Godard and the Nouvelle Vague

with a further note on Last tango in Paris

Godard Karina

In 1970s’ England, while my musical tastes were already imbued with Ravel, Messiaen, and Boulez [Weirdo—Ed.], continental cinema offered an exotic escape from the drab insularity of our lives. French and Italian movies made a particularly important education for us.

The films of Jean-Luc Godard, who died last week (obits e.g. here and here), were iconic. It’s of no great consequence that his ouevre never quite appealed to me, but I’m just trying to work out why. It’s not that I balk at abstraction—I love Rivette’s Céline and Julie go boating, for instance (although you may say that its surreal fantasy is underpinned by the plot of a conventional mystery thriller).

Godard’s images and framing are strikingly original:

But for all the visual attraction of such posing, I suppose I was wary of poseurs. In Bertolucci’s Last tango in Paris (whose main theme is not sex but pain; see under The conformist) the character of Tom is a parody—perhaps more of Truffaut than of Godard, but anyway a satire on the whole pretentiousness of the Nouvelle Vague. To cite this review,

Léaud plays a devoted cineaste much like his New Wave directors, a man obsessed with getting everything on film, capturing something authentic through the most artificial means possible. He’s a punchline, with a camera crew following him everywhere, concocting scenarios that are intended to examine race relations and his girlfriend’s past as the daughter of a French colonialist officer, but it’s all phony, a game. He screams at his camera crew for halting filming in a sudden rainstorm—it’s so romantic and photogenic—and then he runs off into the rain, screaming his love’s name, still acting out the big romantic moment even though the cameras have stopped rolling. In another scene, the background music seems to be non-diegetic until Tom abruptly switches off the tape recorder hanging around his neck, which had apparently been playing the music as an accompaniment to a confrontation with Jeanne. This is a guy who carries around his own soundtrack.

Tom is a walking, talking critique of the contrivances and artificiality of filmmaking, and I think also a critique, if perhaps an unwitting one, of Brando’s self-conscious performance style. Tom is obsessed with authenticity, trying to rearrange reality to fit within his frame. He’s always walking around with his hands held up to form a frame around what he sees, an obvious caricature of a pretentious film director, and all his attempts to capture the essence of reality only come out artificial and silly. Though superficially quite different from Paul—who claims to want to avoid the truth, not discover it—Tom winds up being very much like his counterpart, another character who’s hiding from reality, even while claiming to seek it. In his case, he hides in the cinema…

Similarly, this article comments:

Tom, of course, is a parody of the Godardian New Wave filmmaker, running around putting up his fingers to make camera shots out of everything, and apparently not knowing or caring what Jeanne is doing. He is fittingly played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, who was discovered by Truffaut as a child and has since played in many New Wave movies, looking increasingly like Truffaut himself. Tom is characteristically in the New Wave ethos in trying to make a film about the progress of his love affair leading up to his marriage. His crew creep around after Jeanne, filming her meetings with Tom and then filming her childhood mansion complete with relics from the past. Real life and the world of their film become so entangled that it is hard to say anymore what their reality is. Jeanne’s life becomes the film; the film becomes their reality together; they live the film rather than making a film imitating their lives.

Bertolucci shows clearly the superficiality, irresponsibility, and triviality of Jeanne and Tom’s world together. It is a shrewd comment on contemporary, fashionably “hip” worlds where people are so sophisticated and blasé about everything that they have ceased to be human beings living in the realities of our society and historical moment. It is an entirely escapist world with all the inevitable consequences of shallowness that follow escapism.

The Nouvelle Vague was based on an aloof, impersonal ethos—for which I blame the alienated male auteurs, who were in charge, with women making decorative pawns. Call Me Old-Fashioned, but I still want a bit of plot, personality, communication. In many (perhaps all?!) films, such as La strada or The conformist, it’s the women who provide humanity while the men are swanning around being pompous and fucked-up. The women may be fucked-up too, but largely through being abused by all the fucked-up men. Revealingly, Godard showed his contempt for The conformist—as Bertolucci commented, recalling their meeting 37 years after the event:

He doesn’t say anything to me. He just gives me a note and then he leaves. I take the note and there was a Chairman Mao portrait on it and with Jean-Luc’s writing that we know from the handwriting on his films. The note says: “You have to fight against individualism and capitalism.” That was his reaction to my movie. I was so enraged that I crumpled it up and threw it under my feet. I’m so sorry I did that because I would love to have it now, to keep it as a relic. […]

Here are some trailers for Godard’s early films:

  • À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) starred Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg:

  • Disprezzo coverLe mépris (Contempt, 1963), with Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli, is so overladen by Godard’s already signature style that it hardly seeks to do justice to the “humiliation and sexual frustration” of Alberto Moravia’s novel Il disprezzo (English translation titled A ghost at noon):

Of Godard’s successive muses, Anna Karina (wiki; obituary) was the most captivating. Their first movie together was Le petit soldat (filmed in 1960, released in 1963), followed by

  • Une femme est une femme (A woman is a woman, 1961):

  • Vivre sa vie (My life to live, 1962):

as well as Bande à part (1964), and Alphaville (1965). Their last film before they broke up was

  • Pierrot le fou (1965):

—which reminds me rather of Betty blue (Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1986) (in the words of Peep show, “great sex-and-suicide flick—turned a whole generation of men onto girls with mental illness”).

Godard’s originality emerged not only through his visual sense, but in musicMichel Legrand, known for working on less avant-garde movies, provided the soundtrack for Vivre sa vie:

Legrand also composed the soundtrack for Bande à part—this dance scene is actually endearing:

It’s as if all a male film director had to do was find a gamine muse (see under Moon river, and Ute Lemper), and success was guaranteed, no matter how minimal and inscrutable the plot-line.

I don’t mean to react merely with a surly Gallic shrug—each of Godard’s films was a tour de force (“too, er, deaf ‘orse”: Cheval trop sourd, unreleased?), and I quite see how epoch-making they were. Perhaps I should say not that his ouevre never appealed to me, but that it didn’t move me. But I guess that’s just the kind of bourgeois conceit that he was exposing; as Bertolucci continued in his recollection,

I had finished the period in which to be able to communicate would be considered a mortal sin. He had not.

Still, Godard’s stance against communication seems to dilute his radical political mission.

To end with an affectionate British parody, here’s a 1997 vignette from the Fast show:

Ogonek and Til

For Nick

Allow me to introduce Ogonek and Til, feisty yet (you guessed it) flawed protagonists of my forthcoming crime drama series, as they embark on the hazardous trail of a dastardly ring of international diacritic smugglers…

ogonek

As an avid tennis fan, without being too perfectionist I’m not alone in musing gingerly over how to pronounce the surname of the magnificent Iga Świątek, currently sailing serenely (Serena-ly?) towards the final of the US Open. She gives us a handy lesson:

So the lowly diacritic squiggle indicates that the a sound is both closed and nasal. It’s an ogonek (“little tail”)—which leads us to the mystical realms of Elfdalian, Kashubian, Lithuanian, and Navajo (see here, and here)! To think that I still rather resent having to go to all the faff of inputting grave and acute accents in French, and such non-national fripperies…

Readers with a penchant for Igor Stravinsky anagrams will note that while the cast of the brilliant Gran visits York includes such redoubtable characters as Sir K.Y. Groins-Vat and Kirsty Garvison, one absentee from the urtext is the arcane exhortation

V.S.—or try sink, Iga!

It belongs with those weird dreams common to musos and sportspeople (“unqualified, ill-prepared, running out of time, wrong uniform, lost”). On the eve of yet another crucial Grand Slam match, the Polish star finds herself on stage (quite likely in her tennis outfit) playing percussion in the The Rite of Spring, only to see a prophetic instruction from the composer (revealing a rare aptitude for self-parody): either whip the page over, or just create a noisy diversion with all the pots and pans that surround you!

* * *

ao

Which reminds me, in Portuguese (cf. my paltry dabblings here), I do feel we Brits might make a little more effort in adding a nasal quality at the end of the ão sound in São Paulo (the diacritic on ã being a til, for which English has adopted the Spanish word tilde)—as in

  • não (no)
  • mão (hand)
  • pão (bread)
  • cão (dog)
  • limão (lime, for that caipirinha party)
  • canção (song)
  • Japão (Japan)
  • João (“John”).

Plenty of material there for a couple of niche limericks, to join Myles’s tribute to Ezra £; Alan Watts on Salisbury/Sarum; The young man from Calcutta; The young man from Japan, and The old man from Peru [typical bias against the middle-aged woman—Ed.]. Something like this, perhaps:

There was a young man from Japão
Who fed his cão pão with limão
Waving a mão, he burst into canção
Until João came up and said “Não“.

Estêvão, Çisiq 2022.

Note (cf. Mots d’heures: gousses, rames):
The scene is a dingy immigrant enclave in Coimbra. Despite his eccentric choice of dog-food, the enterprising oriental subject of this ditty seems to have been sufficiently au fait with Iberian folk idioms to experiment in combining the Noh-tinged (Não-tinged?) saudade of fado with the palmas of flamenco; perhaps it was the casual co-option of such percussive accompaniment that so offended the purist killjoy João.

Noh drum
Source.

Recently another interpretation of “Waving a mão, he burst into canção” has been proposed (Acta Musicologica Asiatica-Iberica, LXXIII.2, 2021), which would bypass both fado and flamenco: it may rather depict the haunting kakegoe cries of the Noh drummer as he slowly lifts his hand to bring it down resoundingly on the tense skin of the ōtsuzumi. Although “raising” might have been a more precise verb than “waving”, the burghers of Coimbra might well be alarmed to hear such an alien sound echoing through the cobbled alleys of their hallowed university town.

* * *

Composing a limerick for Iga is more of a challenge:

There was a young star named Świątek
Whose talents spread way beyąd tech
When it comes to the tennis, she sure is a menace—
To play her it’s all hands ą deck.

Sure, the stress-patterning doesn’t quite work: in line 2, it would be helped by an accent on beyond, though that requires knowledge of some spurious back-story whereby Iga has already been spotted as a promising software programmer; and there’s nothing to be done about the final line. But hey… I am proud to announce that my effort was runner-up in the prestigious 2022 Świątek Limerick Contest—in which I was the only entrant… But go on, why not join in too? Hours of harmless fun for all the family!

Iga
“YAYY!!! I’ve got a limerick!!!”

And now I’m already honing my entry for next year’s contest:

To Iga’s fine surname Świątek
I once tried adding a “zee”, ą spec
But that wouldn’t work—I felt such a berk
And now her name’s in neą—Heck!

Again, this falls down on stress-patterning. In line 2 (please excuse my unusual lapse into American English), my misguided spelling was of course Śzwiątek.

* * *

Click here for Nicolas Robertson’s outstanding Oulipean anagram series. See also Language learning: a roundup. For more practice with Polish names, and some amazing music, see Folk traditions of Poland; Polish jazz, then and now; and Polish migrants to the USA are among the cast of Annie Proulx’s splendid ethnomusicological novel Accordion crimes. For the Portuguese footballer Jesus, click here. For more ą, sorry I mean on, both football and tennis, see under A sporting medley—including this tribute to the multicultural musical heritage of Emma and Leylah. See also Oh Noh!, featuring Brian and Stewie; and for the clichés of blurb-writing, click here.

Everyday life in a Syrian village

 

Syrian village 1

I’ve been watching

  • Everyday life in a Syrian village (Omar Amiralay, 1974, with Saadallah Wannus),

“the first documentary to present an unabashed critique of the impact of the Syrian government’s agricultural and land reforms” (source), in the wake of the Ba’ath party coup of 8th March 1963.

Omar Amiralay (1944–2011) studied in Paris from 1966 before returning to Syria in 1970 (see also this interview). Following his short and uncritical Film essay on the Euphrates dam (1970), Everyday life in a Syrian village is set in al-Muwaylih, a “stronghold of tribal power” near the city of Deir ez-Zor in east Syria.

Syrian village 3The film revolves around the harsh life of peasants working the land. Interviews with villagers, teachers, health workers, officials, and policemen, lamenting the peasants’ “lack of awareness”, reveal the problems of introducing modern education and healthcare to the poor countryside—issues that remind me of rural China (see e.g. Guo Yuhua). Indeed, the brief IMDb summary proclaims that Muwaylih is “a place plagued with tribalism, ignorance, and evil”.

The filming is brilliant, with haunting images. On the soundtrack, besides the howling wind, traditional flute music is used to accompany scenes of manual labour, contrasting with the noises of basic mechanisation.

From 47.18, the villagers gather for ritual chanting with frame-drums—in his 1973 film about Kurdish dervishes on the Iran–Iraq border, André Singer suggests that one role of such rituals is to inculcate subservience to the sheikh’s feudal power. From 51.40, in a startling juxtaposition favoured by film-makers (again underlined by the soundtrack), the bemused villagers are assembled by the visiting town Cultural Unit to gawp at an utterly alien documentary on the blessings of progress.

By contrast, Everyday life in a Syrian village remains banned in Syria—here it is:

Amiralay’s third film The chickens (1978), also beautifully filmed (watch here), is a critique of the declining livelihoods of farmers and artisans in the Orthodox village of Sadad to the west—and is also banned in Syria. Having played a leading role in the Damascus Spring of 2000, he revisited the Euphrates region in 2003 to make A flood in Ba’ath country (working title Fifteen reasons why I hate the Ba’ath Party).

Besides R. Shaleah Taleghani’s chapter “Docu-ironies and visions of dissent in the films of Omar Amiralay” in a collection that she edited with Alexa Firat, Generations of dissent: intellectuals, cultural production, and the state in the Middle East and North Africa (2020), all this makes me keen to read studies such as Sulyman Khalaf, Social change in Syria: family, village, and political party (PhD, 1981, published 2021; foreword), and the work of scholars who pay tribute to the book here.

Further up the Euphrates to the northwest lies Raqqa, capital of the Islamic State from 2014 to 2017; for tribal manoeuvring in Deir ez-Zor since 2011 under Assad and IS regimes, see this report. The recent devastation of Aleppo is shown in the outstanding documentary For Sama. See also the early Turkish feature films Law of the border and Dry summer.

With thanks as always to Kadir.

Hidden heritage

Hidden Heritage cover

  • Fatima Manji, Hidden heritage: rediscovering Britain’s relationship with the Orient (2021).

This engaging book is part of an important discussion that is deeply unwelcome in conservative circles. It’s in the same vein as the recent challenges (from both historians and ordinary people) to the representation of the legacy of the British empire—BLM, the attacks on statues (Rhodes in Oxford, Colston in Bristol)—in tandem with similar protests in the USA and elsewhere. [1] Sadly, the PC-gone-mad brigade and opponents of “woke” (a term that may be defined as “an awareness of injustice and the determination to do something about it”—see e.g. here and here) will either attack or ignore such work.

Fatima Manji, a worthy member of the brilliant team at Channel 4 News, attracted the fatuous ire of Kelvin MacKenzie in 2016 when she presented the bulletin featuring the terror attacks in Nice. You can read her reaction to the ruling here. She has recently filmed a fine report on honour killings in Pakistan.

In Hidden heritage, to complement her historical and political insights (besides her refined aesthetic sensibilities), Ms Manji turns out to have a real narrative gift. In the Introduction she notes the rhythm of visiting a stately home:

Walk through the hallways to see portraits of a lionised landed family with their porcelain skins and a compulsory display of European art, collected by a son on the Grand Tour. Admire the architecture, allow yourself to be amused by the story of a rogue uncle or a scorned lover, and end your trip with tea and a scone. If you are interested in interior design, there is inspiration enough in the coving and sconces, the gardens often prove delightful, and lovers of art will find enough to impress them. But beyond the twee trappings, Britain’s heritage sites are home to a hidden history.

It did not seem malicious or deliberate that it was hard to find more information about the occasional “swirl of Arabic, Persian, or Urdu letters, or the brown hue of a sitter’s skin in a portrait” that appeared amongst all the imperial opulence.

Some of the objects described in this book are only ever presented as the rewards of brave colonial conquest, and others are ignored altogether.

Britain’s apparent historical amnesia has lessons for our current debates about immigration and the nature of “Britishness”. Deliberately using the historical term “the Orient” for West and South Asia (notably the Ottoman empire and British India), she observes:

A whitewashed presentation of history directly affects how Britons today perceive the people, buildings, and languages of the Orient. All are regarded as alien threats and new arrivals to be defended against.

Manji colour 1

Chapter 1 opens in Chiswick House, probing the story behind the portrait of Muhammed bin Haddu al-Attar, ambassador of Morocco, who visited London in 1682 on a diplomatic and trade mission to the court of Charles II. His travels are described in fascinating detail. The ambassador was much admired. He dined with the scholar Elias Ashmole, observed the building of the new St Paul’s Cathedral, and attended performances of Shakespeare. He visited Cambridge, and at Oxford he met Edward Pococke, first chair of Arabic Studies there, as well as the linguist Edward Hyde. Manji follows the Ambassador back to Morocco, where he encountered political difficulties.

The era

is more nuanced than popular history would have us believe. The enthusiasm expressed by people in England, rich and poor alike, to see the Ambassador in person, even when diplomatic relations between the two polities may have been fraught, demonstrates that many showed the maturity of inquiring minds, and not the small island mentality that we may attribute to them retrospectively.

Just as absorbingly, Manji then traces the story back to Elizabethan England. The Queen sought alliances with the Ottomans, the Mughals, the Safavids, and the Moroccans. Among her companions was the Central Asian slave girl Aura Sultana, perhaps the first Muslim woman documented in England. The Shirley brothers courted the Safavids; Robert’s wife was Circassian. The East India Company and Levant Company were founded. Elizabeth established links with the Ottoman Sultan Murad III, and corresponded with his consort Sultana Safiye; the delivery (and repair) of a 16-foot-high clockwork organ for their son Mehmed (who became Sultan in 1595) turned out to be a serious challenge. Elizabeth also received at least three ambassadors from Morocco—the London visit of Abul Wahid bin Messoud in 1600 caused as much curiosity as that of Muhammad bin Haddu some eighty years later.

Manji 41

Such influences were evident in English food, dress, and expressive culture, with Oriental carpets and the beginnings of the craze for coffee (“the Mahometan berry”) in 1652, soon criticised. “The Turk” or “The Moor” became a common character in ballads and theatre.

Manji ends the chapter by considering the persistence of such tropes and fears in Britain today. But as she reminds us, an alternative history of the Tudor and Stuart period exists:

Too often our depictions of this era are inward-looking and forgetful of interactions with the world beyond Britain’s shores or Europe’s borders. They are not merely fascinating stories, but a tradition to draw on.

The book is well worth reading for this chapter alone; but the quality is maintained throughout. Chapter 2 takes us to Kew Gardens and the story of its “lost mosque”—the first built on British soil.

Kew
The Alhambra arch, the Chinese pagoda, and the Turkish mosque, 1763.
Source.

The Chinese pagoda originally had two companions, a Turkish mosque and an Alhambra arch. Much of the design for Kew Gardens, including the plan for an Alhambra building, was brought to fruition by Augusta, mother of George III. The mosque, completed in 1761, was designed by Sir William Chambers. Though not used for worship, it suggests respect for Islam.

It is as if the patron or the designer wished to send out a message about the place of these buildings in Britain, and, through them, the place of Britain in the world: that these ornate Oriental buildings are not alien to this landscape but, rather, that they belong.

While such a message soon met with both praise and detraction, Augusta certainly appears more open and cosmopolitan than our very own Minister for the 18th century. Visiting Kensington Palace, Manji tells the story of Muhammad and Mustafa, taken as prisoners after the Battle of Vienna in 1683, ending up in the retinue of George I (then Prince Elector of Hanover). Muhammad’s close relationship with the King was a source of resentment at court. But both died nearly four decades before the building of the mosque, and indeed they had converted to Christianity, so their influence on the Kew project is tenuous. So Manji finds a clearer proponent of the style in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who was closely connected to the Dowager Princess Augusta. She had become immersed in Ottoman culture (including mosque architecture) while living in Constantinople from 1716, and went on to become the first to introduce inoculation against smallpox to Britain.

Oriental structures like the mosque at Kew seemed to denote not only expanding imperial ambitions but also an enquiring world-view. However, the mosque soon fell into disrepair, and by 1785 it had been dismantled.

Again, Manji pursues the story into the 20th century, with the Japanese Gate built in 1910 on the site of the mosque. And she reflects on the modern profusion of mosques in Britain—“no mere ornaments, being active spaces for collective worship, socialisation, and charitable activities”. She describes the struggle of the Lincoln Muslims to construct a mosque there since 2008 in the face of Islamophobic threats, and ongoing anti-Muslim violence.

There is something to be learned from that first mosque-like structure in Britain. It denies those flaunting flags while spewing hatred a monopoly on history and demonstrates that mosques are neither new nor alien in Britain.

More recently, the director of Kew Gardens has had to rebuff accusations of succumbing to wokeness.

Chapter 3 tells the story of Tipu Sultan, ruler of the kingdom of Mysore in the late 18th century, through artefacts now housed in Apsley House, Belmont House, and Powis Castle. A thorn in the side of the British, they vilified him while portraying the East India Company as benevolent.

Manji tells the story of the Wellesley brothers (the younger of whom became the Duke of Wellington) and “Clive of India”, whose daughter-in-law Henrietta did at least make a genuine effort to engage with the culture of the subcontinent.

The mass looting of Mysore after Tipu’s defeat resulted in many acquisitions for British stately homes and museums. Part of the haul from Tipu’s palace was the famous toy tiger which has lived at the V&A since 1897. Its scary mechanical sounds were only muted after World War Two.

In the early 1990s Channel 4 screened the Indian historical drama The sword of Tipu Sultan, in which the Sultan is the hero and the British the villains. This was during the enterprising period of commissioner Farukh Dhondy, when black and Asian tastes were being catered to. Later he reflected that such programming would now be seen as too radical for the channel, with diversity having become a “game of statistics”. Manji too takes a dim view of the images of “the Orient” now being presented by the media.

The treasures of Tipu’s rule found around our country remind us that the power Britain amassed as an empire was wrested from others who also have proud stories to tell. Like Tipu Sultan’s belongings, many children and grandchildren of Empire find themselves scattered around Britain. Perhaps it is time we deployed the tiger’s roar—to demand better depictions and more honest histories, and to shape our own narratives.

In Chapter 4, “Portraits of the forgotten”, she travels to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, summer retreat of Queen Victoria, now run by English Heritage. An entire corridor there is filled with portrait paintings of Indians of various classes. They show prison inmates from Agra, who had been chosen to stay for six months at the Indian and Colonial Exhibition at the Royal Albert Hall in 1886 to demonstrate the artisan crafts (weaving, carving, engraving, dyeing) that they had learned while in prison. They were housed in a specially-built “native compound” nearby, and escorted by Dr Tyler, superintendent of Agra prison. This was a propaganda exercise, illustrating an idealised picture of India as traditional and primitive in contrast to modern, industrialised Britain.

At the Albert Hall, Victoria’s entourage was greeted by a choir singing the national anthem in English followed by a verse in Sanskrit. Tennyson’s poem for the occasion seems worthy of E.J. Thribb: *

… be welded each and all
Into one imperial whole,
One with Britain, heart and soul!
One life, one flag, one fleet, one throne!
Britons, hold your own!

Manji comments on the fashion for grand exhibitions around Europe at the time. She notes the Jaipur Gateway from the Kensington exhibition, now on show at Hove Museum (“standing in a small front garden, facing a dentist’s surgery and a concrete block of 1960s-style flats”), and is impressed by the Durbar Hall and wooden screens on display at the Hastings Museum. She visits Glasgow to view the remains of a similar exhibition in 1888.

Victoria had a genuine taste for the Orient. She ordered the portraits of the craftspeople from the young Austrian artist Rudolf Swoboda, and even commissioned him to travel around India to paint further portraits. She was so impressed by Abdul Karim, a former clerk at Agra prison, that he became her close confidant. He gave her lessons in the “Hindustani” language and the Urdu writing system. Again, courtiers viewed their relationship with suspicion.

Manji 146
We learn of Ram Singh, whose gifts were cultivated by the artist and curator John Lockwood Kipling (father of Rudyard), an advocate of India’s traditional arts. Victoria commissioned Singh to design and construct an Indian room for Osborne House, “a noble chamber of rare beauty and elegance”.

The depth of Britain’s relationship with the Orient is on display, carved into the walls surrounding us, a reminder of how this history is woven into the very fabric of Britain itself.

Yet, that fabric has been embroidered with the misery of millions, then and now. Those who seek to indulge the twin myths of the British Empire—its virtue and its emergence out of an innate British superiority—are often the most resistant to understanding what empire is in material terms. […]

Of course, the idea that Britain’s transport infrastructure, grandest architecture, art, and wealth could only be built on the massacre and subjugation of millions of people around the world must be maintained by a constant stream of propaganda directed at Britons.

As historians concur, it is here that our heritage sites have a particular responsibility. When they

fail to adequately explain the political contexts in which estates or objects come into the possession of landed families, traders, or imperial officers, they simply serve as vessels to perpetuate the twin myths of the Empire.

Reflecting on Victoria’s distress at her courtiers’ treatment of Abdul Karim, she ends the chapter on a topical note:

It is significant that even Victoria’s mild and purely personal interventions in her court on questions of race would be still be regarded in contemporary Britain as inappropriately “radical” by sections of the commentariat keen to stake out a position as more conservative than parts of the monarchy itself.

As to Abdul Karim,

could he ascend to a position of seniority and influence today? To an extent, his racial identity would be less of a problem. A political, economic, and cultural system that outwardly eschews its reliance on racial hierarchies depends to some extent on well-placed people of colour to provide legitimacy, validation, and a model of how non-threatening minorities ought to behave.

But the proliferation of a vast industry since 2001 aiming to demonise Muslims

means that a contemporary Abdul Karim would be at risk of finding himself on a no-fly list long before his arrival to the UK and, even with well-placed patronage, would be identified as a source of potential “radicalisation” and surveilled. However, if he were willing to serve as a loyal handmaiden to stale, preordained ideas of Britishness that are largely ahistorical, he would be enthusiastically embraced and rise quickly through the ranks, serving as corporeal proof of the supremacy and openness of a society that is in fact deeply insecure about its history and its prevailing ideology.

Chapter 5 begins at the court of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Westminster, which hosted its first event in 1867 for the visit of another Ottoman Sultan. Manji gives a vivid account of the pageantry surrounding the Sultan’s tour of England, and explains the diplomatic agendas of the day.

Manji 176

By 1903 the chamber, now named Durbar Court, hosted the rulers of the Indian princely states under the new British King Edward VII, in whose coronation India played a prominent role. On a trip to Liverpool the Indian soldiers were keen to pay homage to the solicitor Abdullah William Quilliam, founder of the city’s Muslim Association. The Maharajah of Jaipur paid a visit to Lord Curzon’s ancestral home of Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, now run by the National Trust and housing a wealth of Asian objets d’art.

Manji ends this chapter by lamenting Britain’s current loss of interest in learning the languages of the Orient. SOAS, founded in 1917, is now offering specialist teaching in fewer languages. That English is the world’s lingua franca is an paltry excuse.

If more of us were multilingual, it would become increasingly ridiculous to demonise those speaking in another tongue.

While the former interest in language learning was substantially related to “national interest”, the current apathy seems to imply that Britain is struggling to come to terms with its waning global importance. On the right,

the bunting-and-borders brand of nationalism leads to the particularly short-sighted assumption that jingoism […] will restore Britain’s pride and prominence.

And she finds that the left too has failed to provide a compelling rebuff.

We should resist attempts to turn Britain into an insular ideological state that demands loyalty to one particular set of beliefs. We can and should be a multilingual society that recognises its own cultural inheritance as complex.

In Chapter 6 Manji visits Brighton, where the “astonishing, surreal, and fantastical” Royal Pavilion (1823) is the most visible sign of Britain’s historical admiration for the Orient. She focuses on the Great War, when the palace was converted into a hospital for wounded Indian soldiers.

More than a million Indians fought for the British in the war, suffering grievously. As hospitals in south England began to overflow, Sir Walter Lawrence, commissioner for the wounded Indian troops, adapted the Brighton Pavilion to accommodate them. This brief introduction has some film footage:

The local population were excited to receive these “warriors from the East”. Many of the nursing staff were of Indian origin. As donations came in, a philosophy society even gave a lecture on “The welding of Western and Eastern thought”.

Manji gains clues to the patients’ own experiences from the letters they attempted to send to their friends and family, often censored but later preserved in the British Library. Despite the weather, many were most appreciative. There was music in the form of Indian records (I wonder what!), and, um, organ recitals. For those “sufficiently convalescent” there was a matinee on the pier to hear music from a Sufi order (again, more please!) and an adaptation of a poem from the Mahabharata.

Still, many were deeply traumatised. And they (as well as Indian student volunteers) were frustrated by restrictions on movement outside the hospital. With the authorities concerned to avoid scandal, local women, though keen to serve as nurses, were not allowed to do so.

Manji colour 2Manji again returns to an earlier story, that of Deen Mohammed (1759–1851), who led a most creative life. Born in Patna, he worked for the East India Company army. At the age of 26, helped by a patron, he moved to colonial Ireland, where, moving in “somewhat elite circles”, he married a Protestant woman. Twenty years later he moved with his family to London. He was the first Indian to publish a book in English; and he opened an Oriental coffee-house—which in 1810 became the first curry house in Britain, which even provided a delivery service! ** The restaurant was short-lived, so he now made his home in Brighton, where he set up a Turkish bath-house with his wife, popularising “shampoo”—actually a medicinal Indian vapour massage bath. The establishment became “the epitome of fashion in Brighton for nearly two decades”.

Manji 204
Manji colour 3

Back with the Indian patients in the Great War, they were also disturbed that on recovery they were repeatedly being sent back to the trenches. A personal request to George V to end the practice made by Mir Dast, who had received the Victoria Cross for bravery, seems to have gone unheeded. And they often felt like prisoners. After a compromise had been reached on allowing female nurses, in June 1915 they were again removed, amidst protest.

Manji 205

Manji investigates mortuary procedures—cremation for Hindus and Sikhs, burial for Muslims. By early 1916 Indian soldiers were largely deployed away from Europe, and the casualties were no longer sent to Britain, so the Brighton hospitals were closed.

But the politics over how they should be recognised—or indeed acknowledging that recognition was due at all—continued in Britain, and does to this day.

She visits memorials, maintained sporadically until a recent revival in remembrance, with the Muslim burial ground at Woking particularly well restored since 2013—“a place Britain can be proud of”.

The Indian gate at the Brighton Pavilion was not added until 1921, and only since 2010 has it had an attic room dedicated to the memory of the patients.

Despite the best efforts of historical institutions and campaigners, across Britain the memory of these men still feels forgotten. […] The story of the Indian men who fought for Britain and those who came to the country wounded are somehow still not seen as an integral part of Britain’s national memory of war.

This feeds into the “myths of Britain standing alone or of the war only being fought by Europeans”. But a “poppy hijab” designed by a young Muslim student almost became a test of patriotism;

sadly the clothing choices of Muslim women once again became tokens in a political and cultural battle. The conversation turned to extremism and integration, rather than true remembrance.

After this poignant closing chapter, in the Epilogue Fatima Manji reflects on the moral panics that have been manufactured through history. She cautions against regarding the embracing of Oriental culture in the past as merely an elite pursuit. And she reflects on the raging debate (over statues, museums, and so on) since she began researching the book:

The myth of British Empire as a civilising mission is a fairytale enthusiastically endorsed by many British adults who otherwise perceive themselves as unrelenting sceptics. This peculiar delusion is the result of a system of schooling, cultural production, and political discourse which reinforces the fantasy at the expense of a collective national reckoning…

At the moment, our heritage sites are not performing the task of reframing the national story and placing “Britain’s relationship with the cultures and peoples of the Orient in its proper context”. She cites promising initiatives from the National Trust.

Of course, it is important to ensure those people who would not ordinarily visit heritage sites do so—that is part of the purpose of this book too. But visitors or potential visitors to heritage sites who have their own Oriental heritage should not be seen as grateful guests who need to be taught the ways and myths of “native” Britons. By choice and by bondage, we made these islands too.

Historians have been working on such stories for some time within their academic niches, and the book has an extensive section of references grouped by chapter; well illustrated with both colour and black-and-white images, the thoughtful, accessible survey of Hidden heritage, argued with both grace and passion, is most valuable.

See also Heritage: a roundup, including posts on China and early music; and my collected posts on west and Central Asia.


* Even-handed in my poetry criticism, I have suggested a similar connection in the ouevre of the Tang poet Bai Juyi.

** This was even before Berlioz composed his March to the Scaffold, immortalised with Indian-menu lyrics by London orchestral musicians in the 1960s when it seemed like a novel concept. Little did we know…


[1] Further to Ottoman historian Caroline Finkel’s article on the British suppression of history, the recent links below (compiled with her help) suggest what a major issue this has already become—and this is a mere selection.
The National Trust:
https://nt.global.ssl.fastly.net/documents/colionialism-and-historic-slavery-report.pdf
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/08/23/britains-idyllic-country-houses-reveal-a-darker-history
https://lbsatucl.wordpress.com/2021/02/17/culture-wars-in-country-houses-what-the-national-trust-controversy-tells-us-about-british-history-today/
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/oct/13/national-trust-warns-of-threat-from-ideological-campaign-waged-against-it
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/oct/13/national-anti-woke-campaign-slavery-churchill-culture-war
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/oct/16/cream-teas-at-dawn-inside-the-war-for-the-national-trust
English Heritage:
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/histories/contested-history/
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/research/slavery/
https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2021/oct/16/racist-attack-on-english-heritage-exhibition-celebrating-black-lives
Museums and galleries:
https://www.britishmuseum.org/about-us/british-museum-story/contested-objects-collection
https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2019/jun/21/british-museum-head-in-sand-return-artefacts-colonial
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2021/nov/08/national-gallery-publishes-research-into-slave-trade-links
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2021/nov/28/tate-exhibition-to-explore-gallerys-links-to-caribbean-slave-trade
https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2021/11/24/tate-britain-director-defends-museum-against-accusations-of-cancelling-hogarth
https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2019/jun/29/should-museums-return-their-colonial-artefacts
Legacies of British Slavery:
https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/
The Church of England:
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/09/remove-or-alter-your-slavery-monuments-churches-are-told
and the Rijksmuseum:
https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2021/07/09/the-big-review-slavery-at-the-rijksmuseum
More on anti-woke:
https://inews.co.uk/news/politics/charities-woke-agenda-nadine-dorries-1232415
https://www.theguardian.com/society/2022/feb/20/attack-on-woke-charities-has-backfired-campaigners-say
David Olusoga on statues, BLM, and so on:
https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2021/jun/07/david-olusoga-race-reality-historian-black-britishness
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/07/arts/television/david-olusoga-black-history.html
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/dec/26/culture-warriors-sallied-forth-only-to-be-defeated-by-their-own-ineptitude
(and I haven’t attempted to cover Confederate statues in the USA).
Other:
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/apr/21/uk-inquiry-blames-pervasive-racism-for-unequal-commemoration-of-black-and-asian-troops
https://historyjournal.org.uk/2020/07/21/historians-call-for-a-review-of-home-office-citizenship-and-settlement-test/
Perhaps we can give the last word to Stewart Lee (again, cf. his riposte to Amanda Platell’s complaint about Bake Off):
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/aug/21/national-trust-members-get-ready-to-choke-on-your-carrot-cake

The body politic

Sanna

As you may imagine, I know even less about Finnish politics than some of the other topics that I write about. But after Prime Minister Sanna Marin‘s praiseworthy handling of Covid and the Ukraine crisis, the recent furore over her dancing at a private house party reminded me of Susan McClary’s critique of the denial of the body, the puritanical relegation of sensuous enjoyment, on which Western Art Music has long prided itself.

AOCRather than rejoicing in Sanna Marin’s humanity, some people have queried her “lapse of judgment”. Apparently what disturbs them is that she is seriously cool. Oh well, good to know that even in Scandinavia there are some puritanical fuckwits. It also reminds me strongly of the faux outrage over the video of the wise AOC dancing, to which she gave such a brilliant riposte.

But Sanna Marin also has a lot of support, and YAY!!!, Scandi women have retorted, posting their own videos of them dancing and drinking in solidarity.

With a very few other honourable exceptions, the spectacle of politicians dancing generally ends in tears. Just imagine how fortunate we would be to have such a PM in Britain, rather than the lying, self-serving, xenophobic bunch of crooks that currently holds us to ransom (see also my fantasy Jacob Tree-Frog Ribena scandal). Sure, being “entitled to relax” has been the default mode of our own “Prime Minister”, only in a bumbling, inept, and corrupt fashion (“roving briefs”, perhaps).

Surely it’s a blessed relief to know that politicians can still be Real Human Beings. FFS, Get a Life, Ye Olde Puritans.

Early Turkish verismo

Some depictions of rural life in Turkish cinema of the 1950s and 60s.

Law of the border poster

In my post on the Zaza Kurds I mentioned Yilmaz Güney. One of his first movies in a substantial ouevre was

which he wrote, also taking the leading role of Hidir. It’s set around a village near Urfa in the Kurdish region on the border of Turkey and Syria, “where lack of education, joblessness and general hopelessness have left the population little choice but to become outlaws in order to survive”.

The forces that push Hidir and his fellow villagers to smuggle and a telling of the plight of the poor and alienated group of people struggling to survive the only way they ever knew, from father to son.

Law of the border

It’s a constant contention between risk and reward —for the smugglers, the herders and the landowners—and the conjoined result is a provincial portrait of constricted desperation on all sides.

Amidst a violent patriarchal society, the film hints at the importance of education, as the teacher Ayşe (the film’s only female character) attempts to persuade Hidir to allow his son Yusuf to attend school.

Yet in the end reality crashes in while duty, survival, and emotions take over nobility, and people revert to what they know, be it teacher, commander, smuggler, or profiteer.

The only copy that survived the 1980 Turkish coup was rescued and restored in 2011 by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. It’s been described as “a Turkish Western”. Here it is:

* * *

  • Susuz yaz (Dry summer) (Metin Erksan, 1964; reviewed e.g. here) had already enjoyed huge international success, although it was banned in Turkey for fear of broadcasting negative images of society.

Dry summer poster

Showing power struggles over access to water in a poor village, as peasants resist the brutish agha Osman’s determination to deprive them of the “blood of the earth”. Jealous of his brother Hasan’s relationship with his young bride Bahar, Osman contrives to have him sent to prison for a crime that he himself committed, leaving him free to molest Bahar. In scenes of rare sexual voyeurism, the story exposes the subordination of women (for Erksan’s feminism, see here). It was filmed in Urla district of Izmir on the Aegean coast—and at a time when Turkish film used the standard language, most of the actors speak in Aegean accents. * The soundtrack effectively uses both traditional bağlama and remarkably avant-garde styles.

Watch here.

Dry summer

For a review of these two films, click here

* * *

Over a decade earlier, in 1952 Metin Erksan had made the biopic

about the renowned blind Alevi bard Aşik Veysel (see here; cf. Kurdish bards, and blind bards of Ukraine and China; see also here).

Asik film poster

Shot in Aşik Veysel’s native village in Sivas, again the film was censored for depicting the harshness of rural life.

Asik Veysel still

Sorry, no subtitles, and with some breaks in sound:

With the Turkish film scene already dominated by urbane commercialism, such films controversially depicted rural deprivation and conflict. Cf. Omar Amiralay’s 1974 documentary Everyday life in a Syrian village.


Hulya* Dry Summer was the debut role of Hülya Koçyiğit (b.1947)—click here for her experience of making the film. I note with typical superfluity that she was brought up in Kuzguncuk—as she recalls in this interview for the Turkish Agricultural and Forestry Magazine, that indispensable cultural organ (cf. The Milk Producers’ Weekly Bulletin and Cowkeepers’ Guide).

The sceptical feminist

Sceptical cover

In between the second and third waves of feminism came a remarkable book:

Regrettably, it’s out of print, but you can—and must—read it here. I first read the book soon after it was first published, and it remains an inspiring analysis, addressing the topic with dispassionate philosophical clarity.

In the Introduction she explains:

This book is a battle on two fronts. On the one hand, it takes issue with the many people who think that there is no justification for the existence of the feminist movement: the ones who think that women’s demand for equality with men was misguided in the first place, or that they have now got it, or that women are better off than men. On the other hand, it is equally against a good deal of feminist dogma and practice. For all the strength of the fundamental feminist case, feminists often weaken it by missing the strongest arguments in its support, or allowing themselves to get entangled in non-essential issues, or insisting on making integral to the feminist cause ideas which are either irrelevant, probably false, or actually against the interests of feminists and often everybody else as well. If the arguments which are to be presented here succeed in their intention, feminism will emerge from the enquiry as necessarily radical, but with firmer foundations, less vulnerability to attack, and at the same time more general acceptability than it has at present.

Her basic definition of the issue is broad:

Women suffer from systematic social injustice because of their sex.

Although people do usually think of feminists as being committed to particular ideologies and activities, rather than a very general belief that society is unjust to women, what is also undoubtedly true is that feminism is regarded by nearly everyone as the movement which represents the interests of women.

She notes the “apparently ineradicable human tendency to take sides”:

While it would be ideal if everyone could just assess each controversial problem on its own merits as it arose, what actually happens is that people usually start by deciding whose side they are on, and from then onwards tend to see everything that is said or done in the light of that alliance. The effects of this on the struggle for sexual justice have been very serious. The conflation of the idea of feminism as a particular ideology with that of feminism as a concern with women’s problems means that people who do not like what they see of the ideology (perhaps because they are keen on family life, or can’t imagine a world without hierarchies, or just don’t like unfeminine women) may also tend to brush aside, explain away, sneer at, or simply ignore all suggestions that women are seriously badly treated. Resistance to the feminist movement easily turns into a resistance to seeing that women have any problems at all.

Since there is no doubt that feminism is commonly thought of as having a monopoly on the representation of women’s interests, therefore, and since all feminists, however firm their ideological commitments, must want as many people as possible to be willing to listen to their arguments about the position of women rather than reacting with hostility whenever the subject of feminism comes up, it is in the interests of everyone who cares about justice to have as many people as possible thinking of themselves as feminists. That is the main reason why the wider definition is needed.

There is also another reason. If feminists themselves think of feminism as the movement which defends women’s interests and also as being ideologically committed in a particular direction, the effect will be to fossilise current feminist views. Any feminist who has the idea that giving up her current views is equivalent to giving up feminism may be very unwilling to look at her views critically and abandon them if they are implausible. But however committed any feminist may be to her ideology, she must allow that there is a difference between maintaining the ideology and accepting more generally that women are unjustly treated, and since human fallibility means that she may turn out to be wrong about the first, it seems better that feminism should be thought of as the wider of the two.

Thus she defines feminism as a movement for the elimination of sex-based injustice—which also allows men to count as feminists.

Admittedly, men claiming to be feminists have to be viewed with a certain amount of caution, since many have already discovered (sometimes without realising it) that pretensions to feminism are new and valuable weapons in the cause of male supremacy. […]

Some men are quite as capable of useful logical thinking and scientific investigation as women.

So it’s neither a movement of women nor a movement for women.

It obviously cannot be one which supports the interests of women under all circumstances, because there must be many situations where, even now, women treat men unjustly, and a movement concerned with justice cannot automatically take the side of any woman against any man. However, more subtly, feminism should not even regard itself as a movement to support women who suffer from injustice. This is because many injustices suffered by individual women have nothing to do with their sex, and could equally well be suffered by men. If, for instance, there are men and women in slavery, it is not the business of feminists to start freeing the women. Feminism is not concerned with a group of people it wants to benefit, but with a type of injustice it wants to eliminate. The distinction is important, even though on the whole the elimination of that injustice will benefit more women than men. Once again, this consequence of the new definition does no harm: on the contrary, it is far more reasonable to ask people to support a movement against injustice than a movement for women.

She makes a case for the philosophical approach, beyond debates about practical matters:

Feminism often suffers from staying too close to women, and not looking enough at the general principles which have to be worked out and then applied to women’s problems.

So the broader topics of the early chapters (“The fruits of unreason”, “The proper place of nature”, “Enquiries for liberators”, “Sexual justice”, all cogently argued) set the scene for her discussion of practical issues of specific concern in society. Here I’ll give a few instances of the latter.

Progress has since been made in some circles on some of the issues discussed in Chapter 5, “The feminist and the feminine”.

The fear that an emancipated woman must necessarily be an unfeminine one has always been the basis of one of the opposition’s main objections to feminism.

Femininity and masculinity are obviously not the same as maleness and femaleness. […] We must therefore be concerned with attributes which are in some way supposed to accompany these fundamentally sexual ones, and the question is of what kind of accompaniment is at issue.

As she notes, these attributes are the subject of much anxiety. The “desirable” quality of “femininity” “is obviously thought a very fragile thing, since so much trouble is gone to on its behalf”. Feminists are not concerned about any inherent characteristics differentiating the sexes; rather, they ponder the fact that

men and women are under different social pressures, encouraged to do different kinds of work, behave differently, and develop different characteristics.

She ably refutes Ruskin’s “sugary gloss of ‘equal but different’ “, and analyses direct and indirect social pressures. But the problem of eradicating the evils of culturally imposed femininity needs to be approached with some circumspection; she is wary of direct attacks on all forms of “femininity”. Among her arguments is people’s general appreciation of cultural differences;

While feminists must be committed to attacking all cultural distinctions which actually degrade women, the indiscriminate pursuit of an androgynous culture must involve the elimination of innocuous cultural differences as well, and with them the sources of a great deal of pleasure to many people.

In Chapter 6, “Woman’s work”, she first addresses the issue of “whether the work is of a kind which ought to be highly valued, or whether it is possible for it to be highly valued”. Then she considers the age-old dichotomy of public (male) and private (female) activity, and their different statuses:

If women’s work is private it is necessarily without status, and any promise to give it higher status must be vacuous.

She cites Betty Friedan’s story of a successful female journalist interviewing a housewife in 1949, who “has done nothing of what she planned to do in her youth, she has wasted her education, and she feels a general failure”.

“Then the author of the paean, who somehow never is a housewife, … roars with laughter. The trouble with you, she scolds, is you don’t realise you are expert in a dozen careers, simultaneously. ‘You might write: Business manager, cook, nurse, chauffeur, dressmaker, interior decorator, accountant, caterer, teacher, private secretary… you are one of the most successful women I know.’ “

As Betty Friedan rightly implies, this sort of thing is the purest rubbish, so entirely beside the point that it is hard to know where to begin criticising it. Its technique consists in totally ignoring the real complaint, pretending it is something else, and arguing that that something else is quite unjustified.

JRR does indeed go on to criticise the “patronising rubbish” of the “paean” with both care and passion. Yet such flapdoodle still went on when The sceptical feminist was written; and while progress has been made, it can still be heard today.

It is no part of feminism to insist that a woman should work at other things even though her children suffer as a consequence, but it is part of feminism to insist that there is something radically wrong with a system which forces so many women to choose between caring properly for their children and using their abilities fully. […]

It is not in the least obvious how this is to be done, but that is a reason for devoting the full energy and imagination of everyone who has any of either to trying to find a way. […]

To hold up home and family as the highest vocation of all is to try to cheat women into doing less than they might, and wasting their abilities.

She always puts the counter-argument—and then refutes it. She continues by considering goodness and altruism;

Women above all people are the ones who must resist the idea that the greatest good a woman can do is get on quietly with her limited work, because it is so transparently the result of men’s subjugation of women. […]

As long as the people who excel in the most important work are without status, it means that society undervalues their work, and as long as that happens society has the wrong values. […]

… What this suggests is that when women are indeed allowed to excel, even if they do it in slightly different areas from men’s, there is at least the possibility that things which are associated with women may become as highly regarded as the ones associated with men.

Since it may well be true that women will tend of their own volition to do different things (though of course we do not yet know), it is essential that we should try to make that equal respect come about.

Parts of Chapter 7, “The unadorned feminist”, may again appear somewhat dated, but while courting controversy she makes some most stimulating points.

There is no doubt at all that many feminists regard the rejection of “woman garbage” as a substantial issue, a thing which feminism ought to be committed to, rather than just a gesture. […]

Many feminists regard women who persist in clinging to their traditional trappings as traitors to the cause, while on the other hand to many non-feminists this austerity in the movement is one of its most unattractive aspects.

She explores the issues, starting with the obvious causes for feminist concern. First,

the amount of time, effort, and money which women are by convention expected to devote to their appearance, when no comparable demands are made of men. […]

If women are to succeed in the important things of life, it must be possible for them to be more negligent about dress, if they want to, without sacrificing social presentability in the process.

Further, the standards to be reached are impossibly high; mass culture allows for insufficient room for diversity; and the demands of the fashion industry are constricting. Of course, progress in such issues has been ongoing, and new generations of feminists have continued to probe them.

People have, after all, to choose their clothes whatever they are, and a feminist whose main motivation was to put as little time and money into them as possible should presumably go around in the first and cheapest thing she could find in a jumble sale, even if it happened to be a shapeless turquoise Crimplene dress with a pink cardigan. No feminist would be seen dead in any such thing. […] Style is important.

(Now I’m no fashion guru, but I rather think the outfit she parodies there would today be considered rather chic; still, it’s a good point.)

This is even clearer in the case of the great majority of feminists who do go to some little trouble to be clean and neat and pleasant. They too tend to go for the unfeminine feminist uniform, but this has obviously nothing to do with effort. With just as little effort, if they wanted to, they could wear all the time a single comfortable, pretty, simple, easily-washed, drip-dry dress, so avoiding all the problems of fashion, variety, time, money, and effort without giving up being pretty and feminine at the same time. […]

She ponders the issue further:

It is supposed to be bad to want people as objects of pleasure, but it cannot possibly be bad to want them because they give pleasure; there is no other possible basis for love than what is in some way pleasing to the lover.

She disputes the romantic tradition that love should be a purely altruistic passion, and the testing game of “Would you still love me if I were (poor, ugly, crippled…)?”

We love people for qualities they have which are pleasing to us. […]

It is not intrinsically degrading for women to want men; it has been degrading only because in the past men have not had to bother much about how pleasing they were to women, while women have had to go all out to please men even to survive. In a position of equal dependence and independence between men and women it would not be in the least degrading for either to want, and try to please, the other.

Discussing sensual pleasure, she explores the notion of women as sex objects.

If the aim of the deliberately unadorned feminist is to make sure that men who have the wrong attitude to women have no interest in her, she is likely to succeed.

The best-judging man alive, confronted with two women identical in all matters of the soul but not equal in beauty, could hardly help choosing the beautiful one. Whatever anyone’s set of priorities, the pleasing in all respects must be preferable to the pleasing in only some, and this means that any feminist who makes herself unattractive must deter not only the men who would have valued her only for her less important aspects, but many of the others too.

She argues against the notion that “if you do not care at all about people’s beauty you are morally superior to someone who does”. Those holding such a view

must also think it is bad to care about beauty at all, since beauty is the same sort of thing whether it is in paintings, sunsets, or people, and someone who does not care about beauty in people is someone who simply does not care about beauty.

(I suspect this needs elaborating. People often have blind spots about particular areas of aesthetics: not all of those who admire sunsets appreciate painting, a film buff may not have a taste for interior design, and so on. I’m sure she can clarify my doubt here!)

Now of course beauty is often a low priority, and it is morally good to care relatively little about it when people are hungry, or unjustly treated, or unhappy in other ways. [….] It is not actually wicked to be aesthetically insensitive, but neither is it a virtue, any more than being tone deaf, or not feeling the cold, or having no interest in philosophy or football.

As to sex,

If sensual pleasing is a good thing, why not wear pretty clothes? Why not, in suitable circumstances, dress in ways that are deliberately sexy? […] To refuse to do that may show that you are not interested in men who are interested in sex, but that is a personal preference, and nothing to do with feminist ideals.

Although it may be morally good to give up sensual pleasure to achieve some other end, there is nothing to be said for giving it up unless there is some other end to achieve.

Discussing packaging and degradation, she takes issue with “natural beauty”.

The question of how much effort is worth putting into beauty has nothing to do with feminism. It tends to look like a feminist matter, of course, because it is generally accepted that women make themselves beautiful for men while men go to no such trouble for women, but the idea that this has anything to do with women’s not caring about beauty in men is a most extraordinary myth. They have not, of course, generally been able to demand it. […]

It is the asymmetry of power that is the feminist question.

Anyone who wants a puritanical movement should call it that, and not cause trouble for feminism by trying to suggest that the two are the same.

The chapter moves on to issues relating to sex work—and incidentally suggests a novel way of regarding pianists:

It is quite clear that we do not in general think that there is anything intrinsically wrong with being interested only in certain aspects of people, pleasing people by means of particular skills, entering competitions against other people of similar skill, or earning an income by the use of particular abilities. For instance, suppose a singer heard a splendid pianist at a concert; he might fantasise about giving concerts with her, with no thought about her which went beyond her musical ability. [She explains “they are implied to be of opposite sex only because of the analogy to be drawn with sexual relationships, and for no other reason.”] He might try to meet her, in the hope that she would be willing to enter into a limited musical relationship, and she might agree. She might also happily play the piano to please people who were not in the least interested in other aspects of her. She might enter competitions. And certainly she would try to earn her living by playing the piano for the entertainment of people who enjoyed listening to music. […]

Why should it be acceptable to be paid for charming people’s ears with beautiful sounds, but not for delighting men’s fancies with strip shows and prostitution?

It is said that these things degrade women, and at present they certainly do. However, there is quite enough degradation in the surrounding circumstances to account for women’s being degraded, without having to resort to the idea that there is something bad about unsanctioned or commercially motivated sex. Women are degraded by these things because of the public contempt they suffer, because of the fact that they have to take these activities up whether they want to or not when there is no other way to make a living, and worst of all because once they have sunk to this level they must suffer endless degradations which result from their weak position. […] However, other things, like teaching and manual work, have been made degrading by social attitudes, and in cases like that we have tried to remove the degradation rather than persuade people not to do the work. […]

Sex is said to be cheapened by money. Why should it be, however? Nursing care is a thing which is often given for love, but we don’t think nurses cheapen themselves or the profession when they earn their living by it; we think it is an excellent thing that these people should be able to use their skills all the time, and care for more than just their families and friends.

She struggles to adduce reasons why sex is inherently so different.

The real feminist problem is the unfairness of the present bargaining situation, and the fact that women are in a position to be exploited, and degraded in that way. That certainly has to be attacked with full feminist force.

At the heart of the problem is that “many men do not treat women properly”. And she considers the issue of women’s culture;

the fact that interests and cultures grew under conditions of confinement does not make them less the real culture of that group.

Doubtless women making themselves “deliberately unattractive” was an issue at the time. But she also broaches the important question, “why does everyone presume that the beautification of women is all for men?”, and indeed, later generations have worked this one out. I imagine some younger feminists would wish to further unpack her arguments here about the nature of beauty and attractiveness, and their basis in the male gaze.

Chapter 8, “Society and the fertile woman”, discusses the issues of whether contraception and abortion should be allowed, and whether they should be free. The lengthy section on abortion is all the more relevant today with the shameful reversal of Roe vs. Wade. Chapter 9, “Society and the mother”, explores arrangements for childcare, and whether the state or parents should pay for it.

Chapter 10, “The unpersuaded”, returns to the problem that, despite the strength of the feminist case, the movement was still broadly unpopular. Pondering remedies for this situation, she discusses three issues in turn: that there is no reasonable feminist case at all; that it is exaggerated; and that the image of the movement is unattractive. She responds cogently to a series of objections.

The greatest possible care must be taken not to make the uphill grind even worse than it need be, through the careless presentation of a feminist image and feminist policies which drive the movement’s natural supports back into the traditional camp. If a more careful formulation of radical feminist policies will lead not only to a better plan for the future, but also to a kind of radical feminism which is attractive and understandable to the people who are at present its opponents, then no feminists—least of all the ones who feel that reason has no place in political achievement—can afford to be careless in argument. The very impossibility of reaching most of the unpersuaded by the force of reason becomes the final demonstration of the indispensability of care in argument amongst feminists themselves.

* * *

The 1994 edition has two further Appendices clarifying and augmenting her arguments. And in her new Introduction she reflects on reactions to the book, and acknowledges that the book displays “period features”; but while many once-controversial campaigns had been won (and other issues were becoming prominent, such as LGBT rights and pornography), most of the questions she confronts remained apposite. In the public forum, she notes, a change of rhetoric need not always imply a change of substance.

Today, as feminists deplore “the return of sexism” (Natasha Walter, Living dolls), many arguments revolve around mundane issues for women such as merely staying alive, let alone retaining control over their own bodies or achieving equal pay.

But after all these years, with so many feminist authors building on the work of previous generations (in Britain, an outstanding instance is Laura Barton’s Everyday Sexism campaign; and cf. the succinct, accessible manifestos of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche), these issues remain highly apposite—not least the reluctance of some women (and indeed men) to identify as feminists.

Sadly, Janet Radcliffe Richards’ philosophical pursuits haven’t resulted in further publications on feminism—but her three lectures from 2017 on “Sex in a shifting landscape” start here. I’d also love to see her sinking her philosophical teeth into PC gone mad, and Brexit.

See also Gender: a roundup, including Words and women, Sexual politics, The handmaid’s tale, and for a suitable playlist, You don’t own me. For an introduction to gender and music, see under Flamenco 2: gender, politics, wine, deviance.

.

The Queen Mother of the West in Taiwan

Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan this week for an audience with President Tsai Ing-wen was both bold and costly. As she tweeted,

America’s solidarity with the 23 million people of Taiwan is more important today than ever, as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy.

But at such a highly sensitive moment in world affairs, her trip has inflamed relations with the PRC, prompting much ominous sabre-rattling from them; and according to many China-watchers, and indeed the US government, it was ill-advised. So far not only has the PRC regime escalated the war of words, but it is retaliating seriously by launching live-fire military drills.

Pelosi’s visit was illustrated by this striking image that has been making the rounds on social media:

Pelosi

The transliteration Nanxi Peiluoxi 南西 佩洛西 is felicitous (cf. Shuaike 帥克 for Švejk). Her Italian parents migrated west (xi 西), and her mother came from the south (nan 南); more to the point, in the image above the final xi character has been elided into the popular deity Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu 西王母). * It illustrates the, um, nexus between sacred and secular power that one finds so often in Chinese religion, both before and since the 1949 “Liberation” (such as the ritual associations of Hebei; see e.g. my Plucking the winds). And on opulent processions in both Taiwan and Fujian across the strait, such god images are borne aloft on palanquins to re-assert territorial boundaries.

Mazu
Mazu. Source.

Still, by contrast with Pelosi’s excursion, pilgrimages for the seafarers’ goddess Mazu 媽祖 have been a major factor since the 1980s in the political, economic, and cultural rapprochement of people on both sides of the strait (see e.g. here).

President Tsai also awarded Pelosi the civilian Order of Propitious Clouds with Special Grand Cordon (Qingyun xunzhang 卿雲勳章)—another ritual title (cf. deities such as Houtu, enfeoffed as Chengtian xiaofa Houtu huangdi 承天效法后土皇帝). Perhaps Nancy Patricia D’Alesandro Pelosi’s Italian-American background further enhances the ritual connection, recalling the Madonna pilgrimage (another niangniang female deity) of Italian Harlem.

And as to Pelosi and Catholicism, click here for a discussion of an extraordinary image from the Chinese embassy in France, depicting the Virgin Mary (Pelosi) as a baby-stealing witch. 

For Pelosi’s “long history of opposing Beijing”, including her 1991 visit to Tiananmen to commemorate the victims of the 1989 demonstrations, click here.

Pelosi Tiananmen

Meanwhile, as rabid nationalist Hu Xijin of the Chinese Global Times denounced Pelosi’s visit, Chinese netizens have fabricated an unlikely fantasy love affair between them:

Pelosi Hu

Just as unlikely, “back in the USA”, for once, Fox News and Mitch McConnell—normally Pelosi’s harshest critics—are full of praise for her initiative.

* * *

Around the time of Obama’s visit to China in 2009, “Obamao” T-shirts (“serve the people”) were sold in Beijing before being banned:

ObamaoSource.

While the T-shirts made a popular kitsch image in Beijing, adroitly combining enthusiasm for a foreign icon with misplaced nostalgia for Mao, in the USA they were soon in demand among Obama’s opponents, who fatuously compared his health-care reform with the Holocaust.

The world is a complicated place (You Heard It Here First).


I suppose most people read it simply as “Nanxi Peiluoxi wangmu niangniang” rather than “Nanxi Peiluo Xiwangmu niangniang”, but it’s a nice ambiguity—cf. the classic story of the hilarious misconstruing of a report on Prince Sihanouk’s visit to China!

Lionesses, YAY and hmm

🥂🥂🥂🥂🥂🥂🥂🥂🥂🥂🥂

Euro headlines

The women’s Euro football tournament has been most inspiring, and the media coverage impressive too!

Amidst all the celebration, as the dénouement approached, two worthy talking points were gleefully slapped down by the PC-gone-mad brigade (cf. Stewart Lee).

RenardAs Anita Asante observed, three of this year’s four semi-final teams were dazzlingly white—the fourth, France, has a substantial and brilliant component of black and brown players, including the captain Wendie Renard.

The English women’s game hasn’t always been quite so white (Hope Powell, Alex Scott, Anita Asante, Nikita Parris, and so on; cf. Bend it like Beckham), but there is clearly a structural problem (see also here, and here). The world of commerce seems keen to celebrate some notional diversity, as in this advertisement. The English men’s squad is quite diverse, but when the team lost in the final of the recent Euros the black players became scapegoats, receiving racist abuse (see also my vignette in the Comments section below).

After the women’s semi-final, Woman’s hour hosted a rather innocuous discussion. Now, we all delight in England’s success (and that of Germany, for that matter, and the whole tournament); the contributions from Anita Asante, Robyn Cowen, and Jacqui Oatley were largely celebratory, but presenter Emma Barnett, reading out a query from a listener, also touched—very lightly—on the apparent sexism of the term “lionesses”.

Predictably, the tabloids lost no time in flying off the handle (Daily mail: “Fans slam calls to change England women’s football team’s ‘sexist’ Lionesses nickname“—the verbal “slam”, like “quiz”, as in “Cops Quiz Immigrants in Drugs Probe”, is a sure pointer to imminent fatuity). While the Loony Right rejoices in losing its rag, the issue seems to require the dispassionate analytical skills of a Janet Radcliffe Richards.

Critics like Piers Morgan and “Culture Secretary” Nadine Dorries (WTAF)—veritable Wittgensteins for our age—come to the defence of “lionesses”, so we can Rest Our Case. Dorries lived in Africa for a year, SO THERE! And Morgan called it “the single most pathetic virtue-signalling campaign ever. […] Just stick a cork in it, you wretched gender-deranged woke wastrels”. All we need for a Full House of Loonies is Jeremy Clarkson and Jacob Tree-Frog.

The Express sounds almost reasonable:

Championing a women’s football team whose nickname embodies female power and pack or team mentality through the image of a pride of lionesses is empowering to women and girls, not demeaning in a sexist way.

But while Anita Asante has no issue with the term lionesses, I find the discussion around zoological verisimilitude (“the FEMALE beasts do the hunting while the males sleep”—Take That!) somewhat of a red herring. Of course, English has a range of terms for male and female animals; of the latter, FWIW, most are separate words, with only lion, tiger, and leopard having female versions ending in “-ess”. To thicken the plot, the English men’s football team aren’t called “lions”—that’s a name for men’s rugby union teams.

I’m more concerned about the linguistic use of “–ess” to denote a variant of the assumed male norm. Besides the animal kingdom, words like actress, waitress, and sorceress have indeed been falling out of fashion, whereas princess (like the whole monarchical system) seems resilient. It’s no simple matter, but it doesn’t seem too revolutionary to query the use of a feminine ending when referring to women.

The Express insidiously undermined the feminist cause:

For many, the idea of changing the name from one of female empowerment to hide behind a more “masculine” term is in itself sexist. […] It is also contributing to the fatigue felt by many with those who identify as feminists [so there!] and nit-pick on such ideas which attempt to re-write femininity into a negative connotation.

Media discussion of sexist coverage, such as this from Grazia, seems to have been rare.

Anyway, all attempts (“these days“) at debating racism and sexism provide yet another rallying cry for the PC-gone-mad, anti-woke brigade, gleefully able to speak their own language again and scoff their bendy bananas, singing Rule Britannia! and waving their Union Jacks as they deplore judges who come down on the side of human rights—like the immigrant’s pet cat furore.

The tournament was delightful; but would it really be so unladylike to question the status quo (cf. Feminist humour)? None of this detracts from the celebration. For BBC TV, Alex Scott and Ian Wright were exhilarated at the same time as they faced the issues.

For more on women’s football (and women’s tennis, another inspiring story), see under A sporting medley: ritual and gender, including Belated recognition and Hope for our future.

Querying the notion of gender equality in Alevism

17+

Among the women commenting astutely in the recent online discussion on Freedom of Belief and Gender in Turkey was Ceren Ataş, who is part of a group called 17♀ Alevi women (Twitter: @17AleviKadinlar; Facebook, etc.).

Ceren Atas

At a considerable remove from the patriarchy of mainstream Islam, gender equality is a beacon of Alevism (cf. here and here)—so it’s worth listening to Alevi women challenging the truth of the notion, as Ceren Ataş did in her presentation (from 37.15), and succinctly here (following an interview with Gülfer Akkaya) on a useful forum (see also e.g. here).

Gendered identitiesA more detailed discussion is

  • Fazilet Ahu Öhmen, “Alevi women and patriarchy”, in
    Rasim Özgur Dönmez and Fazilet Ahu Öhmen (eds),
    Gendered identities: criticizing patriarchy in Turkey (2013).

As to theology, Alevis don’t subscribe to the genesis myth: all (both women and men) share one ungendered can “life, soul”. Still, the debate hinges on social experience. Alevi women may indeed enjoy rather greater latitude in lifestyle than their mainstream Sunni counterparts; and in cem ritual practice, both women and men take part actively—sitting, praying, and dancing together.

Alevi cem 17

Sema dance at cem ritual, Istanbul 2021.

However, even if flanked by a respected “Mother/Sister” wife, the (male) dede elder remains dominant. He is the mentor of the community, presiding over the cem and taking responsibility for social and economic decisions. The portraits of the Twelve (male) Imams gaze down sternly over the proceedings. Many Alevi women, discouraged from working outside the home (even in the big cities, where their earning power is important for the family), are still disadvantaged—partly as a consequence of seeking not to alienate the Sunni majority by appearing too different. Of course it’s hard to generalise, either about urban and rural Alevi women, or about women’s roles in Turkey more broadly. But the theory of equality deserves to be checked against social reality.

Kaliarda, Lubunca, Polari

Fleeting flirtFrom the journal Πεταχτό Κόρτε (Fleeting Flirt), “one of the risqué magazines of the time, with half-naked women drawn on the front cover, cartoons with innuendo-laced captions showing ladies in negligées, poems and witticisms full of double entendres”. Source.

Further to the French Verlan, and the secret language of blind musicians in China, the work of Elias Petropoulos (see under Rebetika) led me to Kaliarda, the cant of underworld homosexuals in Athens. Nick Nicholas has written a whole series of twenty-four erudite articles online, starting here.

The speakers of Kaliarda were a cohesive social group, who associated with each other, had their own tavernas and beats, were persecuted by the police, and were socially marginalised. They were gay, they were bottoms (and spoke in derogatory terms about tops), and they referred to themselves with feminine terms. Some of them were prostitutes, and some of them we would now refer to as trans women. 

Kocek miniature
Köçek troupe at a fair” at Sultan Ahmed’s 1720 celebration of his son’s circumcision.
Source: wiki.

Here’s a short documentary:

In Turkey a similar cant called Lubunca [1] was also used by sex workers and the gay “community” (as one says These Days); indeed, in the late Ottoman era it was spoken by the cross-dressing male köcek dancers. Based on Romani, it contains elements of Greek, Arabic, Armenian, and French.

* * *

This leads us closer to (my) home with Polari, a British cant that has declined since the 1960s. Paul Baker has written two books on the topic. [2] Mixing Romance, Romani, and London slang, It was used by “some actors, circus and fairground showmen, professional wrestlers, merchant navy sailors, criminals, sex workers, and the gay subculture”; it’s said to have been used by Punch and Judy street puppet performers. Later Polari incorporated some Yiddish and 1960s’ drug slang.

Some vocabulary:

  • bona good (in Shakespeare! Unlike Philomena Cunk’s putative neologisms)
  • ajax nearby
  • eek face
  • cod tacky
  • lattie room (to let)
  • nanti not, no
  • omi man
  • palone woman (from Italian paglione, “straw mattress”)
  • riah hair
  • rozzer cop (natural adversaries of the subculture, aka “Betty bracelets”, “lily law”, “hilda handcuffs”, “orderly daughters”). 
  • TBH “to be had”, sexually accessible
  • zhoosht smarten up
  • vada see.

I like arva, “to screw”, from Italian chiavare (cf. Burlesque-only’s immortal characterisation of Angela Merkel).

As in other secret languages such as that of blind musicians in China, numbers are interesting:

PolariSource: wiki.

Among words that have entered the mainstream lexicon are

  • acdc
  • barney
  • bevvy
  • bijou
  • blag
  • butch
  • camp
  • cottaging
  • hoofer
  • khazi
  • mince
  • ogle
  • scarper
  • slap [makeup]
  • strides
  • tod
  • [rough] trade.

Julian and Sandy

Polari minced into the wider public consciousness in the 1960s with Julian and Sandy on BBC Radio 4’s comedy series Round the Horne. I had little idea what it all meant, but that was kinda the point. There’s a clip on this page from Polari magazine.

As Paul Baker observes, after homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK in 1967, and as the gay liberation movement gained ground, the need for a secret language passed. While it was now associated with stereotypes often considered, well, naff, the camp image has maintained a certain frisson.

Here’s another bijou documentary:


[1] On Lubunca, the brief wiki article is augmented here; see also e.g.
https://hellenisteukontos.opoudjis.net/kaliarda-xiii-the-turkish-gay-cant/
https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/lubunca-lgbtq-language-slang-turkey
https://attitude.co.uk/article/the-secret-language-used-by-lgbtq-people-in-turkey-1/23524/
https://bianet.org/bianet/toplum/119989-sanatcilardan-ayrimciliga-nakka
https://web.archive.org/web/20210722160725/http://glm.uni-graz.at/etc/publications/GRP-Kyuchukov-Bakker-1999.pdf
https://www.ottomanhistorypodcast.com/2013/12/istanbul-slang.html
https://theworld.org/stories/2015-01-14/world-full-secret-languages-one-used-turkeys-lgbt-community
http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/1/17/turkish-languagesexworkers.html

[2] On Polari, some other sites include
https://web.archive.org/web/20190907173251/http://www.worldwidewords.org/articles/polari.htm
https://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2000/dec/10/life1.lifemagazine3
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/jan/17/gayrights.comment
https://theconversation.com/a-brief-history-of-polari-the-curious-after-life-of-the-dead-language-for-gay-men-72599
and The Polari Bible.

Ethos: one of a kind

Ethos 1

After The Club, I’ve been hooked on Ethos, another fine Turkish TV series on Netflix (Berkun Oya, 2020), again popular both in Turkey and abroad. Among many reviews [1] is this perceptive critique by Haziran Düzkan on the feminist site 5Harfliler, from which I borrow below.

Here’s a trailer:

The Turkish title Bir başkadır (“One of a kind”) alludes to Ayten Alpman’s 1972 song Memleketim (“My homeland”). Set in Istanbul, the story exposes the faultlines within Turkish society. It’s centred around the mesmerising character of Meryem, played by Öykü Karayel. At once naïve and astute, Meryem is a part-time cleaner who lives on the outskirts of Istanbul with her ill-tempered brother Yasin and his traumatised wife Ruhiye. After experiencing fainting spells, Meryem consults the uptight psychiatrist Peri, whose culture is quite different: educated, affluent, and secular, she is prejudiced against openly religious people.

Ethos 2

Peri herself sees the therapist Gülbin, to whom she complains about the growing conservatism in Turkish society. Gülbin, from a Kurdish family, has a fraught relationship with her headscarved sister, a supporter of the ruling AKP Party; and she is having a desultory affair with the feckless playboy Sinan—as is the soap-opera star Melisa, who has some wise words to offer Peri when they meet socially. Meryem is under the influence of the benign hodja of the local mosque—whose daughter Hayrünnisa is a gay electronica fan.

Gradually the paths of this disparate group of urban, working, lonely women intersect; their attempts to seek meaningful relationships with men only exacerbate their sense of alienation.

The first episode ends—somewhat obscurely for outsiders like me—with footage from a concert by Ferdi Özbeğen, evoking a nostalgia for “old Turkey”—as Haziran Düzkan explains, as the gay son of an Armenian mother and a migrant father born in Crete, Özbeğen too carried a social burden on his shoulders. Düzkan also notes that while the finale offers a certain redemption, the (female) characters’ triumphs are petty, suggesting that the real “triumph” is that of the (male) director, “for showing us how much we missed talking about the society rather than getting sick and tired of talking about those in power”.

The filming is distinctive, with evocative scenes of the Istanbul landscape, and static portraits of the characters facing the camera framed against a sumptuous colour palette.

And there can be no better incentive to learn Turkish than to relish the nuance of Meryem’s speech in the exquisite dialogues with her therapist and with her suitor Hilmi.

Ethos 3


[1] E.g.
https://ewn.co.za/2021/01/05/turkey-s-latest-netflix-series-ethos-interrogates-the-country-s-social-divides

https://www.duvarenglish.com/ethos-has-put-us-all-in-the-therapists-office-and-asked-us-to-speak-article-55126

https://www.trtworld.com/life/netflix-s-ethos-takes-turkey-by-storm-41790

https://dmtalkies.com/ethos-tv-series-analysis/

https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/do-not-burn-coffee-beans.

Li Shiyu on folk religion in Philadelphia

來而不往非禮也

LSY cover

We impertinent laowai are used to descending on a Chinese community to interpret its customs, but it’s less common to find Chinese ethnographies of religious life in Western societies.

Li Shiyu 李世瑜 (1922–2010) was a leading authority on Chinese sectarian religion and its “precious scrolls” (baojuan 寶卷). Alongside his historical research, he was concerned to document religious life in current society—although it was hard to broach the latter in China after the 1949 revolution. In his work on the precious scrolls, I have also been impressed by his attention to performance practice. When I met him in the early 1990s he was still going strong, and still doing fieldwork.

Grootaers heying

Li Shiyu undertook his early field training in rural north China in 1947–48, on the eve of the Communist revolution, assisting his teacher, the Belgian Catholic missionary Willem Grootaers, in documenting village temples around the regions of Wanquan, Xuanhua, and Datong. [1] Whereas Grootaers was mainly concerned with listing the material evidence of “cultic units”, Li went further in describing sectarian activity. His resulting thesis Xianzai Huabei mimi zongjiao 现在华北秘密宗教 [Secret religions in China today], was published promptly in 1948, focusing on four sects including the Way of Yellow Heaven (also active in north Shanxi in counties such as Yanggao and Tianzhen, and later documented by scholars such as Cao Xinyu and Liang Jingzhi).

After the 1949 “Liberation” Li’s research was highly circumscribed (like that of countless other scholars such as Wang Shixiang), though he managed to continue his study of the precious scrolls, publishing a major catalogue in 1961. It was only after the liberalisations of the late 1970s following the collapse of the commune system that was he able to resume his work in earnest.

And in that early reform era, from 1984 to 1986 he also spent eighteen months as a Luce Scholar at Pennsylvania University. Hannibal Taubes (always ready to supply a stimulating lead: e.g. here, and here) alerts me to a chapter in Li Shiyu’s memoirs (Li Shiyu huiyilu 李世瑜回憶錄 [2011], pp.296–311) in which he attempted to apply the kind of field methods that he had acquired under Grootaers (described in pp.267–70) to the “folk religions” of the USA, with vignettes of the diverse Christian life of urban Philadelphia.

LSY opening

In his last six months there Li Shiyu made an ethnographic survey of church activity in the university district—an area of twenty streets and some 8,000 inhabitants. The 160 churches there might be large or small, with some shared by more than one denomination; seventeen were established Catholic and Protestant churches, while the others belonged to over seventy different groups that had mostly been formed since World War Two, some of them just small “house churches”.

LSY and deputy mayorWith the Mayor of Philadelphia.

My eyebrows were raised to read of Li Shiyu’s first port of call: in search of statistics, he began by consulting the very people he would never dream of going anywhere near in China—the Police Chiefs 公安局局长 (!) of the district and city. In China, local police archives (see Liu Shigu’s chapter for Fieldwork in modern Chinese history) would make most instructive sources on religious activity for the whole era of Maoist campaigns, but attempting access would be rash. Indeed, to Li Shiyu’s lasting anguish, his 1948 thesis had been used by the Public Security Bureau to suppress the very sectarian groups he had respectfully documented.

Anyway, when the Philadelphia police chiefs were unable to help, the City Council introduced him to the Mayor, who asked, “Why do you wanna know? You been sent by your government? Are you gonna give your report to them when you go back?”. [2] Li Shiyu replied that he was just doing academic research, nothing to do with the government—just as we might have to explain in China (cf. Nigel Barley in Cameroon, cited at the end of my post on The brief of ethnography).

In answer to Li Shiyu’s query whether churches needed to register when they opened, the Mayor explained how “freedom of religious belief” worked in the States; all people had to do was to find a property, ideally one bequeathed in someone’s will, tax-free and rent-free. He went on, “Some pastors are pitiable—unable to find a site, they have to rent one temporarily, paid by donations from the congregation or from their subsidiary occupation. Spreading the teachings is a good thing, it’s good for society, there’s no need to register with the police—so I dunno how many churches there are in Philly.”

Next Li Shiyu visited the Westminster Theological Seminary. But as one has to do in China, he soon gave up on officialdom, “going down” to the churches themselves, one by one. As he notes, in an unstable, even dangerous, American society, parents sought to prevent their children getting into trouble by introducing them to the spiritual power of the church (rather like the elders of Hebei ritual associations, as recalled by many villagers such as Cai An). Li absorbed himself in the intensity of sermons and choirs, getting to know congregation members. But rather than observing the mainstream churches, his experience in China doubtless prompted him to seek out some of the more less orthodox, charismatic groups—some of which forbade marriage or the owning of property.

To imbue us with the holy spirit, here’s a musical interlude from 1976 (which will get you in the mood for Aretha’s ecstatic Amazing Grace):

Li Shiyu’s survey makes fascinating reading in Chinese, bearing in mind his particular concerns, suggesting parallels with religious life in China. A case in point is the first, and most remarkable, of his nineteen vignettes, “The Holy Mother descends from the mountain” (Shengmu xiashan 圣母下山).

I doubt if Li Shiyu quite knew what he was getting into [3] when he stayed for ten days in a hostel on 36th Street, whose basement was the meeting place of the International Peace Mission. The mission was founded by the controversial African-American preacher Father Divine—here’s a short documentary:

After his death in 1965 the organisation was led by his white wife Edna Rose Ritchings, known as “Sweet Angel”, “Mother Divine”.

Mother DivineMother Divine signs her book for Li Shiyu.

In March 1986 Li Shiyu witnessed Mother Divine’s annual “descent from the mountain” (the “mountain” of her estate at Woodmont in the suburbs), and even made a speech as guest of honour at the banquet. But he can’t have been privy to Father Divine’s turbulent story or the Peace Mission’s intrigues. From 1971 Mother Divine was engaged in a dispute with cult leader Jim Jones, until he fled to Guyana in 1978 and instigated his followers to commit a horrific mass suicide there (subject of several documentaries, e.g. here)—alas, just the kind of cult that the Chinese state seizes on as a pretext to suppress peaceful gatherings of believers.

Li Shiyu goes on to introduce the Miracle Temple of Christ; he takes part in a “qigong” healing session, and a service involving “wild kissing”; he is struck by the silence of prayer at a Quaker (Kuike! 魁克) meeting (evidently “unprogrammed worship“), discovers Sister Tina’s lucrative psychic fortune-telling business, and observes a rather stressful immersive baptism. In an experiment that only the most intrepid fieldworker will care to contemplate, he confuses a couple of what sounds like Jehovah’s Witnesses by showing a genuine interest in their teachings, asking them etic questions like why there were so many denominations in Philadelphia, and their economic circumstances. And he describes the only occasion in visiting over a hundred churches when he was met by a hostile reception.

While Li Shiyu was in the States, Robert Orsi’s study of the Madonna cult in New York’s Italian Harlem was published, a book that would have impressed him.

* * *

Of course, Chinese scholars have long sought to understand “Western culture”; one might even see it as the mainstream of Chinese intellectual life since at least the May Fourth era (for science, philosophy, fiction, music, and so on)—I think, for example, of Fou Ts’ong’s father Fu Lei. Though Western culture didn’t reside solely in advanced technology or reified masterpieces of high art, it was rare for Chinese scholars to have the curiosity (or means) to contemplate the ethnography of living Western societies.

Even making the transition from rural to urban ethnography is rather rare, let alone shifting one’s sights from rural China to urban America. Just as Western fieldworkers in China build on a considerable body of research by local scholars, within the USA such charismatic traditions attract much study. And like Western scholars making an initial survey in China, during Li Shiyu’s time in Philadelphia he could hardly engage with the complexities involved in documenting religious life, or address issues such as race, gender, poverty, migration, and social change.

Still, he clearly found the encounter most fruitful and suggestive. For Chinese readers, potentially, such studies might suggest that “superstitious” practices were not unique to a “backward” China, that they have their own social logic. Li Shiyu’s non-judgmental, etic viewpoint is refreshing.

Though he gives Christian Science an easy ride, when interviewed by a representative he encapsulates a significant issue: asked, “Why do you want to come to the States to study our folk religion?”, Li Shiyu replies feistily, “That’s a question I’d ask your scholars—why do you come to China to study our folk religion?!”, citing the Chinese proverb Lai er bu wang fei li ye 來而不往非禮也 “Not to reciprocate is against etiquette”. Click here for the more elaborate interview in The Christian Science Monitor

Despite his somewhat testy initial encounter with the Mayor, Li Shiyu clearly relished the ease of doing fieldwork in the States, without the fear of consequences that bedevilled research under Maoism in China. His sojourn in Philly must have made a welcome relief before he plunged back into the fray of fieldwork in China, as academic pursuits there became more free—if never free enough.


[1] See the detailed critique on the site of Hannibal Taubes, in four parts starting here; for bibliography, see n.1 in my article on The cult of Elder Hu.

[2] The Mayor was apparently Wilson Goode—who might well have been feeling sensitive since he was under the shadow of an investigation into the police’s botched attempt the previous year to clear the building occupied by the radical anarcho-primitivist cult MOVE, when a police helicopter had dropped a bomb that led to a fire destroying four city blocks, killing eleven (including five children) and leaving 240 people homeless (documentary here). Goode himself later went on to become a minister of religion.

[3] Rather as I had no idea in 1989 when I first witnessed the New Year’s rituals in Gaoluo that the village had been the scene of a major massacre in the 1900 Boxer uprising, and that the Catholics there had later been evangelised by Bishop Martina, who was accused of plotting to blow up the Communist leadership at the 1949 victory celebrations in Tiananmen: click here.

Kuzguncuk: nostalgia for cosmopolitanism

In an earlier post I began to introduce the delights of the mahalle neighbourhood of Kuzguncuk, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, just along the coast from the teeming hub of Üsküdar.

Kuzguncuk is the subject of many works in Turkish, including several books by Nedret Ebcim; and Suzan Nana Tarablus has written on its Jewish history. In English, a most thoughtful study on Kuzguncuk is

  • Amy Mills, Streets of memory: landscape, tolerance, and national identity in Istanbul (2010).

Mills cover

Cutting through the cosy nostalgic image, she finds that the neighbourhood’s landscape not only connotes feelings of “belonging and familiarity” connected to a “narrative of historic multiethnic harmony” but also makes these ideas appear to be uncontestably real, or true. The resulting nostalgia bolsters a version of Turkish nationalism that seems cosmopolitan and benign.

Whereas Kuzguncuk was long dominated by Armenians, Greeks, and Jews, their numbers dwindled through the 20th century, with Turkish Muslim immigrants coming to form the great majority there. But by around 2000, Turkish historians, journalists, memoirs, and novelists displayed a growing interest in minority issues, their nostalgic images articulating hopes for a tolerant, multicultural society. Kuzguncuk has become popular as a film set, and has been rapidly gentrifying, attracting a mixture of dwellers from relatively comfortable but diverse backgrounds.

Mills interrogates what it is that such images, and the landscape, conceal. Memory, amnesia, and violence are major themes (cf. China).

In the early 20th century, non-Muslim minorities and foreigners comprised 56% of Istanbul’s population, and were even more prominent as property owners, tradespeople, and skilled workers; by the end of the century, following massive emigration and the influx of Turks and Kurds, they were less than 1%.

However powerful the state may be in producing nationalist ideology, the ways in which people negotiate with it are inconsistent and unpredictable; individual identities are multiple and fragmented, and cohere, sometimes only briefly, in specific places.

The shared memory of the past is selective, fragmented, with tensions; as people remember or forget the Christian and Jewish past, they engage in self-censorship of dissonant information. In the face of the “contemporary malaise” of alienating social change, nostalgia “may appear to be escapist, romantic, or even regressive”. The 1942–43 Wealth Tax, the riots of 1955, and the 1964 expulsions have belatedly been acknowledged for Istanbul, but are still denied for Kuzguncuk, where they also had dire consequences.

Chapter 1 concerns the Ottoman background of the Istanbul mahalle neighbourhoods—which were neither monochromatic nor static. Migration to Istanbul increased through the 19th century; between 1840 and 1880 the population doubled to 800,000 (!).

map 2

Since at least the 19th century Kuzguncuk had mainly been populated by Armenians, Jews, and Greeks. In 1865, fire burned five hundred shops along the main street. In the process of reconstruction, a steamboat station was built, whereafter some elite Muslim families also began to move in. A 1914 census showed 1,600 Armenians, 400 Jews, 250 Greeks, 79 Muslims, and four foreigners, although the Armenian population had already started to decline after an 1896 decree expelling Armenian workers from Istanbul. By 1933, sources suggest that the population was still 90% non-Muslim.

Turkification under the new Republic from 1923 eroded religious and ethnic plurality. As economic power was transferred into the hands of Muslims, the “Citizen, Speak Turkish” campaign ran from 1928 through to the 1950s.

Kuzguncuk’s Armenian church, built in 1835, was rebuilt in 1861 and repaired in 1967. Of the two Greek Orthodox churches, the smaller one near the coast road was built in 1823, rebuilt in 1871, and restored in 1951; the larger church further up the main street was built in 1836, and restored in 1911.

church and mosque

Armenian church and mosque.

By the 1940s, migrants from the Black Sea region were settling in significant numbers in Kuzguncuk. The mosque next to the Armenian church was built in 1952, “the first moment in the neighbourhood’s long history when there were enough Muslim Kuzguncuklus to necessitate a local, regular, community gathering space.” By that time, as Mills notes, the Armenian community had virtually disappeared.

Still, even then, Kuzguncuklus who remember this period describe a culture in which it was common for residents to speak “a little Ladino, Greek, Armenian, or French”, and sharing the various religious holidays with their neighbours.

The Turkification of Istanbul intensified in the period after World War Two. While the Jews had tended to favour assimilation more than the Greeks and Armenians, after the 1942–3 Wealth Tax, which penalised minorities heavily, 30,000 Turkish Jews emigrated to the new state of Israel in 1948.

The anti-Greek riot of 1955—also impacting Armenians and Jews—and the expulsion of Greeks in 1964, led to further departures. By 1967 only around three thousand Greeks remained in Istanbul. The confiscation of minority-owned properties continued; many of these became homes to new waves of rural migrants. Between 1945 and 1975 Istanbul’s population swelled from one to four million. Ironically, “it is this very period that is nostalgically narrated in the dominant collective memory as one of tolerance, siblinghood, and belonging in the mahalle”.

By 2004 Kuzguncuk was home to under a hundred non-Muslims; the churches and synagogues are now maintained and attended mainly by Christians and Jews living elsewhere in the city (see Epiphany in Istanbul).

Chapter 2 shows how from the 1980s Kuzguncuk became a major backdrop for nostalgic memory-making in Istanbul. The mahalle’s material landscape “was popular precisely because the seeming reality of the memory so successfully obscured the tensions and disharmony of everyday life in Istanbul”. Indeed, the Kuzguncuk landscape had to be restored to conform to the image, not just by TV companies but by new immigrants to the mahalle, although they were themselves continuing its socio-economic transformation.

A common feature of the loss of community was the erosion of mahalle social life by families owning TVs and the disappearance of open-air cinema.

The TV series Perihan Abla began screening in 1986, portraying the interconnectedness of the lives of mahalle people—middle class, Turkish, and Muslim.

From 1978 the architect Cengiz Bektaş was the pioneer of restoration in Kuzguncuk, inspiring artists and professionals even before the wave of gentrification from the 1990s. His goal was to foster a sense of care and responsibility among residents, based on its (earlier) history of multiethnic tolerance. His work began from the dwellings said to have been occupied by a former Armenian artisan community near the ferry, but it didn’t actually bring this history to light.

Gentrification (common to various other districts of Istanbul) is a “lifestyle preference of a particular population”; but by contrast with earlier residents, it is typically led by smaller families, from urban backgrounds, well educated, with both spouses in work, connected to the outside world.

However, community in Kuzguncuk fails not only because of gentrification but simply because the same social and political divisions that fragment Istanbul society are also present in Kuzguncuk.

Kastamonu deli

While the media mostly portrays a romanticised fairytale, a 2002 novel evoked the social changes of the 1960s, with the influx of new rural migrants.

However unintentionally, the narrative of peace and tolerance embedded in the landscape of collective memory mahalle works to support the nationalist historical narrative of Istanbul life in that it obscures the traumas and events that pushed out the minority communities.

As we saw above, the Armenian church near the ferry dates from 1835, but the mosque next to it was only built in 1952. The church and the mosque seem to suggest that cosmopolitanism is alive and well in Kuzguncuk; what remains unspoken is the fact that the congregation of the 19th-century church is gone, replaced by the Muslims who attend the 20th-century mosque.

In Chapter 3 Mills discusses the “contested space” of the Bostan market garden, established by the Kuzguncuk Neighbourhood Association since 2000—another major symbol for nostalgia and community.

In a common instance of illegal expropriation, the state had confiscated the garden from a Greek family in 1977. Mills becomes aware of her own emotional investment in the project through a “disturbing and exhilarating” meeting with the last descendant of the original Greek owners, who embodied the sense of loss; her claims to the land and those of the Association turned out to be incompatible.

For some time after 1977 the status of the space was in limbo. Opposition to planned development grew from 1992, part of the wider protest movement against corruption, and further stimulated by the 1999 earthquake.

Active in the Association were young adults born in Kuzguncuk to parents of Black Sea migrant families who began arriving in the late 1930s, working with the professionals and artists who had joined them in the mahalle later.

The project was not without its critics. Some residents were wary of potential political activity; among those who failed to support the project were people from peripheral, poorer settlements, as well as the leaders of the churches and synagogue.

In Chapter 4, the mahalle’s nostalgic memories of a vibrant and tolerant social life sit uncomfortably alongside the collective silence surrounding the state-instigated anti-minority riots of 6th to 7th September 1955. Two hundred Greek families were still living in Kuzguncuk. While the riots, fomented by Turks arriving by boat, seem to have been less severe than in some other neighbourhoods on the Asian side of Istanbul, windows were smashed, houses ransacked, shops vandalised, the Greek churches damaged. The events marked a watershed in the exodus of minorities from Kuzguncuk.

The moment of contradiction hinges on the neighbourly relationships—that in a neighbourly place like Kuzguncuk such a thing couldn’t happen (and yet it did), that there was no difference between religions (and yet there was).

People’s contradictory memories reveal

the pressure of being caught between maintaining loyalty to one’s collective identity as a member of Turkish society and possessing personal knowledge of events or moments that challenged the popular historical narrative.

The memories of senior residents also suggest a distaste for the new immigrants from rural Anatolia, even if those people too shared the nostalgia for the former cohesion of the mahalle, partly to authenticate their own claims to belonging.

Chapter 5 discusses belonging and exclusion mainly through the fluid proprieties of female neighbourliness, and the intersecting identities of class, ethnicity, economic position, and regional origins. Mills describes visits between women, including the therapy of “reading” fortune in the coffee grounds (fal). Apart from positive aspects, such relations can also have oppressive implications, as in the ramifications of gossip.

As Mills observes, gentrification too is a gendered process. Mahalle norms reveal tensions for female residents who assume non-traditional gender roles, making difficult their access to the social support networks of the community.

Because of the ways it is threatened by new urban lifestyles, the mahalle has become exclusive, a space for those who already belong or for those who move here through previous friendships; it is not an inclusive community for otherwise disconnected newcomers.

Despite the small number of minorities in Kuzguncuk since the 1950s, intermarriage, common for several generations, remains something of a taboo topic.

Chapter 6 focuses on the Jewish history of Kuzguncuk. Today the main synagogue at the foot of the main street, though inconspicuous, is still maintained, with regular services. Another one, tucked away on Jacob street further up the hill, is currently inactive. Further still up the hill, the Jewish cemetery is now forlorn. Jews in Istanbul have tended to assimilate, a delicate balance that they have long performed in Turkish society; still, they remain vulnerable.

Mills learned much from a visit to Tel Aviv, where Jewish people who had emigrated from Kuzguncuk were keen to share their memories (including the anti-minority events before, during, and after World War Two)—underlining the silence that reigned within Istanbul.

After an absorbing section on early Jewish migrations to Istanbul, Mills describes the early 20th century. Their economic status varied; many were quite poor. They often spoke only Ladino, not Turkish. Jewish people migrated to the mahalle from other regions, and from elsewhere in Istanbul; some also moved away, to neighbourhoods on the European side. But Turkification under the Republic prompted an exodus. Emigration (from Kuzguncuk, and from Turkey) began to become common. It was a long process, increasing markedly in the 1940s, after the 1955 riots, and through the 1970s and 90s. As Muslim migrants continued to arrive from Anatolia, the mahalle’s former ethnic diversity was lost. Again Mills finds former Kuzguncuk residents now in Tel Aviv more prepared to discuss the 1942–3 Wealth Tax than those still living in Istanbul.

* * *

Mills is always sensitive to her own role, reflecting on the narratives that people offer her (and don’t). In conclusion, she asks

Whose cultural politics does the nostalgia for Istanbul’s cosmopolitanism serve? What does this nostalgia do? The nostalgia that foregrounds tolerance in enterethnic relationships obscures the tensions and violence of the processes through which the cosmopolitan city became nationally Turkish. By appearing to be real, by the ways in which the materiality of landscapes seem to authentically represent a tolerant multicultural past, this nostalgia preserves the illusions of the state, illusions that the nation is inclusive, that it does or can exist for all.

While both Turks and minorities comply with the code, the agreement is not entirely succeeding. […]

If nationalist, secularist, and Islamist intolerance is ever to subside in Istanbul, people must openly perceive that antiminority discrimination and oppression is a problem and must also imagine a peaceful, shared diversity to be possible. […]

Memories of cosmopolitanism must be examined for how they speak of loss and betrayal, and how they articulate a stake in the future of the city.

You can find more posts on Istanbul in this roundup; note in particular Midnight at the Pera Palace.

From Kuzguncuk, delightful as ever

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 under Musicking in Ottoman Istanbul).

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.

127

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, and 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.

The accuracy of the cherished notion of gender equality has recently been challenged by Alevi women.

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), introduced 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:

See also Ethos: one of a kind.

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.

Numerous further aperçus from AB under this tag.

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 the first part of her virtuosic 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. 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.

Covering similar ground is Lucy Moore, In search of us (2022).


[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.

For lioness, see here.

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.

And here she is in conversation with Sally Rooney.

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 of O ewiges feuer, from 14.46, is an exhilarating number for dancing in the pews:

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 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, click here.

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, “symbolising 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,