Shiny Domes

I have a review of Robert D. Kaplan’s new tome Monsoon up at The National UAE: Recall America’s imperial past, understand its present.

The policy readers of this book will find it sober reading. The empire, which does listen to Robert Kaplan, will surely invite him to speak to groups with shiny brass and shinier domes. The historians reading this book will have less cause to be charitable. The now-standard collapse of lived history from “Alexander the Great” to “us” would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic.

Again and again, centuries disappear from Kaplan’s narrative as routinely elaborated customs and practices are relegated to either geographic determinism or something called “Desert Islam”. Those inhabitants of the climes in which Kaplan locates his narrative will have more than ample reason to be offended by his caricatures or by his invocations to the healing power of violence – be it Robert Clive or Sultan Qaboos. In this, however, Kaplan is neither unique nor exemplary in a pantheon of great American commentators which stretches from Thomas L Friedman to Fareed Zakaria.

Go Read and come back and tell me how you like it.

This Message Brought to you by Vinay Lal

Gentle Readers,

I am sorry, but I have been drowning in writing deadlines, some of which will trickle into consciousness here over the next year or so and I will delightfully point to this period of non-activity (seeming). In the meantime, some announcements:

A. I AM GOING TO CAIRO!!!. I will be there from Dec 4 thru Dec 16th – hanging out at the AUC – giving a public talk on Monday, the 14th at the Oriental Hall (!!). Everyone I know in Cairo must meet up. Use the comments below or email me etc.

1. Historian Vinay Lal (am a big fan!) has a book coming out this month that I really want (HINT to my Indian conspirators!), Deewaar: The Footpath, the City and the Angry Young Man. He has linked to it, and given us a taste of it, here.

2. Vinay Lal was recently in Berlin for a conference called “What’s Next: Postcolonialism?” or “Who got Next? Postcolonialism” or “Postcolonialism: What’s next?”. I am not entirely sure how that peach was sliced. The good news is that it has prompted Lal to embark on a (already) substantial engagement with postcolonial thought in a series, The Politics of Culture and Knowledge after Postcolonialism: Nine Theses (and a Prologue). You can read Thesis One and Two. Please await the remaindering or start the discussion now! Preferably the now!

3. There are some guest posts in the pipeline – they will come next week.

4. As Aaron puts it, “the internet decid[ed] to stage woodstock at my blog“. Go read. Seriously.

Two Shorts

To the many “Pakistan” related things clamoring for your desensitized attention, may I add a couple more?

I. Artist and film-maker Sophiya Pandeya travels to Hingal, Baluchistan and visits “Nani Mandir” of Hinglaj Mata. This darshan tale is touching, illuminating and worthy of your time. You can watch it below. You can also see a picture gallery from KO of a trip to the same Park.

II. Sasti-Masti is a short made by director Ahmer Naqvi aka Karachikhatmal. A homage to Lollywood, to Lahore, to Ji-woon Kim’s Bittersweet Life, it works wonderfully on many registers – not the least being the tongue-in-cheek one.

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.