950 they boarded a plane for Paris. There Sabiha’s account ends.

* * *

I’m curious about the Sertels’ life after going into exile—much of which they spent in the GDR and then Soviet Azerbaijan. In 1958 they started a secret radio collaboration with Nâzım Hikmet, broadcasting from Leipzig. When Zekeriya was dismissed in 1962, he relocated to Baku, where Sabiha joined him the following year. Soon afterwards their passports were confiscated. Following Sabiha’s death in 1969, Zekeriya and Yıldız defected to Paris in 1969.

The enthusiasm for the USSR of many leftist supporters abroad was largely untrammelled by knowledge of the actual situation there. Once they lived there, the Sertels must have sensed the people’s extreme wariness; as Orlando Figes describes,

The system taught dissimulation, producing duplicity and lifelong fear. As a survival strategy, people learned to wear a mask, going into “internal emigration”, leading double lives; they had to adjust to the system merely in order to survive. They learned not to talk: “whisperers” were both those who whispered out of fear of being overheard, and those who informed.

I wonder how much they knew of the appalling abuses taking place, either within the USSR or with the Soviet repressions of uprisings in the GDR (1953), Hungary (1956), and Prague (1968, shortly before Sabiha’s death)—just the kind of popular movements to which they had devoted their energies in Turkey. But Sabiha must have reflected privately on having to keep her strong opinions about press freedoms to herself. *

At least she didn’t have to agonise over the tragedy of Ukraine today, or the silencing of dissent within Russia; nor, indeed, did she have to confront cases of state repression within Turkey since 2005, with charges of “insulting Turkishness”, the murder of Hrant Dink, and the Gezi Park protests. But that’s rather like wondering how Lu Xun would have reacted to Tiananmen or the genocide in Xinjiang.

For all her jargon of “reactionaries” and “imperialists”, Sabiha Sertel analyses Turkey’s political malaise acutely, constantly advocating on behalf of the most disadvantaged parts of the population, and championing free speech. Among her blind spots are the complexities of Turkey’s ethnic composition: she barely mentions her own Dönme ancestry, and gives little consideration to the plight of Armenians, Greeks, and Kurds, who continued to be repressed under the Republic. Her take on religion is unreservedly negative. But all this hardly diminishes the value of her valiant struggles within Turkey—where many of the dynamics that she confronted remain today.


* See also posts under Life behind the Iron Curtain. Some time in the mid-1950s, Zekeriya and his younger daughter Yıldız spent two months on a visit to the People’s Republic of China, touring both urban and rural areas. Zekeriya seems to have been becoming disenchanted with the USSR, but in his apparent enthusiasm for the revolution in China he may have glossed over the Party’s increasingly draconian control over people’s lives there too. “More on that story later”, I hope…

Bektashi and Alevi ritual, 2: Anatolia

 

Cler sema
Alevi cem ritual, Tohal.

Further to my post on Bektashi and Alevi practice in Istanbul, Alevi ritual groups are widespread throughout rural Anatolia. As an instance, I’ve continued to admire Jérôme Cler‘s fieldwork there.

In 2003 he documented Alevi cem rituals in hill villages of Tohal in the region of Tokat, eastern Anatolia. Here’s a more extended sequence of the second video in his post:

Cler’s research in the hill villages of the southwest also extends to some fine documentation of the annual cem ritual (birlik) in the Alevi village of Tekke Köyü, sacred site of Abdal Musa, who was among the founding saints of the Bektashi, a disciple of the 13th-century sage Haji Bektash Veli.

When the diligent observer Evliya Çelebi visited the village in the 17th century, the inhabitants served the three hundred celibate mücerret dervishes of the lodge there, feeding visiting pilgrims with cauldrons stoked throughout the year.

Cler birlik

Despite later reverses, Abdal Musa still attracts pilgrims today, and the confraternity still performs regular cem rituals, led by güvende ritual specialists and bards. Cler gives a detailed presentation in this article, and on his site (with short video examples). The segments of the ritual sequence run as follows:

  • Opening:

initial hymn to the Twelve Imams
babalar semah (semah of the baba)

  • sofra (meal):

dem nefesi
oturak nefesleri (seated songs that Cler likens to Byzantine kathisma)
Kerbelâ song

  • End of the sofra and departure of the assembly:

semah of Forty;
two or four “additional” semah (these semah cannot be danced if the cem is to be finished early, as is often the case when spring approaches and brings the first agricultural work);
gözcü semah (semah of the gözcü!);
lokma
(new agape meal), hand washing and taking leave of services.

Here’s Cler’s CD Turquie: cérémonie de djem bektashi, la tradition d’Abdal Musa (Ocora, 2012) as a playlist:

For more bibliography, see my first post.

Bektashi and Alevi ritual, 1: Istanbul

Alevi cem 17
Sema
for Alevi cem ritual, Istanbul 2022.

In modern Turkey, a major component of the diverse Ottoman religious heritage is the ritual life of groups subsumed under the broad umbrella of Sufi dervish ritual—whose histories and evolution the dualistic language of Sunni and Shi’a is quite inadequate to encompass. [1]

Misleading taxonomies are common in world religions. With my experience of China, I think of  Orthodox Unity and Complete Perfection Daoism (e.g. for Hunyuan); at folk level, even the terms “Buddhist” and “Daoist” may be problematic, such as in Hunan. And I’ll remark on further features that the Sufi groups seem to share with folk ritual practices in China.

A distinctive strand here is the practice of Bektashi and Alevi groups. [2] While I’m in Istanbul, haughtily eschewing the sanitised stage shows of “Whirling Dervishes”, commodified for tourists, I’m keen to attend a ritual. The devotional religious groups engage in activities with a certain discretion, so—quite properly—they don’t readily offer access to impertinent outsiders. But while they have also gone into partial lockdown since the pandemic, cem rituals are still being held.

I’m merely trying to get a very basic handle on this topic; perhaps my superficial foray below will suffice merely to show how immense it all is—so readers who actually know about it can look away now

* * *

In both their doctrines and ritual practices Bektashis and Alevis, now commonly associated, have indeed long had much in common. Both, for instance, worship Ali (son-in-law of Muhammad), the Twelve Imams, and the 13th-century patriarch Haji Bektash Veli, and both emphasise the Four Gates and Forty Stations. They make an annual pilgrimage in August to the shrine of Haji Bektash Veli at Hacıbektaş in central Anatolia.

To simplify historical nuances of doctrine and terminology that elude me, Alevism is a general belief system with ascriptive identity, whereas Bektashi is an order in which one can enrol. Some scholars have distinguished rural Alevis and a more educated elite of urban Bektashis.

As Caroline Finkel observes in Osman’s dream,

The devotional practices of mosque-goers and dervish could be accommodated side by side in one building, and many mosques today associated with Sunni Islamic observance once had a wider function, as a refuge for dervishes as well as congregational prayer-hall.

In Ottoman times Bektashis were closely linked to the Janissaries; they went into decline after the latter were suppressed in the “Auspicious Incident” of 1826 (Osman’s dream, pp.437–8):

Prominent members of the order were executed, and Bektashi properties in Istanbul were destroyed, or confiscated and sold, or converted to other uses. […]

The practice of affiliation to more than one dervish order was so common, and the attempt to eradicate Bektashism at this time so vehement, that sheiks of other orders were also rounded up and sent into internal exile. Largely because of their infiltration into and acceptance by other orders, however, especially the officially-favoured Nakşibendi order—on whom their properties were bestowed—the Bektashi were able to survive clandestinely, and by mid-century they were again finding favour within elite circles.

Following World War One, despite the Bektashis’ supportive role in the War of Independence, Atatürk outlawed such Sufi groups in 1925; since then (by contrast with the recent commodification of the “Whirling Dervishes”) their ritual activities take place discreetly, since some Muslims still consider them heretical. The main base for the Bektashi sect is now in the Balkans and Thrace, notably Albania.

Although some Alevis claim to be Bektashi, the eliding of the two is quite recent. As our encyclopedic Kuzguncuk neighbour Kadir Filiz observes, the problematic term “Alevi–Bektashi” was coined by Mehmet Fuat Köprülü (1890–1966) in his work on Sufism; he also applied the labels “orthodox” and “heterodox” to Islam, recently deflated by scholars like Riza Yildirim (who encapsulates his detailed historical and field studies here and here; also in English, see e.g. here). By the late Ottoman era, as the militant, rebellious kızılbaş “red-heads” [3] were perceived negatively, popular parlance began replacing the term with “Alevi”; but under the new Republic, Alevism came to be associated with radical leftist views.

Lodges and houses of gathering
The situation became further politicised from the 1950s, when Alevis from rural areas of Anatolia began migrating in large numbers to major cities like Istanbul. There they used long-dormant Bektashi tekke lodges as cemevi (“houses of gathering”) [4] and formed local associations, named after their native region; since the 1980s the cemevi have been rented officially, and younger generations have come to refer to them as Alevi–Bektashi lodges. As both context and ritual practice have been modified, this has also been a period of an “Alevi renaissance”, reaffirming identity against the dominant culture of Sunni Islam.

The urban cemevi now have an ambiguous status. In modern Istanbul they often serve partly as social centres, but many rituals are also held in private homes; one dede leader told us that well over fifty cemevi are active there. [5]

State suspicion of the Alevis has been heightened by the presence of a significant Kurdish component among them, making them yet more vulnerable to attack—with serious incidents since the 1960s and 70s, such as massacres at Maraş (1978), Çorum (1980), and Sivas (1993), amidst tacit government connivance. While Alevis make up a substantial part of the Turkish population, at home they may be shunned by their neighbours, and at school children still have to keep quiet about their heritage.

Ritual practice
Along with migration, ritual change has become a major research topic (see Catherine Bell, Ritual: perspectives and dimensions, Chapter 7; for China, see e.g. Guo Yuhua, and north Shanxi).

Alevi studies are thriving too. Alongside the insights of Riza Yildirim (see above), I note works such as

See also e.g.

Such studies lead to a wealth of further research, both historical and ethnographic. [6] Meeting practitioners in Istanbul, I’m also reminded of how much material (including audio and video recordings) is shared online by such groups, who maintain regular contacts with their fellow-believers around Anatolia and Thrace.

As with the Islamic practice of the Sunni majority, Sufi cem (djem) communal rituals are performed with the general purpose of dhikr (remembrance, reminder). While in most Sufi orders women are rarely allowed to participate in rituals, in Bektashi–Alevi practice men and women worship together.

Sites such as this outline the annual cycle of Alevi cem rituals; they may also be held for initiation, commemoration, vows for good health, for joining the army, and so on. Langer summarises the sequence of an individual Alevi ritual thus: after a preliminary “discussion” (sohbetmore commonly muhabbet) by the presiding dede, and symbolic court case (görgü), the main service (ibadet) consists of a sequence of prayers (both solo and choral) to the Twelve Imams, hymns to the Twelve Duties, prayers of repentance, and invocations, concluding with an ecstatic sema dance. Sipos and Csáki (pp.53–66) give a detailed account of a full sequence of Bektashi ritual segments, which I summarise:

  • animal sacrifice and preparations
  • arrival, settlings, furnishings, lighting of the candles
  • “secret” section, including reconciliation of grievances (cf. the Uyghur mäshräp?)
  • sequence of nefes hymns
  • tripling (üçleme), with toasts
  • supper
  • pleasant [rather, instructive] conversation (muhabbet)
  • further sequence of nefes
  • semah whirling
  • closing prayers and blessings.

The ritual leader (dede/baba) presides, flanked by a bard (zakir or aşık), who leads the vocal liturgy accompanying himself on a bağlama long-necked plucked lute.

In orthodox Sunni ritual, even melodic instrumental music is considered unsuitable—just as in Chinese temple Buddhism and Daoism (cf. A cappella singing). Indeed, in China one’s search for “religious music” can easily be misled by such a narrow association (see Unpacking “Daoist music”, and The notation of ritual sound). As long as ethnographers pay attention to soundscape (still, alas, quite a tall order), our main theme should be ritual in society (note Michelle Bigenho‘s thoughtful comments).

Sipos and Csáki mention the collection work of Turkish Radio and Television (TRT), reminding me yet again of China:

In the Turkish folk music stock of the TRT, numbering over 4,500 items, there are sporadic tasavvufı halk müziği or “folk religious” tunes, usually under the generic label of “folk song”. [footnote: The TRT repertoire contains the variants approved by a committee of the tunes officially permitted for publication. The committee often makes changes on the tunes before printing, first of all modifying the words not deemed appropriate.]

In China I have expressed grave reservations about UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage programme (see this roundup; note also Rachel Harris’s critique of their programme for Uyghur culture, in particular the mäshräp). For Turkey UNESCO has adopted the “Alevi–Bektashi sema ritual. This film could do with more documentation:

But their outline sums up the issue:

In Turkey, each and every inhabitant of the State is held to be Turkish and Sunni. If Alevis are not Sunni, how then can they be Turks? Since such a notion is inconceivable to many Turks, there is only one possible answer: since Alevis are Turks, they are also Sunnis. If this were not the case, they would become a danger for the Turkish nation and State. Consequently, research on Alevi religious rituals is potentially problematic both for the stability and security of the State and for the Turkish national psyche. To sum up, a large-scale education programme is needed to build bridges of communication between those belonging or not belonging to the Islamic world—Alevis, the Turkish Sunni majority, and the authorities, who usually perceive social reality through Sunni lenses. Future educational projects and campaigns should not concentrate solely on Alevi culture and religious rituals, but rather on folk culture and rituals in Turkey seen as a part of contemporary Turkish culture.

A Bektashi cemevi in Zeytinburnu
Despite my profound ignorance, local practitioners are most welcoming. On the European side of the Bosphorus, in Zeytinburnu “outside the walls” (now also a fragile home for many Uyghurs fleeing persecution in China) we visited a senior Bektashi couple at their apartment, where they hold regular cem gatherings.

Bektashi altar room

Bektashi Bahtiyar baba (on ritual sheepskin) and ana bash.

Bektashi baba and his wife (known as ana bash “leader of the female section”) were both born in Edirne in eastern Thrace, he in 1953, she in 1952; they mainly spoke Turkish. Their ancestors were all devotees. His parents had come to Edirne from Bulgaria in 1950; his father was also a Bektashi baba. Their families moved to Istanbul in the late 1950s.

BB on baglama Sipos and Csaki

Bektashi baba accompanying a cem. From Sipos and Csáki 2009.

He referred us to his solo recordings of hymns with bağlama plucked lute, featured in many YouTube playlists under Bektaş Bahtiyar, e.g. here.

An Alevi ritual in suburban Istanbul
In the distant southern suburbs on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, we attended a weekly ritual at a well-appointed Alevi cemevi, consulting the wise Erzade Özgür dede (b.1983) and his wife Songül ana, who also possesses estimable ritual knowledge.

Before the pandemic struck, over a hundred devotees would take part in the cem; currently around twenty gather—male and female, old and young, all wearing their ordinary clothes, including the dede, who sits on the sheepskin with a mic, flanked by the zakir. He delivers a long opening muhabbet in his normal voice—instructive, personal, relaxed but serious—with occasional contributions from the congregation. The main participants at the meydan ritual arena tie red or green sashes at the waist, with two young men taking a staff; the gatekeeper holds a staff too.

After the muhabbet of over an hour, the zakir strikes up on bağlama, also amplified. His instrumental taksim leads into a nefes hymn; then another speech, and another song, as an 80-year-old Kurdish elder lights a three-candle electric candelabra. The congregation is now getting involved, with cries of “Allah Allah!”, then call-and-response.

The assistants remove their socks before blessing the carpet and unfolding it. Water is poured into a bowl while chanting, going round the congregation to ritually cleanse their hands and faces. Three women bow with a brush; more call-and-response; longer group chanting. All prostrate as the volume rises; kneeling, the worshippers all beat their thighs to a little suite of nefes with bağlama. The mood is ever more ecstatic.

Alevi sema 7

Another speech as all prostrate again, another bağlama song, then sema around the carpet with two men and two women, barefoot. They stand on the edge of the carpet to bow to the dede, who invites others to dance, with two more men joining in. With the three main dancers, slow and fast nefes alternate, accelerating wildly. The dancers bow again.

Then the women silently brush the carpet while bowing. The simple lokma food offerings are blessed. After another brief discussion, the candles are extinguished, the carpet replaced.

All this helped me appreciate the different roles of the twelve hizmet duties or services (cf. guanshi in north China, assistant to the huitou leader), such as çerağcı supervisor of the candles, süpürgeci sweeper, and selman provider of water for ritual washing.

Alevi cem group pic

Erzade dede A couple of days later, taking the Metro to the southern terminus, we were invited to supper at the couple’s apartment, along with a bright young disciple—another instructive and delightful evening. Erzade dede’s family brought him to Istanbul when he was 3. He was chosen by his grandfather at the age of 13—his father wasn’t a dede—and he sometimes commuted to Ankara for further instruction. After military service, and the death of his mentors, by his late 20s he was already taking over ritual duties. Having learned in his youth to sing nefes while playing the bağlama, now (like many urban dede) he leads the ritual alongside a separate zakir. He is a respected community leader.

An Alevi–Bektashi lodge in Kadıköy
On Sunday afternoon the following week we went to the Göztepe district of Kadıköy to visit an extensive and imposing Alevi–Bektashi dergâh lodge, rebuilt openly since the late 1980s. A throng of devotees were gathered, visiting the tombs in the grounds and seeking blessings from the dede for their young children and sick relatives, offering lokma. Accompanying himself on bağlama, a zakir sung a wonderful nefes hymn for us in praise of Abdal Musa (see sequel to this post), disciple of the 13th-century patriarch Haji Bektash Veli. I look forward to returning for a regular ritual at their fine cemevi.

See also Alevi ritual in rural Anatolia.

* * *

Alevi ritual in the diaspora
The whole history of Bektashis and Alevis—before, during, and since the Ottoman era—is one of migration over a large area. Scholars such as Robert Langer explore the transfer to the wider diaspora in recent decades. The documentary Heavenly journeys (Marcel Klapp, 2015) illustrates Alevi ritual life in Germany, with comments from older and younger generations:

Note also Tözün Issa (ed.), Alevis in Europe: voices of migration, culture, and identity (2017), reviewed here. And for Alevis in Toronto, see Ayhan Erol, “Identity, migration and transnationalism: expressive cultural practices of the Toronto Alevi community (2012). [7]

 

Setting forth from the guidance of Kadir and the diligence of Augusta,
with gratitude to wise Bektashi–Alevi elders!


[1] For the transnational picture, see e.g. The Routledge handbook on Sufism (2021); for a basic outline of Sufi orders in Turkey, see e.g. here, and for Ottoman Constantinople, here (a useful site). Kadir Filiz directs me to the classic study Richard Gramlich, Die schiitischen Derwischorden Persiens.

[2] I adopt the common form Bektashi rather than the orthography Bektaşi. For the Ottoman social-political context of Bektashi orders, see Caroline Finkel, Osman’s dream; brief mentions that may pique one’s interest include Bruce Clark, Twice a stranger, pp.187–90; Mark Mazower, Salonica: city of ghosts, pp.81–2.

[3] For a casual connection, cf. “red-head” Daoists in Taiwan, e.g. Kristofer Schipper, “Vernacular and classical ritual in Taoism”.

[4] Again, cf. folk hui assemblies/associations/sects in China—by contrast with officially-registered “venues for religious activity”, where only a tiny amount of overall ritual life takes place.

[5] This article includes a list of 64 cemevi in Istanbul (cf. historical photos of the tekke, and this introduction; for architectural features, and more vocabulary, click here). On politics, see e.g. Tahire Erman & Emrah Göker, “Alevi politics in contemporary Turkey” (2000), and sources cited in this post under “Ritual practice”. For the wider religious background since the founding of the Republic, see here. As I write, yet another round of the Alevi Federation’s dispute over the exorbitant utility bills suffered by the cemevi is under way, hinging on its attempts to gain status for them as places of worship.

[6] For briefer introductions to Bektashi ritual and music, see e.g. here; wiki has articles on the Bektashi order, Alevism (here and here), Alevi history, and sema / sama.
For Thrace, in Janos Sipos and Eva Csáki, The psalms and folk songs of a mystical Turkish order: the music of Bektashis in Thrace (2009; 669 pages, consisting largely of transcriptions and lyrics with translations), note “The religious ceremony” and “The music of the Bektashis in Thrace” (pp.38–77). Jérôme Cler’s introduction to the topic for Anatolia is enriched by videos and further links; see sequel to this post. My taste for ritual sequences is amply displayed in the many posts on local ritual in China.

[7] For Mevlevi practice in Germany, see Osman Öksüzoğlu, “Music and ritual in Trebbus Mevlevi tekke (lodge) in Germany” (2019). Among a profusion of Sufi groups around Turkey and elsewhere, the Mevlevi order (founded by Rumi, with its centre at Konya) enjoys a high profile, notably for its association with the “Whirling Dervishes”.

Squaw

Squaw

No great surprise that squaw, one of the few supposedly Native American terms that my generation absorbed in our youth through the insidious influence of TV, is now widely considered “offensive, derogatory, misogynist, and racist”, as an interesting wiki article observes.

In English the word was first used in colonial literature in 1622. An article in Indian Country Today makes a token attempt at balance (“squaw is either offensive or historically accurate in portraying a female Indian woman”; see also here); but even if linguists are correct to query the connection of the S-word with the C-word, there are plenty of reasons to reject the term.

In 1968 Loretta Lynn (herself of Cherokee heritage) could still sing Your squaw is on the warpath (1968)—an otherwise impeccably feminist song:

And the experimental Native American singer Jim Pepper included Squaw song on his 1971 album Pepper’s Pow Wow. But by then squaw was among a whole range of stereotypes that were being discredited. For such images in well-meaning early documentaries, see my post on Navajo culture, under “On film”; see also Native American cultures: a roundup.

In November 2021, in line with decades of work by Indigenous activists, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland furthered the movement to remove offensive place-names.

See also Stewart Lee‘s demolition of fulminations against “PC gone mad”.

The Club

Club actors

Like Turkish audiences, I’ve been riveted by the recent ten-instalment TV series The Club (Netflix, 2021), directed by Seren Yüce and Zeynep Günay Tan. The drama exposes the multicultural Turkish elephant in the room, probing the boundaries of free speech today (cf. The Armenian genocide).

Netflix offers a choice of seven languages, with subtitles, in any combination you please; I wasn’t too disturbed by the somewhat stilted voices in the dubbed English version, but I envy local viewers their ability to catch the nuance of the conversational switches between Turkish, Ladino, and Greek in the original soundtrack.

Club mother daughter

Revolving around Istanbul’s Jewish community (with Ladino often heard), the plot is framed by the wealth tax of 1942—heavily penalising non-Muslims—and the anti-Greek pogrom of 1955, also ignited by ethnic tensions in Cyprus. In 1955, Matilda, a Jewish ex-convict, finds work in one of Istanbul’s leading nightclubs. As she tries to rebuild her relationship with her daughter Raşel, Matilda struggles to keep her away from Muslim playboy İsmet. With the outrageously camp singing star Selim, she also stands against her boss Orhan and nightclub manager Çelebi.

With such issues unfamiliar to many viewers, the series has been warmly received by Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike (reviews e.g. here and here). It’s also a visual period-piece, with charismatic actors—and some great songs carefully chosen to enhance the dramatic moment.

Club Selim

This YouTube playlist includes, in Ladino, the exquisite Yo era ninya (cf. this popular version):

and Adio kerida, sung by Yasmin Levy:

Here Salih Bademci (as the dreamy Selim) performs Masal (Fairy tale), by iconic Turkish singer Sezen Aksu—though the song is later, it’s another astute choice, given her link to progressive causes:

The directors’ pluralistic agenda is further underlined in their recruiting of pianist-composer-arranger Fazil Say; charged with blasphemy in 2012, he went on to compose a series of pieces reflecting on the suppression of the 2013 Gezi Park protests. And the final débacle of The Club is accompanied by alternating Greek and Turkish versions of Zülfü Livaneli‘s 1979–80 song Kardeşin Duymaz, pleading for coexistence:

 * * *

1955 pogrom

Photo: Ara Güler (I think).

In Istanbul today the dwindling Jewish community remains under threat. As this Al Jazeera review observes,

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has occasionally referred to what he calls the “fascist mentality” of the single-party era before 1950 in criticism of the opposition Republican People’s Party, which ruled at the time, and how it treated minorities. “They were ethnically cleansed because they had a different ethnic cultural identity”, Erdogan said in 2009. “The time has arrived for us to question ourselves about why this happened and what we have learned from all of this”.

If that sounds rather enlightened, the review goes on:

But neither Erdogan nor other Turkish leaders have taken any concrete steps to address the Wealth Tax, the 1955 pogrom, or other attacks on minorities. The Democrat Party, which won the first free and fair elections in the country in 1950, campaigned on a pledge to pay reparations for the Wealth Tax, but never kept the promise.

In fiction the sensitive topic has been broached before in works such as Mrs Salkim’s diamonds (1990 novel; 1999 film), but The Club is now giving it a far wider audience. Not only is the unfolding of the drama compelling in itself (with regular Doof Doof moments), but it’s educating viewers within Turkey—and, I hope, further afield.

A recent scholarly panel offers a critique of the series:

The Greek–Turkish population expulsions

SmyrnaSource: Robert Gewarth, The vanquished: why the First World War failed to end.

Following the ethnic strife of the late Ottoman period, the Balkan Wars of 1912–13, and the 1915 Armenian genocide came the massive forced population expulsions between Greece and Turkey—among the most disturbing instances of ethnic cleansing in modern history.

Of many studies, I’ve been reading the excellent

  • Bruce Clark, Twice a stranger: how mass expulsion forged modern Greece and Turkey (2006), reviewed e.g. here.

Throughout the book, Clark distinguishes political decisions and the experiences of those who were affected by those decisions, detailing both. He provides a useful roundup of sources.

The population “exchange” across the Aegean was still based on the Ottoman concepts of Christians and Muslims taking precedence over the modern nationalist categories of Greeks and Turks. It

was taken as proof that it was possible, both practically and morally, to undertake large exercises in ethnic engineering, and proclaim them a success. […] The temptation to use such methods is especially strong in certain types of political or geopolitical situation. For example, it can arise where one form of imperial authority (from Soviet communism to British colonial rule) is collapsing or when a new nationalist power wants to consolidate its rule; or when a new strategic order is being created in the aftermath of war.

And quite soon,

whatever they may have felt about being deported to another country, the Christians of Anatolia and the Muslims of Greece were—at least superficially—remoulded as Greeks and Turks respectively.

Despite the Helsinki accords of 1975, urging respect for the human and cultural rights of citizens and for borders, the lasting effects of the Lausanne treaty remain all too clear. Clark often alludes to more recent traumas, such as World War Two and its aftermath, the 1990s’ Balkan wars, and Northern Ireland. As he notes, while “the liberal westerner” recoils from the notion of forced population transfers based on religious faith, “the modern world is far from honest or consistent”.

* * *

Under the authoritarian roof of the Ottoman empire, religious and ethnic groups had been obliged to coexist. When that roof collapsed, new terms of coexistence could not be found, and people had to flee for their lives. Neither side had a monopoly of cruelty.

From 1912, as Greece gained territory in the Balkan wars, Muslims became a significant part of its population. Refugees from the conflict also exacerbated tensions in Anatolia.

It has been estimated that about 20% of the population of Anatolia died violently during the last ten years of the Ottoman empire’s existence: some 2.5 million Muslims, up to 800,000 Armenians, and 300,000 Greeks. To put it another way, a third of the Christian population and one eighth of the Muslim population had been killed, making the Ottoman empire a far more rural, and Islamic place; its population was now at least 90% Muslim, up from 80% before the decade of mutual slaughter began.

In the 1922 population exchange, around 400,000 Muslims and at least 1.2 million Greek Orthodox Christians were relocated.

For certain parts of Turkey, the departure of the Christians meant the loss of virtually all traders and entrepreneurs, as well as most professional people and skilled craftsmen. In those parts of Anatolia where commercial life was once heavily dominated by Christians, there is still a sense that the local economy has never recovered.

Greece was affected more by an influx than by an exodus. In many of its northern regions, and in certain districts of Athens, the population is still mainly of “Asia Minor” stock.

The trauma is still visible in the landscape:

All over Greece and Turkey, you can see the physical remnants of a world whose component parts seem to have been broken apart, suddenly and with great violence.

In the early 21st century there were still elderly people who recalled a time when those half-ruined buildings still functioned properly. But even then, that history had long fallen silent.

What the Lausanne negotiators wanted

—and this was not an ignoble desire—was an arrangement that would be durable and minimise the risk of further war, either in the immediate future or in a subsequent generation.

The treaty

was supposed to be the cornerstone of a settlement that would leave both sides stable and satisfied. But the separation was more than just an endorsement of something which had happened already; it was a cause of pain as well as a response to pain. […]

Not everything about the vanished world was good, and the circumstances in which it vanished were often so appalling that almost anything which followed came as a relief. […] Moving to a new place is on balance a lesser sorrow than being killed in one’s native country.

In one sense “physical separation seemed, and in some cases actually was, the best guarantee of survival”. Yet

when the Aegean peoples were prised apart, each lost a part of its own identity, and hence lost the ability to understand itself.

* * *

Chapter 1 discusses the fates of Smyrna and Ayvalik. The catastrophe of Smyrna in 1922–23 has been much studied; it makes a stark opening to Robert Gewarth’s book The vanquished: why the First World War failed to end. Following an exodus of Pontian and Ionian Greeks since 1914, from May 1919 a Greek expeditionary force took control of the city, where Muslims, Jews, Armenians, and Greek Orthodox Christians had lived together more or less peacefully for centuries. By now the population of Smyrna was swollen by desperate refugees from further east. But as the Greek force was driven out, over a fortnight in September 1922 around 30,000 Greeks and Armenians were slaughtered. The victors renamed the city Izmir.

Clark devotes most of the chapter to the fate of the port of Ayvalik further north, whose thriving population was almost entirely Greek. They welcomed the arrival of Turkish troops with music and dancing, duped into supposing that the occupation would be benign. But the evacuations and massacres soon began.

The first arrivals to replace the Greek population of Ayvalik were Muslim deportees from the islands of Mytilene (just west) and Crete (further south), where Clark pursues the story. He explores the troubled history of the Christian and Muslim populations of Crete, and the effect of the population exchange. As elsewhere, the Muslim arrivals in Ayvalik and the Christians deported to Crete found it hard to adapt to their new homes.

Chapter 2, “The road to Lausanne”, discusses the deal between Eleftherios Venizelos and Mustafa Kemal, brokered by British foreign secretary Lord Curzon and Fridtjof Nansen of the League of Nations, a combination of necessary evil and political self-interest. The equation was further complicated by anxieties over Bulgaria, where population exchanges had also taken place.

In Chapter 3 Clark explores the fates of the port of Samsun on the Black Sea and the town of Drama northeast of Salonika. Samsun had had a thriving Pontic Greek community, swollen first by Muslim refugees from the Balkan wars and now by desperate Christian refugees from the mountain villages.

Muslims once made up a significant part of the population of Drama, but in the expulsion they were largely replaced by Christians, including refugees from Samsun. Clark learns more about the Pontic background from diligent local historians, one of whom documented the rich Pontic traditions of theatre, folk poetry, and fables preserved in Drama in a kind of time-warp, making

careful studies of the fiddlers, the priests, the amateur midwives, and the pruveyors of folk medicine who peopled his childhood and kept alive the memories of a place about 900 miles to the east.

Chapter 4 returns to the terms of Lausanne, exploring how exceptions were agreed through complex diplomatic negotiations. Greek Thrace remained home to many Muslims. In Constantinople the Orthodox community was exempted from the expulsions, with over 100,000 Greeks still living there in 1923. So despite the squalid camps struggling to receive refugees in transit, at first the city’s own Greek population remained largely intact (only later did their numbers dwindle, with the punitive wealth tax of 1942, major rioting in 1955, and expulsions in 1964; today only around 3,000 Greeks remain in Istanbul). For the Cappadocia region, which had remained largely free of ethnic conflict, it seemed that a deal might be reached to exempt the Orthodox Christians from relocation, but in the end they too were expelled.

While traditional Ottoman society, with its peculiar, arbitrary mixture of cruelty and fairness, had allowed Christians and Muslims to live together, the modern states which were emerging from the Ottoman world would not.

Trebizond 1

In Chapter 5, “Hidden faiths, hidden ties” (cf. Hidden nation, for the continuing Armenian presence in Turkey) Clark returns to the Black Sea to discuss the fate of Ottoman Trebizond (now Trabzon), which thrived on its silver mines and trade with Tsarist Russia. Again Clark finds a web of relationships between Greeks and Turks.

Involved in this network were bishops, businessmen, politicians, soldiers, and gangsters.

The dichotomy was never clear-cut: for several generations there had been a community of Crypto-Christians, apparently Muslim Turks but secretly Orthodox Greeks. Clark notes subtle but crucial differences between the fortunes of west and east Pontus, the experiences of the latter being marginally less traumatic—partly because of a more conciliatory Orthodox bishop in Trebizond. Yet the Armenians suffered particularly badly there. The Trebizond Greek community was expelled in the winter of early 1923. First they were shipped to the disease-ridden camps of Constantinople; those that survived were deported to their notional homeland in Greece.

Trebizond 2

Chapter 6, “Out of Constantinople” looks at the plight of the new arrivals. Clark gives an example:

A ship arriving at Pyraeus from Samsun […] in January 1923 has carried 2,000 passengers. Of these 1,600 were stricken with typhus, smallpox, or cholera, and two of the three doctors on board were seriously ill.

He cites a report from the island of Macronissi by Esther Lovejoy, director of the American Women’s Hospitals agency:

Refugee conditions indescribable. People, mostly women and children, without a country, rejected of all the world; unable to speak the Greek language; herded and driven like animals from place to place; crowded into damp holes and hovels; shortage of food, fuel, water, bedding, and clothing; cold, hungry, and sick…

Refugees now made up nearly 40% of the population of Athens, and 48% of that of the Aegean islands. All this gravely tested the limits of Greek hospitality. As Henry Morgenthau continued diplomatic negotiations, international aid helped the Greek government manage its influx of refugees.

Turkey handled its own crisis with less external support; the way it handled the transport and reception of Muslims from Greece, theoretically more humane, turned out to be disorderly too. Chapter 7, “Saying farewell to Salonika”, shows the city’s cosmopolitan mix of cultures and religions, with Sephardic Jews comprising its main ethnic group. Salonika had only been in Greek hands since 1912. The persecution of Muslims there was intermittent, but by 1922 ships were carrying refugees in both directions.

Again Clark finds exceptions to the silence of official propaganda surrounding the trauma of disruption. In Chapter 8, “Adapting to Anatolia”, he finds a chronicler of the exchange around Tuzla, southeast of Istanbul, where locals and newcomers adapted with difficulty, and memories stayed suppressed—“tales of dislocation, nostalgia, and in most cases successful integration, albeit at a high personal cost”. Among the arrivals from northern Greece were adherents of the Bektashi order, who followed a mystical form of Islam that was regarded with suspicion by mainstream Muslims.

The status of the relocated population played a significant role in local political manoeuverings, and has continued to do so.

Between 1913 and 1923 the proportion of non-Muslims in Anatolia fell from 20% to 2%. This reflected the death or expulsion of all but a handful of the two main Christian communities, the Greeks and Armenians. The remaining Christians consisted of the 120,000 Greeks who were permitted to stay in Istanbul and about 65,000 Armenians; a total of less than 200,000 compared with about 3 million before the decade of war. The country was also deprived of the great majority of its entrepreneurs, merchants, middlemen, and even skilled labourers.

By 1928, 20% of the Greek population were refugees.

refugees

Chapter 9, “The pursuit of clarity”, outlines events through the years following the expulsions, a story that continues in Chapter 10, “The price of success”. In Greece the bitter conflicts between left and right partially replaced the former antagonism between refugees and locals.

So any overall analysis of the population exchange has to wrestle with a truth which is awkward from a liberal, modern point of view: in its own perverse terms, the population exchange “worked”—in the sense that it ultimately, after many difficulties, contributed to the forging of a more or less homogenous Greek nation-state whose citizens recognised each other’s right to exist. Moreover, the calculation that that informed the Lausanne project on both sides of the Aegean—that a common religion would make possible the creation of a common national consciousness—seems to have been borne out. […] If the two countries are “imagined communities” […], they are powerfully imagined ones.

As ever, Clark goes on to qualify this, adducing the struggle of the Turkish Kurds—also partly a consequence of Lausanne. He notes salient differences between the nationalist projects of Greece and Turkey, and the role of religion. Naturally he queries the notion of “success” based on authoritarian methods, and remains cautious in assessing the prospects for continuing equilibrium, both across the Aegean and around the world.

Today’s challenge is to ensure that these new understandings of identity and belonging do not exact such a high price in blood as the previous ones did.

Here’s a documentary from Al Jazeera:

  * * *

Both the immediate logistics and the consequences of the expulsions caused immense suffering. The relocations posed severe social and economic challenges in both countries. Yet Clark observes the disjunct between simplistic political ideology and a popular yearning to reconnect.

Mingled with the memories of terror and betrayal, feelings and recollections persisted which somehow transcended the Greek–Turkish divide; personal friendships, commercial partnerships, a sense of common participation in a single world, constituted by landscape, language, music, food, and all the trivia of everyday life.

Apart from private, domestic memory,

Because diplomatic and military relations have so often been so strained, it is above all in the world of culture—novels, films, and songs—that the two peoples have felt free to express the depth of their commonality, and to question the official ideology which relegates them to separate, unconnected worlds.

The popular music scene of Istanbul was still ethnically diverse in the 1920s, a variety that continued in the diaspora. More recently, in the light of a certain rapprochement between Greece and Turkey, it has become popular to bridge the shared Ottoman heritage, both among the descendants of the deportees and in projects such as those of Giovanni de Zorzi in Venice or groups at SOAS; see e.g. Eleni Kallimopoulou, Paradosiaká: music, meaning and identity in modern Greece (2009), Chapter 6.

Twice a stranger cuts through simplistic nationalist agendas, constantly highlighting the lives of real people; the story of the expulsions, like that of the Armenian genocide, has difficult lessons for us today.

See also Midnight at the Pera Palace.

A delightful LRB double act

The 1,001st edition of the LRB features both Patricia Lockwood and Alan Bennett, unlikely but irresistible bedfellows.

I’ve vainly tried to encapsulate the literary genius of Patricia Lockwood here. Her review ponders Karl Ove Knausgaard’s latest weighty tome with typical perception and humour.

I might have met him once. In September 2015 I flew to Norway for a literary festival. Knausgaard was the headliner, but he cancelled at the last minute and was replaced by an Elvis impersonator. […] I went to see his act on opening night: the narrative temptation was too great, and I’m only human. […] At one point he stood and did the hip thing, lit from behind like Christ. I laughed in another language. It was as good as Knausgaard. It was better.

She reflects:

When people dislike Knausgaard’s books, there is often a sense of personal insult, as if they were watching him sit down across from them, tuck a napkin into his collar and make a long meal of their time. But as the worst book of the Bible, Leviticus, tells us: “All fat is the Lord’s”. All your time will be eaten by someone—why not him, who has made such a huge crazy claim on it?

She goes on with a classic one-liner:

Karl Ove Knausgaard was born—just kidding.

She has a wonderful ability to empathise with authors while remaining critical:

Hyperattunement makes you either a weird limp bed-angel, like Proust, or a tense too-ready animal.

Her final paragraph is so wonderful that you’ll just have to seek it out for yourselves. In a crowded critical field that can be summarised as “Knausgaard—WTF?”, Lockwood’s review officially relieves us of the responsibility to plough through his ponderous ouevre. It’s just as brilliant as her other reviews, some of which I’ve listed in my post.

* * *

In a different register, it’s always delightful to read Alan Bennett’s diaries too. A few highlights:

28 March, Palm Sunday. Remember this a propos a joke of Jonathan Miller’s, who, seeing a woman coming back from church holding a cross made of reeds said that it was literally the last straw.

15 April. [Recalling supper with Miller and Philip Roth in the 60s] Talking to Jonathan beforehand, I had made a poor joke about Portnoy’s Complaint being The Gripes of Roth. I’m sure I wasn’t the first to pick up on this, but it was new to Jonathan, so when Roth arrived he insisted on telling it to its subject. Maybe he even insisted on me repeating it myself. I’ve no memory of Roth’s response—unamused, I would have thought—but remember my own embarrassment, as fresh now with Roth dead as it was fifty years ago.

9 September. [Watching the last of David Olusoga’s TV series, he recalls wartime air raids] … But compared with the bombing of Sheffield, say, or Hull, Leeds got off lightly. “The city specialised in the manufacture of ready-made suits and the cultivation of rhubarb, and though the war aims of the German High Command were notoriously quixotic I imagine a line had to be drawn somewhere” (Writing Home).

10 December. [recalling an ungrateful editor at the LRB] Miss Shepherd never said thank you, and nor did the LRB, though it smelled better.

Free: coming of age at the end of history

Things were one way, and then they were another. I was someone, then I became someone else.

Ypi cover

With my knowledge of Albania largely limited to the improbable combination of Norman Wisdom, Mother Teresa, the mesmerising polyphony of the Tosk and Lab peoples (here and here), and rituals of the Bektashi order, I’ve been fascinated to read

Covering Ypi’s early years before she left Albania to study in Rome, it makes a fine addition to memoirs on the climate of duplicity in people’s lives behind the Iron Curtain and their ongoing tribulations, such as Vesna Goldsworthy (Serbia), Katya Kassabova (Bulgaria), Maxim Leo (GDR), Orlando Figes (USSR); and of course it’s reminiscent of the circumspection and fear that Chinese people experienced under Maoism.

EnverBorn in 1979 in the port of Durrës just west of Tirana, Lea was prudently brought up to revere Uncle Enver and Stalin—despite the complicated “biographies” of her family, which she only began to understand later.

Biographies were carefully separated into good and bad, better or worse, clean or stained, relevant or irrelevant, transparent or confusing, suspicious or trustworthy, those that needed to be remembered and those that needed to be forgotten.

When Uncle Enver died in 1985, her parents dutifully protested their love for the Party, making Lea promise that she would never tell anyone otherwise.

Pioneers

At school she avidly became a Pioneer. Her father affectionately called her brigatista—equivalent, as she gathered, to “troublemaker”.

Gazing at foreign children on holiday at the beach, Lea reflects:

We knew that it was difficult for us to travel abroad because we were surrounded by enemies. Moreover, our holidays were subsidised by the Party. Perhaps one day the Party would be powerful enough to have defeated all our enemies, and would pay for everyone to travel abroad too. In any case, we were already in the best place. They had nothing. We knew we did not have everything. But we had enough, we all had the same things, and we had what mattered most: real freedom. […]

The tourists

were interested in everything: the Roman amphitheatre, the Venetian tower, the harbour, the old city walls, the tobacco factory, the rubber-making factory, the schools, the Party headquarters, the dry-cleaning shops, the piles of rubbish awaiting collection, the queues, the street rats, the weddings, the funerals, the things that happened, the things that did not happen, the things that may or may not have happened. Tourists held Nikon cameras, intent on capturing our past greatness and our present misery, or our present greatness and the misery of our past, depending on their point of view. […]

Ypi young

Years later, she discovered that the tourists were of two kinds. The realists, mostly from Scandinavia, belonged to fringe Marxist-Leninist groups, admiring “the clarity of our slogans, the order of our factories, the purity of our children, the discipline of the horses who pulled our carriages, and the conviction of the peasants who travelled in them”. The dreamers, bored with Bali, Mexico, and Moscow, were in search of the ultimate exotic adventure; they came to discover “a truth they had already agreed upon”.

Ypi grandparents

Lea was much influenced by her cultured, French-speaking, Ottoman-born grandmother. Her parents find relief from Albanian TV by complicated manoeuvres on the roof to receive foreign stations by satellite.

My family accepted that some rules were more important than others and that some promises would become obsolete with time. In this they were no different from other people, the rest of society, or even the state. Part of the challenge of growing up was finding out which rules faded over time, which were trumped by other more important obligations, and which ones remained inflexible.

She ponders the rules of grocery shopping and the loopholes of queueing. And she mends a rift between her family and their neighbours over a Coca Cola can.

At the time, these were an extremely rare sight. Even rarer was the knowledge of their function. They were markers of social status: if people happened to own a can, they could show it off by exhibiting it in their living rooms, usually on an embroidered tablecloth over the television or the radio, often right next to the photo of Enver Hoxha.

At school Lea eventually solves the mystery of Coca Cola:

“I think it’s a drink”, I almost whispered, as if I were revealing a secret. “Those cans you sometimes see on top of people’s shelves, they’re to hold drinks.”

* * *

In December 1990, as news of the collapse of socialism belatedly reached Albania, she stared incredulously at the TV screen.

The same human beings who had been marching to celebrate socialism and the advance towards communism took to the streets to demand its end. The representatives of the people declared that the only things they had ever known under socialism were not freedom and democracy but tyranny and coercion.

Hearing the cries of “Freedom, democracy!” Lea supposed the “hooligans” were shouting out of fear, out of uncertainty, “to explain that this was what they did not want to lose, rather than what they wanted”.

Finally she understands the discreet euphemisms her family had been using.

They said that my country had been an open-air prison for almost half a century. That the universities which had haunted my family were, yes, educational institutions, but of a peculiar kind. That when my family spoke of the graduation of relatives, what they really meant was their recent release from prison. That completing a degree was coded language for completing a sentence. That the initials of university towns stood for the initials of various prison and deportation sites.

Lea finally begins to understand her family’s biographies. Meanwhile at school, at first their teacher exhorts them to reject both the revisionist East and the imperialist West. But counter-protests in memory of Enver Hoxha were short-lived, and the terms dictatorship, proletariat, and bourgeoisie disappeared from people’s vocabulary, replaced only by an elusive “freedom”.

As the old Party managed to win the first elections, protests, looting, and violence spread widely. The new remedy was to be the shock therapy of market reforms.

Lea’s parents receive a visit from a former Party member turned Opposition candidate, asking them to lend him a pair of grey socks. He soon became a charismatic politician and highly successful businessman:

We rarely saw him again, and even when we did, it was only from a distance, as he slammed the door of his dark, shiny Mercedes Benz, surrounded by mighty bodyguards. It would have been imprudent, as well as implausible, to get closer and accuse him of wrongfully appropriating my father’s socks.

In 1991 Lea made her first trip outside Albania, joining her grandmother on a visit to Athens and Salonika in a futile attempt to reclaim the family’s former properties. A passage like this doesn’t read merely as poverty voyeurism but evokes genuine culture shock:

I made a list of all the new things I had discovered for the first time, and meticulously recorded them: the first time I felt air conditioning on the palm of my hands; the first time I tasted bananas; the first time I saw traffic lights; the first time I wore jeans; the first time I did not need to queue to enter a shop; the first time I encountered border control; the first time I saw queues made of cars instead of humans; the first time I sat down on a toilet instead of squatting; the first time I saw people following dogs on a leash instead of stray dogs following people; the first time I was given actual chewing-gum rather than just the wrapper; the first time I saw buildings made of different shops and shop-windows bursting with toys; the first time I saw crosses on graves; the first time I stared at walls covered by adverts rather than anti-imperialist slogans […]

But she wanted to go home, to feel safe. Meanwhile back home everyone seemed to be trying to leave—including her schoolfriend Elona, who managed to get to Italy, aged just 13, where she ended up as a street beggar. Elona’s grandfather told Lea how he had gone in search for her by getting on board the Vlora, a ship built to take 3,000 passengers and now crammed with nearly 20,000, before he was deported back with most of the others.

Still, mass emigration continued apace.

Her mother joined the opposition Democratic Party and became a leader in the national women’s association, delivering polished, unscripted speeches to large rallies, “as if she had written them in her head many years ago, as if she had rehearsed every day of her life the sentences that she would later utter”. She received a visit from a delegation of French women, who didn’t find her vision of female emancipation entirely compatible with their own.

When Lea briefly joined a mosque, her benign father, recently unemployed, joked “Did you pray for me to find a job?”

“It won’t help”, I replied. You need to change the font on your CV. You need to switch from Times New Roman to Garamond.”

(I doubt if at the time anyone anywhere was much aware of the joys of choosing arty fonts, but I’m happy to allow for poetic license.) Anyway, her father soon became director of the biggest port in the country, finding himself having to deliver “structural reforms”, laying off workers that he cared about.

Lea had previously been content with her “freedom”; but as she became a teenager, with decades of socialist education being overturned, she became withdrawn, losing her voice for a time. The clubs of her youth, for poetry, theatre, singing, maths, natural science, music, and chess, had ceased to exist.

A few pubs and clubs had started to open. Most of them belonged to people-smugglers, drug-dealers, or sex traffickers. These were all mentioned as normal occupations, in the same way one would have explained in the past that so-and-so was a cooperative worker, a factory employee, a bus driver, or a hospital nurse.

From Islam she turned to Buddhism for a while, and volunteered for the Red Cross at the local orphanage.

There was no politics left, only policy. And the purpose of policy was to prepare the state for the new era of freedom, and to make people feel as if they belonged to “the rest of Europe”.

During those years, “the rest of Europe” was more than a campaign slogan. It stood for a specific way of life, one which was imitated more often than understood, and absorbed more often than justified. Europe was like a long tunnel with an entrance illuminated by bright lights and flashing signs, and with a dark interior, invisible at first. When the journey started, it didn’t occur to anyone to ask where the tunnel ended, whether the light would fail, and what there was on the other side. It didn’t occur to anyone to bring torches, or to draw maps, or to ask whether anyone ever makes it out of the tunnel, or if there is only one exit or several, and if everybody goes out the same way. Instead, we just marched on, and hoped the tunnel would remain bright, assuming we worked hard enough, and waited long enough, just as we used to wait in socialist queues—without minding that time had passed, without losing hope.

As the new buzzwords “civil society” and “corruption” circulated, people were duped by disastrous pyramid schemes in which more than half of the population, including Lea’s family, lost their savings. This led to the civil war of 1997, which she records starkly by reproducing her diary from January to April, written amidst the sound of gunfire, explosions, and screaming.

It’s like a whole country committing suicide. Just when it looked like things were getting better it all went downhill. Now that we are all falling from a precipice, there’s no way back. It’s so much worse than 1990. At least there was hope in democracy then. Now there is nothing, just a curse.

The strife led to a new mass exodus. By now Lea’s mother had already managed to get to Italy, where she eventually found menial work. After Lea’s farcical graduation from school, beset by doubts she too found her way to Italy, studying philosophy in Rome.

I waved goodbye to my father and grandmother on the shore and travelled to Italy on a boat that sailed over thousands of drowned bodies, bodies that had once carried souls more hopeful than mine, but who met fates less fortunate. I never returned.

* * *

As for others in the socialist bloc, people could neither feel positive about their new circumstances nor nostalgic for the socialist past. Such memoirs are not merely quaint, but evoke an ongoing psychological conflict both for those who experienced the period and for outsiders.

Lea Ypi now teaches political theory at the LSE. As told in the Guardian,

She is wry, now, about the empty shelves and educational chaos of post-Brexit, pandemic Britain. After years of being lectured about the supposed failures of where she comes from, “there is a special pleasure in it, because the tables are reversed for once”.

Still, she is critical of the “holy” left in the West.

My mother finds it difficult to understand why I teach and research Marx, why I write about the dictatorship of the proletariat. […] Mostly, she keeps her criticisms to herself. Only once did she draw attention to a cousin’s remarks that my grandfather did not spend fifteen years locked up in prison so that I would leave Albania to defend socialism. We both laughed awkwardly, then paused and changed the topic. […] I wanted to clarify, but didn’t know where to start. I thought that it would take a book to answer.

This is that book.

And very fine it is too.

The Armenian genocide

awaiting execution

The 1915 Armenian genocide, [1] affirmed by scholars and historians around the world, remains bitterly contested by the government of Turkey, which (like that of China) has long propounded collective amnesia. Clarity on the “Armenian question” is often bedevilled by the technical issue of whether the assaults constituted genocide as defined by Raphael Lemkin in 1944.

mapSource: wiki.

Under the roof of the Ottoman empire, religious and ethnic groups were obliged to coexist—as in Anatolia, where Muslims lived alongside Orthodox Greek and Armenian neighbours. But inter-ethnic violence increased through the 19th century; from 1895 Armenians were frequently the targets of atrocities. With the Ottoman roof crumbling, the 1912–13 Balkan Wars reduced its territory and heightened tensions in Anatolia.

After the outbreak of World War One, by 1915 the Ottoman authorities in Constantinople, anxious to forestall rebellion, executed and deported prominent Armenian leaders and disarmed Armenian soldiers in the Ottoman army. In eastern Anatolia (then still home to Greek Orthodox Christians, besides Turkish and Kurdish Muslims), as Armenians were deported away from the Russian front, around one million were starved, robbed, raped, and slaughtered on death marches to the desert. Armenian assets were expropriated, and the surviving women and children forcibly Islamified, erasing Armenian names and culture. Further massacres followed in 1916. International exposure and scrutiny were helpless to stem the tide. Later the genocide was much admired by the Nazis.

deport

Deportation.

Andrew Finkel (in Turkey: what everyone needs to know, chapter 5) offers a cogent overview of the issues.

On the surface it might seem strange that Turkey would stake so much of its own credibility defending a predecessor empire whose immediate legacy it had itself disowned. Yet it has become part of the catechism of today’s Republic that what happened in 1915 was part of the exigencies of war and not premeditated.

He gamely outlines the Turkish case, that

Turks were themselves the initial victims of ethnic cleansing. […] Cholera and famine (as well as attacks by Kurdish irregulars) also took their toll on the files of refugees. If blame is to be apportioned, the argument runs, it falls on Armenian revolutionaries who disturbed centuries of coexistence between Muslims and Armenians.

With the academic community and world opinion unconvinced that the many wrongs suffered by Turkish Muslims made a right, he explains the niceties of international legal wranglings and the ramifications of genocide resolutions. And he observes changing attitudes within Turkey, with more open discussion, and growing interest in the contributions of Armenians to the Ottoman empire.

Cetin cover

The 2004 publication of Fethiye Çetin’s My grandmother: an Armenian-Turkish memoir (one of the five books on the genocide chosen by Thomas de Waal, author of Great catastrophe) “confronted Turks with the Armenians in their midst, both dead and alive”, raising awareness of forced assimilation.

Çetin’s grandmother (1905–2000) only began revealing her story in 1975. Çetin gave her death announcement to the Istanbul newspaper Agos:

Her name was Heranuş. She was the granddaughter of Herabet Gadaryan, and the only daughter of İsguhı and Hovannes Gadaryan.

She passed a happy childhood in the village of Habab, near Palu, until she reached the fourth grade.

Then, suddenly, she was thrown into the painful times about which she would say, “May those days vanish never to return”.

Heranuş lost her entire family and never saw them again. She was given a new name, to live in a new family.

She forgot her mother tongue and her religion, and though she did not once in her life complain about this, she never ever forgot her name, her village, her mother, her father, her grandfather or her close relations. She lived until the age of 95, always hoping that she might be able to see them and embrace them again one day. Perhaps it was this hope that allowed her to live so long; until her very last days, her mind remained sharp. Last week, we lost Heranuş, our grandmother, and sent her to her eternal resting place. We are hoping that this announcement might reach the relations (our relations) that we were never able to find while she was alive, that they may share our grief, in the hope that “those days may vanish, never to return”.

Cetin family(Clockwise from left to right.)

As the translator Maureen Freely comments In her Introduction, this history has been concealed from four generations of Turkish schoolchildren. The book bears witness, giving voice to those whom history has silenced.

Secret nation

The persistence of Armenians in Anatolia today, “the leftovers of the sword”, is explored in a wonderful book, full of rich ethnographic observation:

  • Avedis Hadjian, Secret nation: the hidden Armenians of Turkey (2018).

For Armenians outside Turkey, the clock had stopped in 1915. Until the mid-2000s, most of the Diaspora did not know that there were Armenians left in the ancient provinces of the Ottoman Empire—the conquered territories of Western Armenia and Cilicia. The terrified Armenians that remained would still be subject to daily humiliations, killings, deportations, and armed attacks by the Turkish army and irregular formations, both Turkish and Kurdish, until at least the late 1980s in some parts of the country’s interior. For these Armenians, genocide by other means continued for another century.

In fiction, an engaging appearance of the elephant in the room is Elif Shafak’s The bastard of Istanbul (2006), using the stories of a characterful Istanbul family of women and their teenage daughter Asya, who bonds with the Armenian-American Armanoush, stepdaughter of the family’s estranged brother, as she comes in search of her heritage. I find the novel highly effective in presenting nuanced views through the voices of a polyphonic cast with their seemingly antagonistic stereotypes.

Shafak cover

In the Turkish Penal Code the crime of “insulting Turkishness” went back to Article 159, introduced in 1926. In 2005, concerned over the new openness of discussion, the state had replaced it with the controversial Article 301, bringing a slew of prosecutions against several journalists and authors. Written in English, The bastard of Istanbul soon became a bestseller in Turkish, and despite—or perhaps because of—its spirit of reconciliation, Shafak’s book was among the targets of Article 301. While the case against her was dropped, like that of Orhan Pamuk, a prosecution against the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was upheld, and he was soon assassinated by a young ultranationalist, giving rise to popular protests.

Indeed, Hrant Dink was the editor of Agos, where Heranuş Gadaryan’s death notice had appeared, and it was Fethiye Çetin who acted as Dink’s lawyer; she has continued to represent his family.

Having created a climate of fear, by 2008 Article 301 was amended to discourage abuse, but since 2017 it has been invoked again for other purposes (see also Fatma Yavuz).

This 2005 documentary on the Armenian genocide is from ARTE:


[1] Sources are voluminous. I haven’t attempted to read perhaps the most exhaustive of many studies, Raymond Kevorkian, The Armenian genocide: a complete history (English translation 2011, from the 2006 French original), running to 1,029 pages. Wiki makes a useful introduction (cf. Racism in Turkey); among websites, see e.g. here and here.

For a thorough recent study, see Fatma Müge Göçek, Denial of violence: Ottoman past, Turkish present, and collective violence against the Armenians, 1789-2009 (2016), with sections on Imperial denial of origins of violence; Young Turk denial of the act of violence; Early Republican denial of actors of violence; and Late Republican denial of responsibility for violence. She explores the wider issue of “Why do states and societies insist of denying the acts of collective violence embedded in their pasts and present?” (e.g. Holocaust denial, Native America, Russia, and China, among many cases).

Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi, The thirty-year genocide: Turkey’s destruction of its Christian minorities, 1894–1924 (2019) encourages us to see the wider picture, though some of its detail has been challenged.

Turkey: what everyone needs to know

Belatedly keen to explore Turkish culture, I learned a lot from

  • Andrew Finkel, Turkey: what everyone needs to know (2012).

For all its populist Q&A format, it’s full of useful insights, constantly unpacking simplistic preconceptions while presenting a range of viewpoints both within Turkey and abroad, based on the author’s long experience as a journalist based in Istanbul.

Turkey AF

The chapters open with Historical background, summarising the legacy of the Ottoman empire—ethnic conflicts in the aftermath of World War One, the treaties of Sèvres and Lausanne leading to the foundation of modern Turkey with Atatürk’s Republic. Andy ponders the mixed record of Turkey’s measures to preserve the culture of the past: typically, alongside apparently impressive legislation, archeology clashes with ideology and the pecuniary demands of tourism and development, as the Ottoman heritage is Disneyfied.

The next chapter on Economy describes “a complex economy in its own right, but one well situated to become a conduit of goods and services between Europe and the resource-rich nations of the Middle East and the former Soviet Union”. He notes the profound inequalities between regions, with the eastern provinces accounting for less than 10% of the country’s economy; the flaws of state development projects, notably hydroelectric; the steady decline of agriculture; and the culture of complicity. As often, all this reminds me of China. Andy evokes the contrast between Istanbul and Ankara, with the former’s loss of political power doing nothing to damage its status as Turkey’s cultural and commercial capital.

Turkey in the world observes Turkey’s pivotal strategic position in global politics. Many in the West understand that

the choices facing Turkey are not Manichean, a clash of civilisations between East and West, but rather are based on a nuanced calculation of where the country’s best interests lie.

Andy outlines Turkey’s response to the end of the Cold War, 9/11 followed by the invasions of Iraq, and the Arab Spring; relations with the USA, Israel, and the EU; the war in Syria, human rights, and Cyprus.

Politics… and the military covers democracy, coups, more on human rights, nationalism, religious interests, the uneasy alliance between state and government, nepotism, the slow pace of reform, and (a topic on which he has particular authority) limits on press freedom.

The Introduction has already explained how the very concept of “Turkish” and “Turk” arose from the ashes of the Ottoman empire; and how the racial and linguistic term “Turkic” (Turcoman) is used in English for tribal peoples from Central Asia (some of whom migrated to what is now Turkey!)—a distinction not made in Turkish. Society and religion opens with a discussion of the role of Islam in public life, as the secular state wrestles to reconcile its avowed secular identity with Muslim values. Checks on Turkey becoming a fundamentalist state include a de facto diversity and tolerance among the people—although this is hardly put to the test, since Turkish-born non-Muslims now comprise only 1% of the population.

For all its claims to be a melting pot of civilisations and a mosaic of different cultures, Turkey has been continuously blindsided by the problem of accommodating its own ethnic diversity.

In religion, with non-Muslim minorities having dwindled severely since 1900, the promotion of “faith tourism” is highly selective, with monuments to Anatolia’s multi-confessional past merely vestigial. While the building of mosques proliferates, within Islam there are disparate groups, such as the Alevis, whose practice distances them from the mainstream.

The situation of the Kurds is the subject of a rather extensive discussion.

Ethnic solidarity with fellow Kurds across borders is often overshadowed by the concerns and politics of the countries in which Kurds actually find themselves.

In Turkey they are based in the southeast and east of the country, but Istanbul is “almost certainly the largest Kurdish city in the world”. While discussing the Turkish state’s campaign against the PKK (boosted by wider anti-terrorist sympathies after 9/11), the book observes that

Kurdish nationalism […] does at times appear to be a distorted reflection of the Turkish nationalism it opposes.

Not only is the whole region underdeveloped, but cross-border tensions are heightened by the movements of refugees.

In 1989 Eastern and Central Europe rejected Soviet-style totalitarianism and embraced a democratic ideal. Yet Turkey, which might have been expected to reap a dividend from the end of the Cold War, became more authoritarian. It became embroiled in a costly fight to suppress Kurdish insurrection and has in some measure been corrupted by it.

With the prospect of Greater Kurdistan ever remote, the Kurds’ search for greater political and cultural rights continues.

women skip

Photo: Selahattin Giz.

This is followed by a section on gender (see also here). On one hand, Atatürk is praised for having emancipated women, and legal reforms have continued, described by one campaigning NGO as succeeding in

safeguarding women’s rights, and bodily and sexual autonomy. […] All legal references to vague patriarchal constructs such as chastity, morality, shame, public customs, or decency have been eliminated and definitions of such crimes against women brought in line with global human rights norms. […] The new code […] brings progressive definitions and higher sentences for sexual crimes, criminalises marital rape; brings measures to prevent sentence reductions granted to perpetrators of honour killings, eliminates previously existing discrimination against non-virgin and unmarried women, criminalises sexual harrassment at the workplace and considers sexual assaults by security forces to be aggravated offences.

Yet, as elsewhere, “feminists are not as grateful to their male liberators as the official history would have them feel”. The shops and restaurants of central Istanbul cannot represent the general picture. Secularists have failed to tackle obstinate patriarchal attitudes. As to the sensitive question of headscarves,

many believe it is a right and obligation for pious women to cover their heads. Others see it as a deliberate affront and a symptom of creeping fundamentalism.

Some issues are explored in Kutluğ Ataman’s Women who wear wigs (2001), “part of a warning about recklessly attributing motives and categories”. This is followed by a section on the status of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and LGBT people in Turkey.

Finally, the vexed arguments surrounding the Armenian genocide are cogently summarised—a topic to which I devote a separate post.

All these questions have ramifications far beyond the borders of Turkey. The Conclusion offers some signs of hope, such as the public demonstrations (below) following the 2007 assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.

Dink demo

Lastly, Andy provides a succinct list of further reading. Amidst the shifting picture, he’s well aware that constant updates are to be desired; but with its digestible style and thoughtful perspectives, the book makes a valuable overview.

For more on Turkey, see under Köcek in Kuzguncuk!, notably Midnight at the Pera Palace.

Thankyou Driver!

Bus 1962

“Male bus driver and female conductor chatting by their bus;
both are recent recruits from the Caribbean”.
Photo: Henry Grant, 1962.

When passengers get off the bus (or “alight”, as the quaint officialese term has it), I’m surprised how often I hear them calling out “Thankyou Driver!”.

To their less confident, silent fellow-passengers the parting salutation, flaunting a sense of etiquette, may seem like a rebuke. One might suppose it to be one of those hallowed customs trumpeted by the Brexit brigade, like queueing, child chimney-sweeps, and bendy bananas; but it’s only since the 1980s, when drivers had to fend for themselves without a conductor, that it has become possible to thank them audibly.

Little did I know that it has become a common topic of debate, with its own meme. A 2018 Guardian article on the topic prompted 1,380 comments! Like Life, It’s Complicated, with no simple divide between the courteous and the callous.

It seems fair enough when one leaves by the door where the driver sits (cf. the ticket-collector in Alan Bennett’s Sermon). When boomed from the distance of the middle door, more timid souls may find it unseemly—almost virtue signalling, drawing attention to oneself as a pillar of the community. *

It’s also regional. Popular in Scotland and north England, it’s common in Australia too; the article has some comments on bus protocol elsewhere, such as in Germany, Spain, and Russia. One BTL comment noted:

I used to thank bus drivers when I lived in a city where that was a thing people did. For now, I live in a city that mercifully rejects small talk and the forced emotional labor of giving and accepting thanks (New York)—so I no longer do.

It’s not just used by Little Old Ladies, though from my limited sampling in London it does tend to be more of a Woman Thing (statistics, please—“broken down by age and sex”, like Keith Richards). I can’t find the source of the poll showing that 82% of people (“more than 15,300”) thanked the driver, but I’m incredulous.

Don’t Get Me Wrong, I’m all for a bit of personal contact. Maybe it’s the physical distance between them: while the greeter’s boldness impresses me, somehow the use of “Driver” makes it less personal, drawing attention to the grubby contractual relationship. Of course one thanks people face to face, people with whom one has had a certain amount of contact—like a taxi driver, or a doctor. But in other routine exchanges with public (or private) servants, one doesn’t say “Thankyou, Handyman” or “Thankyou, Hedge-fund Manager”.

It seems a bit patrician to me, like a greeting to Staff—the kind of patronising remark that Jacob Tree-Frog ** makes to one of his chauffeurs on the successful completion of a charabanc outing, rather as he dismisses one of his butlers or scullery maids from his August Presence.

In the event that the passenger actually knows the driver (“Thankyou, Bob”) then it’s fair enough. To me it suggests that the driver had made a special diversion to deliver them safe and sound right to their front door, and is going to hop out and take the shopping in for them too.


* Rather like clapping the NHS, which nurses and doctors came to see as a “hollow gesture” compared with, like, supporting fair pay or even following public health guidance—see also here.

** In the latest instalment in JRM’s mission to remind us that he is a fatuous, dangerous lunatic, he explains why Tory MPs don’t need to wear face masks in the Chamber:

“We on this side know each other” and have a “convivial fraternal spirit.”

WTAF???

Women in Tibet, 2

Ajakhaba 1944

The status of women in old and new Tibet is an increasingly popular topic, with studies headed by Janet Gyatso and Hanna Havnevik (eds.), Women in Tibet, including Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy’s chapter on women in expressive culture (outlined here), Charlene Makley on nuns (cf. her book The violence of liberation), and Robbie Barnett on women in contemporary politics.

Jamyang Norbu has long been a challenging voice in the Tibetan exile community (see The Lhasa ripper, The enchanting world of Tibetan opera, and The mandala of Sherlock Holmes). I also appreciate his

a “rambling essay is based on a rambling talk” that he gave to Tibetan students in Delhi on 1st April (sic) 2019.

I made a hash of my talk. A 20-hour flight, jet lag, and an injudicious self-prescribed nostrum [excellent expression—Ed.], didn’t help. But the hundred or so curious, outspoken, eager-to-know students just brushed aside my incoherence, and bombarded me with arguments and questions—even on issues considered terrifyingly taboo in our subservient exile society. I had a great time.

Indeed, the article makes a refreshing complement to more arcane academic studies. His typically virtuosic discussion mainly concerns old Tibet, with notes on the Maoist era. He opens by noting that, by contrast with other Asian societies,

in numerous accounts of visitors and travellers to pre-1950 Tibet one comes across positive and even laudatory comments on the role of women in Tibetan society.

He cites the work of Yudru Tsomo (Sichuan University) on the traditional role of women in business and trade. Socially too,

not only did the lady of the house receive guests and socialise with them, it was in fact required of women to dine and drink with male guests and take part in the conversation.

Gould 1939

He notes that

Such social freedoms were not only the preserve of the aristocracy but widespread in all classes. In Lhasa, women drank and made merry publicly during the summer and autumn picnic seasons. […]

Once as a schoolboy in Darjeeling, I passed by a large group of Tibetan women on the Chowrastha road. They had gone for a Sangsol (incense offering) ceremony at the Observatory Hill, or Gangchen as Tibetans called it, the site of the oldest Buddhist temple in the district.  They were returning home, arm-in arm, singing songs, strolling down the main Chowrastha and Nehru Road where all the posh stores were located. They were dressed in their best silks and jewelry and all happily drunk, oblivious of the amused stares of passers-by. Some sheepish looking Tibetan men and servants accompanied them.

He also discusses social freedom and equality, and legal issues such as property rights and divorce. As he observes,

Financial independence gave Tibetan women the freedom to ignore or disregard male (particularly priestly) condemnation of their lifestyles, in particular the use of Western cosmetics that were in vogue from the 1930s.

He cites Alexandra David-Neel (1934), who observed that women

had achieved a de facto equality despite law and scripture unfavourable to them, this by virtue of innate independence and physical stamina…Tibetan women had mastered a harsh environment and gained sway over their men. Tibetan women were clever and brave and therefore valued by their husbands. It also helped that a large portion of the retail trade was in women’s hands.

Even after the Chinese invasion,

In the mid-1950s, when motor-biking became the rage in the Holy City, one of the first and most glamorous of bikers was the celebrated Lhasa beauty, the younger Lady Lhalu Sonam Deki, who roared around the holy city on a black BSA 500.

Women in religious life
He is careful not to portray Tibet as some kind of feminist paradise.

Women had no major role in the great religious institutions, particularly in the Gelukpa monastic universities, and also in the clerical power structure of the Tibetan government. There were important female incarnations as Samding Dorje Phagmo and also some important nunneries, but these were admittedly minor compared to the scale and importance of the male priestly institutions.

Still, as shown in several chapters of Women in Tibet, women played an important and recognised role in spiritual practice and teaching, Jamyang Norbu adduces early figures like the dakani Yeshe Tsogyal, the 11th-century Tantric practitioner Machik Labdron, the Samding Dorje Phagmo lineage (see the work of Hildegard Diemberger), and the Nyingma teacher Shukseb Jetsunma Chönyi Zangmo (1852–1953). As he notes, female spiritual teachers play a prominent role in Tibetan opera.

Women in politics and nation building
Again, while women played no role in the formal official, political, and military life of old Tibet, they were involved in national political life from early times—such as Semarkar, sister of Emperor Songtsen Gampo (547?–649), and Trimalo Triteng, consort of emperor Manglon Mangtsen, the grandson of Songtsen Gampo. Here Jamyang Norbu refers us to the work of Helga Uebach, which again features in Women in Tibet.

In modern times, the Lhasa aristocrat Yeshi Dolma became queen of Sikkim in 1882.

Women in war and revolution
Women played a significant role in the resistance against the Chinese. In the 1930s Gyari Cheme Dolma rose up against the Sichuan warlord/governor Liu Wenhui.

During the 1956 Uprisings in Eastern Tibet we know of at least two women, Ani Pachen Lemdatsang of Gonjo and Gyari Dorje Yudon of Nyarong, who personally lead their male tribal warriors in violent insurrections against the PLA.

The “female warriors” Galingshar Chöla and Gurteng Kunsang were principal figures in the Women’s March on 12th March 1959 against the escalation of Chinese repression. Jamyang Norbu cites a joint statement by two eyewitnesses in 1961:

On October 21, 1959, a 60-year old nun Galingshar Anila was taken around the Barkhor in Lhasa. The Chinese ordered the people to beat her but no one would do so. Then the Chinese gathered some thieves and beggars, gave them some money and had them beat her at her house… She died on the 31st of the same month.

Gurteng Kunsang was imprisoned, but remained defiant; she was executed along with fifteen other prisoners in 1970.

The story of Trinley Chödrön’s role in the 1969 Nyemo uprising is documented by Melvyn Goldstein. And recently, women as well as men have self-immolated in protest at Chinese rule.

Immolations

Women in old Tibet certainly had more freedoms and rights than their counterparts in India, China, and the rest of Asia, and perhaps even more than in Victorian England. Of course it would be wrong to claim that women in Tibet were equal to men in the full contemporary sense—an equality that in spite of tremendous gains over the years, women in present-day democracies still strenuously contend they have not fully realised.

Well, as tends to be my way, this summary is superfluous—you can read the article!

The handmaid’s tale

I can’t think why it’s taken me so long to get round to watching The Handmaid’s tale. All four seasons are currently available on Channel 4—the final episodes of Season 4 airing, by an ominous turn of fate, just as Afghan women were in dread at the Taliban takeover.

HT cover

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel was published in 1985. It concerns the Republic of Gilead, a religious, misogynistic military dictatorship not far in the (then) future that comes to power in a coup overthrowing the US government. The book was widely read; Atwood reflected on her intentions in 2012, before the parallel with Trumpism became inevitable:

In the UK, which had had its Oliver Cromwell moment some centuries ago and was in no mood to repeat it, the reaction was along the lines of, “Jolly good yarn”. In the US, however […] it was more likely to be: “How long have we got?” […]

Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t there already. 

So Atwood was motivated by the enduring strain of Puritanism in American culture; the three great secular dictatorships of the 20th century; modern theocratic regimes such as Iran and Afghanistan; and the atmosphere of oppression was further inspired by her visits behind the Iron Curtain (see this interview).The story adroitly combines the iniquities of all these systems.

I made a rule for myself: I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist. I did not wish to be accused of dark, twisted inventions, or of misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behaviour. The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights: all had precedents, and many were to be found not in other cultures and religions, but within western society, and within the “Christian” tradition, itself.

Even at the “benign” end of Christianity, the insidious submission of women is expressed with typical flair by Patricia Lockwood, reflecting on her relationship with the seminarians who came to stay:

What else could I do but tease them? I had no real power; it was men like these who were in charge of my life. If they decided tomorrow I had to cover my hair or wear skirts or pray separately, or be barred from reading certain books, or take certain pills and not take others, or be silent in the presence of men, I would have to do it. To have that bald dynamic of power on display in your home every day, pretending to arch over and protect you—it does something to a person. The seminarian calls women “the tabernacle of life”. The tabernacle, if you do not know, is an ornamental box that is largely important for what it holds. It is shut up and locked when the men go away, so the consecrated elements inside cannot be stolen.

Atwood describes The handmaid’s tale not as a critique of religion, but as a critique of the use of religion as a “front for tyranny”. The book also has echoes of novels such as Ira Levin, The Stepford wives (1972) and Philip Roth, The plot against America (2004). Another crucial theme is the fertility crisis amidst ecological degradation. As Seth Myers observes, even since the departure of Trump, “the core organising principle of the GOP right now is its fundamental hostility to democracy”.

The TV series
Neither the 1990 film nor the 2000 opera by Poul Ruders went as viral as Bruce Miller’s recent TV series for Hulu. While the far right was always active in the USA, and Atwood’s novel was partly inspired by the rise of the Christian right there, the threat still didn’t seem too tangible; the book appeared as a somewhat remote cautionary tale, a mere fantasy.

The first TV season was ordered in 2016, when few believed that Trump could win the presidency. His victory gave it a more immediate, disturbing relevance. If the idea of a draconian far-right state still seemed distant, the series does focus the mind on the attempted coup on 6th January this year, and on gun-toting militas—a serious challenge to liberal complacency, even since the restoration of sanity.

Bible

How to Bible.

The success of the series came at a time of ever-greater focus on women’s rights and the #MeToo movement—amidst misogyny and the anti-feminist backlash, [1] intrusive surveillance, police brutality, and attacks on the media, with states continuing to tighten bans on abortion. The handmaid uniform now “dresses protests across the world”.

Handmaid protest

While most commentators praise the TV series as a suggestive allegory (e.g. here), Cathy Young, even as a feminist, resisted the general mood, perhaps taking the message rather too literally (or assuming that viewers were doing so):

At the time, it was hailed in major publications as “timely”, “prescient”, and “alarmingly close to home”, despite bearing no resemblance to the actual alarming things happening under the Trump presidency.

As Young notes, Republicans even flaunt their promotion of jobs for women. Rather, their main targets are refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants.

Race
Opponents of the regime are condemned to forced labour in the Colonies, parts of America contaminated by pollution and radioactive waste. In the book we gather that African Americans (the “Children of Ham”) and Asians have been relocated to “National Homelands” in the Midwest to be housed in ghost towns without access to food or water, and Native Americans have been exterminated.

Given the dominant theme of slavery, the shortcomings of the book in covering race have been much discussed (e.g. here). Ana Cottle characterises it as “white feminism”.

The Handmaid’s Tale suggests that the brutality of slavery alone is not impactful enough to serve as a universal wake-up call; instead, we’re only drawn to this “feminist” rallying point when the person enduring these heinous crimes is a college-educated white woman.

And Catherine Morse observes:

Gilead isn’t a society built on the oppression of women—it’s one built on white supremacy.

Or rather, might one say, the oppression of women is one of the major corollaries of white supremacy.

This review finds that the first series is

more concerned with the interiority of white women at the expense of people of color who recognise that Gilead isn’t a possible horrifying future, but the reality of what America has always been.

As Cathy Young comments, the series’ pretensions to current relevance give it an unpleasant subtext of victimhood appropriation on behalf of privileged women. More dubiously, she claims:

The Handmaid cult is a reminder that, as much as the Trumpian right traffics in wild conspiracy theories and demonises any disagreement with the president, the anti-Trump left has its own paranoid style.

The book’s whiteness is hardly rectified in the TV series by including some black characters; in a society based on white supremacy it may even seem incongruous, blurring the issue.

Episodes
The first season is based on the book; the next three series are sequels, developed in consultation with Atwood. The drama remains harrowing and thought-provoking throughout (synopses of the episodes here), with Elisabeth Moss a riveting presence.

The events unfold over several years, with Season 3 apparently taking place in the present. The characters of Commanders, Wives, Handmaids, Guardians, and Eyes are prominent; the role of the Marthas grows in later seasons too.

As in the book, stonings, hangings, maimings, forced criticism and confession sessions contrast with flashbacks to the “normal” life of “the time before”; in the days leading up to the coup, we see all the insidious details that prepare for dictatorship, as women are deprived of all rights. There are constant echoes of all the appalling abuses perpetuated by dictatorships around the world, and the warped loyalties based on the struggle to survive.

HT trio

Aunt Lydia, June, and Serena Joy.

The story is set in Boston; it becomes apparent (realistically?!) that Gilead’s control remains tenuous, as the republic has to cope with various armed uprisings across the territory, notably in Chicago (effectively shown in Season 4). Meanwhile the humane conditions of refugees in exile, anxious for those still trapped in Gilead, play a growing role.

In Season 1, I found the 6th episode particularly telling—the scenes with the Mexican ambassador, and Serena Joy’s backstory (also in 2/6) as advocate of “domestic feminism” (women are not even allowed to read the Bible, let alone Serena’s book A woman’s place) until she meekly accepts her new role. Gilead propaganda is reminiscent of Goebbels and Xinjiang; and when June eventually manages to tell the ambassador the truth, it is to no avail—a foretaste of murky diplomatic waters. Scrabble also plays an unlikely role.

From Season 2 the story begins to go beyond the book. We get to see the Colonies, evoking the Russian and Chinese gulags. In 2/8 Serena’s mask begins to slip, until she is cruelly beaten back into submission—a missed opportunity here to play out with Stand by your man?

With the Gilead soundscape largely devoid of music, the playout and other tracks (for season 4, see here) are well chosen, making a commentary from a sane, remote world—like Oh bondage up yours for the explosive end of 2/6, I only want to be with you in 2/8; Nappy roots’ Good day (a welcome discovery) for 3/1; Che sara sara in 3/8; the Vivaldi Gloria (glorious) for 3/10; I say a little prayer at the opening of 4/1; and for the gory dénouement of the whole series, You don’t own me.

The Season 2 finale is amazing, with Serena increasingly ambivalent, and the attack on Aunt Lydia (whose backstory emerges in 3/8).

In Season 3, as Serena becomes ever less loveable, the resistance comes into focus. 3/6 shows further horrors on a visit to Washington DC, but the season ends on a note of hope.

By Season 4 June has become a fully-fledged resistance leader. After falling once more into the hands of a vengeful Aunt Lydia, she finally reaches the safety of Canada. Even here the drama never lets up; survivors are still in anguish as they confront their trauma, and Fred and Serena, now to be brought before the International Criminal Court, desperately try to minimise their punishment. The resolution in the finale is not quite one that politicians envisage.

* * *

In 2019 Margaret Atwood published a compelling sequel, The testaments (reviewed e.g. by Anne Enright and Julie Myerson). Just when we thought we knew enough about Gilead, it provides a wealth of new material. Set around fifteen years after the events in the book, and not directly reflected in the TV series, it’s narrated by two young women brought up in the contrasting environments of Gilead and Canada, who turn out to be connected; Aunt Lydia, hitherto an archetypal Nazi female camp guard, also gives a most surprising account of her story.

Testaments

Both books end with appendices consisting of notes from the Symposium on Gileadian Studies in 2195 and 2197 respectively. Both are quasi-scholarly discussions of the authenticity of the material presented: the first, the tapes on which The Handmaid’s tale is based, the second, the three written testimonies. So academic conferences have survived, then, like cockroaches.

The whole story reminds me of Neil McGregor’s question about Nazi Germany: “What would we have done?”

The TV drama remains gripping throughout. While the whole plot hinges on the fertility crisis, sometimes I wonder if the series may portray not only the oppressors but the oppressed as sanctifying motherhood, albeit for contrasting reasons. The tiny acts of resistance are meant to inspire; instead, the only consolation is that the viewer is not in this hell. Even so, among us right now are plenty of refugees from similar regimes for whom such traumas will be distressingly familiar. The story serves both to mourn the victims of past dictatorships and to warn against future or latent ones. Neither liberal democracy nor women’s rights can be taken for granted.


[1] On wiki, see e.g.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cult_of_Domesticity
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Men_Going_Their_Own_Way
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_conservatism_in_the_United_States

Franca Rame: The same old story

Rame cover

In 1982 I was fortunate to hear the great Franca Rame (1929–­2013) in London performing her Female parts: one-woman plays (1977, co-written with Dario Fo).

Waking up
A woman alone
The same old story
Medea

The stories, satirising the chains of Church, State, and machismo, are based on her Tutto casa, letto e chiesa; here’s her virtuosic complete 1977 live performance in Milan—using the clichéd image of femininity to further confuse her Italian audience:

And here she performs Waking up (Il risveglio) for TV that year:

The same old story, with its foul-mouthed dolly (translated by Ed Emery here; and in Stuart Hood’s booklet for the 1982 London performances), is particularly fine—Rame’s 1977 live performance above has a variant from 1.49.50. She may be a tough act to follow, but here’s Jennifer Long performing the concluding doll story in English:

So anyway, once upon a time there was a lovely little girl who had a lovely little dolly. Well, actually, the dolly wasn’t lovely at all… she was all dirty and tatty and made of rags, and she used to say terrible swear words, which the little girl learned and went round repeating.

One day her mummy asked her: “But who on earth taught you those horrible swear words?” “My dolly,” said the little girl. “Ooh, you liar! You’ve been hanging round with those horrible boys.”

“No, mummy, really, it’s my dolly. Come on, dolly, say a few swear words for mummy!”

And the dolly, who always did everything the little girl asked her to do, because she loved her so much, came out with a whole string of terrible words: “Porca puttana! Stronzo! Mi piaci un casino! Culo!” [She chants, like a slogan] “Cu-lo, cu-lo, cu-lo!” […]

“Excuse me, gnomey,” she said, “have you seen a big ginger cat with a rag dolly in his mouth, who swears all the time?”

“Er, there he is, there,” says the gnome, waving with his willy, and splosh, he squirts out a big stream of widdle, which lands right on the ginger cat, which promptly falls down dead. Because, as we know, gnomes’ widdle is terribly poisonous for cats! […]

The dénouement makes the message clear:

And the grown-up little girl takes her dolly and hugs her closely closely to her, and gradually, gradually, the little dolly disappears, right into her heart.

And now the grown-up little girl is out there all on her own, on a long, long road… She walks and walks, and she comes to a big tree. And underneath that tree there are lots of other grown-up little girls just like herself, and they make her ever so welcome, and they say: “Sit down here… with us… We’re all telling our own stories. Why don’t you start…” they say to a fair-haired girl sitting there. And the girl begins: “When I was a little girl I had a rag doll who used to say terrible swear-words…”

“Me too!”
“Me too!”
“Me too!”

And all the girls burst out laughing. And one of them says: “Well, who would ever have imagined it: Your story… my story… We’ve all got the same story…!”

You can admire more of Franca Rame’s own performances on her YouTube channel, such as her version of Mistero buffo, debunking Catholicism (Dario Fo’s full version is here, with English translation here; cf. Patricia Lockwood).

The course of feminism is not always smooth.

A feminist Last Supper

Last supper

Some living American women artists/Last Supper.

Typical! All this time I’ve enjoyed (male) spoofs of The (male) Last Supper, but I’ve only just cottoned on to the 1972 version by Mary Beth Edelson, who died last week (obituary here).

The collage affords

the double pleasure of presenting the names and faces of many women artists, who were seldom seen in 1972… while spoofing the male exclusivity of the patriarchy.

And as she observed,

Humour is a mode of speech that is indirect and ambiguous and, therefore, can have multiple interpretations. It can potentially disrupt dominant meanings and the social order while protecting the joker from consequences that might occur if the same message were delivered in a serious mode. Humour sabotages critics, for unlike spoken language, laughter does not belong to a linguistic code and, therefore, has the possibility of creatively breaking that mold while taking advantage of humour’s natural attraction.

In similar vein is Death of the patriarchy/ A.I.R. anatomy lesson (1976):

Death of patriarchy

If only…

Also from 1976 was Words and women.

More Bridget Christie

Christie

In a rather weird yin–yang pattern with David Sedaris, Bridget Christie also has a new series on BBC Radio 4, a collage of her internal musings on Mortality, with four episodes on Birth, Life, Death, and Afterlife delivered from various domestic settings including her wardrobe.

She’s never very impressed by myth—such as Sisyphus:

I know he was really old, but it was only one thing he had to do, wasn’t it, he only had to push the boulder up the hill—it’s hardly a curse, he didn’t have to do all the housework at the same time or try and find the meaning of life or read Eckhart Tolle’s book—or home-school his kids… ridiculous… If the goddess had cursed him, she’d have given him a hundred things to do at the same time: “Right ’ere, get that boulder up that ’ill, and while you’re at it, shake the crumbs outta the toaster, match up the Tupperware, and mow the ’ill on yer way back down an’ all.”

It’s all suitably low-key.

If you are mortal, then this is the show for you.

The washing-machine cycle recurs as a metaphor. In “Death” (an idée fixe of Woody Allen, such as “Death Knocks”), getting through at last to her washing-machine insurance, she gets bogged down trying to read out her interminable reference number.

F! for, for… Foible, you know—foibles? Somebody’s foibles. F-O-I—F for foible… Yeah. For Foxtrot, yeah you could, you could use Foxtrot, yeah.
B! Like a, you know… Bzzz. Bottom? Bee or bottom, yes.
D. I’m sorry, I do know a lot of words, I can just never think of them when I’m under pressure like this. D for Daub. DAUB! Like “I daubed the wall with paint”. DAUB! D-A–U-B-E-D… Oh—they’ve put me on hold again.

In “Afterlife” the disembodied voice of her soul comes into its own, finally more endearing than annoying. Surveying the options offered by various societies, Ms Christie is again underwhelmed by the Greek version (“there’s a lot of blokes there, aren’t there?”). Orkney sounds good to her—no traffic, and lots of fudge.

Her two earlier series Bridget Christie minds the gap are still available. I’ve also featured her aperçus here and here.

The reinvention of humanity: the Boas circle

Like the societies that it studies, anthropology is in constant flux.

On Franz Boas (1858–1942) and his circle, a most engaging book is

  • Charles KingThe reinvention of humanity: how a circle of renegade anthropologists remade race, sex, and gender (2020)—main title of 2019 US edition Gods of the upper air (“Discuss”). Reviewed e.g. herehereand here.

Immensely readable, it surveys how ways of making sense of the diverse cultures of the world have changed since the beginnings of formal anthropology.

Cover, showing Margaret Mead with Fa’amatu in American Samoa, c1926.

Reaching beyond the confines of drier academic treatments, it’s a real gift to write like this for a general audience. King really brings to life what might seem like abstruse theoretical debates.

Alongside Boas himself, he focuses on four female scholars: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Ella Cara Deloria, and Zora Neale Hurston. [1] As Francis Gooding comments,

It’s not a coincidence that Boas and his collaborators, variously Jewish, Black, Indigenous, female and queer, were all outsiders of one kind or another to the mainstream of American society. That their ideas were found radical and strange is an indictment of their culture; that King’s book seems timely is an indictment of our own.

The work of the Boas circle set forth from fieldwork on “exotic” cultures to the lessons it might provide on issues in American society, as they challenged the entrenched notion of linear progress from “primitive” to advanced societies, and the narrow categories of race and gender.

More than anyone in his day, Boas understood that his own society’s deepest prejudices were grounded not in moral arguments but rather in allegedly scientific ones. Disenfranchised African Americans were intellectually inferior because the latest research said so. Women could not hold positions of influence because their weaknesses and peculiar dispositions were well proven. The feebleminded should be kept to themselves because the key to social betterment lay in reducing their number in the general population. Immigrants carried with them the afflictions of their benighted homelands, from disease to crime to social disorder.

Thus

the core message of the Boas circle was that, in order to live intelligently in the world, we should view the lives of others through an empathetic lens. We ought to suspend our judgment about other ways of seeing social reality until we really understand them, and in turn we should look at our own society with the same dispassion and skepticism with which we study far-flung peoples. […]
In time these shifts would inform how sociologists understand immigrant integration or exclusion; how public health officials think about endemic illnesses from diabetes to drug addiction; how police and criminologists seek out the root causes of crime; and how economists model the seemingly irrational actions of buyers and sellers.

Such insights, I confess, do look like progress to me. Still, even as they have gained widespread currency, King notes the resistance from the political right, where

some of these changes are said to constrict a community’s ability to determine its own social mores. A new form of state-sanctioned intolerance, protected in “safe spaces” and monitored by “language police” from schools to workplaces, insists that we should all agree on what constitutes marriage, a good joke, or a flourishing society. The narrative is one of overreach, of unreasonableness, of an overweening state’s infringing on individual speech, thought, and sincerely held values.

King also pays suitable attention to the personalities, their struggles, and complicated love lives of the group.

The members of the Boas circle fought and argued, wrote thousands of pages of letters, spent countless nights under mosquito nets and in rain-soaked lodges, and fell in and out of love with one another. For each of them, fame, if it ever arrived, was edged with infamy—their careers became bywords for licentiousness and crudity, or for the batty idea that Americans might not have created the greatest country that had ever existed. They were dismissed from jobs, monitored by the FBI, and hounded in the press, all for making the simple suggestion that the only scientific way to study human societies was to treat them all as part of one undivided humanity.

* * *

Franz Boas was born in 1858 in Minden, Westphalia—where my orchestral colleague Hildi was to find refuge after fleeing invasive regimes. After studying physics in Heidelberg and Kiel, Boas was drawn to Arctic adventure; in 1883, taking a servant, he embarked for Baffin Island.

The Inuit there had been known to European explorers since the 16th century; in 1577 four of them were captured and displayed as objects of curiosity in England before dying of disease and injuries sustained during their capture.

During Boas’s stay he was assisted by a local man:

Signa was no timeless native simply struggling for survival on an unchanging shore. He had a past, with wanderings and movement, a family lineage, and remembered moments of hardship and joy.

While studying Inuit lifestyles, Boas documented stories and transcribed songs, made maps and sketches. The blood from a raw seal liver is still visible on the paper of his notebooks. But the population soon began succumbing to diphtheria.

Here among the Inuit, a person with the title of “doctor” couldn’t cure an ailing child. A university graduate knew nothing of snow and wind. An explorer was dependent on the whims of a dog team. He had seen it himself—the disorientation that comes with staring at one’s own ignorance, as plain as a brown seal on white ice. Being smart was relative to one’s own circumstances and surroundings.

In late 1884 Boas made his way to New York and then to Washington DC, where he visited the “backwoods intellectual” John Wesley Powell, head of the new Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian. Its researchers were currently engaged in major projects on Native American cultures; but with no position available for Boas there, he returned to Germany.

The scientific field that he had been circling since his voyage to Baffin Island was on the brink of an explosion, one that he was now well placed to miss.

The study of people was becoming known as ethnology, the word anthropology, at first referring mainly to the study of anatomy or natural history, only gradually came into vogue. The journal American anthropologist was founded in 1888. Whereas works like Frazer’s The golden bough (1890) were based on classical written texts, the new discipline sought “to go beyond what was written and ancient into what was observable and alive right now” (cf. Daoist ritual, where the driving force for most fieldwork has been the Ancient Wisdom of written texts, rather than change in modern social practice).

Powell’s mentor Lewis Henry Morgan specialised in the study of the former Iroquois Confederacy, his projects based on the widespread “spiritual renewal” of the day. But they still subscribed to the linear model from savagery to barbarism to civilisation. King gives an instance of this way of thinking:

Music, too, differed from one stage to the next. Savages might beat out a rhythm on a log or a stone, but barbarians sang a melodic line, while civilisation added counterpoint and harmony.

Hmm…

Boas was keen to get back to the USA, and in 1886 he returned to New York. King notes that almost 1.8 million German speakers settled in the States between 1850 and 1900; New York seemed as much German as American.

While seeking an academic position, Boas embarked on new fieldwork among the indigenous groups of the Pacific Northwest. Returning to New York, he found himself at odds with the Powell circle and the classification system then in vogue at the Smithsonian as well as for collections such as the British Museum, the Royal Ethnological Museum in Berlin, and the Pitt Rivers Museum.

The organisation of the collections seemed to reflect the collector’s sense of what the object was for, as opposed to the worldview of the artisan who had originally made it. […]
The only people who could really say whether something that looked like a bow was a weapon, a child’s toy, or an instrument for making fire were the true experts—that is, those who actually used it, in a given place, at a given time. This bone rattle might make music. That one might drive away evil spirits. Yet another might distract a wailing child. It all depended on where you were in the world, not when you happened to be on some linear path of social evolution.

With his shaky English and his disputes with senior figures in the field, Boas took some time to establish himself. In 1889 the psychologist Granville Stanley Hall invited Boas to take up a post at Clarke University in Massachusetts, but the atmosphere there soon became unproductive. He continued spending his summers doing fieldwork in British Columbia. (Alongside personalities, King pays attention to institutions and funding bodies.)

Now an American citizen, Boas moved on to Chicago, where a World Fair was to be held in 1893. The Harvard archeologist Frederic Ward Putnam invited Boas to design a display.

The Midway Plaisance featured exhibits on the peculiar ways of the world’s peoples, from a Bedouin encampment to a Viennese café, most of them thin disguises for hawkers of merchandise and cheap entertainment. An entire building was devoted to the lives and progress of women, while others highlighted advances in agriculture, electrification, and the plastic arts. A new fastener called a zipper made its debut over the six months of the fair’s operation, as did a chewable gum called Juicy Fruit, a tall circular ride presented by a Mr Ferris, and…

Next to the ethnological area, with wigwams, totem poles, and so on, on display, was the Anthropological Building. Boas’s contribution, in eight rooms, was a display of anthropometry, a vogue to which he had subscribed; but the exhibits revealed his increasing reluctance to regard it as a useful method.

Measurements of North American mulattoes showed them to be roughly the same height as white people. […] The distribution of people by stature in the city of Paris varied widely, just as it did for a study of Civil War veterans (although it was found that those from western states were in general taller than the easterners). An attempt to show the heights of Italians ended up finding no obvious pattern from northern Italy to the south. […] The peoples of “Old Europe” were, perhaps surprisingly, shown to be even more physically mixed than the population of the avowedly immigrant United States.

Boas was coming to perceive that

What counted as social scientific data—the specific observations that researchers jotted down in their field notes—was relative to the world view, skill sets, and preexisting categories of the researchers themselves. […] Theories were neither true nor false. They might better be described as successful or unsuccessful: they either fit the observable data or they didn’t. When observation bumped up against the walls of an existing theory, the theory was the thing that had to be changed. The first step was to get good data and then let the theory follow, which was the entire point of all those confusing tables and graphs in his Chicago anthropometry lab.

Meanwhile Chicago suffered a smallpox epidemic, followed by a round of influenza; the mayor was assassinated, and much of the exhibition was destroyed by fire. Still without a regular post, Boas returned to New York, where he began to work for the American Museum of Natural History, whose anthropology section was now directed by Putnam; there he continued his work on the American Northwest. In 1899 he oversaw the launch of a new series of American Anthropologist. At last in 1902 he gained a professorship at Columbia. By 1902 he had five children.

The issue of race now assumes centre stage. King introduces theories current at the time. Blumenbach (1775) had adopted a fivefold classification: Ethiopians (Africans), Americans (!), Mongolians (Asians), Malay (Pacific) and Caucasian (European), but by 1871 Darwin was questioning such basic schema.

As racial theories sought to justify the assertion of power by people of European descent (the term Aryan was in use from the mid-19th century), in the USA the Jim Crow system of segregation came into force. The theories of social scientists could have deep, often destructive, ramifications for people’s lives.

In 1899 William Z. Ripley divided European peoples into Teutonic, Alpine, and Mediterranean types, the first of which he claimed were at the forefront of the achievements of world civilisation. The term eugenics came into use.

Over the two decades spanning the turn of the century the foreign-born population had swollen:

Nearly a third more people were foreign-born in 1910 than in 1900. (It would take another century, into the 2010s, before immigration figures would ever approach similar levels. At the time Donald J. Trump announced his campaign for president by denouncing Mexican “rapists”, for example, the foreign-born figure was within a little more than a percentage point of the 1910 level.)

Madison Grant turned from zoology to human species, and “the preservation of his own race against an onslaught of immigration”; no longer could the USA remain an “asylum for the oppressed”. Hitler later expressed his approval of Grant’s work, considering the US to be showing the way toward a brighter, more scientific way of building a political community.

In 1907 the US Congress established a commission to study the rise in immigration; representatives, “decked out in straw boaters and linen suits”, visited the squalid detention camps of ports like Naples, Marseilles, and Hamburg. The following year they invited Boas to lead a team researching physical changes in the immigrants of the neighbourhoods of lower Manhattan. His 1911 report found them to be remarkably adaptable to their new surroundings; races were unstable.

There was no reason to believe that a person of one racial or national category was more of a drain on society, more prone to criminality, or more difficult to assimilate than any other. What people did, rather than who they were, ought to be the starting point for a legitimate science of society and, by extension, the basis for government policy on immigration.

Still, Boas’s findings were largely ignored in the Commission’s final report.

Also in 1911, he published his first book for a popular audience, The mind of primitive man, dismantling the whole concept of racial hierarchy. Disputing the idea that the successes of one’s own society today were due to some inherent superiority of “civilised” peoples over lesser-achieving “primitives”, he summarised:

Historical events appear to have been much more potent in leading races to civilisation than their faculty, and it follows that achievements of races do not warrant us in assuming that one race is more highly gifted than the other. […]
Race was how Europeans explained to themselves their own sense of privilege and achievement. Insofar as races existed, at least as Europeans typically understood them, it was through an act of cultural conjuring, not biological destiny.

And he stressed the subjective responses of fieldworkers:

Tribal people were often said to be indolent, but what if they were only lazy when it came to things that they didn’t happen to care about? Why should we expect that every people everywhere should necessarily attend to the same things with equal zeal or approach the same projects with diligence and commitment? Primitive people were sometimes said to be quick to anger and to lash out wildly according to their emotions. To be civilised, after all, was to be coolheaded and rational. But didn’t it take coolheadedness and logical thought to follow a seal pod across a featureless ice floe, or to track a whale in an oared canoe to the point of its, and your own, exhaustion? “The proper way to compare the fickleness of the savage and that of the white,” he wrote, “is to compare their behaviour in undertakings which are equally important to each.”

His work pointed towards a “higher tolerance”. But despite the relatively prestigious position of German immigrants in US society, with the outbreak of World War One Boas found himself a member of a feared minority. Already a critic of expansionist American foreign policy, by 1917 he denounced US involvement in the war. After the war, disillusioned with rising nationalism, he continued to encounter professional problems. Immigration laws tightened.

Again in 1911, Alfred Kroeber had “discovered” Ishi, “the last of the Yahi” in California. Despite the media circus,

The Yahi were not in fact a lost tribe. Their reduced condition was the product of modern history, not a relic of some mist-shrouded past. […] They were not holdovers from prehistory but rather refugees from a brutal present.

* * *

So far the story of American anthropology has been dominated, like the society of the time, by entitled white men. But now the younger generation whom Boas nurtured at Columbia began to include some talented female scholars.

Ruth Benedict (1887–1948, right) studied first with Elsie Clews Parsons. She began studying with Boas in 1921. In 1924, embarking on fieldwork among the Zuni in New Mexico (already a well-established research topic), she learned of their cross-gender custom of “berdache”.

In New York, she met Margaret Mead (1901–78), who was to be her life-long soulmate, and encouraged her to come to Columbia to study with Boas.

The London-based Polish émigré Bronislaw Malinowski had already published his landmark study of the Trobriand Islanders in 1922, introducing the notion of “participant observation”, and Mead was now drawn to the study of Polynesian peoples.

As she grew ever closer to Benedict, she began an affair with Edward Sapir, whose own work focused on Native American linguistics. The complicated amorous entanglements of the circle, complementing their explorations into the diverse relationships of the peoples they studied, form one theme of King’s book.

In 1925 Mead set sail for American Samoa to do fieldwork. Undeterred by the razzmatazz that accompanied her arrival in Pago Pago, the US Navy’s main station in the South Pacific, she soon “went down to the countryside”, as the Chinese say. She was made an “honorary virgin”—a useful concept for fieldworkers.

A hurricane gave her an opportunity to engage with the locals in their immediate practical concerns. With her studies focusing on the lives of women and girls, she learned that adolescent angst was not necessarily the prerogative of American teenagers.

On the seven-week return voyage to the States in 1926, her own love life became even more complicated when she met the British-trained New Zealander Reo Fortune. Back in New York she became assistant curator at the Museum of Natural History.

Also in 1926, following Nanook of the North, Robert J. Flaherty released his silent film Moana—again offering prurient glimpses of bare female breasts, by then largely a fantasy:

Mead’s book Coming of age in Samoa was published in 1928, to great acclaim—apart from a few men in the Boas circle like Alfred Kroeber, and later Derek Freeman.

In October, again parting reluctantly with Benedict, she married Fortune in Auckland, and they set off for Melanesia together. As Boas took issue with the growing esteem in the USA for eugenics, Mead’s work bore on ways in which a more flexible society might absorb its deviants to lead healthy lives. The result was her book Growing up in New Guinea (1930). She was already a celebrity.

Two other female pupils of Boas went on to work largely outside academia. The African American Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) had grown up in Florida in rather comfortable surroundings, but her mother’s early death plunged her into the harsh realities of segregation. Even later in Washington, the integrated university of Howard was an oasis: the racial divide was no less flagrant. She began to write stories, essays, and poetry, and in 1925 she set off for New York, where she gained a place as a mature student at Barnard and became a popular member of the “Harlem Renaissance”.

Still, she bridled at the genteel image expected of black people to gain favour in the eyes of the white cultural establishment.

Having enrolled in English, Hurston now studied with Gladys Reichard, who was working on Navajo culture; soon she gravitated to the Boas circle. In 1927 Boas arranged for her to do fieldwork back in Florida. There she was to collect folk tales around Eatonville—not far from Ocoee, where protests over voter suppression had led to a pogrom against the black population in 1920, first of a series (Tulsa, Rosewood, Little Rock).

Convict leasing had been abolished in 1923, but private chain gangs persisted: as late as 1960, a farmer commented, “We used to own our slaves—now we just rent them.”

Hurston’s brief fell under the rubric of folklore, a term that went back to the 1840s. Among such collections among African Americans, King adduces the Uncle Remus stories (1880)—“a white person gazing at an allegedly black world, uncomplicated, tricksterish, full of wily creativity”.

Back in New York, Hurston struggled to transform her notes into a coherent ethnographic narrative. She took odd jobs, and worked on a novel, Jonah’s gourd vine (1934). But in 1935 she enrolled as a doctoral student at Columbia under Boas, and managed to publish Mules and men, described by King as

the first serious attempt to send the reader deep inside southern black towns and work camps. […] … not a holdover from Africa, or a social blight to be eliminated, or a corrupted version of whiteness in need of correction, but something vibrantly, chaotically, brilliantly alive.

Here’s a excerpt from Hurston’s 1928 film footage, with her voiceover:

Boas was now eminent yet frail. His wife Marie died in 1929.

Another talented student of his was Ella Cara Deloria (1889–1971). On the Northern plains, the Omaha had been removed to reservations since the 1850s. They were early subjects for research; James Owen Dorsey’s Omaha sociology (1885) became a standard reference in anthropology.

Refreshingly, Dorsey also noted contradictory accounts, notably when some gem he had gleaned on ritual practice was then denied by the chieftain Two Crows, “nagging naysayer, an ethnographical balloon deflator”. Assessing thee value of conflicting sources is indeed a common issue that fieldworkers (not to mention textual historians) have to confront. Even what seemed to be a consensus of opinion could be thrown into doubt. Again, informants might have their own agendas; and “perhaps [Two Crows] simply misunderstood the question, or maybe you misunderstood his answer”. As King puts it,

What you needed was repeated and respectful conversations with the real human beings whose worlds you were straining, as best you could, to comprehend.

Ella Cara Deloria, also called Aŋpétu Wašté Wiŋ, grew up in Standing Rock. Her mother was of mainly European descent; her father’s heritage was the Lakota/Dakota subgroup of the Sioux. She spoke both English and Dakota, attending an Episcopalian boarding school. Having managed to gain admission to college in Oberlin, joining the provincial elite, in 1912 she entered Columbia’s Teaching College, whose mission was to shape “civilised aboriginals who would become credits to their race and help elevate their charges out of poverty and paganism”.

For Deloria,

the end of the western frontier was still a recent memory. Her father had been among those who had tried to mediate between reservation authorities and Sitting Bull.

She was two years old when agency police killed Sitting Bull on the very reservation where she grew up, followed by the Wounded Knee massacre.

Deloria was living at a time when American views of Indians were shaped not only by the recent experience of violent conquest but also by the refashioned memory of it: a world of dime novels, cigar-store statues, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

On graduation she taught first at her old home in Sioux Falls and then in Lawrence, Kansas. Having met Boas at Columbia, in 1927 they met again when he visited Lawrence, and he invited her back to New York, recognising her rare qualification to participate in various projects. In the summer of 1928, while Hurston was collecting in Florida, Deloria returned to the Plains. Her first project was to check the reliability of James Walker’s 1917 study of the Sun Dance. She was guided by Ruth Benedict as well as Boas. But her local knowledge was invaluable:

I cannot tell you how essential it is for me to take beef or some other food each time I go to an informant. The moment I don’t, I take myself right out of the Dakota side and class myself with outsiders.

King goes on,

You had to know precisely how to make a gift, how to make the right kind, how to eat properly with people, how to call them by the correct kinship terms…

Deloria led an itinerant life; to eke out an income she led pageants of indigenous music and dance. In 1933 Boas again enlisted her in a project for the revived Handbook of American Indian languages. As Benedict recalled, “In all his work with American Indians Professor Boas never found another woman of her caliber”.

Deloria was a native speaker of Dakota and its dialects, with little education as a linguist apart from the informal sessions that Boas or Benedict might provide. But her instincts and on-the-spot grasp of field methods, Benedict said, probably amounted to more expertise than many doctoral students had at their disposal.

By the time that Margaret Mead paid a visit to the Omaha, she found their conditions disturbing: “It’s just nothing at all. A thing like this isn’t a culture, hardly even the remains of one.” But if she thought anything of interest had been killed off by poverty and white invasion, for Deloria

a better method was to give up trying to identify the dying embers of an older civilisation and instead get to know the living, right-now culture of the people you were actually surrounded by—women and men who weren’t stuck in history, but, like Deloria herself, were feeling their way through it. There was no need for nostalgia about the past if you could uncover the kaleidoscopic richness of the present. It was just that the present might take forms that you found surprising or frustrating, even disappointing.

I quite agree—although in cases like Grassy Narrows, Identifying cultural riches must surely give way to concerns over healthy drinking water and a reasonable life expectancy.

Deloria also resisted inert depiction by documenting linguistic change. But by 1938 she was again without work. Her Dakota grammar, published in 1941,

provided a glimpse of a deeper America, one obscured by its obsessions with racial fitness and linear cultural evolution. If you wanted to know what Sioux chiefs had said after the Battle of Little Bighorn or to understand the anguished wail of mothers when their sons’ bodies were brought home from Wounded Knee—if you wanted to discover, in other words, the inverse of American history as it was normally taught in schoolrooms and summer camps—Boas and Deloria were showing the way.

When Boas retired from teaching in 1936, Columbia, still prone to sexism, overlooked Benedict in favour of Ralph Linton. But the Boas circle were still involved in a wide range of projects.

Some differences of approach festered. Mead met Sapir’s attacks on her work in kind: in her experience, she wrote, jealousy was frequently found among old men with small endowments.

Pressed to derive a general conclusion from his decades of study, Boas came up with “People don’t use anything they haven’t got”.

In the USA, the related discipline of sociology was making headway, with studies such as Robert and Helen Lynd’s Middletown (1929).

Mead and Fortune returned to New Guinea in 1931. Their trip turned out to be traumatic, with Gregory Bateson now entering into the equation. [2] Their studies of local cultures informed reflections on their own tangled relationships. As things came to a head in 1933, Mead returned to Benedict in New York. The latter’s Patterns of culture (1934) would become most influential; in the next year Mead followed it with Sex and temperament, linking up Boas’s ideas on race with her own on sex and gender, based on her work among the Arapesh, Mundugumor, and Tchambuli.

Yet the price of such methods

was a kind of intentional madness. If your sense of reality was shaped by a particular time and place, the only way to free yourself was to go out of your mind: to step outside the mental frameworks that you knew to be real, true, and obvious.

* * *

The publication of Mead’s Sex and temperament coincided with that of Hurston’s Mules and men. Yet

volumes on Samoans or New Guineans were hailed as commentaries on the universal features of human society. One about African Americans was a quaint bit of storytelling.

Hurston had done more collecting in the south with the young Alan Lomax, recording stories, work songs, spirituals, and blues for the Library of Congress (catalogue here). [3] Here’s an excerpt with Lomax recording Hurston herself:

Hurston now set off for Haiti, just recovering from US military occupation. First in Kingston she observed the Jamaicans’ ability to take on the airs of the English, noting that “passing” from one racial category to the next almost always took place towards the direction of social power.

Culture wasn’t just a set of rules or rituals, she realised. It could also be a set of chains that individuals dragged around with them after the prison wardens more or less fled the scene.

After making expeditions inland, attending a boar hunt and a nine-night mortuary ritual, in autumn 1936 she moved on to Haiti, where the African influence was even clearer. Parallel with the work of Melville Herskovits on rural religious life there, she entered into the practices of voodoo, already covered in the patina of the sensationalist depictions of travellers.

One challenge to our categories of living and dead was Hurston’s meeting with the zombie Felicia Felix-Mentor, said to have died in 1907.

Put away, disregarded, institutionalised, forgotten, willed by others to be effectively dead—her condition was very much like that of many people Hurston knew, the black women and men she had met from Florida labour camps to whites-only universities. It was just that Haitians had invented a word for it.

She now planned two books, “one for anthro, and one for the way I want to write it”. The latter, the novel Their eyes were watching God, was published on her return to New York in 1937, combining “a coming-of-age story, a meditation on the inner lives of women and the men they loved, a literary ethnography of the Gulf Coast”.

Though by now Hurston had no thoughts of an academic career, she still returned to the American South for more fieldwork. Tell my horse (aka Voodoo gods), her field report from Jamaica and Haiti was published in 1938.

From 1936 to 1938 Mead and Bateson lived in Bali, working on trance there—they eventually released a short film in 1952:

And then they returned to New Guinea. But war loomed.

* * *

The theories that Boas and his circle had developed so scrupulously were now in opposition to state-sanctioned dogma, which bore a remarkably close resemblance to Nazism. Boas had been expressing his anxieties about the rise of Nazism in Germany since 1933. But the tide of intolerance there was just as evident in the USA; racial segregation and eugenics were already well established there, inspiring Hitler. Despite the US sense of moral superiority, as King observes,

None of America’s enemies saw themselves as opponents of American values. Not even Adolf Hitler claimed to be against freedom, justice, or prosperity. Rather, they saw themselves as better, more advanced versions of what they believed America had been trying to achieve. Real freedom would mean the subjugation of the racially inferior. Real justice would mean allowing the fittest individuals and countries to take their rightful place on the world stage. Real progress would mean cleansing and separating, pushing forward the able and advanced while sweeping away the primitive and retrograde.

Franz Boas on the cover of Time, 1936.

Boas died in 1942. Here’s the 1986 documentary The shackles of tradition, again by Andre Singer:

With the outbreak of war, the team’s original fieldsites became inaccessible. As many social scientists were recruited to the war effort, Bateson and Mead joined an advisory group to President Roosevelt. Benedict later joined them in Washington. By June 1944 she was charged with assembling material on Japanese society, gathering a group of scholars. In the USA the Japanese were seen as utterly alien and subhuman; internment camps for Japanese Americans were harsh. But Benedict sought the kind of understanding that would provide enlightened guidance for the eventual occupation of Japan. The resulting book The chrysanthemum and the sword, published in 1946, was widely read.

While working to keep afloat the school at Standing Rock that her father had founded, Deloria continued with her studies and writing, much of it still unpublished at the time of her death in 1971. Hurston, shocked by the Detroit massacre of 1943, was deeply ambivalent about the US victory. She continued to write while working in a succession of odd jobs. Since her death in 1960 her work has belatedly been appreciated, with tributes by such figures as Alice Walker. Here’s a documentary:

Back in New York after the war, Mead and Benedict resumed their bond. Benedict was at last promoted to the rank of full professor, and elected president of the American Anthropological Association. She died in 1948. Mead, the most renowned heir to Boas, died in 1978; on her career, here’s Andre Singer’s 1986 documentary Coming of age:

* * *

King begins his conclusion by citing Allan Bloom, who in his attack on the trend for cultural relativism in The closing of the American mind (1987) found few women worthy of note: he grouped Mead and Benedict alongside Hannah Arendt, Yoko Ono, Erica Jong, and Marlene Dietrich—all “negative teaching examples”, as the Chinese say. As King observes, the Boas circle would have surprised to learn that their views had triumphed, their struggles against prejudice having been met with such resistance.

Conversely, Clifford Geertz, pillar of the later generation of anthropologists, praised the insistence

that the world does not divide into the pious and the superstitious; that there are sculptures in jungles and paintings in deserts; […] that the norms of reason were not fixed in Greece, the evolution of morality was not consummated in England. Most important, we were the first to insist that we see the lives of others through lenses of our own grinding and that they look back on ours through ones of their own.

If readers today take all this as self-evident, that’s because they too have been infected with the bug. But as is only too evident in our news today, resisting bigotry still remains a constant struggle.

Of course, anthropology, like the societies it studies, continues to change; the work of these scholars from the 1880s to the 1940s may have been refined since, but it remains seminal. King brings this story to life, combining a vivid feel for period detail with reflections on fieldwork methods and perceptive comments on ideological trends. He makes a fine advocate for the enlightened values of the Boas circle.


[1] Besides folklore and sociology, ethnomusicology is a strongly related discipline (under Society and soundscape, see e.g. Michelle Bigenho’s observations). Bruno Nettl surveyed the prominent contributions of women in Native American studies during the same period, including Alice C. Fletcher, Frances Densmore, Natalie Curtis, and Helen Roberts, on to Gertrude Kurath, Ida Halpern, Charlotte Frisbie, Judith Vander, Charlotte Heth, Victoria Levine, Beverley Diamond, and Tara Browner. But he goes on,

Considerable female participation may generally have been characteristic of new yet unestablished fields; ethnomusicology was not taken as seriously as ancient history and Latin philology, for example, thus permitting women easier access. The fact that American and English women are particularly well represented in this group may also be related to the common relegation of music in Anglophone cultures to women, and thus to the fact that music departments in North America were first introduced at women’s colleges.

Like the Boas circle, ethnomusicologists extend their purvey to fieldwork “at home”

[2] Here I’d like to put in a word for Peter Crowe (1932–2004), such a lively, alternative presence at gatherings of the European Seminar for Ethnomusicology, who underwent his own transformation in Melanesia. See e.g. his “After the ethnomusicological salvage operation—what?” (1981) and his Musical traditions in the South Pacific (1984).

[3] This leads me to remind you of the work of Bruce Jackson among southern convicts, and his fine manual on fieldwork.

You say tomato

penne

The apparent ambiguity of the Englischgruss (see under Mahler 4, and for Brahms, in The Annunciation in art and music) reminds me of Antonio Cesti’s spectacular opera Il pomo d’oro (1668). *

You may be disappointed to learn that the plot concerns not a tomato but the Judgment of Paris, with the prize of the Golden Apple. Still, I can’t help wondering if early performances prompted giggling (I’m like, “Hey guys, Cesti’s gone and written an opera about a tomato!”).

Pomodoro cover

The opera is mentioned in the fascinating, mouth-watering

  • David Gentilcore, Pomodoro!: a history of the tomato in Italy (2010),

whose basic culinary ingredients are liberally seasoned with wise observations on social and economic change.

The tomato’s uses were continually subject to change, from production to exchange, distribution, and production. […] The tomato is an ideal basis for examining the prevailing values, beliefs, conditions, and structures in the society of which it was a part and how they changed over several centuries.

In Chapter 1, “Strange and horrible things”, Gentilcore dates the recorded history of the tomato in Italy from 31st October 1548, when Cosimo de’ Medici presented a basketful to the excellencies of Pisa—who seem to have been bemused:

And the basket was opened and they looked at one another with much thoughtfulness.

Remarkably, it would be well over 300 years before the tomato gained widespread favour among the Italian population in the pasta sauces we now know and love, belatedly becoming a national symbol—for Italian emigrants abroad, during the Fascist period, and later. Other New World imports (such as maize, potatoes, tobacco, American beans, chillies, cocoa, vanilla) gained acceptance more quickly.

Cesti titleCesti’s opera was premiered in Vienna; the composer died the following year, and I haven’t yet seen evidence of further performances—staging it would have been a massive undertaking. So audiences in Italy may even have been denied the opportunity of a good giggle, although word must have spread. Still, in Italy, over a century after the tomato was first recorded there, one might suppose that the word pomodoro (the pomo referring generally to fruit, not to the apple) at least had become part of the vocabulary of the elite who were the audience for such spectacles. But then, they would also be familiar with the ancient story—although from the simple synopsis one might not imagine that it called for elaborate stage machinery to depict tableaus like shipwrecks and collapsing towers:

The gods ask the Trojan prince Paris to decide which of the goddesses Venus, Juno, and Pallas (Minerva) is the most beautiful and thus deserving of the Golden Apple. Paris gives the prize to Venus. The spurned goddesses try to get their revenge until Jupiter decides to end the confusion, turns to the audience and awards the golden apple to the Empress Margaret Theresa [“Typical!”].

An early Miss World contest, then, with Paris in the role of Bob Hope.

The tomato had been introduced to Europe by Cortés, reaching Italy by way of Spain, as a botanical specimen. The physician-botanist Mattioli described it in 1544, using the name pomo d’oro in his 1554 revision. But confusingly, the term also continued to denote the fruit in the ancient myth of the Hesperides.

Gentilcore notes the early association of tomato and eggplant (or aubergine, splendidly advertised by British greengrocers as OBOS). The latter, incidentally, reached Europe from Persia by way of Andalucia.

In 1628 the Paduan physician Sala regarded tomatoes as “strange and horrible things”, following

a description of locust-eating in Ethiopia, spider- and cricket-eating in Padua, and ant- and worm-eating in India.

Indeed, to eat them was still commonly regarded as harmful, even poisonous.

Yet, as both Durante and Sala inadvertently suggest, someone was eating tomatoes, regardless of the dietary advice. Costante Felice, a physician near Urbino, tells us who: “gluttons and those eager for new things”.

Left, Arcimboldo, Vertumnus, c1590; right, door frieze, Cathedral of Pisa, 1600/1601.
Artistic depictions of tomatoes were very rare before the mid-18th century; the emperor’s mouth is more likely to contain cherries than cherry tomatoes.

In Chapter 2 Gentilcore broadens the theme to consider Renaissance Europe’s apparent aversion to fruit and vegetables—based on the advice of physicians of the time (cf. Sleeper!). Consumption of vegetables increased through the 17th and 18th centuries, but an Italian culinary manual from 1590 contains not a single reference to them.

Still, health warnings were not necessarily heeded by either princes and courtiers or the common folk—as we’ve been noticing recently… Other treatises attest to a great variety of common vegetables and plants being consumed. In 1596 the English courtier Robert Dallington wrote:

Herbage is the most generall food of the Tuscan, at whose table a sallet is as ordinary as salt at ours; for being eaten of all sorts of persons, and at all times of the yeare: of the rich because they love to spare; of the poore because they cannot choose; of many Religious because of their vow, of most others because of their want. It remaineth to believe that which themselves confesse; namely, that for every horse-load of flesh eaten, there is ten cart-loads of hearbes and rootes; which also their open markets and private tables doe witnesse.

Indeed, the religious institutions made a virtue of a diet rich in vegetables. And Gentilcore notes the importance of markets; the ortolani market gardeners of Turin had their own religious confraternity. He offers an aside on what was described as the “incomprehensible predilection” in Rome for broccoli, later to become “le vainquer de macaroni“. To the consternation of English observers, salad (“the mixing of diverse and various things”) came into vogue. Olive oil was still used more for lighting lamps than for cooking.

As he comments, historians always have difficulty finding information regarding the diet of the poor. From an early-18th-century French report on the dietary habits of Naples, it’s clear that much of the population not only ate vegetables but subsisted on them—along with bread rather than pasta; and tomatoes were part of this regime.

Methods of preparation remained basic because the kitchen utensils remained basic. The peasant kitchen thus was basic, with only a few clay or wooden implements.

Pom 54

Recipe, 1705.

Chapter 3, “They are to be enjoyed”, explores the acculturation of the tomato in 18th-century Italy. By 1759 a survey of farming in Tuscany included it among the “fruits prized by men [sic: see below] as foodstuffs or as condiments for them”. Gentilcore surveys the different varieties of tomato.

Sardinia was a Spanish possession until 1720, and the Sardinians, at all social levels, may have been “the first [in ‘Italy’] to take the tomato seriously”. Disappointingly for those of us who supposed that sun-dried tomatoes were invented in 1970s’ Hampstead, they appear in a Sardinian recipe from the mid-18th century.

By the 1830s, but probably earlier too, enterprising peasant women in the Cagliari area were selling sun-dried tomatoes. This is an important reminder of the role of gender in agrarian change. Indeed, women frequently were responsible for the cultivation, preparation, and sale of foodstuffs, and tomatoes were becoming an important element of domestic production, if not consumption.

Pom 61

Recipes, 1773.

We now find tomatoes not only eaten cooked and raw, but preserved in a thick paste, and in sauces. Still, their appreciation was regional: for southern peasants they were a major ingredient of their ordinary food, but they played only an occasional role in northern cuisine—and this remains true today. **

Tomatoes were now becoming so common that people were throwing them away—or at least were throwing them. In Italy, tomatoes were the missile of choice to show disapproval of public performers, and the activity came to be known as a pomodorata.

An 1863 report refers to the poor of Naples eating something called pizza, “seasoned on the top with an abundance or oil or pork fat, with cheese, oregano, garlic, parsley, mint leaves, with tomato especially in summer, and finally sometimes even with small fresh fish”. As Gentilcore observes, tomato was not yet a basic element of pizza, but only one possibility among several.

Moreover, that report may also contain the earliest reference to pasta as a staple food accompanied by tomato sauce—the subject of Chapter 4. It coincided with the movement to unify the different states and islands into a single nation.

Indeed, the triumph of pasta was also remarkably late. Types such as lasagne, vermicelli, and maccheroni were already established by the 16th century (spaghetti was a latecomer), but pasta was eaten soft, cooked for long periods, and thus accompanied by dry condiments; it was still a side dish. The two best-known regions for production were the Ligurian coast and the Bay of Naples. 

Pom 73

By the mid-19th century the Neapolitans commonly ate pasta in taverns and as street food. It was now served slightly hard (vierd vierd: the expression al dente only became common after World War One)—a novelty that soon spread.

Making the preserve for the sauce (conserva, passata, salsa) was still largely a small-scale, local activity. Towards the end of the 19th century a French traveller in Calabria commented:

We are, in effect, in the season in which, in every Calabrian house, tomato preserve is made for use during the rest of the year. It is a solemn occasion in the popular life of these lands, a kind of festive celebration, an excuse for get-togethers and gatherings… Neighbours, and especially the neighbourhood women, get together in different houses one after the other for the making of conserva di pomi d’or, a procedure that culminates with a large meal; and they gossip as much as they can while crushing and cooking the tomatoes. It is here that for several months the locale’s chronicle of scandal is identified and commented on; it is here that those old rustic songs, which are today so avidly collected by scholars keen on folklore, are repeated from generation to generation.

By the 1880s tomato paste began to be exported to the USA. Its industrialisation was concentrated (sic, as Gentilore notes!) in Liguria, Emilia Romagna, and Campania. Tomatoes were first canned in the USA and Britain; in Italy, Parma took a leading role in both cultivation and preservation. Tomato ketchup was already becoming the national condiment of the USA.

The marriage between pasta and the tomato is usually said to have taken place in Naples around the 1830s. Pasta al pomodoro only gradually became a national stereotype from the late 19th century—just as millions of Italians started crossing the ocean to the New World, where the tomato had originated. It was to make repeated crossings.

So while I find it a challenge to imagine Botticelli and Michelangelo not tucking into a plate of penne arrabiata, such dishes would have been hardly more familiar to Verdi as they were to Monteverdi. Even as late as the 1930s when Umberto Saba met Gabriele D’Annunzio, he was more impressed by the novelty of the plate of pasta with tomato sauce (“a crimson marvel”) than by the Fascist celebrity himself.

The first acclaimed pizza was cooked for Queen Margherita in Naples in 1889; of three pizzas prepared for her, one was seasoned with tomato, mozzarella, and basil—the red, white, and green of the new national flag. In fact, its history goes back considerably earlier.

Above we saw a folk version of pizza in 1863 (for much earlier antecedents, see wiki). Pizzas were publicly made and sold in Naples by late in the 17th century. During his stay there in 1835, Alexandre Dumas described it as the staple diet of the city’s poor—with pasta eaten only on Sundays. By the middle of the century the city had over eighty pizzerie. In the 1880s Carlo Collodi, writing for a young audience, was underwhelmed:

Do you want to know what pizza is? It is a flat bread of leavened dough, toasted in the oven, with a sauce of a little bit of everything on it. The black of the toasted bread, the off-white of the garlic and anchovies, the greeny yellow of the oil and the lightly fried greens, and the red bits of the tomatoes scattered here and there give the pizza an air of messy grime very much in keeping with that of the man selling it.

The juxtaposition of hunger and gluttony is one theme of Collodi’s Pinocchio, first published in book form in 1883.

Pinocchio jumps into the sea, only to find himself in a fisherman’s net. Pinocchio explains to the fisherman that he is not a fish to be eaten, but a puppet. The fisherman replies that he has never caught a “puppet fish”, and asks how he would prefer to be cooked: “Would you like to be fried in the frying pan, or would you prefer to be stewed with tomato sauce?”

Meanwhile bread, often eaten stale, remained a basic foodstuff. In Puglia there was a popular proverb Ce mange paene e pomedaore nan ve me’ o dattaore (“He who eats bread and tomato, to the doctor will never go”).

In Chapter 5, “Authentic Italian gravy”, the scene shifts to the USA, along with successive waves of migrants. From 1876 to 1945 over nine million Italians crossed the Atlantic in search of a new life, most of them arriving between the 1890s and 1920s (cf. Accordion crimes).

Left, making tomato paste the Sicilian way, Madison WI, mid-1920s;
right, supper on the Lower East Side, NYC, 1915.

Ventura’s 1886 short story “Peppino”, set in New York, describes pasta with tomato sauce, then still a novelty. Gentilcore goes on:

Making homemade tomato paste (conserva) was, for many immigrant families, partly a symbolic link to the town left behind, partly a matter of taste preference, and partly good economic sense.

Many immigrants also resorted to canned tomato paste. At first, such preserves were imported from Italy, but local production soon competed. The discussion subsumes the varieties of tomato, and the history of additives—including coal tar and formaldehyde.

In the early 20th century, the UK was the second main importer of Italian tomato preserves; meanwhile the British took to growing their own, with the growth of the suburbs and the increasing availability of greenhouses.

Ironically, American immigrants were often unaware of how much change was taking place as they strove to maintain continuity.

As emigrants, they had left Italy because of “hunger”, but as immigrants nostalgia and longing quickly set in. This was not nostalgia for the “land of poverty”, of course, but for the festive foods and the community to which they belonged. Consequently, they reproduced the food production and consumption patterns that were more dreamed of than actual in the world left behind. The “old country” became a mythologised place, which immigrant parents described to their children as a place where poverty and hunger coexisted with food that was good and natural and where they all ate together as a family.

The ritual of the Sunday dinner signified that the family was living the American dream, and

the focus for the transmission (or, if you prefer, the inculcation) of cultural mores and aspirations from parents to children. The place of origin that parents described to their children on these occasions was not so much a real place as a place remembered, a place imagined. The immigrants gradually filled it with idealised constructions, which had a very real function [for them]: to interpret, explain, criticise, and even deny the New World present, to both themselves and their children.

An account from 1940s’ America remains true today (note the typical use of the male pronoun!):

The Italian forced to live far away from his homeland, wherever in the world he sets his table, rejects every kind of cooking in order to establish his own, the simple but tasty cooking of his native land. And more than anything else he does not give up his traditional dish of macaroni with tomato sauce.

The new hybrid of the Italian-American restaurant too became stereotypical to the point of caricature—the “red-sauce joint, with its dishes smothered in tomato sauce, its red-checked tablecloths, and its candles stuck in Chianti bottles”.

By the 1930s the clientele of such restaurants had shifted from poor single immigrant bordanti to “bohemians” in search of an “Italian experience”.

Somewhat gleefully, Gentilcore also documents the invention of canned spaghetti in tomato sauce, dating from the early 20th century.

The sight of GIs opening cans of tomato spaghetti must have been a strange one to southern Italian peasants as the allied forces made their way up the peninsula in the latter stages of World War II. […]

It is easy to look down on such products, but it was a new way of eating food. After all, both spaghetti with tomato sauce and the invention of canning began about the same time, in the mid-19th century, so why shouldn’t they be united? It is just that we attribute different meanings, different values, and a different social status to pasta al pomodoro and canned spaghetti.

Returning to Italy, Chapter 6, “The autarchical tomato”, takes the story on to the Fascist era.

The mass migration of millions of Italians across the Atlantic had a positive effect on dietary practices in Italy in the form of remittances and return migration. […] For the first time, these remittances gave many Italians a chance to put aside money or goods.

Pom 144

Thus food preservation flourished as never before. But as economic prosperity grew, expectations and aspirations continued to change.

Gentilcore continues the story of the industrialisation of tomato processing—noting a company in Felino near Parma that rejoiced in the name Società anonima di coltivatori per la produzione delle conserve di pomodoro.

Changing patterns of organised labour had been giving rise to social unrest since early in the 20th century. Despite labour laws, even in the 1940s much of the burden for cultivation was borne by women and children. After World War One strikes and riots erupted. Mussolini’s Fascist Party sought to restore order—and to make Italy self-sufficient in food.

While the campaign of the Fascist Futurist Marinetti to abolish pasta was fruitless (indeed, Neapolitans came out onto the streets in protest), he didn’t extend his proscription to the “light and adaptable” tomato. Even ketchup survived the regime, though with their aversion to foreign words, it was renamed Rubra. Much Fascist food advertising was aimed at the resourceful housewife.

After 1924, when the USA restricted immigration, the Italian regime sought to replace it with Libya as a destination; as they proclaimed autarchia, or self-sufficiency, tomato cultivation was propounded there too. None of these projects bore much fruit.

Pom 182

For Faccetta nera, see here.

Pom 166

On the eve of Italy’s fateful entry into World War Two in 1940, it was exporting virtually all of its fresh tomato crop to Germany; Gentilcore observes that Italy’s “Pact of Steel” with Nazi Germany that year might as well have been called the “tomato pact”.

Chapter 7, “The tomato conquest”, opens with a reminder of the poverty of Italy (particularly the chronically afflicted rural south) in the 1950s, as depicted in the neo-realist films of the day. But industrialisation, urbanisation, refrigerators, and the rise of supermarkets further transformed people’s eating habits. In the two decades from 1950, Italians grew in height but not in weight, despite the ever greater popularity of pasta. As stereotype and reality began to fuse, Italians could now eat spaghetti al pomodoro to their heart’s content. It was increasingly popular in Britain and the USA too, although pundits like Elizabeth David resisted the cliché, stressing the regional variety of la cucina Italiana.

Gentilcore’s material is now supplemented by feature films, such as two scenes, both from 1954—Totò’s spaghetti scene in Miseria e nobiltà (1954):

and Alberto Sordi’s scene from Un Americano a Roma (also 1954):

The recipe for spaghetti with tomato sauce included in Sophia Loren’s In cucina con amore (1971) is a tribute to the earthy recipes of her grandmother.

The disparity between north and south persisted. In his song Siamo meridionali! (1980) Mimmo Cavallo referred back to the family bathtub of southern migrants, classic receptacle for the growing of tomatoes (coltiviamo pomodori ddint’e vasche ‘e bagno):

Such migration from the south influenced the eating habits of both the migrants and the hosts.

In the Hollywood “pasta paradigm” (see e.g. this 1978 article by Daniel Golden), “the tomato sauces prepared and consumed by gangsters echo the bloody acts they commit”. One thinks of two scenes from Goodfellas (1990)—at home:

and in prison:

Pomodoro! can’t quite find a place for one of the great spaghetti-eating scenes: in Tampopo, Japanese debutantes are strictly schooled in the etiquette of eating them properly (another failed project, like Mussolini’s Fascism):

Nor does Gentilcore mention the “pizza effect” of anthropology, whereby elements of a nation or people’s culture are transformed or at least more fully embraced elsewhere, then re-imported to their culture of origin (cf. Tibetan “singing bowls”). The tomato played a role in the dubious “Mediterranean diet”.

By the 1980s, EU subsidies were further transforming the food economy, with Puglia benefitting notably. The Epilogue surveys the current tomato scene in Italy and beyond. As multinationals service our demand for year-round supply of “fresh” foodstuffs by sending them on vast, irrational journeys, Gentilcore addresses the global problem of labour slavery, organised crime, and trafficking. As immigrants began performing the tasks that Italians now shunned, the organisation and exploitation of labour by gang bosses was already featured in Pummaro’ (Michele Placido, 1989). Heavily staffed by African immigrants, and more recently eastern Europeans, the labour force is more vulnerable than the giornatori of yesteryear. Polish gang bosses exploit the Poles who work for them.

In a justly nostalgic passage which will strike a chord in Britain and elsewhere,

Nowadays, tomatoes look the same everywhere in Italy. Whereas “the real tomato has different, complicated shapes, with splits and streaks, and often pronounced baroque features, which so pleased the Neapolitan painters of the 17th century” [actually not yet, as Gentilcore points out], tomatoes today taste of nothing; they are full of water.

EU subsidies were not only unwelcome to producers in California, but hit West African countries hard. In turn, Italian growers have been hostile to Chinese imports, with the term “yellow peril” rearing its ugly head again (cf. Fu Manchu).

Gentilcore notes the Chinese term fanqie 番茄, “foreign eggplant”—the tomato was introduced there quite early by European missionaries, but still remains quite niche. BTW, it’s also known as xihongshi 西红柿 (“Western red persimmmon”), which reminds me of yet another story that I heard from Tian Qing (e.g. here, and here): during a phase of reviving Maoist “red songs” in Xi’an, some wag suggested the city might be renamed Tomato (Xihongshi 西红市 “Western red city”). I must also put in a word for the succulent tomatoes grown by Li Manshan.

This book will make you hungry—not just for knowledge.

* * *

All this is yet another instance of how things we assume to be eternal and immutable, like harmony and democracy, turn out not to be so. Another reason why I’ve cited Pomodoro! at some length is because its integrative approach, while perhaps a hallmark of most research worth its (um) salt, bears an affinity with that of ethnomusicology, including reception history—as for musicking, so for tomato-ing.

We might follow this up with Gentilcore’s 2012 book Italy and the potato, 1550–2000 (on a rather different tack, see Music and the potato). See also In the kitchen, and this sequel on risotto, with yet more links—as well as an alternative interpretation of the famous song You say potato. Note also Robert Orsi’s historical ethnography of religious and social life in Italian East Harlem, New York.


* Not to be confused with his long-lost Russian cousin Cestikoff, whose opera Il trasporto del pompino, regrettably not about fire-engines, was banned in St Petersburg. Allegedly.

** Cf. The Monty Python cheeseshop sketch:
Cleese: “How about Cheddar?”
Palin: “Well, we don’t get much call for it around here, Sir.”
Cleese: “Not much call—it’s the single most popular cheese in the world!”
Palin (smugly): “Not round here, Sir.

Red love

Red love cover

In my post on Lives under the GDR I mentioned

  • Maxim Leo, Red love (2009; English translation by Shaun Whiteside, 2013)
    (reviewed e.g. here),

but it richly deserves a separate post—coinciding with the new Deutschland 89 (catch up on the two previous series here).

There was no typical experience in the range of socialist societies and the variety of people within them. Intergenerational family stories make a popular device to address 20th-century change; memoirs of the GDR are also voluminous. As Maxim Leo (b.1970) talks with his parents and grandparents, unearthing their stories, he constantly puts himself in their shoes. Tensions within the GDR were (and are) embodied in family relationships; there were endless nuances in how people adapted to the pressures of the state, but I find this account particularly vivid and thoughtful.

With their different pre-GDR fortunes, Leo’s grandfathers Gerhard and Werner make this a rather exceptional family. Anne’s father Gerhard (b.1923), a hero of the French resistance, was a devoted follower of the Party. His memoirs, though largely orthodox, were censored. Reading his account of his interrogation at the hands of the SS, Maxim reflects:

I only understood how brave he had been when I was arrested myself. That was on the evening of 8 October 1989, a day after the fortieth anniversary of the GDR. Along with my friend Christine I was arrested by two Stasi in Alexanderplatz. We were carrying flyers for the “New Forum”, and were put on a truck that brought us to a police barracks. There we had to spend the night standing in a cold garage. The next morning we were questioned separately. I was very frightened, because I really had no idea what was going to happen to us. The interrogator just had to raise his voice once and I told them everything I knew. Gerhard didn’t say anything, even though his life was in danger. I gave in, even though there wasn’t actually anything much to be afraid of.

After the war Gerhard found himself having to run a network of informants from former SS backgrounds, separating work and emotion. After he was sent to East Berlin on a secret Party mission in 1952, the distrustful leaders of the security apparatus “never forgot that the people they were now ruling were the very same people who had once driven them from Germany”. But Gerhard weathered purges within the Party, even though he was rather unguarded—on a mission to Budapest in August 1956 he met members of the Petőfi Circle (“Brave? Gullible? Or both?”).

Wolf’s estranged father Werner had a more questionable background. A former Wehrmacht corporal, his own memoirs are understandably cagey about this early period. Captured by US troops on 1st May 1945, he spent over two years as a POW before the belated reunion with his wife Sigrid in late 1947. Finding work as a teaching assistant, he now threw himself into the cause of the new GDR. After divorcing Sigrid in 1951 he remarried.

Perhaps Werner was a person who could have worked well in more or less any system, in any role. He would always have made the best of things. His life’s happiness would not have been threatened if Hitler had won the war, or if he’d happened to end up in the West. He would certainly have been a good stage painter if he hadn’t been a good headmaster. Just as he had been a good model-maker, a good soldier, a good prisoner. And now a good citizen of the GDR.

Maxim reflects:

I think that for both of my grandfathers the GDR was a kind of dreamland, in which they could forget all the depressing things that had gone before. It was a new start, a chance to begin all over again. The persecution, the war, the imprisonment, all the terrible things that Gerhard and Werner had been through could be buried under that huge pile of the past. From now on all that mattered was the future. And trauma turned to dream. The idea of building an anti-fascist state had a beneficial effect on both of them. Gerhard could devote himself to the illusion that GDR citizens were very different Germans from the ones that had driven his family out of the country. And Werner could act as if he had always believed in Socialism. All wounds, all mistakes were forgotten and forgiven if you were willing to become part of this new society.

New faith for old suffering: that was the idea behind the foundation of the GDR.

That is the explanation for the unbounded loyalty with which Gerhard and Werner were bound to that country until the bitter end. They could never unmask the great dream as a great lie because the lies they needed to live would have been exposed at the same time.

And their children? They were hurled into their fathers’ dreamlands, and had to dream along whether they wanted to or not. They didn’t know that founding ideal. And because they had nothing to overcome, nothing to hide, they found faith difficult too. They saw the poverty, the lies, the claustrophobia, the suspicion. And they heard their fathers’ phrases as they raved about the future. Much of the power and the euphoria had gone. And the grandchildren? They were glad when it was all over. They didn’t even have a guilty conscience at kicking the state. What did I get from the great dream? Small-minded prohibitions, petty principles, and jeans that looked like elongated Youth Front shirts. The energy of the state had been used up in three generations. The GDR remained the country of old men, of the founding fathers, and their logic no longer made sense to anybody.

Red love 73

Most moving are Maxim’s stories of his remarkable parents Anne and Wolf. They met in 1969, and Maxim was born the following year.

Red love 18.When I was ten, my father walked round with his hair alternately dyed green or blue, and a leather jacket he’d painted himself. […] My mother liked to wear a Soviet pilot’s cap and a coat that my father had sprayed with black ink. They both always looked as if they’d just stepped off the stage of some theatre or other, and were only paying a brief visit to real life.

Anne (Annette) Leo was born in the West in 1947, moving to East Berlin with her parents in 1952. Loyal to her father, she felt a responsibility to defend the new state; she too supported the building of the “Anti-Fascist protection rampart” in 1961 (“to keep the bad people out of the country”), and couldn’t understand why anyone would want to leave the GDR. In 1966 she joined the Party; but in her work as a journalist she was constantly beset by doubt, frustrated by the blocking of her modest proposals for greater honesty. Resentful of censorship, she found herself having to parrot lies about the crushing of the Prague Spring. Also in 1968 she disputes the Party line on the dissident songwriter Wolf Biermann.

Anne says she was always rather alone in her political attitudes. She wasn’t faithful enough for the faithful, too uncritical for the critical. She wanted to belong somewhere, but it didn’t work. […]

When Anne talks to me about these things today, she sometimes starts crying. Perhaps out of rage, because she was so naïve, but perhaps also out of disappointment that it didn’t work. That this state and this Party, which cost her so much energy, simply disappeared like that. I think my mother’s relationship with that state was like an unhappy teenage infatuation. She had fallen for the GDR as a young girl, and it took her a lifetime to break free of it again. It’s hard for me to understand all this, to see that my cool, intelligent mother is still grieving for that first great love even twenty years after the end of the GDR. How deeply embedded inside her it must still be, that hope, that unconditional desire to be there when it came to freeing the world from evil.

Wolf (b.1942) is an artist. He recalls the impoverished, ruined Berlin of his childhood as “one enormous adventure playground”. Unlike Anne, he never identified with the state; witnessing the crushing of the June 1953 protests,

He goes home and thinks that the GDR might be over soon. In a few days the uprising has been defeated, and everything goes on as if nothing had happened.

He becomes “ a rocker, a thug”:

That balance between conformity and resistance, between courage and betrayal, is hard to explain. Even those words are probably too big to describe the little movements that were generally at issue. It was a grey area of possibilities, in which you could go in one direction or another, in which there was no right way and no wrong one, but at best the feeling of having found a bearable compromise.

He enjoys a stint in “bourgeois” Leipzig in 1962, partying and dancing, but is soon conscripted. He begins to paint, producing “ludicrous propaganda pictures”.

Wolf says it’s all about the facade, that the state didn’t really demand genuine belief. You didn’t have to bend the knee or sell yourself, you just had to go along with the big spectacle of Socialism.

But Maxim goes on:

I wonder whether that was really the case. Whether you really noticed when you’d crossed your own boundaries, when the alien belief slowly and unnoticeably seeped into you. Or whether in the end the others determined the rules of the game. Perhaps all those free spaces and possibilities were just an illusion that distracted you from the fact that you were joining in. I too always had the feeling of actually being true to myself, while at the same time I knew what I had to do to avoid getting into trouble. This combination of cheeky thoughts and good behaviour, of little lies and a big truth, is quickly learnt and hard to shake off again. It’s a survival strategy, a protection mechanism for people who can’t make up their minds. […]

Today, I think that Wolf was probably more like a clever fish that dreams about the sea, and forgets that he’s still swimming in an aquarium.

He starts working as a freelance graphic designer. Less invested in Party orthodoxy than Anne, he’s disturbed by her defence of punishment for those who tried to escape, and they argue.

Much as Maxim loves his alternative parents, he found himself rebelling by trying to be “normal”. And real life inevitably intruded. As a child he found restricted areas exciting; he played “Escape to the West” with his schoolmates; for his essay on the topic “Why the State Border Must Be Protected” he got a poor mark for his reply “Because otherwise everybody would run away and there are fascists over there.”

It was somehow clear that there was one truth at school and another in real life. You just had to switch over. Like on television.

When he was 15 his parents were disturbed that he had to attend pre-military training camp. As Wolf complained to Maxim’s teacher that the school was forcing children to use guns, Anne told him, “You’ve just fucked up your son’s future”—to which Wolf responded that it was this bloody state that was fucking up people’s futures. Anne was only too aware of the problems, but still somehow believed they could be overcome. She didn’t want to pass her attachment to the GDR on to Maxim because it had caused her so much suffering; and he realises he had stopped caring about the GDR:

There was neither hatred nor love, neither hope nor disappointment. Just a kind of numb indifference.

Anne often had serious talks with him. She said that

There were various ways of living in this country. You could join in or you could resist. You could also join in a bit and resist a bit. Anne said she would always support me, whichever option I went for.

But Maxim also observes:

All of these are moments which, telling them now, assume a meaning that I don’t think they had for me at the time. The truth is that my life was mostly normal. […] That life was mostly played out at home, in the garden, by the sea, at friends’ houses, at the football pitch. It was about jumping from a climbing frame, catching a fish, smoking your first cigarette and snogging girls in the park. It was only later, when I found it hard to avoid the GDR, when it got too close to me, that I started seeing it with different eyes.

In 1976, Anne and Wolf received visits from a young man who gently tested their willingness to act as intermediaries for some “scouting” the Stasi were doing in the West—making a letterbox available, making phone calls from their flat. At first, inexplicably, they found themselves acquiescing; but later, declining further involvement, thankfully they were not penalised. Their attitude was still regarded as “critical, but not hostile”. In 1977 they hosted an innocuous but illegal discussion group without repercussions.

Anne’s new magazine job turned out to be even more frustrating than her former post. When she proposed an alternative candidate to those pre-ordained by the Party, not only was her suggestion defeated but all those who supported her, and the candidate himself, performed abject self-criticisms.

In 1978 Anne resigned, working for a doctorate at the Humboldt university, on the history of the Spanish trade-union movement. This gave her access to all kinds of banned works in the library—notably those by left-wing dissenters. As she reads, “she becomes increasingly convinced that the GDR is actually preventing Socialism, instead betraying and perverting it. For Anne this is at once a relief and a burden because she knows that she believes in the right cause, but unfortunately lives in the wrong country.” Amongst the banned literature she also discovers her own grandfather’s story as a Jewish Communist.

In March 1982 Anne has a Partieüberprüfungsgesprach, a “scrutinising session”, a kind of confession for loyal comrades. […] She has decided to accept expulsion from the Party if there’s no way of preventing it. Anne talks about the things she doesn’t agree with. The lies, the rigid thinking, the ideologythat ended up frozen at some point. […] But nothing happens. The comrades smile at her benignly, saying that everyone has their doubts and problems. […] It seems that things have changed somewhat. The Party has become softer. And it’s becoming clear that nobody is being thrown out of the Party any more. She would have to take that step herself. But Anne doesn’t think about that at all. She is relieved to be able to keep her opinion and still remain a comrade.

After finishing her thesis she takes a new job at a magazine, but soon resigns.

Meanwhile Wolf has been illustrating fairy tales in his studio while working on more challenging projects of his own. By the 1980s he is exhibiting his work, and though the Stasi are wary, he is commissioned to design stage sets for the high-profile Berlin 750th-anniversary celebrations.

It’s a delicate business, walking the tightrope between acceptance and refusal. “The principle of seduction was always there,” says Wolf. “The question constantly arose of how far you can go, how much conformity you can bear without it hurting.”

In 1986 Wolf buries himself in a fantasy of the South Seas. But after his outburst to the schoolteacher, Maxim was indeed refused permission to sit the Abitur, and has to exchange his pampered childhood for the grimy realities of factory work. He realises how little his parents’ world had to do with everything else that was happening in the country, how shielded he had been from reality. While in vocational school he manages to prepare for the Abitur in evening class.

And in July 1987 his grandfather Gerhard smooths the way for them to take a trip to France together. Nostalgic for his youth, Gerhard is transformed, human and relaxed. His exalted friends, like Gilles Perrault and Régis Debray, clearly think the GDR is a paradise. Maxim comments:

How can you sit in a villa like that and rave about the GDR? Or do you have to sit in a villa like this one to be able to? […] The men laugh and clink glasses, and I reflect that it’s a very pleasant business, being a revolutionary in the South of France.

Naturally the GDR seems even more drab to Maxim after the holiday. By 1988 practically everyone in his circle is thinking about “how to get out as quickly and elegantly as possible”. But he recalls:

It’s also the case that the East is getting really interesting again round about now. All of a sudden there are great bands I’ve never heard of, they only play music from the West in the clubs, and there are all kinds of wild parties.

Wolf too says that his game with the state, and with himself, actually got more and more interesting in the last years of the GDR: “there were no clear rules any more, boundaries were blurred […] No-one could tell what was still allowed and what was forbidden”. But the Stasi still had the capacity to intimidate people.

In her letter resigning from the Party, Anne wrote

I can no longer bear this attitude of denying reality that our leaders are assuming. The repression of reality has led to a paralysis of social life. A state of affairs like that is not just regrettable but also dangerous. Remaining in this completely ossified organisation, which has long ceased to give signs of life, strikes me as pointless.

As demonstrations grew before the fall of the Wall, Anne took an active political role, finding that the Party was losing its power over her; she felt strong and happy. But, like Wolf, she was still conditioned by her relationship with her father.

Maxim describes the excitement of the final days of the GDR, despite fears over a possible “Chinese solution”. On the last evening

Wolf suggests going to the Wall, but Anne is tired, and she doesn’t want to go to the West anyway. “What’s going to be on at the Wall anyway?”, she says, and Wolf allows himself to to persuaded to stay at home. At half past ten they go to bed. And when they wake up the next morning, the GDR has already almost disappeared.Maxim hardly touches on the story after unification. When he applied for a Western passport, he feels ”like a bushman being greeted by white men in civilisation”. Despite his own alienation from the old regime, Westerners soon got on his nerves: “I think I never felt so close to the GDR as I did after its downfall”.

Red love 237

Anne felt still more conflicted. She went on to become a noted historian, not only reflecting on the GDR but also rediscovering her Jewish heritage—writing about Ravensbrück, and making a film about two young Sinto brothers murdered at Auschwitz.

Wolf missed the friction he got from rubbing up against the state; his creativity drowned in worries. They eventually divorced—which, I admit, saddens me. Maxim, now with his own children, relishes his career as a journalist, so very different from that of his mother.

Maxim

Maxim.

* * *

In all this there are echoes of China—I think of the moving film The blue kite, and the whole inability of “old revolutionaries” to move on from their youthful idealism.

See also Life behind the Iron Curtain, and cf. the story of my orchestral colleague Hildi (here and here). On Twitter, @DDROnline has many useful links.

Phonophobia and s-s-s-syncopation

Porky

Further to my discussion of Covid and plosives (a recent addition to my stammering tag), a couple more articles catch my attention.

writes in a lyrical style reminscent of French philosophy, with examples of historical discussion from Galen and Francis Bacon to Freud. Some readers may be more amenable than I am to this kind of thing:

The voice is the vehicle and the arena of this agon between dissipation and replenishment. Our celebrations of the voice are too monotonously pitched in the register of fullness, richness, clarity and penetrativeness, the privilege is too regularly accorded to the energetic out-loud and the “haute voix”. The autumnal, deciduous voice, which is heard in illness, fatigue, ague and age, is not epically shredded by passion, but rather silted with lilting circumstance.

I would love to hear a group of stammerers, or indeed anyone, trying to get their tongues around “paradoxical polyphiloprogenitiveness”.

Call me superficial (You’re superficial—Ed.), but With All Due Respect to Ancient and Modern Sages, I’m intrigued by some of the asides. Connor notes Marc Shell’s observation that when animals were given human speech in animated film, they often, like Donald Duck, or Porky Pig, suffered from speech impediments. I see that Porky shared his stutter with the voice actor who originally played him; but because he couldn’t control his stutter, recording sessions took hours and production costs became too high (cf. my own attempts at voiceover). Here’s a helpful roundup:

which features the “That’s all folks!” sign-off:

There’s even a ten-hour version (WTF). But scholars don’t seem to agree that the word “Hottentot” is an onomatopoeic mockery of stuttering that early Dutch colonists in South Africa thought they heard in the speech of the local people.  I’m keen to read Robert Arthur’s 1964 story The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot (cf. the truth-speaking parrot of Tibetan opera).

* * *

Less fantastical is this study, supplementing my More stammering songs:

Stammering’s material culture of the past lends itself to historical analysis and therefore allows us to gauge how medical and social attitudes toward the impediment have changed.

She notes:

The impediment not only provided (pseudo) medical actors with a lucrative market for various curative objects and practices, but also propelled the (sheet-) music business. Stammerers themselves appear in this story of materialisation and market as both agents and objects. The cheap self-cures, medical manuals, sheet music and (later) recordings that were produced not only for, but also by, them, show how easily the impediment was aligned with the modern consumer’s identity and how the persona of the stammerer was, ultimately, lodged in the Western collective memory in very material ways.

Writing of the “collusion between consumerism and stammering” in the late 19th century, she observes:

The cures targeted a middle-class audience that would presumably care most about speech impediments (they were in a profession requiring fluent speech), but—more importantly—would also have the means to afford a cure. Self-help manuals seem to have targeted a similar audience: they were relatively cheaply produced, but a book on stammering would necessarily have been a “luxury” item, requiring its owner to be literate. This image of the consumer of self-help manuals dovetailed conveniently with the image of what most scientists considered to be the typical stammerer: a white middle-class man, the victim of the modern “strenuous” life, but also autonomous and capable of curing himself.

It was often claimed that stammerers were typically found in the professional classes and characterized by an extraordinary intelligence. Hoegaerts cites an 1896 paper:

“Children of weak intellect rarely stutter because their thoughts are slow, and their speech always keeps pace with their thoughts.”

And she observes:

That the stammerer was “civilised” was shown by the fluent speech of “savages”. Travelers were called upon to show that no one had ever encountered speech impediments in the uncivilised world. “All travellers, who have long resided among uncultivated nations, maintain that they never met with any savages labouring under an impediment of speech”. This was because, according to scientists like Hunt, its inhabitants were not subjected to the stress and strain of civilisation: their fluent speech was owed to “their freedom from mental anxieties and nervous debility, the usual concomitants of refinement and civilization.” Likewise, the lower classes did not appear to seek the help of therapists and were considered to be relatively free of the impediment. […]

Women, on the other hand, were not so much thought of as uncivilised, but rather as more suited to civilisation and its rhythms of speech than men. Individual cases of female stammerers occasionally surfaced, but they were thought to represent a very small percentage of stammerers. According to Richard Faulkner, women expended less energy on speaking. “We have compared subsequently the energy developed in conversing by the voice of a man and that of a woman, and have found that women are fatigued, in talking, four times less than a man”. Others had already suggested that women were naturally good at speech. What made women’s speech so fluent, these theories surmised, was that most of it was idle chatter anyway.

So

Whereas “savages” could not speak of anything beyond the concrete and women did not move beyond the trivial, the (male, middle-class) stammerer’s laborious speech betrayed his intelligence.

Hoegaerts goes on,

That a woman could appear at her most attractive and intelligent by not talking at all would easily have been accepted by therapists and gentlemen-scientists of the period.

Women came to acquire the authority in the field of speech therapy—although I note that many of the most famous therapists have been men, while women comprise a majority of the work force—Typical!

The sound of stammering
Stammering became a popular theme for Tin Pan Alley songs, further popularised by sheet music. Yet

The popular representation of stammerers in songs, at the turn of the century and up until the 20s, seems very far removed from this image of the privileged, highly intelligent modern individual.

Composers treated stammering as a poetic and commercial opportunity, rather than as an impediment. It is no coincidence that almost all stammering songs were romantic and/or humorous in their content. The impediment was, in that sense, not the subject of the song, but merely a rhythmic device, the means to emotionally engage the audience, or the set-up for a joke. Sometimes, it was all three.

Of course, the rhythmic syncopation of stammering is an extrapolation by composers: the real sound is unpredictably non-metrical, aleatoric.

Following The stuttering coon (1898),

The connection of stammering to race allowed for rhythmic license. More specifically, the halting sound of stammering allowed composers to ride on the lucrative wave of ragtime music. Most explicit in the “use” of the sound of stammering was the 1913 song Stammering Sam, in which a young black boy’s stammer is presented as the “origin” of ragtime:

Then Stammering Sam sang,
and the company sang “babababa! Babababe!”
Singing his stuttering song with glee
and that was the very first ragtime melody.

Like the stammering girls, these stammering “coons” defied scientific knowledge: their ethnicity as well as their social class should have protected them from speech impediments. Yet there they are, imaginary creatures proudly claiming syncopated speech in order to entertain.

Of course, in many ways the “stammering coons” are images of manifold oppression: their almost clownish representation derided their ethnicity, the connection arguably degraded ragtime music as it refused to take it seriously as a style, and the depiction of their accented, lower-class speech placed them firmly at the bottom of the social ladder. Being put on show, after all, also meant being subjected to the harsh gaze of the audience, to become an object of consumption. Significantly, the songs would most likely be performed by non-stammerers for other non-stammerers (although those who did stammer could, of course, hear them as well). The stammerers in the songs were mere figments of their writer’s imagination, specifically created to be “performed”, “bought”, and “used” to serve the purposes of entertainment and consumption. Whereas stammerers were approached as agents on the market in therapeutic manuals, popular music banked on the characteristic sound of stammering in order to “sell” stammerers, rather than selling something to them. […]

In an ironic reversal of the therapeutic logic, [the stammering song] turned fluent speakers into stammerers (thus perhaps proving that speech could indeed be manipulated to a great extent). […]

The culture that emerged from this “modern” consumerist world was shaped by women, down-at-heel sailors, and young black boys as well. […] One could wonder if the worlds of the privileged stammerer and the imaginary one in songs coincided at all.

It’s good to see the factors of race, gender, and class featuring in the analysis of disfluency.

Words and women

Words and women cover

 The war on sexism has to be waged on so many fronts that it’s worth recalling that language is a crucial element. I’ve been re-reading

  • Casey Miller and Kate Swift, Words and women: language and the sexes (1976)

—a rather early exploration of an important topic, that remains a concise, well-argued introduction, even if progress has since been made in the areas discussed. Based on North American usage, it focuses on English, with instances from early etymology and other European languages, whose greater linguistic differentiation gives rise to different issues.

The opening chapter explores Names, and their consequences. Under patronymic systems, with women foregoing their surnames on marriage, they “belong” to another family. Lucy Stone was a pioneer in keeping her name in 1855, but this is one area where most women seem to have remained curiously faithful to patriarchal convention (for dissenting views, see also here; cf. wiki on “maiden” and married names across cultures). The authors also note changing trends in given names, and introduce the ongoing campaign for the title “Ms”.

Who is man? opens by highlighting the title and images of Jacob Bronowski’s acclaimed TV series The Ascent of man, which follows a long representational tradition. Its creators

could hardly have intended to convey the message that males alone participated in the evolution of mankind, yet through the use of imagery limited to males they effectively negated an inclusive, generic interpretation of their title subject.

A 1972 study found that “man” tended to evoke men (particularly adult white men)—an image that seems to persist despite the challenges of recent decades. Such language also conditioned traditional teaching about prehistoric society.

Dr Spock was an advocate of counteracting the linguistic presumption of maleness: the use of the male pronoun

is one of many examples of discrimination, each of which may seem of small consequence in itself but, when added up, help to keep women at an enormous disadvantange—in employment, in the courts, in the universities, and in conventional social life.

While the standard remained “he”, an opposite trend emerged in education:

By the mid-1960s, […] some of the angry young men in teaching were claiming that references to the teacher as “she” were responsible in part for their poor public image and, consequently, in part for their low salaries. […] To be vital, it appears, a teacher’s image must be male.

In the Declaration of Independence, the “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal”

did not apply to women any more than they did to men who were slaves or to those original inhabitants of the country referred to in the document as “the merciless Indian savages”.

The authors go on to clarify issues surrounding Sex and gender. In our common perception of animals too, “all creatures are assumed to be male until proven female”. Other European languages use “grammatical gender”, also affecting articles and adjectives. A fine quote from Mark Twain, from “The awful German language”:

In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. See how it looks in print—I translate this from a conversation in one of the best of the German Sunday-school books:

Gretchen—Wilhelm, where is the turnip?
Wilhelm—She has gone to the kitchen.
Gretchen—Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?
Wilhelm—It has gone to the opera.

While most “agent nouns” (worker, farmer, doctor, clown) belong to the “common gender” category, some became more common in female versions (princess, lioness, sorceress, early imports from French). The evolution of “seamstress” is an interesting case. Some early feminists

prized the “female designations” because they felt women should be given credit, as women, for their accomplishments. More, however, objected.

Conversely, “spinster”

reverted to being an exclusively female designation—though with an additional pejorative meaning that has no male equivalent.

Miller and Swift summarise:

Throughout its history, as English made the gradual change from grammatical to natural gender, words denoting occupations and professions could be and from time to time were used for females and males without distinction. But because males are consciously or unconsciously considered the norm, new feminine designations were introduced and accepted whenever the need was felt to assert male prerogatives. As the language itself documents, once certain occupations ceased to be women’s work and became trades or vocations in which men predominated, the old feminine gender words were annexed by men and became appropriate male designations. Then new endings were assigned to women, quite possibly, in Fowler’s phrase, to keep a woman from “asserting her right” to a male’s name (or his job).

Some nouns like waitress and actress were still common, if waning, in the 1970s.

The distinction between actor and actress is not a distinction between male and female; it is the difference between the standard and a deviation.

Semantic polarisation examines the role of words in moulding cultural assumptions. The authors note the role of cultural anthropology in clarifying issues: across societies,

the extent to which roles are assigned on the basis of sex and the rigidity with which the sexes are categorised also varies greatly.

The authors unpack damaging dictionary definitions for words such as “manly” and “womanly”, whose 1960s’ portrayals—respectively positive (courage, strength, vigour) and negative (weak, fickle, superficial)—now look absurd. Such expectations were reinforced early in childhood.

Miller and Swift illustrate the “degeneration of meaning” with the words virago, shrew, and tomboy. And they cite Margaret Mead:

The potentialities which different societies label as either masculine or feminine are really potentialities of some members of each sex, and not sex-linked at all.

The language of religion is an important topic: even in modern north Europe, where religion is a lesser influence on society than in the USA, history bequeaths a heavy burden. Originating in patriarchal societies, the major Western religions inevitably contain abundant “semantic roadblocks to sexual equality”. God, father, son, king; spiritual men and sinful women; the virgin–whore dichotomy for women. Again, this whole edifice has come under increasing scrutiny (cf. Patricia Lockwood‘s fine definition of “tabernacle”!).

In The great male plot Miller and Swift ponder the backlash against feminism, with instances of male “humorists” going for cheap laughs in belittling sensible linguistic (and social) progress. As women’s access to education gradually increased, men were ever keener to act as guardians of the language. Fowler’s prescriptions again loom as a negative influence, railing against the now widely accepted formulation “as anybody can see for themselves”—no shocking “Women’s Lib” madness, but going back to Shakespeare. Others joined in denouncing descriptive grammarians’ apparent abandoning prescriptions for good and bad usage—“the King’s English and the fishwife’s”.

The male bias of English does not have to be fostered by a conspiracy.

The authors describe the growing use of “Ms” (the magazine Ms was first published in 1972)—becoming more popular not only as “a significant number of women began to object being labeled according to their (presumed) marital status” but also as an effective time and money saver with the growth of direct mail selling. And again it was fiercely contested by fatuous men. In an informed discussion, Ms Miller and Ms Swift trace the evolution of gendered titles further back in history. Meanwhile sexism “remained the only form of bigotry still treated as good clean fun by the American Press” (cf. the neanderthal “Rear Admiral” Foley).

In What is woman? The authors explore the different speech habits and vocabularies of women and men. They cite the research of Robin Lakoff:

Discouraged from expressing herself forcefully, a girl may acquire speech habits that communicate uncertainty, hesitancy, indecisiveness, and subordination.

Women were still penalised for unseemly language (note the LRB article on a 1923 trial, linked here). In speech as well as behaviour, men have licence to behave badly. Of course, language taboos have been challenged generally, as in the 1933 Ulysses case. But women were among the vanguard in breaking the barriers; Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, and Carson McCullers all used the word “fuck” quite early in their books. At the same time, the language used to degrade females has been scrutinised.

sexist postcard

WTF: Alcoa Aluminum ad, 1953. Sexist ads have now been rumbled.

In The spectre of unisex Miller and Swift further discuss the spread of the ending “-person”, and the uncomprehending resistance to it. Meanwhile “they/their” to replace “he/his” was gaining ground, and has continued to make further progress.

Setting forth from kinship terminology in different cultures as an instance of how language reflects and shapes perception, Language and liberation discusses the recent concepts of racism (1950s) and sexism (late 1960s). Publishers and other bodies were producing non-sexist guidelines by the 1970s; since then, too, children’s books have gone on to make wonderful progress in correcting harmful stereotypes (links e.g. here).

Eliminating sexism need not result in graceless language, as many people fear. Sensitive speakers, writers, and editors have been doing it consciously and well for years. Language that does not depend on abstraction is superior, for it is forced to be specific.

In the Postscript the authors list some guidelines, including succinct summaries for –ess and –ette endings (remember usherettes?), * forms of address, job titles, and so on.

* * *

The powerful arguments of Miller and Swift cover most of the issues that have since gradually entered the mainstream, even if they continue to be distorted and trivialised by dinosaur men and the PC-gone-mad brigade. For the state of play nearly three decades later, the useful guide

Jennifer Mather Saul, Feminism: issues and arguments (2003)

devotes chapter 6 to feminism and language change, an issue that has come to attain increasing public prominence. With precise logic that reminds me of the great Janet Radcliffe Richards (The sceptical feminist, 1980), she gives concise sections on gender-neutrality and gender-specificity, and considers arguments against language reform.

Replacing gender-neutral usages (notably “man”; such terms are not actually gender-neutral at all) avoids confusion, and positively affects the way we think. Her solutions are modest (not in a “feminine” way, I may add), and adjustments easily made. But gender-specific words like manageress and waitress are also flawed, again assuming a male norm. Saul updates the story of the usage of “Ms”.

Ms Saul goes on to confront, and confound, arguments against reform. Language is important, but at the same time it is only one aspect of the wider campaign. And she provides a succinct list of further readings.

* * *

Meanwhile lexicographers and style guides continue to modify their definitions, as language and society keeps changing.

Fuckety

While Miller and Swift discussed “bitch”, more recently words like “slut” have come under the spotlight (see e.g. Jessica Valenti’s comments, here and here). Feminists are recasting “profane” language, such as the c-word, even extending their labours creatively to embroidery. And I’ve already noted other dodgy terms like femme fatale, diva, and “gamine elfin waif“. As I write, I see that the “governess” is making a comeback among wealthy British families—FFS.

Other sites include wiki (also broaching French, German, Swedish), and this BBC Radio 4 page; cf. my Gender roundup. For suitable listening, try You don’t own me.


I’ve been beaten to this, but cf. the latest article in my fantasy series, “The Fall of the House of Usherettes: changes in the structuring of cinema attendance”.  

In praise of Patricia Lockwood

Lockwood

I entirely share the universal delight in the intoxicating language of Patricia Lockwood, with her passion for the mind-expanding power of words.

Within her genre-bending oeuvre, the publication of a new article by her is always the occasion for fireworks and champagne. Just when we thought we couldn’t take any more analyses of the genius of Elena Ferrante, Lockwood makes the perfect commentator; so now we can delight in her own delight at Lila and Lenù.

Besides her pieces for organs such as The New Yorker and The Paris review, her LRB articles are virtuosic, perceptive, and exuberant in their language—such as her thoughts on Lucia BerlinVladimir NabokovCarson McCullers, Marian Engel. Her review of John Updike (“Malfunctioning sex robot”) is a most thoughtful, informed critique, like a more wacky update of Henry Miller’s emasculation at the hands of Kate Millett:

I was hired as an assassin. You don’t bring in a 37-year-old woman to review John Updike in the year of our Lord 2019 unless you’re hoping to see blood on the ceiling.

See also Insane after Coronavirus?, and this piece on the US Elections, reminding us that her astute, enquiring mind takes wing way beyond mere lit crit. I sing the praises of her latest review here.

* * *

Her essay The communal mind is a prelude to No one is talking about this, her new novel about living in the internet. Amidst a multitude of blazing fanfares (e.g. this review), this comes from an interview with Hadley Freeman:

“White people, who had the political educations of potatoes, were suddenly feeling compelled to speak about injustice. This happened once every forty years on average, usually after a period when folk music became popular again. When folk music became popular again, it reminded people that they had ancestors, and then, after a considerable delay, that their ancestors had done bad things.”

Lockwood is all too aware that books about the internet have a bad reputation: “[They] had the strong whiff of old white intellectuals being weird about the blues, with possible boner involvement.”

* * *

Lockwood’s memoir Priestdaddy (2017; reviewinterview) celebrates and bewails her eccentric family, in a style distantly akin to the stories of David Sedaris. The title refers to her father, a rare married Catholic priest; she wrote the book while staying back at the family home with her husband Jason during a period of adversity. I guess it’s “confessional”.

Priestdaddy cover

While her parents make hapless victims of her trenchant pen, it’s far from mere slapstick; it’s an affectionate, benign portrayal, becoming increasingly reflective.

She was deprived of college by her father’s inability to resist buying a guitar made for Paul McCartney:

Later, I would take a detached literary pleasure in the notion that higher education had unwittingly been robbed from me by a Beatle.

She observes family life with detachment:

The drama of the scene ought to have been tense and throbbing, but it was undercut somewhat by my mother’s decorating, which ran heavily to bowls of gold balls. Still, we played our parts: every once in a while my father would bang down his fist while looking patriarchal, and my mother would turn to stare out the window while looking powerless, which contributed to the impression that we were participating in a Tennessee Williams play where “the internet” was being used as a code for “homosexuality”.

And

The Don Pablo’s in Cincinatti was a large converted factory, so it looked vaguely like a nightclub where people went to have wrong ideas about Mexico. In the corner, a fake cactus threw up its helpless arms, as if my father were holding it at gunpoint.

Her relationship with her husband Jason is most endearing. As he wonders if her father is trying to kill him, she responds:

“Did you give him any indication that you were a pacifist or an intellectual, or that you liked abstract art?”

Pets are a bone of contention too:

My father hates cats. He believes them to be Democrats. He considers them to be little mean hillary clintons covered all over with feminist legfur. Cats would have abortions, given half a chance.

When Jason takes a job at a local newpaper, she muses:

There was a sign announcing how many days had passed since the last workplace accident, which made me think of the unlucky employee who had to climb up on a ladder the next morning to flip the number back to zero with a maimed hand.

As Tricia tries to watch old movies on TV, her father switches over without ceremony to

something like Bag of Guts: How Much Blood is in a Human Body? or Boom! A Toot from the Bum of the Apocalypse or Ragged Claws: Hideous Mutant Poem from the Deep.

She guesses the plots of his favorite movies based on the sounds coming through the walls:

A remake of The Ten Commandments where the lead actor is just an AK-47 wearing Moses robes. He parts the Red Sea by shooting it.

Indiana Jones flips through his dad’s diary and finds a map of the clitoris. “IT’S MINE”, he yells, but will the Nazis get there first?

God is a cop with a monkey sidekick, but the monkey sidekick is mankind.

She takes singing lessons with her sister:

We often sang together at church because our voices sounded related, though mine was obviously the hunchbacked insane relative who lived up in the attic and only descended for meals.

Her second teacher

looked like she knew where Prague was, which at that moment in time I did not.

But the chapter segues to her suicide attempt as a cloistered teenager.

Some of the most baroque passages come when she explains Catholicism to her bemused husband, suggesting a Martian ethnographer (indeed, she likens her notebook to that of an anthropologist):

“What did these people teach you?” he asked me one night, mystified. “What exactly do Catholics believe?”

I’d been preparing my whole life for this question. “First of all, blood. BLOOD. Second of all, thorns. Third of all, put dirt on your forehead. Do it right now. Fourth of all, Martin Luther was a pig in a cloak. Fifth of all, Jesus is alive, but he’s also dead, and he’s also immortal, but he’s also made of clouds, and his face is a picture of infinite peace, but he always looks like one of those men in a headache commercial, because you’re causing him such suffering whenever you cuss. He is so gentle that sheep seem like demented murderers in his presence, but also rays of light shoot out of his face so hard they can kill people. In fact they do kill people, and one day they will kill you. He has a tattoo of a daisy chain on his lower back and he gets his hair permed every eight weeks. He’s wearing a flowing white dress, but only because people didn’t know about jeans back then. He’s holding up two fingers because his dad won’t let him have a gun. If he lived on earth, he would have a white truck, plastered with bumper stickers of Calvin peeing on a smaller Calvin who is not a Catholic.”

See also under The Annunciation in art and music.

While reluctant to “harp on” (my garish phrase, sic!) about feminism, Lockwood reflects on her relationship with the seminarians who come to stay:

What else could I do but tease them? I had no real power; it was men like these who were in charge of my life. If they decided tomorrow I had to cover my hair or wear skirts or pray separately, or be barred from reading certain books, or take certain pills and not take others, or be silent in the presence of men, I would have to do it. To have that bald dynamic of power on display in your home every day, pretending to arch over and protect you—it does something to a person. The seminarian calls women “the tabernacle of life”. The tabernacle, if you do not know, is an ornamental box that is largely important for what it holds. It is shut up and locked when the men go away, so the consecrated elements inside cannot be stolen.

YAY! Hallelujah! The “indomitable human spirit”, demurely Renting Asunder the Chains of Bondage—not just surviving but thriving!!!

People do sometimes accuse me of blasphemy, which is understandable, and which is their right. But to me, it is not blasphemy, it is my idiom. It’s my way of still participating in the language I was raised inside, which despite all renunciation will always be mine.

So while she doesn’t give the church an easy ride, she describes her background of taking part ungrudgingly in its rituals. Merging emic and etic, she is altogether gentle in her lack of confrontation—as she observes in this review:

“But in a way, I am happy that I wrote it before all this [the US elections] went down because you can look at those things foreignly. There can be a sort of nostalgia looking back at it. Whereas now, it feels so urgent to excise all these conservative forms of thought as opposed to just seeing them as quirks—which they’re not just quirks, but they are that, especially when it’s your family.” She adds, “I always had the sense that running alongside this book was a book that was much angrier, or was expressed more as a sort of haranguing monologue against various things, but that’s not particularly natural to me as a writer.”

She describes the background and reactions to the publication of her poem Rape joke, and adds a note to her comments on motherhood:

The twinge you are feeling right now is the twinge of wondering whether I am really right-thinking, whether I am really on the right side when it comes to this subject. I put that twinge in because I sometimes feel it myself. But after all that, you must understand that I had to leave right-thinkingness behind.

She reflects on her family’s involvement in the “pro-life” movement (see also this, adapted from the book):

We patronised pro-life businesses, which in the Midwest, back then, was easy to do. It was possible to buy a pro-life pizza, despite the fact that a pizza is by its very definition made out of choices.

She perceives certain feminist credentials in her mother, who is ever alert to danger while not clearly subscribing to the notion of female suffrage. In a charming chapter rejoicing in the title “The Cum Queens of Hyatt Palace”, they bond over finding cum on a hotel bed. After a spirited exchange with the management (not of bodily fluids, I should add),

We join hands and set forth into the morning, united by that human glue which cannot be dissolved.

But amidst the hilarity her account addresses ever more serious topics—the church child-abuse scandal, pollution-induced disease, and her father’s roles in counselling the desperate and officiating for the bereaved.

Eventually he concedes to his errant daughter,

“I never thought it would be so much fun to have you home. It’s so nice when your kids grow up and you don’t have to kill them anymore.”

But while revelling in language she treasures its limitations:

The desire to describe voice, gesture, skin colour, is a desire to eat, take over, make into part of the pattern. I am happy every time I see a writer fail at this. I am happy every time to see real personhood resist our tricks. I am happy to see bodies insist that they are not shut up in this book, they are elsewhere. The tomb is empty, rejoice, he is not here.

Do bask in every enchanted word that Ms Lockwood writes! As a suitable soundtrack for such shots in the arm, I suggest You’re my thrill.

Life under Mussolini

Bosworth cover

With our unwelcome new sensitivity to the resurgence of unaccountable authoritarianism, and to complement my post on the resistance to Mussolini, I’ve been reading

  • Richard Bosworth, Mussolini’s Italy: life under the dictatorship (2005),

a thorough, nuanced study of the period (see e.g. this review).

Bosworth notes how our understanding is impeded by the popular image of Italians as “nice people” (brava gente), with their alluring cuisine, fashion, art and architecture (cf. the “three Fs” in Portugal). With revealing stories about provincial life, he explores why ordinary Italians were vulnerable to fascism, and how complicit they were.

Italian society, with its massive regional and class divides, was far from monolithic. Values can and do change, but in such a fragmented, unstable country, most people were “impervious to the cheap nationalist rhetoric about a homogeneous and united people”. Bosworth’s cast includes peasants, landowners, factory workers, industrialists, shopkeepers, doctors, teachers.

Within the “civilised” north and the “barbarous” south there were significant regional divides. Besides modern industrial Turin, disease-prone Venice, the south, Sicily, and Sardinia, Rome was a particular case. Even in the 1950s, peasants in Salento regarded “national roads” as foreign and alien. Poverty, starvation, and sickness were common.

Bosworth describes assaults on press freedom, the liquidation of non-Fascist trade unions, squadrism, and the secret police; the glorification of warfare, and ill-fated foreign colonial aggression (Libya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Albania, Greece, involvement in the Spanish Civil War), accompanied by camps, genocide, and chemical weapons.

During the Ethiopian campaign the authorities soon frowned upon the popular ditty Faccetta nera, with its suggestion of racial mingling. It’s disturbingly easy to find online:

Despite propaganda, such costly foreign ventures were not widely supported. Meanwhile at home the regime was constantly beset by economic troubles and corruption.

Amidst tensions between the state and the Catholic church, one area on which they agreed was the status of women, whose mission was to “breed, cook, and worship”.

In both rural and urban Italy, women could rarely detect anything that was modern in their lives.

Progress was painfully slow and patchy. Italy’s low birth rate in recent decades goes back to this period; despite exhortations from state and Church, and strict abortion laws, the birth rate fell through the 1930s. Even in some isolated rural paesi in the north, some women had never heard of Mussolini.

Fascist rhetoric found it hard to penetrate family values.

Italian homes may have contained images of the Duce but portraits of the Popes, Mary, Christ, and the holy saints, the King, the other royals and a slew of other not reliably Fascist lay saints, of whom Garibaldi was the most loved and widespread, could also be found on apartment walls.

The period from 1880 was marked by major waves of emigration, in particular to the USA. Although from the late 1920s it became much more difficult to leave, fascist and anti-fascist groups competed in the diverse foreign communities.

Bosworth 18

Bosworth qualifies the notion that the First World War led directly to Fascism. By 1917 “liberal and dynastic” motives gave way to a “popular and national” agenda. As in the Austro-Hungarian army, officers and ordinary troops literally spoke different languages. And as elsewhere, far from bringing peace, the end of the war brought renewed social conflicts and continuing violence. Among the “great powers”, Italy was most fragile.

Bosworth 13One important prelude to the Mussolini regime was Gabriele D’Annunzio’s regime at Fiume. Meanwhile violence became ever more common—as a means of asserting local power and advancing wealth, status, and authority, and to counter the spectre of Bolshevism. Bosworth looks at the uneven distribution of fascism in the provinces. The murder of Matteotti in 1924 was a turning point leading to dictatorship and the elimination of dissent. Opponents of the regime were sentenced to confino exile. During his exile on the island of Lipari, erstwhile fascist Leandro Arpinetti took up cooking, while lamenting that the locals were “somnolent poltroons”—a term that I must incorporate into my lexicon of invective (cf. Slonimsky).

The Balilla scout movement, along with “Fascistised” sport and leisure activities, made potent tools for the indoctrination of youth. Radio (and later, film) was recruited to the Fascist cause, but technology still lagged behind; even by 1940 there were still only half a million telephones (indeed, they were still rare in post-war Britain).

Among those flocking to the cause were the apiarists of Trentino. Their bees were “a superior breed (razza)”, “the best in the world”,

the natural model for Italians when they worked in perfect peace, harmony and fraternal love under the Duce.

The “purification” of language was another arena of contention. A campaign to replace the polite third-person usage Lei with the more “manly” second-person voi had mixed results. Zuppa inglese was renamed zuppa impero; hotel was replaced by albergo.

Qualifying the idea that Italian dictatorship may seem rather benign compared to those of Germany and the USSR, Bosworth reminds us of its brutality. Racial policy too was less extreme than under Nazism, but its ramifications were ugly.

Besides xenophobic assumptions about blacks, Arabs, and “Slavs”, and “border fascism” in the northeast, anti-semitism only became a major stain under the alliance with Nazi Germany. Indeed, Jews had played a role in the rise of Italian Fascism; yet racist laws accumulated after 1938. Under German rule, Jews were rounded up and deported from late 1943: among 7,495 deportees, 610 survived.

partisan 1944

Schoolteacher partisan, Val d’Aosta 1944.

Active partisan resistance grew, though numbers were was not so large as one may imagine.

Bosworth opens his account of the legacy with the 2004 visit of George W. Bush to the site of the 1944 massacre at the Ardeatine caves just outside Rome, where SS troops murdered 335 Italian men—one of a series of such reprisals (see also under The Ratline). He deflates the spin that the memorial represents a “virtuous nation as victim”.

Again, the end of the war didn’t bring peace (cf. Keith Lowe, Savage continent). After the partisan murders of 1945 (notably in the “triangle of death” in Emilia-Romagna), political fascism began to assume new forms. As elsewhere, commitment to an institutional purge of fascism soon faded. Revisionist accounts were widely read. Right- and left-wing terrorist violence grew alarmingly through the 1970s. Burlesque-only was keen to belittle the fascist heritage.

EUR

In architecture, a sadly fitting memorial to Fascism in Rome is the grandiose model suburb of EUR. Initiated in 1942 but only completed after Liberation, it became a soulless place, “a lesson in how not to foster urban vitality”.

The whole psyche of the era is effectively evoked in Alberto Moravia’s novel The conformist and Bernardo Bertolucci’s film.

Renewed alarm over the widespread resurgence of fascism has led to much analysis of the diverse forms in which it surfaces. Now I’m all for experts; in an era of groundless rants, I’m grateful for balanced presentations. I’m underwhelmed by erudite arguments that the current crisis in the USA does not make a totally identical parallel with past societies elsewhere. [1] With Trumpism sharing many themes with regimes like those of Hitler or Mussolini (themselves quite different)—xenophobia, hate speech, assaults on the media and the rule of law, manipulation of the electorate, support for violent militias, putting people in cages—there are clearly ample causes for anxiety.

Cf. posts under Life behind the Iron Curtain, and the Maoism tag. For the tomato under Mussolini, see here.


[1] In a theme that is sure to keep growing, good starters are
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/10/books/fascism-debate-donald-trump.html
and
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/oct/30/trump-borrows-tricks-of-fascism-pittsburgh
Taking the “he’s a right-wing populist, not a fascist” line,
https://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/1/3/14154300/fascist-populist-trump-democracy
Expanding the discussion to Putin’s Russia:
https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/the-word-fascist-is-perfectly-accurate-when-applied-to-donald-trump-1.4286248
Less measured:
https://gen.medium.com/donald-trump-is-a-nazi-full-stop-393a50d80947
See also e.g.
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jul/31/is-this-fascism-no-could-it-become-fascism-yes
and
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jul/02/donald-trump-boris-johnson-fascism-us-uk-rightwing

Dancing in the streets!!!

🥂YAYYYYYY!!!🥂

Just to join in the parties from afar:

Kamala’s beautiful speech here is worth watching in full:

As to the Inauguration— just WOW: Kamala, the Bidens, the Obamas, Amanda Gorman (speech here!!!), Lady Gaga…

So here’s a little playlist for expressions of joy:

Detroit 67.
Katelyn Ohashi.

And among a wealth of festive Bach, the final chorus here, from 14.46, is an exhilarating number for dancing in the pews:

O ewiges feuer.

Here’s an interesting electoral map for the 2016 elections:


Meanwhile, in a parking lot between a dildo store and a crematorium:

Iranian lives

In reportage, a cartoon book, and feature films

I’ve been seeking to glean a few basic perspectives on Iranian society beyond its (seemingly “autonomous”) chamber music—note Laudan Nooshin’s useful Songlines introduction to the sound spectrum in Iran.

  • Ramita Navai, City of lies: love, sex, death, and the search for truth in Tehran (2014)

makes a compelling read, an effective blend of interviews, observation, and research. The eight vignettes read like a novel—in “Sources” she explains how she compiles each account, giving further references. In a final note she summarises her own story: based in London from young, returning to Iran as a journalist since 2004, engaging with the poor of south Tehran. Her website also includes her excellent films for Channel 4 from around the world.

With the long avenue of Vali Asr as a thread linking bourgeois north Tehran and the gritty south of the city, the characters (both male and female) encompass all the contradictions of changing modern life there—regime supporters, mullahs and judges, party-goers and dissidents, morality police and mobsters; fashion, nose jobs, and rap; opium, crystal meth, and heroin.

Among all the waves of repression and executions since the 1979 revolution, the protests of 2009 loom large, as well as the constant lure of refuge in the diaspora—including the murky Iranian underworld in Japan.

The book opens with the tale of an MEK hit-man returning to Tehran for a botched assassination attempt. Other characters include Somayah, a devout girl who still falls foul of the regime’s moral strictures, reveals the society’s misogyny; Amir, unable to forgive a repentant judge for sentencing his parents to death; Leyla, whose divorce leads to her to sex work and the thriving porn scene, exploited by hypocritical police and judges; Morteza, an abused young member of a basiji militia who finally manages to have a sex-change operation (a chapter that opens with a vignette on ritual self-mortification); and Farideh, a widow from an affluent family fallen on hard times, who, having learned that swinging 60s’ London was uptight and “backward”, finally decides to make a home there, but returns to Tehran after only two months.

While the contrast between tradition and modernity is a staple cliché of travel writing, here Navai brings real insight to these life stories, always nuanced, conflicted.

Even in large cities, the soundscape is among ways in which such conflicts are evident—in this case, not just the contrast between rap and the call to prayer, but the duality of the art music of the radif and more gritty sounds like festive shawm bands. As Morteza observes the incantations, sobs, and drum-beats of ritual self-flagellants in trance, he notes that they appear strangely like the north Tehran ravers they abhor (cf. Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam).

To varying degrees, duplicity is perhaps a universal in societies, “the consequence of surviving in an oppressive regime”. While it has been noted as a characteristic of socialist societies (e.g. The whisperers), Alan Bennett also regards hypocrisy as a defining trait of the English. More basic is the imposition of power through intimidation, exercised both by political regimes and by traditional values—often reminiscent of China.

* * *

I was reminded of the educative cartoon book

  • Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (2000­–2003; complete English edition 2007),

another fine introduction to the modern urban society of Iran.

At 343 pages it’s a substantial autobiography, whose innovative format belies its serious message. Under headings such as “The veil”, “The party”, and “The croissant”, it evokes her early experiences after the 1979 revolution, her troubled teenage years in Vienna from 1983, and her return, feeling defeated, four years later to Iran—where she gets married and divorced before leaving again for good. Since 1993 she has been based in France.

Here’s a trailer for the 2007 film version:

* * *

One of Ramita Navai’s characters approves of the film A separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011), by contrast with the “overrated and pretentious” Iranian films, with their heavy-handed symbolism, that beguile the Western media—a suspicion that is widely common within societies, again as in China.

Still, the new wave films of Iran have a distinguished history, the “second wave” led by Abbas Kiarostami (1940–2016) such as the Koker trilogy—here’s a trailer for Where is the friend’s home? (1987):

As to the “third wave”, Samira Makhmalbaf (b.1980), following the path of her father Mohsen (b.1957; family website here) directed her first film The apple (1998) at the age of 17, a moving story of a Tehran family in difficulty (reenacted by the family themselves) that again blurs the line between documentary and fiction.

By contrast, Blackboards (2001) depicts the plight of Kurdish refugees in desolate countryside, against the backdrop of the chemical bombing of Halabja, only revealed at the devastating greyed-out ending. As an itinerant teacher struggles stoically to convince poor villagers of the remote benefits of literacy, he creatively puts his blackboard to more practical uses:

All this just to remind myself again that music is never autonomous… Cf. Three women of Herat.

The wise AOC

This may be news only to those with their heads buried in medieval Daoist manuals, rather than to people following the current tribulations of the USA, but…

Just when global politics seems at the mercy of venal, thieving white men, along comes the inspiring, principled, articulate, practical, passionate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

While Sarah Cooper’s scriptwriter the Orange Baby-in-Chief is playing golf, egging on fellow white terrorists and criminal thugs, and throwing his toys out of the pram, AOC is working flat-out to help people—confounding cynics as she highlights the importance of issues like climate change and the Green New Deal, healthcare, employment, women’s rights, and the plight of immigrants.

An unrivalled communicator, every speech she makes on such issues is compelling. Just one of numerous instances of her forensic appearances in Congress:

She is demonised by the Right, who, utterly unable to engage in rational argument with her, shoot themselves in the foot by disparaging her former waitressing job or obsessing fatuously over her clothes (cf. Dressing modestly).

She’s a master of social media. One of her early media triumphs after being elected to Congress was her riposte to their outraged reaction to the notion that Women might actually Dance:

On social issues her every Tweet gets to the heart of the matter, and she clearly wins legions of admirers on Instagram with her informal yet engaged chats there:

She keeps elaborating her powerful message, as here, from December 2020.

Here she is with a powerful speech eviscerating Ted Yoho’s non-apology:

This moving documentary provides background on AOC’s remarkable election to Congress:

And this is a good article.

Do follow her on Twitter and all those other New-Fangled, um, platforms! All is not lost—but first things first, eh: the immediate priority is to restore a modicum of civilised values and consign the current incumbent of the White House to a padded cell.

See also The speaking voice, and Bomba.

Women in Tibetan expressive culture

IHD

Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy with Kham shopkeeper, Lhasa 1997.

Following my recent posts on Labrang, the Cultural Revolution in Tibet, and 1950s’ Lhasa (roundup here), I continue exploring Tibetan expressive culture as an outsider.

Only quite recently has the role of women in Tibetan society has become a field for enquiry. And as in other disciplines, the study of gender has become a major topic in ethnomusicology (for a basic introduction, see here). Yet our image of the expressive culture of Tibet is still based on monastic ritual, and thus dominated by men (though nuns too perform vocal liturgy).

A finely-wrought discussion is

It’s a useful volume; other chapters on the modern era include Hildegard Diemberger on female oracles, Charlene Makley on nuns, and Robert Barnett on women and politics. For more on nuns and female visionaries, see the work of Nicola Schneider. For further articles of Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, click here; and for Jamyang Norbu’s stimulating talk on Women in Tibet, here.

* * *

First Isabelle gives a useful outline of gender roles in Tibetan areas before 1959. Women were usually the “beer vendors”, and as “ceremonial beer-servers” they sang for parties and weddings. Indeed, they still are. And she introduces the “label-girls” of nangma-töshe song-and-dance. [1]

Lhasa label girls

Acha Yitsa, leading performer of the nangma’i skyid sdug association, flanked by two famed “label-girls” at an aristocrats’ picnic, Lhasa 1936–37. Photo: Sir Basil Gould.

She then discusses six Tibetan female singers on the eve of the occupation, the Maoist era, and since the 1980s’ reforms—describing the exceptional case of “stars”, as she explains, since they are better documented than common performers: three from the world of tradition, as well as three stars of popular music, providing an instructive spectrum. She constantly interrogates the role of gender in their careers, offering valuable perspectives on the tensions within modern Tibetan society over three distinct periods, both within the PRC and in exile.

Ama Lhagpo
This first sketch makes a good introduction to Isabelle’s fine work on lhamo opera, which I extol here. Ama Lhagpo (1909–97) performed lhamo for over eighty years (!).

Orphaned at the age of 3, she was taken in by a woman whom she accompanied begging on the streets and in chang taverns. There she was spotted by the celebrated Kyomolung lhamo troupe in Lhasa, just in the process of reviving. She gave her first public performance at the age of 8, taking the lead roles from 15.

After the occupation she kept performing with the troupe through the 1950s. In 1961, after a two-year hiatus following the rebellion, she was recruited to the government’s newly-formed Tibetan Opera Troupe, spending a period training at the Shanghai Conservatoire—where she soon lost her voice.

With the revival of tradition that followed the end of the Cultural Revolution, Ama Lhagpo trained a new generation while being showered with honorary titles. As Isabelle notes, “what is poignant is that, in lhamo, the ascribed emblem of ‘tradition’ was an old lady with a broken voice”. A rare female star in a largely male genre, she was a model for the incorporation of women into the state professional troupes. Isabelle draws us into the world of singing and dancing styles for male and female roles in lhamo.

Chung Putri
Again, Chung Putri (1920–85) came from a poor folk background, singing and dancing to make a living with her husband and daughter by itinerant begging over a wide area. In 1956 she was recruited to the state Arts-work Troupe in Shigatse, along with Tseten Drolma (see below). From 1957 to 1959 she taught Tibetan dance in Beijing. Returning to Lhasa in 1960, she joined the Tibet Song-and-Dance Ensemble and Tibet Opera Troupe. After the 1980s’ revival, with her extensive repertoire, she played a role in the “salvage” work on folk-song, working with the Chinese scholar Tian Liantao.

Thus having lived through the first wave of state-sponsored adaptation in the 1950s, she came to represent the changing tradition in the 1980s, her style at some remove from musicians from more elite backgrounds like Zholkhang Sonam Dargye.

As Isabelle suggests, the lively debate over “authenticity” took place not only between Tibetans in the PRC and in exile, but within the PRC.

Yumen
“Salvage” continues to feature in the portrait of Yumen (b. c1957), a renowned performer of the monumental Gesar epic (see here, n.2), born to a nomadic family in Kham.

As Isabelle explains, there are two types of bards: those who learned by listening to other bards, and—the more valued method—those who (like Yumen) received the text through spiritual revelation in trance following a psychological crisis. The great majority were male: among a hundred bards surveyed in the 1980s, Yang Enhong’s study of 26 bards lists Yumen as one of two women performers.

It seems that we can assume at least sporadic ritual performances until at least 1959. Yumen’s father was also an “inspired” bard; she herself acquired the ability to recite the epic after a dream at the age of 16—in the mid-1970s, note, well before the liberalisations. As she gained a local reputation, she was soon in demand.

But already from 1977, though illiterate, she was summoned to Lhasa to work in state literary units, going on from 1983 to work in the Gesar salvage project. Again, Isabelle gives a good introduction to the process of folklorisation. While performers, perhaps even in ritual contexts, are still quite common, Yumen is one of a dwindling number of “inspired” bards, albeit safely enshrined in a state work-unit.

Yumen is heard on the CD 12 treasures: Gesar songs and prayers from The saltmen of Tibet (Ulrike Koch, 1998).

The Gesar epic is a rather popular subject in online videos. Here’s a short film from UNESCO:

or more extensive coverage, with Chinese commentary:

And here’s a trailer for A Gesar bard’s tale (Donagh Coleman and Lharigtso, 2103):

Tseten Drolma
Tseten DrolmaBy contrast, the songs of Tseten Drolma (b.1937),“the golden voice of the Party” under Maoism, “symbolizing the Tibetan devotion and gratitude to the Party and to China, and telling again and again about the miseries of pre-1950 feudal life in Tibet”. While rather few Tibetans may subscribe to the ideology of her songs, they are widely known, inescapable.

Born to a serf family in Shigatse, her mother was yet another famed beer-vendor.

In 1956 she joined the Shigatse Arts-work troupe, meeting Chung Putri. From 1958 to 1963 she was sent to study at the Shanghai Conservatoire, developing a combination of Tibetan style and “Chinese” bel canto.

Her popularity was enhanced by her propaganda songs during the Cultural Revolution, and she has remained in favour since the reforms, accumulating honorific, ornamental political titles.

Nowadays, her CDs are purchased mainly by Chinese customers. Amongst Tibetans, they are the usual gifts that work units distribute to their workers, who usually immediately and dismissively throw them away.

This is the kind of thing:

See also the work of Anna Morcom, e.g. “The voice of the state: musical propaganda in Tibet”, in Unity and discord: music and politics in contemporary Tibet (2004); for Woeser’s comment on the ironies of her song Beautiful Rigzin Wangmo, see here.

The article now turns to two younger pop singers since the reforms (cf. Isabelle’s Western-language bibliography, §10), who have chosen exile.

Dadon
Until she defected in 1992, Dadon (b. c1968) was a major star, genuinely popular among Tibetans, in the Tibet Song-and-Dance Ensemble from 1987.

DadonBoth her parents were members of the ensemble, and from 1980 to 1985 she studied at the music department of the Central Minorities Institute in Beijing. Back in Lhasa she sang Chinese pop in karaoke bars, modeling herself on the Taiwanese crooner Deng Lijun (Teresa Teng), then highly popular in the PRC. She soon began to blend Tibetan folk melody with an “Asian pop” style. As unrest erupted in Lhasa, her lyrics discarded the old political messages for melancholic and spiritual themes. After an interlude for further vocal training in Beijing and Shanghai, she broke into the national market in 1990, bolstered by TV appearances, just as the “Tibet craze” was developing in China. Yet, working within the state system, she eschewed political messages—like alternative Chinese pop singers of the time.

As her lyrics came under increasing scrutiny, she escaped to Dharamsala in April 1992, where her style was hardly appreciated. She soon moved to the USA, again struggling to gain a footing in a niche market. As she campaigned for human rights, she appeared in the film Windhorse (Paul Wagner, 1997), based on her own story—here’s a trailer:

Isabelle summarises with typical lucidity:

Dadon’s life-story shows the imbrication of at least four issues. First, her aspirations whilst in Tibet: as she sang the first significant songs with a Tibetan flavour after the Cultural Revolution, she navigated carefully within the PRC for a modern, yet Tibetan pop style to be accepted. Second, her defection signalled the impossibility of realizing her aspirations within the PRC. Third, the difficulty of finding, or even creating, a place for her in the exile community. And fourth, her voice changes, which exemplify the search for a modern tone in Tibetan singing.

Yungchen Lhamo
By contrast with Dadon, highly popular in Tibet yet little known in the West, Yungchen Lhamo (b. c1964), “a Tibetan diva for a Western audience”, enjoyed a certain vogue on the world music circuit but is hardly known by Tibetans within the PRC.

Both were born in Lhasa and fled to exile around the same time, but Yongchen Lhamo, not having gone through the mill of PRC work-units, built her career in the West from 1995 with a style of “Buddhist devotional songs”.

From a poor religious background, she had no access to education. Escaping on foot soon after the Lhasa demonstrations in 1989, there was no clear role for her in Dharamsala, and in 1993 she moved to Australia.

Yungchen Lhamo

Cover of Yungchen Lhamo’s first Real World CD.

Yungchen Lhamo released her first album Tibetan prayer in 1995, and coming to the attention of World-Music supremo Peter Gabriel she recorded for his Real World label. Performing totally alone on stage, she undertook a busy global concert schedule. As Isabelle notes, she had to come to terms not so much with the Chinese state but with the pressures of the Western record industry. She later engaged in charitable projects.

This track comes from her second album for Real World:

Like Dadon, but in a very different style, her themes are spiritual and melancholic.

With a longing for a lost country, a constant reference to the religious way of life of the Tibetans, and the Dalai Lama as dominant icon, Yungchen Lhamo wields the three core identity markers of contemporary exile Tibetans. But her approach is personal in that she departs from the singing of religious melodies, and creates her own style […] . The melodies she composes cannot be called Tibetan, and her voice is not recognized as typical by the Tibetans themselves.

As with all the singers discussed, discussions hinge on the issue of “Tibetanness”.

Her mission contrasts with that of the Chinese pop star Dadawa, whose use of Tibetan themes aroused protest among the exile community. Yet Yungchen Lhamo too struggled to find a niche there.

All such stars wax and wane; these singers may already seem as dated as Tseten Drolma. Before venturing into the more challenging recent Tibetan pop scene, as illustrated on the High Peaks Pure Earth site, Isabelle’s article offers fine perspectives on the longer history of traditional and popular musics, and gender, in the PRC and in exile. [2]

As she summarises:

Singing is always more than just producing melodious sounds. Music is as much a vehicle for politics as it is for pleasure, as it crosses between the realms of public and private use. More than different aspects of Tibet’s singing traditions, these women represent different periods of Tibet’s recent history, and we can see how all six women form a tiled historical bridge […] . The lives of all of them also appear traversed by contradictory tensions stemming from their problematic political positioning. They have been involved willingly or unwillingly in presenting a political message, holding a public position in the community, representing their nationality, mediating between past and present, Tibet and China, and Tibet and the West, yet failing to fully be acknowledged by all Tibetans, from both Tibet and Dharamsala. All these life-stories have been caught up in the redefinition of what it means to be Tibetan, both within Tibet and in exile, and in the negotiation of a professional and cultural identity within the new social forces of contemporary Tibet. […] In their own ways, each of these six women has had to come to terms with the same question: how to be at the same time “modern” and “Tibetan”?

I do recommend this detailed, nuanced article!

[1] For the demi-monde of Lhasa society before the occupation, note Jamyang Norbu, “The Lhasa Ripper”. For the chang-ma at Dharamsala festivities, see Kiela Diehl, Echoes from Dharamsala (2002), pp.57–62, 88–94.

[2] Another popular female star in the PRC who might further thicken the plot is Han Hong (b.1971)—see e.g. Nimrod Baranovitch, Representing Tibet in the global cultural market: the case of ChineseTibetan musician Han Hong”, in Andrew Weintraub & Bell Yung (eds.), Music and cultural rights (2009); and the important study by Anna Morcom, Unity and discord: music and politics in contemporary Tibet (TIN, 2004). Click here for Han Hong’s song Heavenly road (2005); and here’s a live version from 2001 of her 1994 song Tibetan plateau:

Sexual politics

Kate Millett, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin

Miller

God’s gift to women (not).

With feminist critiques having made such progress, and becoming so well publicised, it’s worth returning to

While the whole book is brilliant, here I want to focus on her reasoned deflation of Henry Miller (1891–1980). At the time it must have seemed somewhat outspoken, but re-reading it now I realise it’s utterly reasonable.

In Part III, “The literary reflection”, Millett scrutinises D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer in turn—classic instances of dragging the icon to the trash—with a contrasting final chapter on Jean Genet.

I read Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, and the Rosy crucifixion trilogy in my early 20s (As You Do), but thankfully I first read Sexual politics soon after. Miller’s time-frame is earlier than I realised. I inadvertently tend to associate him with the heady excesses of the bebop era, but born in the 19th century (!), his classic works refer to the 1920s and 30s. In a way I’m happy to be reminded that sexual intercourse didn’t really begin in 1963.

It’s great that Millett was able to unpack Miller’s works rather soon after they had been lauded on the grounds of “sexual freedom”. As depictions of the adrenalin buzz of New York and Paris, Miller’s novels are exhilarating—as long as you can blank out the misogyny, which is a tall order. But exhilaration is gendered too. Miller may have written as a boast, but we may read his works as a confession.

Indeed, Millett opens Chapter One by unpacking a typically “colourful” passage from Sexus—“a male assertion of dominance over a weak, compliant, and rather unintelligent female”. I’m sure few of Miller’s critics would deny the allure of casual sex per se [non-gendered pronoun. * Well done—Ed.], but for him, sexuality is dirty, and can only be so.

* (It’s a sign of the changing times that the default male pronoun of the first sentence of the Preface now leaps out at us:

Before the reader is shunted through the relatively uncharted, often even hypothetical territory which lies before him…)

Millett’s main chapter on Miller begins charitably:

Certain writers are persistently misunderstood. Henry Miller is surely one of the major figures of American literature living today, yet academic pedantry still dismisses him as beneath scholarly attention.

Rather than representing the new “sexual freedom”, Millett finds him

a compendium of American sexual neuroses, and his value lies not in freeing us from such afflictions but in having had the honesty to express and dramatise them. […] What Miller did articulate was the disgust, the contempt, the hostility, the violence, and the sense of filth with which our culture, or more specifically, its masculine sensibility, surrounds sexuality. And women too, for somehow it is women upon whom this onerous burden of sexuality falls.

She notes that despite evidence that he is “fleetingly conscious” of such things, we are unlikely to be persuaded that Miller the man is any wiser than Miller the character.

Her measured introduction out of the way, Millett proceeds to demolish Miller’s misogyny, his “air of juvenile egotism” and impersonal, degrading, encounters devoid of communication:

Miller’s genuine originality consists in revealing and recording a group of related sexual attitudes which, despite their enormous prevalence and power, had never (or never so explicitly) been given literary expression before. Of course, these attitudes are no more the whole truth than chivalry, or courtly, or romantic love were—but Miller’s attitudes do constitute a kind of cultural data heretofore carefully concealed beneath our traditional sanctities.

Millett observes the “cultural homosexuality which has ruled that love, friendship, affection—all forms of companionship, emotional or intellectual—are restricted to males”. Miller at least lays bare the “game” of confirming male power. In writing against conventional morality he shows his parasitic dependency on it.

Since his mission is to inform “cunt” just how it’s ridiculed and despised in the men’s house, women perhaps owe Miller some gratitude for letting them know.

We might now regard his oeuvre as “Grab ‘em by the pussy” serialized for posh people. Boys will be boys, eh.

Millett concludes

In a great many respects Miller is avant-garde and a highly inventive artist, but his most original contribution to sexual attitudes is confined to giving expression to an ancient sentiment of contempt. […]

The impulse to see even women as human beings may occur momentarily—a fleeting urge—but the terrible needs of adolescent narcissism are much greater.

Her brilliant final paragraph reads:

While the release of such inhibited emotion, however poisonous, is beyond question advantageous, the very expression of such lavish contempt, and disgust, as Miller has unleashed, and made fashionable, can come to be an end in itself, eventually harmful, perhaps even malignant. To provide unlimited scope for masculine aggression, although it may finally bring the situation out into the open, will hardly solve the dilemma of our sexual politics. Miller does have something highly important to tell us; his virulent sexism is beyond question an honest contribution to social and psychological understanding which we can hardly afford to ignore. But to confuse this neurotic hostility, this frank abuse, with sanity, is pitiable. To confuse it with freedom were vicious, were it not so very sad.

And then came the internet… No wonder it has taken such determined efforts to reclaim the c-word.

In music, Millett’s deflation of Miller was soon to be echoed in Susan McClary’s unpacking of the gender imbalance in WAM, with Beethoven as chief witness for the prosecution.

* * *

I still think Millett’s critique is the Last Word, but inevitably the discussion has continued. Most subsequent feminists build perceptively on her themes, and I hesitate to discuss glossy contrarians such as Erica Jong, yet her discussions have a certain relevance.

The devil at large: Erica Jong on Henry Miller (1993) is a “celebration” of his work (reviewed e.g. here, and here; for a succinct exchange, see here).

Reading Miller’s ouevre whole, and with critiques of her own work in mind, Jong views him as a kindred spirit (a “disappointed romantic”, a “prophet”, “always looking for the secret of life”). While she concurs with some of Millett’s points, she takes issue with her—or at least with caricatures of her analysis.

Relevant to the current discussion is Chapter 7, “Must we burn Henry Miller? Miller and the feminist critique”. While Jong balks at “feminist zealotry”, and falls for Miller’s “ruthless honesty”, she expresses strong support for feminist agendas.

* * *

Yet, though Miller generally concealed it beneath the detritus of cynical one-night stands, he did seek enduring bonds—with women who would submit to his will, to own and degrade? A more complex picture emerges in the diaries of Anaïs Nin (1903–77), alongside her many biographies.

Nin journalNin was an articulate, talented, independent, sensitive, psychologically attuned, sensual woman. One might think that such attributes would make her safe from Miller attentions, and that of all people, Nin would see right through his narcissistic misogyny. True, she boldly put psychology into practice, engaging in carnal relationships with her analysts; and having been abandoned in childhood by her father, she embarked, confidently, on an affair with him in her 30s—which at least inspired the headline “Sins of the Nins“.

A distressingly enduring pattern emerges. Do women’s choices consist only of boring husbands or predatory men? If Miller was happy to prey on women he perceived as fucktoys, Nin had loftier expectations. In their relationships, he could have tried harder, while she may have been frustrated by the available material.

Nin’s Paris diaries for 1931–34 cover the most intense period of her relationship with Miller and his then wife June—whom she found “the most beautiful woman on earth”. Relevant passages are assembled and augmented in Henry and June (1986)—with Nin’s relationships with her husband Hugo and psychoanalyst René Allendy thickening the plot.

Left: Anaïs Nin c1920; right, June Miller, c1933.

Her journals are full of praise for Henry’s genius. She supported him in Paris, and found a mission in helping him publish—the old “muse” trap. At the same time, he appreciated the originality of her work. Their affair was intense, and communicative.

But she and June were totally enchanted by each other. Nin’s sensual, nuanced descriptions make a complete contrast to Miller’s accounts of degrading conquests.

Her “intense adoration” of Miller did indeed give way to disillusionment: she described him as “crude, egotistic, imitative, childishly irresponsible, a madman”.

Still, does all this suggest that Miller was deceiving his readers, even himself, about his need for human communication? And how might Millett have incorporated this into her account? Sadly, she only mentions Nin in a brief footnote, although the relevant first volume of her journals was published in 1966. Still, Millett might have wanted to refine her maxim that

Miller’s hunt is a primitive find, fuck, and forget.

* * *

For a younger generation pondering gender issues anew, one might hope that Millett has stood the test of time better than Miller. For the decline in Miller’s reputation, see e.g. this article from 2016.

Readers are no longer shocked by the sex; it’s the sexism they shrink from now.

For a contrary view on such figures, see this article by Hadley Freeman.

For a roundup of some posts from the gender category, see here—including Vera and Doris, and Dressing modestly.

Profane embroidery

Fuckety

Annie Taylor, Fucketyfucketyfuckfuckfuck.

A most worthy cause is the Profanity Embroidery Group, formed by Annie Taylor and Wendy Robinson in 2014, based in Whitstable (see e.g. here). Admirable as were the early suffragettes, they may not have been quite ready for this (cf. the embroidered handkerchief).

As Annie Taylor reflects in this interview,

No skills are necessary: we’ve had people join who are excellent at swearing but complete novices at stitching, who are now producing amazing work, and then fortunately (otherwise our Quilt of Profanity would have been a nightmare) we’ve had people join with brilliant stitching abilities, but lacking a profane vocabulary. I’m glad to say they are also coming along fine and their use of swearing has improved immensely.  One of my favourite reasons for someone joining was that they wanted to do something that was in no way “self improving”. […]

Some of our work is more subtle than others, but there is something rather glorious in beautifully embroidering the word Cunt. It is an old old word, but is seen as vicious and derogatory, the worst of the worst, but if you can happily use it, and stitch it, the word has lost its power to hurt you.

For more on the c-word, see here, including links to China. For further purposeful uses of profanity, see Ellie Taylor

Twat

 

Talking heads

Talking heads

What a treat to watch new versions of Alan Bennett’s disturbing Talking heads monologues on BBC iPlayer, following the first two series from 1988 and 1998.

No wonder that the project has again attracted such outstanding actors for these mesmerisingly painful vignettes of Middle England. Apart from Martin Freeman and Lucian Msamati, the roles are female; and women (who know best) say that AB has a gift for writing about their world. Their monologues are played by Imelda Staunton, Harriet Walter, Lesley Manville, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maxine Peake, Rochenda Sandall, Tamsin Greig, and Jodie Comer, with new items from Sarah Lancashire (An ordinary woman) and Monica Dolan (The shrine).

Following her wonderful scene in FleabagKristin Scott Thomas appears in The hand of god. With by far the youngest role, Jodie Comer (hot on the heels of Killing Eve) delivers Her big chance (originally played by Julie Walters), and she too is brilliant as ever.

Amidst the mass adulation, Rachel Cooke takes a contrary, virtually heretical view, suggesting that for Bennett it is forever 1978 (or perhaps 1958), the characters set in aspic—even the world of the two new scripts “as if vicars loitered on every corner”. Even more grumpy is James Delingpole in the Spectator.

Among a plethora of posts under the Bennett tag, I relish his appearance on Family guy.

 

Some recent headlines

Sisters

Irony is far from dead (and hasn’t even been resting)—as two striking recent headlines from the Guardian confirm:

Boris Johnson to warn public to “act responsibly”

Few will welcome this any more than his parenting advice (here, along with “common sense”, another stick with which to beat the plebs). Meanwhile Priti Patel still won’t move on from the fatuous, damaging clichés of “the brightest and best” and “taking back control“.

Further afield,

Critics say Russian vote that could allow Putin to rule until 2036 was rigged

Well who’d have thought it? See also “Vote for us and you’ll never have to vote again“.

And for China, a tagline from Sixth Tone (actually an interesting article):

At best, Sisters reminds viewers that just because a woman’s turned 30
doesn’t mean her life is over.

 There’s an embarras de richesse in my roundup of wacky headlines; see also the China Daily tag.

Normal people

Now that the initial frenzy over Normal people has subsided a little, I must say that I’m overwhelmed by both Sally Rooney’s book and the TV series.

For all the general critical excitement, I’m perturbed to see that that many people, of all ages, don’t get it (e.g. here). Having already read the book, I found myself watching an episode and then going back to the relevant chapters; they complement each other (for the differences, see here). So FWIW, both film and book move me immeasurably.

Daisy Edgar Jones and Paul Mescal as Marianne and Connell are astounding—as well as Sarah Greene playing Connell’s wonderful mum. The story is informed by a great playlist too, I might add.

Now, I’m not saying that Great Art is Universal!, but the Irish setting is finely observed, transcending time and place, like Romeo and Juliet… The S&M subplot (“Fifty shades of Sligo”) is precisely that—a subplot; Marianne may be damaged, but both she and Connell are vulnerable, fragile. It’s sobering to learn of Irish conservatives’ view that the “sex scenes” “promote fornication”—interviews with Daisy and Paul should dispel such medieval nonsense:

Tellingly described by Sally Rooney as “just another form of dialogue”, those scenes, with all their integrity (see e.g. here and here), are surely the most wonderful since the previously unmatched Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Don’t look now.

All this serves to underline the sheer intensity of Marianne and Connell’s bond as soulmates—their understated expressions and tiny phrases, as their relationship is constantly derailed by agonising misunderstandings. Now I can hardly bear to watch a single scene.

Verboten: GDR film, 1965

Left, Karla; right, Hands up or I’ll shoot!

My acquaintance with alternative culture behind the Iron Curtain was once largely limited to the flowering of Czech films during the Prague Spring (see also Life behind the Iron Curtain: a roundup). But now, having broached various subversive expressions under the GDR regime (e.g. here), I’m glad to learn of challenges to state orthodoxy in 1960s’ films there too, courtesy of the DEFA archive—which, along with eastgermancinema.com, has copious information on films for the whole period.

As this introduction comments,

These films were planned and legally produced with the authorisation of the German Democratic Republic, but banned shortly before or after being released. One may wonder: why didn’t this censorship occur earlier in the production process?

GDR DVDs

A DVD box set contains ten films from the period:

  • The rabbit is me (1965), made to encourage discussion of the democratisation of East German society
  • Just don’t think I’ll cry (1965): high-school senior Peter gets suspended for writing an essay that his teachers consider to be a challenge to the state
  • Spring takes time (1965): the non-party engineer Heinz Solter is suddenly arrested and accused of approving a defective pipeline
  • The lost angel (1966): August 24, 1937—a day in the life of expressionist sculptor and author Ernst Barlach
  • Karla (1965): romance about a non-conformist young school teacher and a disenchanted journalist turned fisherman.
  • When you grow up, dear Adam (1990): Adam receives a flashlight with special powers: every liar it shines on flies into the air.
  • Trace of stones (1966): a film about living and working conditions in 1960s’ GDR.
  • Hands up or I’ll shoot (1966): living in a small town, Investigator Holms is stuck looking for a stolen pet rabbit even as he dreams of cracking a big case
  • Born in ’45 (1966), telling the story of Al and Li, a married couple living in the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin, who have decided to get a divorce
  • Berlin through our eyes (1965): skilled workers confront hostile older colleagues who value experience over education.

Comments from the censors are revealing, such as:

  • spreads skepticism
  • questions young people’s socialist education and character
  • the buildings look sad, inhospitable, dirty, and unkempt [Tripadvisor review for Tory Britain?—Ed.]
  • propagates false ideals
  • provides a distorted picture of our socialist reality
  • anti-socialist, harmfully critical attitude.

Here’s a trailer for The rabbit is me:

And a clip from Born in ’45:

Here I suggested some parallels between depictions “after the event” of life under Chinese Maoism and the GDR.

 

News desk

Mash

Characteristically changing the mood after Bruno Nettl’s perspectives on Native American cultures (which you must read!):

Nish Kumar’s The Mash report (BBC) seems to work well with the current remote format, and continues to prompt entertaining harrumphs from the likes of Brigadier General Gervaise Brook-Hamster and Retired of Tunbridge Wells.

From the heady days when human interaction was still sanctioned, and when there were things called “audiences” (cf. my helpful explanation of the obscure term “pillarbox”), I’m very keen on Rachel Parris:

A lesson doggedly ignored by Priti “I’m sorry if people feel that there have been failings—”I’ll be very very clear about that [I’m a heartless cynical monster]” Patel, not to mention Dominic “Specsavers” Cummings

Here Ms Parris considers immigration (cf. Stewart Lee and the UKIPs):

For her introduction to The Haunted Pencil (Minister for the 18th Century), see here.

And the news bulletins are always delightful:

Ellie Taylor is in fine form here too:

Another drôle headline:

Plans grow to re-open the economy, so we can enjoy it one last time before Brexit

Satire is All Very Well, but we should bear in mind Peter Cook’s caveat.

On a lighter note, to complement

Bake Off Winner Discovers You Can Buy Cake From Shops

the opening collage has some gems, like

Cat Desperate To Go Outside Until Door Opened

Note also my roundup of wacky headlines.

A sporting medley: ritual and gender

After all these sacrifices (see note here), it transpires that what the plucky Brits really care about is not so much creating a fairer society, but playing golf and visiting garden centres. FFS. I give up. As Ian Rush is said to have commented about, um, living in Italy, it’s “like living in a foreign country”.

Anyway, following the recent moratorium (welcome to many, no doubt), as sport furtively reappears like a cockroach from behind the fridge, here’s a little roundup of some highlights from the sport tag—not least, connections with ritual, and with feminism.

Snooker—starting with 5’20” of inspired fluency from the great Ronnie:

Football: among many posts,

Rugby:

Tennis:

Not forgetting

Grassy Narrows: emerging from trauma

Grassy Narrows song

Among the instructive parallels that Jing Jun makes in his portrayal of trauma in a Gansu village under Maoism is the wretched fate of a First Nation community in Grassy Narrows, northwestern Ontario—as detailed harrowingly in

  • Anastasia M. Shkilnyk, A poison stronger than love: the destruction of an Ojibwa community (1985, with an introduction by Kai Erikson). [1]

Grassy Narrows cover

The ordeals of Grassy Narrows make an extreme instance of the chronic problems faced by indigenous communities in North America and elsewhere.

Anastasia Shkilnyk (1945–­2014) was herself born to a Ukrainian refugee family in a Displaced Persons Camp, going on to study at the University of Toronto. As she found during her initial stay at Grassy Narrows from 1976 to 1979, successive disasters had compounded the vulnerability of the community.

All the indications of material poverty were there—substandard housing, the absence of running water and sewage connections, poor health, mass unemployment, low income, and welfare dependency—but something more fundamental seemed amiss.

map

In Chapter 1 Shkilnyk presents a gruesome catalogue of the self-mutilating disintegration of the community since the 1960s: spree drinking, child neglect and abuse, gas-sniffing, violent death, suicide, incest, gang rape. As she reflects after arriving at Grassy Narrows:

It wasn’t just the poverty of the place, the isolation, or even the lack of a decent bed that depressed me. I had seen worse material deprivation when I was working in squatter settlements around Santiago, Chile. And I had been in worse physical surroundings while working in war-devastated Ismailia on the project for the reconstruction of the Suez Canal. What struck me about Grassy Narrows was the numbness in the human spirit. There was an indifference, a listlessness, a total passivity that I could neither understand nor seem to do anything about. I had never seen such hopelessness anywhere in the Third World.

In what she describes as a “failure to thrive”,

caught in a void between two cultures, the children in this community are learning neither the basic skills of the mainstream community nor the traditional skills of the Indian way of life. […] The young have now been disinherited from the accumulated knowledge of earlier generations; at the same time, they have been dispossessed of the physical and emotional nourishment prerequisite to cognitive development.

Until the 1960s the Ojibwa

had preserved an ethos that encompassed, among other things, a deep attachment to the land and the rhythms of nature, respect for the dignity of the person, and the independence and self-sufficiency of clan-based family groups. They lived, as they had for generations, by hunting, trapping, fishing, and gathering, now supplemented by occasional wage labour. The ebb and flow of life was reflected in their seasonal migrations between the winter trapping grounds and the summer encampment on the old reserve. Because of their relative isolation and limited contact with white society, the people managed to maintain considerable stability and continuity with the ancient patterns of Ojibwa life.

Chapter 2 outlines their traditional lifestyle and culture on the old reserve before the 1960s, noting gradual change. The common pattern of change throughout indigenous (and other) communities, over a long period since white contact, has been further exacerbated here by more recent relocation and ecological disaster.

Most challenges that the Ojibwa faced over this period can be traced directly or indirectly to white contact. Early encounters were mainly with the trading posts of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1873 Ojibwa chiefs (including, for the Grassy Narrows band, chief Sah-katch-eway) signed the important Treaty 3 with Queen Victoria.

But as white settlement expanded with the railroads, First Nation bands were vulnerable to the growing exploitation of native lands by logging and mining. Missionaries continued their work, recruiting youngsters to “residential schools” where they were to be assimilated and “civilised”.

In 1919 the global influenza pandemic struck the Ojibwa [2]—with medicine men powerless, this early sign of fatal defencelessness made them feel cursed. Shkilnyk cites at length the recollections of Maggie Land (b.1916)—while aware of the former community’s bond with the natural world, she recognised that there was no going back.

On the old reserve, rituals provided a sense of identity for the people of Grassy Narrows, such as naming ceremonies, the puberty vision quest, and the shaking tent ceremony. [3] Medicine men played a major role in regulating social conduct—including their use of malevolent magic. Yet

of all the symbolic observances practised on the old reserve just twenty or thirty years ago, only the rituals of death have meaning and continued relevance to the conditions of life on the new reserve.

Photos: Hiro Miyamatsu, late 1970s.

White society encroached gradually; but even as government measures increased from 1945, contacts remained quite limited until the relocation in 1963. The whole Ojibwa way of life—hunting, trapping, fishing, guiding—had been based on family ties, which were now torn apart. Both family and community bonds were eroded. As in other First Nation bands (only with alarming rapidity), with traditional livelihoods becoming untenable, new forms of wage labour were sporadic and unfamiliar; and as self-jurisdiction was eclipsed, the community found itself subject to government intervention in the form of welfare, dependent on external sources of life support. The role of chief became purely political. [4] With the shift from production to consumption, it was only from the 1960s that heavy drinking and violence became a serious problem. In the words of a former chief, “Alcohol was the white man’s poison, and now it’s ours.”

Shkilnyk discusses the role of the nearest town of Kenora, 60 miles southwest of Grassy Narrows. She notes that most of its early inhabitants were recent immigrants who worked on railway construction crews: Norwegians, Finns, Ukrainians, Yugoslavs, Poles, Scots, Irish, English, and Chinese (cf. Accordion crimes).

After a road connecting Kenora and the reserve was built in the late 1950s, it was on the town’s bars that Grassy Narrows people would descend for destructive bouts of spree drinking. Here too they encountered racist aggression and the full force of the white man’s law.

The Indians exchanged the intangible benefit of independence for the tangible benefits they received from the federal government (housing, schools, jobs, welfare, medical treatment). As the Indians accepted the goods and services offered to them by the government, they progressively lost their claim to being an independent people. Ultimately, they lost the ability to make decisions for themselves, at least within the context of the goods and services they accepted.

All this also gave rise to prejudice against them—ignoring

the historical evidence that it is the very geographic, legal, and economic segregation of Indian people from the mainstream society, combined with the erosion of the traditional economic base of Indian culture, that has led to their present dependence on government bureaucracies.

Isolated protests against discrimination (a civil rights march in 1964, and a more aggressive confrontation in 1974 by the Ojibwey Warriors Society) hardly changed attitudes—indeed, the 1974 incident prompted a backlash.

In Chapter 7 Shkilnyk details the transformation of a society in which “there was a remarkable degree of integration between spheres of activity that we label social, political, religious, and economic”; where “the people built a life based on hard work, subsistence, self-sufficiency, and independence”. She shows the process of government policies of “community development” and modernization: compulsory school attendance, sedentarisation, the promise of wage labour, even as trapping, hunting, and gardening were swiftly becoming untenable. As tourism became popular, guiding and commercial fishing would only provide a temporary resource. She goes on to discuss the economics of dependency, increasing social inequality, the ethics provided by the new economic system, undermining traditional Indian values—and diet:

In a span on only one generation, the Grassy Narrows people changed from being active producers of most of their own food to passive consumers of store-bought groceries. Their eating habits changed from a protein-rich diet of game and fish to a nutritionally inferior diet of imported food staples heavy in starch and sugar.

Again, this problem resembles that of affluent societies, but the change here has been abrupt. Shkilnyk describes the transformation of the role of women, “the silent victims of modernisation”.

As an elder summarised:

When the people moved to the new reserve, they became better-off in some ways. They got better houses, more cash, they were nearer to a road, they got better care by doctors. Life on the old reserve was much harder. People worked hard to eat; they were skinnier. Today, life is much easier, but why are so many people dying from alcohol?

Life is more easy now. But before … you could depend on your own people, and now you have to depend on the white man. The white man has taken over in all the basic things. Now the government people tell you what to do. We had a lot more freedom in the old days. We gave up the freedom to use the land in exchange for getting things from the white man. I say that freedom was not a good thing to trade.

Shkilnyk ends the chapter by posing two questions:

First, who really benefits from the kind of development set in motion in Indian communities by the federal government? Second, has this development led to the stated policy goal, namely, “the full, free, and nondiscriminatory participation of Indian people in Canadian society”?

Her answers are not encouraging.

What government policy has accomplished is to push the Indian people further away from participation in the productive activities of the nation than they have ever been, to separate them from the means of production embodied essentially in land and in the resources of the land, and to turn them into men and women who have neither land nor capital nor even a secure palce among those Canadians who exchange only their labour for a subsistence wage. The increase in the material standard of living on Indian reserves, therefore, must be seen not as a result of free and equal participation in Canadian society but as compensation, paid by the society, for the continued exclusion of Indian people from the productive processes of the nation. The ultimate hallmark of this kind of development is not participation but marginality.

Chapter 8 explores government policy and decision-making in the context of evolution of national policy, focusing on the decision to relocate and the physical planning of the new community. Like commune members in Maoist China, some likened the new reserve to a concentration camp. Still, Indian communities across Canada disintegrated whether or not they were relocated.

For a people already cast adrift from their moorings, the 1970 discovery of mercury poisoning in the river system, with long-term effects, was “the last nail in the coffin”—not only destroying their health but depriving them of their few remaining sources of livelihood (including guiding). As the Reed Paper Company sought to protect itself from culpability, and as political interests came to the fore, making court justice look remote, the community became even more hostile towards the white authorities—an imprint that Shkilnyk suggests may be “every bit as cruel and demoralizing as the poison in the river”. The net effect

was to further undermine the conditions for self-sufficiency, to intensify dependence on government support, and ultimately to accelerate the breakdown in community life.

Psychologically too, the disaster made people feel that “the land had somehow turned against them and become poisonous. […] The world of nature, not only the world of men, could no longer be trusted.” Despite considerable media publicity, their struggle for justice only “reinforced the Indians’ feeling of helplessness, apathy, and alienation”.

The limited assistance that was forthcoming for remedial and short-term projects was always extended in the spirit of charity; neither government wished its actions to be interpreted as an acknowledgement of legal, moral, or social obligation to redress injustice or to compensate for inflicted adversity.

Shkilnyk updates the story: by 1985 compensation was finally being paid. Yet

money alone will not solve all the social problems. The hope is that the settlement will be a catalyst in rebuilding community morale and helping individuals rediscover their own strength in repairing the damage done by years of neglect. At least now there is a chance for renewal, a foundation for a new beginning, so long delayed.

In a Postcript, she reflects on the catastrophe and its background, and points out the valiant efforts the people have made since the 1970s to cope with their problems. Yet

Today, over half the Indian adult population of Canada is dependent on welfare for subsistence. Only 20% of Indian children complete secondary school, compared to 75% nationwide. Indian housing conditions are abysmal; fewer than 40% of Indian houses have running water, for example, compared to over 90% in the country as a whole. There are more Indian children in the care of foster homes today than at any time since the 1960s; since 1962, there has also been a fivefold increase in the number of Indian children taken for adoption. Among those Indians who survive infancy, many will die violently; about 33% of all Indian deaths in Canada are due to violence. Indians in the 15 to 44 age-group meet with violent death at a rate that is five times the national average. And suicide rates among Indian people have been climbing steadily over the 1970s. Suicides now account for 35% of all Indian deaths in the 15 to 20 age-group, and 21% of all deaths in the 21 to 34 age-group. Suicide rates among Canadian Indians are six times the national average and are significantly higher than among Indians in the United States.

Unpacking the well-meaning yet misguided official notions of development and progress, she sees the Grassy Narrows case as both a unique and a generalized tragedy.

In the face of both the continuity of impacts stemming from almost a hundred years of internal colonialism and the added pressures generated by the relocation and the mercury pollution, it is a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit that the people of Grassy Narrows have managed to survive at all. For not only has their entire way of life been rendered dysfunctional, but they have been consistently been led to believe that their culture is barbaric and that they are a primitive and inferior people.

Critiques
Shkilnyk’s book is a clear and detailed exposition of a complex and traumatic subject. She was a social scientist deeply concerned for the people of Grassy Narrows; but are there any limits on what should be exposed to a wider public, when real people are trying to survive? She comments “However painful this portrait may be to a people seemingly disfigured and broken in spirit by historical circumstance, it is the price they have to pay to make us understand their case for social justice.”

Sure, to understand and remedy the problem, we have to know about it; yet conscientious as is Shkilnyk’s research, I suspect that not all will be convinced that they should still have to pay yet another price. So while her book was well received (e.g. here), other sources refrain from dwelling on all the alcohol-fuelled child abuse, of which this is an extreme instance of a common problem. Indeed, this review by David McRobert is more critical: he still finds it “a largely parasitic and partly anemic work in the tradition of liberal thought in Canada”.

In effect, what emerges from the painful passages in the book is a ringing endorsement of the ancient notion that the worst pain one can suffer is to have insight into much and power over nothing. Shkilnyk’s position throughout is truly tragic—she sees what is wrong with the community and knows how it could be better but [neither] she nor the others in government responsible for dealing with the problem seem to think that anything can be done about it. Apart from a few cryptic passages, she is unable to describe the alternative approaches that might have been  pursued by the government in resolution of the Grassy Narrows crisis. […]
In the end, one is left with the uneasy feeling that this book is too good to be true. Literally. Shkilnyk’s attempt to mass-market the pain of Grassy Narrows seems crass and one wonders what exactly the book can accomplish at this point. I hope it will be viewed as a historical treatise by the community members themselves. It is unfortunate that they have to have their personal tragedies revealed to the international community through publications of this kind in order to get the attention their horrible situation deserves.

The wider context, and the recent picture
Beyond the problems of First Nation communities (including the Inuit) and Native Americans in the USA, one thinks of ethnic minorities under modern nation-states elsewhere around the world, such as Aboriginal people in Australia and other nomadic populations (e.g. Kazakhs); the Jews and Roma; and traumas under Stalin (e.g. Figes, Applebaum), the Holocaust, and Mao (such as Tibetans and Uyghurs, and for the Han Chinese, China: commemorating trauma).

So, returning to Jing Jun, he did well to draw a parallel with Grassy Narrows in his study of a demoralised community under Maoism amidst ecological and social destruction. As he wrote:

Turning memories of suffering into a source of cultural revitalisation is an extremely difficult task. In a sensitive ethnography describing the removal of an Ojibwa community to a new, alien, and polluted reserve in Canada, Anastasia Shkilnyk reports that members of this community have a quite unified memory of what caused the destruction of their homeland. There is also a pervasive agreement that on the old reserve life was characterised by close family ties, communal support, moral principles, and traditional norms of social and sexual interactions. But such memories only serve to accentuate the agony of a deeply wounded culture, they provide scant defence against increasing rates of child abuse, alcoholism, divorce, suicide, gang rape, and murder. While this deplorable situation is related to the internal decay of the traditional social order that followed resettlement, it is exacerbated by external forces of racial hostility, bureaucratic indifference, job discrimination, cultural stereotypes, and a long history of defeats since the greater Ojibwa community’s initial encounter with Europeans. In contrast to the Jewish experience, what we see in the Ojibwa case is that collective memory and communal mourning do not suffice to turn pain into any positive energy; what remains is full-blown despair.

Of course, areas of “affluent” Western society are seriously dysfunctional too. Shkilnyk concludes by observing:

For one thing, we now know that there are communities that can become unraveled to such an extent that the people in them lose much of their sense of self-worth and well-being, sometimes even their will to survive, and begin to spin off in directions of their own and die, literally or figuratively. For another, we know that this can happen when people are subjected to fundamental change, at a rate far beyond their ability to cope, in every single aspect of their culture simultaneously. In this process of total intrusion, if they also lose the hold on their spiritual selves, their vision of the future, and their hope of regaining some measure of control over their circumstances, then life itself ceases to have meaning. In this sense, Grassy Narrows serves as a poignant example of how fragile a society can be, and how we as humans may respond to conditions of unprecedented stress by destroying ourselves.

It may well be that Grassy Narrows also represents a microcosm, greatly magnified and concentrated in time and space, of the destructive processes at work in our own society. Is it not possible that the pressures that crippled the people of Grassy Narrows are the same pressures that, much more slowly and covertly, are crippling us as well?

The struggles of society elsewhere, and of alienated youth, suggest general lessons about individual and collective trauma—the former (as Ericson comments) more readily mended than the latter. Still, in Western society the post-war rebuilding continued, largely oblivious to the sufferings of indigenous peoples like the Ojibwa. Shkilnyk’s story casts a disturbing light on the energy that we celebrate since the 1960s; and it all seems a world away from the civil rights movement, or indeed the violence and depression of the Cultural Revolution.

Recent attention to Grassy Narrows (e.g. here) focuses on mercury poisoning; but social issues continue—see e.g. this report from 2016.

Steve Fobister (1952–2018), the most respected chief in modern times, who campaigned tirelessly for his fractured community to be compensated, died of the long-term effects of mercury poisoning in 2018.

But it seems that the more recent picture may not be not altogether desolate; and if even partial recovery is possible, then that too deserves study and publicity. A more encouraging update is

  • Anna J. Willow, Strong hearts, native lands: the cultural and political landscape of Anishinaabe anti-clearcutting activism (2012).

While world music fans rightly celebrate the cultures of the Inuit, or the Australian Aborigines, or the Uyghurs, where can expressive culture possibly come into all this? We have to consider it within the context of the decimation of society.

Just one instance of the recent Ojibwa ritual tradition in north Wisconsin:

And as young people in Grassy Narrows try to make sense of their lives, it’s worth ending on a note of hope—here’s Home to me (2016):

The story now prompts me to explore Native American cultures further—starting here, moving on to the Navajo and the Ghost Dance. See also First Nations: trauma and soundscape.

 


[1] For introductions, see the Canadian Encyclopedia and wiki entries, both more discreet. The community’s own site focuses on continuing efforts to gain compensation for the ecological disaster. For a range of reports from CBC, see here; for a general introduction to the Ojibwa, here.

[2] For the vulnerability of First Nation bands during the present pandemic, see e.g. here.

[3] For some recordings of Ojibwa music, click on sidebar menu here; for Minnesota, see Michael D. McNally, Ojibwe singers: hymns, grief and a native culture in motion (2000). All this is part of the major field of studies on changing Native American musical cultures—from Frances Densmore, George Herzog, and Marius Barbeau to Bruno Nettl, Alan Merriam, David McAllester, and Charlotte Frisbie (To Name But A Few). See e.g. the New Grove dictionary of music and musicians (along with Helen Myers’ overview in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies, pp.404–18), the Garland encyclopedia of world music, and various dedicated bibliographies. Note also the Inuit: some links here.

[4] Here one may find a certain resemblance to the intrusion of the modern state into rural China since the Republican era, as the traditional moral and political leadership of village affairs was replaced by appointees answerable to the wider secular government; for Hebei, see e.g. Prasenjit Duara, here.

Noor Inayat Khan

Every day of my life I think of her. When I go for a walk, when I feel pain, I think of how much more her pain was, I think of her in chains, I think of her being beaten. When I am cold I think of her, I think of her lying in her cell with hardly any clothes. She is with me every day.

—Inayat Vilayat Khan, 2003

Noor 1

To follow my posts on Les Parisiennes and the wartime SOE, a major character in Sarah Helm’s account of the latter is Noor Inayat Khan (1914–44). Both Vera Atkins and Sarah Helm were especially moved by her tragic wartime fate; here I’d also like to explore her earlier life in Paris as heir to a tradition of Indian Sufi music, and as harpist and author.

Basu cover

I’ve been reading

  • Shrabani Basu, Spy princess: the life of Noor Inayat Khan (2006) (cf. her brief article here),

which builds on the work of Sarah Helm and Noor’s friend Jean Overton Fuller, author of the first biography in 1952 (see below).

Early life
Noor’s distinguished father Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882–1927; see here, and wiki), descended from a noble Indian family, was a Sufi mystic and musician who came to the USA in 1910 and went on to found the International Sufi movement. Inayat Khan’s own grandfather Maula Bakhsh (1833–96) had sung at an eleven-day contest in Mysore in 1860. Like Bach and Coltrane, Inayat Khan practised music in the service of God. [1] Here’s a playlist, opening with a sequence of precious recordings from 1909 (for help getting to grips with their musical features, see listings here; for my series on raga, see here):

In 1912 he performed with “The Royal Musicians of Hindustan” in Paris, where oriental culture was much in vogue (cf. Berlioz, and chinoiserie); they accompanied Mata Hari, and he met figures like Lucien Guitry, Sarah Bernhardt, Auguste Rodin, Isadora Duncan, and Claude Debussy. Meanwhile Paris audiences were also hearing the premiere of Ravel‘s Daphnis and Chloe; and the following year, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. They didn’t know how lucky they were…

Amina Begum; right, with her daughter Noor.

Inayat Khan had met the American Ora Ray Baker (1892–1949) while he was on a lecture tour in California, and they married in London in 1913; she now took the name Amina Begum. Soon after, The Royal Musicians of Hindustan were invited for a residency in Moscow; Noor was born near the Kremlin [2] on 1st January 1914.

But as the Russian revolution loomed, the family soon emigrated to London. Life was hard, but Inayat Khan would play the vina and sing for Noor daily, though he was busy founding Sufi orders around England. Noor’s brother Vilayat (see below) was born in 1916, followed by Hidayat and Khair-un-Nissa. The house in Gordon square where the family moved in 1917 was always full of visiting Sufis.

However, with Anglo-Indian tensions high, the British government was suspicious of Inayat Khan, and in 1920, when Noor was 6, the family made their home in Paris, where she spent much of her childhood in the modest yet idyllic family home of Fazal Manzil (“House of Blessing”). The children grew up in an Indian atmosphere; Noor learned to sing raga with her father whenever he was home from setting up Sufi orders abroad. At home the children mostly spoke English, only gradually becoming fluent in French too. At school they were clearly different from the local pupils: Noor, mature and serious, retained her name, while her younger sister preferred to be known as Claire.

But in 1926 Inayat Khan, already seriously ill, embarked on a pilgrimage to India, and the following year, when Noor was only 13, he died there. As her distraught mother retreated from the world, Noor took over responsibility for running the household.

Noor playing vina, and harp—from this useful introduction.

From 1931 she attended the École Normale de Musique in Paris for six years, under the supervision of Nadia Boulanger, studying harp with Henriette Renié, as well as piano and composition. Can anyone find her Prelude for harp and Elegy for harp and piano? I’d love to hear them. I wonder if she ever played the Ravel Introduction and Allegro, or the Debussy Trio—or indeed Caplet’s Masque of the Red Death, dedicated to Micheline Kahn, another harp teacher at the École.

sisters

Noor’s younger siblings were also WAM musicians: Vilayat played cello and piano, studying with Stravinsky, Hidayat the violin and piano, while Claire, also a pianist, studied with Nadia Boulanger like her sister.

jatakaFrom 1932 Noor also studied child psychology at the Sorbonne. She adopted a more European style of dress. In 1934 she visited Spain with Vilayat, meeting Pablo Casals; the following year they went to Italy, attending operas and concerts in Padua, Venice, and Milan—blissfully unaware of the people’s plight under Mussolini.

By now Noor was becoming known as an author of poetry and fiction for children, her magical style somewhat recalling that of L’enfant et les sortilèges. In 1939 she received an invitation to write Twenty Jakata tales, about the previous incarnations of the Buddha.

Upon the invasion of France in 1940 the family moved to London, with considerable difficulty. Despite their unworldly background, the family realized the necessity of combatting fascism; Vilayat joined the RAF and then the Royal Navy, working as a mine-sweeper, while Noor joined the WAAF, training as a nurse and then radio operator. She willingly reinvented herself: as her friend Jean Overton Fuller observed about her Sufi family background, “there was a lot to look up to, but a lot to get away from”.

For the past six years Noor had been in a relationship with a fellow-student at the École Normale de Musique, suffering from her family’s disapproval of his poor Turkish Jewish background. Only now that the war broke out did she separate with him. By 1943 she was engaged to a man in the War Office, who remains mysterious.

Meanwhile Noor and Vilayat were becoming sympathetic to the Indian Independence movement.

The SOE: occupied France
As Sarah Helm comments, Noor was brought up in an “intensely spiritual way”, seeming “otherworldly” to Vera Atkins and others at the SOE. While she went through the intensive training, her instructors had misgivings about her “lack of ruse”, but they were impressed by her composure, diligence, and strength. She was now known as Nora Baker, and within the SOE as Madeleine.

Vera Atkins took her to the plane in June 1943. She was the first female radio operator to be flown into occupied France; but all four agents who flew that night were doomed. The resistance group to which Nora was attached was soon exposed, and in Paris she soon found herself alone and in great danger. Both Helm and Basu go to great lengths to unravel the networks of spies and double agents.

Responsible for her plight, the SOE tried to recall her, but she refused. She was already captured by October 1943 after being betrayed. While held at Avenue Foch, and later, she made several attempts to escape. At first she was thought to have been killed at the Natzweiler camp, but eventually witnesses came forward to prove that she had been held in Pforzheim prison for ten months, her feet and hands shackled, before being transferred to Dachau on 12th September 1944 and executed the next morning—even as the tide of the war was turning. Only 26 of over 200 captured agents of the two French sections of the SOE survived.

Though the family had known of Noor’s death for some time, the news of her real fate only reached them in 1948. Her mother was especially devastated, dying soon after. Vilayat had brought her back to Paris; Noor’s harp was restored to the family home of Fazal Manzil.

Posterity
Noor was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1946 and the George Cross in 1949.

In 1952 her friend Jean Overton Fuller published a biography, Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan: Madeleine (the updated 2019 edition includes a retrospective by Vilayat Inayat Khan). Indeed, it was partly through her research that Vera Atkins began to lose control of the SOE narrative, as Sarah Helm explains. At first their relationship was affable; Vera approved of the book. But as Fuller began probing more deeply for her next book and revised her biography of Noor, she found that Vera had been editing her account.

In 1972 Hidayat premiered La monotonia in memory of his sister:

In 2012 a statue was unveiled to Noor in Gordon square—making her a neighbour of Gandhi in Tavistock square gardens. In 2014 she graced a Royal Mail stamp, and by 2020 a blue plaque was installed before her Bloomsbury home. She features in Cathy Newman’s 2018 book Bloody brilliant women.

Following early movies about Odette Sansom and Violette Szabo, Noor’s story (on the lines of “Exotic princess sacrifices her life for freedom”) now makes an irresistible subject for a film maker (see here); I await it with some trepidation.

Noor was particularly close to her remarkable brother Vilayat Inayat Khan (1916–2004; see here, and wiki), who followed in his father’s footsteps to become a leading Sufi mystic.

Vilayat

As reports continued to emerge after the war, he went to great lengths to uncover the truth about his sister’s end. Sarah Helm discussed this gradual process in detail in her second meeting with Vilayat at Fazal Manzil (A life in secrets, pp.417–24). Ever grieving for Noor, he recalls his earlier encounters with Vera Atkins: “I think she looked at me and saw the long beard and the clothes. I think she thought, ‘He used to be such a dashing naval officer and now look at him—a phoney guru.’ ” He found Vera cold-blooded.

In 1996, at the age of 80, Vilayat commemorated Noor by conducting Bach’s B minor mass at Dachau (film here; see also this portrait, from 45.07).

How I wonder what would have become of Noor if she had survived the war. She might have continued developing her fiction, poetry, music, and Sufism; her brother Hidayat was convinced that she would have joined the cause for Indian Independence; perhaps, like Vera Brittain, she would have become involved in the international peace movement; and she hoped to have “lots of children”.

* * *

However thoroughly the SOE agents were trained before their missions into occupied France, they soon found themselves caught up in a nightmare. While Noor’s fate seems all the more distressing since she was spiritual, talented, and turned out to be most courageous, that’s not quite the point. While media attention is naturally drawn to the fate of such a “spiritual princess”, we should value all life, commemorating all the countless other innocent, ordinary victims, unable to display heroism, who also met terrible fates. As Timothy Snyder reminds us, terrible as the camps were, only a minority of victims died there: men, women, and children, brutally executed en masse in the Bloodlands by the Einsatzgruppen or the NKVD, remain largely uncommemorated.

Still, the story of Noor Inayat Khan is unbearably moving.


[1] Indeed, Coltrane’s fellow jazzman Yusef Lateef introduced him to Inayat Khan’s book The mysticism and sound of music (first published in 1921). I knew nothing of Inayat Khan or his family when in 1978 a mystically-inclined fellow-violinist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave me a copy of the book—during the transition from Boulez to Rozhdestvensky; now I found the connection most satisfying. Indeed, had Noor survived, in 1978 she would still have been younger than I am now.

[2] Not quite in the Kremlin, or even in a monastery near the Kremlin, as you may read online!

A life in secrets: Vera Atkins and the SOE

SOE

Pursuing the harrowing themes of Nazism, concentration camps, and memory, [1] I’ve been most impressed by

  • Sarah Helm, A life in secrets: the story of Vera Atkins and the lost agents of SOE (2005)

—just as brilliant and distressing as her later book on Ravensbrück.

Apart from the story of the SOE itself, with many mysteries surrounding the life of Vera Atkins (1908–2000) (the wiki article, using Helm’s research, makes a rather fine introduction), the book is also a psychological portrait of a most inscrutable woman. The story may be divided into three main periods: the murky last two years of the war itself; Vera’s efforts in the immediate post-war period to unearth the fates of the victims; and then the continuing search for the truth, still ongoing. A fourth topic, Vera’s early years before she joined the SOE, is just as enigmatic

Utterly compelling, like Philippe Sands’ A Nazi legacy and The Ratline, Helm’s painstaking research presents the complexities as a detective story, with constant twists and revelations as she delves ever deeper. Just as Vera was determined to uncover the fates of those she had sent to their death, Helm is no less tireless, tracking down survivors, relatives, and witnesses, unraveling scant clues in notes and postcards, amidst continuing official obfuscation.

In 1941, amidst the panic caused by Hitler’s invasion of west Europe, Vera was invited to join the F (French) section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), formed in order to organize the resistance in Nazi-occupied territories.

Romanian, and Jewish, by birth, she had come to live in England in the 1930s, where she soon came to sound, and look, quintessentially English. She never worked in the field, but masterminded the dropping of over 400 secret agents into France—among whom she identified particularly with the women agents, who were usually trained as couriers and wireless operators. The British authorities were resistant to the idea of employing women in such dangerous clandestine roles behind enemy lines, yet it was clear that they could often infiltrate more effectively than men.

Even as the D-Day landings and the invasion of Italy were opening up western Europe to the Allies, most of the resistance groups which the SOE agents joined were being infiltrated and rounded up by the Germans.

Though an inner circle in the British government had been aware of a network of German concentration camps since early in the war, it was only towards the end of 1944 that Vera learned of the camp at Ravensbrück, where several of her agents were to be murdered. Gradually the names of more camps such as Buchenwald began to surface, though their true horrors were unimaginable until the liberation in 1945. However tense the “normal world” of espionage in Nazi-occupied France had been, the arbitary brutality of the camps came as a hellish shock for those deported there.

It was now that Vera went to great lengths—largely as a private initiative—to discover the fates of her agents and track down the Germans who had captured, tortured, and murdered them. The assumption that women in war would receive better treatment than men proved naive; within Britain too the status of the female agents remained anomalous. After the SOE was closed down in 1946, it was intended that the files would remain secret indefinitely.

Among many sites that Vera visited soon after the war in search of clues was Avenue Foch, notorious Gestapo headquarters in Paris.

Romania

At this point, keeping us in suspense in the best tradition of thriller writers, Helm breaks off to explore Vera’s early life in Romania, whose high society (bridge, tennis, picnics, dances) recalls Patrick Leigh Fermor’s romantic explorations of the region. Seeking clues in Vera’s childhood home in northern Bukovina (now in Ukraine—cf. Anne Applebaum), Helm manages to unearth memories from people whom the Communist era had taught to forget. She learns of a wartime massacre that turns out to have been committed not by the Germans but by Romanian fascists. Moving on to Bucharest, as Vera had done, she discovers the increasing vulnerability of Vera’s family. By this time Vera would already have come into contact with the world of espionage.

And then, in October 1937, she made her home in London—where, still a Romanian citizen, she soon gained an Alien Registration Certificate. And, somehow, in March 1941 she was recruited to the SOE. In 1944 her second application for naturalization as a British citizen was successful.

Helm now resumes the story of Vera’s searches in devastated post-war Germany. She follows up leads to Natzweiler in Alsace, the only German concentration camp on French soil, where several of Vera’s female agents seemed to have been killed in 1944.

SOE

Some of the SOE female agents.

Vera took part in the Natzweiler trial of 1946, and in November she was asked to join the prosecution team at the Ravensbrück trial. Among her agents were Odette Sansom—one of very few who managed to escape from Ravensbrück—and Violette Szabo, who was murdered there in 1945. Vera also followed the Dachau and Sachsenhausen trials closely.

NoorClearly, both Vera Atkins and Sarah Helm were especially moved by the tragic fate of Noor Inayat Khan—to whom I devote a separate tribute. In November 1946 Vera received a letter from a survivor that provided convincing evidence that Noor (known as Nora) had been in prison in Pforzheim in September 1944, and therefore could not have been murdered in Natzweiler three months earlier. Through a further series of interviews (whose reliability both Vera and Holm constantly reassess) it eventually transpires that Nora had been held in Pforzheim for ten months, her hands and feet shackled, before being transferred to Dachau on 12th September 1944 and executed the following morning.

Indefatigable as Vera was in tracing these stories, she went to great lengths to ensure that no-one ever knew she was wrong; even while seeking the truth, she was trying to obscure aspects of it for posterity. And all the time that she was trying to unravel the French spy networks, she was ensnared in a murky male establishment which had its own secrets.

Amidst media publicity, Vera remained busy after returning to England. But she now began to lose control over the story. By the 1950s, as the Cold War escalated, conspiracy theories emerged, and Vera was ever anxious that her status as an alien until 1944 might be exposed.

Late in the book Holm reveals another surprise when she learns of two “Belgian ladies” who attended Vera’s funeral in 2000. They provide a tantalising clue to Vera’s activities in the lacuna of the early war years before she joined the SOE—helping us to understand Vera’s need to keep her past concealed.

When Helm learns that Vera received another letter from Canada in 1975 corroborating Noor’s fate in Dachau, she is prompted to talk again with Noor’s brother Vilayat Inayat Khan. Still distraught, Vilayat is nonetheless instructive and perceptive—although subscribing to the conspiracy theories.

* * *

Brilliantly written, Helm’s study is admirably balanced. Vera’s inexperienced young agents had been warned that their chances of survival were about evens; indeed, despite the prompt disruption of resistance networks, around three in four survived, and it was largely thanks to Vera’s great sense of responsibility that those who did lose their lives were commemorated. Yet her responses to the survivors and families of the dead seem uncomfortable. Helm shows how Vera’s coldness and self-interest served to suppress her own emotion and sense of guilt; and she needed to keep aspects of her own story concealed.

All these stories, largely kept buried for over half a century by traumatised, now elderly people around the world…

[1] See under Europe: cultures and politics, and Life behind the Iron Curtain—notably SachsenhausenLes ParisiennesTrauma: music, art, objectsSachsenhausenThe psychology of evil, and Forgotten victims. All this might also lead on to famine, trauma, and memory in Maoist China: some posts are collected here.

Script to an iconic head-butt

headbutt

Since I mentioned Zidane’s iconic head-butt in the 2006 World Cup Final—one of the supreme sacrifices in the cause of performance art—further footage has come to light enabling us to reconstruct one side of the, um, conversations leading up to it [Yeah right—Ed.].

The angle of the grainy amateur video (filmed on one of those new-fangled contraptions that I believe are known as “smartphones”) only allows us to see Zidane’s own reactions to Materazzi’s foul-mouthed torrents of abuse. I hereby translate them, reconstructed with the help of a dedicated team of lip–readers:

Funny you should say that, Marco baby, but I Think You’ll Find that my mother is in fact somewhat conservative in the range of her social engagements. Please allow me to suggest that you must be mistaking her for someone else—might a trip to Specsaveurs be in order? I do also note that you seem to confuse my legs for the ball.

[…]

And as to my sister (and again, I’m not sure this is strictly relevant to the matter at hand)—well, Sir, I think you will concur with me that it ill behoves us to cast judgement on the explorations of young people as they negotiate the rules of social interaction of this complex world in which we find ourselves. Doubtless you are au fait with the ouevre of my esteemed compatriot Simone de Beauvoir—indeed, I believe your own country has some fine discussion groups on gender issues. Perhaps I might remind you that the behaviour of men might also be subject to such scrutiny—with their own all-too-human foibles, they cannot always be renowned as bastions of moral probity.

Anyway, With All Due Respect, I suppose we really should tear ourselves away for a while, however reluctantly, in order to display our athletic prowess in this Beautiful Game of ours for the benefit of the assembled multitudes. It’s been absolutely super chatting with you, little Marco—I must say how much I enjoy our little tête-a-têtes

BAM*@*@*

 

See also The c-word. For an off-pitch bust-up, and a brilliant headline, click here; for Daoist football, and men moving the goalposts, here. For more on women’s football, see here.

 

 

 

Fassbinder’s bitter tears

Bitter tears

Tears feature in several of my posts, such as the Evangelist in the Bach Passions, Nina Hagen’s Naturtränethe Uyghur ashiq, and Yesterday (cf. the traumas expressed in flamenco cante jondo; see also What is serious music?!).

Yet another of those great arthouse films that captivated me in my youth (even if I could hardly have understood it) is The bitter tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972). Here’s a trailer:

With an all-female cast led by Margit Carstensen and Hanna Schygulla, the atmosphere is unrelentingly claustrophobic. The soundtrack includes the Walker Brothers, Jo Green Guiseppe Verdi, and The Platters—here’s the Smoke gets in your eyes scene:

While we’re on The Platters, here’s the wonderful Only you (1955)—I’m not sure how deliberate this vignette of the diners was in laying bare the hierarchical racial structure of American society:

And I can never resist the theremin:

Often described as a successor to Fassbinder is Pedro Almodóvar. And for a bonus, almost as perfect in its simplicity as Härlig Är Jorden is Orlando Gibbons’ Drop, drop slow tears (1623):

How to mangle, and relish, words

Windsors

For a fruitful way of spending your time under isolation, The Windsors (Channel 4, three series now available) has much to delight in—not least linguistically.

The entire cast is brilliant. Charles (Harry Enfield) and Wills (Hugh Skinner, gormlessly idealistic to follow his cameo as feckless Will in W1A) have great fun with their posh accents and mannerisms; but it’s the personas, and voices, of Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie (Ellie White and Celeste Dring, wonderful) that I find most fascinating (or rather fascinatoring).

Along with their spectacular vapidity, their facial expressions and body language contributing to the effect, they both mangle and relish their vacuous words, constantly finding new ways of distorting vowel sounds—and even lavishing their regal attention upon the last word of a sentence, managing to elongate final consonants.* So just as you think the sentence is fizzling out with its usual innocuous ending, there’s a whole concentration of extra input. It’s like a VAR replay, slowing up even more to show if the ball really crossed the line.

Celeste Dring was inspired by Made in Chelsea—indeed, her very name surely qualifies her for the role. At least they go easy on the whole AQI uptalk thing???, though it is well suited to the Sloaney style (“I’m like, hellooooo?”).

A taster (“I think a job is where you have to go into a building, or something…”):

In their attention to enunciating vowels and consonants I detect a progression from series 1 to series 3. Good start-up words to practise include “now”, “house”, “years”, “money”, “water”.

The princesses deserve an award for elocution, if perhaps not for advancing the cause of women.

 

* BTW, the extensive stammering tag on this blog is worth consulting. One feature of speech impediments is that we (that’s an inclusive “we”—disfluencies of all kinds may afflict royalty and their loyal, servile subjects alike) tend to stammer on initial consonants: it’s getting going that’s the problem. One technique in “prolonged speech” therapy, a means of desensitisation, is to elongate the consonants, smoothly (easier for ssssustainable nasals and fricatives, whereas p-p-p-plosives have to be repeated). Now the fragrant princesses have got me wondering if it might be fair to give the neglected final consonants a chance too.

The struggle against Mussolini

Rossellis

Amelia with her sons Carlo r(ight) and Nello Rosselli.

As a necessary reminder that Italy is more than gorgeous paintings and picturesque piazzas, I’ve been reading

Moorehead

  • Caroline Moorehead, A bold and dangerous family: the Rossellis and the fight against Mussolini (2017).

The book is framed by crucial murders: of Giacomo Matteotti in 1924, and of the brothers Carlo and Nello Rosselli in 1937.

The rise of fascism in Italy is amply studied by scholars such as Richard Bosworth. Yet the focused, personal angle of biography makes an engaging perspective on the political upheavals of the 20th century—as we find for China (e.g. here; see also under Cultural Revolutions, including my work on the Li family Daoists).

The present physical and mental landscape of Europe is shaped by the events of the past century (for fascism—Italy 1922–45, Portugal 1933–74, Germany 1933–45, Spain 1939–75—see this wiki article). I’ve outlined the rise of fascism in Spain and Portugal in the context of their singing cultures. And as in China, it can be tempting to retreat into nostalgia for early cultural grandeur.

Amelia: the early years
While the fate of the brothers is the main story of the book, their lives shouldn’t overshadow that of their mother, Amelia Pincherle Rosselli (1870­–1954), Jewish feminist, playwright, and translator.

Reminding us that Italy was only unified in 1870, Moorehead evokes Amelia’s early life in Venice; alongside its splendour, she notes its decaying, sinister feel (D.H. Lawrence: “abhorrent, green, slippery”). She was excited by the launch of the first vaporetto in 1881. Her father died when she was 14, whereupon she moved to Rome. She came to share the ideals of Giuseppe Mazzini, a family friend who spent much of his exile in London. His

patriotism, his hatred of xenophobia and imperialism, his honesty and moral clarity, were all crucial to the Rossellis’ view of themselves and the world they lived in.

Amelia young

Amelia at the time of her marriage.

After her wedding in 1892, the couple took a honeymoon of nearly three months, visiting Naples, Nice, Monte Carlo, Spain, Portugal, North Africa, France, and England. In Vienna Amelia became more politicised, absorbing feminist ideas; becoming multi-lingual, she soon gained a reputation for her challenging plays. After returning to Rome, she gave birth to three sons. But as the couple grew apart, Amelia took them off to live in Florence in 1903, a rather benign separation. There, as Moorehead notes with perspective on modern architectural vandalism, in the last fifteen years alone,

one of the most famous city centres in the world had been stripped down—26 old streets destroyed, along with 40 piazzas—in the name of modernity and hygiene.

Florence (also with a lively expat English community) now made a lively venue for Amelia’s creative talents. Her plays in Venetian dialect were well received. She took part in the evolving feminist movement. Politics played a growing role; as anarchists fostered strikes among the many poor city-dwellers, later battle lines were drawn between reformers and reactionaries. Gaetano Salvemini (1873–1957), an inspiration for the Rossellis, was among the most long-lived anti-fascist historians.

While thinkers were keen to free Italy from the passatismo cult of the past, some futurists also extolled war, like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti; it was important, he wrote, to liberate Italy from

its smelly gangrene of professors, archeologists, Ciceroni and antiquarians. We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards. […] We will glorify war, the world’s only hygiene […] and scorn women.

Hmm—just when it was going so well…

Amidst the cataclysm of World War One (Moorhead notes that as many as half of the Italian soldiers were illiterate), the death of Amelia’s oldest son Aldo in the Dolomites was devastating.*

The rise of Mussolini, and the resistance
The unhealed scars of hatred from the war led to the rise of Mussolini. Major strikes of workers from 1920 to 1922 were countered by “punitive expeditions” against “subversives” by fascist squadristi, egged on by the police, army, and judiciary.

Carlo became part of a committed anti-fascist circle that included Filipo Turati, Giacomo Matteotti, and the young Piero Gobetti. Through Salvemini he met the Englishwoman Marion Cave, who would become his wife. In 1923, after a trip to Paris, he got to know the Italian community in London, busy with its own political tensions.

The first Italians, pedlars, organ-grinders, and jugglers had arrived in London early in the 18th century, and settled in Clerkenwell, turning its narrow, modest streets into a little Italy, where few of the women spoke English. England had been welcoming to these exiles, as it was to the artisans, barbers, asphalters, carpenters, tool-makers, cooks, and ice-cream makers who travelled up through France and across the Channel all through the 19th century. Arriving in Clerkenwell, they felt at home among the flowering window boxes and the sheets hanging from the windows. Some sold ice from the back of a cart. Others opened boarding houses. Pasta was made at home, then hung from the washing line to dry.**

Among the more affluent Italian community in London many were sympathetic to the fascist cause, including groups like the splendidly-named Ice Cream and Temperance Refreshment Federation. But others lampooned the fascists.

After taking part in a Fabian gathering in genteel Hindhead, Carlo visited Birmingham and the Midlands, “the real England, smoky, dirty, industrial, ugly, productive”—though he found no redeeming features in English food of whatever social level.

After a brief period of ambivalence towards women’s rights, by 1923 Mussolini went on the attack against feminism. Soon

magazine articles showed pictures of comely peasant women in national dress. And sturdy peasant men “mirthful”, yet “sober in their habits”, enjoying “health” and “praiseworthy” pastimes. Private dance halls were closed “for reasons of morality”. People were urged to become lean, willowy, sinewy. “I have no pity,” declared Mussolini, “for the fat”. The new Italian was to be “Herculean”, potent, granite-like, made of steel.

Italian youth were indoctrinated in the Balilla movement (not to be confused with the Barilla pasta company, latterly unlikely sponsors of the wonderful Coco Gauff). Mussolini sent a mission to England to sudy Baden Powell’s Boy Scouts.

Matteotti

The last photo of Matteotti (centre), shortly before his murder.

The murder of Matteotti in 1924 was a decisive moment, shocking the younger dissidents into political action. It was now clear that Mussolini could not be defeated by legal means.

As repression intensified in Italy, Carlo visited London again to observe guild socialism and the new Labour government. Back in Florence, fascist squadri were ever more active. In Monteleone a sculpture was erected of a Madonna and child brandishing a club, La Madonna del manganello. Salvemini was forced into exile.

Confino
After managing to help Turati flee to Paris, Carlo was thrown into prison. Though the sentencing of the defendants to a mere ten months at the “trial of the professors” in 1927 seemed like some kind of victory against fascism, Mussolini still sent them off for five years’ confino on a succession of remote island penal colonies. Meanwhile Nello married Maria Todesco; but he too was soon sentenced to confino.

Banishment to penal colonies was a common method of dealing with opponents of the fascist regimes in Europe (for Portugal, see here; cf. The first gulag), and had a long history as far back as ancient Rome. As elsewhere, in recent years these islands—Ustica, Favignana, Lipari, Ponza, Pantelleria, Lampedusa, Le Tremiti—have become tourist destinations, their painful histories often ignored. In recent years they have also become staging posts for desperate migrants on the route to Europe.

Though conditions were spartan, the islands had a certain rustic charm, and compared to many other such camps conditions were relatively benign. Those with sufficient funds were able to find their own dwellings; they received basic supplies from relatives, and educated themselves—and the locals. The Rossellis’ wives and children, and Amelia, were permitted to join them. Early in 1928, Nello was released from Ustica, though he remained under surveillance.

Meanwhile Carlo was on Lipari. Again the confinati kept busy, selling doughnuts, organizing deliveries of Parmesan, giving talks on Dante.

Left: Nello’s house on Ustica, with a crowd of confinati.
Right: Carlo, with Nitti and Lussu, escaping from Lipari on their way to freedom.

Fleeing from such islands was considered impossible; yet in 1929, after several attempts, Carlo managed to escape with two other confinati by boat to Tunisia, eventually reaching Paris, where he joined a lively community of anti-facist exiles; soon Marion and their young children arrived. Nello was soon returned to Ustica before being moved on to Ponza, but he was released again by November.

The struggle continues
Though Mussolini’s network of spies was active in Paris, Carlo and his comrades still managed to stage demonstrations in Italy against fascist power, dropping leaflets by plane over Milan. Such resistance may seem largely ineffectual, but it was significant.

In 1930 Nello spent time in England, meeting up with Salvemini and English supporters of the cause. Amelia joined him. Her nephew Alberto Moravia also arrived; though he was now fêted for his novel Gli indifferenti, Amelia and Nello were disturbed by his cool cynicism. Stopping off in Paris on his way back to Italy, Moravia met up with Carlo, who asked him to post a letter in Rome for an anarchist friend, which he did reluctantly.

This passage may sound familiar:

The Italians were fed inconsistencies, falsehoods, contradictions, differing interpretations, all designed to mystify and confuse, many of it [sic] couched in stentorian, martial tones over the radio. It was forbidden to mention failures.

As the indoctrination of youth continued, we can imagine Amelia’s reaction:

As for girls, who had to be protected from the “unnatural desires of English suffragettes” and the frivolity and worldliness of “French coquettes”, they were made to dance, garden, iron, and knit, and given “doll drills”, in which they were taught how to hold babies the correct way. When, in the early summer of 1928, thousands of girls between the ages of 16 and 18 were brought to Rome for the first gymnastic-athletic competition, they were told to discipline their muscles and take part in rifle practice, while at the same time to study “good mothering”, in order to become “neither feeble… nor gloomy”. (Pope Pius XI protested about the rifles: if girls raised their arms, it should “be always and only in prayer and charitable actions”.)

Marinetti continued to propound his wild vision: he

wanted to “fascistise” all culture, do away with classical architecture and fill Italy’s squares with electric trams and overhead wires. He wanted to industrialise Venice and ban everything foreign—films, food, orchestras, and even languages—within “our virile, proud, dynamic pensinula”.

Being antipassatista involved being anti-pasta:

And since the new man had to be futuristic inside as well as out, he launched a campaign against pasta, saying that it had made Italians gross, lazy, complacent, and stupid, and led to pessimism and prostitution. “Until now men have fed themselves like ants, rats, cats, and oxen,” he declared in an article on Futuristic cooking. The new man would do better to eat black olives, fennel hearts, and kumquats, and as he ate, stroke sandpaper and velvet, enjoying the contrast in taste and texture, while a waiter sprayed carnation-scented water on to the back of his neck and from the kitchen were relayed the roars of aeroplane motors. At the Holy Palate, his proposed Futuristic restaurant in Turin, diners would be given a boiled chicken accompanied by ball bearings in whipped cream, served by a “woman of the future”, bald and wearing spectacles. Compared to the remorseless severity and humourlessness of most fascist dictators, Marinetti’s crazy fantasies had a certain innocent charm.

Though Marinetti’s vision may have had little long-term impact, Mussolini did indeed wage war on pasta. His remark to Bocchini, head of his secret police, has a more contemporary ring:

We want to create a kind of magical eye which keeps Italians under control and can at any moment provide me with a complete, up-to-date picture of everything being said and done in the whole of Italy. Men … with the craftiness of a fox and the speed of a serpent, they need to learn the difficult art of provocation, how to insinuate themselves into a crowd, how to fit into every situation and every social circle.

In Florence

a “moral cleansing” was launched, with campaigns against swearing, pornography, immoral plays, and indecent fashions. “Eroticism” was done away with, wherever it occurred. Girls were enjoined not to dance the Charleston, and to wear thick stockings and blouses with long sleeves. Dance halls were closed down. There were calls to ostracise “Northern habits”, such as Christmas trees.

Amelia resigned from the Lyceum, once a lively forum for ideas.

The anti-fascists continued their work. In October 1931 leaflets were dropped over Rome. But the secret police were ever-vigilant.

Turati, whom Carlo described as the moral leader of Italy, died in Paris in 1932. With the aid of Sylvia Pankhurst (but not the British government), Carlo attempted to help Matteotti’s widow leave Italy for Paris.

After Hitler came to power in Germany, he came to Venice in 1934 to meet Mussolini for the first time—neither was enamoured.

In 1935 the remaining members of the anti-fascist network in Turin were arrested—including Carlo Levi, whose months of exile in a southern village prompted him to write Christ stopped at Eboli.

Full of bellicose imperial ambitions, Mussolini launched a brutal campaign in Abyssinia. The reproaches of the British government prompted another tirade from the ever-reliable Martinetti, decrying British snobismo, alcoholism, degeneracy, lack of genius, and above all their “sexual abnormalities”.

Carlo was now recognized as leader of the Paris exiles, and, for the spies watching him, the main threat. In Italy, Moravia had just published Le ambizioni sbagliate, but he rebuffed Carlo’s attempt to recruit him to the cause.

Spain, and the assassination
In 1936 the Spanish civil war broke out, with Franco supported by Mussolini. As the anti-fascists sought to redeem their past failures, Carlo set off for the front with a band of volunteers. But with the resistance soon riven by dissent, Carlo returned to Paris in January 1937. That year too, Antonio Gramsci, leader of the Italian Communist Party, died after eleven years in prison.

In Florence anti-semitism was ever more flagrant. Just as a cell of French Cagoulards, with the blessing of Mussolini, was plotting to have Carlo eliminated, Nello, fatefully, resolved to meet his brother in Normandy. In June 1937, after a happy reunion, they were ambushed and murdered as they drove through the woods—Carlo was the target, Nello an unfortunate collateral victim.

The truth emerged only gradually; Pablo Picasso and André Breton were among a group of intellectuals who wrote that if the death of Matteotti had signalled the death of liberty in Italy, that of the Rosselli brothers has signed its death warrant in the whole of Europe.

From Alberto Moravia, Amelia’s much loved nephew, there was total silence. No telephone calls, no letters, no flowers. She did not take it well.

Amelia, broken, left Italy with Maria to Switzerland; soon Marion joined them. Seeking wider horizons, in 1939 they moved to an English village. In 1940 the Germans invaded France; the family now felt it wise to emigrate again to the USA. In New York too, politics were divisive. They met up with like-minded exiles, including the senior Salvemini, who had taken up a teaching post at Harvard in 1934 after going into exile in Paris in 1925.

In a household of women, the matriarch Amelia was now in her seventies; more than either of her daughters-in-law, she approached the New World with curiosity and openness.

Mussolini was ousted from power in the summer of 1943 before he was executed in April 1945. From afar, the Rossellis learned of the liberation of Florence and Rome. Trials were now held for the murders of Carlo and Nello. The family returned to Italy in June 1946, learning how their friends and acquaintances had collaborated with the fascists. In 1951 the bodies of Carlo and Nello were moved from Père Lachaise cemetery to Florence.

Moravia
In 1945 Alberto Moravia had at last written to his aunt Amelia trying to explain his inability at the time, under surveillance, to express his condolences for the murder of Carlo and Nello; but she considered him to have acted “out of opportunism, or, at its most charitable, out of weakness”.

Moravia (1907–90) comes poorly out of this whole story. His novel The conformist (1951), which Bertolucci made into a wonderful film (see this post), reads as a telling denunciation of fascism, and is based on the lives and deaths of the Rossellis. The story of Marcello, the damaged protagonist falling prey to the fascist cause in his vain search for “normality”, contrasts with the principled, life-affirming exiles in Paris; his betrayal of Professor Quadri leads to the horrifying assassination of him and his wife in the woods. Yet Moravia remained distant from the Rosselli family. Was his novel a plea for absolution? Of course, not everyone could be as brave as the Rossellis: at the time, and for many years to come, people had to make uncomfortable moral choices throughout Europe (e.g. the GDR), Russia, and China.

Conformist

From the film The conformist.

Carlo’s widow Marion died in 1949, and “the Rosselli heroes left sad legacies of depression and troubled minds”. Amelia, ever strong, died at the age of 84 on Boxing Day 1954. Melina, daughter of Carlo and Marion, became a successful poet, but committed suicide in 1996 on the anniversary of the death of Sylvia Plath, whose work she had translated.

* * *

As this review notes, Moorehead makes use of contrasting sources: not only the family archive of letters, shot through with love and shared political passions, but also the huge stash of documents, inspired by suspicion and hostility, from the network of spies who documented their every move.

Now I look forward to reading her account of the resistance around Turin, A house in the mountains: the women who liberated Italy from fascism (2019). And then onto all the murky politics of later Italian politics, and the continuing threat of fascism.

Why didn’t I know, or care, about all this through my youth? Alas, my interests were so abstruse. It’s also a world away from the concerns of the Burlesque-only generation; yet the scars remain, and as fascism turns out not to have been erased, it seems ever more relevant. Like Neil MacGregor, I also wonder,

What would we have done?

* In England such trauma was to be movingly evoked by Vera Brittain, who lost her brother Edward in the same region.

** For a fascinating account of Italian folk musicians in England playing zampogna bagpipes and other folk instruments, see here. The zampogna was still heard in 1960s’ New York. Moorehead might also have mentioned more reputable early Italian migrants to England like performers of WAM.

For Sama

Sama

Following on from Soviet lives at war, just in case you haven’t yet watched Waad al-Kateab’s moving 2019 documentary For Sama, then you must.

During the siege of Aleppo, Channel 4 regularly featured reports by both Waad and her doctor husband Hamza from the makeshift hospital where he received casualties of the constant bombings. For Waad, filming served as a means of both survival and resistance.

family

Dealing with a vast amount of footage, the editors’ eventual decision to structure the story through baby Sama was a fine discovery, “moving between dark and light, with Sama as their—and our—lifeline”.

Sama, will you remember Aleppo? Will you blame me for staying here? Or blame me for leaving now?

Amidst all the carnage, at their wedding they dance to Crazy. Their friends Afraa and Salem, and their children, are full of resilience and humour. Waad and Hamza question their resolve not only to bring Sama into the world but, after a brief visit to Turkey, to bring her back with them to Aleppo, ever more dangerous as the regime’s grip tightened.

Among all the media coverage, this is good, as well as this Channel 4 interview:

Note also their project Action for Sama.

Amidst such suffering, expressive culture may seem like a dream, but what will become of the fabled musical traditions of Aleppo?

More recently Channel 4 has broadcast a series of reports from beleaguered Idlib—and here’s an article by Waad al-Kateab on the desperate situation there.

See also Reviving culture: the Yazidis.

Soviet lives at war

Svetlana Alexievich and the struggle over memory

in hiding

Continuing my belated education in Soviet lives, always bearing in mind parallels with modern Chinese society, I’ve begun reading the remarkable oral history projects of Svetlana Alexievich (b.1948), winner of the Nobel prize in 2015 (see e.g. this NYT review), starting with

  • The unwomanly face of war (1983, English translation 2017) (review here) and
  • Last witnesses: unchildlike stories (1985, English translation 2019) (review here).

Such memoirs should be read in conjunction with historical accounts such as Timothy Snyder’s The bloodlands. And they are just the kind of memories utilised by Orlando Figes in The Whisperers and documented on his website. For a roundup of posts on life behind the Iron Curtain, see here.

A genuine sense of collective idealism, so difficult for the Soviet state to instil through all the tribulations of forced collectivisation, famine, show trials, and gulags, only came much later with the Great Patriotic War unleashed by the 1941 Nazi invasion. But after the Victory this patriotic pride was soon followed by renewed disillusion. For the People’s Republic of China after 1949, conversely, the national myth fed on the whole process of the revolution, of which the wartime resistance against Japan was but one element. And then, as I observed in Lives in Stalin’s Russia,

Whereas the 1989 Soviet “liberation” occurred after over seventy years of repression, in China “reform and opening” not only happened earlier, following the collapse of Maoism in the late 1970s, but came after a mere thirty years of state repression. Both Russia and China suffered grievously under invasion and warfare; and for both, the hard-earned victory came to form a cornerstone of the national image. But whereas in China the war set the scene for the Communist takeover and the people finally “standing up”, in Russia it made an interlude within a system in which repression was already deeply entrenched; it seemed to offer hopes for reform, which were soon thwarted. In China too the lid on popular expression of trauma remained quite tightly sealed, though as Sebastian Veg notes, “after a period of post-traumatic outpour, followed by commodified nostalgia, popular memory in recent years has shown signs of moving towards more critical discussions.” But both Chinese and Russian regimes continue to devise new forms of repression.

* * *

In The unwomanly face of war Alexeivich focuses on the roles of women, their strivings and sufferings: tank drivers, snipers, sappers, pilots, nurses and doctors, on the front lines, on the home front, and in occupied territories; as well as the “second front”, all those women working backstage—doing laundry, cooking, repairing machinery and vehicles, and so on.

She also comments on the whole issue of representing war; on the process of eliciting such painful memories; and on the difficulties of publishing such material even after perestroika—notably in the lengthy opening section, “A human being is greater than war”.

I am writing a book about war…

I, who never liked to read military books, although in my childhood and youth this was the favourite reading of everybody. Of all my peers. And this is not surprising—we were the children of Victory. The children of the victors. What is the first thing I remember about the war? My childhood anguish amid the incomprehensible and frightening words. The war was remembered all the time: at school and at home, at weddings and christenings, at celebrations and wakes. Even in children’s conversations. […]

For us everything took its origin from that frightening and mysterious world. In our family my Ukrainian grandfather, my mother’s father, was killed at the front and is buried somewhere in Hungary, and my Belorussian grandmother, my father’s mother, was a partisan and died of typhus; two of her sons served in the army and were reported missing in the first months of the war; of three sons only one came back. My father. The Germans burned alive eleven distant relations with their children—some in a cottage, some in a village church. These things happened in every family. With everybody. […]

The village of my postwar childhood was a village of women. Village women. I don’t remember any men’s voices. That is how it has remained for me: stories of the war are told by women. Their songs are like weeping. […]

At school we were taught to love death. We wrote compositions about how we would love to die in the name of … We dreamed.

As a review comments:

The official response to this legacy of suffering was a Soviet history that reduced pain to superlative clichés —heroism, bravery, sacrifice—and replaced the individual with the archetype of the Soviet soldier-hero.

The “Holocaust by bullet” in the bloodlands, which bore the full brunt of Hitler’s invasion, were particularly horrendous—notably in Belarus, [1] where Alexeivich grew up; indeed, many of the accounts that she went on to collect refer to the Minsk region. Vasil Bykau’s novel The dead don’t hurt [aka The dead feel no pain] was published in 1965 but immediately banned: “his characters stubbornly stand outside the Soviet national myth. They are cowardly as often as they are brave; they betray and are betrayed; they are not always sure that victory over fascism or capitalism justifies their deaths” (from this review).

Eventually Alexeivich came across another book about wartime Belarus that struck a chord: I am from a burning village [aka Out of the fire, 1977] by Adamovich, Bryl, and Kolesnik. Impressed by the book’s polyphonic style, Alexeivich found it to be

composed from the voices of life itself, from what I had heard in childhood, from what can be heard now in the street, at home, in a café, on a bus. There! The circle was closed. I had found what I was looking for. I knew I would.

After another long struggle with the censors, Elem Klimov was finally able to begin shooting a film based on the book, Come and see (1985; review here). Here’s a trailer:

As Alexeivich read more widely, it became clear to her that the standard literature on war was “men writing about men”:

Men hide behind history, behind facts; war fascinates them as action and a conflict of ideas, of interests.

But

No one but me ever questioned my grandmother. My mother. Even those who were at the front say nothing. If they suddenly begin to remember, they don’t talk about the “women’s” war but about the “men’s”. They tune into the canon.

She reflects on the way women portray their wartime selves (memory too is a creative process), noting that educated people are more “infected by secondary knowledge”, by myths. She explains the process of finding the women and interacting with them.

The wartime recollections are disturbing, but the fortunes of the manuscript make another worrying topic. The 1983 manuscript of The unwomanly face of war was criticized for tarnishing the image of the Soviet woman.

The manuscript has been lying on my desk for a long time… For two years now I’ve been getting rejections from publishers.

Then came perestroika, and an edition appeared (albeit heavily censored), soon becoming hugely popular; as she received dozens of letters daily, she soon found herself “doomed to go on writing my books endlessly”.

In the unexpurgated 2017 English edition Alexeivich includes excerpts from her journal from 2002 to 2004:

I think that today I would probably ask different questions and hear different answers. And would write a different book—not entirely different, but still different.

She gives instances of passages that the censors threw out—and even that she herself had censored. Many of these have since been restored, but as she says, they too make a document. She intersperses such passages with her conversations with the censor:

“Who will go to fight after such books? You humiliate women with a primitive naturalism. Heroic women. You dethrone them. You make them into ordinary women, females. But our women are saints.”

Our heroism is sterile, it leaves no room for physiology or biology. It’s not believable. War tested not only the spirit but the body, too. The material shell.

“Where did you get such thoughts? Alien thoughts. Not Soviet. You laugh at those who lie in communal graves.”

Another exchange:

“Yes, we paid heavily for the Victory, but you should look for heroic examples. There are hundreds of them. And you show the filth of the war. The underwear. You make our Victory terrible… What is it you’re after?”

The truth.”

“You think the truth is what’s there in life. In the street. Under your feet. It’s such a low thing for you. Earthly. No, the truth is what we dream about. It’s how we want to be!”

Alexeivich laces the brief, distressing individual memoirs with revealing notes on the context of her encounters with their authors: their demeanour, the cramped apartments.

Amidst the frank descriptions of warfare, some of the women she met retained an enthusiasm for Communism, but others were bitterly critical of the society that Stalin had created. Here’s one letter she received:

My husband, a chevalier of the Order of Glory, got ten years in the labour camps after the war… That is how the Motherland met her heroes. The victors! He had written in a letter to a university friend that he had difficulty being proud of our victory—our own and other people’s land was covered with heaps of Russian corpses. Drowned in blood. He was immediately arrested… His epaulettes were torn off…

He came back from Kazakhstan after Stalin’s death… Sick. We have no children. I don’t need to remember the war. I’ve been at war all my life…

Another woman, whose husband had fought, was captured, and then sent to labour camp after Victory, reflects:

I want to ask: who is to blame that in the first months of the war millions of soldiers and officers were captured? I want to know… Who beheaded the army before the war, shooting and slandering the Red commanders—as German spies, as Japanese spies. […] I want… I can ask now… Where is my life? Our life? But I keep silent, and my husband keeps silent. We’re afraid even now. We’re frightened… And so we’ll die scared. Bitter and ashamed…

After one harrowing account from a former medical assistant of a tank battalion, Alexeivich adds a sequel. She received a package containing published praise for the woman’s patriotic educational work, and found the material she had sent heavily censored. Alexeivich reflects on the two truths that live in the same human being:

one’s own truth driven underground, and the common one, filled with the spirit of the time. The smell of the newspapers. The first was rarely able to resist the massive onslaught of the second.

On the interviews, she goes on to note:

The more listeners, the more passionless and sterile the account. To make it suit the stereotype.

One veteran explains how women were silenced after the war:

Back then we hid, didn’t even wear our medals. Men wore them, but not women. Men were victors, heroes, wooers, the war was theirs, but we were looked at with quite different eyes. […] I’ll tell you, they robbed us of the victory.

Alexeivich finds them less candid in speaking about love than about death. Indeed, traditional values remained punitive: one woman tells how she got married after Victory, only to find that her husband’s parents were ashamed of this frontline bride.

After the war we got another war. Also terrible. For some reason, men abandoned us. They didn’t shield us.

* * *

Woman’s history has rightly become a major topic, both in fiction and non-fiction. I’ve addressed women at war in Les Parisiennes and Bearing witness; there have been notable studies for Britain too, also providing a much-needed corrective to our legacy of patriotic war films. For China, the voices of women are an important aspect of Guo Yuhua’s study of a Shaanbei village under Maoism (see also my series on Women of Yanggao, starting here, and China: commemorating trauma). Among many posts under my fieldwork category, I explore issues such as listening to people here.

* * *

Whereas the narrators of The unwomanly face of war were at least in their teens when they joined the Great Patriotic War, in Last witnesses (first published in 1985, and again adapted for the English translation, which bears the dates 1978–2004) they are often recalling their very early years, aged from 3 to 14. Here Alexeivich refrains from comment, leaving the young voices to speak for themselves. “Instead of a Preface”, she cites People’s Friendship magazine to remind us:

In the course of the Great Patriotic War (1941–1945) millions of Soviet children died: Russians, Belorussians, Ukrainians, Jews, Tatars, Latvians, Gypsies, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Armenians, Tadjiks…

The accounts make up a relentlessly grisly litany of partisans, atrocities, torched houses, mutilated corpses, transports, camps—an indelible trauma for these young children, often orphaned after witnessing their families and fellow-villagers murdered, hiding in forests and swamps, constantly hungry. However repressed, this trauma would persist throughout the years following the Victory.

 

[1] Belarus is a frequent topic of Snyder’s Bloodlands. As in Ukraine and elsewhere in the region, the war was never a simple struggle between the local population and German invaders. The NKVD had already committed terrible atrocities, complicating the partisans’ allegiances: some groups were pro-Soviet, others fighting for independence.

 

The c-word

also starring fatuous asterisks, bendy bananas, and the b-word (bi)

Lee

How is the poor reader expected to differentiate between b******* and b*******?

Talking of The end of the f***ing world, the prissy prurience of the tabloids’ use of asterisks is brilliantly demolished by David Marsh in this article from the fine Guardian series Mind your language, prompted by the John Terry trial—citing a reader:

 I never cease to be amazed by newspapers which shyly make him say “f***ing black c***”, leaving intact the one word which aroused Mr Ferdinand’s wrath,

and calling on the unlikely couple of Charlotte Brontë and Ken Loach. See also this LRB review of a book on a 1923 trial revolving around women’s use of “foul language”, class, and the uses and abuses of literacy—with a pre-echo of Paul Kratochvil’s splendid story in a quote from 1930: “soldiers used the word ‘fucking’ so often that it was merely a warning that ‘a noun is coming’ “.

Moreover, reclaiming “the c-word (cunt)” has been a concern of feminists—as discussed in this post (from another useful site), citing authors from Germaine Greer to Laurie Penny. See also this article from Rachel Braier; the wiki article is useful too. And do admire the work of the Profane Embroidery Group. More under Words and women.

In Stewart Lee‘s latest book March of the lemmings (2019—not aka The bumper book of  Stewart Lee jokes: jolly japes for all the family) he pursues the style of How I escaped my certain fate with typically expansive Teutonic footnotes to the script of his show Content provider [or should that be C***ent provider?]. In one of these, warming to several topics, he reflects on the efficacity of his “so-called comedy” with purposeful, insistent use of “the c-word (cunt)”—which I hereby feel obliged to emulate.

First we should hear him doing the live version that prompted this tirade, since it gains so much from his masterly inflection, timbre, timing, and delivery:

And it isn’t, to be fair, you know, and I think—look, we’re gonna leave the EU, that is happening, and I think people have gotta put their differences behind them now and try and make it work. And I—I don’t know if you can make massive generalisations about people that voted to leave Europe anyway, because people voted to leave Europe for all sorts of different reasons, you know, and it wasn’t just racists that voted to leave Europe. Cunts did as well, didn’t they? Stupid fucking cunts. Racists, and cunts, and people with legitimate anxieties about ever-closer political ties to Europe.*

So here’s the footnote:

* How does this joke, which drew tears and cheers, even though I say it myself, night after night for the best part of two years, work? (1) Firstly, shock. I rarely swear on stage, and compared to most edgelord stand-ups, my swears count is probably only one level up from the sort of acts who market themselves as “clean” to get gigs at hospices run by born-again Christians. So it is a funny shock to hear me abandon my usual vocabulary and say the c-word (cunt). The c-word (cunt) is probably a way-too-heavy word to use here, and the deployment of such a disproportionately heavy weapon is part of what makes choosing to do [it] so funny. (2) The structure of the bit has a relationship with the much-touted idea that liberal Remainers should look outside their bubble and seek to understand the fears and concerns that drove 17.4 million people to vote Leave (“People voted to leave Europe for all sorts of different reasons, and it wasn’t just racists that voted to leave Europe…”), but then subverts the progression of thought by just calling them the c-word (cunts). To quote an old Lee and Herring routine, or possibly Viz’s Mr Logic, “Our expectations were subverted, from whence the humour arose”. (3) This second idea is then given what we in the trade call a “topper” by doubling back on the original premise and conceding that some Leave voters may also have “legitimate anxieties about ever-closer political ties to Europe”. There is then a second topper, in the form of a letter from a punter [“Dear Palace Theatre, Southend, please inform the “comedian”, and I use that word advisedly, Stewart Lee, who I had the misfortune of being taken along by friends to see last night, that I actually voted to leave Europe and I am neither a racist nor a cunt. Merely someone with genuine anxieties about ever-closer political ties to Europe. Yours, A. Cunt, Burnham-on-Crouch.”], which is a real letter (with the name changed) received during an early stage of the show at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe try-outs, which just replays the joke again but in a funny voice and with more swearing, and with the town the complainer comes from changed to some local place every night—in this case, Burnham-on-Crouch.

By now the c-word (cunt) has long become a veritable mantra. The ever-expanding footnote goes on to do battle with Lee’s critics, with a plea for context:

The Tory Brexiteer and Sun columnist Tony Parson, in the February 2019 edition of GQ, the sort of style and status bible Patrick Bateman in American Psycho would read in between dismembering prostitutes in a penthouse apartment, wrote, on the subject of the c-word (cunt):

In the little corner of Essex where I grew up,”c***” was practically a punctuation mark among men and boys [see above—SJ]. It was in the foul air we breathed. But it grates now. It feels like the rancid tip of a cesspit that is the modern male attitude to women. And what I find bewildering is that it is not just thick ignorant oafs who use the c-word with such abandon. It is the woke. It is the enlightened. It is the professionally sensitive. It is the Guardian columnist, the BBC-approved comedian who can be guaranteed to dress to the left. “It wasn’t just racists that voted to leave Europe,” Stewart Lee recently quipped, “C***s did as well. Stupid fucking [sic!] c***s.” Does Lee’s use of the word sound rational or healthy? Does it provoke tears of mirth? Do you think it might persuade the 17.4m who voted to leave the European Union—the largest vote for anything in the history of this country—they were wrong? Some of my best friends are Remainers, but such spittle-flecked fury when using the word “c***s” makes Brexit sound like the very least of Lee’s problems.

Obviously, like Julia Hartley-Brewer and other Conservative Twitter types who alighted on the Brexit bit, Parson removed the qualifying section that followed it, where I acknowledge the out-of-touch nature of the so-called liberal elite in London, which in turn buys me some leeway, and also makes the subsequent attack on the so-called non-liberal non-elite more of a surprise; and Parson, presumably knowing little of my work, doesn’t appreciate that the use of the c-word (cunt) reads to my audience here in a comical way precisely because using it is so out of character. It is not the swear word in and of itself that brought the house down nightly. It has to have context.

And of course, the word isn’t delivered with “relish”, and it isn’t “spittle-flecked” either. The c-word (cunt) is delivered here with a kind of despairing calm, as if the cuntishness of the Brexit c-words (cunts) was just a sad matter of fact. When I was directing Richard Thomas’s Jerry Springer: the opera at the National Theatre in 2003 (as I am sure I have written before), we were given the benefit of the theatre’s voice coach for one session, who took the singers aside to teach them to enunciate all the libretto’s swear words and curses, to spit them out with relish. I waited for the session to subside, respectfully, and then had to unravel the work that had been done. The swear words weren’t necessarily to be sung in that spirit at all. For the most part, they represented the disenfranchised Americans working, in heightened emotional states, at the edges of the limited vocabulary that was available to them, and had to be used to convey not simply hate and venom, but also love, hope, despair and longing, the feelings expressed in Richard’s music. If I’d really wanted this particular c-word (cunt) to read with spittle-flecked relish, you’d have known about it. There’d have been spittle on the lens. I’m not averse to spitting on stage (on an imaginary Graham Norton, for example), so a lens would hold no terrors for me. To me, the c-word (cunt) here was mainly about how utter despair drove the beaten and frustrated Remainer character on stage (me) to the outer limits of his inarticulacy, painstakingly logical arguments against Brexit having broken down into mere swears.

And I didn’t “quip” the line either. One thing you will never see me doing is quipping. My work is too laborious and self-aware to ever include a comic device as light-hearted as a “quip”, and if I see one, I usually have it surgically removed from my script, or at least quarantined between ironic inverted commas (“Oh yeah, I can do jokes”). [Here’s a rare, and sadly very funny, example—SJ] And obviously, the bit was not in any way intended to “persuade the 17.4m who voted to leave the European Union—the largest vote for anything in the history of this country—they were wrong”, so it is stupid to criticise it for failing to achieve something it never set out to do. That’s like saying that Fawlty towers, for example, was written to encourage hoteliers to control their tempers; or that the very funny playground joke that ends with the line “Lemon entry, my dear Watson” was written to encourage Sherlock Holmes to keep suitable anal-sex lubricants close to hand for his congress with Watson, rather than relying on whatever out-of-date fruit preserves he could find in his larder.

Maybe I came onto Parson’s radar of late because I talked about Brexit, which he and his employer the Sun support, or because I am now one of those “cultural figures” that informed commentators like him are supposed to know about (“God! Haven’t you heard of Stewart Lee, Tony? I can’t believe it!”), who get praised in the London Review of Books, and get called the greatest living stand-ups in The Times, irrespective of their perceived market penetration or popularity. For Parson I am a “woke… enlightened… professionally sensitive… BBC-approved comedian who can be guaranteed to dress to the left”, which is hardly news, as it’s essentially what I describe myself as on stage, having done lazy Parson’s work for him.

Nonetheless, it’s odd to be called out as evidence of “the rancid tip of a cesspit that is the modern male attitude to women” in a magazine whose website has a “Hottest Woman of the Week” feature. It’s such an odd phrase, “the rancid tip of a cesspit”, that I had to go online and google pictures of cesspits to make sure I had understood what one was.

In my newspaper columns, I deliberately try to mangle my metaphors, writing in character as a man with imposter syndrome who is out of his depth in a posh newspaper and is trying to overcompensate with complex language that is beyond him. But Parson’s incoherence, as brilliantly parodied each month in Viz, is effortless. A cesspit is, literally, a pit full of cess. It can’t have a tip as it is not a conical solid. The only way a cesspit could have a tip is if it were somehow upended and its contents swiftly hardened in some kind of large-scale commercial drying unit, and the remaining cylinder or cuboid (depending on the shape of the pit that had moulded the cess within it) then sharpened at one end, perhaps using an enormous pencil sharpener rotated by shire horses on some kind of mill harness, or by Parson himself, until it formed the rancid tip Parson described. The only way a cesspit could have a natural tip would be if the body of the cesspit itself were conical, which perhaps they were “in the little corner of Essex where Parson grew up.

In fact, there is an Essex folk-song, collected by the archivist Shirley Collins inthe ’50s from the old traveller singer Gonad Bushell, that goes:

I’m a Billericay gypsy, Billericay is my home,
My house it is a caravan, my cesspit is a cone,
And if I want to see the cess become a rancid tip,
I tip the cesspit upside down, then dry and sharpen it!
And the curlew is a-calling in the morning.
[This is worthy of Stella Gibbons—e.g. Cold Comfort Farm, or her brilliant Britten pastiche—SJ]

Parson may have a point about the c-word (cunt), though I don’t really think my Brexit bit is hugely relevant to his discussion, and seems to be cranked in as part of some kind of twisted vengeance. Out of academic curiosity, I wondered what the dictionary definition of the c-word (cunt) was, and to my surprise, when I turned to it, there was just a massive picture of Tony Parson’s face. And it had all arrows pointing towards it as well.

Imagine writing the sort of space-filling shit Parson does, day after day. At least my columns are supposed to be stupid.

bendy

Back at the routine, Lee moves on ineluctably to the Brexiteers’ fatuous topos of bendy bananas (demolished e.g. here; also a theme of his columns, such as here and here, the latter included in March of the lemmings):

People did vote to leave Europe for all different sorts of—they did, don’t snigger away down there—they voted for all, you know, not everyone that voted to leave Europe wanted to see Britain immediately descend into being an unaccountable single-party state, exploiting people’s worst prejudices to maintain power indefinitely. Some people just wanted bendy bananas, didn’t they? “Oh no, I only wanted bendy bananas, and now there’s this chaotic inferno of hate.” “Oh well, never mind, at least the bananas are all bendy again, aren’t they?” Like they always fucking were.

In the second half of the show he adapts the Brexit material into an “I don’t know if you can make massive generalisations about Americans who voted for Trump…” routine:

Not all Americans who voted for Trump wanted to see America immediately descend into being an unaccountable single-party state, exploiting people’s worst prejudices to maintain power indefinitely. Some Americans just wanted to be allowed to wear their Ku Klux Klan outfits to church, didn’t they?

And still the footnotes to the script persist. Like How I escaped my certain fate, Lee’s comments are worth reading in full.

For more, see numerous posts under the Lee tag—and Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! For lying xenophobic misogynistic politicians, see also under Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Johnson, with his sinister henchman The Haunted Pencil (e.g. here and here), as well as the Tweety tag. Click here for two erudite literary jokes; and for what in Chinese, charmingly, is “the b-word (bi)”, see Forms of addressInterpreting pinyin, and Changing language.

Staving off old age

I may be nostalgic for 1950s’ comedy, like Beyond the fringe and Tony Hancock, and as to New-Fangled Popular Beat Combos I only make occasional rash forays beyond Bach [sic: see e.g. Bach as bandleader and arranger] and the Beatles (e.g. punk, Country, northern soul, and so on). My tastes in film also often hark back to formative experiences in my youth (see this roundup).

But just now, in my desperate attempt to stave off old age (less harmful than the alchemical elixirs for long life consumed in vain by ancient Chinese emperors), there are two British TV series that I just love among a plethora of Yoof programmes (across the pond, cf. Family guy, Parks and recreation, and Soap).

  • The end of the f***ing world. The asterisks there are sadly authentic, result of the delicacy of Channel 4, not mine or indeed that of the series’ creators—which inspires me to yet another post on The c-word.

The two seasons are both noir and tender; the surreal style of filming, along with the fabulous playlist, (season 1 here, season 2 here; or complete on Spotify), evokes David Lynch; and the limited vocabulary of the awkward young couple Alyssa and James (Jessica Barden and Alex Lawther) is weirdly expressive. Here’s a trailer for season 1:

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Going back a little further, also on Channel 4,

  • Fresh meat (2011–16), somewhat less surreal than The young ones, remains delightful—all four series are available online. In a strong cast, the priceless character of Vod (Zawe Ashton—notwithstanding her great versality and later celebrity) never fails to hit the spot:

When Josie tells her she’s thinking of switching to pharmacology:

Vod: What is it?

Josie: It’s the study of drugs.

Vod: You can study drugs? Now they tell me.

God has given me a brain. And I’m choosing to do some pretty wicked things to it. Which may or may not result in further hospitalisation.

And here’s how to do a CV:

More in this playlist—but go on, watch the series!

Series 4 ends with her “organising” Vodstock—”a festival that is Burning Man meets Cirque du Soleil meets Countryfile meets hajj“. In the end it’s just a student party.

* * *

phoneSo I’m like, YAY! (adjusting my monocle à la The Haunted Pencil). BTW, FFS, WTF is “streaming” anyway? WTF is an “app”? It’s OK, I don’t really want to know. And FYI, a phone is a big heavy Bakelite thingy on the table in the hall (cf. Alexander Graham Bell’s priceless prophesy).

See also Fleabag, and Philomena Cunk.

Right, back to those Daoist ritual manuals.

Gender and class: Awdry and Blyton

Train

Re-assessing the canons of the past is a constant and natural task, from which children’s fiction should not be immune.

In another fine rebuke to the fatuous “PC gone mad” brigade, Guardian writers welcome challenges to the cast of Thomas the tank enginehitherto a sacred bastion of white male privilege, but now to feature female and multi-cultural trains, Shock Horror. Stuart Heritage characterizes the series as

the story of several straight white men who solemnly obey the every passing whim of a white, straight, male dictator in a crude reinforcement of the belief that the working class should know its place.

Following up, Jack Bernhardt observes,

the enemy of comedy isn’t political correctness—it’s nostalgia and lazy characterisation.

And in a related article Tracy Van Slyke furthers the cause:

These trains perform tasks dictated by their imperious, little white boss, Sir Topham Hatt (also known as The Fat Controller), whose attire of a top hat, tuxedo and big round belly is just a little too obvious. Basically, he’s the Monopoly dictator of their funky little island. Hatt orders the trains to do everything from hauling freight to carrying passengers to running whatever random errand he wants done, whenever he wants it done—regardless of their pre-existing schedules.

She cites shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh’s plea for the series to include more female engines to encourage girls to become train drivers—which doubtless prompts much harrumphing from Outraged of Tunbridge Wells and his (sic) Brexit chums.

Already in 1982 the Comic Strip produced the splendid Five go mad in Dorset:

See also Alan Bennett on appeasement in The House at Pooh Corner (for more on Winnie the Pooh, see here); and the pique-nique, here.

I too was brought up on such children’s classics—a legacy from which I recovered quite slowly. Perhaps a worthier credential for my discussing all this would be my status as great-nephew of Edith Miles, author of many fine children’s novels of a similar vintage, in which girls play a major role, YAY!

The gender category contains plenty more rebukes of sexism—don’t miss Vera and Doris, and Dressing modestly.

 

The wonders of juggling

me juggling

Before a concert at Michelham Priory, c1983.

Part of my baptism in early music took place touring around England with the Medieval players in the 1980s.

MP posterWhile I played rebec, I also learned the basics of juggling from Mark Heap and Mark Saban—though I was happy to leave the stilt-walking and fire-eating to them. Hard to imagine now, but later on European tours with baroque orchestras some of us used to fill the longueurs of hanging around at airports with impromptu juggling sessions.

Juggling inevitably becomes a flashy, often comical stage act (with a variety of props like clubs, and not least the old torch, egg, and frying-pan trick), but Mark Heap could transform it into a pure, transcendental activity (later offering some vignettes in Green wing).

Technical virtuosos rise to the challenge of five, seven, and even eleven balls, but that largely excludes fantasy. The variety of patterns with a mere three is a thing of wonder—all the more so with passing between two jugglers.

I note that ancient China features in the long history of juggling worldwide:

During a battle in about 603 BC between the states of Chu and Song, Xiong Yiliao stepped out between the armies and juggled nine balls, which so amazed the Song troops that all five hundred of them turned and fled, allowing the Chu army to win a complete victory.

So much for the military hardware of the modern PLA…

The way that the “given” building blocks are creatively combined into a routine reminds me of the process of musical creation in performance, with its balance of perspiration and inspiration. And it evolves constantly. For some taxonomy, see here; the vocabulary is cute (though, like musicians, many jugglers won’t necessarily be aware of it)—all kinds of cascade, mess, column, shower, cascade, shuffle, box, grab, claw, bump, yoyo, and so on, easily found in online videos. I haven’t quite found the fake throwaway that Mark Heap used to do so beautifully.

Anita Bartling
Anita Bartling (1887–1966).

To make up for the usual male-dominated perspective, there are fine introductions, with video links, to female jugglers in history here and here.

Left: wedding party, Mantua 1999.
Right: on tour with EBS, Lyon 1982.

Like clapping, juggling is an art that should be cultivated from young. Start, and indeed continue, with bean bags (cf. the Larson Stradivarius cartoon: “Violins galore! Start the kids on one today!”)!

beanbags

Fleabag

Fleabag

Fleabag is brilliant altogether (tutti, bemused: “Fleabag is brilliant”), but this celebrated scene from series 2, with Kristin Scott Thomas and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is just perfect—script, acting, and genuine, mesmerizing rapport:

For me it ranks alongside the diner scene and final monologue in Five easy pieces, and the restaurant scene near the beginning of Un homme et une femme.

See also Killing Eve: notes and queriesExotic travels, and Talking heads.