Friday, May 31, 2013

The King of the Franks part 3

I stood in the circular drive of the hotel.  The towering banyan trees, planted as an ornamental barrier, blocking the pit dug as a foundation for a building which was never built, were dying from lack of water.  Their dung colored leaves rustled in the breeze.  It was already dark.  As always in the tropics, day turned to night with seemingly no transition.  Dusk was merely a spot of pink on a horizon which quickly bled dry to black.  As I stared at the disappearing stain that sun had left on the horizon, a government car pulled up.  A driver emerged, opened the door, closed it behind me, and we sped off into the dark city.

Charles’ house was, not surprisingly, in an area of the city once reserved for the colonial officials who occupied this nation.  The streets were arranged in an orderly grid.  A line of stately elms flanked the well paved streets.  Hemmed in on all sides by poverty and decay, the district was eerily quiet in the dark, with few houses lit from private generators
The driver let me out in front of a large stucco home tiled with red stones.  The garden was blooming with flowers: vermillion, crimson, deep, aquatic greens.  The path smelled of water and herbs.  Several lamps glowed along the path, illuminating the way, which terminated at a large door carved with the figures of European Knights in chivalrous, marital poses – some colonial official’s nostalgic concession to a lost world still worthy of emulation. 
I had expected a servant to answer the door, but it was Charles standing in the threshold.  He still wore the charcoal gray suit which had become his trademark in news conferences, but he had removed his tie, and I noticed for the first time that he had a meaty neck.   
It was the beginning of a future transformation; he was a slim man, but as he made he way up the rungs of state, he would need to grow in size and stature, to become, on a grander scale, one of the immense tribal leaders, with their spreading girth covered by flowing, colorful robes.  Charles stiffly pumped my hand and led me through some plush, air conditioned rooms.  The furniture was thoroughly European, but the art and d├ęcor were strictly African.  I recognized masks, spears, and ceremonial totems from the half a dozen large, native groups of this nation.  On a side table was a collection of amulets written in Arabic script.  I recognized them.  As I bent to look at them closely, I felt Charles’ hand on the small of my back.  He was leaning over them too, examining the items afresh.
“These I thought you would enjoy,” he said with heavy breath, picking up an amulet with his slim hand.  He removed the other hand from my back, but I could still feel its weighty imprint.  To my surprise, he began to read the Arabic, a quotation from the Qu’ran, and worn by women in this country when in labor.   
He read yet another one, this for the finding of a lost item.  He then moved toward a book shelf and removed a photo album.  He opened it and there were pictures of a young Charles with a marabout, a Muslim holy man, brown and skinny as a reed.   
The photo was taken in a village in the north.  Above the squat buildings towered the equatorial mountain range, the highest peaks clad in snow and enveloped in mist like mythical giants stalking the earth.   
Charles continued to turn the pages.  The photographs of Charles with various marabouts changed from black and white to color, and to my astonishment, I saw Chalres – or I suppose he was Ono then -- as a young adult, one amongst a line of Muslim men kneeling in prayer.  They were in a sparse Friday mosque; a reed niche for the Qu’ran was the only wall fixture, some bamboo mats the only furniture.  
In the foreground was a line of battered shoes and sandals, and at the end would be the young Charles’ polished dress shoes; here he was already the young scholarship boy.  Was this an atavistic expression of faith?  Or was this only Charles, the young official, pressing the floor with his constituents not out of love of God but from love of power?  If this was so, one such picture would make sense, but they stretched back, all they way to a boy of no more than eight or nine.  Some thread of authenticity attached him to the Muslims of the north.  Although he showed me this Muslim paraphernalia as proof of some lasting connection, it was unclear what it was. Was it just another layer of applique , this hybrid Ono-Charles? 
He seemed disinclined to talk about this, and I felt reticent to push in this more intimate setting, away from the cameras, the podium, the lights and insignia of government.   

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The King of the Franks part 2

The power in the city had gone out.  I could tell this even though the shades were drawn.   There was a pattern to disruptions in power.  First, the lights would glow profusely as if the electricity was surging through the filaments and threatening to scorch them.   The air conditioner rattled like an animal in its final throes, and then the hotel generator would switch on, just before the electric grid crashed, and everything in my room glowed and hummed as before, but with lessened intensity.   
Out beyond, in any buildings which did not have their own generators, and certainly in the shanty town which ringed the town like a grimy halo, the capitol was plunged in darkness.  But in this hotel, which caters to foreign visitors, the hallways and rooms were lit;  the lights in the dining room burned so bright you could see the crest of the leader’s family, embossed on the china.  
 Even disruption, once it had become routine, could be incorporated into existence.  But there were warning signs of some greater doom.  Through the masonry walls I thought I could hear the distant discharge of a mortar.  The outside world leaked through the joints and cracks of this artificial barrier.   
I stood still for a moment, trying to remember what I was going to do, and then decided, instead of doing that mystery task, to go down to the restaurant and eat, when the phone rang.  I could not hear anything for a moment, and then there was a peal of static (a common occurrence, another planned disruption) but then a voice sluiced through the wall of sound, and all was silent but for it.  A voice was asking my name inquisitively, formally, raising its tone on the concluding syllable to stress the speaker’s punctiliousness.  It was unmistakably an African voice.

“Yes?  This is Charles.  You have eaten yet? I hope not.”  I answered him “So good.  You must join me for dinner, at my residence.  I will have a car fetch you at 8?”

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The King of the Franks part 1

Ono preferred to be called by his Christian name, Charles.  The French missionary who had converted his family was an avid scholar of Charlemagne. And when Ono and his powerful, tribal family were baptized, he named them each after a revered member of the Frankish royalty.  Ono was named after the greatest Frankish king of all, because he was the most precocious and gifted of his clan; so much so that in that time after independence, when scholarships were offered to the bright youth of his nation for universities in England and France, Ono led them abroad.   
When he returned, in his pressed suit, to a land he had departed from in second hand, relief clothes, he was still called Ono by the common people.  But to those who spoke English or French, and to those who prayed to Jesus, he was Charles still, but with a novel dimension.  He was one of the first to return from an overseas experiment in crafting leaders for this newly forged nation.  So when he came back he ceased being a real man and became a symbol.
His job in the government was to orient journalists – no small task for a country tearing itself apart by civil war.  His round face was always sheepishly beaming, as if he felt somewhat abashed by the simplicity and ease by which he exercised his share of state power.  He had a broad, honest smile, vast, bright, deceptive.  He was a man who held one world in one hand – the world of Charles who read statements to reporters in precise Oxfordian English, as punctilious as the seams of his shinny black suit – and another world in the other --- that of Ono, the man of the tribe, from the mid-portion of his country, the littoral zone before the rainy mountains slope down to the grassy plain (now mostly planted over with sugar cane, banana and pineapple plantations) and meets the verdant, cove studded coast.   
Charles’ land was where the fauna and flora of the two zones  intermingled, and this variation was mirrored in the human taxonomy.  Where Charles’ tribe lived was the nexus of the Muslim tribes of the north and the Christian peoples of the coast, an overlap that was not entirely noticeable.   
Trundling about the dirt tracks in a land rover, rumbling through small villages composed of corrugated tin shacks, flustered chickens, meandering cows, all under the omnipresent gray sky of this equatorial nation, pregnant with yet to fall rain, it is difficult to tell which town is Christian and which is Muslim except for the occasional swarm of pigs, or a crescent moon stenciled on a hut which is both a mosque and madrassa and town hall. 
For the outsider, this place is more than an enigma: before the majestic rise of the tropical mountains, and after the gentle arch which this long, narrow nation takes to the sea, there is the constant need of redefinition.   
This land needs to be forced, again and again, into steady categories which give experience permanence and meaning.  But most of all you need an insider.  That is why Charles took me aside one day following a conference.  It was a difficult session.  To the North-East, a war lord had declared an Islamic state.  The government had been forced to brutally suppress the revolt; the Muslims retreated to the hills, and now the government had to decide if it should follow them.   
Charles was peppered with questions by the foreign press about the revolt.  He did his best to not answer the questions he was asked, but the ones he wished he had been asked.  He stuck to his text as if it wascatechism: there was no civil war in his land; there was no revolt; there were bandits and brigands and they were being brought to justice.
Everyone was milling about the hallway outside the news hall, and I was surprised to find Charles in front of me.  I imagined he was about to more fully answer the question I had asked (and refused to stop asking) about the Northern provinces. 
“I know you, you know,” he said and smiled slyly, as if his intelligence was, if not superior to mine, than more highly polished, more honed – something to lord over me, as if a was a child and he had a shiny new toy in his pocket he only allowed me to peek at;  I answered, of course, I was with such and such a news agency.  On hearing this, he shook his head emphatically.
“No, not that.  I know the dissertation you wrote at Boston University on the Ghana Empire.”
“You read that?”
“Yes, I thought it well done, Mr. Servi.  However,” and he then began to enumerate some of my scholarly shortcomings.  I did not doubt his diagnosis, since I could no longer remember the details as he did.  I simply smiled as Charles continued to speak, wondering who, in fact, was speaking: Charles, the government functionary, or Ono, the man of the tribal highlands.
“Well,” I answered when it was apparent he had concluded.  “If I had to write it again, and I never will, no doubt I would do it differently.  I was so young then.”  On hearing his defense, Charles ratcheted his smile down a notch.
“Isn’t that they way of things,” he stated as if reciting an elegy.  “We can always do better.  We always wish to redress the inadequacies of the past with today’s progress…” he then stumbled, uncharacteristically, on the next word, perhaps seeing, as I did, that these words were an allegory for his nation.   
I knew the school of African education from which Charles hailed:  the belief in the unbroken line of African tradition from the great, old kingdoms of Ghana and Zimbabwe, thought the turbulence of the slave trading empires, the arrival of Islam, the long dark age of colonial suppression, the post-colonial tumult, right to today’s nation states.  
 For Christians such as Charles, African Islam below the great arid swatch of the Sahara, was ironically attractive.  Undeniably from the West, Islam had “colonized” this region through trade; Muslim merchants from the north introduced the faith of the Prophet with their wares, and it was adopted and adapted to local need, often with startling results.   
For men like Charles, accustomed to more aggressive, naked colonialism, native Islam had a noble savage charm.  It possessed all the appeals of the West with none of the obvious drawbacks.  It was an import whose foreign cast was far easier to hide than poorly constructed concrete high rise buildings, or capital cities carved out of jungles, whose roads, often, lead only to more jungle, to suburbs never built.   
The Muslims in the north, although in active revolt against the Christian led government to the south, held a strange fascination for men like Charles.  The Muslims were apart from Africa but of it; and unlike men like Charles, where the jagged seam of Africa and the West was all but visible, the Muslim north appeared as natural and unforced as the gradual rise from the plain to the foothills, and from the foothills to the mountains.
“But your interests are my interests, Mr Servi” Charles continued, as if reading my thoughts.  “Even here, even amidst this turmoil of politics and war, there is time for God.”
“Are you admitting that your country is at war?” I asked, for here Charles deviated from the government line: there was no war here, or even a revolt, just a few thugs rattling their swords in the foothills.
“I am speaking metaphorically.  I mean the war of all against all…. As Hobbes wrote…”
       Just as the hulk of the Leviathan loomed over us, suddenly there was a great deal of movement.  The leader was about to drive from the capital city to his estate outside of town, and there was the clamor of army trucks which inevitably accompanied him as thunder did Zeus.   
       A phalanx of grim men in khaki, their long machine guns pointed into the sky like medieval lances, all awaited Charles, since the leader traveled everywhere with his entourage of officials and secretaries.  Charles perfunctorily offered me his hand, and with nothing more than a smile to confirm our mutual interests, was gone

Friday, May 24, 2013

Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State (2005)

Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State (2005) is a six part BBC documentary on the final solution.  The film employs all the tricks of documentary film style, while mostly avoiding its pitfalls.

There are contemporary interviews by both survivors and SS men involved at the camp.  Simple, accurate questions are asked of these people, which are almost always answered in a context that none of us can understand.  The rules of a place like Auschwitz move beyond conventional morality in any sense.  Even asking in asking some of these question, the film veers into a kind of critical pose it should have avoided.

The documentary also employs actors recreating scenes.  Generally, the production values are high and the acting done well, and in the original languages.  There is no poor acting executed in accented English in this BBC work that we find in so many documentaries.

Perhaps the most instructive part of the film is the use of CGI to enhance our understanding of how the camp looked, and therefore it function.  The gas chambers and crematoria were destroyed by the Nazi’s as the Russians approached.  With CGI the buildings are rebuilt on their ruins; we get a glimpse of what was there, and how it was used.

The film ends with a fitting metaphor.  A survivor named Thomas Blatt recounts his return to  Izbica Poland after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  He visits the home he grew up in and finds much of the same furniture still in place.  The owner claims he recently bought them, but the Blatt lifts a chair and shows his family name on the bottom.  Finally, the owner of the house asks the Blatt to fess up: he is here because his family hid money in the house.   He offers to give Blatt half the money if he reveals its location. Disgusted, the Blatt leaves the house without a word.

Years late he returns again to find the house boarded and abandoned.  Blatt finds out from the neighbors that after his first departure, the owner of the house systematically took apart the house, looking for the treasure.  He continued to do so until the house was uninhabitable (see picture above).

If any one tale can sum up the Holocaust’s awful legacy, it might be this story.