Sunday, July 27, 2008

Solid Signifiers

After presents a question about identity that continues to provoke diverse thoughts in me. The wife whose husband dies in a terrorist incident, views video of the husband being questioned before he is killed. She describes the situation:

"When those men asked my husband if he was a Jew, he said, 'Yes, I am a Jew.' He didn't say, 'No, I'm an individual ... An individual. What's that? Individuals are all the same, you know. Cut off from what they are. They are nothing at all. It's the context that matters ... I wonder could you do that? Give up everything, your family, your life, just for once to be completely what you are?" (132-133).

The wife believes that one needs a solid identity marker to define ones character. She believes that the husband's unwillingness to shy away from his identity is valiant, even though he is depicted as "Not a good Jew," whatever that means (133). I simply question the validity of that type of overarching identity signifier in today's world. Is there one thing that defines any of us that we hold onto completely and would give up our individualism for? Is that called patriotism, loyalty, fanaticism....? The context she speaks of seems to be a large identity affiliation, but don't we more actively identify with smaller more localizes identities which we inhabit on a daily basis? Things like community, family, ethics formed based on experiences within a more localized context? Is the solid marker of religion or culture what we truly "are" more than family, relationships, community? Could you, would you, give up your family for the sake of some more grand narrative?

Terrorism as Event

Claire Tristram's After is a disturbing view of one woman's struggle to come to terms with her husband's death at the hands of terrorists. I have not come to terms with the questions the text asks, but one thing is for certain, terrorism acts as an interruption to the life of the protagonist in a way that shifts the ground under her feat.

"Alternatively she wished for a disaster, like the ones they had imagined for one another the night before; a pox, a plague, a pure, holy terror event after which all that had come before would be erased in a brilliant white light, rendered irrelevant from one searing moment to the next, so that all the world could experience the same dislocation that she had. The shattered pieces would rearrange themselves eventually. Life would go on. But no one would return to the before-place, when everything was ordered and complete" (177).

If terrorism acts as an event that interrupts the status quo and puts us on new ground, does that mean it is an effective means of changing the world? What does it mean to desire that kind of dislocation of identity and attempt, as takes place in the book, to provoke this type of shift? Is that what art does already, or can art shift the ground beneath our feet to invoke a more ethical society to the degree that political dissidents will not need to use violence as a means of political action?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Nurruddin Farah's Ethical Anecdote

As I read Somali writer Nurruddin Farah's Links, I have come across an example that goes a long way to portraying the conflicting influences that embody the conflict in the country.

Farah's protagonist, Jeebleh, a Somali ex-patriot living in the U.S. but returned to uncover the events of his mother's death, witnesses "a boy in a fancy cowboy hat and jeans, ruthlessly hitting an Alsatian with a stick ... The pregnant dog was writhing in agony, and actively giving birth ... a pure-bred Alsatian in today's Mogadiscio ... the dog had once belonged to an Englishman, formerly of the BBC African Service, who had been seconded to the city by UNOSOM" (129). Jeebleh intervenes, finds the dog shelter, even covering the puppies with his jacket.

To the American reader, the ethics here seem obvious; the dog is being physically harmed and one must come to its aid. Shit, there is even a TV show about animal cops where we enjoy watching these crusaders save desperate animals and lock away the offenders.

However, Jeebleh is vilified for his behavior. His acts amount to dirtying himself by actually touching a dog and offending the others present. Farah uses the example to establish the cultural divide between his English speaking readers and the locals. But it also posits the contradiction of a society enamored with American culture, envisaged in the "cowboy hat and jeans," saddled with the legacy of colonialism, the BBC man's dog, and at odds with the helping hand of NGO's, "UNOSOM." It is a conflict that plays out between the western world's ideology of individualism that infiltrates Somali culture yet conflicts with the traditional clan-based rule. The essence of the political problem of the country lies somewhere in the conflicting ideals of clan vs. individual.

The example embodies the political misunderstandings that outsiders bring to bare on Somalia and other African nations. The question is thus, how do we approach the situation? With an eye for the individuals who are suffering, which seems to be the only thing that draws our attention? How do we give due consideration to the local customs?