Dignity for the exploited, the hounded, the paperless, the Other

Month: November, 2015

The European refugee crisis is a hoax

Amrita Pritam was probably a beautiful woman. In 1966, she wrote:

“If all the poems of the world were to coalesce into a single one,
Would that poem not stand in defense of Vietnam”

Were she to write today, she might substitute for Vietnam the problems of our own time, like the European refugee crisis — except that the crisis is a hoax. A hoax, if one uses the term to mean only the constraints around providing housing and employment for a set of ragged foreigners from the Middle East — that would be tantamount to ignoring the plight of other peoples, and to tacitly supporting the underlying causes of the tragedy.

That people move from one spot on the planet to another is evident — but it is not always to the richer bits. Corsica used to be in a sorry state, with poverty, crime and the threat of imminent war. Boswell, visiting in 1765, was surprised at seeing there foreigners who appeared to have moved to the island. He concluded that there will always be some people who will hold another land to be better than theirs and move to it, and all lands, no matter how troubled, will attract migrants. Incidentally, Boswell also tried to enlist British support for the Corsican cause — if he had succeeded, Napoleon would have been born under the influence of the British flag, and the recent past of Europe might have been quite different.

Migrants are often a dodgy set, at least in the beginning — they can be unkempt, ignorant of local culture, and often grub for a handout; but surely this is self-evident, that a human stripped of familiar resources will try to circumvent the hard decisions of fate, and that most of us do not commonly know all languages, and all manners at meat? In many cases, migrants have developed intellects and are a boon to the communities they dwell in, like Heine or Einstein. However, as a species, we appear to prefer violence to intellect or artistic skill. This is presumably why Alexander is called ‘the Great’, or why a certain Corsican is honored with a grave at Les Invalides, in the middle of Paris. Following in their footsteps, and those of many others whose descendants now write historical narratives, perhaps migrants ought to consider pillage — although this is scarcely an option for the weak and the unorganized, and for those who move out of sheer desperation.

The current “crisis” has major implications for Europe — quite apart from the material resources demanded by a sudden inflow of masses of people, this is about some or many of them cherishing ideas contrary to fundamental European values. Of course, one of those fundamental values is tolerance.

There is the danger that Europe focuses only on the “integration” of those who have risked their lives to illegally cross the frontier. Consider that many refugees passed through countries who are members of NATO and even the EU, membership of which organizations is typically indicative of a high standard of living. Given that the refugees desired to press on, consider that many more millions living in what is called the Third World ought to wish the same for themselves and their families — misery exists through causal forces also other than war.

The “crisis”, therefore, is scarcely a new one. It is part of a larger question of ending exploitation and injustice, and of increasing freedoms and access to the cultural and scientific resources of mankind — everywhere, for all human beings. Our hands might appear to be clean, but prosperity resulting from exploitative supply chains, shady weapons exports, systematic climatic degradation, and the propping up of regimes which suppress freedom and are brutal towards dissent, cannot be sustainable and is not defensible. That is the real crisis. Men and women in camps at our doorsteps is just a manifestation of a deeper malady, and the solution should not be to make the camps more comfortable, or reinforce the walls around our lands, but to acknowledge the aforementioned root causes, and take arms against them.

Not just poems, but all arts of this world must show solidarity with this idea of an attempt to root out exploitation everywhere and increase freedoms for everyone. At least, Ms. Pritam might agree.

The judgment of Paris

Moi, j’ai mon propre Paris.

Yes, I have my own Paris. It is the Paris of Hector Berlioz, where he surmounted penury, risked everything, and won the coveted Prix de Rome scholarship, where he impossibly captured the affections of a famous actress without even speaking her language, where, as an old man, he bore the grief of being told of the death of his only son, and where I stood at his own grave, one spring morning.

It is the Paris of Arthur Rubenstein, the other Polish pianist who came to the city of lights, and complained that it is a pity that many first-time visitors arrived at the Gare du Nord, the shabbiness of which must make a rather poor impression. I too stepped out of that very same train station, fifteen years ago.

The Paris where a South African family of tourists adopted me for a day, and the five of us climbed the Eiffel Tower together. We kept repeating the same joke, that we men kept stopping to allow the ladies to catch up, although it was us who needed to catch our own breath. I have no particular affection for the tower, but I have happy memories of it, over the years – lying on the grass and reading a book, posing for pictures with my parents, walking with dear friends, fireworks on Bastille Day, and picnicking with cheese, bread and wine.

The van Goghs lived here, its streets were walked by Eugène Delacroix, Édouard Manet and Aristide Maillol. The Spaniards came, not just Miró and Picasso, but also Antoni Tàpies, who once followed an unknown woman halfway across Paris because she wore the same perfume as his mother, and who created works for the university I later attended.

In 2013, the Zurich stage saw an excellent take on the romantic stereotype of the struggling artist in Paris, “Das Leben der Bohème” – a photograph from which has ever since adorned my living room, and my “title picture” on the Internet. The play was based on the 1992 movie by Aki Kaurismäki, itself inspired by the 1851 Henri Murger novel, “Scènes de la vie de bohème”. Amedeo Modigliani’s life, from when he was in his mother’s womb, to his death in Paris at 36, could be said to be quite Bohemian. He lent his name to an establishment in Düsseldorf, where I remember savoring glasses of cheap wine with someone who came close to my ideal of Carmen.

Carmen! She who once claimed to be from the Kingdom of Navarre, who worked at the cigarette factory in Seville, and proudly declared herself to be a Bohemian – for all that, she was, like Prosper Mérimée who created her, and Georges Bizet who made her famous, a Parisian. That music, to which I wake up every morning, entranced even that knower of taste, Nietzsche. Nietzsche dreamt of coming to Paris. Two of those he once esteemed were here: Heinrich Heine and Richard Wagner; and many of his own admirers lived here – Albert Camus, for instance, whose contemporary, Jean Paul Sartre penned the novel “L’Âge de raison”, in which the protagonist moves in a Paris of cafés, prostitutes and communists – how I envied him – and whose elder brother castigates him for not being in “control” of his life even at 36, the “age of reason”, by which time the follies of youth ought to be behind us. I was in my early twenties when I described its plot to a lady I met at a soirée at the river. She appeared taken by my charms, and told me she was 29, which sounded so old – how I pitied her.

George Orwell wrote about Paris, Hemmingway called it a moveable feast, and Karl Marx changed the history of the world, meeting his collaborator Engels in a café in the 1st arrondissement. Of far less significance to history is a summer evening in the same arrondissement, when a friend and I tried to cheer up a Brazilian co-worker who was missing her boyfriend. We had taken in the sights, but nothing seemed to do the trick, and we too were a little fatigued, perhaps also because I could only speak with her using my few words of pidgin Portuguese. At the Arc de Triomphe, it started to drizzle, and we paused under an awning, the diminutive mademoiselle between the two of us. All of a sudden, she linked her arms in ours, and dragged us into the night. We walked through the pouring rain down the well-lit Champs-Élysées and all tiredness was washed away, replaced by a sense of joy.

Paris is where Alfred Dreyfus, the artillery officer, did not lose hope, when falsely accused of treason and asked to kill himself. The affair would be linked to the birth of an entire religious-political movement and, later, a country. Even his defense lawyer has a plaza in Paris named after him, where once he was publically dishonored. There are more trivial things too, like the recent movie “Un peu, beaucoup, aveuglément”, about two reticent neighbors who fall in love, without having ever seen each other. It is kitsch, non? Of course, it would be – everywhere but in Paris, and watching the movie on a late night flight over the Atlantic made me grin with sheer delight.

Paris has many more stories, and has given me some of mine – long hours spent in art galleries and cafés, of vegetarian restaurants, brief conversations in massage parlors and chic boutiques, of missed trains and disappointing musical concerts, and of having the closing doors of the metro snatch away my jacket and shirt freshly pressed for a wedding. The delectable memoirs of Stefan Zweig and Pablo Neruda, the diaries of Anaïs Nin, the education of Benoît Mandelbrot – that too is my Paris. As every great agglomeration, Paris knows also finance, industry, science and politics, and the problems of effectively managing limited resources. The œuvres of the customs officer who became a painter, and Jean Valjean, of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, who fought on the barricades, which skirmishes, in my head, look like the Delacroix depiction of liberty leading the people, quite worth braving the hordes at the Louvre – that too is my Paris. During the Nazi occupation, a ten-year-old girl fled the city, later going on to sing my favorite chanson, “Ma plus belle histoire d’amour, c’est vous”. Even the prisons of Paris have boasted of an Arthur Rimbaud and an Evariste Galois, and perhaps also a Molière, whose “Le misanthrope” and “Le bourgeois gentilhomme” have made me laugh out loud, even in translation. All that is my Paris, and also the bookstalls along the Seine, the jardin des Tuileries, and the bar of the Folies Bergère which I have yet to visit, but which I know from often gazing at the Manet masterpiece in London.

It was in London, on a winter’s day some years ago, that a friend from Calcutta and I decided to spend a day exploring the city. We had known each other as children, and she had recently moved to the metropolis. In an antique bookstore, I stumbled upon the Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I requested the bookseller to hold them for me while we went for a stroll, she told him that he had a pleasant accent, which complement made me jealous, for could not I modulate my speech to make it sound upper class? I learnt about Jean-Jacques, who lived in Paris, and whose thought changed the course of European culture, and contributed to the French revolution.

Yes, the French revolution, the one with the ideals of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, the one with the rights of man, the “Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen”, passed in Paris in 1789. Now, in 2015, the barbarians have struck again. Will we respond by standing true to our ideals of individual freedom and social justice, or by abandoning them? Another foreigner in Paris was Arthur Koestler. Unlike Jean-Jacques, Koestler barely spoke French when he turned up. Two of his insights are relevant to this discourse: firstly, that Parisians know only their own quartier, and are ignorant of the city as a whole, whereas to the outsider belongs all Paris, because the individual quartiers are closed to him. Secondly, that the European value par excellence is – tolerance. Will we remember this? To abandon tolerance, or to relinquish individual freedoms, or to forgo solidarity with the weak, is to hand victory to the brutes who murdered so many on Friday, the thirteenth of November.

We know what the alternative looks like. A state with a secret police, with deportation centers, with suspects tortured in cellars, with benches in parks labeled “Only for Irish”, advertisements with signs stating “No Germans need apply”, where adherence to a certain religion or a political party means banishment or execution, with footpaths not accessible to all, conversations being spied upon, wives denouncing sisters-in-law, a chance remark against the regime leading to, at the very best, being ostracized; curfews, censorship, travel restrictions, arbitrary arrests, and all the rest we know all too well – it ends with “re-education” camps. Freedom, earned at so bloody a price over centuries – will we give it up on account of fear?

We mentioned Victor Hugo earlier, and he was in Paris during the siege of 1870, when the populace was reduced to hunting and eating rats. He wrote of his resolve to not capitulate to the invaders: “I am become Paris, I am become wall”, or words to such effect. A century and a half later, we are become Paris, under the onslaught of the faceless enemy. Not just because of the individuals who were massacred, but also because of the manner in which they were killed – in places of relaxation, in our boulevards and cafés, indiscriminately, cruelly – and because Paris is, in a sense, Europe, and because Europe is, in a sense, the torchbearer of the modern idea that all human beings are free, that all are entitled to dignity.

Where does that leave us? Shall we take to arms, and fight? Shall we hunt down and attack the bearded, balaclava-wearing mercenaries responsible for these atrocities? Not all of us are in a position to do so. What all of us can do is this: raise our voice against intolerance, against that which threatens the dignity of man, against legislation which encroaches on freedom, against corporations and regimes which exploit or oppress. If we are Paris, then we must, no matter whether on the Place de la Concorde, or far away from it, demonstrate that we stand for tolerance, critical thinking, social justice, the appreciation of beauty, the celebration of life, human dignity, and individual freedom – in the best traditions of Paris.

Moi, je suis Paris.