Joan Baez, still radiant at 66, never abandoned the sturdy folk ballads she sang all those years ago, when she was starting out in the coffeehouses of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Shown at her home in Woodside, California. Photographed by Annie Leibovitz for the November Folk-Music Portfolio.
“Steve’s so like me in a lot of ways,” says Baez, who holds herself in a poised way that has a tinge of therapy about it (she underwent a lot of it in the Eighties) and reveals an awareness of her status as a diva, albeit one that would rather see the poor clothed and fed than swathe herself in diamonds. “We share the same beliefs, although he’s so left of me that I call him Mr Pinko, and there’s something about his gruffness and my voice that gels.”
Baez is a good advertisement for not getting caught up in stardom. Born to a liberal Quaker family in 1941, she’d already lived in France, Italy and Iraq by the time her Mexican father, a physicist who worked for Unesco, and Scottish mother settled down in Boston when she was 17. It was only a year later that she was thrust into fame after a triumphant appearance at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival. Her first album was already out by the time a young, hungry and extremely ambitious Bob Dylan hit Greenwich Village in 1961.
For a brief moment in the early Sixties Dylan and Baez were the king and queen of the folk movement, the perfect couple to lead the young of America towards a new consciousness. But while Baez stuck to cover versions and causes, Dylan took off on a poetic journey all his own, hitching on the coat-tails of Baez’s fame and then leaving her behind to become the foremost songwriter of the 20th century.
“I’ve never really been a songwriter,” Baez says of the path she’s taken. “Steve Earle wrote a song for me called I Am a Wanderer that expresses a sentiment I relate to far better than anything I could write.”
These days, the warbling falsetto that Baez brought to We Shall Overcome and Babe I’m Gonna Leave You in the Sixties has been deepened by age, but she’s still using the songs to get across her core messages of pacifism, social responsibility and, for the first time, party allegiance, saying of her endorsement of Barack Obama: “For years I chose not to engage in party politics. At this time, however, changing that posture feels like the responsible thing to do.”
Her strident sincerity is something that doesn’t always sit well with audiences as radical politics fall in and out of fashion. “After 9/11 nobody wanted to hear anything bad about America,” says Baez, growing animated as she enters into political territory. “Nobody loves a war better than the President, and a few years ago it got to the point where if I said anything I truly believed about the Iraq war or global warming during a concert, people would get up and leave. That’s fine with me. Actually, it’s a badge of honour.”
Baez is used to hostility. One senses that she thrives on it. At school in California she upset teachers by refusing to leave class during a bomb drill, reasoning that if the school was to be nuked, running outside would hardly do anyone much good. Later, as a teenage folk singer she would stop singing and glower at anyone who dared to talk during one of her performances. She and her first husband, David Harris, served jail sentences for their resistance to the Vietnam War (he refused the draft; she refused to pay a portion of her taxes to the war effort). It’s no surprise that the rebirth of her career coincided with an increasing dissatisfaction with the Bush presidency and its foreign policy.
“Little by little it became clear that Bush was bizarre – and dangerous,” she says. “I would do concerts where I would see people in the audience sitting with their arms crossed, looking angry as I said: ‘I was right 40 years ago and I am right now!’ and throw my fist in the air. Now they’re listening. Bush’s great trick is to suggest that to go against him is to be unpatriotic. Slowly people realised that.”
Baez acknowledges that, to her generation at least, she eternally represents the Sixties protest movement. “I’m a part of history,” she says with calm resignation. “I represent so much before I’ve even opened my mouth. But I was more active when I was young, and it’s only now that I’m spending time with my family.”
Like so many of her contemporaries, Baez put bringing her message of peace to the world before raising kids. When she was divorced from Harris in 1972 their son Gabe went to live with his father, and it’s only recently that she has become close to him. “I live with my mother, who is 95, I have a four-year-old grandchild, and it’s a turning for me. It’s confusing, too – am I really allowed to hang around the home and look after my mom?
“I don’t regret what I did in the Sixties, but you can’t stay on the biting edge of radicalism all your life. My core beliefs of non-violence haven’t changed, but my lifestyle has.”
Baez accepts that the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement gave her a purpose, and that when they came to an end she was left floundering. “It’s natural,” she says with a shrug. “The Vietnamese developed all sorts of neuroses and phobias after the war ended because they were no longer spending every day in the heightened state that comes with not knowing if you’re going to be killed or not. When the war ended a lot of us lost direction. I certainly did.”
It’s also taken Baez a long time to relax and actually enjoy herself. She was, by her own admission, “far too neurotic” to appreciate early fame, and her image as an overly earnest Virgin Mary figure worked against her as the concerned citizenship of the counterculture gave way to hippy experimentation in the late Sixties. “I had this great fear of going commercial. As a result of becoming well-known at such a young age I was afraid of the wider world. But I did also have deeply held beliefs that I clung on to tenaciously. The big event was meeting Martin Luther King in 1956 at a Quaker seminar. That pretty much shaped the direction my life took.”
In 1963 Baez was given the job of driving King and Jesse Jackson from an airport to a march. “They laughed all the time and told racist jokes about themselves, and I realised that nobody could see that side of them. They had to be seen as serious, and I related to that. We got to a restaurant and I asked them: ‘Don’t you have a big march to organise?’ They said: ‘We just have.’ You get a public image that you have to live up to but your private reality is often very different.”
After years of being written off as an unsmiling anachronism, Joan Baez is relevant once more. She thrives on political and economic tension – such as now. “At times of great uncertainty music and politics are fused,” she says. “I would never have sung We Shall Overcome to an American audience during the Eighties because it would have been a nostalgia trip. Now it’s appropriate again because it’s relevant. I’m happiest when that happens.”
Red Pepper, August-September 2008
Manu Chao could be the most famous singer that many English speakers have never heard of. Yet he is to the alter-globalisation movement what Bob Dylan was to peace and civil rights in the 1960s. Oscar Reyes caught up with him by a campfire at Glastonbury, where he created a little ‘neighbourhood of hope’
‘I know I’ve got a responsibility, that maybe I can help people – I’ve got access to the mic, which a lot of people don’t have. But I’ve also got responsibility in my neighbourhood, because I’m the singer of my neighbourhood. There’s a guy who’s the taxi driver and the guy who goes to the factory and I’m the singer.’
Photo: Tatiana Pereira V, Flickr
Sitting by a campfire backstage at Glastonbury, Manu Chao is just getting going. Fifteen minutes ago he was closing the festival on the Jazz World stage, to an audience of thousands. Now he’s passing out beers and talking about politics, stressing that he cannot be a leader providing ‘a voice for the voiceless’, but can sometimes open up a space for political concerns that otherwise go unvoiced.
Manu Chao offsets his global celebrity with a disarming humility. He has played to 100,000 people on the Zocalo, the enormous main square in Mexico City, but still busks at bars in Barcelona – one of his adopted home cities. He frequently plays political gigs too, from the G8 in Genoa to the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, and numerous others – often unannounced – to striking dockers or in prisons or at many other unexpected venues. If you want an analogy, then Manu Chao is to the alter-globalisation movement what Bob Dylan was to peace and civil rights in the 1960s. His albums sell millions of copies worldwide, but the English-language bias of most UK radio stations means that Manu Chao could be the most famous singer you’ve never heard of.
Manu Chao’s political education went hand in hand with his musical awakening, but he can’t be drawn on which of them is the stronger influence. ‘First of all I’m Manu,’ he says. ‘Then music is a passion. And politics is part of me too.’
That politics began with his family history, which remains strongly etched onto his consciousness. His family fled Spain after his grandfather was sentenced to death by the Spanish dictator Franco, and he grew up in Paris, where he was born in 1961 to Galician and Basque parents. The sense of responsibility to his neighbourhood, he says, is paramount. ‘That’s my culture, that’s my education. My mother gave me that education. My father and mother were activists, so from when I was a kid I know about that.’
But he has never seen that need to root action locally as reflecting any kind of parochialism. ‘What is interesting in neighbourhoods is that each one is a little representation of society, of the world,’ he says.
Having lived in Rio, in Mexico, in Barcelona, and spent much of his life without a settled home, how does he square this paradox of being constantly on the move with his strong sense of responsibility towards his locality? ‘I have a lot of neighbourhoods in my life,’ he says. ‘So I go from one to another, and I organise, I work and try to dynamise things.’
Music that sounds like the world
The easy movement from one neighbourhood to another is reflected in Manu Chao’s music too. The music industry, for its part, tends to pigeonhole Manu Chao as ‘world music’. But he is dismissive of that category, describing it as a ‘neo-colonial’ label for songs not sung in English. If they are not world music, though, Manu Chao’s songs are very much music that sounds like the world. He sings in French, Spanish, English, Portuguese and Italian. His albums are littered with samples and street sounds, and often feature non-professional musicians he has pulled in off the street.
The Clash and Bob Marley are the most obvious influences. The Clash’s Joe Strummer was known to be a fan (as is Robbie Williams, who collaborated with Lily Allen to cover the song ‘Bongo Bong’). The affinity with Bob Marley, meanwhile, saw him dedicate a song to ‘Mr Bobby’, an artist he celebrates for his simplicity and global reach. But that doesn’t fully capture the punk-ska eclecticism of Manu Chao’s music, or his seamless ability to blend these different styles into a distinctive sound.
That fusion of styles comes from a long time spent on the road, listening to the responses of his audiences and learning from the music to which they exposed him – in Latin America, especially.
When he first came to prominence with the band Mano Negra in the late 1980s, he was advised by his management to tour America. They meant the United States, but Mano Negra instead journeyed around South America by ship, playing gigs in port cities as they went. A year later, in 1993, Mano Negra returned to the continent, bought an old train and toured Colombia – playing to audiences of guerrillas, peasants and drug traffickers.
These experiences still influence his outlook today. ‘I got the chance to spend a lot of time [in Latin America], I love this continent, and I’m building my family there,’ he tells me. ‘It is an incredible school of life.’ But the pace and intensity of their travels took its toll on Mano Negra, and the band split up shortly after the tour ended.
Manu’s response was to go backpacking, recording most of his debut solo album,Clandestino, on a portable eight-track recorder as he went. Released in 1998, the album was a huge success, selling more than five million copies. His next album,Proxima Estacion: Esperanza (‘Next stop: hope’ – a reference to a metro announcement in Madrid), released in 2001, consolidated his place as one of the world’s most successful recording artists.
It then took another six years for Manu Chao to record his next studio album, La Radiolina, which came out to critical acclaim last autumn. Not that he hasn’t been busy with writing, political activism, touring and DJ-ing in the interim. In 2004, he did, in fact, return to the studio to produce Dimanche À Bamako, an album by a blind, middle-aged Malian couple, Amadou and Mariam, which went on to sell half a million copies in its own right.
This passion for new musical encounters and travel, rather than concentrating on his recording career, speaks volumes for Manu Chao’s sense of priorities. Listening from one album to the next, you find similar themes – and even whole backing tracks – return in different forms. In this sense, he is not so much a studio musician as he is a troubadour, evolving songs and sounds as he goes.
That sense of the importance of everyday encounters lies at the heart of Manu Chao’s politics too. Asked what events most clearly influenced his political outlook, he says ‘It’s difficult for me to answer that. I think there’s no ranking in activism. The important thing is the everyday.’
There is actually a vital consideration before engaging in politics, he continues: ‘Before talking about activism, if everybody in this world acted with honesty, it would be a nice step. That’s what I learnt from my grandfather – honesty. I bless him for that.’ But honesty only takes you so far. ‘The situation today is so problematic that honesty is not enough anymore. People have to do more.’
Manu Chao’s sense of what it means to do more is as deeply political as it is suspicious of organised politics (or ‘politik’, as he dubs it on his latest single, ‘Politik Kills’). He sees this sense of honesty, and ‘re-organising at the level of your person, your family and your neighbourhood’, as standing in opposition to the kind of politik that needs ‘ignorance’ and ‘lies’.
As Manu explains to me a vision of the world that is unremittingly bleak, yet somehow without being cynical, I imagine his discussion punctuated with that song’s refrain: ‘That’s why, my friend, it’s an evidence – politik is violence.’
‘The big problem is money. The economic power is more powerful than the political. So we vote, but the politicians – they’re all puppets,’ he says, gesturing with his arms as he searches for the appropriate word. ‘It is not a real democracy.’
He is equally scathing about the distorting influence of media ownership on democracy. ‘In Europe,’ he says, ‘the first big problem was in Italy when Berlusconi took power for the first time, ten years ago. That was the proof that if you control the media, you’re president. And after Berlusconi, I think with Sarkozy in France it was the same.
‘So more and more people are not going to believe any more in democracy; and that’s very dangerous. I feel like a democrat – I think it’s the least worst way we’ve found to live all together. But the professional politicians have totally distorted the word and what it really means.’
His distaste for politicians is matched only by that he reserves for the influence of television. ‘Television doesn’t respect anything, so there are a lot of kids growing up respecting nothing. I think that’s the most dangerous thing happening in society … and it is very important that there aren’t another two or three generations coming like that, totally brainwashed by television, because its going to be terrible – all quick money, a lot of violence, everything must be easy, everything new, not a single work ethic.’ Here too, if nothing changes, he thinks the result will be ‘a lot of violence’.
Asked if he sees any possibility of change, Manu says he does, but talks about the sources lying in fear rather than hope.
‘I think things are changing. It’s a kind of race between the craziness of the system and the sense of conservation of the human being. In the last couple of years, I saw that people are getting scared. They talk a lot about the change of the weather – shit, it’s raining in July. Full sun in December. Something is going wrong. And lots of people who aren’t politically conscious are starting to change.’
At this point, Manu – who has grown more agitated as our interview has progressed – rests his hand on my knee and takes on a look of greater intensity. ‘I’ll say something politically not very correct but I really believe it. I’m not afraid for nature. We’re doing a lot of harm to nature, it’s terrible. But nature, one day she’s going to get nervous and she’s going to … phoooosh!’
With that, he reaches back in a dramatic gesture that signals the end of civilisation. ‘And we’re all going to get out of this fucking planet in one minute!’
‘We’ll make a lot of problems for nature,’ he continues. ‘She’s going to take one million years to cure herself. One million years for nature is one day for us. When we attack nature we’re attacking ourselves. Nature is much more stronger than us … We’re not going to win this battle, she’s going to win.’
Next station: hope
That may sound an apocalyptic outlook, but it is not unremittingly so – since, despite his pessimism at global changes, he still draws hope that meaningful changes can grow out of what goes on at a neighbourhood level.
‘You cannot change the world, I cannot change the world. I cannot change my country maybe – if I know what my country is – but everybody can change his neighbourhood. I try. That’s a responsibility of everybody. I hope the solution is there. I don’t believe any more in one big revolution that’s going to change everything. I believe in thousands and thousands of little neighbourhood revolutions – that’s my hope.’
With other journalists circling, and a succession of well-wishers demanding attention and congratulating him on a great show, Manu Chao beats a retreat to catch up with his friends. Interview over.
Then something remarkable happens. Manu’s guitarist, who had been thrashing out punk chords on stage, has picked up an acoustic guitar and is strumming some familiar tunes. Manu returns and starts singing by the campfire. Songs of liberty and rebellion: the songs of Manu Chao.
A crowd slowly forms. Another band member starts assembling his trumpet, playing in accompaniment to ‘La Vida Tómbola’ (‘A Life of Chance’) – a song about the footballer Diego Maradona, first recorded for an Emir Kusterica film. The campfire burns on. At one point, a chorus of ‘Campiones, campiones, Ole ole ole’ rings out – a reference to Spain’s victory in that night’s European Cup final. Manu smiles broadly but noticeably doesn’t join in. As he put it earlier, ‘Maybe they can be very proud, I’m very happy for them, but its not going to change nothing.’
Someone gives Manu a hat, which he plays, instinctively, as a tambourine. His manager repeatedly tries to coax him onto the tour bus. He promises her that he’ll go, then plays on – visibly enjoying himself. It is early in the morning already by the time the singing stops and he kisses friends goodbye.
I’d been thinking about how to square Manu’s gloomy predictions about the world with the radiant hope that is embodied in his music, and about how that music has kept a party of strangers together for hours. ‘You made yourself a neighbourhood here,’ I say as we bid farewell. Manu’s reply comes with an infectious smile: ‘That’s what we try to do.’
By Uri Avnery 19 August, 2008 Gush Shalom
Mahmoud Darwish “Poet of the Resistance ” standing tall in Haifa / Palestine.
Photo: Ziet O Zaa3taar/Flickr
One of the wisest pronouncements I have heard in my life was that of an Egyptian general, a few days after Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem.
We were the first Israelis to come to Cairo, and one of the things we were very curious about was: how did you manage to surprise us at the beginning of the October 1973 war?
The general answered: “Instead of reading the intelligence reports, you should have read our poets.”
I reflected on these words last Wednesday, at the funeral of Mahmoud Darwish.
DURING THE funeral ceremony in Ramallah he was referred to again and again as “the Palestinian National Poet”.
But he was much more than that. He was the embodiment of the Palestinian destiny. His personal fate coincided with the fate of his people.
He was born in al-Birwa, a village on the Acre-Safad road. As early as 900 years ago, a Persian traveler reported that he had visited this village and prostrated himself on the graves of “Esau and Simeon, may they rest in peace”. In 1931, ten years before the birth of Mahmoud, the population of the village numbered 996, of whom 92 were Christians and the rest Sunni Muslims.
On June 11, 1948, the village was captured by the Jewish forces. Its 224 houses were eradicated soon after the war, together with those of 650 other Palestinian villages. Only some cactus plants and a few ruins still testify to their past existence. The Darwish family fled just before the arrival of the troops, taking 7-year old Mahmoud with them.
Somehow, the family made their way back into what was by then Israeli territory. They were accorded the status of “present absentees” – a cunning Israeli invention. It meant that they were legal residents of Israel, but their lands were taken from them under a law that dispossessed every Arab who was not physically present in his village when it was occupied. On their land the kibbutz Yasur (belonging to the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement) and the cooperative village Ahihud were set up.
Mahmoud’s father settled in the next Arab village, Jadeidi, from where he could view his land from afar. That’s where Mahmoud grew up and where his family lives to this day.
During the first 15 years of the State of Israel, Arab citizens were subject to a “military regime” – a system of severe repression that controlled every aspect of their lives, including all their movements. An Arab was forbidden to leave his village without a special permit. Young Mahmoud Darwish violated this order several times, and whenever he was caught he went to prison. When he started to write poems, he was accused of incitement and put in “administrative detention” without trial.
At that time he wrote one of his best known poems, “Identity Card”, a poem expressing the anger of a youngster growing up under these humiliating conditions. It opens with the thunderous words: “Record: I am an Arab!”
It was during this period that I met him for the first time. He came to me with another young village man with a strong national commitment, the poet Rashid Hussein. I remember a sentence of his: “The Germans killed six million Jews, and barely six years later you made peace with them. But with us, the Jews refuse to make peace.”
He joined the Communist party, then the only party where a nationalist Arab could be active. He edited their newspapers. The party sent him to Moscow for studies, but expelled him when he decided not to come back to Israel. Instead he joined the PLO and went to Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Beirut.
IT WAS there that I met him again, in one of the most exciting episodes of my life, when I crossed the lines in July 1982, at the height of the siege of Beirut, and met with Arafat. The Palestinian leader insisted that Mahmoud Darwish be present at this symbolic event, his first ever meeting with an Israeli. He sent somebody to call him.
His description of the siege of Beirut is one of Darwish’s most impressive works. These were the days when he became the national poet. He accompanied the Palestinian struggle, and at the sessions of the Palestinian National Council, the institution that united all parts of the Palestinian people, he electrified the hall with readings of his stirring poems.
During those years he was very close to Arafat. While Arafat was the political leader of the Palestinian national movement, Darwish was its spiritual leader. It was he who wrote the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, which was adopted by the 1988 session of the National Council on the initiative of Arafat. It is very similar to the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which Darwish had learned at school.
He clearly understood its significance: by adopting this document the Palestinian parliament-in-exile accepted in practice the idea of establishing a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel, in only a part of the homeland, as proposed by Arafat.
The alliance between the two broke down when the Oslo agreement was signed. Arafat saw it as “the best agreement in the worst situation”. Darwish believed that Arafat had conceded too much. The national heart confronted the national mind. (That historical debate has still not been concluded today, after both of them have died.)
Since then Darwish lived in Paris, Amman and Ramallah – the Wandering Palestinian, who has replaced the Wandering Jew.
HE DID not want to be the National Poet. He did not want to be a political poet at all, but a lyrical one, a poet of love. But whenever he turned in this direction, the long arm of Palestinian fate dragged him back.
I am not qualified to judge his poems or to assess his greatness as a poet. Leading experts on the Arabic language are still bitterly quarreling among themselves about the meaning of his poems, their nuances and layers, images and allusions. He was a master of classical Arabic, and equally at home with Western and Israeli poetry. Many believe that he was the greatest Arab poet, and one of the greatest poets of our time.
His poetry enabled him to do what no one had succeeded in doing by other means: to unite all the parts of the fractured and fragmented Palestinian people – in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, in Israel, in the refugee camps and throughout the Diaspora. He belonged to all of them. The refugees could identify with him because he was a refugee, Israel’s Palestinian citizens could identify with him because he was one of them, and so could the inhabitants of the occupied Palestinian territories, because he was a fighter against the occupation.
This week some people of the Palestinian Authority tried to exploit him for their struggle with Hamas. I don’t think that he would have agreed. In spite of the fact that he was a totally secular Palestinian and very far from the religious world of Hamas, he expressed the feelings of all Palestinians. His poems also resonate with the soul of a member of Hamas in Gaza.
HE WAS the poet of anger, of longing, of hope and of peace. These were the strings of his violin.
Anger about the injustice done to the Palestinian people and every Palestinian individual. Longing for “my mother’s coffee”, for his village’s olive tree, for the land of his forefathers. Hope that the conflict would come to an end. Support for peace between the two peoples, based on justice and mutual respect. In the documentary by the Israeli-French film-maker Simone Bitton, he pointed at the donkey as a symbol of the Palestinian people – a wise, patient animal that manages to survive.
He understood the nature of the conflict better than most Israelis and Palestinians. He called it “a struggle between two memories”. The Palestinian historical memory clashes with the Jewish historical memory. Peace can come about only when each side understands the memories of the other – their myths, their secret longings, their hopes and fears.
That is the meaning of the Egyptian general’s saying: poetry expresses the most profound feelings of a people. And only the understanding of these feelings can open the way for a real peace. A peace between politicians is not worth very much without a peace between the poets and the public they express. That’s why Oslo failed, and why the present so-called negotiation for a “shelf agreement” is so worthless. It has no basis in the feelings of the two peoples.
Eight years ago, then Minister of Education Yossi Sarid tried to include two poems of Darwish in the Israeli school curriculum. This caused a furor, and the Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, decided that “the Israeli public is not ready for this”. This meant, in reality, that “the Israeli public is not ready for peace.”
This may still be true. Real peace, peace between the peoples, peace between the children born this week, on the day of the funeral, in Tel Aviv and Ramallah, will only come about when Arab pupils learn the immortal poem of Chaim Nachman Bialik “The Valley of Death”, about the Kishinev pogrom, and when Israeli pupils learn the poems of Darwish about the Naqba. Yes, also the poems of anger, including the line “Go away, and take your dead with you.”
Without understanding and courageously facing the flaming anger about the Naqba and its consequences, we shall not understand the roots of the conflict and shall not be able to solve it. And as another great Palestinian man of letters, Edward Said, said: without understanding the impact of the Holocaust upon the Israeli soul, the Palestinians will not be able to deal with the Israelis.
The Poets are the marshals of the struggle between the memories, between the myths, between the traumas. We shall need them on the road to peace between the two peoples, between the two states, for building a common future.
I was not present at the state funeral arranged by the Palestinian Authority in the Mukata, so orderly, so orchestrated. I was there, two hours later, when his body was buried on a beautiful hill, overlooking the surroundings.
I was deeply impressed by the public, which gathered under the blazing sun around the wreath-covered grave and listened to the recorded voice of Mahmoud reading his poems. Those present, people of the elite and simple villagers, connected with the man in silence, in a very private communion. Despite the crowding, they opened a way for us, the Israelis, who came to pay our respects at the grave.
We bade our silent farewell to a great Palestinian, a great poet, a great human being.
The Laureate of All Arabs: Mahmoud Darwish is dead, but the voice of the Palestinian resistance will live on in all of us
By Ahdaf Soueif*, August 2008. CommonDreams.Org
None of us really thought he’d die. Our loss is great, we tell each other. In our minds we think of Edward Said, of Haider Abdel-Shafi, of Faisal Husseini, and even – yes – of Yasser Arafat. The “big men” of Palestine. And now, Mahmoud Darwish.
He was seven when – in the Nakba of 1948 – he fled from Birweh, his village in the Galilee. At the age of 12, living in Deir el-Asad, in what had become Israel, with a reputation as a precocious child poet, he was asked to compose a poem for a public reading. The occasion was the celebration of Israel’s “Independence Day” and the poem he read described the feelings of a child who returns to his town to find other people sleeping in his bed, tilling his father’s lands. He was summoned to the military governor who told him that if he continued to write subversive material his father’s work permit would be revoked. That incident set the tone, I think, for Darwish’s life.
Yasser Arafat,Mahmoud Darwish and George Habash in 1970s
It was impossible for a man of Darwish’s sensibility and context not to join the resistance. He did. He wrote. And between 1961 and 1967 he was jailed five times by the Israelis. He lived where the resistance lived: in Beirut, Cairo, Tunis, Paris and Amman – as well as Ramallah and Haifa. He produced journalism and founded al-Karmel – for a while the top literary magazine of the Arab world. And he wrote more than 20 volumes of poetry.
For the last three decades no one could have been more celebrated or beloved. His poetic concerns, struggles, experiments and blazing successes have been noted, documented and analysed across the world. His poems early on became embedded in a nation’s consciousness in a way that is rare for a living writer. Poets followed, responded and debated with him in their works; novelists prefaced chapters with his verses; performers sang his lyrics.
A child’s drawing from in Time of War: Children Testify edited by Mona Saudi.
Darwish gave a voice and an identity to the Palestinian revolution and to the resistance. But his 1964 anthem ID Card (”Record: I am Arab!”) made him, particularly after 1967, the laureate of all the Arabs. That responsibility sometimes lay heavy on him. He acknowledged a duty to his people, yes, but he also felt a duty to poetry itself.
In the letter to the writers who took part in the Palestine Festival of Literature last May, he spoke of “how difficult it is to be Palestinian, and how difficult it is for a Palestinian to be a writer or a poet … How can he achieve literary freedom in such slavish conditions? And how can he preserve the literariness of literature in such brutal times?” There was the core problem of the “engaged” artist. A strategy that came naturally to Darwish was to raise the issues above the specific and the parochial, to see the specific with great clarity, but to see also the universal in the specific.
In State of Siege, the poems he wrote from besieged Ramallah in January 2002, he addressed his Israeli enemy: “A land on the brink of dawn / Let us not quarrel / About the number of those who’ve died: / Here they lie together, / Furnishing the grass for us, / That we should be reconciled.”
But reconciliation needed to be founded on justice. His great poem for Muhammad al-Durrah, the Palestinian boy shot by the Israeli army as he sheltered behind his father, struck a chord across the world. Yet, he declared: “We love life – if we can have it.”
Darwish ended his address to the Palestine Festival with the words: “Know that we are still here; that we live.” Obituaries in the Arab newspapers are mourning the last poet who could fill a football stadium. But Darwish lives in us and in his poetry. He lives also in the work of younger Arab poets who will soon be filling football stadiums. They are his disciples. And they are still here.
*Ahdaf Soueif is the author of The Map of Love.
CONVERSATIONS: BEING A WOMAN
by rahnuma ahmed*
[the relationship between class struggle and women’s liberation is] very close. Women were the first to be oppressed, and will be the last to be liberated when class oppression ceases. So the test of whether class oppression still exists is if women’s oppression still exists or not.
Comrade Parvati, central committee member and head of women’s department, Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)
… communist men should know that the revolution and the gains of revolution can only be preserved and furthered when more and more women join and lead the revolution.
Comrade Parvati, CPN (M)
‘IF YOU look at efforts to develop women’s leadership aimed at establishing equal relations between men and women, the party leadership seems to think that it is a waste of time. That women’s contribution will somehow be lesser. I don’t know how, through which process, they come to that conclusion. And the one or two women leaders like us, those who have managed to make it to the top, we are looked upon as exceptional. On some occasions, we are lauded, on others, condemned.’
I was talking to Moshrefa Mishu, president of the Garment Workers Unity Forum and convenor, Biplobi Oikko Front. In the twenty-five-plus years that I have known her, on the few occasions that we have met, nearly always we have fallen into each other’s arms and talked non-stop. About a whole lot of issues, garments workers wages, the mercilessly exploitative conditions under which they work, her party’s organisational work, the struggles of women workers as women, her own personal struggles, government persecution, the forty-odd cases against her. She has always been curious about my own work, what I am writing, what I am reading, and has always stressed the need to share ideas.
Mishu continued, there are many dedicated women, women who have ceaselessly devoted every living and thinking moment to the party, but they are not even central committee members. Look at the CPB (Communist Party of Bangladesh), Hena Das became a central committee member only when she was eighty. Or at Krishna di, she became a central committee member recently, in her sixties. Men? Oh, at a much younger age. Maybe at my age, I am forty-five now, in a few cases, even in their late-thirties. Do left women talk about these things, I asked. A bit, said Mishu. I remember, several months ago, Shireen apa (Shireen Akhter, joint general secretary, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal) took Zaman bhai (Khalequzzaman Bhuiyan, Bangladesher Samajtantrik Dal) to task because Rousseau apa, Joly apa are not even central committee members. Even though they are such dedicated women, have tremendous leadership qualities and organisational capabilities. They are not even alternate members of the central committee. No woman has ever become a member of BSD central committee.
How do I dare to speak? Well, because I lead the Garment Workers Unity Forum, I work at the grassroots level. I am accepted. I think women comrades of other left parties, they might tell you one or two things but only off the record. Is it because of party loyalty, I interrupt. No, me, I am loyal too, I speak because I think it’s necessary. I think if they were to speak out they may well be suspended from the party. After all, how many heads does one have on one’s shoulders?
While transcribing Mishu’s interview, and in between breaks reading Comrade Parvati’s ‘Women’s Leadership and the Revolution in Nepal’, these lines catch my eye. ‘It is seen that revolutionary communist movements have always unleashed women’s fury, but they are not able to channelize this energy into producing enduring women communist leaders. The question has been raised again and again as to why there are so few women leaders in communist parties when Marxism offers such a deep penetrating analysis and solution to women’s oppression.’
This is Mishu’s question too, why are there are so few women leaders in the left movement in Bangladesh? What role have respective communist and socialist parties played in developing women leaders?
Where, I wonder, does one begin to seek answers?
The other day I was so shocked, says Mishu. Ganotantrik Bam Morcha, at present I am the co-ordinator, held a meeting to review a human chain programme organised to protest against the rise in prices of essentials. A young Morcha leader, personally I like him a lot, he is very modern in his outlook, said, ‘photographers rush off to photograph Mishu apa. They want to present the protest as a “women agitation”. I think we should be careful. We should keep an eye out for others, for senior leaders around us.’
I was truly shocked, said Mishu. I raised two questions: what do you mean by women agitation? Does that mean only men can, and should agitate, that women cannot? Even though women garment workers are a majority, even though most of our party members are women workers? Do you mean to say that these women should retreat to the back when men raise slogans, and should fall silent? You ask women to be present at the front of rallies, but when their photographs get taken, you become unhappy, you say, it becomes a women agitation. Of course, I am aware of the politics of media representation, of turning events into women events, but surely that is a separate issue.
Why does a woman leader’s photograph create problems, but not a male leader’s? Why is it that when photographers raise their cameras at me, I become a mere woman, that I am not a leader, like any other leader? Mishu added, I told them, I do not think of Tipu Biswas, or Comrade Khalequzzaman as ‘men’, I think of them as my comrades. And anyway, how is it possible, amidst all that jostling, shoving and pushing, with the police coming down upon us, to keep an eye on who is where. I told them, unlike many other women comrades, I do not deny my womanness. Yes, of course, I am a woman. However, what intrigues me is why, and when, this gets raised as an issue.
Listening to Mishu, I think, so the left movement assumes that men are not gendered creatures. That men, by virtue of being men, have been able to rise above ‘mere’ gender concerns. That when they agitate, they do it on behalf of both men and women. That it is women who are particularistic, they can represent only other women. They alone are gendered. They alone are sexual beings. Familial beings.
Let me tell you of another incident, says Mishu. It happened when I was much, much younger. I was then president of the Chhatra Oikya Forum, the only woman president among forty or so student organisations. I was arrested, I was accused of possessing arms, and of attempted bank dacoity. A group belonging to the Sarbahara Party had been caught while committing dacoity at a petrol pump station in Gazipur, I had been publicly critical of that party, so when they were caught, they falsely implicated me. They said I had led the dacoity but had managed to escape by driving away in another car. Members of my student organisation, my sisters who were then new recruits to the party, had gone around asking left leaders to give a signed statement protesting my arrest, but they refused. They said, it was not a political matter. Nirmal Sen had wryly said, at least, we now have a woman dacoit in Bangladesh. My question is, how can my arrest, and the false cases not be political? Would they have uttered my name if I was a housewife? Some left members went to the extent of wondering aloud – I know for sure because one of them, a woman leader later asked me – were you romantically involved with any of the Sarbahara members? Did he implicate you because of an affair gone sour?
Listening to Mishu I think of Kalpana Chakma, a pahari leader, abducted by army personnel from her house in Marishya, twelve years ago. A similar story, that she was romantically involved with Lieutenant Ferdous, that she had eloped with him, had been spurn. That similar threads of reasoning, albeit a very gendered one, exist in discourses conducted by institutions one assumes to be poles apart, continues to amaze me.
Comrade in marriage
Comrade Parvati writes, women who have potential do not emerge as leaders of the revolution in Nepal because of the institution of marriage. The People’s War is changing the pattern but even within the PW, marriage and the decision to have children results in a lack of continuity of women’s leadership. Having children is a ‘unilateral burden’, the birth of each new child brings greater domestic slavery. Communist women complain that ‘having babies is like being under disciplinary action’, since they are cut off from party activities for long periods. Bright, aspiring communist women are lost to oblivion, even after marrying comrades of their choice. There is little support for women during their reproductive, child-bearing years. Women cadres are overtly or covertly pressurised into marrying since both men and women are ‘suspicious’ of a woman who is not married. Sexual offences, she says, are taken more seriously than political offences.
I ask Mishu, how have the social relations of marriage and sexuality impacted on women who belong to the left tradition in Bangladesh? And you yourself, you are single. Tell me, how have left women shaped and formed the project of women’s emancipation in their aspirations for bringing socialist change in Bangladesh.
What I have seen from my left student organisation days to now, at the Party level, women who are brilliant and beautiful, shundori and sharp, in the language of left men, are selected for marriage. The idea is, this will ensure that they will remain within the left. But, that is not necessarily the case, for they often disappear into domestic oblivion. I have also heard brilliant left men say, in cases where both comrades are equally qualified, have similar potential, both cannot be built up, one needs to be crucified. Well, adds Mishu with an impish smile, I myself have never seen men being crucified. Of course, people in the left always speak of the contributions of Jenny Marx, of Krupskaya, also of Leo Jogiches (Rosa Luxemburg’s comrade and lover). And I myself, I deeply respect and admire our male comrades, they have not sacrificed any less, they have endured, persevered against all odds, they are not lacking, it’s just their outlook, they are so terribly chauvinistic. Also, in a racist sense, you cannot imagine all the talk I overhear about forsha (fair) wives, and kalo (dark-skinned) wives.
Progressive men, communist men here, and I say this Rahnuma, in all seriousness, and with the utmost confidence, they do not practise equality between men and women in their personal lives. Neither towards their wives, nor their daughters, nor sisters. They emerge as korta (lord, master). I do not want to mention names, but daughters of left leaders have been known to be given away in marriage to good grooms, good meaning husbands with qualifications from abroad. I have discussed this with other women, and their experiences are similar. And what about party women who marry comrades, party leaders, I ask. Often, says Mishu, these women are new to the party, new to Marxist philosophy. In this situation, receiving a proposal and marrying so-and-so is perceived as bringing more status, greater prestige. They seem to form an elite by themselves.
What about the issue of sexuality? You are single, you have remained single, I return to an earlier thread of our conversation. This word is never ever mentioned, says Mishu. It is taboo. I have seen men sit and chat, they laugh among themselves, I can tell that they are talking about these things. I am sure if I had a couple of men friends, I would not have a leg to stand on in politics. There would be no space for me. After being released from jail, I hear the word ‘sacrifice’ being muttered, but I know there would be no space for me if I had lived differently. I would have liked it I had a male friend, of that I am sure. And what about male comrades, I ask. Is it different? But, of course, she replies. Many male comrades were single. It seems, they had women friends, but no one gossips about it. You mean their political image does not suffer as a result? No, says Mishu. You mean, in your case, they would call you characterless? Oh, absolutely. I wouldn’t be surprised if I were to be called a ‘prostitute’. On hearing Mishu’s words, I wasn’t surprised either. As a university teacher, during the 1998 anti-rape movement on Jahangirnagar campus, an influential teacher who was furiously angry at my role in the movement had referred to me as a bessha. He had said it to another university teacher, who could not bring himself to repeat the word when he related the incident to me. Women are framed and located within a bou-bessha dichotomy, an everyday tool men use to whiplash female dissenters of patriarchy. Progressivist men dismiss it as ruchir obhab (tasteless), or nimno srenir bhasha (lower class language). The left cannot afford do it. The dichotomy itself is woven out of class-ed and gender-ed ideas. That, and its middle-class reception, both remain unexamined.
The left political tradition in Bangladesh, Mishu continues, is very masculine. That women can contribute to that tradition, both theoretically, and through their experiences as women, is something that is not seriously entertained. It is generally assumed that women can only inspire. They cannot lead. That women’s leadership can radically transform existing relations of power, this is not given any serious theoretical consideration. Men are considered to be theoretically superior. We women are adjuncts. That women’s participation, and women’s leadership can initiate changes in a masculine power structure, and that this is necessary, men in the left just do not give this any serious thought.
If we cannot create space to work together as comrades, if socialist aspirations for women are restricted to ‘yes, we must do something for the women too’, if socialist ideals of equality are not practised at every level, in the party, in the family, in personal lives, in marriage, it will not happen automatically. If I raise these issues I am accused of being a neo-Marxist, of being a feminist, but what my Marxist comrades fail to realise is that this is essential for the creative development of Marxism. Her face suddenly breaks into a smile as she says, at least they no longer tell me, the masses won’t accept you. I work at the grassroots level, unlike many. I have no problems in gaining acceptance. And yes, did I tell you, women members are expected to wear mostly white saris. You mean dress like widows? Why on earth, I ask. We burst out laughing.
If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution, had said Emma Goldman, Lithuanian-born American international anarchist.
Women’s emancipation: a male script
Left men have created a framework. Women’s emancipation will have to be thought from within that framework. You will lead your life within that framework. If you do, you can preside at the next meeting. If not, regardless of the leadership qualities you may have, you cannot. I want to repeat, I respect my male comrades, I think very highly of them, they are not an oppressive lot, but I find it difficult to accept their framework of thoughts and ideas. Leaders of other parties will compliment me on my work, they will also expect me to seek advice from them, contrary to norms of party discipline. If I do so, I am a good woman, I mean an ideal woman leader. An ideal woman leader must be a good woman, as defined by dominant social norms. We are still expected to believe that once socialism is achieved, women will become emancipated. It will happen automatically. This is an over-simplification. If and when it does happen, we will advance only one step, women will gain a few rights. What will be achieved is macho socialism.
And what about women party members, I ask. I don’t think their experiences are very different. As newcomers, often they receive proposals. Such a situation may be upsetting. She may not like it. She may leave. She may become disillusioned. To say that women have to be strong enough to handle this, ignores the question of Party responsibility to tackle these issues head-on. To make creative space for women members. For those who are the party’s ‘other’.
Our long conversation comes to an end. I am reminded of Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai who had insisted that the emancipation of women requires not only the end of capitalism, but also a concerted effort to transform human interpersonal relations – of sexuality, love and comradeship – along with the struggle for social change.
*Rahnuma Ahmed is an anthropologist based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
First published in The New Age on Tuesday the 5th August 2008