Sunday, April 06, 2008

Historic detachment (Fes centenary)

Fes, the oldest medieval town still in existence, is celebrating its 12th centenary. The highlight of the festivities - otherwise most noticed by added decorations to the anyway stunningly beautiful centre of the new town, billboards and posters, and series of lectures - was an open air stage show of folkloristic art comprised mainly of dance and music. With the exception of some terraced seating facing the stage, which was reserved for dignitaries, the event at Bab Boujloud, one of the gateways to the old Madinah of Fes, was free admission for all. In retrospect this may not have been such a good idea.

The visual effects were superb with live recording of the stage alternating with scenic photography on a large display screen, complimented by a separate but corresponding imagery cast across the whole width of the old city walls. The choreography, too, was well crafted, and as a cultural show the presentation was of high quality, even if the attempted marriage of old and new, West and East appeared forced and artificial at times, for example in the mixing of Spanish Flamenco with a form of tap dance from the desert in an apparent imitation of Flatley's River Dance. Yet, the best description available for this celebration of Moroccan culture and history is probably that of detachment.

Whilst it didn't help that the inadequate supply of loudspeakers made it difficult to listen attentively, the crowd present was anyway not interested in doing so. The show was staged for them - and of course the cameras, resulting in glowing accolades in the national media no doubt -, it did not involve them, however, and there was no real interaction between those on the stage and those watching them on the big screen. A ticketed event with a modest entrance fee would have been more appropriate, accompanied by smaller in situ events engaging local communities. As it happened, the people of Fes who attended expected a party atmosphere and soon got tired of the constant flow of folklore. From the very start they couldn't be bothered listening to the introductory remarks of the organisers or even the Royal visitor, crown prince Molay Rachid. They preferred talking, laughing, shouting, whistling, and on the whole would have been better placed at a football match. Football is big in today's Morocco, culture is not.

There were only two numbers which really caught on with the crowd: the performance of a local rap band and the absolutely magnificent fireworks which beat those staged at New Year in most European cities. The fireworks provided an ecstatic finale without which the whole show would have been flat, the rap music was a marker of how modernity has pushed heritage aside in today's Morocco, drowning centuries of cultural treasure in monotonous beats. The intention had been to celebrate the history of Fes and Morocco and portray Morocco as at ease with its past and the present, bridging the conflicts between competing cultures and values. Whilst there is some truth in this latter observation, the dominant impression, viewed from amongst the mass of spectators, not the media or the specially invited guests, is of a country having become detached from both its history and its culture, of a people starting to loose their soul, and of a Moroccan populace no longer at ease with, nor appreciative of, its own foundations. 1200 years on, the living Fes is becoming a museum for tourists and surrendering its claim to being the spiritual and cultural capital of the Maghreb.

Detached from present-day reality, the festivities were a celebration of the past without offering a path to the future. Vast sums have been spent in this and other events where, so the official tag line, "Moroccans celebrate their history". More accurately, Moroccans are having their history celebrated for them and thus find that it no longer speaks to them. Reducing a people's past to song and dance is ultimately shallow. What about their writers, their scholars, their poets, their craftsmen, their fighters, their heroes? What about the stake the ordinary citizen has in the society inherited from earlier generations? With incoming investments and tourism resulting in the rapid rise of property and other prices their own country is fast becoming out of reach for the locals. Unemployment is high, as is the confusion about how to synthesise Islamic and Western values. A true celebration of one's heritage must build on it to propose perspectives for the future. Dazzled by the bright lights of the fireworks the attendees lingered a while and then, realising that that was it, went on their way home, impressed, but otherwise unaffected. Maybe the quite considerable sums of money would have been better spent in rejuvenating the old town and supporting its restoration and what survives of its ancient craft workshops and artisans.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

For the sake of provocation

An item in the news this week contained the hype about a theatre in Potsdam, in the former East Germany, where racism continues to thrive, was staging the first stage play of Rushdie's Satanic Voices, the book that Roald Dahl considered unreadable. This was followed up by further news articles in the mainstream media that the play was performed without violent incident. Much to the regret of the theatre, I suppose, who had probably hoped to ride to fame on the controversy as Rushdie did aforetime.
On the trail of the republication of the Danish cartoons insulting the prophet Muhammad, the Dutch release of an anti-Islamic film and the Pope's very public baptism of an Egyptian anti-Islamic journalist in Italy one wonders whether there is a concerted effort to stir up troubles, and I am glad that Muslims have matured and did not respond as expected.
We indicated long ago in the book "Satanic Voices", our response to "Satanic Verses", that Rushdie was not acting alone but on the behest of "Satanic Presses" and "Satanic Purses". Islam is dangerous because in its opposition to lending money at interest it poses a challenge to the primacy of banks, a message becoming ever more potent during the current credit crisis.
These days poor writing and shabby expressions of hatred are elevated to art form when they malign the Muslim enemy. Anything to make Muslims look bad is good in the eyes of the media and politicians. However, their sword has become blunt.
The French author and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupery, best known in the UK for the story "The Little Prince", sums it up beautifully in his magnus opum "Citadel" (Wisdom of the Sands), doubtlessly inspired by his encounter with Islam:
"Whence I was led to reflect on those who consume more than they bestow. Thus it is with the lies of the rulers of a nation; for the efficacy and power of their words reside in men's belief in what they tell. True, much may be achieved by lies; yet when I lie I blunt my weapon in the using of it. And, though I may begin by besting my opponent, there comes a day when I must face him, weaponless.
A like case is that of the poet who makes his effects by playing traitor to the time-proved rules; for scandalizing, too, is a technique. But such a man is an ill-doer. He shatters for his personal ends a vase containing an age-old treasure, common to all. In order to express himself, he ruins the possibilities of expression for others; like one who, to light his path, should set fire to the forest, leaving nothing but ashes and charred embers for the rest of men. Moreover, when once grammatical mistakes have become the rule, I can no longer scandalize or startle. But also, by the same token, I am unable to express myself in the beauty of the oldtime style, for I have made havoc of its usages and ruled out the mutual understanding, the signs and symbols, the speaking glances that are a code built up from generation to generation and that enable me to transmit my thought down to its subtlest shades. I shall have expressed myself, perhaps - but at the cost of ruining my instrument, and others', too."
So all the supporters of Rushdie and Co. have done is to destroy the integrity of literature and art. Shocking Muslims into a response no longer works. And the day may well be near where the rulers' lies are no longer believed and they face their opponents weaponless.