Archive for February, 2004

A postcard from Jerusalem

Saturday, February 28th, 2004

Mass tourism is pretty horrible. But to see a city where tourism has died off is ghastly. Of course, it looks absurd to come to Jerusalem and see the city’s problems as primarily touristic, but I’m not sure that the absurdity is more than superficial. This is a place which has no intrinsic economic value. It survives, as cities always have, because people come in from the hinterland bringing food and money and for trade. But no one now wants to come to Jerusalem from anywhere, except for people whom the army would rather keep out.

The modern city is almost surreally boring, except that people keep getting murdered here. To meet Benny Morris in his favourite café, I walked down a quiet, residential street where a bus blew up less than a month ago: a flower shop owner saw two human heads fall to the ground in front of him “like chickens’ heads”. The cafe where I ate supper had been the victim of another suicide bomber earlier.

None of it is architecturally distinguished. There is a very funny YMCA with an enormous phallic tower, erected by the British in the Thirties. Presumably that’s the one they wrote the song about. But all the really interesting bits are in the old walled city, half a mile’s walk from here, and that’s there the devastation is most notable.

In the old city there are parts where you’re afraid to have a pocket open, still less walk with a freely dangling camera; in the parts where cameras won’t be grabbed, people look down twice, fast, inconspicuously, at any shiny metal object in your hand. And I really wouldn’t want to fumble with a backpack here in front of an army patrol. So the shops, are empty; the Jaffa Gate has a few listlessly begging tour guides. I know I ought to hire one, but I hate that. I like to see and feel and drift and smell things on my own. You can’t, though, drift. Anyone who seems to be considering anything, whether a view, an artefact, or even an idea, is immediately pestered. Walk briskly, watch from the sides of your eyes. Watch the way the Arabs watch the Jews after they walk past. Watch two skull-capped swaggering students in the middle of the street; watch the patrols with their drawn, excited faces.

This is the second pilgrimage town that I have wandered when it has been emptied by a war. I was incongruously reminded of the main street in Medjugorje, where barns full of unsold rosaries and statuettes of the Virgin lined the way to the church and the Croat kids had icons of the BVM on their gun butts. Here not all the tat was religious. Lots was politically touristical. There was one “Visit Palestine” banner that I saw, lots of assorted Christian souvenirs — icons, crosses, and olivewood statuettes, and, on corner stalls, Israeli souvenirs — T shirts and so forth. The demon of bad taste who works overtime when I am stressed thought suddenly of a T shirt — “My sister went to Israel and all that came back was this bloody T shirt”.

Damian Thompson had told me to look into the Messianic bookshop by the Jaffa Gate. It was not nearly as crazy as I had hoped, but there was one blonde Brasilian Messianic Jewish woman giving her testimony in French to the luminously thin and bearded guy behind the counter. His French was fairly poor — she seemed to think the details of her story mattered — so I ended up translating for them. I suppose the details must have mattered, since they are the only thing that changes in these testimonies. Someone, somewhere, was going to get saved. The only question was who, and where. This happened n Brazil, where her grandmother had been spared to live to 94. She had been very ill, aged 80: the mystified doctors had given up on her, but the blonde, then eleven, had persuaded her to accept Jesus (in writing, both for solemnity and not to shock the family) and she had been spared. Later, when she was seventeen, Jesus had told her to announce to her family that she was a Christian, and now he had told her to come here. They thanked her with real warmth when I stumbled to the end.

The covered markets of the Arab quarter smelled of cumin, nuts, grilled meat, and the dust of carpets which had hung unsold for years; old women sat on the ground with bunches of spring onions and coriander to sell; whole carcasses of sheep or goat hung in the butchers’, their pink haunches webbed with white fat. I don’t know quite where I was there. I had bought a map, but didn’t stop to read it; here, and here only, there was a constant traffic of people, walking both ways, quiet, politely jostling. I had a moment of fear when I spotted three burly youths walking tight behind me, and when the alley opened into a crowded, rising square, I turned around and walked back the way I had come before cutting up the via dolorosa, which was narrow and empty where you would expect pilgrims to throng. On a historical note, I have always been puzzled by the crusader boast that the blood ran above their ankles when they took the city. But it’s all built on intersecting hillsides. There’d have been a current in the gutters running down from the Jewish quarter.

Ah, the Jewish quarter of the Old City — this morning it smelt of soap running down the gutter in the sunlight. The streets seemed wider, and the buildings, though built of the same dull pale beige stone as the rest of Jerusalem, seemed lighter and brighter. There was even one group of tourists, being lectured in an underground museum in English.

Up the hill, I came on the Armenian quarter, marked with posters commemorating the genocide of 1915; someone had written a phone number and a message across Cilicia, in a script I couldn’t read.

Outside the Arab quarter the whole place was extraordinarily quiet. Even the soldiers wore rubber-soled boots, and no one seemed to talk at all, except the hawkers. But on the sunlit walls, suddenly trilling like car alarms, small brightly coloured birds were hung in cages outside shops. In the shop where I bought my map, the owner had two small cages on the counter. One of them had been partitioned with a sheet of corrugated plastic separating two caged birds into even smaller cages. The symbolism was so obvious as to be irresistible, and I asked his permission to photograph them, but when I looked at the photo back in my room, it was the owner’s expression as he leant against the wall in the background which dominated the photo, and the only way to make sense of it was to crop so that only one bird was in the picture.

So, here is a man waiting for the tourists to return. It’s been four years since they went away.

Waiting for the tourists, the old city, Jerusalem

gone again

Wednesday, February 25th, 2004

I’m off to Israel until Sunday, so there may be no posts till then. It all depends on business and connectivity.

renaissance art

Monday, February 23rd, 2004

The textbooks will tell you that the painters of the renaissance had mastered naturalistic representations of the human form. So what is this woman doing in the fresco’ed roof of the collonade of palazzo Santini in Lucca?

artishoke tits.jpg
There is an even odder sphinx there, which may well be the real reason Oedipus went blind.

No: it is a tragedy

Monday, February 23rd, 2004

Melanie Phillips has an agonised article in Prospect that makes me think better of her. At the same time, it bodes very badly for the future of Israel. She visited the country on a government-sponsored freebie: she got to talk freely to lots of important people. Why not? She is, as the standfirst describes her, “an ardent supporter of Israel” — one of the most eloquent in the British press. And she concludes that unilateral, immediate withdrawal from the Occupied Territories is all that can save the country now.

For a start, she sees that the occupation of the territories is not going to work.

“Israel appears to be caught in a deadly trap. It tried negotiations; these led to violence. It tried armed self-defence; this has not stopped the violence. It has retreated from Palestinian cities; this has increased the violence. Some likudniks don’t accept they are trapped. The line, at least until Sharon’s recent talk of disengagement, is that they are on course for victory. ‘We are winning, because the Palestinians are a bunch of losers’, said an official. This was not only unpleasant, but surely wrong.”

Beyond that, there is the demographic fear.

“If Israel continues to hold the territories, with a few years, there will be more Arabs than Jews between the river Jordan and the mediterranean. No matter that most of these Palestinians will be outside Israel’s borders; if Israel continues to rule arabs who outnumber Jews, the momentum for one person, one vote will become unstoppable. If Israel granted it, it would be the end of the Jewish state. If it did not, it would not only become a true pariah in the world but would cause a devastating implosion within the collective Jewish conscience.”

So she finds people both on Left and Right, who believe that Israel is compelled by its own self-interest to do the right thing. But the fact remains that the Palestinians still hate them, and want them all gone. Israel is not going to feel safe within its own borders, not even possessing nuclear, chemical and bacteriological deterrents along with a formidable army. So what is the answer suggested to Melanie Phillips by a senior member of Ehud Barak’s negotiating team? “Sher’s answer is that withdrawal should be accompanied by a commitment from the Americans to take responsibility for guaranteeing security in the territories.”

Right. Just as the American policy in Iraq has become bipartisan and clear — declare democracy and get the hell out — smart and influential Israelis suppose that they can get American troops to garrison the West Bank for them if they pull their own troops back. No. It really isn’t funny.

time and motion

Sunday, February 22nd, 2004

OK. I got back from Lucca at half past midnight this morning, and spent about two minutes sorting the paper post. There were two magazines I needed at least to skim, a letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury to which no reply seemed possible, and nothing else that needed action or attention.

At about nine o’clock this morning, I sat down to catch up with the normal load of reading and organising that I have missed for the last four days. The only things I knew I had to do were to write a thank you note and a couple of of blog postings. This wasn’t one of them. By the time I had finished sorting through the papers, the blogs, and the emails I usually read, it was 3.30 pm. This wasn’t entirely wasted time, I suppose. Three of the things I read, at least, needed action or lent themselves to work in progress. But that is about one potential article or bloggy joke every two hours, which seems to me a pretty low harvesting rate for ephemera. And I still haven’t written that thank you note, or posted the pictures of the Sphinx’s mysterious tits.

a kedgeree of knowledge

Sunday, February 22nd, 2004

Just back from a three day trip to Lucca — more later — to find SpamAssassin outmanoevred again — 440 spams on the server; 220 made it down to my spam folder. One of those was legitimate. But the number of spams I had got was smaller than the 500 or so entries on bloglines, which are all things I thought, when I left, I might have an interest in. At least one of them was in fact interesting: the unfailingly wonderful Juan Cole explains why Urdu is the language that my mother, and her mother, called Hindustani, and how it got the name:

the national language of Pakistan is Urdu, which was the Muslim lingua franca in Muslim South Asia from the 18th century, and is a Persianized form of what we would now call Hindi. It is taught in schools and spoken alongside the regional languages, though the elite of the country still prefers English and often speaks halting Urdu. Again, it is Indo-European but with a large dose of Arabic, Semitic vocabulary. It is in fact a lot like a Muslim Yiddish. (Historically, “Hindi” is actually a result of a movement of Hindu nationalists to “purify” what was then called Hindustani of the Arabic and Persian words. The Muslims kept the words, and Hindustani came to be called Urdu. Urdu is a Mongolian and Turkish word meaning “military camp” and is the root of the English word “horde.” When the Central Asian tribal warriors came into northern India, Urdu is the creole that ended up being spoken in the camps so that Hindu traders could sell the Muslim grandees their goods).

Classical Arabic or Wadi girl?

Monday, February 16th, 2004

I think of buffyspeak, and (I’m,like,) totally not Mohammed.

But one of the distinguishing features is the lack of punctuation, and the fact that you’re expected to hear a voice shifting constantly to represent different speakers. In fact the correct transliteration of (I’m like,) is probably just a pair of opening quote marks.

An entry in Juan Cole’s invaluable blog suggests that classical Arabic is written in unnervingly Buffy style. He is discussing the text of a letter released by the US government to suggest that al-Qaeda is now operating in Iraq.

The problem lies with the translation, which is insufficiently attentive to the rhetorical strategies of the author, and which is trying (admirably) to hew very close to the Arabic text. But Arabic style depends on allusion and implying things much more than Englisn.
Here is my rendering of the passage.

“When the Americans withdraw from these regions, and they have already started doing so, and their place has been taken by these agents [the Shiites], and by those who are fatefully connected to the people of this land, what will our situation be if we fight them [the Shiites] (“and it is necessary to fight them”)? There will only be two possibilities before us.
1. We could fight them. This step is attended with difficulty because of the gap that would open up between us and the people of this land, for [they will say] how could we fight their sons and nephews, and with what justification?– given the [apparent] withdrawal of the Americans, [even though in actuality they are] the ones who [will] guide the reins of affairs via their hidden bases; and [the Shiites will say], “Isn’t it right that that the children of this land are the ones who rule over affairs with experience? This is the advent of democracy!” After this, there will be no excuse [for violence].
2. Or we could pack our things and seek another land, as is the repeated sad story of the arena of jihad . . .”

That is, I believe the author is employing rhetorical devices, such as imagining what the Shiites will say and adopting their “voice” temporarily. Arabic did not classically use punctuation to make these distinctions, depending on style and syntax, and the author does it the old-fashioned way. The phrase “this is democracy, coming,” is not Zarqawi’s sentiment, it is what he imagines the Shiites will be suckered into thinking by those wily Americans, who will still actually be running things. The translation misses these nuances; it is typical of US government translation of Arabic texts in just not being very satisfactory for any but the most basic purposes. Because Doug Feith excluded most real Arabists from the CPA, the few who are there are probably worked to death and under severe pressure.

You have to love the twist at the end, too.

German Railways

Sunday, February 15th, 2004

It is humiliating, but not surprising, that the the German Railways site offers a better guide to British trains than the British one does. This morning I discovered another chic trick there. You can get personalised PDF timetables for the routes and days that interest you. Want a list of all the direct trains between Florence and Lucca on Friday 20th? It’s ready in minutes. This is doubly pleasing because most rail timetable sites show you a very limited range of journeys to choose between, which isn’t always informative.

In a wholly unrelated development, Easyjet will start flying from Stansted to Ljubljana on May 1st. So I don’t even need to hire a car. I’m now two buses and a train ride away from one of the most beautiful rivers in Europe, and it shouldn’t cost more than about £50 if I’m careful.

Language Change (2)

Sunday, February 15th, 2004

I heard my cousin Jonathan Bartley on the radio this morning, talking to Roger Scruton and Ed Stourton. I would never have recognised him from his voice (we hardly ever meet). i’ was a gruff es’uary grow(l) from which con’sonanns, glo”lls, n terminoo ells had been scraped off like barnacles. He lives in Swindon. His father, my uncle Christopher, really does live in South London, was partly brought up in Enniskillen, but speaks with the most old-fashioned rugger-playing doctor’s drawl. Why not? That’s what he was — a consultant in a London hospital. His voice is about half an octave higher than his son’s; his vowels go on for twice as long; he even has the old Oxford tick of saying “in-vole-vd” for “involved”. Meanwhile, Scruton, who really was brought up in a poor family, sounds just about like I do, which is to say like Christopher but at 45 rpm.

When I was at school, the great upper-middle class shift to Mockney was just beginning. I wouldn’t do it. If people were going to tease me about my voice, they could, so far as I was concerned, fucking well learn to lump it. But I can’t help wondering whether Jonathan’s shift of accent was accelerated by his profession. Like his mother, he is a professional Christian, now running a thinktank named Ekklesia. Did he feel an extra presure to talk unposh because of his parents? Or is it that evangelicals are more determined than most to track the zeitgeist?

Language change (1)

Sunday, February 15th, 2004

I know almost nothing about African languages — so little that I don’t know what I don’t know, as Mr Rumsfeld would say. So it was a pleasure to come across Abiola Lapite’s refutation of the idea that we can hope to find the proto-language of mankind, using examples drawn from West Africa, rather than Yurp or North America.