Coetzee on Empire

J. M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, 1979.

Calf-deep in the soothing water I indulge myself in this wistful vision. I am not unaware of what such daydreams signify, dreams of becoming an unthinking savage, of taking the cold road back to the capital, of groping my way out to the ruins in the desert, of returning to the confinement of my cell, of seeking out the barbarians and offering myself to them to use as they wish. Without exception they are dreams of ends: dreams not of how to live but of how to die. And everyone, I know, in that walled town sinking now into darkness (I hear the two thin trumpet calls that announce the closing of the gates) is similarly preoccupied. Everyone but the children! The children never doubt that the great old trees in whose shade they play will stand forever, that one day they will grow to be strong like their fathers, fertile like their mothers, that they will live and prosper and raise their own children and grow old in the place where they were born. What has made it impossible for us to live in time like fish in water, like birds in air, like children? It is the fault of Empire! Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation. A mad vision yet a virulent one: I, wading in the ooze, am no less infected with it than the faithful Colonel Joll as he tracks the enemies of Empire through the boundless desert, sword unsheathed to cut down barbarian after barbarian until at last he finds and slays the one whose destiny it should be (or if not he then his son’s or unborn grandson’s) to climb the bronze gateway to the Summer Palace and topple the globe surmounted by the tiger rampant that symbolizes eternal dominion, while his comrades below cheer and fire their muskets in the air.

Both this book and Foe (1986) are worth your time.

“Waiting for the Barbarians” by Constantine Cavafy (1864-1933) , translated by Robert Pinsky:

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.
What’s the point of senators making laws now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city’s main gate,
in state, wearing the crown?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor’s waiting to receive their leader.
He’s even got a scroll to give him,
loaded with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying their elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators turn up as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.
And some of our men just in from the border say
There are no barbarians any longer.

Now what’s going to happen to us without the barbarians?
These people were a kind of solution.

This history is hindoo

Just wanted to note here that I taped a show with Worldview last week on Zaid Hamid. Apparently it was posted on the official Syed Zaid Hamid facebook group which generated a lot of comments. Some of the wise ones went over to the CPR site as well, and left comments. I gathered some choice ones. Now you can enjoy too:

Usman // Sunday, July 25, 2010 @ 12:56 PM

Mr. Manan and respected Host, you can’t even begin to perceive that being a patriotic Pakistani directly/indirectly links to the Islamic belief. Zaid Hamid’s followers are the school/college/university students that aren’t ignorant and have their own way of looking at things. You can not analyze current affairs happening in Pakistan while sitting out. Zionist Brahman Idiology is simply targeting the minorities in India which include and isn’t limited to Muslims. Manan Sahab, you better be prepared next time before being a guest on a show as a “historian”. No illusions being drawn by Zaid Hamid.. you are just ignorant and are unable to view events on a larger scale. Our GOAL is the Re-establishment of Khilafah. Ahmadis have been declared non-Muslim by the fiqah and aren’t even allowed to enter Mecca.

u illiterate pathetic so called Pakistani historian. Im sure u wouldnt even know when did the Pakistan movement started

this fake manan ahmed is infact india hindo, only acting as pakistani. chicago radio you should be ashmed of yourself.

Mr. Mannan is a bad bad historian & even a worse “Analyst” of situation on ground in Pakistan.


I will update this with other hospitalities in the war zone as I encounter more data points. Others please contribute.

Date 2007-02-07 00:00:00

Following the formal discussion, they set a table of finger foods and chi [sic]. We continued to talk discussing more personal histories and the two officers were very open and candid. We took a group photo (they had taken several of us already while we were sitting there) and then left the way we came.

Date 2007-02-08 15:21:00

The Pakmil were very hospitable, they were on time at the border and transported the party to Chaman Fort without event. At the fort they provided light refreshment with snacks and curry lunch with music post meeting.

Date 2007-04-16 10:15:00

Atmospherics: (reception of HCA, reactions to ANSF and Coalition forces, etc): All villagers/elders were extremely pleased with the products that we gave to them along. Only the elder didnt want his village taking the products. He personally blamed George Bush for his AK-47 being taken from him. He doesnt want us to give stuff to his village because of fear from the enemy punishing him. He did say he would take money though. Only about 6 kids came out to get stuff. We gave some stuff for the women of the village too.

Murgha Ban Ja

Birth of Venus

*The punishment is called “Murgha bana na” (to make one into a rooster). One is to grab the ears from behind the legs (not like this). Uncomfortable! And quite popular in schools across South Asia as well as in other settings. The gentleman above, holding the Murgha pose, was washing his rickshaw in the surf as the cyclone Phet approached and people were ordered away from the beaches. This is the best photo, representing a bygone age, that I have seen. A policeman with a lathi and not a klashnikov. Sigh.


Maya Yazigi, “Defense and Validation in Shi’i and Sunni Tradition: The Case of Muḥammad b. Abī BakrStudia Islamica, No. 98/99 (2004), pp. 49-70

One further factor needs to be taken into account. The horrific death that Muhammad b. Abi Bakr met in Egypt at the hands of Mu’āwiya’s men made him a perfect exemplar of the atrocities associated with civil war in both traditions. The precise circumstances of his death are unclear. Some reports suggest that he died in combat. The more general belief, however, is that he was killed outside the main fray, then stuffed into the carcass of a jackass and burnt, or even – according to one report – burnt alive inside the carcass. Other reports suggest that he was decapitated before being burnt and that his head was sent for display at the court of Mu’āwiya. Whatever its basis in reality, this richly symbolic gesture became an important topos in Islamic historiography. It allowed Muhammad’s death to be remembered in a realm apart, that of firsts (or awā’il): the same accounts that report the despatch of his head to Mu’āwiya also make this the first head to be so transported and paraded in Islam.