Camus in Algiers

Reading Geoff Dyer’s essay about Camus (filled with so much wisdom and beauty) and came across this passage. Dyer is in Algiers on a sort of tribute tour of the places that helped form Camus’ world. Walking one day he passes a group of boys playing football and writes:

‘As I continue walking the sun bursts out again, making the bank of cloud smoulder green-black, luminous over the sea. Perched between the road and the sea, between sun and cloud, some boys are playing football in a prairie blaze of light. The pitch glows the colour of rust. The ball is kicked high and all the potential of these young lives is concentrated on it. As the ball hangs there, moon-white against the wall of cloud, everything in the world seems briefly up for grabs and I am seized by two contradictory feelings:

there is so much beauty in the world it is incredible that we are ever miserable for a moment; there is so much shit in the world that it is incredible we are ever happy for a moment.

Dyer, Geoff. Anglo-English Attitudes (p. 177). Canongate Books. Kindle Edition.

Just that. Just that.

Camus in Algiers

Lost Europeans

This is a sort of footnote to my blogpost about the Dreyfus Affair and anti-semitism.

One of Rose’s points was that Dreyfus showed French Jews (and reminded Jews everywhere) that even the most assimilated, the most loyal, diligent and dedicated servant of the state could become in an instant the other, the outsider, the Jew.

For Jews themselves it gave added impetus to the drive for a Jewish state – where else could a Jew truly be safe? Many liberal minded Europeans – guilty by association – felt the need too, in part at least as a way of saving European Jews from ourselves.

Now that Israel exists, it all feels a more complicated. In my lifetime Israel has morphed in liberal (my) consciousness from embattled underdog (Democratic, western, like us) into an oppressor, justifying every terrible action by that first promise – that Israel should be the place Jews must be able to be safe.

It clouds our understanding of what anti-semitism is and how we understand it. I feel it myself.

When, recently, Margaret Hodge said that the rise of anti-semitism within the Labour Party put her in mind of her father’s advice, telling her that, “you’ve got to keep a packed suitcase at the door, Margaret, in case you ever have to leave in a hurry.” She added, “when I heard about the disciplinary action, my emotional response resonated with that feeling of fear”.

In my own mind, my response was equivocal. I heard a wealthy privileged woman, close to the heart of power in this country, and part of me was suspicious that this was a sort of over-statement for political effect. Like many Labour politicians, Hodge has never made any secret of her distaste for Corbyn or the Labour values he stands for.

The feeling was also coloured by a concern that anti-semitism and a wish to challenge Israel’s actions in the Middle East were being conflated, making criticism of Israel that bit more difficult – and I wanted to resist the link (most clearly seen in the definition of anti-semitism that Labour was being pressed to adopt) being strengthened.

I still feel that humanity demands that we challenge Israel over its treatment of Palestinians until a proper settlement can be found, but I read a book recently that led me back to Margaret Hodge’s feeling of unease with a lot more sympathy and understanding.

Dennis Litvinov’s first novel was called, The Lost Europeans and describes the experience of a young Jewish man who goes back to Berlin after the war to set in motion a claim for restitution of his family’s property.

He himself was a child in the 30s. His family were wealthy bankers, secular and assimilated until the rise of the Nazis threatened them. Then, like Dreyfus, they became suspect, ‘other’. They suffered tragic loss – his sister experimented on and killed, his mother’s suicide – before his father escaped the country bringing him to England.

In every outward sense he goes to Berlin a middle class, public school educated Englishmen – but he is a Jew and Berlin helps him understand what this will always mean. He reflects:

‘After all, was he so English? How would they be remembered in London, he and his kind? As temporary residents among the many thousands who occupied furnished rooms in the big, hospitable metropolis? As one species among a host of refugees from every land of intolerance, a class apart, with a voice, a manner, a shrillness that belonged nowhere in the strictly stratified society of England? As something of a burden on the conscience of liberal socialists; too-many-of-the-chosen-people-in-the-professions to the strident housewives of the Conservative Association; white Negroes to the league of Empire Loyalists? The kind and sentimental might think of Daniel Deronda. The others, the enemy, of Shylock, or Eliot’s Jew squatting on the windowsill of the decayed civilisation he owns, or of Colleoni in Brighton Rock – The Tempter who looked like a man who owned the whole visible world, cash registers, police, prostitutes, Parliament, and law, and whose face was the face of any middle-aged Jew, the mythological Wanderer trapped, as they saw it, in the web of his own evil. Judas.

That’s how it was written into the civilisation of Europe. It was the classic Jewish dilemma. Once they offered you conversion, the forgiving embrace of an alien church; then the chimerical brotherhood of man. But all roads led to Auschwitz, to the Warsaw ghetto.

The truth, it said, is that you have been condemned to homelessness. Each generation passes onto the next its virus of insecurity. You learn the technique of survival, fearing ostentation as if it were a vice, censoring the act or gesture that may be pilloried as strangeness, observing yourself constantly through the eyes of an enemy. In a fortunate time a hundred years may pass and you will remain unmolested. You become incautious and show a coloured feather, a hand with six fingers, and another King arises to say: ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we: Come let us deal wisely with him; lest they multiply…and join also unto our enemies.’ You who survive go out to the wilderness for 40 years, space of a generation, until a new, hard people advance upon another land of promise.’

The book was published in the late 50s and it’s been a long time since I have read such a clear expression of the experience of European Jews. Of the insecurity that is bred in the bone – the deep knowledge that achievement and wealth and even access to power will not protect (and may even harm) you, that neither assimilation or difference matters, that, sure as the sun rises and sets every day, when the wheel turns persecution will come again.

In this context Margaret Hodge was only saying what every European Jew must know in their bones.

For liberals now, even though we challenge Israel – and we must – we must not forget that this is also true, or that we, have been, are still, responsible for that turning of the wheel.

Lost Europeans

I am a person…The story of Gertrude Bell

If you think of those early years of Arab nationalism and middle-east peace settlements, you might think of Sykes/Piquot, possibly of Lawrence and his disillusion when wartime promises to Arab leaders were disavowed after the war.

Before tonight though, I wouldn’t have thought of Gertrude Bell.

I knew she was around the Middle East at the time, but in my mind I had her down as one of that tribe of English gentlewomen, dressed improbably in full Edwardian splendour, who spent their lives in foreign parts, writing the occasional travel book.

Yet Bell was a much more significant figure than that. She was a true adventurer, exploring parts of the Arab world where almost no European had been before. She became expert in language, customs and tribal relations before the first world war and was then able to offer insights and strategic advice to soldiers and statesmen both while the fighting was going on and through the post war settlements.

She was Al-Khatun – the woman who advises the ruler. She was pretty much the architect of the new country of Iraq, fighting for the right of Arabs to govern the new state.

Her story is told vividly in a recent documentary C and I watched last night, called Letters From Baghdad. Based on letters and reports, some of them secret, it revealed a clever, warm and passionate woman who was able to face down so much official (and male) resistance to the very idea of a woman playing any sort of role in politics. The mix of modern and archive footage managed to give a real immediacy to the story. Here’s the trailer:

 

 

 

The credits are fascinating too – the film has clearly been funded and made on a very different model to most. Lists of supporters – almost all of them women – scroll past and, if you go to the film’s website, you can see that it is the first fruit of a project to make different a sort of film. Worth exploring in its own right. 

The website is here.

I am a person…The story of Gertrude Bell