Friday, 26 October 2007

Nationalism, language extinction and power

Language is a vital component of any nationalist programme. In European struggles for statehood the nationalist movements in France, Italy, Germany and other countries, sought to unite various disparate nations under a single a national narrative and identity suitable for the modern state. Nationalist movements were essentially the promotion of a particular nation or new national identity and the incorporation or destruction of previous nations. In Nations and Nationalism since 1780 : programme, myth, reality Eric Hobsbawm writes:

the French language has been essential to the concept of 'France', although in 1789 50% of the French people didn't speak it at all, and only 12 to 13% spoke it 'fairly' - in fact, even in oïl language zones, out of a central region, it wasn't usually spoken except in cities, and, even there, not always in the faubourgs [suburbs]. In the North as in the South of France, almost nobody spoke French.

Conscription, co-ercion and state-power established French as the language of 'France'. Other distinct linguistic groups/nations, such as the Bretons and Occitans were subsumed into the French nation.

The unification of Italy, from city-states into a single nation-state was accompanied by the promotion of a unified Italian language. In fact, as recently as fifty years ago, the majority of Italians didn't speak Italian.

Radio 4 recently aired a programme about bi-lingualism and the government-sponsored promotion of the Welsh language in Wales. The plan, as described by one contributer, was long-term: backed by the Welsh Language Act (1993) school children have been given compulsary Welsh classes and the hope is that in 30 years the decline of the Welsh language will have been reversed. This is ironic given the role of educational policy and Welsh elites in the decline of the Welsh language.

Several interesting issues were raised during the programme:

  • The concentration of Welsh speakers is mainly in the North of Wales, away from the major business and administrative centres.
  • Anonymous local government employees argued that the Welsh Language Act and the Welsh Assembly/local government bureaucracy struggled to find competent Welsh speakers (there is nobody in Wales who speaks Welsh better than they speak English). This meant Welsh speakers were being promoted over English-speaking colleagues unfairly. And this was a Welsh speaker complaining.
  • This revival has less to do with preserving a language and more to do with an elite-led Welsh nationalist revival. Young people in Cardiff were asked about their Welsh language education. None of them used Welsh, nor saw a future where they would. Many of the people pushing for a Welsh-language revival are not Welsh speakers themselves, but it is a canny political strategy.
  • Critics argued that it was fine to have a language revival, but it shouldn't be state-sponsored and it shouldn't be imposed on people who aren't interested.
  • Immigrant communities are being encouraged to learn Welsh (one of the biggest Welsh-language groups is in Argentina).
  • Analogies were drawn to the Basque and Catalan regions in Spain, both areas with emergent nationalist movements using official recognition of their languages are political props.

State-sponsored campaigns to re-establish a language such as Welsh are doomed to failure. Welsh nationalists will realise that disinterest from most Welsh will prevent the language from making any real inroads. Instead, bi-lingualism will remain a local government requirement, maybe a few phrases or idioms will slip into common usage, but not much more. There may be a thriving Welsh-language music or literary scene, but this will remain a cultural ghetto within Wales. For people in Wales the language may be a part of their national identity, heritage or a badge of pride but most can't be bothered to learn or to use it.

This was followed up the next day with a section on the Today programme about Gaelic in Northern Ireland politics and a possible attempt at an equivalent of the Welsh Language Act there. Although most Sinn Féin and Republican politicians are not native Gaelic speakers they have always started their speeches with a few lines in Gaelic. Within the Northern Ireland Assembly this is incendiary with Unionist politicians denouncing the use of Gaelic. Attempts in the Republic of Ireland to launch a language revival have proved to be less than successful with only 7.1% of people using it on a daily basis.

In both these cases the promotion of a specific language is about power, clientelism and patronage. It is nationalists with sometimes tenuous power-bases trying to establish themselves with a programme that includes a national identity re-inforced by a "common language" and funds for their community. But the common language, or the language of the nation, is not the language nation-members speak on a daily basis. With the language-promotion they are essentially imagining a community and trying to graft that onto a nation.

Trying to accomodate different "nations" within a single modern state can prove tricky. For example, Belgium's political deadlock stems from two different nationalist power-blocs trying vying for control of the state. Switzerland's 4 official language-communities seem united. If only against immigrants. The genocide of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda was, partly, the result of two nations trapped within a single state. In South Africa the majority Zulu nation is largely unrepresented in the Xhosa-dominated Republic's government. In Lebanon the settlement between Druze, Christians and Sunni Muslims is straining as Shi'ites look for a involvement in a political system that has until now largely excluded them.

Modern nation-states try to create a nation in the image of the elites/minorities that establish or control them. Where minority nations persist within a larger nation-state the pose a political dilemma for nationalism. Absorb, ignore or destroy?

The Turkish answer to the Kurdish question has, for almost all of the 20th Century, repression and denial. The 14-18 million Turkish Kurds have had their language and culture banned, newspapers and broadcasts closed down and advocates of a Kurdish national identity imprisoned. Reasons for this include the strength of the ultra-nationalist sentiment in Turkey that sees Turkey as a nation for the Turkic speaking peoples and Turks alone and the violence of some Kurdish sepratists. The Kurds are a nation, not only because they represent a distinct ethno-cultural group, but because they have been marginalised from Turkey's own national identity and made pariahs within the modern Turkish state. Restrictions on the Kurdish language may have been eased in the last decade, but the Kurds are a long way from winning state subsidy of their language as the Welsh have done. And that isn't even in their programme because Kurdish is a living language, not one that needs propping up by the state.

In Iran only 51% of the population is ethnically Persian. The modern state under Reza Shah was renamed from Persia to Iran and includes Persians, Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis, Turkmen, Armenians, Assyrians, and Georgians. Linguistically, the ethnic minorities are less problematic as many speak Persian are their first language and their customs and culture are considered to be local variants of the dominant Persian culture. Added to the promotion since the Shah renamed the country Iran of a distinctly modern 'Iranian' national identity, the tension between different ethnic and nationalist identities doesn't seem that strong.

The centuries long battle between Yiddish and Hebrew was carried out in a nation without a state. In Words on Fire Dovid Katz explains that for centuries within European/Ashkenazi Jewry:

  • Hebrew was the liturgical language of Judaism, the masculine, rabbinic language and those that had become "an expert in little black dots" were respected and had social capital
  • Yiddish was the international language of the Jews, but seen as feminine, vulgar and unsuitable for serious scholarship
  • Many Jews spoke the local language, Yiddish and were aquainted with Hebrew through their religion
  • Following the invention of the printing press, there was a Yiddish literature explosion that included original works, Jewish versions of Christian stories, and most importantly, efforts to translate Hebrew religious texts into Yiddish
  • Translating Talmud and Torah into Yiddish was criticised as it was a threat to the power of rabbis

Yiddish remained the international Jewish language up until the start of the 20th Century. It enjoyed a cultural revival in the USA as Yiddish-speaking European and East European Jews established themselves in cities like New York. But by now it had to contend with Zionism claiming Hebrew (a language that had been solely for scholarship and was revived as a spoken language only in 1881) as the language of the Jews. The argument between the Zionist Congress and the Yiddisher Arbiter Bund was settled by history. The Holocaust and its destruction of European Jewry destroyed many of the Yiddish-speaking communities and ironically strengthened the Zionist movement. Following the establishment of Israel, Hebrew won and Yiddish became the language of a forgotten nation.

Hebrew as a revived language has helped immigrants to Israel shed their previous identities and embrace Israeli nationalism. Thus Modern Hebrew, linked to the past and ripe for nationalist myth-making, has played an important role in the national identity for Israel that Yiddish, with its ties to a more recent, internationalist past would not have done.

The long lists of extinct languages, like the lists of lost nations and peoples, make for depressing reading. It shows that languages are transitory and become extinct frequently. The tendency towards language extinction does undermine the linguistic aspect of a nationalist identity. Censorship and attempts by powerful minorities and states to actively destroy languages must be confronted and undermined. People should be able to speak, read and write in whatever languages and with whatever language they choose. Suppression of minority languages and media, like the loss of languages, can only reduce the sum of human knowledge and understanding.

Why is language death an issue? Humanity loses concepts, contexts and methods of discourse. A point emphasised by a recent article showing despite its breadth there remain many "phrases conveying complex notions - from comparing yams to walking on warm sand - for which the tongue of William Shakespeare and James Joyce has no equivalent". Spoken languages, like programming languages, solve specific problems, have their roots in particular environments, contexts and histories. Linguistic diversity, different genders, concepts, tenses, pronouns, articles, etc. all add to human understanding and perceptions of the world.

Globalisation and improved telecommunications make it inevitable that isolated, minority and ethnic communities make more frequent contact with other larger communities. Language extinction is the result of better communication, population conquest and migration. But how does a language survive the shock of exposure to a more dominant culture or rapidly changing context? What use is a language with no concept of or word for the Internet, electricity, helicopter, etc.? Does a language or some academy try to nativise words - swapping pizza for "elastic bread" and helicopter for "rotating wing" or "horizontal-bladed tractor" or absorb the foreign words? What strategy works best for linguistic survival?

I'm not sure, but the resurrection, consolidation and promotion of a language to serve a nationalist elite or government edict doesn't seem like the right move.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Contesting Taheri's review of Mirrors of the Unseen

I found Amir Taheri's rather uncharitable review of Mirrors of the Unseen. Taheri, a figure not without controversy, is the author of Nest of Spies.

At the core of Taheri's critique are two key themes: Jason Elliot's failure, in Taheri's eyes, to denounce the Islamic Republic and separate the majority of Iranians from those who have "created the poverty, despotism, corruption and cynicism he so accurately describes" and his attempts to find something esoteric and mystical in Iran:

As he moves through Iran the shocking truth dawns on him — the country he had dreamt of does not exist. Iran today is a largely westernised society with the same pizza parlours, hamburger joints, traffic jams, mobile telephones and Chinese-made shoes everywhere. True, women are draped in the hijab and many men sport designer stubble. But these are mere props for a people who seem to be too enamoured of the “decadent West” for Elliot’s taste.

Elliot, in fact, finds the opposite. The people that Elliot meets are either nostalgic for the boom-town Iran that prospered (for a minority) under the Shah or are content with the way things are. People quote Hafez, Ferdosi or Khayyam. They invite him into their houses and lives. Only one person seems to raise his ire and disappoint him - a young Iranian-American man Elliot describes as being totally disconnected from Iran and self-deluded by his "insights" into what Iran really is like.

Whilst Taheri does highlight some errors and poor copy editing, he is sloppy and misrepresents Elliot when he says

The Persian greeting is “Salaam”, not the Hebrew “Shalom” Elliot was offering to people in Iran (one wonders what their reaction was).

Elliot quite clearly states he only used shalom when greeting Jewish shopkeepers and that their reaction was warm surprise and hospitality. Elliot speaks Persian and a closer reading by Taheri would have put this all of this in context. But for Taheri, the rot goes even deeper:

[A]ll travel writers ultimately write about themselves and the way their culture sees "the other". And Elliot has done a good job of illustrating that the English need a new kind of writing in which the “other” is not typecast, and patronised, in the way Byron did.
Mirrors of the Unseen which, although focused on Iran, is also about the death of the kind of travel writing of which Byron was a popular example. Byron came from a civilisation that was self-assured, not to say arrogant, and was looking for the exotic, which he found aplenty, running into colourful characters representing the “mysterious Orient”. Elliot, by contrast, comes from a civilisation riddled by self-doubt. In Isfahan he encounters a group of European women and finds them loud and aggressive — “like navvies” — that is, they behave like men.

Taheri tries to reverse Elliot's exploration of Iran and argue that he's really exploring his own "otherness" and his own society which is less sure of itself than when earlier travel writers and explorers went to Iran. Essentially, what Elliot says he saw, heard and experienced wasn't really what he saw, heard or experienced.

The problem is not that the Iran of reality did not live up Elliot's "orientalist" imagination, but that Elliot's experience of Iran did not conform to Taheri's imagining of what Elliot should have experienced. Elliot's experience was not the one what Taheri would have liked him to have and he didn't write the book Taheri wanted him to write. For Taheri, Elliot didn't visit enough of the right monuments, meet the right people, or express the right sentiments. But Elliot wrote about what he saw, the Iran that he experienced. And that is more important than whatever Taheri wanted.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Review of Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran by Jason Elliot

Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran is Jason Elliot's account of several journeys through Iran. It is a timely and engaging book. Speaking Persian and having previously toured and written about Afghanistan, he is more likely than other Western journalists and writers, who dip into the country only briefly, to get beyond northern Tehran, meet a broad spectrum of people and see more of the country.

As it turns out, the majority of people he meets are fairly homogenous. They are either the lofty and wealthy who have fallen on harder times since the revolution or they are ordinary Iranians annoyed at the corruption and nepotism, hollow promises, petty restrictions and plethora of other things keeping them from realising their ambitions.

Arriving in Tehran, he speeds through and quickly discards all of the clichés of writing about Iran: the ruthless taxi drivers, foreigners being charged more at every opportunity, the paradoxes and "puzzles" of Iranian life, inner city congestion and pollution, realising that growing a beard made him stand out rather than fit in, etc.

Things I had at first thought strange - the sight of women with pink toenails, daily battles with unscrupulous taxi drivers, or the lack of religious observance among ordinary people - no longer seemed like novelties worth recording, and I was asking myself questions about things that hadn't caught my attention before; abstract things, like the notion of social liberty, what Islamic art was really all about, and why Iranians banks were so incredibly inefficient. You can report from a foreign country as a newcomer, and people will share your delight or surprise or disbelief. But familiarity blunts the impact of these first impressions. And the more time you spend in a different culture, the more your reactions and judgements begin to shirt and accomodate; and soon, like a man asked to describe his home town, you can think of nothing to say. It's home that feels strange. p. 259

His prose is lyrical and easy flowing, with the occasional tendency to drift off into day-dreams, historical re-enactment and fantasy. He mixes architecture, art criticism and geometry with wading knee deep through bat dung, history and Iranian hospitality. Describing the mountains between Shiraz and Isfahan his metaphors evoke that nexus between the earthly and spiritual that the book's title alludes to

the mountains erupt in clusters of shimmering rock like the spires and battlements of weightless metropolises. These resolve illogically as one approaches into unexpected shapes, split apart by ragged valleys or extended by new ranges like convoys of airborne sharks' fins with stretch for miles. Around them the colours regroup in bleeding spectrums of bleached celestial inks that seem borrowed from some cruelley arid planet. Then, without warning, they falter, as if responding en masse to some cosmic warning signal, and moments later sinnk and collapse downwards into plains barer than the sea. p. 357

Elliot's main interest, and his stated aim, is to discover and understand the art of Iran. He waxes lyrical and at times sounds like he's taken LSD. Reviewers on Amazon have criticised his habit of explaining the history of something he's visiting or the long pages where he explains his quest to understand the meaning behind some minor feature of a building.

Elliot's is the first travel book I've read where I've visited many of the monuments and places written about. I found myself nodding along saying "Yes... Yes, it is like that", or smiling smugly to myself when he fails to mention something I know. His descriptions of the Sheik Lotfallah mosque in Isfahan made for disconcerting reading. He writes that

[t]he surfaces of the right-angled walls are covered with complex repeating designs; these tease the eye, resolving at the very moment they are deciphered into an altered pattern. Wide bands of brilliant white calligraphy on a lapis field run everywhere, coursing like foaming torrents beside the abundant gardens of spiralling vines. Above these reciprocating melodies of light and colour stretches the dome... p. 71

I was jealous of his observation and perception, his deeper understanding. I'd been there. I had seen it with my own eyes, marvelled at the way the light breaks through the dome, run my fingers along the glazed tiles in the corridor leading to the main area, but my ignorance was only apparent on reading Elliot's descriptions.

In other places his lyricism really captures the essence and the experience of being a foreigner travelling through Iran.

A shaven-headed boy of about ten, whose scalp bore a dozen scars of varying length, took my order and shouted it to the owner, who lifted a ragged haunch of meat from a hook above his head and began to carve it swiftly into morsels with a knife of black steel. An old woman, wrapped in folds of black cloth, hobbled in from the cold, croaking a please for loose change. She leaned heavily on a walking stick painted the colour of lilac, and walked almost unseeing from the door to the other end of the room and back, then disappeared into the dark. 'Befarmaid,' said the man next to me, as I was about to eat. It was eight o'clock, and all around the shutters were beginning to fall. Within an hour the city was sleeping. p. 225

Towards the end of the book Elliot appears frustrated with being in Iran and having to deal with the small things. Taxi drivers seem to be a particular annoyance for him. He becomes wary about the people that attach themselves to him. Are they hoping to extract a fee for some particular service? Or are they genuinely interested in finding out about him and practicing their English? The real problem being, for Elliot, the awkward overlap between the two. He continues to travel, but it seems to be less of an adventure and more of a duty or penance.

I had a familiar feeling that I had learned nearly nothing meaningful about the country I had come to explore, and certainly not enough worth writing about. p. 259

The politics are there, and relayed through transcripts of conversations, they seem more realistic and insightful than it would have been otherwise. On occasion Elliot finds himself defending the Islamic Republic. But this is a journey through the land and architecture of Iran. It is the other side of Iran. A magnificent journey to take.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

More Arabic and Persian poetry

More Arabic and Persian poems from Omar Pounds Arabic & Persian Poems. The first, Love is by al-Abbas ibn al-Ahnaf (a person about whom the Internet seems to know very little).

Dear love
'tis less than I have vowed
but let me gather in
and bring
all love
from earth and see and sky;

let us to its equalling
that love,
when death has ravished us,
encase our shroud.

A short one from an unknown author:

the shore

to their king

and then

Abu Najm Abu Ahmad ibn Qaus Manuchehri (in Persian: منوچهری), Pound lists him simply as Minuchihri, was Persian royal poet (died 1041?) famous for his lyricism and celebrations of nature, wine and No Ruz. He specialised in references to earlier Arabic poems, picking lines from famous Arab authors he could identify with. Annoyed by a lack of appreciation of his poetry at the royal court, he penned the following witty poem, a recantation of his previous work and a criticism of contemporary poets.

Tell me, why such a foul mood?
If I speak gently you take offence or cry,
my kindness you count all lies.

Sorry, I murmur, as I try...
Why, you grunt, apologise?
Cut out all the platitudes,
astringent as honey
from the eucalyptus tree
for me
     our hour together lasts just that,
for you
     its overspill will bring you back.

I send you my verses
citing passion without passion
three this week and two before

Perhaps you do not like the stuff
or blush. Your silence
gives me no excuse for more.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Problems translating poetry

In the preface to Modern Poetry in Translation No. 19: Iraqi Poetry Today Saadi Simawe argues that:

"translating poetry requires not only familiarity with the two languages, but also knowledge of the poetic sensibilities of the peoples and literary traditions of those languages... Since absolute translation is a myth, and since the literal translation is spiritless if not meaningless in most cases, collaboration [between native speakers] is essential in establishing a linguistic and cultural conduit between the two languages."

This applies not only to poetry, but to all writing. Subtle ironies, metaphors, historical allusions, cultural context are lost in translation. The words, rhythm, flow and meaning are all gutted by poor attempts at absolute translation. That doesn't mean that you can't enjoy it, but it does mean that you won't learn anything from it.

Omar Pound, with a mastery of Persian, Arabic and English poetry elegantly and sympathetically translated 40 classic Persian and Arabic poems for a 1970 volume Arabic & Persian Poems. He addressed the problem of an absolute translation and in some of the poems he updated the allusions and references to more contemporary characters and events (although almost 40 years later they are now out of date). Here are some of the best ones:

The earth outside
spun within
when they told me
she had married him

Now I know it's over
but Allah,
     Why did you let her go?
To pity what is left of me
and emphasise you still control?

Be merciful to her
     through him

He must have been poor indeed
to need her more than I.

Muzahim al-Uqaili (reminiscent of Rupert Brooke). There is a 1920 collection of his poems The poetical remains of Muzahim al-Uqaili edited and translated by F. Krenkow.

White hairs
are the voice
of the wind of death
and with them comes

they shudder the willow
of my heart—and moan:

What! Still asleep!
You're no longer needed here,
it is time to leave for home.

Jama Isfahani (died 1192).