Last week’s well-publicized Russian concert in the ruins of Palmyra just happened to overlap the centennial of the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement. Russia had only a minor role in that hasty, furtive divvying up of Syria and the Middle East to please French and English interests. As we have seen, the new borders failed spectacularly to transform tribal Syria into a national state on the European model.
In other news, “Czechia” was approved last week by the government, if not the people, of the Czech Republic, as a further clarification of its national status. Elaborate historical justifications for adding “Czechia” omit a more pressing motive– that sports franchises want a shorter, snappier name for their teams and equipment.
Czechoslovakia was created somewhat arbitrarily—not unlike Syria—but in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the Moose Hall, by a committee of Czech and Slovak activists led by philosopher-politician Tomas Garrigue Masaryk. Having drafted the agreement, later in the year Masaryk became the new country’s first president. He was nominated seventeen times for the Nobel Peace Prize that a later Czech president, Vaclav Havel, declined in 1991 in favor of the Burmese Aung San Sui Kyi. Just then, Havel might have been depressed about the impending breakup of his country.
The Treaty of Versailles has been blamed even more harshly and more often than Sykes-Picot for setting the stage for multinational conflict and carnage after World War I. Even now there’s some nostalgia for the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, dismantled and replaced by new nations with conflicting ethnic and linguistic minorities.Lebanon and Jordan were no longer part of Syria, and Slovakia no longer belonged to Hungary.
After my enthusiastic review of Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting, suddenly I began to receive piles of freshly translated fiction by Slavic writers. I did note that Kundera was born Czech-Moravian, like Tomas Masaryk, Freud, Janacek–and my maternal grandparents. Still, I knew next to nothing about Czech history and literature. Auditing a meeting of Czech I on campus, I found that it was a conversation class, led by a small but dynamic American graduate student.
McCroskyova argued that I would be a better critic if I knew the sound and structure of Czech. Followed, a slippery slope into unexpected years with the Czech language and culture.
Shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, we ventured with my mother into communist Czechoslovakia . After a tense crossing at the Austrian border, we stopped in the first town with a hotel. Sehr einfach, very simple, said the young innkeeper apologetically, showing the beds, foam pallets covered with large dish towels. Downstairs, an open kitchen spewed fumes of stewed pork and steaming bread dumplings. Good beer, we discovered, flowed in the pub.
Next morning, we drove around the Moravian countryside with a map, looking for my grandparents’ villages. And we did find them, dreary, plain rows of stucco cottages, sehr einfach. Our German was useful.
At a bus stop in Mohelno, my grandmother’s village, we got directions to the cemetery. My great-uncle Antonin was there—according to my mother a cocky, annoying fellow, who traveled more than once to California to sponge off his relatives. Several other Peskovi were on the memorial obelisk to World War I dead. On the horizon, a cluster of Russian nuclear reactor towers discouraged any idea of picturesque rusticity.
In the nearby village of Rohy, I was surprised to see my grandfather’s family name, Pozar, above the entrance to the most imposing building there. (Later I learned that pozar means fire, and the building was presumably the firehouse—whereas Rohy means simply Crossroads.) Outside Rohy, a wizened German-speaking farmer stopped hoeing long enough to point to a barnlike building on the opposite slope, as the Pozar place. My grandfather’s eldest brother Alois had become the head of the family. That Alois was a hard man, said the farmer, confirming the reason my grandfather, youngest son, had left home.
After the Berlin Wall fell, I followed closely, along with many others, the Czechs’ Velvet Revolution, and was lucky enough to see Vaclav Havel’s very moving inauguration.
In 1992, I returned to Prague to research a piece on the state of the arts in post-communist Czechoslovakia. Long story short: deprived of government subsidies and samizdat glamour, publishing and the theater were in serious trouble. Do I repeat myself?–the Golden Age of Czech Arts turned out to have been under Soviet domination. Also, at that point Slovakia was already chafing at the dominance of the Czechs. Even Havel’s remarkable human skills failed to keep the Slovaks in the federation. In 1993, from the troubles leading to the Velvet Divorce, two countries emerged—the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Federations of any sort, from fourth-century Greece to twentieth-century Europe, often have short lives. The Hellenic League against Persia fell apart after sixteen years, and the Weimar Republic after fourteen. Empires seem to hang on somewhat longer, maybe by definition. An empire has one hegemonic state, while federations involve, theoretically if not actually, equal sovereign states.
In any event, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and of Syria are episodes in an endless kaleidoscopic shifting of national borders, altered to suit the interests of the reigning powers. Once, land and treasure were the prizes; then oil. Although some say that we are entering the post-oil era, it isn’t clear what prize every country seeks now. When Donald Trump wants to Make America Great Again, what does he mean? Not, surely, a state walled against immigrants, who now animate Silicon Valley, colleges, finance, and the arts, or are farmers, like my Pozar grandparents, who came to Galveston and then California in hopes of a better life.
In a couple of years it will be the centennial of the Pittsburgh Agreement that established the new state of Czechoslovakia.
This occasion may not be much marked.
Map from ICIJ (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists)
“The Panama Papers” could be the title of a mid-century noir starring Humphrey Bogart or maybe Alec Guinness. In fact it is an ongoing opportunity for our failing news media to research juicy data on global tax evasion by the rich and unscrupulous here and abroad. The 11.5 billion documents are from the files of Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca and incriminate evenhandedly heads of state, corporations, and figures in sports and the art world. The prime minister of Iceland resigned immediately following exposure of his offshore bank holdings, and David Cameron has had to defend his father’s dealings. Putin seems to be condemned by association, and Bashar al Assad’s cousins are definitely enmeshed. (Much more will be revealed by the ICIJ on May 9.)
Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca
Our press, after reporting, often gleefully, on the rowdiest and least morally serious primary campaign in recent memory, now has an opportunity to reveal to the U.S. electorate the shady investments and slippery connections of donors and politicoes at home and abroad. There are no Clintons on the Panama Papers list so far, but some of their closest confreres have been named. Bernie Sanders will not have needed a tax shelter, and no doubt Donald Trump has other ways to protect his billions. Still, we can expect an exciting round of follow-the-money discoveries in the coming campaigns, in addition to the usual salacious reminders of sequential marital difficulties on the part of the major candidates.
Moral seriousness seems to be in short supply these days, not only in journalism and politics. This puts into high relief Adam Hochschild’s fine book on the Spanish Civil War. While the topic may seem remote just now, as the world warms, the Middle East implodes and Europe falters under the waves of its refugees, Hochschild focuses on a related issue: when is intervention in a foreign war justifiable?
The poorly armed Spanish Republicans were unable to prevent Generalissimo Franco, backed by Hitler and Mussolini, from taking over. If the U.S. had officially joined Russia in reinforcing the ragtag Spanish Republican army, might that have forestalled the slaughter of the Second World War? If the U.S. had more heavily armed an elusive “moderate” Syrian opposition against the Assad regime, could the bombing of that hospital in Aleppo have been averted? It seems safe to say that in each case, the only certain outcome would have been greater bloodshed.
During demonstrations against the U.S. war in Vietnam, I remember a spirited peace march through through San Francisco on a sunny day, with my parents, husband, and two young children. It was one of the few times that I saw my father, an embittered veteran of World War II, suspend his cynicism. And we did eventually get out of Vietnam, whether or not our antiwar protests were crucial.
Demonstrations against the U.S. war in Iraq seemed less spirited, but then we were thirty years older, wiser, and sadder. Today, our weaponry and soldiers are still in Iraq, as well as Syria and Afghanistan—although many of the U.S. tanks and missiles have ended in the hands of the Islamic State and al Quaeda. But there are always more where those came from, given that the Uncle Sam is the largest arms manufacturer in the world, by far.
The important question of justifiable intervention in a foreign war is only too relevant, fiscally and morally, to the current presidential campaigns., “How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk” by White House correspondent Mark Landler (NYTimes Magazine, April 24) examines at great length the evolution of her belief in military solutions, including her long-term friendships with various army generals. of which David Petraeus is the most photogenic.
Landler scarcely mentions Hillary’s controversial role in Libya, perhaps because the Times had recently covered it in an earlier pair of in-depth articles. The Times, which has endorsed Clinton, seems to have displayed unusual initiative in publishing these pieces, which conclude that American voters may be presented with “an unfamiliar choice, a Democratic hawk versus a Republican reluctant warrior.” Donald Trump claims that he was an early opponent of the Iraq war, which he said would destabilize the region. Fact-checkers report that he said no such thing at the time that he said it.
However these distorting, disheartening campaigns develop in the coming six months, unpacking the Panama Papers should result in more transparency about global networks of money and power.Whether the electorate’s responses will be too jaded to make the logical connections, time will tell. But after the election we can always look forward to the movie. For his part, Ramon Fonseca jauntily says that he plans to use the material in a novel.
In our high-end junk mail was a glossy invitation to an autumnal Aegean Odyssey, exploring Island Life and Ancient Greece aboard an Exclusively Chartered Small Ship (an intimate 110 suites and staterooms, 95% with private balconies). Closer reading revealed that only the western Aegean islands would be featured, giving a wide berth to those near the Turkish coast.In other nautical news, last August the Greek government chartered a ship large enough to evacuate several thousand refugees, mostly Syrian, from the islands of Kos and Lesbos, to mainland Greece. The first headlines called it a luxury ship, headed for Thessalonica, or maybe Athens. Later, the “luxury ship” was identified as a car ferry, which dumped the refugees among thousands of others thronging Athens’port of Piraeus, waiting for passage to more prosperous venues.
Last week, the port of Piraeus had 5,000 refugees who had crowded into its passenger terminals since the beginning of the year. Reports vary as to whether the new EU-Turkey migrant exchange agreement has made any measurable difference. Meanwhile, Greek anger at the influx has mounted, not least among the Athenian chambers of commerce and industry. President, Constantine Michalos said pre-bookings in Kos, Rhodes and Lesbos, the islands most overwhelmed by the waves of refugees, were down by 60%. “A perfect storm is brewing,” he said. “Tourism is our heavy industry, our only hope. If the refugee crisis, this global crisis, escalates, and tourism–the only sector that is booming — is hit, then frankly we are doomed.”
When Piraeus fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1456, it was known as the ‘Lion Harbor’ after its guardian beast, sculpted in the fourth century BCE. This noble feline was looted by the Venetians in 1687 and still flanks the gate to the Venetian Arsenal.
Viewing the Arsenal lions with a young Hungarian friend who had been on a humanitarian mission, before the Arab Spring, building a school and a library– in Burundi.
Yes, another Panama hat
Some three thousand years ago, delegations of Greeks, driven by famine and ambition, came to consult the current Delphic Sibyl about seeking a better life. Evidently, the oracle shrewdly directed them to colonize as far away as southern Italy and Sicily. The Greek colonists brought with them essentials such as the olive and weaponry, but also their Olympic gods and their alphabet.The city states in what was called Magna Graecia soon became as powerful as those on the Greek mainland.
Feckless students on winter holiday in Athens, we too made a pilgrimage north to Delphi and picnicked irreverently on the altar of the Sibyl above the laurel canyon. Somewhat later, we did the same with two of our grandchildren.
We happened to arrive in Athens that second time just as the Greeks, according to our local guide, were choosing to abandon the euro rather than tighten their belts.The Greek government was forced, as part of the bailout conditions, to cut nearly $10 billion from public spending in 2013. They had built a stunning new museum next to the Acropolis to house the Elgin marbles, which remained, of course, in London. There were strikes on Omonoia Square, and more were feared. Germany suggested that Greece might sell off some of its delightful islands to reduce their staggering debt. A Russian oligarch paid $100 million for the island of Skorpios as a birthday surprise for his daughter.
But on other islands…
Lesbos has seen other migrations. An estimated two thirds of the island’s 90,000 residents are descended from Greek Orthodox Christians expelled from Turkey in the 1920s. This heritage helps to explain their compassion toward today’s refugees. In any event, residents of the island are nominated for the Nobel peace prize, and the hotels are all full of NGO and UN humanitarian workers.
Another bulletin from the lively port of Piraeus: a majority interest in the port facilities has just been acquired by a Chinese shipping company, Cosco, which will put some 368 billion Euros into improving the shipyards and cruise ship facilities.
Has anyone suggested commandeering all available cruise ships (and car ferries) in the Aegean, for temporary housing of the refugees, to be financed of course by the European community? Cruise shipping lines might be amenable to charging less per capita, since the Mediterranean/Aegean cruise trade is down.
Meanwhile, another sort of boat people are helping Syrian refugees, in the Canadian community of Cape Breton. Vietnamese refugees, now educated and embedded, are giving real money to aid the new Syrian arrivals.
Back in Syria, survivors of the civil war have been forced across the seas into uncertain futures. Tourism was strangled by the civil war that has been destroying its ancient monuments as well as its population, forcing the survivors across the seas into dicey futures.In 2010, across from the most impressive of Syria’s Crusader castles, Krac des Chevaliers, we tried to sleep in a busy inn where they were scrambling to build rooms for the hordes of tourists expected in the next season. That was before the castle was taken over in turn by the rebels and the government.
In pre-history, as students wandering around in the bare hills behind Thessalonica, we were hailed by an old couple who invited us into their little shack for tea. Seeing our loden coats, they must have thought we were German. And in German the old man told us about his work on the (…) canal during the war and the old woman gave us dusty almond cookies. This was a strange feeling, suspecting that we had been welcomed for the wrong reasons.
Question: should we have admitted, as we never did, “Wir sind amerikanische?” And now, are Germans any more welcome than Americans, in Greece–or anywhere? Just wondering.
Yes, a splashy opener—
Some of us can remember when the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude was as often ridiculed as respected.
Now we are slouching toward the centennial of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, when he introduced a piece of shapely plumbing as a work of art called Fountain, and “signed” by R. Mutt, its manufacturer. Although Fountain was not admitted for exhibition, it created a great stir–even in 1917, in the middle of the so-called Great War. Duchamp meant to mock all things bourgeois, not only artistic pretense, but the materialism and nationalism which had led to the war. On balance, that urinal is reckoned one of the most influential artworks of the twentieth century.
Much later, Duchamp claimed to have renounced creating any art, “retinal” or conceptual, and passed his days playing chess. Not until the end of his life did he reveal his secret project, L’Étant donné, an erotic peep show tableau now installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. My granddaughter, Frances Dorothy, then a student at Penn, took us on a tour of the museum and its Duchamp collection . “What do you think of this ?” she inquired slyly, pointing to the door with the peep holes.
Tempus fugit. A dozen years earlier, during our whirlwind tour of the Uffizi Gallery, Frances Dorothy’s central concern had been finding the door marked Uscita. We were in Florence to attend the wedding. belatedly cancelled, of a dear old friend. The ceremony would have been in the Palazzo Vecchio, but the actual supper was in a wonderful country restaurant featuring wild boar and beefsteak. Alas, Frances Dorothy had just become a vegetarian after touring the market at San Lorenzo adorned with gory carcasses.
Quite recently, an old friend, a very distinguished art historian, remarked that artists these days are not making art at all—at least not art for her. She said this not acerbically, in fact rather wistfully. I was trying to interest her in Sarah Meyohas, a young artist I had just met who was working on what seemed to me big questions of art and value.
Waiting for the return shuttle from the Frieze art fair on Roosevelt Island, Sarah and I had started to talk, and didn’t stop until the bus ejected us on Fifth Avenue. This small, fresh-faced young woman with a student’s fall of long brown hair, had degrees from Penn and the Wharton School of Finance, and was about to get her MFA from Yale. She had already had shows of her work and wide press coverage of a quirky concept she had developed called Bitchcoin, a cryptocurrency where virtual shares are sold in the work of an artist, in this case Sarah. She had also been toying, she said, with the idea of replacing the international gold standard with an art standard. This was on hold.
After her Yale graduation, she planned to open a gallery in her apartment, show her work in London, and prepare for a solo show in Chelsea, on stock performance and financial gambles as art. For a week she sat at a computer in the middle of the gallery and invested each day in a chosen low-performing stocks until her investment moved the stock value up or down and she could record its movement on one of the canvases in the gallery. She wore a specially designed investor costume of gold pinstripe over banker’s gray.
During that week in January, the stock market plummeted drastically. One of her brothers called to say, wryly, “Sarah, whatever you’re doing, stop it!”
The aforementioned art historian friend wrote long ago a particularly controversial book, Rembrandt’s Enterprise:The Studio and the Market, describing Rembrandt’s “commodification” of himself, what he had done to brand himself and make ends meet. The arch-conservative critic Hilton Kramer said that Alpers’ s book made Rembrandt’s work seem “just another counter in the dialectic of material culture.” Many critics, however, welcomed her perspective and the opening to chronicle the history of the actual creation and marketing of art.
In his later life, the atheist Duchamp was more explicit in his contempt for art as well as religion. In an interview he says, “The word ‘art’ etymologically means to do”, merely indicating “making” of any kind, while our bourgeois western culture manufactures the “purely artificial” distinction of being an artist.
Duchamp readymades like the urinal were intended to skewer fake aesthetics. He is quoted as saying, “I threw […] the urinal [and the bicycle wheel and the bottle rack] into their faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty.”
Interestingly, the original urinal was never in a public exhibition after its initial production in 1917. Somewhere along the way it disappeared, and only handmade imitations appeared in the many exhibitions celebrating its influence on art in the last century.
Duchamp noted in a New York interview that “People took modern art very seriously when it first reached America because they believed we [Europeans] took ourselves very seriously. A great deal of modern art is meant to be amusing.”
Meanwhile, Sarah Meyohas is developing some serious new ideas about art and land value.
And more recently……
Last week from Munich came a triumphant announcement by foreign secretaries Kerry and Lavrov of major humanitarian interventions in Syria, to be followed in a week by a cease-fire. Celebration was muted, and within hours the news was qualified, deprecated, and disparaged by almost everyone not involved in the negotiations, and some who were. Shortly before the news of the projected ceasefire, Bashar al Assad had declared that he would persevere until he had retaken all of Syria, beginning with Aleppo.
Given that neither a military nor a political solution is in sight, and none of the players seems deeply concerned about civilian casualties, the war will simply continue until the entire countryside, not just parts of it, becomes a sandy quarry for shards of ancient civilizations.
And the Alawites, with their dubiously valuable coastal bases at Latakia and Tartous.
Shortly after January’s blizzard, exiting the Met Museum, I happened on a small display of postcards—faded pastel photos of Aleppo, Damascus, and Hama taken sometime during the French Mandate. These were a poignant contrast to an afternoon spent taking in many square yards of luminous Titians and Tiepolos, Brueghels and Rembrandts–not to mention the various treasures in the new Ancient Near East section.
Selections of the postcards were on offer in an envelope marked For the Syri an Relief Fund of Save the Children, $25, cash only. This last is either an ironic or realistic touch, given that in 2015 the so-called international community pledged $10 billion for Syrian refugee relief, of which less than half actually materialized. According to the U.N., last year’s biggest donor, Kuwait, provided $75 per capita for Syrian relief, followed by Norway with $28. The United States and the European Union provided less than $5 per capita, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates did no better.
An old postcard view of the famous Aleppo citadel shows it largely overgrown and silted up. It appears much better preserved now, even after the most recent shelling of the citadel, by the government and/or by the insurgents, than in the early photos during the French Mandate. One explanation is the extensive restoration of the ancient site initiated in 2001 by the admirable Aga Khan Foundation, a non-profit international development agency established in 1967 by Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini, Aga Khan IV, who is the worthy son of the less worthy but colorful playboy who married a movie star named Rita Hayworth.
The citadel of Aleppo has been destroyed countless times since the original temple was built on the plateau in the first millennium B.C.. Most of the remaining structures date from the 12th century, when the son of Saladin the Great excavated the moat, built the massive gateway and ramp, and most important, dug a deep well and a reservoir. The citadel’s slopes were faced with shiny, slippery limestone to discourage attacks, especially by night.
In 1260 the Mongols took the citadel anyway, beginning a series of invasions, from the Mameluks, who added a ring wall with 40 towers but lost it to the Ottomans in 1516. There followed three hundred years of Ottoman peace, which some now recall with nostalgia, and people moved back up to inhabit the citadel. But an 1822 earthquake leveled the citadel’s buildings to the ruins that were being mapped and restored when the Syrian civil war began. The Aga Khan conservation project focused on the outer walls and the Ayyubid palace complex within, while the Ottoman barracks became a well-equipped visitor’s center and cafeteria. The restoration was more or less completed in 2007 and presumably now serves the present convenience of the Syrian Army. Neither foreign journalists nor independent archaeologists have been inside the citadel since the war began. The extent of new damage during these latest years of fighting have inflicted will not be known for some time…..when a new assessment and reconstruction can be imagined to begin.
Is there anything to be said about these repeating cycles of feverish creation, violent destruction, and eventual restoration? The persistence and ingenuity of human efforts to repair and restore seem the only positive element of the terrible wars and natural disasters that have ravaged empires ancient and modern.
After the disastrous Florentine flood of 1966, an international rescue effort was carried out by art historians and students we recognized, even in their wading boots and mackintoshes, in the television coverage. (Cf. my account,”Restoration,” which I just located online, in J-stor.) Eventually, much was learned about art restoration, but much less about flood prevention, and some say that the Arno is as much of a threat now as it was in 1966.
There’s no way to make a transition to the disasters of September 11, 2001, where we had an agonizing, close-in view of the New York attacks. On that morning, we happened to have planned to breakfast downtown with a former student of my husband’s who was then city commissioner of culture. In the ensuing months and years, this remarkable woman had the heavy burden of coordinating much of the Ground Zero project planning and construction. But the terrorists’ mastery of 20th century destructive devices left much less of the World Trade Center to work with than the ruins of the Aleppo citadel.
A group called The Future of Syria is already planning the details of the reconstruction of the country if and when the war ends. At this point they are estimating that the recovery will cost at least $100 billion. Comparing it with the much-praised Marshall Plan for postwar Europe, which cost the U.S. $130 billion in today’s dollars, the Syrian plan seems a realistic if distant investment.
Today, this brutal conflict seems uniquely horrible in the number of innocent civilians killed, injured, and driven from their homes, but in the long view, perhaps it is not. Since 2014 there has been a lively debate, set off by Steven Pinker, as to whether our present bloody era is more or less violent than any in human history.
In any event, the Syrian civil war is a kalaidoscopic fragmentation of its conflicting forces, rebel entities all vying to represent “The Opposition” to the Assad regime in a series of variously stalled peace talks. Research has shown that in any civil war, the greater the number of warring factions and of their international sponsors, the longer the war will last. The Islamic State alone has at least four names, including ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh, and it has carved out for itself a role as the common enemy of all the groups fighting alongside or against the Assad regime. In North Latakia alone, dozens of insurgent groups have emerged, including irregular militias like the Muqawama Suriya and the Iraqi Harakat al-Nujaba, Jabal al-Akrad, and Jabal al-Turkoman. (Note that Jabal means hill or mountain.) I can’t resist adding that the A’isha Mother of the Believers Battalion was the name of a sub-formation of the Storm Brigade, now shifting to the First Coastal Brigade.
“Men and nations,” said the Israeli diplomat Abba Eban, “do behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.”
The Syrian postcard benefit project was the bright idea of a conservator on the Metropolitan museum staff, Jean-Francois de Laperouse, who works primarily with the Ancient Near Eastern and Islamic collections. How much pain he must be suffering during these years of destruction of a culture that he knows so well.
His 18th-century ancestor was a famous explorer who mapped, among other places, the Pacific Coast of North America.
I would like to include here an interview with the living Laperouse, but I had to leave the wonderful museum, and return to the coast mapped by his ancestor.
Again: the cards are $25 each packet, payable in CASH.
You may even have heard of one Giovanni Battista Belzoni, the gigantic offspring of a Paduan barber, an enterprising lad who dodged Napoleon’s draft by emigrating to England. Lacking both English and a profession, he served for a while as a strong man in a circus.This handsome hunk won the heart of an intrepid Englishwoman, who may or may not have been a tightrope walker when they met. She contrived somehow to help him set up as an engineer, and before long he was invited by a passing pasha to design a hydraulic system on the Nile. When the project failed (due to a lazy work crew, said Belzoni), he quickly shifted to the antiquities trade. Eventually he was able to dig up and haul off immense Egyptian antiquities that would become some of the British Museum’s prize exhibits. You can see “Belzoni” chiseled naively into the foot of a colossal statue of Rameses I.
I happened upon Belzoni during my hours in the old British Library, researching the rich topic of Looted Art. How I enjoyed those months of bootless delving, the untidy piles of book request slips at my desk in the dimly-lit inner Reading Room, my notes filled with vivid and shocking details. Themes did emerge–Looted Art and Nationalism/Colonialism/Imperialism—but never shaped themselves into an argument, much less a book. But it seemed to me, then and now, that Belzoni’s story was a natural for a Sondheim opera.
In 2001, I happened to meet a musicologist, a fellow at the American Academy in Rome, who knew Sondheim well. It was just after 9/11. Military helicopters were circling in the blue September sky over the Janiculum Hill, and armed guards patrolled the American Embassy across the street. When we weren’t watching the sky and the street, we were all glued to CNN on our computers. Nothing would ever be the same again, we all agreed. Hardly the moment to float a frivolous opera project. But eventually the Academy fellows went back to their painting, their research, their writing, and their complaints about the Academy’s food. Although nothing in fact ever was the same again.
Rome of course has long been decked with the plunder of the empire’s Eastern conquests, most notably Egyptian obelisks adorning eight Roman piazzas. Venice still has its looted lions and horses, Florence an obelisk or two as well as a trove of mummies, and museums throughout the world hold treasures of other lands. So we cannot quite fathom why the Islamic State prefers to destroy rather than flaunt the captive architecture of grand pre-Islamic eras.. Easier to understand is their clandestine marketing of more portable antiquities, whose revenue is said to surpass that of oil sales to benefit the caliphate.
While mourning Isis destruction in Palmyra, Mosul, and Nimrud, it’s hard to ignore Northern Europe’s robust tradition of iconoclasm extending from biblical idol-bashing to the Crusades, the Reformation, and the French revolution. In sixteenth-century Geneva and in Basel, Calvinist mobs destroyed every Catholic image they could find, from stained glass windows to statues of virgins and saints and holy medals.
And as we recoil from the barbarous horrors of Isis beheadings, historical memory glides past an estimated 16,000 guillotined by French revolutionaries, and the millions annihilated in the Holocaust. Note that enlightened France continued execution by guillotine until 1981, and during last year alone, American ally Saudi Arabia decapitated 158 people.
Their bloody revolution did occasion a French diaspora, especially of the aristocrats, followed in the mid-19th century by Irish emigration, almost entirely of the poor. In the largely economically- driven diaspora from southern and eastern Europe during the 1880s-1910s, my grandparents Franz Josef Pozar and Marie Peskova, born in Moravian villages (then Austrian) made it to the west coast of California via Galveston,Texas . My grandfather, a strapping redheaded farm boy, good with horses, had served in the Austro-Hungarian cavalry. At the end of his term, in August 1914 as it happened, he immediately booked passage to America. Marie Peskova had found work as a seamstress in the nearest city, Vienna, where she met my grandfather and eventually followed him to California. There was no pot of gold for them in California, but they never returned to their villages.
The year before the Soviet Union disintegrated, we met my mother in Vienna, for a sentimental journey. She knew the names of her parents’ villages in Moravia. After a miserable border crossing past the fence into then-Czechoslovakia, and one night in Ivancice, hometown of Alfonse Mucha, whose posters adorned generations of college girls’ dorm rooms, we followed a map and actually found the two villages. In Mohelno we found a few Peskovi in the graveyard, even the annoying uncle who had returned more than once to visit them in Santa Cruz, California. My grandfather’s village was Rohy, which means crossings or a junction. An old man hoeing the hill above the main road turned out to speak German and could point out the homely bulk on the opposite hill as the Pozar place. Ah, he said, that Alois (Pozar, my grandfather’s eldest brother and scourge) was a hard man. The kulak house was a bit disappointing after we had noticed that the largest building in Rohy still had “Pozar” over the door. (Later I learned that “Pozar” meant “fire,” and the imposing structure was presumably the firehouse.)
Scant decades after my grandparents, there was the crucial migration, from Europe in the 1930s, of the Jews. In the academy and the art world especially, these were our respected elders and/or the parents of most of our friends. Once, long ago at Ellen and Steve Greenblatt’s table, talk turned to Israel, and we realized that we were the only gentiles present and therefore didn’t feel as free to condemn Israeli expansionism as the others.
Our Hungarian friends, some of them Jews, have an intense, complicated migration history. The earliest Hungarians rode into the Magyar Plain from the northeast more than a thousand years ago. Later they were occupied by the Ottoman Turks, and later still lost much of their territory in the settlement of the First World War.
Many Hungarians emigrated to escape Soviet Communism. And the latest tragic iteration of Hungary and emigration was the fence built by Orban’s right-wing regime to keep the latest wave of refugees, many from Syria, from entering, even en route to Germany. But the abhorrence expressed by the western world for Hungarian callousness has proved to be relative to the many thousands, yea millions of needy refugees now swarming into Western Europe. And the New Year’s attacks on women in Cologne and other cities, allegedly by Arab and North African men, is a disaster in every way.
Americans didn’t welcome Jews until after the Holocaust, and we won’t be welcoming Muslim refugees now. “This growing cry to turn away people fleeing for their lives brings to mind the SS St. Louis, the ship of Jewish refugees turned away from Florida in 1939,” Dana Milbank writes. “It’s perhaps the ugliest moment in a (presidential) primary fight that has been sullied by bigotry from the start.“ The American elections proceed, bizarre, unhinged, while Angela Merkel begins to seem some kind of heroine. Still, what’s needed is not another martyr, but peace settlements in the Middle East.
The latest genetic research shows that the 5,200 year-old remains of a woman, found in Ireland recently, a couple of centuries after the potato famine, show strong origins in the Middle East, where agriculture originated. Probably we don’t need ironies any more than we need martyrs.
One cold November afternoon in the British Museum, a swarm of schoolchildren suddenly filled Room 41, the Sutton Hoo burial ship treasure and Europe 300-1100; the Great Migrations. Kids in school plaids circled among the glass cases holding the ship’s treasures—swords and halberds, croziers and chalices, Byzantine silverware, golden brooches, and the famous iron helmet.
Unlike most tribes sweeping through Roman Europe in those early centuries, the schoolchildren seemed peaceable and even modestly respectful of the cultural artifacts at hand.
The Sutton Hoo ship-burial dates from the early 600s, the era of Beowulf, that noble Anglo-Saxon saga read mainly in Sparknotes—at least until its luminous translation by Irish poet Seamus Heaney.
Seamus Heaney came to dinner one night in Berkeley. He was tall and solid, chatting amiably in our crowded front parlor. As it happened, he found himself standing back to back with one of the patrons of his Berkeley lecture chair, who was at that moment confiding to me that she simply couldn’t understand “one word” of his poetry. With one eye on the poetic back, I asked what she was planning to read next. After a pensive pause, she reminded me politely how much she had enjoyed my novel. Now, she guessed that she should read that new Harry Potter thing that everyone was talking about, written by some single mother on welfare.
The Irish potato famine, and the shocking British government policy surrounding it, starved at least a million Irish and forced another million to emigrate. By 1900 New York City was 60% Irish. Seamus Heaney’s family stayed in County Derry and survived, and he himself wouldn’t be commuting to Berkeley, Harvard, and Oxford until the 1970s.
Apposite quotes from Heaney’s Beowulf appear backlit above the Sutton Hoo treasures, in the handsome new display underwritten by the very attractive and extremely rich Sir Paul and Jill Ruddock. The Ruddocks’ funding, and the database of the new Google Cultural Institute, have made Room 41 accessible to anyone on foot in Bloomsbury or anyone anywhere with an internet connection.
These days, opportunities seldom arise to add splendid new works to the world’s great museums, so the new philanthropy often concentrates on rearranging what already exists. And after all, the British Museum has more than 8 million objects, most from former British imperial colonies and territories on every continent and archipelago. International conventions now prohibit the wartime looting that has been common for millennia, as well as theft and resale of cultural artifacts, but those agreements don’t apply to items exported before national or global laws were in force.
A large literature and legal domain has developed around ownership of cultural property . In the most outstanding example, the Parthenon marbles were removed (hacked off the temple) by Lord Elgin during Ottoman rule, decades before the existence of the beleaguered Greek state that now wants them back on their Acropolis.
The riches of the British museum do also serve to highlight Britain’s ongoing population of immigrants. Julius Caesar in 55 A.D. arrived to spearhead, so to speak, four centuries of Roman rule, whose hegemony was eventually challenged in irregular bursts by the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, and others.
We don’t know much about the reception of migrants in the various Roman provinces. Presumably when the Saxons or Vikings or Avars or Normans had burned the crops, crushed the cities and raped the women, there was little talk of making them citizens. It’s only in recent history that the “Barbarian Invasions” have morphed into the sanitized “Migration Period”.
Now ISIS looting, its extent, intention, and execution, are much discussed. From outside, it appears that they only destroy what cannot be carried off and sold, such as the Temple of Bel and the Arch of Triumph at Palmyra, which I was so lucky to see in October 2010, gilded by a sunset, while munching on dates picked from a roadside plantation by our driver.
Abu Hani was a Palestinian exile who was able to make a life for himself and his family in Damascus. I asked him once, rather idly, what Syrian city he liked best, and he said “Perhaps Homs”. Tonight I heard that Homs, or what is left of it, has been recaptured by government forces, but I haven’t known for four years the whereabouts of Abu Hani.
The Syrians’ migration, and the others—economic, political, whatever, will continue whether or not various peace negotiations among Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, U.S. & Europe, and the (irreconcilable) Syrian factions are successful. These tens of thousands of Syrians clearly have lost hope in raising their children and making a life for themselves on their arid land amid the contending powers. Not many of them are likely to be welcomed in the United States of America, once known as “The Immigrant Nation.”
At the end of September 2015, in the fifth year of the relentlessly ruinous Syrian civil war, all the world has been forced to take account of some two million refugees from that conflict, along with those from other ruined countries, seeking asylum in Western Europe–or as close to the West as they can manage. What did we expect?
In the spring of 2011, at the tail end of the Arab Uprisings, Syria suddenly began to implode. Bashar al-Assad’s regime reacted brutally, heavily documented by viral cellphone videos, against the localized rebellions. Very soon there were more rebel groups than could be sorted out. Later, amid the widening conflict, Barack Obama threatened retaliation for the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons. It was a nasty confrontation, since the Syrian regime was backed by Iran and by Russia.
When the chaos began, the regime of Bashar, an English-educated opthalmologist and his pretty banker wife, with their ideas of social reform and their inherited autocracy, had been holding the fragmented country together– Sunni, Alawite, Shia, Kurdish, Christian–for more than ten years, in conditions of severe drought with ongoing factional disputes.
Naturally this neo-colonial construct fell apart in an instant, the cities and archaeological sites collapsing in slow motion over the next four years. Various Sunni-majority states, such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, along with the U.S., Britain and France, continued to support, sporadically and covertly, the discordant rebel factions.
Now we’re waiting hopefully for the U.S. to acknowledge that peace in Syria can only be achieved by including the country’s only legitimate government, which is still Assad’s. It may not have been a perfectly democratic election, but whose is? At this point, there should be meaningful negotiation with all parties agreeing to fight the common enemy, ISIS–and to stem the flow of refugees with massive foreign aid. How long will it take?
Rebuilding Syria’s economy, heavily dependent on tourism, will no doubt include reconstruction of Syria’s six UNESCO World Heritage sites dating back six thousand years. Aleppo is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, a prize among imperial conquests long before Alexander the Great. Much still remains of massive crusader castles and even of Roman Palmyra. Mosques, markets, madrasas, and oil fields have all been damaged in the crossfire between the Syrian army and rebel militias.
In October 2010 We were staying in Damascus in a quiet guesthouse near Bab Sharqi, when the poor Tunisian fruit seller sparked the series of uprisings first known as the Arab Spring. Syria took longest to ignite, but every place where we stopped then would soon be ravaged by the rising fury of young men without work, of impending famine after a four-year drought, of Shia, Sunni, Alawites turned against the regime and each other.
That October, a Palestinian exile, our driver, and the Iraqi Christian who gave us breakfast, were still safe under a firmly non-sectarian regime.
On a day trip from Damascus to the Roman ruins at Bosra, we stopped for water in the dusty little city of Deraa.
Deraa, the southernmost settlement in Syria, had always been the main stopover between Baghdad and Damascus. That October it was crowded with refugees from the drought in the northeastern desert, and with others from across its porous borders with Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. Not surprising that it would be the Syrian flashpoint of the Arab uprisings.
A few weeks after we passed through, some bored Deraa youngsters posted anti-government graffiti and were arrested. The locals massed to demand their release, and government security forces firing on the crowd were filmed on cell phones. When one of the protesters died, sympathetic rebellions broke out in other settlements to the north and east, and were brutally repressed.
Protests erupted next in Deir ez Zor, a town on the Euphrates which had once been an important trading post between the Roman Empire and India. Near Deir, in 2006, the Israelis had bombed a nascent nuclear development plant, acting on intelligence from both the C.I.A. and an Iranian general. But only four years later, we Americans seemed to be welcomed as the harbingers of coming tourist masses. The owner of our hotel gave us a preview of his new restaurant, which had a southwest American motif and dance-hall chandeliers. Tourism had increased fourfold in the past year, he said.
In a 2012 news photo of the main street of Deir, every facade has been shattered, leaving cross-cut views of the crumbled interiors.
Further south, we explored the ruins of Sumerian Mari and Roman Dura-Europus, where the ancient east-west trade routes intersected with the Euphrates. Returning to Deir, we crossed the old suspension bridge over the Euphrates; its eastern end was at the Iraqi border, then quiet.
Note: Marking the long tradition of conquest in Syria: Deraa, Deir, and Dura all mean “fort” in different ancient languages.
Syria’s northeast regions, including Deir ez Zor and Rakka, hold most of the Syrian oil reserves. There the land and the oil have been controlled by tribal warlords, with the regime looking the other way as long as they received a share. Now the new Islamic State is taking over, with an effective combination of intimidation and nutrition. They have established an effective network to produce and distribute bread at a low cost, and free to the poor.
In the far north, Aleppo, the largest and most historically important Syrian city, was bombarded by both the government and successive rebel factions. When the seventeenth-century Souk Madina went up in flames, we tried to make out, on some video footage, the smoky corridor that led through the market to the old house hotel where we had stayed. We did remember lovers trysting in the shadows of the citadel.
North of Aleppo are the ruins of the monastery church of St. Simeon Stylites, where the saint was alleged to have lived atop a pillar for thirty years, its height increasing with his growing distaste for the mob below. A stub of the pillar where he preached his angry fundamentalist sermons sits there in the middle of the Byzantine ruins, but we were more interested in the activity on the slope below. Two women in headscarves were laying cloths on the ground while small children scampered among the olive trees. Not a picnic, said our driver–an olive harvest. Olive oil is Syria’s number one export, he said, adding that the women were Kurds, and shrugging when we asked him how he knew.
Kurdistan was part of the area sometimes called the Levant, which also included the coastal Palestinian territories, Lebanon, and part of Jordan. After the First World War, the victorious Allies–in a series of agreements, some public and some secret, all self-serving and conflicting–carved the lands of the former Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence. With desultory attention to tribal religious and linguistic questions, the new borders were in complete accord with colonial interests. Russia’s share included most of the former Ottoman Empire, Britain held the Palestinian mandate, and the remainder of Syria, much diminished, became a French protectorate. The boundaries set by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 form the main western carapace now targeted by the newly-formed Islamic State.
Southwest of Aleppo is the desert town of Ma’aret al Nouman. On a hot, dusty morning, we parked in the crowded market square by the old mosque. In the courtyard, two teachers came out to meet us, and we glimpsed a few boys’ faces pressed curiously against the schoolroom windows. The girls, of course, were in another school.
Ma’aret’s museum was a former caravansary carpeted with late Roman mosaics, mainly lively animal and vegetal fantasies, improbably well-preserved. Following us through the rooms ringing the central courtyard, an emaciated guard with kohl-ringed eyes turned on lights and offered cups of tea.
In Ma’aret in 1098, when the bloodiest of the Crusaders’ battles were raging, a pack of famished Franks fell upon a heap of recently slain townspeople, cooked and devoured them. The babies, it was said, were spit-roasted. More than one contemporary chronicler recorded this tale of Western brutality, which of course survives in the Arab world even after a millennium. Crusaders slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Muslims, but during the colonial decades, western schoolchildren were taught mainly about the barbarism of the infidels occupying the Holy Land.
The Ma’aret museum was shelled in October 2012 and at last report was serving as a rebel stronghold. A video from an archaeology site showed a young soldier in the courtyard, trying to fit a jagged mosaic fragment into a larger design. Months later came reports of a truckload of Roman carpet mosaics being stopped at the Lebanon border.
The soil of the Roman ruins at Apamea is now densely pocked with looters’ exploratory holes. There are those who hold that looting has at least the potential for saving precious artifacts from destruction.
As we traveled west from Ma’aret and into the mountain passages that led to the eastern Mediterranean coast, our driver pointed out that most of the towns were mainly Christian; women were moving about freely with uncovered heads. However, our next stop was Ugarit, whose cuneiform alphabet made it the center of the literate world in 1300 B.C.E. At the excavation site we were served refreshments by two women who were the wives of the cafe’s owner.
Down the coast we stopped briefly in Latakia, formerly the capital of the Alawites, whose religion is an offshoot of the Shia faith and counts the Assads as members. Latakia’s ancient history seemed mostly concealed under thriving commercial development; the port facilities had been modernized during the French mandate, and the city was later given to Syria, whose other ports had been lost to Turkey in 1939 . (In 2015, Latakia is the site of a Russian military build-up of uncertain, probably exaggerated, extent.)
Especially in Alawite country, Bashar al-Assad’s mild, unprepossessing image was everywhere, on awnings and kiosks and windshields, fluttering on banners. Our well-connected driver said that Bashar and his wife often went out of an evening without guards. He had been introduced to them in a restaurant and confessed himself impressed that Assad stood up from the table to shake hands.
A thousand years after the Franks had abandoned their last forts along the eastern Mediterranean coast and in the mountains, Christian settlements still endure where the Crusaders first invaded, constructed forts and castles—and deposited their genes and their religion. We stopped in the little port of Tartus.
Ibrahim ibn Yakub at-Turtushi was a well-traveled Jewish trader whose tenth-century description of the city of Prague begins many Czech histories, including one I edited. I had never expected to see Ibrahim’s hometown of Turtushi (Tartus). Originally a Phoenician colony, it became a marginally prosperous port, with an inhabited crusader fort on the embarcadero festooned with citizens’ laundry.
Intermittent attempts have been made to depict Tartus as a powerful Russian naval base, supporting the flow of arms to the Assad regime. Yet reportedly only four men ran the Russian port facility and one of its two floating piers was inoperative because of storm damage.
From the port we progressed to a very plain Gothic church, once an early Marian chapel, later a mosque, later still a billet for Ottoman soldiers, then restored by the French and eventually turned into a museum of musty Crusader tombs.
Tartus, largely loyal to the regime, has remained relatively unscathed during the war, and a sizable number of its youth try to avoid serving in either the army or the rebel militias. Both Alawites and Christians live in increasing fear of the rising power of the new Islamic State.
From the coast, we turned back east and drove out of the marine heat up into mountains, across pine-strewn ravines and around rocky hairpins, arriving finally at a hotel on a promontory just across a deep gorge from Qualat Salah es din, Saladin’s castle. Looking across the gorge in the gathering coolness, we decided to take the last hours of light to wend our way up its precarious access road. From the fortifications, the marauders’ sea was a distant blue through the pines. The site seemed impregnable, but Saladin and his forces drove out the Crusaders before the mortar was dry in the walls. On the way out of the castle, we stopped in the entry hall, where our driver was having tea with the guardian, an old friend who was keeping the site open late for us. But neither of them could explain to us how the immense stones of the wall had been dragged up the mountainside and fit into place a millennium ago.
At our hotel across from the castle was a more modest construction site—adding a new floor for the anticipated tourist rush. The work stopped only after we returned from a nearby hostelry, where we we had enjoyed our grilled fish and near beer entire alone in the establishment. In the morning our driver handed us water bottles for our coming trek through the mountains and across the Al Ghab plain to Homs.
Homs was Syria’s third-largest city, but its population as well as its buildings have been decimated by repeated shellings by the government and the insurgents.
In 2011 it seemed a very prosperous place. We stayed for only a day in a large, comfortable hotel liberally lined with oriental rugs and potted palms. In the hotel restaurant we were approached by a voluble young woman with a French accent who declared herself delighted–in a curiously proprietary way–to find that Americans were visiting Syria.
We stood on the edge of the Homs tell at sunset, listening to the calls of the muezzin across the city. A countertenor from a minaret on the left horizon rose above the others. One deep layer of the tell mound had been dated back to the biblical David and Solomon.
Later, as we circled the darkening citadel playground, small sheep-eyed kids shouted “Hello, hello!” and a few were brave enough to answer when asked their names.
We had taken a side trip that afternoon to Hama, half an hour away. The youths in the Hama souk had been far from friendly.
In the markets and mosques of Damascus or Aleppo, in any public space, our driver, tall, dark, and broad-shouldered, usually marched slowly a few paces before us, looking directly ahead, running interference. In Hama’s souk, we strolled through a dark gallery during the slow period of the afternoon when markets were often closed. Dour young men in kaftans lined up to watch us pass. Nobody tried to sell us anything.
Hama was the home of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, where in 1982 Bashar’s father, the Lion of Damascus, brutally quashed a rebellion by leveling the old town and killing tens of thousands of citizens. The silent hostility in the tunnel of the Hama souk was just a shadow of that catastrophe. To some extent, Bashar al-Assad’s hope of saving Syria from chaos may rest, for better and for worse, on his people’s memories of the sectarian violence leading to the terrible Hama massacre, as well as the regime’s violence in crushing it.
To the east of Homs was the Krac des Chevaliers (Qal’at Hosn), said by some to be the most perfect crusader castle in the world.
Our hotel that night was another one under construction, in a big way. The manager had been to hotel school in Damascus and had learned to tell customers what they want to hear…in our case that the hammering would end in half an hour.
After we went to our rooms, our guide and the manager began a long-running backgammon match on the terrace. Meanwhile the racket continued.
During the backgammon match, we went for a walk around the road to the hotel, past a scatter of ugly new buildings, followed by a very orderly Bedouin camp oddly close to the roadbed. Farther on, scorched olive trees spilled down a burnt slope in an old quarry. In the valley, plumes of smoke rose from the fires of stubble preceding winter planting, and a few lights glimmered on the slopes across from the castle. The landscape reminded us of one on the other side of the Mediterranean, in postwar Italy. It seemed possible just then that Syria, with its ancient treasures, might indeed attract hordes of tourists. Meanwhile, it was a very long night, with acrid smoke from the day’s burning in the valley filling our room.
On our trek back to Damascus from the coast, we detoured to visit Maloula, an old village of yellow and blue houses layered pueblo-style down a slope of the rugged Kalamun mountains. Biblical Aramaic, the language of Jesus, was still spoken there, and pilgrims visited its ancient monasteries—before the war of course.
To enter a fifth-century chapel in the lower monastery, we had to pass through a police cordon, which seemed odd. Our guide pressed rapidly ahead into the small crowd, mostly in western dress, clustering around two smiling couples.
The tall man in jeans and a blazer was Bashar al-Assad, with his wife Asma. With them were the late Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, and his young daughter, as well as another man in Arab dress, unknown to us. Assad and Chavez had just signed oil agreements in Damascus, probably with the Arab as well.
Shortly before this meeting, Chavez, in a cheeky press blitz of countries not allied with the U.S. or Israel, had exchanged vows of loyalty and affection with the late Moammar Khaddafi of Libya. Assad, the mild-mannered opthalmologist, is the only survivor of this trio of strong men.
In November 2012, Maloula, still mainly loyal to the Assad regime, was struggling to stay out of the conflict, which one of its citizens said was the beginning of World War III. This was hardly an exaggeration, given the increasing part played by countries from Iran and Russia to the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. More and more this was becoming a proxy war. By 2014, loyalists in Maloula had fled to Damascus, where Bashar al-Assad planned to stay on as president of Syria, whatever is left of it.
This is what remains of the small town of Azaz in northwestern Syria, near the Turkish border. In 1125 it was the scene of a famous victory of Crusaders against the Seljuk Turks. A thousand years later, during the Syrian civil war, it was captured by insurgents and then leveled by government forces. We didn’t see Azaz in 2010; this is a file photo.
*Unless otherwise credited, all photos are by the author or taken from open sources.
Ritually in August, Europeans repair to their mountains or beaches while tourists throng their cities. But by early July, the 2015 Venice Biennale, already darkly apocalyptic, was also featuring the 110-degree afternoons of global warming. Completely flattened, we fled to the Dolomites, whose snowy peaks are still visible from Venice on very clear days.
The Dolomites are seen in the background of paintings by Venetian masters, and by northern painters whose horizons lacked mountains.
Titian, raised in the Dolomites, painted a portrait of Catarina Cornaro, queen of Cyprus (and, some say, of Armenia). Catarina was forced to abdicate and cede her country to the Republic of Venice. She was allowed to keep her title and given a castled court in Asolo, safely removed from the circles of power. Titian decks her out in the Turkish-style brocade coat which complimented the generous curves of so many Venetian ladies. Any soprano in Donizetti’s Caterina Cornaro would be likely to wear it, but since the opera was booed at its 1844 opening in Naples, it has seldom been staged.
A pair of smoky-skinned youths, toting racks of colored beads, took a table next to us in a café next to the bus stop in Corvara. Here we were, merely escaping a heat wave. How had they made their way so far up into these mountains? Had it occurred to them that a resort town might have less competition and wealthier customers than a crowded city? What to make of the lush green valleys and flowing waterfalls of this alpine paradise? Probably they were en route to Germany, more or less as the crow flies—or according to a Google map.
Germany we are told, expects to receive 800,000 refugees next year.
Meanwhile, the presidents of the Veneto and Lombardy had just ordered towns in their regions to stop accepting migrants altogether. Six thousand refugees had been rescued from the Mediterranean in the previous weekend, and many thousands more waited to embark from Libya and Turkey. Renzi and his government in Rome counseled Italians to be humane and accept the migrants across the board.
No way, said Luca Zaia, regional president of the Veneto.The situation “is like a bomb ready to go off.” Roberto Maroni, president of Lombardy and former leader of the conservative Lega Nord, threatened to cut the funding of any compassionate municipalities who encouraged refugees to settle.
One morning we took a local bus from Corvara that wound through the mountains toward a small town known as Ortisei in Italian, St. Ulrich in German, and Urtijei in Ladin, an ancient alpine survival of Latin, spoken by most of the townspeople. (Place signs are in all three languages.)
Climbing the steep main street of Ortisei, we came upon a very large heap of white plaster bananas, not far from a cannon made of wood. Public art, we noted shrewdly. The artists, we read on a placard, intended an ironic message about climate change with reference to the past winter in Ortisei, when the only snow available to skiers came from strategically placed “snow guns”
Woodworking was and remains the major art and craft in these forested mountains. But tourism became the mainstay of their economy in the last century, increasing after the famous Winter Olympics of 1956 took place in Cortina d’Ampezzo.
This year, the 56th Venice Biennale, the world’s most famous art event, manages to condemn not only climate change, capitalist exploitation of labor and industrial pollution, but global starvation, planetary degradation, and the arms trade—in just two gulps, one at the Arsenale site and the other at the Giardini.
Actually, the Golden Lion prize for the best national exhibit went to Armenia, outliers on the monastery island of San Lazzaro, marking the centennial of their genocide and diaspora. We happened to go to the island on a Sunday afternoon, and found ourselves caught in a line moving relentlessly into the church for the Orthodox mass, nearly two hours long.
It is sometimes said that art art can take you anywhere, and this year’s Biennale does compel you to visit unlikely places, from the assembly line of a cultivated pearl factory to gay brothels in Chile. Many of the heavily didactic exhibits are of videos and photos, with displays of significant documents, such as international agreements repeatedly dishonored, or newspaper clips with false information, or contracts you make with yourself.
The Australian Fiona Hall is more direct.
Her imaginative work fills the whole pavilion and includes a 3-D map of the southern Mediterranean scattered with tiny figures, indicating the migrants who drowned in one week between Africa and Italy.
Other artworks have related messages.
Although there is plenty of irony, subtlety and ambivalence are not qualities that many of these artists value. They are desperately concerned for the future of their own countries and the world at large. Still, their Biennale appearances are financed by capitalist networks that certainly include artists’ galleries, and most of the work, in case you were wondering, is for sale.
Alongside the galleries in the Dolomites that show woodworking artists, are regional museums focusing on alpinism (mountaineering) and local history, including that of the so-called White War.
At almost eleven thousand feet, Marmolada is one of the highest peaks in the Dolomites. During World War I, as one military front shifted into South Tyrol, Austrian troops tunneled into Marmolada’s northern glacier and the Italians into its rocky southern face. Somehow they made it possible–building roads, dormitories, and gun emplacements–f0r thousands of soldiers to exist, and to fight, in the brutal cold at altitudes where only mountaineers and shepherds had ever ventured.
A hundred years later, in our warming world, the icy slopes are melting to reveal grim relics—soldiers’ corpses and rusted armaments. Some 150,000 men died in the White War, only a third of them in battle, the majority from avalanches, frostbite, and other effects of the extreme cold. Likely, in warmer decades to come, spring skiers will continue to make grisly discoveries in the Dolomites.
Partly as a result of the White War, in 1919 South Tyrol was given to Italy, and those 150,000 Austrian and Italian soldiers died in a struggle over national/imperial hegemony that their sons and grandsons have mostly disavowed. In the mountains, what they worry about now is climate change, whether they will have snow for the ski crowds, or whether they will have to depend on the snow cannons. Down on the flatlands, they are worried about new waves of migrants, most of whom have paid their last thousand euros to find asylum or at least work and food in the West.
Few saw just how fragile and flammable the Middle East would prove, how quickly the drying up of the Sahara, the continuation of brutal governments, the series of drought years, and the internal wars would displace millions. The tens of thousands of refugees spilling into Germany, Italy, and France from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Africa are economic and sometimes political refugees. Their lives and their families’ lives are on the line when the cost of passage on a leaky raft or rusty ship. They’re fleeing, most often they know not where.
In America the flaming issue of next year’s presidential election has become immigration, from Mexico. In Hungary a far-right government constructs a fence to stop the influx of refugees arriving from Serbia, Macedonia, Greece. A Hungarian friend says that the brutally anti-migrant stance of his government is secretly admired by leaders of the European union. Whatever the case, Germany is in ever in a bind to show that its past inhumanity was an aberration. But Germany by itself cannot absorb these millions.
A year ago I tried to chart some of the tragedy of Syria since the civil war began. The latest chapters include demolition of another temple in Palmyra, and the changing route of Syrian refugees: they are now travelling north to the Arctic Circle and heading for the Norwegian border, to the little town of Kirkenes, 2500 miles from Damascus. Norway has nothing to prove about its humanitarian history, and welcomes them.
From Prague friends write in their uneven English, always better than my clubfooted Czech, “Here we live now a little in a madhouse. I hope only that we shall be saved before too great idiocy. To teach and to learn the democracy is the most hard work in the world,” reports one, a professor who was purged from Charles University twenty years ago. Later she joined the Magic Lantern Theater, long before it became the headquarters of the Velvet Revolution.
Toward the beginning of last summer I was standing in the third courtyard of Prague Castle, watching Havel on the ceremonial balcony, a wet wind stirring his pale unpresidential curls as he surveyed the fond crowd. Havel’s appearance was the centerpiece of a post-election “Carnival of Democracy.” Giant witches and harlequins loped about on stilts, not one tendentiously identified with clownish old-regime ogres, and opposite the cathedral a military orchestra rendered, not too strenuously, Czech folk melodies. None of the citizens of the Velvet Revolution shoved for position, and strangers shared umbrellas in the intermittent drizzle: natives claim that Czechoslovakia’s climate is changing as quickly as the politics.
There followed another month of moody Prague weather, from a heat wave of Mediterranean intensity to storm clouds piling in a Baltic chill. Every day new hordes of tourists beat the canonical cobbles from the Clock Tower over the Charles Bridge and up to the Castle. At the base of the long slope of Wenceslas Square, a horse market before it was a political forum, tourists were mixed with punk flaneurs and black-market moneychangers. Across from the Powder Tower, the Czech history exhibit, which had spilled from a huge hall onto streetside kiosks, had been dismantled. Praguers had been effectively reminded of people and events long suppressed—starting with philosopher Tomas Masaryk, founder of the First Czech Republic, a non-person under the Communists, and including full accounts of the brutal Stalinist show trials and the 1968 invasion. At the back of the dark exhibition hall, near a film of the recent revolution, a row of the transparent plastic armor of Husak’s riot police had an eerie immanence.
But already in July controversies were piling around the new government—Havel’s freighted encounter with Kurt Waldheim, and the ever-present Slovak nationalism, embodied in a new memorial plaque at the birthplace of World War II Slovakian fascist leader Josef Tiso. Grumbling was general about price rises, a pre-Kuwait gasoline shortage, and the slow pace of legal and economic reform. For example, how were the courts, still operating in the old legal frame with many of the old personnel, to deal with thousands of petitions for return of private property? Meanwhile, some wondered aloud or in print whether secret police operations had truly been suspended. Obviously the carnival was over and the hard part beginning.
Maybe we wish Havel well not just because of his singular displays of wisdom and humor, courage and humility—qualities now rare among western leaders—but because of our fantasies fulfilled in his cabinet of writers and professors, architects and artists. They are people we can, so to speak, identify with, and they know each other as well as, say, the faculty of a small American college. But after losing twenty or more years of their productive lives under Communism, they now have not just personal and artistic freedom, but the heavy weight of making democracy and free enterprise work beyond that first revolutionary exhilaration.
Limp in a plush wing chair in a huge empty salon in Prague Castle, one of Havel’s closest advisors, a writer I had met at a PEN meeting in Berkeley gave me a wan smile. “Exciting, yes,” she said. “Too exciting.” Of course she has no time for her own work, not even for the biography of Havel that she has contracted to finish by the end of the year. And she has to live with the hourly awareness that, as she succinctly put it, “Everything could fall apart at any time.”
Still, as the summer passed, crowds were clustering happily around sidewalk tables set up as ad hoc markets for fresh piles of novels and essays by formerly banned writers like Josef Skvorecky and Havel himself. Despite an ongoing paper shortage they were usually priced at less than a dollar. One noon I walked, loading my bag en route with new books, to meet a friend for lunch at U Zlaty Had. The Golden Serpent is where coffee was first introduced in Prague, and the booths are probably more uncomfortable than they were in the eighteenth century, but they give a certain illusion of privacy. Yet because in Prague everyone seems to know everybody, one tends to lower one’s voice when talking politics, even these days. Ironically enough, after examining my booty my friend went on to confirm something I’d heard: that Czech publishers, without government subsidies, will be printing mainly moneymaking bestsellers, native and foreign, along with the technical books now in demand for the retooling of antiquated Czech industry. The latest publishers’ lists, especially of scholarly books, poetry, and serious fiction, were already showing drastic cuts. Moreover, artists were complaining about inflated rents for work space. Even theaters, Prague’s particular pride, were in trouble without governments subsidies.
“What if,” my friend said roguishly, “the Golden Age of Czech arts turns out to have been under the Communists?”
After the initial honeymoon of Czech democracy—Masaryk’s enlightened First Republic, squeezed between the Hapsburgs and the Nazis—the Communists took over in 1948. Then came forty years of the most completely nationalized economy in Eastern Europe. And although totalitarianism killed personal freedom, polluted the environment, and destroyed Czech craftsmanship and individualism in countless ways, there was full employment and enough beer, pork, and dumplings to go around. Everyone had a job, whether or not everyone worked. Often I saw a half-dozen silver-haired women supervising a matinee movie audience of four or five. But the bankruptcies and layoffs of a free market economy were beginning. Already there were homeless in parks and at the railroad stations.
“Our revolution has not failed,” said Havel to the crowd in Wenceslas Square marking the August anniversary of the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion. “Proste, simply, it is not finished.”
Czechoslovakia split in 1993, into the Czech Republic and Slovakia; Vaclav Havel died in 2011. While no anniversary is looming, reconsiderations seem to be clustering around some of the main actors and actions in post-communist states, the Czechs in particular. Maybe the focus is connected with interest in the dynamics of revolutionary and post-revolutionary states in the news every day, from Ukraine to the Middle East and Africa.
In this week’s New Yorker Magazine, Milan Kundera, still the most famous Czech-born writer, publishes a new short story, “The Apologizer,” which reads as if translated from the French, which of course it was. Kundera has lived in Paris since 1975, has been a French citizen since 1981; in a recent New York Review of Books, Paul Wilson genially reviews a new biography of Vaclav Havel, by Michael Zantovsky; Elzbieta Matynia has done the considerable service of translating and editing two decades of conversations between Vaclav Havel and Polish intellectual Adam Michnik.
In the original Threepenny Review version, the apposite Czech diacritical marks appeared, and there were no photos. The version anthologized in TABLE TALK FROM THE THREEPENNY REVIEW is surrounded by a plethora of notable “pithy, literary” pieces.