Tuesday, February 9, 2021

The belt and the inroads: China’s courtship of Armenia

When discussing the Artsakh conflict before on THAO, I remarked in passing that some of Armenia’s firmest friends in Washington were members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus: Judy Chu, Grace Meng, Ted Lieu, Barbara Lee, Tulsi Gabbard and Ro Khanna. This comradeship between Asian-Americans and Armenia is something I personally deeply appreciate. My immediate gut-level inclination was to attribute this support to a shared experience of being a ‘distrusted minority in a hostile neighbourhood’. I still hold to that to a certain extent; perhaps some of it may also be attributable to the Armenian-American constituency in California. However, I’m not here to talk about the sympathy that Asian-Americans have for Armenians. In any event, such a lede serves as something of a non sequitur that, at worst, plays into a stereotype that Asian-Americans behave in ways primarily serving the interests of their countries of origin, which I emphatically do not hold to be the case. Instead I want to point out the growing confluence of interests between the Armenian and Chinese states, a confluence which has grown much more important this past year.

It makes sense to take account of Armenia’s long history and its status as one of the very earliest Christian kingdoms – having been converted by the Persian clergyman Saint Gregory Phōtistēs. After the loss of its independence, Armenia has long been a troubled and politically-contested border region of various empires: Eastern Rome, Persia, the Caliphate and the Ottoman Empire. The Armenian people have a long history of being subalterns within these various empires. The fact of the longevity of Armenian language and culture is fascinating enough! But the status of the Armenian people within the Ottoman Empire in particular was a precarious one. The Medz Yeghern of 1915 and 1916, in which one and a half million Armenians perished from a policy of deliberate genocide, was a watershed moment in defining Armenian peoplehood. These events and these ties are necessary for understanding Armenian national interests.

But what does this have to do with Armenia and China? Well, for one thing, the ties between Armenia and China are ancient – and given the long history and long memories of both the Chinese civilisation and the Armenian state, these ties are nothing to sneeze at or write off as so much ‘old stuff’. Silk Road trade went through the Caucasus and Armenian merchants and kings benefitted from it. Armenia contributed medicinal herbs, wines, horses, valuable carmine dye and carpets to the Great Silk Road trade eastward; and one of the biggest mediæval fairs for Chinese silks in Central Asia was held in the Armenian city of Dvin. Armenian enclaves were present in China during the Song Dynasty. Chinese trade goods such as silk, celadon and porcelain appear in ninth- and tenth-century graves in the Armenian cities of Artsn, Ani and Kars. Armenian gæographers such as Anania Shirakatsi were not only aware of China and make mention of a ‘Chinastan’ in the written record, but even Armenian church art has been influenced by Chinese material culture and visual motifs: the Armenian Bible features images of the Chinese mythical beasts, the qilin and the fenghuang. Again – both Armenian and Chinese statesmen and historian are aware of these historical links and they play a defined role in modern diplomacy.

These links show that China has long been a significant trade partner of Armenia, and Armenia has often treated China as a source of luxury goods and patronage. Chinese trade and investment continues to be an important factor in Armenian foreign policy. The Russian Federation accounts for over 25% of both of Armenia’s export and import volume. However, China is Armenia’s second most valuable trading partner, accounting for 13% of Armenia’s imports. Armenia’s political class understands this reality quite well, which is why Armenia routinely sends its statesmen to attend events relating to Chinese commerce and industry.

However, security is rapidly becoming a much more prominent issue. Regional security cooperation is becoming far more common and important for Armenia, with the nation participating in joint military exercises with all three of Russia, China and Iran. Now it is necessary to understand how Armenia perceives its national interests and its external security. As a small state in Central Asia, it has to perform a balancing act between great powers, similar to the way that other small Central Asian states do to guarantee their own sovereignty and independence. This is simply a reality of the ‘neighbourhood’. Russia will always figure large in Armenia’s calculations, being the largest power nearby and one with whom Armenia has historically remained on fairly cordial terms: under the Tsars, under the Soviets, and with the Federation as a separate country.

That may be changing on account of recent events. Though they are grateful for the ceasefire and though the vast majority of Armenians still view Russia as a friend, the proxy war with Azerbaijan over Artsakh has impressed upon Armenia the limits of Russian cooperation in alignment with its own national interests. As can be seen from the joint military exercises, Armenia’s government had already begun exploring options to expand security cooperation with China. But recent events have served to drive home the urgency of this exploration and sped up some time tables in both Erevan and Beijing.

During the proxy war in Artsakh, it could easily be seen that Turkey was transferring its informal, VNSA proxies from Syria into Armenia. Among these proxies, who had been present and active in jihâdist groups in Syria’s civil war, were Uighur jihâdists from Xinjiang. During and in the wake of the war, these irregular Turkish-backed fighters in Artsakh, including Uighurs, have been carrying out atrocities including torture, mutilation and beheadings on the Armenians living there – very likely with the connivance or at least the blind eye of the Azerbaijani government. Western observers and commentators would be fools to underestimate the impact that the reports and videos of these atrocities are having on Armenian opinion, or the ways in which they will invariably be ‘spun’ by the Chinese state. Certainly, after the needed-but-unsatisfactory Artsakh ceasefire, ordinary Armenian people will be more sympathetic to the Chinese state’s stance on security issues, and Armenians will come to see China as the defender – albeit for realist rather than ideological reasons – of Christian communities in the Caucasus. And who is to say they are wrong?

Indeed, as Dr Benjamin Poghosyan of Armenia’s Ministry of Defence has already pointed out, Armenia’s interests would be best served by not only deepening trade ties with China, but also by revising Armenia’s strategic footing. He recommends, in particular, backing out of the ‘International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance’. Although Armenia had joined it specifically in the interests of protecting the material and cultural heritage of the Christian communities of the Southern Caucasus and the Middle East, the war in Karabakh showed that the primary signatories of this alliance – the United States in particular – had zero concern for these communities. Instead they planned to use this alliance to mobilise opinion against China. Poghosyan articulated the need for Armenian diplomacy not to be coopted into any such mobilisations. Armenia now understands Turkey and its proxies as a threat, as China also does. The realist logic holds: the enemy of my enemy...

On a related note, Armenia also recognises a certain gæopolitical reality relating to the OBOR. Among the nations of the Southern Caucasus, Georgia is (unfortunately) increasingly beholden to NATO and to the West, while Azerbaijan is increasingly beholden to Turkey. Neither arrangement suits China’s interests in building the OBOR very well, and Armenia understands therefore that its neutrality on great power issues places it at a decisive advantage in negotiations for investments.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Wakhi in Hunza – Sabine Felmy’s travelogue

I’m currently reading The Voice of the Nightingale by Sabine Felmy, a German woman who visited this remote mountain valley ‘at the top of the world’ in northern Pakistan, in the Ghujali region, in the early 90s. It’s a short, brisk read, and it makes no pretensions to any sort of objective or critically-analytical eye. However, her account of the people, architecture, agriculture and customs of the region is remarkably broad and – as the subtitle of her book suggests – deeply personal. She clearly grew to love the Tajik-speaking Wakhi people of this region, and her sympathetic portrayal of all aspects of their life, has the remarkable ring of truth-to-life that can only come from an observer who loves whom she observes.

Felmy starts her account of the Wakhi of Hunza with some personal narratives from the elderly people in the village she visits, whom she interviewed. The sketches she provides of the elders of the village, such as Musafir Khan, give us both a glimpse of the fundamental decency and fair dealing of these people, the troublous and often lawless settings which they inhabited, and the political troubles that scattered them from their native Wakhan Corridor (today the easternmost part of Afghanistan) into the three neighbouring countries of China, Pakistan and Tajikistan. Because of this diaspora, it is clear that they would be considered political footballs in the contests between Tsarist Russia and the British Empire in their ‘Great Game’. The British Raj imposed heavy taxes on these northernmost of their subjects. A folk lament recounted and translated by Felmy rather aptly encapsulates Wakhan attitudes toward the British rulers of India:
Naghdiv maz di pastor.
shuprem ghata da Jurghol.
ruchnerem ghate Siriqol.
Siriqoli lup diyor.
dushman angrez verspo avol.

In the night I am forced to move.
I reached Jurghol.
In the morning I arrived in Sariqol.
Sariqol is a big village.
The British enemy is responsible for all my troubles.
She goes over some of the larger-scale political conflicts in the region as well as some of their smaller-scale effects. She describes how Musafir Khan was compelled to settle in Hunza as a result of a trade deal that fell through – in part because of poor communications, in part because of feckless business partners, in part because of lax administrative capacity, and in part because of the atrocities committed upon the Wakhi by their Afghan and Turkic neighbours. (Much of this animosity is sectarian: the Wakhi are mostly Nizâri ’Ismâ‘îlis; as a result, they were often treated as slaves or almost as bad by their mostly-Sunnî neighbours.) The Wakhi people sought stability and political refuge with the Russians and the Chinese, but the revolutions in both countries created difficulties particularly in terms of movement. However, the Wakhi who moved there did find stability of a sort in Xinjiang.

Felmy then describes the daily life of one of her hostesses, whom she refers to by her initials, N.S. The daily lives of the Wakhi tend to be fairly hard. The men and children get up early in the morning to do agricultural work, while the adult women take care of the house. Wakhi houses are open-structured around a single room: this leaves little room for privacy, but Wakhi culture tends to privilege gregariousness. It also privileges politeness: Wakhi treat each other with great decorousness; when greeting others, one is expected to stand; when sitting together the Wakhi people take care not to turn their back on anyone else present; and when leave is taken they are amiable but a bit less formal. The Wakhi hospitality is renowned. Guests are treated first, to the best food, and are not permitted to work. (It was some time before her hostess was at all comfortable with Felmy helping her around the house, let alone in the fields.) Here is how one of the early British visitors to Hunza – General Sir Edmund George Barrow, in fact – described the customs of the Wakhi:
One great charm in travelling amongst the Tajik races is the unbounded hospitality with which one meets. They seem on the whole honest, truthful and religious, and there is a happy absence of fanaticism.
As Felmy describes, the Wakhi are physically very affectionate with each other. Hugs and kissing are common greetings among friends, and a common greeting among both men and woman is to take the hand of the person being greeted and to kiss it. People show that they care about you by asking you about your health and work, and those of the rest of your family. In this way news travels quite fast, and everyone knows what everyone else is doing and how.

Because Hunza is fairly remote, even the variant of Shi‘â Islâm practised by the Wakhi is fairly syncretic. Felmy describes among them khalifas (who are sort of informal holy men, often given the status of an imam even if they have no formal Qur‘ânic learning), fortune-tellers, and informal doctors – in particular chiropractors and bone-setters, who often have their work cut out for them when it comes time to harvest fruit: children often fall out of trees and break bones. Felmy is quite respectful and even deferent in describing these people and their expertise, with particular attention paid to a bitan, or fortune-teller, named Bibi Khand. Felmy describes how Bibi Khand accurately described the journey which brought her to Hunza, even if not all of her prognostications to her are recounted in full. However, despite this prevalence of folk religion, the neo-Platonic philosophy of Nâsir Khusrau is quite important to the Wakhis, and many of them have memorised or are at least familiar with his writings.

The diet of the people of the high mountains is, as one might imagine, heavy on meat and milk and their derivatives (particularly yoghurt and butter) – and the crops which are grown here are barley and wheat, with wheat mostly displacing barley in recent times. Bread is therefore also a common staple. Apricots and mulberries are the fruits grown here: apricots being particularly valuable as a nutritional supplement. Juniper – which seems to be somewhat overharvested – and white flour are both considered pure and holy, and are used in religious ceremonies. Salted milk tea is drunk, of course – though this drink proved more popular with the guests than with the hosts, who would usually drink water flavoured with apricot juice when thirst needed quenching.

Some attention is also paid to the sports played in the high mountains of northern Pakistan: polo and buzkashi. Polo is a sport of ancient provenance, though matches can be fairly brutal on horses and players both. (Passing references are made to horses killed in polo matches.) Buzkashi, which is also played in Kazakhstan, is an even rougher sport: bare-shirted horse riders scrum over a stuffed dead goat carcase. These events are quite festive, however: bands featuring drums and oboe stand on the sidelines and encourage the players.

She also goes into some depth describing the calendar and festivals of the Wakhi people of Ghujali. In February the Wakhi celebrate Kitithid, a custom similar to Groundhog Day in which the people symbolically celebrate the leaving of the cold and the welcoming of spring. On the last week of February the Wakhi celebrate Woth xak, the clearing of the channels, in which the trenches are dug out and the fields are prepared for sowing. Actual sowing, or Taghum, begins in early March. The second and third weeks in June belong to Wungastoy, a festival for the ‘marriage of the birds’, in which the Wakhi people celebrate wild bird life (and ask it to leave their crops alone). The main harvest festival, Chenir, takes place at the beginning of July. And the Wakhi finally celebrate the return of the animals from the pastures at the end of September and the beginning of October, in a festival called Kuchkhemak khudoi.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the book is when Felmy describes how readily the Wakhan people embraced literacy and particularly women’s education. As of the time she wrote this text, Felmy describes the dismal educational statistics and literacy which were endemic to northern Pakistan – and then goes on to note how the Wakhi are a happy exception to the rule… even if their literacy and educational abilities are in Urdu and Arabic rather than in their own Tajik tongue. (It is interesting that Felmy describes some of her female cohort, including N.S., being more comfortable in Urdu or standard Tajik than they are in Wakhi. The preservation of Wakhi language in written form has been aided greatly by the Russian linguists Aleksandr Grunberg and Ivan Steblin-Kamensky.) But the reason the Wakhi people seem to have this very progressive attitude toward women’s education is, in large degree, the encouragement of Âġâ Khân III, who encouraged the Mir of Hunza to begin opening schools for Wakhi children in 1946. The Diamond Jubilee schools opened by the Âġâ Khân tend to be upwards of 60% girls. Even the current Âġâ Khân, His Majesty Karîm al-Ḥusayn Šâh, says:
If a man had two children, one a boy and the other a girl, and if he could only afford to give education to one, I would say that he must give preference to the girl.
Unfortunately there seems to be a bit of a brain drain going on in Hunza at the time that Felmy wrote; she describes how educated couples tended to move to where there were jobs. At the same time, she expresses hope that the development projects, urbanisation and infrastructure engineering occurring on both sides of the Pakistan-China border would provide greater opportunities to the well-educated ’Ismâ‘îli men and women.

Felmy closes out her narrative by describing some of the Wakhi poetry and proverbs and riddles – the staples of any healthy folk tradition! She details the forms of poetry appropriate to men and women, with lyric and religious songs being the province of men and the bulbulik (or ‘nightingale’) form being proper to women. The triplet-based form is very evocative, often wistful and sad, sometimes couched in euphemisms. The proverbs that Felmy cites showcase the tight family feeling and emphasis on hospitality that are the proper feelings of the Wakhi, such as:
When there is harmony at home
that is a sign of wealth, of wealth.
When there exist discord and disputes
nothing but misery and misery prevail.
You can live without animals, but not without parents.
And (disapprovingly):
He promises a chiffon; he only talks about it to have something to say, without actually presenting it.
This book is a fascinating look into one of the more captivating minority cultures along the ancient Silk Road and the new OBOR, who live at one of the highest inhabited points in the world. It is not difficult to see why the people who live here tend to love peace and political stability. Being a minority which has historically been persecuted, and also maintaining a lifestyle which can be fairly marginal, having good neighbours suits them quite well. As said before, Felmy’s book may not have the sort of depth which one might associate with a scholarly anthropological study, but the love with which she presents the culture and people she describes makes this a fine ethnographical snapshot of a small ethno-religious community spread across four modern countries. I confess, I have a soft spot for the Wakhi and the Sarikoli that I tend to share with the similarly mountainous ethnic minority, the Carpathian Rusins of Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia and the Ukraine.

Friday, January 15, 2021

‘The Siege’ and ‘The Postman’s Fear’, by Muḥammad al-Mâġûṭ

‘The Siege’, from Joy Is Not My Profession:
My tears run blue
since I look constantly to the skies, and cry.
My tears run yellow:
I dream long of golden wheat, and cry.

Let the leaders go to war,
lovers to forests,
and scientists to laboratories.
As for me,
I'll take to a sagging chair and worry beads
so that I can go back to being
an old frame on the door of sorrow
as long as all the books, constitutions and religions
are certain that I will die either
hungry or a prisoner.

And ‘The Postman’s Fear’, in the same anthology:
Prisoners everywhere,
send me all you've seen
of horror and weeping and boredom-
Fishermen on every shore,
send me all you know
of empty nets and whirling seas-
Peasants in every land,
send me all you have
of flowers and old rags,
of torn breasts,
pierced abdomens
and wrenched-out finger nails.
Send them to my address
in any cafe on any street in the world:
I am preparing a huge portfolio
on human suffering
to present to God
as soon as it is signed by the lips of the hungry
and the eyelids of the waiting.
But oh, you miserable ones everywhere,

I have a fear
that God may be illiterate.

Monday, December 28, 2020

‘Ice and Fire’, by Muḥammad al-Mâġûṭ

From Joy Is Not My Profession:
Take a cigarette and describe the war to me.
Take a loaf of bread and describe my feet to me.
Tears streaming on my shoulder,
I’ll describe to you the caravans of wind and bullets.
I’m as innocent as the partridge, as deceptive as al-Jazzar,
but thirsty—
I may collapse at any moment!
I smile,
though my back is hunched with crying.

Royal dustheaps,
clear off my sad notebooks
and listen:
bread sickens me like poison;
water, like the plague;
yet I am thirsty, and my spirit burns...
and my spirit growas crooked as a faucet.

O God—Rose of ice and dust—
the hunger in our mouths, the breasts on our chests
are neglected, forgotten.
Prostitutes sicken me like tuberculosis;
virgins, like the plague;
yet I crouch for hours
under the rain, behind the chimneys
to watch a man approach his wife
or a girl scratching her side before the mirror.

Sometimes I think of victory, and of defeat—
of great heroes
hitching up their pants behind the fences,
yawning in bathrooms.
What is the difference between a flower on the dinner table
and one on the grave?
Between bread and tin foil,
a breast and a hammer?
Or between the man who dies heading an expedition
and one who dies in mid-yawn
    as he defecates in the ruins?

My God: the cherry branches grow tall
and send their plundered blood off on freight cars,
and the goats’ green eyes stream in the moonlight.
A summer here and a winter there
and blood-stained birds
huddle together over the corpses, with their red claws,
and we still don’t know what to do!
Should we love, or should we go to sleep?
Or do we fix the mirrors over the haunts of the heroes?

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

A few words on Ludvík Svoboda

My apologies for being a bit late with this piece. I will be blunt: I was debating with myself whether to host this reflection on THAO or here on S&C for a long time. This piece deals with the political and military history of Czechoslovakia and touches on religious themes which are close to me, which on first blush would make it seem like a natural fit with THAO. But the story of General Svoboda’s most famous feat in the Great War, the escape of the Czechoslovak Legions from Siberia via the Tea Road, proved far too tempting to pass up to my left-Eurasianist heart. And so, I beg my readers’ forgiveness in advance for the occasionally-devotional tone in this piece. I am, after all, describing someone here who was deeply respected by at least one Orthodox saint, and whose spirit of self-sacrificial service comes quite close to the sort of devotion and personal valour I tend to value.

The twenty-fifth of November is the birthday of the great Soviet and Czechoslovak general, statesman and President of Czechoslovakia Ludvík Svoboda. Svoboda was from the very beginning a supporter of Czechoslovak independence, an anti-fascist freedom fighter, a liberator of his own country from the Nazis. After the restoration of Czechoslovak statehood in the wake of the Second World War he joined the Communist Party and became a statesman in communist Czechoslovakia. However, he belonged firmly in the camp of the more conservative decentralists supporting Dubček, and gained a great deal of respect from his countrymen for resisting the imposed tyranny of Soviet rule on his country. But throughout his career, his service was characterised by a remarkable degree of disinterested selflessness and integrity that manifested itself as a fervent, heartfelt patriotism.

Ludvík Svoboda was born on the twenty-fifth of November, 1896 in the village of Hroznatín, the son of the poor farmers Jan and Františka. The land they lived on was marginal, and they barely eked out a living from it. Ludvík’s father died when he was only one year old, and he was raised by his mother and a stepfather. He was sent to an agrarian school in Velké Meziříčí when he was fifteen years old, but was conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1915 and sent to fight against the Russians in the Eastern Front during the Great War.

He was captured in action at Ternopol in September of that same year. He quickly joined the Czechoslovak Legion to fight against the Austrian oppressors, and demonstrated his heroism at the Battles of Zborov and Bachmač. Svoboda was one of the key personalities who organised and executed the legendary Great Siberian Adventure which saw the Czech and Slovak volunteers under the Tsar fight their way across Siberia to freedom in Vladivostok, in the Far East.

After the war was over, Svoboda went back home to tend to his family farm for a couple of years under the newly-independent government. However, in 1922 he again joined the military as a staff officer in the Czechoslovak Army. During this time, although politically he seems to have been fairly disinclined, his sympathies were fairly close to the Communists. By the time Czechoslovakia was betrayed and invaded by the Nazis in 1938, Svoboda was in command of an entire battalion. After having fought for his people’s freedom from Austria-Hungary, he was not about to submit easily to Nazi domination. He organised the underground resistance movement Obrána naroda in 1939 and committed to a guerrilla war against the Nazis until he could bring off a mass escape to Poland and organising a liberation force in Kraków.

Being captured again, this time by the Soviets, Svoboda got them to spare his life by telling his captors to make a phone call to Moscow and confirm who he was. He was very quickly placed in charge of the First Czechoslovak Army Corps, and fought with remarkable distinction and bravery. His unit demonstrated its resilience and determination at Sokolovo, where they joined the fighting against the Germans. And later, the forces under Ludvík Svoboda reentered Czechoslovak territory at the storming of Dukla Pass, one of the most famous tank battles in Czechoslovak history which is still commemorated in the Rusin town of Svidník in Slovakia. His service earned him the admiration of Marshal Ivan Konev, and as a commander he earned the devotion and admiration of many in his corps, including a certain conscripted Orthodox monk: Saint Iov Kundria. Saint Iov kept Ludvík Svoboda’s portrait in his icon corner together with that of Saint Luke of Simferopol.

For his bravery, honour and dedication Ludvík Svoboda was welcomed by most Czechs and Slovaks as a war hero, and had already earned the trust also of Edvard Beneš (the leader of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile) as well as the pro-Soviet functionaries such as Klement Gottwald. In the wake of the liberation of Czechoslovakia he was appointed as defence minister by Beneš. Svoboda did nothing to stop – and indeed tacitly supported – the workers’ general strikes and demonstrations that took place in the leadup to the Communist transition in 1948, though he did not formally join the Communist Party until after this. Even so, as an independent-minded Czechoslovak patriot rather than an apparatchik, Ludvík Svoboda was distrusted by the Stalinists, who had him purged from the army in 1950 and thrown into prison in 1951, where they unsuccessfully pressured him to commit suicide to save his own image. However, after Stalin’s death Svoboda was released from prison and was sent unceremoniously back to his old farm. It was only after Khrushchev inquired after his ‘old friend’ Svoboda during a state visit that he was (rather hurriedly) reinstated into the Czechoslovak Armed Forces.

Svoboda continued a rather unobtrusive military and bureaucratic career – though he continued to be distrusted by the Communist hardliners. It was not long after this, though, that the Prague Spring happened under the leadership of Alexander Dubček. Svoboda was neither a supporter nor an opponent of Dubček during this heady period of reforms, but he sprang into action again – with an astonishing vigour and at substantial personal risk – in the wake of the Warsaw Pact intervention which resulted in the overthrow of Dubček’s experiment and the imprisonment of Dubček himself. Dubček’s life was spared by the Soviet leadership under Brezhnev, practically entirely on account of the fact that Ludvík Svoboda went in person to Moscow and, using every bit of his military hero’s cachet and a significant store of sheer cussed bullheadedness besides, shouted down the Soviet leadership with demands for Dubček’s release. Long story short: he got it. Never underestimate an old Czech veteran brandishing a service revolver.

The remainder of Ludvík Svoboda’s public life was a series of quiet, if protracted, power struggles against Dubček’s replacement in office, a Slovak nationalist turned Soviet-style apparatchik named Gustáv Husák. Svoboda’s health began to fail him, however. After a series of respiratory complaints, he left the public eye and public life in 1975, and reposed on the twenty-first of September, 1979.

Svoboda’s legacy continues to be debated within the Czech Republic and Slovakia itself. Was he a patriot or a Soviet collaborator, or both? In all honesty, personally, given the lengths to which he went to defend Dubček from Brezhnev when it brought him no benefit, I would have to incline toward the former view. It is true, of course, that I am viewing the man through the lens of how he was understood by people who knew him well personally – not least, Saint Iov Kundria, whose judgement of personality I am inclined to trust. But on balance, I think he really was a man of integrity who really did care about the Czech and Slovak people. His coöperation with the Soviets during the Second World War in particular must be seen through a lens of pragmatic and realistic concern for their overall well-being. In fact, General Svoboda may very well have said it best himself:

All I have ever done must be measured by my intention to serve best my people and my country.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Legend of the Eagle Dance

Eagle Dance of the Sarikoli

The eagle is a national symbol of the Sarikoli and Wakhi peoples of the Chinese Pamirs, and the eagle dance is a source of deep pride for these Tajik people of Xinjiang, being one of their indispensable forms of folk performance art. The following is an account of the legend that inspired the eagle dance, from an ethnographic survey of the Dances of the Chinese Minorities by Li Beida (李北達):
The eagle flute and the eagle dance are the favourite musical instrument and dance of the Tajik ethnic group. As to the origin of the eagle flute and the eagle dance, there is a popular legend among the Tajik people.

Long ago, there was a young Tajik couple on the Pamir Plateau. They were both serfs and deeply in love with each other. However, according to local laws, the serfs were not permitted to love and marry freely. When their cruel owner found out they were in love, he deliberately separated them. He exiled the young man to pasture in the distant high mountains and the young lady to work in his house. Although these lovers were forced to be separated, their love grew deeper than ever before.

One day, when the young man was pasturing a herd of sheep on the mountain, he saw a group of hawks soaring in the blue sky. It caused him to feel a rhythm strong with both power and gentleness. He also heard the exciting sound from the wings of the hawks. The young man was inspired by the birds and picked up a wing bone of a dead eagle and bored three small holes on it. Then, he polished it into a flute. Later, at every dusk, he played this eagle flute toward the direction of the village where the girl was. The sound of the flute was soft in tone but loud in volume, exhibiting the lover’s yearning. This sound flew all the way into the ears of his lover.

The girl also missed her lover day and night. Each night, she snuck to the foot of the mountain and looked up into it. At that time, the melodious sound of the flute met her ears. One night, she saw a big eagle circle over the mountains, sail straight up to the clouds, and then dive with the speed of a thunderbolt. The girl admired its actions very much. She began to imitate the movement of the hawks. Fuelling her actions was her longing for her lover and her desire for freedom. Thus, the eagle dance came into being.

At last, the young man and woman prevailed against the evil will of their master through their arduous persistence, and married happily. The eagle flute and the eagle dance which they created are very popular on the Pamir Plateau, and it has become an essential treasure for the Tajiks. It is this beautiful old legend that explains the sentiments of the Tajiks concerning the instrument and the dance. The eagle flute and the eagle dance cannot be used separately, just like the lovers who were attached to each other.
As indicated by the legend, the eagle dance is often slow and fluid and light, emulating the lofty soaring motions of flight, but requires both power and grace, both technical skill and improvisation. In the Republic period, before 1949, only men were permitted to perform the dance; however, since that time women have been allowed to participate in the dance as well. It was traditional, in fact, for men and women to dance as couples (again, as the legend would appear to indicate).

Monday, November 9, 2020

Sorrow and hope in the modernism of al-Mâġûṭ

Muḥammad al-Mâġûṭ

As Mr White was kind enough to cite in an episode of his Substack podcast Sisyphus Sits, I recently discovered and have been extensively quoting on social media the powerful words of the Syrian poet-laureate Muḥammad al-Mâġûṭ, and in particular the slim collection of his early poems, The Fan of Swords. Owen quoted in full the poem I personally like best of his in that volume, ‘Shade and Noon Sun’:
All the fields of the world
are against two small lips.
All the streets of history
are against two bare feet . . .

Love, they travel and we wait.
They have gallows, we have necks.
They have pearls, we have freckles and moles.
They own the night, the dawn,
the afternoon and the day,
and we own the skin and the bones.

We plant under the noon sun,
and they eat in the shade.
Their teeth are white like rice,
our teeth are dark as desolate forests.
Their breasts are soft and smooth,
while ours are as dusty as execution squares.
And yet, we are the kings of the world!
Their homes are covered with pamphlets, accounts,
our homes are covered with autumn leaves.
In their pockets they carry addresses
    of thieves and traitors.
In our pockets we carry addresses
    of rivers and thunder.

They own the windows, we own the winds.
They own the ships, we own the waves.
They own the medals, we own the mud.
They, the walls and balconies.
We, the ropes and daggers.

Come, my love, let us sleep
    on the pavements.
Muḥammad al-Mâġûṭ is a fascinating character in his own right. He grew up dirt-poor, the son of a peasant from Salamîya in Hama Governorate. Al-Mâġûṭ, a Shî‘a Muslim of the Nizâri lineage, joined the Syrian Social Nationalist Party when he was twenty-one. Even though he joked it was only because the party office was closer to his house than the Ba‘ath Party office, and also because it had the added benefit of a fireplace during the winter, his attachment was apparently fairly sincere. He was an ardent Syrian nationalist and (it seems) a sincere admirer of the Christian leftist politician ’Anṭûn Sa‘âda who led the SSNP and was executed in Lebanon in 1949. Al-Mâġûṭ was arrested in 1955 and thrown into the infamous Mazza Prison in Damascus for his political activity and organising on behalf of the SSNP, and it was after this that he began writing on the insides of old cigarette boxes. His cellmate at the time, the celebrated poet ’Adûnîs, told him he might want to consider publishing his writings as poetry.

Al-Mâġut is a prose poet. He does not write, as you can see from the above, in a style laden with aphorisms and high-flown allegories, pæans to the lost greatness of mediæval Damascus and Baghdad. Nor does he write in a style popular among his contemporaries, which seeks to mimic the Western Romantics. Still less does he retreat into a mystical obscurantism. His use of allusions is occasional, and generally limited to well-known figures and events in Shî‘ite history: Fâṭima, Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alî and the Battle of Karbalâ’, for example. He is a realist. He calls our attention to here. He uses immediate, tactile imagery. He talks about pavement and cigarettes, libraries and coffee-houses. Natural imagery and symbolism in al-Mâġûṭ’s poetry is present, but sparse. He looks for images that will be known and understood from experience. Muḥammad al-Mâġûṭ’s style is innovative and path-breaking on account of this unflinching gaze upon the present, upon the reality in front of your nose.

And in that spirit, he draws our attention – leads us by the nose, so to speak – to the forgotten people and places, to the Biblical ‘least of these’. Although he is ’Ismâ‘îli, it is intriguing that he occasionally draws our attention to Christ, who weeps with the people who weep – or even occasionally writes as a penitent sinner confessing to a Christian priest. There are times when he weeps with God, with the rain. There are times when he rages at God, blames God for the tragœdies that befall undeserving people. This is where his poetry draws its resonance and power. He alternates between this righteous pain and sorrow, on the one hand, and a kind of cynical detachment on the other – even from his own art. He is able to satirise himself, mock himself, draw a kind of black humour from his circumstances and his powerlessness in the midst of police-state political repression and œconomic exploitation.

Muḥammad al-Mâġûṭ looks, mostly in vain, for the gentle spirits in a savage age – that savagery being imported from the West in the form of colonialism, political ideologies, fundamentalist backlash, fascist dictatorship, the war of the rich against the poor. In his poetry, this leads him to always take the side of the exile, the prisoner, the homeless person begging on the street. These were his fellow-spirits, whom he embraced in his prose poems. In his life, this led him to a fellow poet. He met one of his ‘gentle spirits’, Saniya Ṣalîḥ, to whom he dedicated at least one of his anthologies. He fell in love with her, they married and had two daughters. Both of them continued to write poetry, but sadly Ṣalîḥ remained under the shadow of her more-famous husband.

The volume I have been reading from, The Fan of Swords, has been translated by May Jayyûsî and Naomi Shihâb Nye. Jayyûsî is a scholar and member of the Muwatin Institute in Ramallah; and Nye is a poet in her own right, a poet of Palestine and of the Palestinian diaspora. This translation is indeed powerful and alive in its own right. It readily relates to the English speaker both al-Mâġût’s pathos and his posture of cynicism – both the hope and the hopelessness of his struggle. I highly recommend picking up a copy of this volume if you have the twelve bucks to spare.

Here is another one of his poems, ‘From the Threshold to the Sky’:
As the sad rain
    floods my sad face
I dream of a ladder of dust,
hunched backs,
palms of hands pressed against knees
on which I’ll climb the lofty heavens
and discover
    where our sighs and prayers are.

My love!
All those prayers and sighs
sobs and pleadings
from millions of lips, breasts,
over thousands of years and centuries
my words are even now
    next to those of Christ
My love!
We wait for the sky to shed its tears.