Lapels in Britain have for some weeks been festooned with red poppies to mark the end of World War I on November 11 1918. Poppies, because they were the first flowers to bloom from the battlefields of Flanders after the war ended. Red, folklore has it, because the soil was drenched with blood.
Since the start of the ”war on terror”, my feelings on poppy wearing have become mixed, my reassessment as yet unrefined. For the moment, suffice to say, if the commemorative poppies were my idea, I would object to British Prime Minister Tony Blair wearing one. He has also spilt blood on soil. Is wearing a red poppy not also a statement: ”never again”? A poppy on his lapel reminds me of the flourishing opium trade in warlord-controlled Afghanistan, not the battlefields of Flanders. And even as Britain pauses ”at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month to remember those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom”, the tens of thousands who die in Iraq continue to die invisibly, unnamed and uncounted every day.
In France, which saw the worst of World War I, Remembrance Day this year coincided with the worst riots in decades. Even as Europe gathered to commemorate the two world wars, its wars, which in the end sucked in the whole world, she continues to cling to her oldest idealised archetypes: ”Mirror, mirror on the wall, who in this land is fairest of all?” Europe continues to be deluded by the mirror’s response. As immigration specialist for the French Institute for International Relations Christophe Bertossian has pointed out: ”The idea that [France is] equal is fiction. Ethnic minorities keep being told they do not exist.” Blackness in Europe is constantly lamented, rarely celebrated. Blackness in Europe is at best acknowledged by awkward and contrived tokens. October is Black History Month in Britain. So normative history is white? And for a month ”black” history is allowed to loiter on the corners of the ghettoes but for the rest of the year, ”white” history runs the town? For whom do the stars shine?
And who is allowed to comment, when? Hands up if you’ve been told: ”Well, if you don’t like it, leave.” Who can comment? Who dissent? Who in France has the right, which Arundhati Roy reserves in India, ”to be a thug”? I cannot recall the prime minister using the president’s words, ”with us or against us”, but his wholehearted and lustful appetite for war has lent more than tacit support to the ultimatum. In France, who is allowed to work? Doing what, where? French equality is drum-hollow and its glass ceiling ankle-high. Timothy Garton Ash, writing in The Guardian of November 10, recounts the story of an entertainer on a housing estate who wrote two letters of application for a job in a state television channel. In one, he gave his African name and actual address while in the other he gave a fictitious French name and a better address. The African was unsuccessful. The fictitious French candidate got an interview. For whom do the stars shine?
At the end of a reading I gave in Johannesburg in September, I was approached by a young Algerian. He started with praise before proceeding to rebuke. When I first heard the news of Paris burning, I remembered his reproach. ”I love this book,” he said, holding up my novel, ”but I hate this flag on this cover.” I looked to his finger pointing to the circle of 12 yellow stars. ”They are trying to co-opt you. You should not have accepted this award. They are trying to silence you.” When I visited the French Cultural Centre in Nablus in August, my French-Moroccan travel companion refused to accompany me. Why the distrust? For whom do the stars shine?
Write a story, you don’t know how it stars. Publish it, you don’t know where it goes. You have relinquished it. As words on paper, the title of The Silent Minaret is now prefixed by the title of the European Union. I never envisaged that. I have these past weeks been asked my views on France from Cape Town to Ramallah, not because I wrote a book, but because of the award that book won. And, as with literature, so with awards that aim to support literature. I don’t know what kind of story the EU imagined when it set out to support new South African literature. I don’t know whether it envisaged a novel in which its underbelly lies exposed. Yet, the laurel was placed and a union made. That is commendable.
When the ”war on terror” was launched four years ago this autumn, I was privileged to have been part of the organisation of a concert to foreground Afghan cultural production at a time when that country was being vilified by war. Even as the bombs were falling, leading Afghan musicians from around the world united in London to bring Afghan classical music to the Royal Albert Hall for the first time in its history. The symbolism of the event was not lost: Afghans were bringing music to Britain while Britain was taking bombs to Afghanistan.
I look to the end of the ”war on terror”. I wager it will be soon. Last month Blair put his head on the block for new anti-terror legislation. He got it chopped off. The war would not have happened without his support. And now his days are numbered. But when the war ends, what will it have achieved? Will there be a peace treaty? How many bridges will have to be rebuilt? Will we manage to rebuild them all? What flowers will we wear on our lapels to remember the fallen, forget-me-nots? I don’t know. But while war might topple statues at speed, it brutalises and stereotypes at leisure. As long as the war continues, it must be countered and of this I am convinced: there is no better force to counter war than culture, counter-culture and open debate. Those bridges must never be burnt.
The Silent Minaret and the EU Literary Award, both are new, both contentious, and both, in times of war, an attempt at cultural intervention. And not in culture as in politics: in culture, the writing hand is never ”co-opted”, is always free to bite the hand that praises it. Is always free to ask: Why does the Algerian finger point disdainfully at the EU flag? Regarding France, a France, which in The Silent Minaret terrifies Frances, the writing hand is always allowed an observation: that France has demonstrated itself to be as incapable of nurturing its diversity as it is of taking care of its old. And as the response of the French state becomes vexingly draconian and blatantly racist, then my writing hand must say that the light from the circular constellation of 12 stars, which now adorns my book, does not shed its golden rays equally on all in the firmament. It must express its utopian hope that, out of the ashes of 15 nights of flame, something new will be nurtured into growth. Till then, if it is to have any credibility now and in post-flame utopia, the writing hand must say: European cities are burning. We know why. We take note of how and with what force your governments extinguish the flames. And we ask: For whom do the 12 stars of the union shine? They shine not for us.
Ishtiyaq Shukri won the first European Union Literary Award for his novel The Silent Minaret