Saturday, May 30, 2009

Rosa The Red

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Tiger & The Lion

Demonstrate the politics of war

[TamilNet, Sunday, 24 May 2009, 20:32 GMT]

The Tamil national cause cannot afford to be deviated and exploited by others through questions such as whether the LTTE leader V. Pirapaharan is alive or not or whether the armed struggle has to be continued or not. The Tamil diaspora, the only section of the Eezham Tamil community that has the freedom and means to come out with authentic voice, has a historic responsibility in telling the world what they aspire for in no uncertain terms, and in seeing their righteous cause not hijacked by their enemies.

More than the massacre, maiming and incarceration, what causes the height of the trauma to Eezham Tamils is the utter disregard of the norms of civilization and shameful deceit committed by India, IC and the UN in the happenings of the island of Sri Lanka. This will remain as an indelible blot in the annals of history, irremovable scar in the minds of Tamils and will globally discredit the existing power systems, sowing seeds for their deconstruction in future, unless they at least act now in upholding political justice.

Any effort on their part to exploit the situation to impose political subjugation on Tamils, thinking that there is a political vacuum in Eezham Tamil nationalism, is sure to bring in further disaster.

The Tamil national cause cannot afford to be deviated and exploited by others through questions such as whether Pirapaharan is alive or not or whether the armed struggle has to be continued or not. The answer to the second question is going to depend very much on the successes and failures of the IC in resolving the conflict.

Meanwhile, the Eezham Tamil diaspora, the only section of the community that has the freedom and means to come out with authentic voice, has a historic responsibility in telling the world what they aspire for in no uncertain terms, and in seeing their righteous cause not hijacked by their enemies.

The Tamil diaspora in France, and especially in Norway have already embarked upon this noble venture with foresight, by re-mandating the Vaddukkoaddai Resolution through unblemished popular politics.

It is high time the rest of the diaspora follow suit not only in specifying the course, but also in leading it further by democratically bringing in a political leadership to stand by that.

The existing structures should wholeheartedly, and in one voice, need to support it.

A grave concern of Tamils at this juncture is the stand of India. Whether it was in 1987 or now, the bitterness of Eezham Tamils about the Indian Establishment is its unrealistic stand of resolving the crisis within the state of Sri Lanka, not recognising the Tamil independence and sovereignty that have very much become a must today.

Tamil Nadu has a great role to play now. As both the major parties of Tamil Nadu have openly stated that Tamil Eelam is the solution to the crisis, they should not waste any time now in declaring that in the state assembly. This is sure to inspire the Indian parliament and various governments of the International Community.

A few who saw the spontaneous, democratic demonstration of the political will of Diaspora Tamils as 'LTTE orchestrations' need to realise that the model experimented in the Norway mandate took place without any compulsion either in participation or in expressing opinion.

It is surprising that certain sections, which accept intimidated elections taking place at gunpoint in Sri Lanka as 'democratic' and envisaged further elections like that to ensure their positions criticising the free political expression of the diaspora through self-evolved structures.

However, this is not the occasion for the Eezham Tamil nation, either in the island or in the diaspora to waste time in fruitless arguments.

The Sri Lankan state is not going to spare the non-LTTE Tamil political forces either, and danger is imminent to them.

Unconfirmed reports say that a Colombo based political entity, having Eelam in its name, has been 'ordered' recently to conduct elections in the island under the identity of the ruling party that is fighting 'Tamil terrorism'.

As has been already demonstrated in the East, the idea is to see that Tamils should not even have their own political parties. This political genocide is one of the many facets of Colombo's agenda.

It is also high time now that all Tamil entities join together in truly reflecting the minds of the people they claim to serve rather than serving the minds of others. Failing, they may never be able to find political or social platform among their own people.

If political war is what India and the IC want the Tamils to take up, the ball is in the court of India and the IC now. The right sign and support have to come from them. If they know how to handle the Sri Lankan state, that has to be clearly demonstrated by them now.

But, if deceit continues to impose half-baked solutions that don't match the long-sufferings and sacrifices of Eezham Tamils, then they only invite troubles.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Life-Changing Books

I'm not sure that any book has ever truly changed my life in the sense of dramatically altering its course, but I can think of one that determined it, and that's Palgrave's Golden Treasury of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language. It was my mother's book and she read to me from it, as I imagine, in the dark. It was from Palgrave that I learned that literature had a sound, that language mattered more than story, that rhythm haunted the imagination, and that love and grief and loneliness interested me more than any other subject.

Zoë Heller

A couple of novels that I read in my teens - Middlemarch by George Eliot and Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens - made me want to be a writer. But the only book I can think of that effected a large and immediately felt change was My Secret Life, the Sex Diary of a Victorian Gentleman (author unknown). I discovered it on my grandparents' bookshelf at the age of 10.

Jacqueline Wilson

I'd have to choose Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, which I first read when I was 13. My dad bought it eagerly but gave up on it a few chapters in. My mum had a go then, but found Nabokov's baroque style irritatingly impenetrable. I asked to read it and my parents said absolutely not. I didn't waste my breath arguing. I simply waited till I had the opportunity to whip the distinctive yellow dustwrapper off Lolita and rejacket it with the Catherine Cookson novel I was reading. I spent the next week reading in the bath, in bed, at playtimes, at school. It was a total revelation to me. I hadn't realised you could use language in such a rich and elegant way, and I was amazed at the subject matter. I thought it the most wonderful and exciting book I'd ever read. I realised that literature could be outrageous and mind-stretching and utterly extraordinary.

Anthony Horowitz

It would have to be Dr No by Ian Fleming. It was 1967. I was about 12, trapped in the weird and miserable bubble of prep-school life where my experience of sexual desire and violence edging on sadism was largely restricted to my French teacher. The book introduced me to a whole new world. Even the Jamaican setting seemed impossibly exotic.

DBC Pierre

Forming an outlook on life isn't all beer and skittles. By the time you've wondered what parts of a world view should be instinct or intellect, asked yourself if all perspective isn't just a product of bias and dogma, and then worked out that, in any event, the viewpoint you ended up with is no longer in service, nobody can blame you for seeking strong drink. This was roughly my position when I came upon Lila - Robert Pirsig's follow-up to the 1974 classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig continues his philosophical exploration in the form of a yacht journey down the Hudson river, accompanied by an easy woman - though her virtue is also open to argument. Written in everyday language, with searing disrespect for academia, this meandering holiday was a life-changer for me, both as a novel and a thesis.

"When the pupil is ready, the master will appear."

In a yacht. With a prostitute. Or is she?

Antonia Fraser

I was crazy about history from the age of four and a half when I read (to myself) Our Island Story. But I had no precise idea of how to direct this passion until I came across my parents' copy of Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey, at the age of 14. I had just become Catholic and was attending a convent. I was deeply excited by reading Strachey, especially the essay on Cardinal Manning. What the convent library did contain was the official two volume life of Manning - just the kind of Victorian number Strachey had written to debunk. Immediately I began to compare the two versions with critical zest, beginning to form my own third one: here it is, I thought, the life for me.

Kamila Shamsie

I don't remember who wrote the book that changed my life. I don't even remember anything about its plot or characters. But I remember vividly finding a musty old hardback novel called All Dogs Go to Heaven on my grandfather's bookshelf. And I remember weeping - copiously - as I read the book, weeping for my pet dog who had recently died. I also recall my best friend, Asad, coming over and, in response to my "You must read this - it's set in dog heaven", saying, "Why don't we write a book set in dog heaven?" So we did. It was called A Dog's Life, and After. I was 11, and I never stopped writing after that.

William Fiennes

I first read Moby-Dick on a bicycle trip round southern Greece. I was 21, on the brink of my last year at university. In the evenings I sat in tavernas writing my diary and reading about Ishmael, Ahab and the white whale. I found it exhilarating - not just the quest, but Melville's language, which was so alive and stirring, with the rhythms and image-richness I already loved in Shakespeare but had never encountered in prose before. I was giddy with it. I kept stopping to lean my bike on harbour walls and stare at the sea, looking for disturbances in the surface of the water.

Roger McGough

The Beat Scene didn't change my life, but rather it confirmed it. In the late 50s, I was at Hull University and I had decided to become a poet, but I wasn't quite sure what that involved. In 1960, I came across The Beat Scene. It was made up of poems and interviews from the New York and San Francisco poetry scene at that time. There were well-known poets such as Corso, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg alongside others I hadn't heard of. I realised just how big the world of poetry was. It showed them reading their work aloud to audiences in art studios, cafes, bars - a million miles away from my idea of poetry being something confined to a library. What was I doing in boring old Liverpool when I could be reading at the Gas Light Cafe in Greenwich Village with Diane di Prima?

Graham Swift

No book, I think, has really changed my life, but a few books, at different times of my life, have made huge and sometimes lasting impressions. Certainly among these was The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel, which I read in my teens when I was an aspiring writer. The most important influences aren't those other writers who necessarily affect your writing in any material way, but simply confirm and fire your desire to write. Babel did this for me. One of his stories is called Guy de Maupassant and is effectively the story of how Babel himself was fired by Maupassant. That story, in particular, has always been special for me, and the full story of how I was fired by Babel is told in my new book, Making an Elephant.

Rowan Williams

I read Patrick White's Riders in the Chariot when I was about 19, and it has been decisive in shaping my sense of what faith and ethics are and aren't. It was the first novel I'd read that dealt directly with the Holocaust. It was a novel about mysticism that challenged me profoundly about what I meant by God, and forced me to see as never before the link between the artist and the contemplative - but not in any conventional way, because it also set out as starkly as possible the difference between the holy and the merely good. And it offered an unforgettably frightening picture of Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil", the evil that comes from dead minds, cliches, lying pieties.

Giles Foden

Practically speaking, the book that had most direct influence on me as a writer was Paul Muldoon's volume of poetry Meeting the British. It taught me how to bring my own imaginative territory to bear on politics and history. Or was it the other way round? In any case, The Last King of Scotland was the direct result of that encounter with Muldoon's work. He is a rare bird, extraordinary, and I was fortunate to pluck the most modest of his tail feathers. The danger is, you find yourself ventriloquising him.

Melvyn Bragg

The book that changed my life is one of those questions that send me into a panic. Was it the illustrated Kidnapped, The Tales of Robin Hood, the feast of comics, Wizard, Rover, Hotspur, Adventure? The best I can do is to offer the King James Bible. I started to go regularly to the local Anglican church when I was about six and joined the choir. At school there was a morning assembly, which consisted of readings from the Bible and hymns and psalms. Parables, wars, agonies, revelations - the panoply of history, metaphor, ecstatic literature and the words of a great faith seem to have accrued, and a good number of them are still there. It was the sweetest possible learning, because if did not come through as teaching.

Alain de Botton

Norman Mailer's Of a Fire on the Moon opened up a whole new way of writing for me. It's a piece of reportage about the 1969 Nasa moon landings, in which Mailer adopts a freewheeling tone that enables him to discuss himself, his recent divorce, fascism in America, race and technology - all with huge intelligence, humour and a crazed energy. The book showed that the barrier between being a novelist and a reporter are in the end rather flexible and that you can take the stuff of ordinary newspaper stories and turn them into something resembling art and philosophy. I couldn't have written my most recent book without this great book as inspiration.

Kate Atkinson

Looking back, I realise that probably the books that had the greatest influence on my imagination and sensibility were the fairy stories that I read as a child.I read them obsessively in my formative years and they introduced me to the idea that literature was transformative and magical. They also, at their heart, convey the message that girls are strong and wise and morally triumphant. The message that real justice always prevails in the end may not be true, but it provided me with a pattern for travelling hopefully through life.

Simon Schama

I'm someone who likes to look at footnotes or endnotes first when I pick up a history. This one began, "Bretons are said to be drunken and prone to use their fists or broken glasses or bottles ... Men from the Mediterranean will stab using knives or stilettos." This was Richard Cobb's idea of a report from the archive. This was the bloody and bloody-minded world of his French Revolutionary masterpiece The Police and the People. I had never read anything like Cobb's exercise in total immersion; the historian sunk into the world of ne'er-do-wells, vagrants, informers, runaways, suicidal pregnant girls. It smelled of humanity. That was the kind of history I knew I wanted to write. I still do.

AC Grayling

I'll reluctantly limit myself to three: Immanuel Kant's Critique Of Pure Reason in philosophical respects, Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in political respects, and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina for what literature can mean and do. I first read the latter two when young and although I did not then, and do not now, agree or sympathise with everything in them, they stimulated ideas that have remained permanently significant to me. Kant came later, and although I do not accept most of his arguments, they likewise contributed greatly to the study of some of philosophy's deepest problems. None of them would mean what they do without their connection to dozens of other books that matter to me also.

Martin Jacques

Reading Antonio Gramsci's Selections from the Prison Notebooks transformed the way that I understood the exercise of power in western societies, indeed in any society. It remains enormously rich, offering a battery of new concepts. Although written in an elusive style, partly to avoid Mussolini's censors, it is like a treasure trove; each new reading yields fresh insights and a bunch of new thoughts.

I can suggest no better place to start if you want to understand the nature and role of politics and culture. Hegemony, civil society, post-Fordism, passive revolution, organic intellectuals, it's all here and much more besides. Brilliant.

Paddy Ashdown

The book that has accompanied me all my life is John Donne's Collected Works. My wife gave me a copy when we got married. I was 20. It fell apart in the jungles of Borneo. But I've always had a copy since and it gives me continuing pleasure and solace.

Ed Miliband

At junior high school in the US I remember reading a book called Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, about someone who is white and pretends to be black. As a kid living in America in a relatively integrated part of the US, it was an amazing insight into racial discrimination in America.

Nicholas Stern

India changed my life and RK Narayan is a writer who captures what's so fascinating about India in all its difference and pain and complexity of life. I give his wonderful book The Financial Expert to all my banking friends. It's a story about a guy who stands on a box outside a bank and always gives better terms than the bank. He's very nice and very reliable. Then one day he just suddenly disappears, with all the funds.

Mark Radcliffe

At the risk of sounding dull and predictable, though those who have heard my radio work may think it's a little late to start worrying about that, the book that changed my life would have to be The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. And it has changed my life twice. When I first read it at university in 1976, the difficulty Holden Caulfield had in fitting into the world mirrored exactly the angst and ennui I felt in those life-changing, full-grant, debt-and-responsibility-free days. When I re-read it 10 years ago I found the hero, and therefore myself, irritatingly self-obsessed and shouted out loud: "For heaven's sake, Holden, grow up!" I took that to mean that I had.

Isabel Fonseca

I published my first book, Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey, and then straight afterwards had two children: I was thrilled. But as I patrolled the sandpit or stood beside yet another swing, I also knew a secret despair, at times amounting to panic, that I'd never find my way back to writing. Around then I read Far Away and Long Ago – WH Hudson's intensely evocative 1915 account of his wild Argentine boyhood, which he wrote in London at the age of 74. You might think: nothing very cheering here for the writer by the swing – will I have to wait that long? But his enchanted pampas vibrate so vividly through those pages; the sights, the smells and sounds: the finches in the peach trees, at first "throaty but growing clearer and brighter towards the end ... the effect on the hearing being like that on the sight of rain when the multitudinous falling drops appear as silvery grey lines on the vision." If it is yours, I understood, not only will it wait, it will ripen, growing clearer and brighter. Thirteen years later, I published my first novel, Attachment.

Sophie Dahl

It was the first book I read by myself when I was about six. It made me long for bedtime, even though it was summer and still light outside. The Faraway Tree was buried deep in an enchanted wood, at whose edge lived the children Bessie, Fanny, Jo and later, cousin Dick (in his new PC incarnation unfortunately renamed Rick). One day the children stumble upon a magical tree inhabited by a clutch of fairy folk, among them Moon Face, Silky the fairy, Dame Washalot, the Angry Pixie and the Saucepan Man, a creature rendered deaf as a post because of the constant clang of the saucepans he wears. As with most Enid Blyton books, food is integral to the story, and the children are incessantly eating delicious sweets and biscuits and having picnics. As an immensely greedy child, my plump imagination was on overload due to the graphic descriptions of said feasts, and it was probably my first exposure to food writing, which has stuck with me ever since.

The Enchanted Wood fueled my imagination, appetite (for food and reading), and perhaps most importantly, uncovered a lifelong voracious leaning towards happy endings.

David Adjaye

When I was a late teenager, a friend of mine recommended a book called In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki. It examines darkness and shadows in Japanese culture at the turn of the early 20th century. It's a very simple book – a fiction where a traveller experiences numerous cultural encounters, all of which are informed and narrated through his experience with light, or the lack of it. It uses incredibly simple language, but is a very intellectually provocative book. It informed my thoughts on physical beauty in the world – forcing me to question and look at it in a way I had never done before. It has had a direct impact on the way I think about architecture – how you understand and reveal space. My friend never knew what an impact this book had on me – perhaps now they will.

Jo Brand

The book that changed my life was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey. I read it as a teenager and instantly became completely absorbed by it. It is one of those genius books that eclipses the film, brilliant as that was. I suppose it changed my attitude towards those with mental health problems and the voice of the Native American narrator stayed in my head for a long time afterwards. I read it in a few days, and when I got to the final page was immensely pissed off to discover someone had torn it out ... the torturer. I couldn't "gather" (to borrow a Kate Winslet word), until I'd got my hands on another copy some days later.

Frank Skinner

I was in my early 20s when I bought Lenny Bruce's How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. I think I mistook it for a self-help book. For me, it became one. Although Lenny Bruce was a standup comedian, the book's influence on me was more to do with my everyday attitudes than my work. I didn't become a comic until about 10 years after I read it. It was Bruce's honesty, his raw openness, that changed my life. I immediately became less guarded about my insecurities, my longings, my secret thoughts. I think it spooked my friends at the time. I'd always loved talking dirty but now I dropped the male bravado and the talk became both dirty and painfully true. When I did finally become a comic, my act was an expression of the mindset I'd developed since reading the book.

Richard Madeley

I saw the film The Cruel Sea as a schoolboy and didn't realise it was based on a novel by Nicholas Monsarrat. But when I was about 13 I found a copy in a secondhand bookshop, and bought it at once. I have probably re-read it roughly once every three years ever since. I believe it to be quite the best work of fiction to come out of either the first or the second world war, and I include Catch-22 and Birdsong in that. Monsarrat's beautiful, thoughtful and sometimes shocking prose inspired me to write. His ability to simultaneously communicate detachment and profound emotional involvement in his story – based on his own harrowing experiences of convoy work during the battle of the Atlantic – is, to use a much overused word these days, awesome. His subtle and gentle revelation, as the novel progresses, of the love that develops between the men aboard ships fighting U-boats and mountainous seas – fights to the death – is deeply moving. I'm currently writing my first novel. If it is one twentieth the work Monsarrat created, I'll be a happy man.

by Howard Jacobson

Do you have any book that changed your life, at least a bit?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Kurdistan: TV & Villages Names

Turkish promises to improve the treatment of Kurds ring hollow

INSIDE a concrete shack in the predominantly Kurdish slum of Daglioglu, in south-east Turkey (The Economist means Kurdistan but they don´t want to upset Turkey mentioning the "K" word! - a shame), 17-year-old “Mehmet” (he cannot give his real name) rolls up his trousers and points to a deep scar. “They beat me, kicked me repeatedly, called me a ‘dirty Kurd’, forced me to do push-ups and demanded I become an informant.” In another neighbourhood a 16-year-old girl suffered worse horrors. “Confess or I’ll fuck you and your mother,” she was told as she was driven to police headquarters. She and other female detainees were, she says, clubbed and dragged by the hair. In jail they were stripped naked and forced to kneel as wardens “searched our crevices”.

Both teenagers are among hundreds of Kurdish minors who face prosecution around the country for allegedly taking part in illegal street protests in support of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In Adana alone, some 155 children are facing trial, 67 have been convicted and five have begun to serve their sentences, says Ethem Acikalin, head of the local branch of Turkey’s Human Rights Association. All were charged under article 220/6 of the penal code, which criminalises “acting on behalf of a terrorist organisation”. The cases are tried in adult courts. Most of the crimes consist of no more than chanting pro-PKK slogans and throwing stones at police. But some have also been charged with damaging public property, resisting arrest, spreading terrorist propaganda or endangering public security.

Mr Acikalin reckons that, even after benefiting from reductions because of his age, “Mehmet” will spend at least four years in jail. “When it comes to children, the courts have frequently chosen to place them in pre-trial prison detention for many months,” comments Emma Sinclair-Webb, of Human Rights Watch, a New York-based watchdog. “This flies in the face of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Turkey is a party.”

It also flies in the face of recent efforts by the ruling Justice and Development Party to improve the lot of Turkey’s 14m Kurds. After launching the country’s first state-run (and predictably tame) Kurdish-language television station in January, the government hinted that it might let thousands of Turkified villages revert to their original Kurdish names. The army chief, General Ilker Basbug, recently conceded that, even though 40,000 rebels had been killed since the PKK launched its insurgency in 1984, “social and economic measures” were required. Murat Karayilan, the PKK’s commander in northern Iraq, says the PKK no longer demands independence and is happy to let third parties negotiate a deal on its behalf. All of this prompted Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul, to declare recently that there was now “an historic opportunity” to fix the Kurdish problem.

Perhaps so. In Adana Mr Acikalin is “still in shock” after an unprecedented meeting with security bigwigs. “They listened with patience, offered us tea and promised to stop the abuse,” he says. Yet Mr Acikalin, who is himself facing eight separate charges under article 220/6 for a series of public statements that he has made, insists he will not be swayed unless and until the law is changed.

His scepticism is shared by Ali Kulter, who ekes out $12 a day as a farmworker in Tuzluca, just south of Adana. Home is a reed shack without running water, the toilet is a hole dug in the ground that serves Mr Kulter and scores of Kurdish families. They migrated here in the early 1990s after being forced out of their villages in the south-eastern province of Sirnak for refusing to join a state-run Kurdish militia to fight the PKK. “Our village was an Eden, this is hell,” Mr Kulter sighs. “If there were peace I wouldn’t spend another second here.” But, as the 55-year-old explains, “my stomach is full with unfulfilled promises [by the state].”

Some of his scorn ought to be directed at the PKK. Despite Mr Karayilan’s doveish talk, his men continue to blow up Turkish soldiers. The Danish-based, PKK-leaning channel, ROJ TV, “certainly plays a part in inciting teenagers,” says Guven Boga, who represents Egitim Sen, a leftist teachers’ union. One big worry, he adds, is ethnic tensions between Kurdish and non-Kurdish students that flare up with each PKK attack. The other is the lack of opportunity for many Kurdish youths. “They are angry and have no hope for the future,” Mr Boga says. Their experience in jail only hardens them. And this makes them perfect recruits for the PKK.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Good Ol´ Times?

The American humorist PJ O'Rourke says that if anyone ever tells you that things were better in the good old days, just say the one word "dentistry".

He's right. I can't remember when I was last in agony at the dentist. Once I even had root canal work in the morning and was back at my desk that afternoon. The other day, I had to have a tooth out. The dentist and his nurse chatted away while I went numb. He put the kit inside my mouth and a few seconds later the tooth was gone. What was amazing was that I felt only the slightest discomfort afterwards. That's just a wonderful modern thing, like the internet, cars that start on cold mornings and modern ice cream that doesn't taste of lard, which it did when I was a boy.

Simon Hoggart

The Thu Joke

"They laughed when I said I wanted to be a comedian. Well, they're not laughing now. "

by Bob Monkhouse

Hugh Van Es (RIP)

Align Centre

Centre & Periphery

I hope President Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka takes time out today to comment on the resignation of Mr Speaker. What the Sri Lankan government h as "wanted to see", he might say in the jargon of the new interventionism, is clean and transparent democracy in Britain. Speaking for all Sri Lankans, he would regard the affair of MPs' expenses as "unacceptable" and "not living up to their commitments". A group of Sri Lankan MPs would be visiting Britain to monitor developments.

Ridiculous? Yet those are exactly the words and tone of voice used by Britain's foreign secretary, David Miliband, in his dealings with what seems like half the globe. The Foreign Office wakes each morning and scans the world's conflicts to ponder where it might score a quick headline with a call for peace, reform, a ceasefire or "United Nations action".

I cannot see the point of Britain telling the world that "what we want to see is Russia on a different course". It merely infuriates every Russian. Why does Miliband say of Syria's dictator that "I've been talking for over 18 months to him about his responsibilities in the region", as if he were Lugard addressing a recalcitrant Nigerian chief? Why boast that he is "working on maintaining a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza" when he is doing nothing of the sort?

A delegation of Singapore's MPs might feel equally justified in visiting London to express the "unacceptability" of Britain's financial regulation. The Colombian prime minister, recently criticised by Miliband for the "impunity" of his militia, might wonder at the impunity of Britain's corrupt arms dealers.

Pakistan, lectured weekly by London about its army's performance, might demand an inquiry into discipline at Deep Cut barracks. Beijing might discover a Miliband-style "moral obligation" to defend minority rights in Northern Ireland, given the resurgence of separatist violence. The Swedes might denounce Britain's care of the elderly on the grounds that they "cannot stand idly by" while welfare state values are traduced by British callousness.

Were any of these things to happen, British politicians and the British media would be outraged. How dare other nations pass judgment on our affairs? What business is it of theirs? Yet this is what Britain does to them. Foreign policy is in 19th-century mode, with a moral gunboat over every horizon. Iran, Colombia, Kenya, Russia, Sri Lanka have all been damned by Miliband with the same fatwa as "unacceptable".

Regular ceasefire calls are bread and butter to the Foreign Office's underemployed policymakers. These feel-good gestures of episcopal concern are intended to generate a warm sense of wellbeing in speaker and audience, a jerkily liberal response to "something must be done". The effect is zero. This is not megaphone diplomacy but piccolo.

Ceasefires usually benefit one side or the other in a running conflict. They are seldom impartial to those embroiled in the theatre of war, any more than are other weapons of soft intervention such as condemnation, boycott and commercial and financial sanction.

In Sri Lanka a rudimentary study of the past three months of fighting would have told Miliband that a ceasefire would be pro-Tamil, not just "pro-humanitarian". He compounded his demand by damning the "indiscriminate" shelling of Tamil civilians. How he could do this while supporting the bombing of Pashtun civilians along the Afghan border is a mystery.

Yet the consequence of appearing to support the Tamils was to infuriate those same insurgents when Miliband refused to lift a finger to give force to his ceasefire call. It was just words, hypocritical window-dressing. It appeared to support a partitionist movement, but refused to do so in practice.

The outcome has been entirely negative. Miliband is regarded in Colombo as an incompetent neo-imperial ­meddler whose embassy was attacked on ­Monday and whose effigy was burned and tossed into the compound. Meanwhile the Tamils, double-crossed by London's posturing, reacted with one of the most furious demonstrations seen in Parliament Square.

The conflict was not ended by this rhetorical intervention. No lives were saved, no British interest served. Each side has merely been convinced that London was favouring its sworn enemy. Policy towards Sri Lanka merits a doctoral thesis in diplomatic ineptitude.

Britain had no dog in this fight, and no capacity to influence events either way. Its platitudes, bromides and ­hectoring were merely patronising, like an NHS advert telling the world to wash its hands and blow its nose. As of today, Britons travelling to Sri Lanka must be less safe than any other foreign nationals, whichever side of the divide they happen to encounter.

Such intervention soon falls victim to relativism. The one country that is treated by Miliband with kid gloves is the People's Republic of China. He recently told the Fabians that "it is important that we don't treat China as an errant child" – implying just such treatment for every other moral ­miscreant. Why? Because China is rich.

Such intervention has been as pointless in Sri Lanka as its predecessors in Israel/Palestine, Russia, Georgia, Iran, Burma, Sudan and Zimbabwe. Tony Blair's 1999 exegesis on so-called liberal interventionism, whatever its justification in the Balkans, has degenerated into a global woe-crying under Gordon Brown and Miliband.

Where the fine talk led to military action, at least it walked the walk. Labour's early decision to move from the Tories' policy of humanitarian relief in Yugoslavia to threatened, then actual, aggression against the Serbs represented a coherent policy. By rewarding each separatist movement in turn it achieved Nato's covert objective of Balkan fragmentation. The same outcome will probably follow intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Pakistan.

Such policies may be disagreeable but at least they are understandable. Miliband's piccolo diplomacy is a mystery. He seems to crave a role above his station, howling at the moon as if saying so made it so. He has summoned the ghost of Palmerston from a Whitehall attic, but confined him to the press office, to write endless speeches full of words such as unacceptable and disappointed.

At this very moment someone in the Foreign Office must be drafting a memorandum for his boss, welcoming the agreement of both sides in Sri Lanka to Miliband's demand that they cease ­hostilities and behave like sensible chaps. How good of them to do so. Cucumber sandwiches, anyone?

by Simon Jenkins

Monday, May 18, 2009

Mario Benedetti (RIP)


Cuando éramos niños
los viejos tenían como treinta
un charco era un océano
la muerte lisa y llana
no existía.

Luego cuando muchachos
los viejos eran gente de cuarenta
un estanque un océano
la muerte solamente
una palabra.

Ya cuando nos casamos
los ancianos estaban en cincuenta
un lago era un océano
la muerte era la muerte
de los otros.

Ahora veteranos
ya le dimos alcance a la verdad
el océano es por fin el océano
pero la muerte empieza a ser
la nuestra.

Mario Benedetti (1920-2009)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

From Carver To Wolff

I discovered Raymond Carver thanks to a good friend. Reading Carver I discovered Tobias Wolff whose Old School impressed me very much indeed. Now I am reading In Pharaoh´s Army, about his "service" in Vietnam and I suppose the next step will be to read his This Boy´s Life... always a pleasure how he writes in this formally casual manner when you know behind each line there is a hard work of thinking, writing and rewriting. As Mark Twain said: "You need two weeks to make a good improvisation".

Align Centre

Next, West Africa On-Line

On The Sunny Side Of The Street

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Happy Ice-Land

Highest birth rate in Europe + highest divorce rate + highest percentage of women working outside the home = the best country in the world in which to live. There has to be something wrong with this equation. Put those three factors together - loads of children, broken homes, absent mothers - and what you have, surely, is a recipe for misery and social chaos. But no. Iceland, the block of sub-Arctic lava to which these statistics apply, tops the latest table of the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) Human Development Index rankings, meaning that as a society and as an economy - in terms of wealth, health and education - they are champions of the world. To which one might respond: Yes, but - what with the dark winters and the far from tropical summers - are Icelanders happy? Actually, in so far as one can reliably measure such things, they are. According to a seemingly serious academic study reported in the Guardian in 2006, Icelanders are the happiest people on earth. (The study was lent some credibility by the finding that the Russians were the most unhappy.)

Oddny Sturludottir, a 31-year-old mother of two, told me she had a good friend who was 25 and had three children by a man who had just left her. 'But she has no sense of crisis at all,' Oddny said. 'She's preparing to get on with her life and her career in a perfectly optimistic frame of mind.' The answer to why the friend perceives no crisis in what any woman in a similar predicament anywhere else in the western world might consider a full-blown catastrophe goes a long way towards explaining why Iceland's 313,000 inhabitants are such a sane, cheerful, successful lot.

There are plenty of other, more obvious factors. Statistics abound. It is the country with the sixth highest GDP per capita in the world; where people buy the most books; where life expectancy for men is the highest in the world, and not far behind for women; it's the only country in Nato with no armed forces (they were banned 700 years ago); the highest ratio of mobile telephones to population; the fastest-expanding banking system in the world; rocketing export business; crystal-pure air; hot water delivered to all Icelandic households straight from the earth's volcanic bowels; and so on and so forth.

But none of this happiness would be possible without the hardy self-confidence that defines individual Icelanders, which in turn derives from a society that is culturally geared - as its overwhelming priority - to bring up happy, healthy children, by however many fathers and mothers. A lot of it comes from their Viking ancestors, whose males were rampant looters and rapists, but had the moral consistency at least not to be jealous of the dalliances of their wives - tough women who kept their families fed in the semi-tundra harshness of this north Atlantic island while their husbands forayed, for years at a time, far and wide. As a grandmother I met on my first visit to Iceland, two years ago, explained it: 'The Vikings went abroad and the women ran the show, and they had children with their slaves, and when the Vikings returned they accepted it, in the spirit of the more the merrier.'

Oddny - a slim, attractive pianist who speaks fluent German, translates English books into Icelandic and works as a city councillor in the capital, Reykjavik - offers a contemporary case in point. Five years ago, when she was studying in Stuttgart, she became pregnant by a German man. During her pregnancy she broke up with the German and reconnected with an old love, a prolific Icelandic writer and painter called Hallgrimur Helgason. The two returned to Iceland where they lived together with the new baby and in due course had a child of their own. Hallgrimur is devoted to both children but Oddny considers it important for her first-born to retain a close link to her biological father. This happens on a regular basis. The German flies over and stays at Oddny and Hallgrimur's far-from-spacious home for a week, sometimes two, at a time.

'Patchwork families are a tradition here,' explained Oddny, who was off work, at home, on the Thursday morning we met, looking after her youngest child. 'It is common for women to have kids with more than one man. But all are family together.'

I found this time and again with people I met in Iceland. Oddny's case was not atypical. When a child's birthday comes around, not only do the various sets of parents turn up for the party, the various sets of grandparents - and whole longboats of uncles and aunts - come too. Iceland, lodged in the middle of the North Atlantic with Greenland as its nearest neighbour, was too far from the remit of any but the more zealously obstinate of the medieval Christian missionaries. It is a largely pagan country, as the natives like to see it, unburdened by the taboos that generate so much distress elsewhere. That means they are practical people. Which, in turn, means lots of divorces.

'That is not something to be proud of,' said Oddny, with a brisk smile, 'but the fact is that Icelanders don't stay in lousy relationships. They just leave.' And the reason they can do so is that society, starting with the parents and grandparents, does not stigmatise them for making that choice. Icelanders are the least hung-up people in the world. Thus the incentive, for example, 'to stay together for the sake of the kids' does not exist. The kids will be just fine, because the family will rally round them and, likely as not, the parents will continue to have a civilised relationship, based on the usually automatic understanding that custody for the children will be shared.

Oddny Sturludottir

The comfort of knowing that, come what may, the future for the children is safe also helps explain why Icelandic women, modern as they are (Iceland elected the world's first female president, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, a single mother, 28 years ago), persist in the ancient habit of bearing children very young. 'Not unwanted teen pregnancies, you understand,' said Oddny, 'but women of 21, 22 who willingly have children, very often while they are still at university.' At a British university a pregnant student would be an oddity; in Iceland, even at the business-oriented Reykjavik University, it is not only common to see pregnant girls in the student cafeteria, you see them breast-feeding, too. 'You extend your studies by a year, so what?' said Oddny. 'No way do you think when you have a kid at 22, "Oh my God, my life is over!" Definitely not! We think it's healthy to have lots of kids. All babies are welcome.'

All the more so because if you are in a job the state gives you nine months on fully paid child leave, to be split among the mother and the father as they so please. 'This means that employers know a man they hire is just as likely as a woman to take time off to look after a baby,' explained Svafa Grönfeldt, currently rector of Reykjavik University, previously a very high-powered executive. 'Paternity leave is the thing that made the difference for women's equality in this country.'

Svafa has embraced the opportunity with both arms. For her first child, she took most of the parental leave. For her second, her husband did. 'I had a job in which I was travelling 300 days a year,' she said. She had her misgivings, but these were alleviated partly by the knowledge that her husband was at home, partly because of the top-class state education that Iceland provides, starting with all-day pre-schools, rendering private schools practically nonexistent. ('I think there is one, but 99 per cent of kids, be their parents plumbers or billionaires, use the state system,' Svafa said.)

The 300 days' travelling job was as deputy CEO in charge of mergers and acquisitions for a generic pharmaceutical company called Actavis, where Svafa worked for six years. During this period the company rose from global minnowhood to become the third largest of its kind in the world, buying up 23 foreign companies along the way. A propagandist not just for her former firm, which she left when she could no longer fight the guilt she felt over her maternal absences, she listed some of the more notable feats of entrepreneurial prowess her country had achieved in the past 10 years, boom-time in what had traditionally been a fish-based economy. Icelandic banks now operate in 20 countries, and the Reykjavik-based company deCODE is a world leader in biotechnological genome research. Icelandic firms are gobbling up food and telecommunications firms in Britain, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, further evidence of the island's economic growth.

Svafa is a lively, wiry woman with a sassy haircut and a sharp, humorous mind. And she has a corner office to match. Spacious, minimalist (so much so she does not even have a desk) and modern in the clean Nordic style, it has the feel of a lounge and views to kill for. From one window you see over Reykjavik's red and green rooftops to the fishing port and the dark blue sea; from another you look on to a ridge of low, snow-capped mountains. It's a beautiful landscape to look at but a hard one in which to live, especially in the 1,000 years Iceland was inhabited prior to the invention of electricity and the combustion engine. 'You have to be not only tough but inventive to survive here,' said Svafa. 'If you don't use your imagination, you're finished; if you stand still, you die.'

As the Vikings showed, part of that imagination means getting out into the world. That is what Svafa did (she studied for a PhD at the London School of Economics, lived in the US, spending a total of 10 years abroad) and what practically all Icelanders do. Very few do not speak excellent English. But now that Iceland has become prosperous the invitation is out to the world to come to Iceland. Reykjavik University has staff from 23 countries and the idea, after a planned move in two years to what Svafa describes as a new space-age campus, is to expand the foreign presence both in terms of teaching staff and students, and convert the university into a hub of global business education. Reykjavik University is already entirely bilingual. 'Students who only speak English can come and do postgraduate studies here.' Does nobody worry about losing the Icelandic language, when, after all, so few people speak it? 'Not at all,' declares Svafa. 'Our language is safe.' Not prey to the nationalist neuroses of other small countries (though practically none are smaller than Iceland), Iceland's obsession is with embracing the world, not fearing it. 'We are into brain gain, not brain drain. We want to do what the Americans have done to great effect, in our specific case to create an elite campus in Europe that attracts the best in the world.'

Icelanders know how to identify the best and incorporate it into their society. I talked about this to the Icelandic prime minister, Geir Haarde, whom I met at an official event at a steamy public swimming bath, a popular meeting place for Icelanders, like pubs for the British. Easygoing as everybody else I met, and without anything dimly resembling a bodyguard anywhere near him (there is almost no crime in Iceland), he agreed on the spot to sit down and do a quick interview.

'I believe we have blended the best of Europe and the United States here, the Nordic welfare system with the American entrepreneurial spirit,' he said, pointing out that Iceland, unlike the other Nordic countries, had exceptionally low personal and corporate tax rates. 'This has meant not only that Icelandic companies stay and foreign ones come, but that we have increased by 20 per cent our tax revenue owing to increased turnover.' Which is not to say that Iceland has been immune to the financial panic affecting the rest of the world right now. Icelandic banks being, in the US manner, aggressive and optimistic global players, there are worries they may have over-extended themselves. The rise in food and oil prices is generating the same sort of headlines in Iceland's papers as we are seeing elsewhere. Yet there is no suggestion that the economic system itself is under threat. Icelanders will continue to receive not just free, top-class education but free, top-class healthcare, private medicine being limited in Iceland chiefly to luxury procedures, such as cosmetic surgery.

Dagur Eggertsson, until recently the mayor of Reykjavik and every inch a future prime minister of Iceland, made the point to me that what has happened in Iceland has defied economic logic. 'In the Eighties and Nineties right wingers in the US and UK were saying that the Scandinavian system was unworkable, that high state investment in public services would kill business,' said Dagur, a boyish, super-bright 35-year-old who, like most Icelanders, is a furiously hard-working multi-tasker - as well as a politician, he is a doctor. 'Yet here we are, in 2008,' he continues, 'and you look at the hard economic statistics and you see that these last 12 years we and the Scandinavian countries have been roaring ahead. Someone called it bumblebee economics: scientifically, aerodynamically, you cannot figure out how it flies, but it does, and very nicely, too.'

Iceland's spectacular success comes from that capacity for hard work Dagur exemplifies, plus that imperative for creativity Svafa spoke of, plus an American faith in the feasibility of big ideas. 'Many of us have lived in the US, studied there,' said Geir Haarde, 'and what we have both taken from them and found that naturally we share is that can-do attitude - that if you work hard, anything can be done.' Svafa seemed to be the living expression of what Haarde was describing. She rejoiced in the civilised generosity of the Icelandic state but worked in pursuit of her own private goals with tireless optimism.

A similar spirit lies behind the success of Reykjavik Energy, the company that provides Icelanders with most of their hot water and electricity. Pipes dug deep into the earth's icy crust extract not oil, but water, which one kilometre down reaches temperatures of 200C. In 1940, 85 per cent of Iceland's energy came from coal and oil. Today, 85 per cent comes from underground volcanic water, which supplies half the country's electricity needs at a price just two-thirds of the European average. Iceland has the world's largest geothermal heating system, and the world is coming to have a look. The prime ministers of China and India have visited Iceland in recent years to see what they can learn about clean, cheap renewable energy and Reykjavik Energy is engaged in joint projects to replicate the Icelandic model in places as far flung as Djibouti, El Salvador, Indonesia and China.

The success of Reykjavik Energy is a metaphor for Iceland's broader achievement: harnessing the harshness of nature and transforming it, through invention and hard toil, into rich, fruitful energy. Artists have done much the same. The country is crawling with writers, painters, film makers and - like Oddny - accomplished musicians. Iceland has Björk, its cool answer to Madonna, but also a national symphony orchestra that plays to the highest standards all over the world; it has its own opera company (while I was there, La Traviata was being performed at the Reykjavik Opera House, entirely by Icelanders).

Baltasar Kormakur, a former TV soap opera heart-throb, is a successful local film director whose films have been shown in 80 countries, and is about to make his first Hollywood film this year. He has also directed a play at the Barbican, where he will soon be staging a production of Shakespeare's Othello. As for writers, half the population appears to have written a book, as if inspired by the single greatest cultural legacy Iceland has so far given the world - the 13th-century Viking sagas, which Jorge Luis Borges, the greatest writer never to receive a Nobel prize, described as the first novels, 400 years ahead of Cervantes. As a consequence, the one thing Icelanders could do that many in richer countries could not, even in the 19th century, was read - and the abundance of bookshops in Reykjavik is testament to this. Painting as an art form did not exist in Iceland until 100 years ago, but a large sector of the population dabbles in it now and at least 100 Icelanders live off their art full time.

Haraldur Jonsson, who studied in Paris and whose father was a champion multi-tasker (he was both an architect and a dentist) is an abstract painter, sculptor and video and performance artist who describes his task as 'making the invisible world visible', transforming emotions into things you can see and touch. He has exhibited all over the world, including London, Barcelona, Berlin and Los Angeles. Why is there such an abundance of artists in Iceland? What drives them? 'We do it so as not to become mad,' replied Haraldur, who is tall, nervy and thin with eyes that have the concentrated energy of a laser beam. Not to become mad? 'Yes, to keep the beast at bay.' The beast? 'The beast is Iceland, this island on which we live with its terrifyingly harsh nature, its bitter ever-changing weather. It's Goya's dark nightmare world, beautiful but grotesque. This is the moody beast of Iceland. We cannot escape it. So we find ways to live with it, to tame it. I do it through my art,' said Haraldur, whose attempts to pacify the monster have also included the writing of three books in which 'there are no animals, no trees. We have to have a rich internal life to fill the empty spaces, to fill the silence with our own noise.'

There is another beast to which Iceland owes a debt: the Second World War. The Icelanders must be the only people in the world to whom Adolf Hitler bequeathed a legacy of value. Before the war, Iceland was Europe's poorest country. Suddenly, in 1939, it became a strategic location of immense value. The British and the Germans raced for it, and the British got there first. They established a military base on a finger of land near the Reykjavik coast. 'Suddenly there was an abundance of jobs that were, for the first time ever, unrelated to fishing or farming,' recalled Asvaldur Andresson. 'I remember that before the war we barely had roads, and those we had we had to build with picks and shovels. The British and Americans came and then it was Caterpillar trucks and tar roads and all sorts of wonderful new tools with which to work.'

Asvaldur, who was born in 1928 in a fishing town in Iceland's wild far east called Seydisfjordur, emigrated west to Reykjavik at the end of the war and found a job as a bus driver at the US base. After that, following long hours of hard night-time study, he spent most of his life as a refurbisher of bashed-up cars. His life was always tough, but especially when he was growing up, when Iceland was that worst of possible mixes, a Developing World country with brutally cold weather. He left school at 12 and went to work on a fishing boat amid the icy storms of the Arctic circle's southern edge. His sister died of whooping cough at the age of three, and when his father died, Asvaldur, then 16, was out at sea, so he did not find out about it until after the burial. He worked 16-hour days all his life to keep his family fed. Today, he has a full-time job looking after his invalid wife. The blessing is that he receives money from the state to do so, a big reason (consistent with the culture of family cohesion) why most old people in Iceland live not in residences but at home. 'I look back at my life and I see how this country has changed and I can hardly believe my eyes,' said Haraldur.

The most remarkable thing is what has become of three of his grand-daughters, all grown up now. One makes documentary films in Paris; one is a bio-technology whizz who assists surgeons in a Reykjavik hospital; the eldest, at 26, has a flying licence from the United States and is undergoing training to become a pilot with Ryanair. Icelandic women being the early reproducers that they are, Asvaldur and his wife have not one or two but five great-grandchildren.

They are all sure to be receiving a fine education, especially should any of them happen to go to a school I visited in Reykjavik called Hateigsskol. The principal, a quietly passionate man called Asgeir Beinteinsson, showed me around. The children range from the ages of six to 16, and every classroom, which we visited unannounced, was a picture of cheerful industry. Apart from the wide variety of subjects obligatory to all, from cookery to carpentry via all the traditional lessons, what was striking was the ingenuity in the teaching and the degree of liaison with the parents. One method of teaching for younger children involved the use of drama to explain history and science. The story of the first settlers who left Norway in 874, for example, is learnt by acting out how they would have navigated to Iceland using the sun and the stars, and how they survived when they first arrived on Iceland's barren rocks. As for the parents, there is one member of staff whose job it is to compile detailed data on internal assessment exercises conducted with a view to keeping the school on its toes, and standards high. After consultation with pupils, teachers and parents, progress is rated on everything from the quality of maths teaching for nine-year-olds to the satisfaction levels of the teachers with their colleagues to the pupils' feelings about the school buildings. The information is then made available to the parents on the internet.

'The philosophy behind everything we do,' said Asgeir, 'is that we must challenge the children with a broad educational foundation, teach them in a warm, creative environment where we respect everyone equally. All are equal.' Asgeir and his staff have, like many other Icelanders, looked abroad for ideas and inspiration. Two teachers I met had just returned from England, where they had spent time at a school in Birmingham with a reputation for doing an especially good job. Asgeir himself has been to Denmark, Scotland, the United States and Singapore, and he was off to New Orleans the week after I met him. For good measure, all teachers have the opportunity to take a year off to study a subject of their choice on full pay.

If the bumblebee flies, if Iceland is the world's best place in which to live, and one of the richest, it is because of the way governments have added enlightened policies to the island's pragmatic, inventive human raw material. 'I as a medical doctor and as a politician believe that there is an intimate link between the country's health and the quality of political decisions that are made,' said Dagur Eggertsson, Reykjavik's former mayor. 'We were the poorest of nations 100 years ago, but we all could read and we had strong women. On that we have now built strong policies. My point is that more important for the health of a country than not smoking and eating well are the social phenomena we stress here: equality, peace, democracy, clean water, education, renewable energy, women's rights.'

Dagur, like the many people I spoke to in Iceland who were proud of their country, was confident but not complacent; content but ambitious - and open to the world in all its diversity. That was manifest even at Asgeir's school, where I came across children from China, Vietnam, Colombia, even Equatorial Guinea.

When I was talking to Svafa about the better influences from the rest of the world that Iceland seemed to have wisely plucked, or just happened to have, we mentioned, as the prime minister had done, the humaneness of Scandinavia and the drive of the United States. We also discussed how the Icelanders - who have excellent restaurants these days and whose stamina for late night partying must come from the Viking DNA - seemed to have much of southern Europe's savoir vivre. Then I put it to her that there was an African quality to Iceland that the rest of Europe lacked. This was to be found in the 'patchwork' family structures Oddny had spoken of. The sense that, no matter whether the father lived in the same home or the mother was away working, the children belonged to, and were seen to belong by, the extended family, the village. Svafa liked that. 'Yes!' the pale-skinned power executive exclaimed, in delighted recognition. 'We are Africans, too!'

Partly by dint of travel, partly by accident, Iceland, we agreed, was a melting pot that had contrived to combine humanity's better qualities, offering a lesson for the rest of the world on how to live sensibly and cheerfully, free from cant and prejudice and taboo. Iceland could not be less like Africa on the surface; could not be further removed from the lowest country in the UNDP's Human Development Index, Sierra Leone. Yet the Icelanders have had the wisdom to take, or accidentally to replicate, the best of what's there, too. Without any hang-ups at all.

by John Carlin

No Solution?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Otherness

Emmanuel Levinas
Align Centre

The Caucasus

An overview of languages of the Caucasus

Johanna Nichols
Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures
University of California, Berkeley

The Great Caucasus mountain range extends from the Black Sea to the Caspian. To the north of it is the western portion of the Eurasian steppe; to the south, the hill country of northern Mesopotamia. Both the steppe and northern Mesopotamia have been centers of economic and political power since approximately the Neolithic, and both have long been avenues through which peoples and languages have moved between Asia and Europe. The Caucasus itself has been a major conduit through which the Neolithic revolution, agriculture and stockbreeding, and subsequent technological innovations have spread from Mesopotamia to eastern Europe. The Caucasus is a biological refuge zone in which species found nowhere else are native, and it is known for its ecological and biological diversity. It has also been known since ancient times for its linguistic diversity, and it can be called a linguistic refuge zone in the sense that three entire separate language families are indigenous to the Caucasus and have no kin elsewhere.
Survey of languages

The indigenous language families of the Caucasus are:

  • Kartvelian or South Caucasian, a family about 4500 years old comprising Georgian and its three sister languages. It probably dispersed in the vicinity of central to eastern Georgia, in the foothills or southern plains. Georgian has a written history going back to the creation of a special alphabet after Georgia became Christianized in the fourth century; the same alphabet is still used. Most Georgians and other Kartvelians are Christians, but some of those in the south are Muslim.

  • Northwest Caucasian or Abkhaz-Adyghe (or Abkhaz-Circassian), a family of uncertain age (evidently older than the Romance or Slavic families and younger than Indo-European, which is about 6000 years old) with three or four daughter languages. The structural type of this family is exotic in Eurasia. It may have dispersed near the Black Sea coast. Speakers of Northwest Caucasian languages are mostly Muslims. There are sizable diasporic communities in Turkey and elsewhere in the Near East, descendants of emigrants from the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the 19th century; they retain the languages to varying extents.

  • Northeast Caucasian or Nakh-Daghestanian, a much-diversified family about 6000 years of age, with some 30 daughter languages spoken in the central and eastern Caucasus. It probably dispersed in the southeastern foothills of the Caucasus, near the Caspian Sea and in present-day Azerbaijan. Islam spread into Azerbaijan early and from there to the northern Caucasus, reaching the Chechen and Ingush in the 17th-18th centuries. Though most speakers of Northeast Caucasian languages are Muslims, the Udi (who now inhabit three villages in Azerbaijan and Georgia and are remnants of a larger pre-Georgian population) are monophysite Christians. There are sizable Chechen-Ingush diasporic communities in Turkey and Jordan, descendants of emigrants and deportees from the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the 19th century; they retain the language, generally quite well.
     Languages not indigenous to the Caucasus but long resident there include: 

  • Ossetic, a member of the northeastern branch of the Iranian subfamily of Indo-European. A descendant of the Alanic division of Sarmatian, which was part of the Scythian state of the Iron Age steppe, it straddles the Caucasus across the central pass and must have entered during the first millennium BCE.

  • Karachay-Balkar, two closely related dialects of northwestern Turkic. Now spoken in the western central highlands of the northern slope, they must have come into the Caucasus after the spread of Kipchak Turkic to the western steppe in the early middle ages.

  • Kumyk, another Turkic language of the northeastern lowlands which also entered the area in the early middle ages. The Kumyk people may well descend from the Khazars, Turkic speakers whose empire extended from the Volga to the Daghestan foothills, but the Kumyk language itself goes back to the Kipchak Turkic that began spreading into the North Caucasian steppe in the middle ages.

  • Azerbaijani (Azeri), a Southwest Turkic language that spread from Central Asia to formerly Iranian-speaking Azerbaijan in about the ninth century. Azerbaijan has been culturally important since the time of the ancient Persian empire, and Islam spread here early. Thelanguage has been written since the 14th century, originally in the Arabic script.

  • Tat, a southwestern Iranian language spoken in Azerbaijan and along the Caspian littoral. It is a survivor of the Iranian-speaking population that was dominant in Azerbaijan before the spread of Turkic, and is spoken now by Jewish, Muslim, and Christian enclaves.

  • Talysh, a northwestern Iranian language spoken in Azerbaijan and also a survivor of a pre-Turkic language.

  • Armenian, an independent branch of Indo-European. The Armenian language spread into the former kingdom of Urartu in the seventh century BCE. Armenia converted to Christianity in 300 AD, and an Armenian alphabet was created not long thereafter, originally as a vehicle for disseminating Christianity. The oldest surviving documents in classical Armenian date to the ninth and tenth centuries. The language has been written more or less continuously since then, and the original alphabet has been retained.

  • The ancient Urartean language and its still earlier ancestor Hurrian, attested in cuneiform inscriptions. The range of Urartean was approximately the territory of medieval Armenia.

  • Structural types of languages

    The indigenous languages of the Caucasus are known for their complex consonant systems (including ejectives and pharyngeals), complex morphology, and ergativity (identical case or other coding on subjects of intransitive verbs and direct objects of transitives; distinct coding on subjects of transitives). However, the structural differences between these families are considerable. The following examples give some sense of the structural complexity and diversity among the indigenous families. An Ossetic example is also given for comparison. In three millennia of residence in the Caucasus, Ossetic has acquired loan vocabulary, an ejective consonant series, and aspects of central and western Caucasian vowel centralization from its neighbors but shows no trace of pharyngeals, pharyngealization, or ergativity.

    In the following examples, all three indigenous languages have ergative constructions but use very different morphology: Georgian signals its syntactic relations by a combination of cases and verbal agreement, chiefly prefixal; Chechen mostly by cases; and Abkhaz entirely by elaborate verbal prefixation. Abkhaz also inflects its postpositions and possessed nouns, while Georgian and Chechen use a genitive case for possession.

    Abbreviations: ERGative case, DATive case, Plural, NOMinative case, PERFective, REFLexive pronoun, ADESSive case, TRANSitive; 3sg = third person singular, 3pl = third person plural. - marks morpheme boundary; = marks boundary following a proclitic. In Chehen, /aa/, /ie/, etc. = long vowels and diphthongs.

    Language contact, bilingualism, and verticality

    Traditionally in the Caucasus there was no single lingua franca. Rather, there was considerable bilingualism and multilingualism between adjacent communities. In recent times, up to the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the mid-19th century, the standing pattern of bilingualism was vertical: in highland villages many people knew the language(s) of lower villages, but not vice versa. This was because markets and winter pasture were to be found in the lowlands, while the highlands afforded few economic advantages. The male population of highland villages was largely transhumant and spent perhaps half of its working life in the lowlands. Naturally, under these conditions, lowlands languages tended to gradually spread uphill, reducing highlands languages to islands and eventually replacing them entirely. At present and for all known history and known prehistory, languages with large numbers of speakers have both lowland and highland ranges and a generally elongate vertical distribution; these are economically advantageous and/or culturally prestigious languages that have spread uphill. Languages with small numbers of speakers, including several one-village languages, are mostly found in the highlands. This pattern apparently predominated during the Little Ice Age (late middle ages to mid-19th century), a period of global cooling in which highland farms and pastures were economically precarious and the lowlands more prosperous. Prior to that, there is evidence that highland communities were larger and more prosperous and their languages spread downhill, and that highland communities formed and maintained lowland colonies. Chechen-Ingush isoglosses, and the discontinuous distribution of language families like Chechen-Ingush, Avar, and Lak all point in this direction. Overall, then, geography and size of speech community are correlated, and this is explained by verticality, economy, and climate change.

    © 1998 by Johanna Nichols
  • Thursday, May 07, 2009

    The Ballad Of Reading Gaol

    (To my beloved friend M)

    I know not whether laws be right,
    or whether laws be wrong;
    all that we know who lie in gaol
    is that the walls are strong;
    and that each day is like a year,
    a year whose days are long.

    Each narrow cell in which we dwell
    is a foul and dark latrine,
    and the fetid breath of living Death
    chokes up each grated screen,
    and all, but Lust, is turned to dust
    in Humanity´s machine.

    With midnight always in one´s heart,
    and twilight in one´s cell,
    we turn the crank, or tear the rope,
    each in his separate Hell,
    and the silence is more awful far
    than the sound of a brazen bell.