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War on Words

The triumph of the free market after the end of the Cold War doesn't mean a free market in ideas. Tariq Ali discusses the way literature can still be a crime against the state

August 23, 2000
11 min read

Every night for eight years a prisoner on Buru Island in Indonesia, condemned to decades in prison, fought against cruelty, disease and creeping insanity by telling his story to his fellow political outlaws. As they listened to him, his fellow prisoners momentarily forgot where they were or who had sentenced them to years of suffering. Pramoedya Ananta Toer was arrested after the military coup in Jakarta in 1965. For 12 years he was a prisoner on Buru Island. The tales he told his fellow prisoners in desperate times later became a much-acclaimed quartet of novels known as Minke’s Story. The first of these, This Earth of Mankind, was published in 1981, topped the bestseller list for 10 months and was banned. The publishing company was forced to close down. Toer had been released in 1979, but his movements are still subject to severe restriction by the Indonesian military dictatorship. He is presently on the short-list of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Getting it could literally set him free.

If we needed a reminder of the hideous intolerance of the world we could look back to the crime that happened in Nigeria a few months ago. The writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, together with several colleagues, was brutally tortured and executed by a military dictatorship heavily dependent on the multinational oil giant Shell. Capitalism’s global triumph after the fall of the Berlin Wall has not, alas, been a victory for the Enlightenment. Even as I write, the hoarse voices of Saro-Wiwa’s murderers are demanding more blood. They want the head of their exiled Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka. They tell us he is free to return to Nigeria. What they really mean is that they can’t wait to kill him. Why? Because Soyinka is using his international status as a writer to plead with the US and the EU for the imposition of oil sanctions against Nigeria’s uniformed assassins. He wants freedom and democracy for his country. Western elites remain deaf to his pleas.

It could be argued that Soyinka, like Saro-Wiwa, is being hounded not because of his literary output but because of his political activity. This is not strictly true. Soyinka’s worldview is visible in most of his plays and novels, but even if this were not the case, why should it make any difference? Saro-Wiwa and Soyinka are respected by the voiceless citizens of Nigeria precisely because of the prestige they have won as writers. In countries where the truth can only be spoken in whispers, those who speak out loudly are heroes.

Circumstances pushed Saro-Wiwa and Soyinka to speak up for their people. There are others, inhabitants of the house of Islam: Naguib Mahfouz in Egypt, Abdur-Rehman Munif in Syria, Salman Rushdie in Britain, Mohamed Choukri in Morocco, the poet Adonis of no fixed abode, and countless writers and journalists in Algiers who are threatened by obscurantist preachers in Cairo, Riyadh, Karachi, Tangiers and Tehran. As Women Against Fundamentalism points out, women have also been targeted. In 1994, Taslima Nasreen, the popular Bangladeshi writer, escaped to Sweden to avoid a fatwa after being charged with ‘hurting religious sentiments’ with her book Shame; Sufia Kamal, a secularist poet, receives repeated death threats; and Lindsey Collen’s The Rape of Sita, a book about violence against women, was banned by the Mauritian prime minister for ‘blasphemy’.

These fictions, we are told, offend the faithful who pray to be delivered from such filth. In reality it is the fundamentalist demagogues who want to restrict the mental horizons of the faithful. They know only too well that in a climate of fear, fiction can assume magical powers. They are especially keen to prevent any real discussion of Islamic history. We are, after all, talking about a culture which has experienced its own renaissance. During the Middle Ages, it was Europe that was full of ignoble savages. There was a time when Cairo, Jerusalem, Damascus, Baghdad, Aleppo, Homs, Tripoli, Tyre and Ispahan were cosmopolitan cities in which Muslims, Jews and Christians co-existed relatively peacefully. They were important centres of commerce and learning. Tens of thousands of manuscripts were preserved in hundreds of public and private libraries. A majority of the urban male population could read and write. Literature and philosophy were avidly debated in the tea shops, public baths, universities and brothels. Compared to these cities, Paris, London, Mainz and Milan were nothing more than provincial villages. When Mahfouz and Munif sit down to write their novels, they reflect, perhaps subconsciously, the cumulative experience of the Arab renaissance. Their confessional tormentors, on the contrary, are the modern equivalents of the barbarian Crusaders who waged war against the superior civilisation that they found in the East.

In these great times when we are promised a new world order based on freedom and human rights, literature itself has become a crime. Abdur-Rehman Munif was stripped of his Saudi nationality for writing his five-volume Cities of Salt, a fictional account of how US oil companies created a state to defend their interests.

Munif’s books circulate clandestinely throughout his native country, but he is an exile, fearful in the knowledge that his enemies have a long arm, but defiant in his belief that a poet must never stop singing. He told me once that it was the double-standards of the cold warriors in Washington which filled him with nausea. They talked of democracy and human rights in the USSR, Eastern Europe and Cuba, but ‘when the West reached the Mediterranean coasts, they forgot about democracy. All they thought about was oil.’

Mohamed Choukri is aware of the risks he faces. His novels are constantly under attack by television clerics and ‘critics’ in the pay of the government. His autobiography, For Bread Alone, was banned in Morocco and most Arab countries. It was printed by Al Saqi, a London-based Arab publisher and this edition sold 20,000 copies in 18 months. What annoyed the authorities was Choukri’s assault on the grim social conditions of everday life which were reflected inside an ordinary patriarchal Arab household. A characteristic paragraph reads:

‘Each afternoon, my father comes home disappointed. He hits my mother. Several times I’ve heard him tell her ‘I’m getting out, bitch… rotten whore’. He abuses everyone with his words, sometimes even Allah. My little brother cries and squirms on the bed. I see my father walking towards the bed. No one can run away from the craziness of his eyes. He twists the small head furiously. When my father dies I’ll go to his grave and piss on it. I’ll make his tomb a latrine.’

Choukri prefers to ignore his critics. Saturated though they may be in hatred and fanaticism, they ‘should not be given the opportunity to enter history in a banal way’. He tells of entering an Islamic bookshop in Morocco and finding Darwin and Nietzsche next to the Koran. On an adjoining shelf there sat Moravia, Sartre and Marx. ‘And yet,’ he smiles, ‘they stop an Arab writer who writes about the same things.’ Morocco is a striking example of paradox and contradiction in an Islamic country which is both fascinated and frightened by modernism.

This is not exclusively an African or Islamic phenomenon. During the midnight of our century, Europe lay in the shadow of fascism and Stalinism. The Germans burned books, and Mann, Brecht, Adorno, Benjamin and numerous others fled the country. Mussolini ordered that Gramsci be imprisoned ‘to stop his mind from working’. Franco’s killers executed Lorca. And in Stalin’s Russia, Mayakovsky was driven to suicide, while Babel, Mandelstam and Meyerhold, to name only three, were killed in the prison camps. Familiar voices fell silent.

After the horrors of the Second World War there was a slight lull on all sides. The Cold War gave us McCarthyism and its thought-police in the Anglo-Saxon world, a pale reflection of its Stalinist counterpart, but destructive none the less. Many decent human beings were forced to lead debased lives, others went into exile. A few were executed as ‘spies’.

East of the Elbe there was a marginal improvement. Poets and writers were silenced, but censorship and imprisonment, rather than slow death, became the norm. Pasternak was mistreated, Daniels and Sinyavsky were put on trial. Vassily Grossman was told by the Politburo hack, Suslov, that his masterpiece Life and Fate would not be published in the USSR for hundreds of years. Milan Kundera’s The Joke was regarded by the Prague bureaucrats as an affront, driving its author into exile.

In post-war Europe, a few intellectuals refused to blindly support either Moscow or Washington or, for that matter, the Quai d’Orsay and Whitehall. Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell may no longer be fashionable, but they were courageous thinkers. Sartre’s expose of French atrocities in Algeria and Russell’s campaign against nuclear weapons brought both men together in the 1960s to propose a War Crimes Tribunal whose aim was to try the US for war crimes in Vietnam. This was before the My Lai massacre shocked the world. The Tribunal was not permitted to meet in Paris or in London – so it met in Stockholm in 1967. Those who presided over its hearings were, in the main, intellectuals of one sort or another. They knew that their commitment would make a difference and they were right.

As a new conformity grips the remaining years of this century, we need an intellectual commitment and independence from our writers more than ever before. The existence of the USSR compelled ruling groups in the West to take their socialist critics seriously. The collapse has brought with it a retreat by the left intelligentsia. Depression, hysteria, withdrawal, introversion, suicide (especially in Germany) have all claimed their victims. But it is time to sharpen our pens once again. The lessons from Africa and elsewhere are clear. The task of reviving a critical political culture can not be left to the politicians alone.

I am not one of those who believe that intellectuals deserve special treatment. I do not think that novelists, by virtue of their talent, can simply transcend the problems faced by lesser mortals. The cases cited reveal that the experience of an individual writer is usually the experience of a nation. Writers are singled out because their ability to express knowledge is regarded as dangerous and infectious. They are seen as a cancer that must be rooted out. Western democracies are not interested in the fate of novelists in countries like Saudi Arabia, South Korea or Indonesia. The World Bank lays down tough economic conditions (designed mainly to punish the poor) before it advances new loans to its client states, but basic human rights never form part of any package. Deep down, the free-market fanatics know that a free market in ideas might ultimately challenge their profits. They would rather not take the risk. Is it purely accidental that the ‘Tiger economies’ of the Far East, where capital is more dynamic at the moment than in its old heartlands, are all countries where human lives are cheap, trade unions neutered and intellectual freedoms virtually non-existent? Who weeps for the incarcerated publishers, writers and journalists of South Korea? Not Washington.

And so Saro-Wiwa is executed with impunity by the butchers in Lagos while Toer languishes under house arrest in Jakarta and his tormentors wipe out a whole generation of youth in East Timor. Conditions in South Korea and Singapore are just as bad. So why is Cuba alone privileged with US sanctions? Something is rotten deep in the heart of the New World Order. This is a world whose priorities are determined by the needs of oil companies and the profit margins of arms merchants.

In the old USSR a writer, to be ‘successful’, had to accept ‘socialist realism’. In the West today there is a growing concentration of ownership of publishing empires and distribution networks in the hands of fewer and fewer robber-barons. They are no more interested in culture than Hermann Goering was. Books are a commodity. The books they want are bestsellers. Pulp fiction is all the rage. It is market realism that dominates Western literature. The new conformity discourages diversity and experimentation; it encourages introversion and celebrates escapism.

It will not last. The mood will pass. When hope is reborn, cynicism and passivity will be buried once again. Then writers in the West will once again lift their heads high and link arms across the continents with their colleagues who continue to sacrifice their lives for freedom.

The Arab poet Adonis remains optimistic: ‘You cannot extinguish light by means of darkness. You can only offer a brighter light, a more beautiful one. Truth cannot be defeated by murder and lies.’ I agree, but try telling that to General Abacha in Lagos and Rupert Murdoch in video-space.

Tariq Ali is an editor of New Left Review.

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