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The door to my office will remain ajar

Un bureau mal rangéFriends have told me — both in writing and in conversation — that this blog ought to be more visible and “better referenced”. It certainly will be, eventually. But that isn’t what I’m after at the moment. I called the first article I posted ‘Blog — freedom and bondage’ because this wonderful instrument offers us both, as does everything that modernity brings us, and it is only by using it that one can find out on which path one is travelling.

Those who know me know that I write in an atmosphere of calm, solitude and serenity, and that I distance myself as much as I can from the hubbub of the world. Given this, I find blogging a paradoxical experience. If it were to invade my life and encroach upon the novel I am writing, I would have no choice but to run away. But I don’t plan to do that. One only has to see the pace at which I write my posts to realise that I enjoy the experience, and that I intend to keep at it.

I will continue because keeping a blog meets a need, a specific need that is increasingly clear to me: what I would like to do is leave ajar the door to my office so that any friends passing by may glance within and nod a quick greeting, perhaps let their eyes wander over a few pages that I’ve left out for them to see, then continue along their way with the promise of dropping by again later.

In short, I don’t want to keep my door tightly closed, nor do I want to want to put myself squarely in the public eye, with the doors and windows open to every gust of wind, my pages fluttering about everywhere.

Is this unrealistic? Doesn’t the Web have its own inherent logic from which no one can escape? I don’t think so. This blog will be what I make of it, and what my visitors help me make of it. I hope that it will be a space for thinking about literature, about languages and words, about the Obama years  — what I call “the Washington Spring” —, about the world in which we live, a world that is both fascinating and worrying. And I will undertake to make it exactly that.

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In Sherlock Holmes’ Day

first_edition_1887The Washington Spring — 4 —

I will begin today’s article with a brief literary reminiscence. It concerns Sherlock Holmes’ very first adventure, A Study in Scarlet, in which the narrator, Doctor Watson, first meets the famous detective. Holmes is looking for a fellow lodger, and a mutual acquaintance brings them together.

“Dr Watson, Mr Sherlock Holmes,” said Stamford, introducing us.

“How are you?” he said cordially, gripping my hand with a strength for which I should hardly have given him credit. “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

“How on earth did you know that?”

Holmes merely chuckles, and not until the following day does he explain how he worked it out. After going through a long list of deductions, he reaches this ironclad conclusion:

“Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.”

In the novel’s first paragraph, Watson tells us that he went to the Indies in 1878 as an army surgeon, but just as he was about to join his regiment, “the second Afghan war had broken out.” He found himself safe and sound in Kandahar, But says that he would have “fallen into the hands of the murderous Ghazis had it not been for the devotion and courage shown by Murray, my orderly…”

The book was published in 1887. I suppose that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s readers knew what he meant by the “second Afghan war.” Personally, I must confess that I’ve lost track. Even if I consider only those Afghan wars in my own lifetime, I’m no longer sure which one we’re up to. The fourth? The fifth?

All this to say that, when President Obama announced that he would withdraw his troops from Iraq but reinforce his contingent in Afghanistan, I wasn’t convinced his decision was a wise one. The US Army had to withdraw from Iraq, of course. They never should have gone there in the first place, and once they had occupied it, they certainly shouldn’t have acted the way they did. I am not sure that the situation will be properly fixed after the Americans leave definitively; but I am sure that their military’s prolonged presence there did nothing to help.

Having made that clear, I must make a remark that no historian of the Middle East can readily contest: the least one can say is that Iraq is not a guerrilla warfare country. It took the Americans’ accumulated mistakes, blunders and gaffes for them to end up with such a war on their hands, in such bleak physical and humanitarian circumstances.

Afghanistan is another kettle of fish. It is the quintessential land of endless guerrilla warfare, as the British, Soviets and various other foolhardy powers discovered to their cost. And even if the American president wants to lead his campaign differently, even if he asks his troops to listen to the local population and he promises to reform the prisons, it remains an extremely risky bet.

The historic reconciliation that Obama is pressing for must materialise and produce tangible results before the Afghans – and Muslim nations in general – will accept an American military operation on their land. That certainly isn’t the case today. We are only at the beginning of a long road full of pitfalls, and it is foolhardy to behave as though we have already reached safe haven.

(First published in French on July 21st).

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Paul Krugman’s doubts

obama-au-printemps-2009-photo-pete-souzaThe Washington Spring — 3 —

Those keen to follow closely America under Obama would do well to keep an eye on a number of warning lights. On the international front, there is the war in Afghanistan, the crisis in Iran, the peace efforts in the Near East and the policy towards Africa; on the domestic front, there is the economic recovery, health-care-system reform and so on. The list of indicators is long and I won’t cover all of it. On those matters I know a few things about, I will give my assessment every now and then,  and amend it when either the situation or my view of events changes. On the many matters about which I know little, I will avoid expressing personal opinions, though I may recommend something worth reading from time to time.

The economy is a case of the latter. I don’t feel qualified to disentangle its many threads. Yet, since it is such an important issue that affects all our lives; and since it is the focus of ongoing, worldwide trouble; and because it is a matter on which Barack Obama’s administration cannot allow itself to fail, it is only natural that the conscientious observer pay it close attention.

Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and a leading authority on the subject, has expressed his qualms about the economy. Krugman is a ‘liberal’ in the American sense — which, as everyone knows, means the opposite of the French definition. He is in favour of allowing the public authorities to play a significant role in the economy in order to offset the market’s influence. His benchmark work is entitled The Conscience of a Liberal1. The book is essential reading and should inspire all those looking for a middle road between the failed policy of interventionism and that idolatrous faith in market rule, which has unquestionably shown its limitations.

In his book, Krugman brilliantly develops a number of appealing ideas. He writes, for instance, that the American reaction to the Great Depression of 1929 was the “Great Compression” — of income — a process that turned the nation into a vast middle class. It is this America, he says, which was able to burst into patriotic and ethical action during the Second World War, to defeat Nazism.

Krugman writes that under Reagan, the United States returned to a time of inequality. Little by little, he says, the country unravelled its social fabric, became demoralised, and distorted the meaning of patriotism. The United States under ultra-conservative rule has led dubious wars such as the one in Iraq, where the majority of troops were young immigrants whose only motive was to obtain citizenship a little more quickly, and where countless activities were sub-contracted to private businessmen whose only motive was to grow rich on the army’s back.

The author concludes that as much as the conservative Republicans try to outdo their rivals in patriotism and accuse their adversaries of being ‘un-American’, their posturing is belied by the facts, namely that the American right cannot win a war, while the America born of the bold New Deal set up by Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to do so, brilliantly.

Krugman turns all the arguments that American conservatives have developed over the last thirty years against them. He advocates a steadfastly social capitalism, not just out of ethical concern, but also because it allows both the economy and international relations to be managed more efficiently, and because it allows democratic institutions to run smoothly.

It is no surprise, then, that Krugman expressed his disapproval very soon after Barack Obama presented his economic recovery plan. He found the plan timid, fearful and insufficient. He felt that the new president hadn’t dared take on the establishment, or Wall Street.

That Obama revealed himself to be prudent – extremely prudent — and that he didn’t choose to follow the bolder road that Krugman advocates, is indisputable. But was he wrong to do so? Will he regret it one day, as Krugman implies in his articles? It is hard to say. On the one hand, one can understand that the newly elected president, immediately confronted by a major crisis, didn’t want to risk turning the system upside down. On the other, I think it makes sense to ask, as Krugman does, if we can really face a major crisis without making a real break with the practices that led to the disaster in the first place.

The debate is of capital importance and far from over. I will continue to follow it closely, and to comment on it in these posts.

(First published in French on July 18th).

  1. His blog, hosted on The New York Times website, bears the same name. []

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My Web of Words – 5 – Greek

I wrote in my last post that in the Levant, the words roumi and roum were sometimes synonymous with ‘Greek’. I had planned to make some further points, but then decided to save these for a separate post so as not to burden the article with overlong digressions.

While roum describes those Christians that adhere to the Greek rite and, in historical texts, the Byzantines, the everyday Arabic word used for Greece is al-Yunan, while its corresponding adjective is yunani. We find the word again in Persian, Urdu, Hindi and Mandarin; and we can find its cousins in the languages of many Asian countries, from Azerbaijan to Indonesia.

It’s generally accepted that the Arabs, and probably all those other Eastern nations mentioned above, followed the example of the Turks, who call Greece Yunanistan, literally ‘the land of the Ionians’.

Yet Ionia nowadays is not in Greece but in Turkey, on the shore of the Aegean Sea, with the city of Izmir (formerly Smyrna) at its centre. Ionia is the region of Asia Minor that remained ethnically Greek for the longest, so much so that at the end of the First World War, when it looked like the defeated Ottoman Empire was about to be carved up, Athens tried to annex Ionia. Ataturk took up arms against them, and the Greeks’ rash venture ended in tragedy: massacres, a massive exodus, and a huge fire that, in September 1922, ravaged Izmir, destroying the greater part of the city and, according to some sources, more than 100,000 people.

The name Yunanistan, and all those derived from it, could therefore be explained by the fact that Ionia was one of the principle Greek strongholds in Asia Minor, at a time when the Turkish population was becoming the majority1.  Whatever the case, the region was an important centre of civilisation and encompasses places that left their marks on history, places such as Ephesus, Phocaea, the island of Samos, the Meander River and Miletus, home of Thales, one of the ancient world’s great scholars2.

It should come as no surprise that the Turks, Arabs and other nations of the Orient have their own names for Greece and its people, given that the nations of the West don’t know that country by the name its inhabitants give it either. Greeks call their country Ellada or, in a historical context, Hellas, and call themselves Hellenes, whereas most European languages know that country as Greece and its people as Greeks, or by some variant of these.

In this, the Greeks are far from alone; many people are surprised, amused and at times horrified when they hear the name given to their country by people in other regions of the world.

  1. AUTHOR’S NOTE: Yet the word could be even older, since the Bible knows Greece as Yavan, phonetically close to Yunan; if this is in fact the case, however, one would have to assume that the Greeks’ assimilation with the Ionians occurred long before the Turkic migrations, which brings to mind this article in the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia. []
  2. AUTHOR’S NOTE: At certain moments in history, the name ‘Ionia’ included what is now known as Greece, encompassing Athens, Attica and the northern Peloponnese. Yet it seems the ‘Ionian’ Islands such as Corfu, Ithaca, Kythira and Cephalonia had nothing to do with that Ionia — the two words are simply homonyms and are not written the same way in Greek. []

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My Web of Words – 4 – Roumi

This word has travelled far, both in the trail of the Roman legions and beyond. I should properly say these words, for though in Arabic roum is the plural of roumi, the two words have not evolved the same way at all.

The word roum is among those I heard continually in Lebanon, whereas the word “roumi” was unknown to me until I saw it used – in French – to describe Tintin during his adventure in the Land of Black Gold (unless it was in the Cigars of the Pharaoh). It wasn’t until much later that I discovered the great 13th-Century mystic poet who bears the same name: Jalal ad-Din Rumi.1

As you might expect, the origin of this word takes us back to the Romans. But to which Romans, exactly? The Roman Empire known to the Arabs and Turks wasn’t that of Rome, which disappeared in 476, but of Constantinople, which survived another millennium, until 1453. Nowadays we call the latter the Byzantine Empire, but this is a recent designation, unknown before modern times. The Eastern emperors always proclaimed themselves to be Romans, and that is what their neighbours called them.

Yet they were actually Greeks, which explains why, in Arabic and other oriental languages, calling them ‘Roman’ eventually came to mean ‘Greek’. I remember once reading a headline in a Beirut newspaper announcing the marriage of Constantine, the former King of Greece; he was described as the King of the Roum. I smiled, because it was a quaint turn of phrase that no one used anymore. In Lebanon, the word roum is now applied only to two Christian religious communities: roum orthodox, meaning Greek Orthodox, and roum catholik, meaning Greek Catholics. Use the word roum on its own and it is understood to mean the former. Note, however, that the singular is never used in this context; asked to which faith he adheres, a Greek Orthodox will say that he is roum, not roumi. The latter hasn’t followed the same route.

Mysticism and comic books

The peoples of the Maghreb knew all about the Western Roman Empire and, more recently, French colonisation; what’s more, the region has never had local communities adhering to the Greek Rite, and here the word roumi is used to describe a European Christian. In French military slang, it used to denote a young recruit newly arrived in the city2. To my mind, Hergé drew inspiration from this term when he had the Egyptian Arabs or those from the ‘land of black gold’ call the tufted young reporter a ‘roumi’.

In fact, the inhabitants of the Levant and of the Arab peninsula would actually have called him a franji — meaning ‘Frank’, the word commonly used to describe a European. When the word roumi is used in these parts, it is to describe someone as a ‘Greek’ or sometimes, paradoxically, a ‘Turk’. And is it indeed in this latter sense that we should understand the name of the mystic poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi.

This shift in meaning is explained by the fact that the region known today as Turkey was long part of the Eastern Roman Empire. In Arabic, it was call bilad er-roum, meaning ‘the land of the Roum’, and its inhabitants were therefore known as roum, singular roumi or rumi. When the Turkic migrations to Asia Minor began around the year 1000, the historian ibn al-Athir tells us that they came from China, by which he means what is now the province of Xinjiang — still sometimes called Chinese Turkistan — and that those who settled in Anatolia, within the Eastern Roman Empire, were called roum. Given that vast numbers of Turkic peoples migrated to this region, the word roum eventually came to be synonymous with ‘Turk’ in Persia as well as in certain parts of India3.

The mystic poet Rumi himself was not a Turk. Born in 1207 in Balkh, in the north of what is now Afghanistan, into a family of educated Persians, he fled with his people from Genghis Khan’s hordes and settled in the ‘land of the Roum’, in the city of Konya, which is in the centre of what is now Turkey. Here he would remain until his death in 1273, and it is here that he would study, write and teach, winning in his lifetime an immense prestige that remains undiminished to this day.

Now as then, people sing his poetry, meditate on his wisdom and, more than anything, venerate the incomparable generosity of his spirit, a generosity that drove him to write:

Come, come to us, whoever you are,
Wanderer, idolater, worshipper of fire,
Come, even though you have broken your vows a thousand times,
Come to us, and come yet again.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.

  1. TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Roumi in French. []
  2. AUTHOR’S NOTE: As we are reminded by the website of the Centre National des Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales, which I often visit. []
  3. AUTHOR’S NOTE: The illustration used in this article comes from the Historical Museum of Textiles in Lyon. I found it on this site, to which I am profoundly grateful. []
  4. TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Translation cited in Malak, Amin, Muslim Narratives and the Discourse of English, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005, p. 151. []

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My Web of Words – 3 – Orange

It is in the chronicles of old that I discovered the name the Arabs once gave to this fruit: al-naranj. The word illustrates better than any other how their civilization played the role of cultural go-between. It came to Arabic from Persian, which itself borrowed it from Sanskrit. It originally denoted the bitter orange, introduced to Europe around the 11th Century.

When 15th-Century Portuguese navigators brought back from Asia the sweet varieties such as the ones we eat today, the Arabs called the new fruit bortuqal, ‘Portugal’; we find the same name given in Turkish, Georgian and Bulgarian as well as a number of other languages, including, apparently, Persian. Certain sources say that the common name for this fruit in Iran is now portoghal, but my old French-Persian ‘Dictionnaire Khayyam’, published fifty or so years ago, gives only narang. Possibly both terms co-exist in Iran as they do in Greece, where the sweet orange is called portokali and the bitter variety nerantzi.

Naranja, laranja, taronja, arancia

Most European languages have kept the old word, but in different forms. Some have done away with the initial ‘n’; others have maintained it; yet others have switched the consonant with another.

In French, the old word was norenge. Since it was often preceded by the indefinite article une — which ends with a silent e — the two words were therefore pronounced ‘unnorenge‘. One of the two n’s became superfluous and eventually disappeared. Some think that this progression was smoothed by the fact that the new word began with or, French for ‘gold’, a syllable made all the more apt given that the colour of the ripened fruit is a little like that of the precious metal. A similar evolution occurred in Italian, in which the word began as narancia and became arancia. As for the English word, it appears to have been taken as is from French.1

On the Iberian Peninsula, Spanish has retained the initial n. In una naranja, the two ‘na’ syllables were distinct and have never joined. The Portuguese say laranja, as do the Basques; Galicians say laranxa — the initial ‘l’ in these three languages probably a trace of the definite article in Arabic in al-naranj. The Catalans, however, say taronja.

Elsewhere in Europe, the name of the orange has followed a different route. The Germanic languages refer to the fruit’s country of origin, calling it a ‘China apple’ — the Germans have apfelsin, the Dutch sinaasappel, the Swedes apelsin, and so on.2  Russian has taken the same route, with apelsin.3

Before it was used to denote a particular fruit, the words ‘apple’, ‘pomme’ and ‘apfel’ were generic terms used to denote all fruit apart from berries. In French, we still say pommes de terre4 for potatoes, and pommes de pin5 for pine cones; French speakers once called the tomato a pomme d’or6, an idea that persists in the Italian word pomodoro. Both terms exist in Arabic; Arabic-speakers in certain countries, such as Lebanon, still talk about a ‘golden apple’ in the term banadoura; in others, notably Egypt, the tomato is known as a tamatem
But I’ll revisit some of these words in a future post.

  1. AUTHOR’S NOTE: For more on this point and many others, see the excellent Online Etymology Dictionary, a goldmine that I have just discovered. []
  2. AUTHOR’S NOTE: We find this provenance again in the fruit’s scientific name, citrus sinicus. []
  3. AUTHOR’S NOTE: In spoken Algerian, the orange is called a tchina, which also seems to evoke its Chinese origin. We see the same root in the name for another variety of citrus fruit — the mandarin. []
  4. TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Literally, ‘earth apple’, but really a ‘potato’. []
  5. TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Literally, ‘pine (tree) apple’, but really a ‘pinecone’. []
  6. TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Literally, ‘gold(en) apple’, but really a ‘tomato’. []

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Shame on them all

Something eludes me in the story of al-Megrahi, the Libyan official who has just been released in Scotland.

If he is guilty of a crime as dreadful as the Lockerbie bombing – that is, of using a bomb to destroy an airliner and cause the deaths of 270 people -, why has he been released after just ten years in prison?

If he is innocent, then why were some people surprised to see him greeted with flowers upon his return home?

I won’t speculate on his guilt or innocence. One thing, however, is absolutely certain: if this man did indeed commit the abominable act of which he is accused, he did it not for his own account, but for that of his superiors. This is a patent, incontestable fact. Yet no one seems embarrassed to receive these same superiors with all the usual fanfare, or to accommodate their every whim. No one thinks twice before being photographed at their sides, or before signing lucrative contracts with them. Yet when al-Megrahi’s masters pose in photographs alongside the underling who paid for their crimes, we are supposed to be outraged.

Many of those familiar with the affair – notably, some of the victims’ parents – are convinced that the trial was shamefully rigged, that the Libyan official wasn’t guilty at all but rather served as a scapegoat to protect the real perpetrators, whether Libyan or not. Indeed, the Scottish Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, implied as much when he decided to free al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds. Because even if the man suffers from an incurable disease that leaves him little time to live, he could have been conscientiously treated in a British hospital. Certainly, he should never have been allowed to return home – not unless there are serious doubts about his culpability.

Everything leads us to believe that certain people have struck a sordid bargain for oil, or for commercial or political gain. Plenty of clues point this way. If this is indeed the case, then there are some who have no business lording it as though from some great ethical height. By dint of compromising values in the name of ‘realism’, by dint of interpreting principles according to what’s currently convenient, the West will eventually lose all moral credibility; as for her adversaries/partners across the Mediterranean, they never had much moral cradibility to begin with.

I don’t know whether, one day, the truth about the Lockerbie bombing will come completely to light; whatever that truth might be, however, one thing is certain: the affair exposes the moral failure that marks our times, a failure in which no leader – not in the West and not in the Arab world – hasn’t played a part. It is a failure from which no one can walk with head held high.

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My Web of Words – 2 – Turkey

For me, studying the origin of words is above all a conversation. We tell stories, we argue, we converse with and teach one another, and we get to know one another better. I am talking here as much about languages, nations and cultures as I am about individuals.

Certainly, the field has its men of learning, its specialists and scholars. I am not among them. My ambition is only to be an enlightened amateur. I have fun, I learn and I pass on what I learn the way men of letters once did — except that I do it with today’s tools, which allow me to receive in my study not one or two friends who happen to be passing by, but hundreds of people from all over.

The domesticated animal I wish to discuss today is known in various languages by the name of a country. In French, we call it “dinde”, – originally “d’Inde”, i.e. “from India”. In English, the same animal is known as a turkey; in Lebanon and some other arab countries, the male turkey is called “dik habash”, meaning Abyssinian — that is to say Ethiopian — cock; but the Egyptians called it “dik roumi”, which literally translates as Roman rooster but by which they really mean a Greek one1 .  The Greeks themselves know the turkey as a “gallopoula”, which means French hen. As for the Turks, they simply call the turkey a “hindi”2.

Yet this fowl fares not from India, nor Turkey, nor yet Ethiopia, but from America, from where Christopher Columbus brought the first specimens back to Europe. In Portuguese, the animal is called a ‘Peru.’ And it is understood among French-speakers that the French word for turkey refers to the wrongly identified ‘India’. The explorer’s mistake — he thought he had reached India from the west — has never been completely rectified, since we continue to talk about American ‘Indians’ 500 years later.

It’s true that the word ‘America’ itself results from a misunderstanding. But that will be the theme of another post.

  1. How did the word “rumi” and its plural “rum” come to mean “Greek” instead of the literal meaning of “Roman”? This is a very unusual story to which I’ll be coming back very soon. []
  2. For further examples of the names given to this bird, see the  dedicated page in the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia. []

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He must succeed

The Washington Spring – 8

If, with the passing weeks, I have expressed concerns and inchoate disappointment, it is only because Barack Obama’s election filled me with hope, because I wish above all that he succeed, and because it would be a disaster should he fail. I am still fairly confident, even if there are more and more sceptics around me – which, in the internet age, means the entire planet.

I regularly hear one objection that seems to me to some extent warranted (but also, therefore, in some measure unwarranted), and which can be expressed thus: the United States behaved the way it did on the international stage during recent years (decades, even) not because of calculated choices made by any one president, but because national interests dictated their deeds.

The proof of this, we’re told, is that successive American leaders adopted more-or-less similar positions on a range of issues. There is, therefore, a sort of determinism preventing any president – no matter how well intentioned – from breaking away from the line imposed by his country’s strategic interests. In the Arab world, you hear this opinion on every street corner. And you hear it in Latin America and in other regions of the world, too.

In my opinion, there is certainly some truth to it. If the American giant has found itself mired in so many conflicts throughout the world in recent years, it is not only because presidents Bush Snr., Clinton and then Bush Jr. deemed them worthwhile. It is also because the United States no longer felt it could play a leading role in the planet’s affairs or protect its own interests without constantly resorting to its military might.

Might Americans now change their attitude? In all sincerity, the most one can say – if one takes into account the objective facts without getting stuck in determinism – is that that remains to be seen. An American president’s margin for manoeuvre is neither negligible nor limitless. For example, should a president want to significantly reduce the US military presence throughout the world, he would meet with obstacles difficult to overcome; conversely, had a president decided it was wrong to invade Iraq, he could very well have avoided that war.

This applies to most of the troublesome matters that Barack Obama found on his desk when he moved into the White House last January – the economy, health care, global warming, and various international questions such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Burma, Africa, the Middle East and so on. In his speeches, first as candidate and then president, and in his earlier writings, Obama has shown an in-depth understanding of these matters. One gets the feeling that he’s thought them through, that he’s sought solutions.

Being a symbol isn’t enough

I freely admit that I hoped Obama would win. At first, my hope was founded on the symbolic value that the election of a person of mixed origins, who comes from five continents at once, to the leadership of the world’s leading superpower represented; but as I heard him speak, as I read what he had written and heard what those who knew him well said of him, I was quickly seduced by his intelligence and moral integrity.

Quite frankly, America hasn’t exactly spoiled us with the presidents she has chosen over the past 40 years; the intelligent and cultivated ones turned out to be cynics or of dubious morals, and the entire world suffered the consequences. Obama’s election filled me with enthusiasm, then, and I still think that, on the symbolic level, it constitutes an historic event of global reach. But I shall be disappointed should History remember this presidency for its symbolism alone.

Disappointment is too faint, too personal a word. The troubled world we live in needs urgent and audacious answers if we are to avoid sinking even deeper into violence, hatred and widespread cynicism. And it would be a disaster if the man who raised ‘the audacity of hope’ into doctrine, who made it a rallying cry, lacked audacity and dashed our hope.

It is too soon to say if this will be the case. For the time being, then, I listen, pay attention, weigh up and consider events. Sometimes I rejoice, sometimes I grow impatient, and sometimes I worry. Without going into the details of any matter in particular, I would like to note here two or three general causes for concern, linked to the character of this administration and to that of the president himself.

Obama is a consensus man, which is both a quality and a liability. It’s a quality if one understands ‘consensus’ to mean that all political views should be taken into account, and that all people of good will should be brought into the fold. But if one gives the right of veto over one’s actions to too many people, including to one’s own opponents, one condemns oneself to paralysis and conformism. Big ideas are watered down until they are vapid and inconsequential.

I have just read a highly illuminating book, one to which Obama consented, and which – despite its ambiguous title, Renegade[i] - is very favourable to him, by the British journalist Richard Wolffe. In it, Wolffe recounts a conversation he had last year with the future president on the manner in which the latter intended to govern. Obama told him, in essence, that if “the ship” were entrusted to him, then his first concern would be to prevent it being wrecked.

It’s an understandable and worthy attitude, but paradoxically also a little risky – ‘risky’ in the sense of excessively prudent. Because from the moment certain people, both within the United States and outside it, realise that Obama is reluctant to use force for fear of upsetting the ship, they will no longer want to let him continue. Not on health, not on the economy, not on the Middle East, not on Afghanistan, not on any portfolio whatsoever.

There are so many people who have not accepted his election, whether for political, racial or other reasons, and who above all want to see him fail. He must prove them wrong. For the United States as much as for the rest of the world, it is vital that Obama succeed.

(First published in French on August 19th).

[i] AUTHOR’S NOTE: ‘Renegade’ was the code word given to candidate Obama by the secret service agents assigned to protect him during the election campaign.


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My Web of Words – 1 – Alcohol

alcools-photo-ziad-maaloufI have a long-standing passion for the origins of words, especially those that cross the borders between languages and cultures, the travelling words, which I call “My Web of Words.”
There are of course those words that the West has borrowed from Eastern languages — Arabic, Persian, Turkish, the Indian languages and others still; then there are those Western words that the Arabs, Turks or Japanese have adopted; but the ones in which I’m most interested are those that have gone both ways.

Such has been the lot of the word ‘alcohol’, for instance. No one will be surprised to learn that, in the Arab world, alcoholic drinks are called al-kuhul. Quite naturally, you would be tempted to think that this word gave French alcool and English ‘alcohol’. You would be wrong; the evidence strongly suggests that it is in fact Arabic that very recently borrowed al-kuhul from European languages. Indeed, you won’t find the word in classic Arabic literature. The ancient poets enjoyed drink as much as the modern ones do, and often wrote of it in rapturous terms. But they never called it al-kuhul. That which Islam advises against or forbids — and promises to those who enter Paradise — is khamr, a word that denotes wine specifically and alcoholic drinks more generally, and which is still commonly used.

Having said that, the word ‘alcohol’ does, in fact, come from Arabic — but it came with quite another meaning, and in a much more roundabout way. Al-kuhl originally described the powdered antimony used as make up, a meaning it has retained in current Arabic usage and which some Western languages have borrowed, as in the French words khôl, kohl or kohol, and the English ‘kohl’. When physicians subjected this antimony to high heat, it produced a cloud of fine powder. The direct transformation of a substance from solid to gas without passing through a liquid state is called sublimation. The gas produced by this method was called ‘alcohol’, a word that became synonymous with ‘spirit’, in the sense of ‘spirits-of-wine’ or ‘spirituous’. Little by little, around the 11th Century, the word came to describe all distilled drinks, and finally all alcoholic drinks; and it is this meaning — which no longer has anything to do with ‘kohl’ – that the word took back to Arabic, most probably around the 19th Century, certainly no earlier.

This is just the first example of the to-and-fro that travelling words undergo. I plan to bring up more in future posts.

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Not a saviour, but a reason to hope

The Washington Spring — 2

The great Portuguese writer Miguel Urbano Rodrigues has criticised me for speaking of Barack Obama as though he were a saviour or messiah. Rodrigues’ criticism seems to me excessive, though I admit that I expect much from the American president and that I saw his election as somewhat providential — a modifier I use simply as a synonym for ‘unhoped-for’. I am a staunch advocate of reason, if not in behaviour than at the least in analysis. I strive to make sense of the world with unblinkered clear-sightedness.

What I liked about candidate Obama in the first place, and President Obama in the second, is precisely that he appeals to reason, not instinct. This reveals in his attitude a respect for his listeners that, in my opinion, is the only worthy attitude in a democracy. When politicians try to manipulate rather than convince their audience, democracy loses its sense.

It is Obama’s attitude, and this alone, that leads me to expect great things of him. The world is in a bad way, in large part because of the United States. As the world’s leading power, it plays a decisive role in everything that happens on the planet, and its behaviour in recent years has more often aggravated crises than helped resolve them.

I have just devoted a book to all the troubles —strategic, economic, intellectual, ethical, environmental — from which the world suffers, and I am convinced that we face grave perils. It is crucial that we pull ourselves together to try to weather the storm. However, I don’t want to discuss my book here. This is a forum for thought where I express myself not as an author but as a worried citizen — a deeply worried one, unquestionably, yet one still fervently searching for reasons to keep hoping.

Until proven otherwise, Obama’s election is one of the strongest reasons we have for keeping hope. Just two years ago, I barely knew his name. There are very good reasons for his meteoric rise to power since then. He rightly identified the world’s most pressing problems, and he explained to the people of the United States that they must restore their nation’s moral standing in the world, particularly the Islamic world. And despite his father’s African origins — yet perhaps also paradoxically due to them — he won the election and became the most powerful man on the planet. Is it unreasonable to hope that he will change the course of events, in the United States as much as in the rest of the world?

Do the countless people, young or otherwise, who applaud Obama wherever he goes see him as a messiah or rock star? I don’t think so. They are simply aware that they live in a difficult and dangerous time, and they see in this man a reason to hope. To dismiss the enthusiasm of the young as ‘Obamamania’ is reductive and insulting. The majority of them are demonstrating political hope, one that is well considered, noble and legitimate.

I share their hope passionately but with a clear head. I plan to keep up a personal column under the heading ‘Washington Spring’, where I can think out loud and write about my joys, disappointments and questions. My hope is that the spring will prove long, fruitful and groundbreaking, but I will monitor it without complacency. Indeed, I have begun preparing my next post, in which I feel obliged to address a number of causes for concern.

(First published in French on July 17th).

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The Washington Spring – 1 -

15 July 2009.

The course of events in the United States and the rest of the world since Barack Obama’s election amounts, for me, to a fortuitous spring — one that follows a long-drawn-out winter.

The word ‘spring’ preys on my mind, arousing both hope and concern. Hope, because for the first time in a long time, we have a world leader who understands the necessity for an historic reconciliation between the West and the Arab world, and who understands the need for the United States to restore its moral standing.

But also concern, because the word — which, in recent decades, has been applied to events such as the Prague Spring at the end of the sixties — contains within it a sense of fragility, and even the connotation of a fleeting sunny spell that runs counter to the relentless course of history, and which is sure to be swept away.

Indeed, we may wonder whether, a few years down the track, Obama’s election will look like the beginning of a new era or else a brief excursion, a final attempt to prevent the world from sliding into the abyss. I write these words in a state of uncertainty. My hope is that he succeeds. It is more than a hope — it is a fervent prayer. I dare not imagine what will become of the world should Obama fail. If that were to happen, then the only people who will thrive and cheer will be those who adhere to suicidal ideologies, who exploit hatred and never-ending conflict and who cannot conceive of a reconciled world.

Though I put my trust in Obama, in his vision and political skill, the task that he is expected to pull off is so Herculean that his success is far from assured. It is too early to reach any conclusion, of course. The president’s mandate began barely six months ago, and at this stage it is enough to take stock of what has been promised without demanding results. For my part, I see many encouraging signs, but also some causes for concern.

For the time being, then, I will limit myself to this preamble; but I have resolved to come back, over the coming days and weeks, to the Washington Spring and the many expectations it creates. A few of these have already been met, while others have already been thwarted. Most, however, are still up in the air.

(First published in French on July 15th).

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Between “French” and “francophone”

Like all tools, a concept must be handled dextrously and advisedly, lest it proves dangerous and damages more than it mends. My preceding article could just as well have been entitled “On the good and bad usage of the concept of diversity” — a concept precious to me, and one that often recurs in my writing, given the great importance I attach to cultural and linguistic diversity, as well as to the diversity of living species.

Following this line of thought, this article could just as well be entitled “On the good and bad usage of the concept of francophonie”. When the concept was begotten in the 1960s, it was an excellent thing. France and her former dependencies were anxious to move past the traumas of the colonial era towards a consentient alliance, founded on the most solid and highest ground there is, that of a common language. No longer would there be colonists and natives; no longer would French ancestry be a condition of entry into the club. From Brazzaville to Phnom Penh, Lyon to Montreal, Bucharest to Port-au-Prince, all those who “shared the French language”, those who had been born in the bosom of the French-speaking world as much as those who had adopted it — and even those who felt they had been subjected to it — found themselves henceforth equal, all brothers in the francophone world, united by the sacred bonds of language, which are scarcely less indivisible than those of soil or blood.

The semantic drift occurred afterwards. I use the word ‘drift’ here because there was no pernicious intent behind it. Indeed, from the moment the French-speaking world had rallied together, francophone institutions had been established and francophone summits held, it seemed natural that we start talking about francophone literature and francophone authors. What, after all, is a francophone author? A person who writes in French. This is patently obvious, at least in theory. Yet the meaning was immediately perverted, even overturned.

In France, the word ‘francophones’ should have meant ‘us’; instead, it has come to mean ‘them’, ‘the others’, ‘foreigners’, ‘people from our former colonies’. And as the meaning drifted, our identities became indurated and old reflexes returned. Few would think to call Flaubert or Celine ‘francophones’; and even those writers who come from abroad are quickly categorised as French writers, so long as they haven’t come from a Third World country; I have never heard Apollinaire or Cioran described as ‘francophones’.

Wilhelm-Apolinary de Kostrowicki, known as Guillaume Apollinaire

In an attempt to find the factors that govern this divide, I recently itemized a long list of names. I would be ashamed to write the results I found. Even if I listed only the factors themselves, I would feel stained. They contain discriminatory subtleties unworthy of France, unworthy of her ideals, unworthy of her place in the history of ideas and of nations.

Should I reel off a few examples? No, I will stop here. I will say only in a low, solemn but firm voice: let us put an end to this absurdity! Let us use the word ‘‘francophonie” only in the diplomatic and geopolitical sphere; let us make it our habit to say ‘French-language writers’ without rummaging through their identity papers and baggage, or delving into their first names or their skin. Let us consider our earlier blunders as an unhappy detour, a regrettable misunderstanding, and let us set off again on the right foot.

Doing so would align us with what is practiced in the most widespread and conquering of linguistic spaces, those of the English and Spanish languages, which know no segregation of this kind. No one would think to distinguish Spanish writers from ‘hispanophones’, or the English from ‘anglophones’. There are simply English-language writers, whether they are black or blond, or whether they hail from Birmingham, Dublin, Sydney, Calcutta or Johannesburg; and there are Spanish-language writers, whether they are Andalusians, Chileans, Columbians or Guatemalans.

The basis for the differences in how the question has been addressed is found not in the character of the nations in question, but rather in the facts of history and demography. England may be the birthplace of the English language, but it is the United States that nowadays sits at its centre. The existence of these two poles — to which a number of others, of varying sizes, can be added — prevents the language from becoming locked into a British-centric attitude. They same is true of Spanish, which is spoken by more people in Mexico or Argentina than it is in its mother country, a fact which, again, guards against any temptation towards Iberian centrism.
We can say that the literatures of the English and Spanish languages have acquired a global perspective thanks to the waning of the influence that the hubs once had on their former dependencies. France hasn’t experienced the same drifting apart, and so remains ensconced at the centre of its linguistic domain, without feeling the need to question or change its attitude.
Certainly, some writers occasionally unite to say that it is vital to move from a France-centred literary attitude to a global one; and that we must be done with the awkward, damaging dichotomy between ‘French’ and ‘francophone’. But old habits of expression die hard.

Do I need to point out that reconciliatory language in no way diminishes diversity? The English language contains Indian literature, Australian literature, Canadian, Nigerian and South-African literatures, Caribbean and Irish literatures, and so on. The same can be said of French. One does not write the same way in Paris as one does in Dakar, Geneva or Liege; Algiers, Casablanca or Beirut; Montreal, Quimper or Fort-de-France.

The diversity of voices will remain. Plainly, it contains a vast literary wealth. What we must abolish are those barren and discriminatory oppositions such as a literature of the North versus a literature of the South; White literature versus Black literature; a literature of the metropolis versus that of the peripheries. The French language must not, for those who have chosen it, become another place of exile.

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Diversity’s drift in meaning

A tale told in the United States during segregation often pops into my mind. It’s about a bus driver who would seat passengers according to the colour of their skin — white folks up front, black people down the back. One day, his boss took him aside, explained how times had changed and how he, the driver, had to change with them. When the boss saw that the driver wasn’t catching his drift, he said, “Forget that there are black people and white people. From now on, act as if we’re all blue.” So the next time the bus driver ran his route, he announced to his passengers, “It seems there are no longer any white people or black people. We’re all blue now. So you light-blue people, sit up front and you dark-blue people, move to the back.”

Some ways of thinking die hard. We try to stifle them under new terms only to see them resurface, appropriate good words and use them for the same old shameful purposes. I think of this sometimes when I see how people use just such highly regarded words — ‘diversity’, for example — here in France.

That present-day French society is composed of people descended from diverse origins and who claim allegiance to diverse groups and cultures is now incontestable. I can only be delighted by this diversity, of course, and by the fact that it is recognised, and valued. But old ideas die hard, no matter how discredited. The blunt, simple idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’, of keeping the sheep apart from the goats, has deep roots in all human societies; it cannot simply be yanked out. And it hasn’t taken long for this old idea to make the new word its own and twist it to say the opposite of what was intended.

The shift in meaning of the word ‘diversity’ has been a subtle one. That a newly formed government reflects society’s diversity is an excellent thing. In a country where cultural, ethnic, religious and social frictions related to immigration are constantly in the media’s glare, it is in my view perfectly sound to make it one’s duty to include in every government people from different backgrounds.

Where we unwittingly veer off-course is when, instead of talking about a government that reflects diversity, we start talking about ‘ministers of diversity’ or ‘representatives of diversity’. At first blush, it seems like nothing to make a fuss about. And yet the meaning of the word ‘diversity’ here has been turned upside down. Because if three or four ministers are described as reflecting diversity, then what do the rest represent? Normality? Frenchness? Identity? This is no trivial thing. Rather, it is precisely the difference between an approach that brings us together and one that divides us.

To be convinced of this, compare the following two statements: “We are all different” and “Some people among us are different”. We can agree that these don’t mean the same thing. The first sentence means, “We all belong to the same community, even if each of us is different from the rest”. The second means, “There is ‘us’, and there are ‘others’”. In the first instance, the word ‘different’ brings us together; in the second, it divides us, since it demarcates ‘us’ from people who are ‘different’.

The word ‘diversity’ suffers from the same drift in meaning. To say that a government reflects the diversity of a nation is an idea that brings us together. To say that the government includes people who represent diversity is to dismiss those people and all who resemble them as foreign. It is exactly the opposite of what was intended.

It behoves us — writers, journalists and responsible citizens first and foremost — to resist the temptation of easy options, of ready-made turns of phrase that convey damaging prejudices. It behoves us to search for the right words that fully articulate coexistence and that help build a harmonious future.