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Last month I was in Italy, where summer had steamed in early and politics had moved into operatic extremes of drama and imbroglio only slightly leavened by farce. Finally running the new coalition government are the boy wonder of the Five Stars populist movement, founded by a comedian, and the head of the proto-fascist League, who is no longer a joke. The two chose as the new premier an amiable law professor with a CV padded by drive-through sojourns at prestigious universities in Europe and the U.S.
While peculiar politics also reign in my own land, in Italy we tend to see their aberrations as a familiar comedy rather than a dark threat to the survival of the planet. Hard to remember that our Yankee republic was founded almost a hundred years before the bickering regions of the Italian boot could be laced together.
At least Italy’s revolution was accompanied, if not actually orchestrated, by music—with Giuseppe Verdi as its figurehead. Verdi’s poignant chorus from Nabucco, “Va Pensiero, sull’ ali dorate,” sung by homesick Hebrew slaves, has come to symbolize the patriotic fervor that led finally to Italian unification.
Waiting for Verdi is the title of a long-awaited new book by Mary Ann Smart, a music historian who writes brilliantly about opera and society. The title clearly contains an ironic reference to Samuel Beckett’s play, but also to the high anxiety shared by struggling Risorgimento patriots, artists and revolutionaries as they struggled toward Unification.
Often as Verdi’s work is linked to Italian revolution, A Masked Ball is set instead in colonial Boston, replete with an a doomed romance, an assassination, and a dusky-skinned fortune teller. Not very diligent research has revealed that the original libretto required Ulrica, the fortune teller, to be played by a “negro.”
Thus the Metropolitan Opera debut of the sublime contralto Marian Anderson, in 1955 the first African-American to sing there.
Nabucco was also playing at the Vienna State Opera when I was a student living with the family of an impoverished baron just a block from the opera house. But the concert and opera posters reminded me of periodic tables, and knowing next to nothing about opera, I went to the Richards, Wagner and Strauss, but never to Nabucco. Little did I know that it was a thrilling tale of King Nebuchednezzar, proprietor of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and featured madness, passion, betrayal, and wanton destruction of selected temples and gods.
In 2015, the Greco-Roman Temple of Bel at Palmyra, 32 CE, was destroyed by ISIS vandals soon after they had beheaded Khaled al Asaad, Palmyra’s much respected chief of antiquities. The Temple of Bel, according to another archaeologist, Khaled’s friend, had actually been a kind of a monument to religious coexistence. The main altar of the temple had been used for sacrifices to different gods, sometimes even side by side. The archaeologist also pointed out that ISIS had announced the destruction of Palmyra well in advance of the fact, but the international community had done nothing.
In any case, peaceful coexistence in Syrian lands is hardly even a memory. Now the best expectations are that some 75,000 Syrian refugees fleeing Daraa—where the so-called civil war began—can be sheltered in Jordan. Four million other Syrians are still homeless.
Meanwhile, the tragic histories of the ancient Middle East have fueled many operas besides Nabucco. How many works of art and music will commemorate the refugee flights of this century, and to what end?
For some years it has been proposed, and rejected, that Italy’s national anthem be replaced by “Va Pensiero,” the haunting Hebrew slaves’ chorus in Nabucco. Only recently it has been adopted by the far-right League, as its official hymn. Matteo Salvini and his League are committed to labeling and expelling all immigrants, including thousands of Roma who are legal citizens. Here, whatever Verdi’s politics were, we could use the intervention of the Anvil Chorus.
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.
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.
“Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag” recently finished a short run in a basement theater deep in downtown New York. Aside from the sly title, who could resist a play about a family of sharecroppers who are interviewed and photographed by two live-in reporters from the “Big City”? Also on offer: an ancient Mesopotamian sage, James Agee, Walker Evans, Sontag, and rampant spoofing of Broadway musicals. The whole farrago aims to expose the ethical pitfalls and philosophical limitations of so-called “poverty porn,” a baggy category of poignant images of abject conditions that capture attention without actually moving viewers to action.
Here we might point out Emoya Estates, a tourist resort where rich folk can rent shanties and pretend to be poor.This stunningly original enterprise is run by a corporation which also has a luxury hotel, game reserve and spa, and perhaps the shanties’ authenticity is somewhat compromised by the presence in each unit of hot and cold running water, radiant heating, and wifi, with the option of using a “long-drop” outdoor toilet. The cost of a night’s stay is close to the monthly income of the average local worker.
In Berkeley, having written about a local program for the homeless (advocacy journalism rather than poverty porn, I hope) I was moved to volunteer. As part of our training, we had to live out of a suitcase and find, without cash, credit, or a phone, a place to spend the night; we had to beg for money on the street; we had to apply for food stamp benefits in the local office. These were memorable exercises, whether or not they made me a more effective counsellor.
Santa Monica, California, like Berkeley, has a benign climate, a relatively tolerant community, and a sizeable population of street people. Living in Santa Monica for a stretch, and trying to write about the two towns’ responses to issues with their homeless, I realized before long that finding parallels was not the same as finding solutions.
On the streets of Santa Monica you hear languages and accents from all over, but especially from Eastern Europe, on every street corner. This must have been true for decades before the Getty Foundation made any cultural (and/or economic) waves in this seaside community.
Somewhere between her stints in Sarajevo, Susan Sontag lived downstairs from us in Santa Monica, at the Embassy, a Moorish-Mediterranean apartment hotel that housed Getty fellows and visitors during the construction of the Brentwood acropolis.
Walking home with her one evening from the research center, temporarily in a bank building around the corner, I mentioned another denizen of the Embassy, an aged Czech director who had fled Prague in 1968. After decades on the fringes of Hollywood, he had just managed to get another movie produced and noticed. It was set in Communist Czechoslovakia and featured a famous French actor, with an Italian name, as the director’s uncle. Michel Piccoli, it was.
The director hadn’t, beyond first blush, had much use for me and my Czech involvements, although he was happy enough to meet Sontag for a glass of wine at our apartment. (And a glass it was: we had just returned from a desert trek and had only one bottle of red in the Moorish fretwork cupboard.)
After Sontag departed, I couldn’t resist mentioning her remarkable resemblance to my aunt. He snorted. “Nonsense: she is a witch, and you. . . and your. . .aunt. . .” Words failed him: he must have meant “sorceress”.
We all went to his movie, which had mixed reviews. As did “Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag”, which in the end I never got to see.
But Susan Sontag really did resemble my aunt Myra, my father’s older sister (not my aunt Kate, with the pistol).
For several wartime years, we lived in or near Myra’s household in San Francisco, in the upper Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, then solidly middle class. Aunt Myra imported bohemian friends from the art institute downtown, some of them European refugees. They hung around the house, drinking, smoking, talking, munching on pungent cheeses and kippered salmon. I suppose that Myra considered her hospitality part of the war effort. In any case, her friends were not forbears of the hippies in the Haight-Ashbury’s drug-lit New Age future.
Heinz was a painter, tall and pallid, all skin and bones and eyes bulging behind thick glasses, a half-Jewish refugee from Berlin. His wife Hanne’s parents were Viennese Jews who had died in in Theresienstadt. The two had met in wartime Shanghai, where they avoided starvation by mounting a nightclub act—Heinz accompanying Hanne, a sad-eyed waif who sang ballads with a hoarse Marlene Dietrich accent. In San Francisco Heinz soon found a job as an editorial cartoonist at the Chronicle. Hanne clerked at a big department store while working for a degree in social work at Berkeley.
Sometimes, in Myra’s Belvedere Street living room, Heinz would bring out his guitar and play unlikely American melodies like “Erie Canal” and “Blue Tail Fly” while the rest of us sang chorus.
My aunt Myra had large, dark eyes, white-streaked dark hair, and a resonant, sardonic laugh. I doubt that she knew much about Gertrude Stein, but she had a similar gift for presenting herself as wise and original, without much supporting evidence. Her provocative pronouncements tended to trail off into vague chortles.
In those years, children seemed oddly safer in cities, and Myra’s younger daughter, gentle Jenny, looked out for me when we played on the street. On the other hand, Jenny’s sister, Rose, was beautiful and willful, and in high school took up with a boy from an Italian gangster family. When he was arrested, a photo appeared in the Chronicle of him with Rose, swathed in fur, on his arm.
All the cousins lined up every Saturday for the matinee at the Haight Theater—or the Castro. Movietone News showed flat gray pans of planes shooting off into the sky from aircraft carriers, and then cartoons, Flash Gordon, the much-despised Three Stooges, and finally, unsuitable noir features such as Sorry, Wrong Number. A real-life noir, starring cousin Rose, followed, decades after those Saturday matinees, and lovely Rose was excised from the family albums.
Aunt Myra didn’t come across the bay to visit us very often after we had settled in Berkeley. Once I did take her on a walk around the campus, and when we came to Wheeler Hall, she said that she had gone there as a girl to take the college admissions exam.
“I got in. Your father didn’t. . .” she said, trailing off with the wicked chuckle. She had gone to work for the telephone company until, said my father, snidely, she married a meal ticket. There wasn’t always money then for smart girls wanting an education.
After my first trip to Europe, I wanted to tell her about paintings I had liked, and she said, “I may not have been to Stanford, but you pronounce it ‘Van Gokh’”. Somewhat later, she gave me a thick paperback about Paul Klee. “It’s ‘Clay,’” she said. (In order to find corroborative photos of Aunt Myra’s resemblance, I would have to go deep into the closet where I found Aunt Kate’s pistol. Maybe later.)
Handsome as she was, Myra was not vain, kept her white-streaked hair rather short, and wore camp shirts and tired cardigans, even to our daughter’s (first) wedding. I remember Susan S. arriving a bit late to a Getty lecture, sitting just in front of us, loosening her ponytail, and spreading her hair tenderly over her shoulders. I remember that Mike Davis was lecturing, noting that the cost of one marble bathroom partition in the new Getty Center would feed a family of four in Watts for at least a year.
Viennese refugee Hanne, as a social worker in (I think) the county office in postwar Richmond, California, was repeatedly horrified by the facts and frauds of the largely black poor in her jurisdiction. I wouldn’t have wanted her as my caseworker.
A young Harvard scholar suggests, based partly on a 1946 Minnesota study, where 36 students essentially starved themselves in order to see how best to restore famished postwar populations in Europe, that the poor make bad decisions because their “bandwidth” is impaired by the implicit pressures of poverty, of scarcity. This may not seem a revolutionary conclusion, but the resulting behavioral applications might be. Starving people, the study suggested, lose mental as well as physical capacities.
The U.N. estimates that there are now three million Syrian refugees who have fled the civil war, and six and a half million internally displaced throughout Syria. The Islamic State often gains converts by simply providing bread to the inhabitants of towns it has captured, most recently in Palmyra, where the architectural sites appear to be spared.
In Raqqa, a young man mourns the loss of six family members in one barrel bomb attack
‘The knowledge gained through still photographs will always be some sort of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist. It will always be a knowledge at bargain prices- a semblance of knowledge, a semblance of wisdom: as the act of taking pictures is a semblance of appropriation, a semblance of rape.” (Susan Sontag )
Perhaps, but photos could very well have been the only remainder of ancient Palmyra.