Deaf to the Detriment

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The West experienced the horror that 6 members of the French satirical cartoon publication Charlie Hebdo had been killed by Islamic extremists.

Islamophobes are relevant – again!

The terrorists reportedly ransacked the offices of satirical cartoon publication Charlie Hebdo, shot Editor Stephane Carbonnier, Cartoonist Georges Wollinski, and Cartoonist Jean Cabut, then chanted ‘Allhalu Akhbar!’ or ‘God is great‘. As the shooters fled, they also claimed their killing had ‘avenged the prophet Muhammad’. Such sayings, of course, are what all religious zealots chant in some form or another.

This particular group of Islamic terrorists was incensed at the continued portrayal of the supreme prophet Muhammad in Hebdo. Though the magazine contemptuously satirizes political and cultural leaders across the spectrum, the most newsworthy and economically profitable editions are those depicting Muhammad in a negative light.

The first instance of controversy came in 2006, when Hebdo published the infamous Jylland-Posten comics, which depicted Muhammad in a less-than-flattering light. The Grand Mosque, Muslim World League, and the Union of French Islamist Organizations took editor Phillipe Val to court, though he was ultimately acquitted. Four years later Hebdo would find their offices firebombed after the issue Charia Hebdo’ (a version of Sharia) depicted Muhammad as a ‘guest-editor’ as well as on the cover saying: ‘100 lashes of the whip if you don’t die laughing’. The attack, however, failed to dissuade Hebdo from publishing a series of illustrations featuring a nude grand prophet Muhammad in crude and compromising positions.

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Currently a large-scale manhunt for the killers is happening in streets of Paris. Simultaneously, there is universal condemnation of the religiously motivated attack in the Western world. The U.S. has already voiced support  for French president Francois Hollande, if he so requests. The major leaders of Europe have characterized the attack as ‘barbarism’ and an ‘assault on our freedom of expression’.

Formerly fatwa-ed Salman Rushdie also contributed his thoughts: ‘Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason, when combined with modern technology becomes a real threat to our freedom. I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which, has always been a force for liberty against tyranny, dishonesty, and stupidity.’

Certainly today’s attack by the extremist is reprehensible and freedom of expression a necessity. Yet, what are we in the West espousing as expression? Is it our prerogative to display the once sacred (i.e. religious iconography) without sanctity? When North Korea (supposedly) issued a warning that if American theaters were to screen controversial film The Interview, the U.S. public should ‘remember 9/11′ — it was seen as offensive to our right of free expression. The American response to the threat was new sanctions on North Korea and, if a certain journalist would have been listened to, preemptive war without a guilty verdict. Isn’t it rational, then, to assume devout believers of Islam would react in an equally aggressive way to a similarly provocative act?

While we in the West view democratic tradition with divine reverence, other cultures have disparate and occasionally diametrically opposing beliefs. To the followers of New Atheism and Neoconservatism, if these religious sects and minority groups are to live amongst us – and for the indigenous people not to end up submitting to the alien belief – what they hold dear must be treated with the same ridicule and mockery that Western ideals are contemporarily cherished. While this calumny may be acceptable to the point of banality in our culture, a large portion of the world are as shocked as the Catholic priests seeing Luther’s Theses. Thus, some Muslims, understandably, seek little need for a religious schism that would see Islam met with the same irreverence as Western Christianity. In fact, their willing to kill for it.

During the 2008 trial of the Grand Mosque of Paris and the Union of French Islamic Organizations vs Phillipe Val, the Hebdo editor claimed it is ‘racist to assume they (Muslims) can’t understand a joke.’ It is certainly a generalization. Yet, what would the (largely sectarian) Muslim community find so funny about the breaking of Aniconism with images of their Grand Prophet inserted into Brigitte Bardot’s compromising position in Godard’s Contempt. Such imagery leaves this Western Protestant un-amused and wondering: why do we find it so necessary to continually yell ‘fire’ in a crowded room. If we would like to have the dialogue and debate with the Muslim world about Islamic terrorism, lets avoid denigrating an important tenant of their quotidian existence. Charlie Hebdo’s idea of an illustrated olive branch is akin to the logic the Bush administration presented when imposing democracy on the Middle East: through the barrel of a gun.

The rational bodies of the Muslim world voiced their opinion to the editors of Charlie Hebdo. They continued to print inflammatory material. Today, unfortunately, their biting satirical message fell upon the ears of the radicalized and irrational.

(For George Galloway)

 

- Daniel Engelke,

1/8/2014

Top Reads of 2014

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Here are our favorite reads of the 2014

1. The Sheltering Sky- Paul Bowles

2. Stained Glass – William F. Buckley

3. Essays:1952 – 1992 – Gore Vidal

4. Short Breaks in Mordor – Peter Hitchens

5. Burmese Days – George Orwell

6. Why I Buy – Rami Gabriel

7. Overdrive – William F. Buckley

8. 1919 – John Dos Passos

9. Quiet Days in Clichy – Henry Miller

10. The Moviegoer – Walker Percy

(Reviews to come for the all except ‘Overdrive’ and Vidal’s essays)

‘The Sheltering Sky’ – Paul Bowles

jacketPaul Bowles seems destined more for celebrity fame than a literary legacy. There is little contemporary discussion of his 1949 debut novel The Sheltering Sky — but here’s a video of his meeting with the Rolling Stones in Morocco(starts at 5:30). In 1990, also, Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci adapted the novel for the screen. Yet why is this Moroccan expat and follower of Gertrude Stein’s words not mentioned with his then contemporaries?

Bowles opens Sheltering Sky in a style similar to Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night: An unhappy American couple, Port and Kit, are traveling in a foreign land after the second world war. In this case, the land is North Africa. Tension is added to this already ailing couple by their friend Tunner, who neither remember inviting. The love triangle in Part I manages to raises our intrigue better than average late 40’s melodrama. In Part II, though, conventional narrative is replaced with a metaphysical shift in tone, which sets the stage for the outright surreal Part III. And like British writer Lawrence Durrell’s Middle East in the Alexandria Quartet, Bowles’ narrative and voice is rife with the erosion of Colonialism in Africa.

This perception of the rapidly changing Africa is evident in atmospheric exposition. Bowles’ achieves this by maintaining a conscience and then contemporary narrative while exploring a relatively untouched location. The setting of the novel is certainly mysterious to the untraveled Western reader, but the personalities of Kit, Port, and Tunner are not. This style allows for lucid storytelling of the narrative as well as an illustrative portrait of the post-war continent:

“‘The war has certainly left its mark here.’ Small, with blonde hair and an olive complexion, she was saved from prettiness by her gaze. Once one had seen her eyes, the rest of the face grew vague, and when one tried to recall her image afterwards, only the piercing, questioning violence of the wide eyes remained.”

Less than a decade after Sheltering Sky was published, Franz Fanon would publish his anti-colonial work Black Skin, White Masks. Bowles’ observes in the novel that this movement for liberation was on the march, and fast. As mentioned before, in 1957 Durrell would invoke a similar structure for his ‘Alexandria’, except with World War II looming on the horizon. These interim works allow for an intimate view into the aftereffects of conflict – and what the future portends:

“‘In Lagos I bought a command car and drove it through to Casamance. We were the only whites ever to have penetrated that region. They wanted me to be cameraman for one expedition, but there was no one in Cape Town I could trust to keep the studios running properly, and we were making four films at the time.’ Port began to resent his not knowing better how far to go with his listener,  but he let it all pass, and was delighted with the ghoulish pleasure the young man took in describing the dead bodies in the river at Douala, the murders in Takoradi, the self-immolating madman in the market at Gao. Finally the talker leaned back, signaled to the barman to bring him another liqueur, and said: ‘Ah yes, Africa’s a great place. I wouldn’t live anywhere else these days.'”

By Part III, Sheltering Sky has disregarded many of the conventions of popular fiction and drifted into coherent surrealism. While the existential label is certainly deserved, the novel was not only admired by cult followers. The novel spent eleven weeks on the NYT Best Seller list, and found praise from writers such as Tennessee Williams. The appeal, in this writer’s opinion, is largely due to Bowles’ ability to conceive pop and pensive entertainment. While the author does question unanswerable metaphysics, readers can also delight in surface level insights:

“They engaged in three smelly rooms, all giving out onto a small court whose wall were right blue. In the center of the court was a dead fig tree with masses of barbed wire looped from its branches. As Kit peered from the windows a hungry-looking cat with a tiny head and huge ears walked carefully across the court. She sat down on the great brass bed, which besides the jackal skin on the floor by it, was the only furnishing in the room. She could scarcely blame Tuner for having refused at first even to look at the rooms. But, as Port said, one always ends by getting used to anything, and although at the moment Tunner was inclined to be a little unpleasant about it, by night he would probably have grown accustomed to the whole gamut of incredible odors.”

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It was Gertrude Stein who “advised” Bowles at 37 to ship off to North Africa, specifically Morocco. He would stay on the continent for the remaining 52 years of his life. The Sheltering Sky was not the only portrait the author would make of Africa, or of a couple embroiled in domestic conflict. Let It Come Down and The Spider’s House share the same setting, while Up Above the World follows a couple in, you guessed it, the foreign landscape of South America.

So why is Paul Bowles a mystery man in the literary community? He isn’t really. I came across the author through the 2012 documentary The Cage Door is Always Open. The film includes interviews with Gore Vidal, John Waters, and Bertolucci. In William Burroughs novel Naked Lunch, too, there is a quasi-fictionalized encounter with Bowles and his wife Jane(another story, completely). These mentions, though, focus primarily on the man – while we should focus on his seminal and highly recommended debut The Sheltering Sky.