Enjoy the collage of photographs from In That Howling Infinite and check out the stories.
I was inspired to write this post on viewing the video below, a harrowing picture gallery of the Bosnian War, the bloodiest but not the last of the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession. I was reminded of the iconic Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran’s poem, Pity the Nation, a sardonic and incisive take on the politics of his time and his homeland. It is chilling in its prescience with regard to contemporary politics in the Middle East and indeed, much, much closer to home on in our liberal democracies where les mots de jour, and indeed, des temps are ‘populism’ and ‘post-truth’, where allegations of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news are ubiquitous and duplicitous, and where, in a milieu of fear, anger and loathing, intolerance and ignorance appear to be on the rise.
Today, in America, 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale are best-sellers, and doubtless, as resignation and surrender sink in, Fahrenheit 451 and Catch 22 will catch on with intellectually and numerically inclined. The one is the temperature at which paper burns (“Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading”), the other, the mother of all vicious circles. The 22 was meant to be 18, but Joseph Heller was gazzumped by Leon Uris’ holocaust melodrama Mila 18 (which I do happen to like).
I was also reminded of a book of the same name. In Pity the Nation, his tombstone of a book about Lebanon’s civil war, and Israel’s intervention therein (inspired by Gibran’s poem, and by the fact the he has been a resident of Lebanon for going on half a century), the redoubtable British journalist Robert Fisk writes of a Lebanese doctor, Amal Shamaa: “I had to take the babies and put them in buckets of water to put out the flames. When I took them out half an hour after, they were still burning. Even in the mortuary, they smouldered for hours”. “Next morning”, Fisk continues, “Amal Shamaa took the tiny corpses out of the mortuary for burial. To her horror, they again burst into flames”. Such is the effect of phosphorous shells on mortals. Made in America, used on Arabs, by Jews. But it happens anywhere and everywhere, inflicted by anyone on everyone.
Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion.
Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave
and eats a bread it does not harvest.
Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero,
and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful.
Pity a nation that despises a passion in its dream,
yet submits in its awakening.
Pity the nation that raises not its voice
save when it walks in a funeral,
boasts not except among its ruins,
and will rebel not save when its neck is laid
between the sword and the block.
Pity the nation whose statesman is a fox,
whose philosopher is a juggler,
and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking
Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpeting,
and farewells him with hooting,
only to welcome another with trumpeting again.
Pity the nation whose sages are dumb with years
and whose strongmen are yet in the cradle.
Pity the nation divided into fragments,
each fragment deeming itself a nation.
Kahlil Gibran, The Garden of The Prophet (1933)
The following song, E Lucevan Le Stelle, encapsulates all this:
“And time, ’tis said reveals its dead, and we will speak what was unsaid. How he was wrong, and I was led – his song I sing who gives me bread. It wasn’t me! I kept my head – I had my kin and kind to serve. It wasn’t me – I kept the faith. It wasn’t me who lost his nerve”.
It charts the cartography of carnage: Bali, Beslan, Gaza, Grozny, Kabul, Kigali, Sabra, Srebrenica, and other “far-away places with strange sounding names”. ”Many have perished, and more most surely will”. This latter quotation is adapted from Auden’s often overlooked masterpiece The Age of Anxiety, a meditation on a world in pain. “The bane of bad geography, the burden of topography, lines where they’re not meant to be are letters carved in stone”. “Bombs and babies, girls and guns, dollars, drugs and more betides, wash like waves on strangers’ shores: damnation takes no sides”.
Related posts In That Howling Infinite:
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, American poet, painter, liberal activist, and co-founder of the legendary City Lights Booksellers & Publishers in San Francisco, wrote the following poem in 2007 as a tribute to Gibran, and as a sad testament to the aphorism “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”.
“Pity the nation whose people are sheep and whose shepherds mislead them.
Pity the nation whose leaders are liars, whose sages are silenced, and whose bigots haunt the airwaves.
Pity the nation that raises not its voice except to praise conquerors and acclaim the bully as heroand aims to rule the world with force and by torture.
Pity the nation that knows no other language but its own and no other culture but its own.
Pity the nation whose breath is money and sleeps the sleep of the too well fed.
Pity the nation – oh, pity the people who allow their rights to erode and their freedoms to be washed away.
My country, tears of thee, sweet land of liberty.
“Bear me up on angels’ wings, and other transcendental things. Where the golden walls still glow, let my people go to Jerusalem”.
Jerusalem is all about faith and passion, and there is no city on Earth that people get more passionate about. The light is luminous. In high summer it almost shimmers. The very air is full of prayer and politics, passion and pain, and the rocks and stones virtually sing a hallelujah chorus of history. I am not a religious person, but I cannot help getting excited by the place – although I do not transcend to transports of delight and delirium. Some folk love Jerusalem so much, they go mad.
Recorded by Charles Tyler at Susan Street, Annandale, 14th May 2017. © Paul Hemphill 2014 All rights reserved
“Byzantium, Byzantium, Constantinople, Kostaniniyye, Istanbul – The City has tangled with or represented an “idea” for so many, its influence has spun so far that her story, whether imperial, spiritual, cultural or political, frequently ends up being played out anywhere and everywhere other than in the city itself”. Bethany Hughes , Istanbul – A Tale of Three Cities
As we observe Turkish president Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s apparent drive to reestablish Ottoman autocracy, those who take a longer view of history will assert that there is nothing new under the sun. There is nothing unprecedented about Erdogan’s apparent urge to don the imperial purple, and join the long cavalcade of colourful emperors and sultans that ruled the land that now constitute modern Turkey.
Richard Fidler reminds of this as he literally walks us through the streets of Istanbul.
Part father-son quest, part travel story, ‘Ghost Empire’ is at once a history, and a treasury of tales both true and far-fetched. The Australian author and broadcaster, and onetime member of the comedy trio, the Doug Anthony Allstars, has written a blend of popular history and meditation on the significance of history.
Although ‘Ghost Empire’ might in seem in parts overly breezy and lightweight, as an introduction to the ancient and wondrous city of Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul, it is an highly informative portal to weightier albeit less entertaining books. This is not to say it is without its more harrowing moments. Fidler dwells as much on the gory as on the glory. And indeed, for many, particularly the sons of emperors and sultans, confidants and conspirators, life could indeed be nasty, brutish and short.
Whilst Fidler’s primary focus is the story of the Byzantines, concluding with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, he travels back and forth in Istanbul’s long and storied history, between the violent past and the tumultuous present, from Julius Caesar and Constantine the Great, and the power couple Justinian and Theodosia, through Mehmet the Conqueror and Suleiman the Magnificent, to Ataturk and Erdogan, and captures the magic and at times, mayhem of the fabled metropolis that inspired WB Yeats to write:
“Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come”
© Paul Hemphill 2017. All rights reserved
If Ghost Empire has whetted you appetite, i would recommend Bethany Hughes’ more substantial – “encyclopedic ” would a better description – Istanbul – A Tale of Three Cities (Orion 2017). It is a lengthy, comprehensive and fascinating journey from the prehistoric past to the polarizing present.
There is also Simon Sebag Montefiore’s documentary, which personally, I found disappointing after his Jerusalem – The Biography.
Here are some reviews of Ghost Empire:
As I contemplate my annual review of In That Howling Infinite, I am reminded, with clichéd predictability, of that well-worn Chinese curse: “may you live in interesting times”.
A torturous and seemingly endless US election campaign defied all the pundits by producing an colourful and unpredictable POTUS. In the UK, the unthinkable Brexit came to pass, dividing the polity and discombobulating the establishment. Next year is certainly going to be worth watching.
The slow and tragic death of Syria continued unabated with Russian and Turkey wading into the quagmire alongside Americans, British, French, Australians, Iran, Lebanon, Gulf tyrants, and Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Da’esh might be on the the ropes in Iraq, but the long term survival of the unitary state is doubtful. And the proxy wars of the Ottoman Succession have spread to Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle Eas as Gulf tyrants face off against Shia Iran’s alleged puppets, and, armed and abetted by British and American weaponry, South American mercenaries, and Australian officers, bomb the shit out of the place.
Whilst the grim reaper scythed through the world from Baghdad to Berlin, from Aleppo to Ankara, the Year saw the passing of a record number of icons of the seventies and eighties, two of whom who have provided a continuing soundtrack for my life, Leonard Cohen and David Bowie. We shall not see the like of them again.
In our little corner of the cosmos, we endured the longest and most boring election campaign in living memory, resulting in an outcome that only accentuates Australians’ disenchantment with a lacklustre Tory government, a depressingly dysfunctional political system, and politicians of all stripes who, blinkered by short-termism, and devoid of vision, insist on fiddling whilst the antipodean Roman burns.
Meanwhile, in our own rustic backyard, we find that we too are “going up against chaos”, to quote that wonderful Canadian songster Bruce Cockburn. For much of the year, we have been engaged in combat with the Forestry Corporation of New South Wales as it proceeds to lay waste to the state forest that surrounds us. As the year draws to a close, our adversary has withdrawn with only half of its proposed harvest completed. But it will return in 2017, and the struggle will continue – as it will throughout the state and indeed the nation as timber, coal and gas corporations, empowered by legislation, trash the common treasury with the assent of our many governments.
And yet, life on the farm remains pleasant and delightful, though dams are low and rain would be most welcome. The bird and reptilian life continues to amaze us, and an ironic corollary to the clear felling of the Tarkeeth Forest is that “refugees” are seeking shelter here. Wallabies rarely seen on our land are now quite common, whilst echidnas, and, we suspect, endangered spotted quolls have been sighted hereabouts
We took time out mid-year to revisit Israel and Palestine, and road-trip through the two countries was much an education as a holiday. We certainly got our history and archeology fix, and in travelling through the Golan and the Negev, we found respite in a stunning natural environment. But the answers to our many political questions merely threw up more questions. We have unfinished business in this divine but divided land, and will return.
In That Howling Infinite addressed all these concerns during 2016, and matters more eclectic and exotic.
And so, to the year in review:
The new year commenced with a reprise of our memorable journey to Hadrians Wall, and of the Victorian lawyer who helped preserve it for posterity, the saga of the viking Harald Hardraga and also, my subjective overview of world history. In a more lighthearted vein, I indulged in an unscholarly discussion of how film and fiction have portrayed or distorted history, and in a review of Mary Beard’s superlative history of Rome, I asked the immortal question “what have the Romans done for us?”
In April, in response to a discussion with a Facebook friend in Oklahoma, I wrote a trilogy of exotically-titled posts examining the nature of rebellion, revolution, and repression: Thermidorian Thinking, Solitudinem Faciunt Pacem Appellant, and Sic Semper Tyrannis. The origin of these Latin aphorisms is explained, by the way, in the aforementioned Roman review.
Our travels through Israel and Palestine inspired numerous real-time posts, and a several retrospectives as we contemplated what we had experienced during what was as much an educational tour as a holiday. Historical vignettes included a tribute to bad-boy and builder King Herod the Great, a brief history of the famous Damascus Gate, and its place in Palestinian national consciousness, and a contemplation on the story of King David’s Citadel which overlooked our home-away-from home, the New Imperial Hotel. Thorny contemporary issues were covered with an optimistic piece on the Jerusalem Light Rail, a brief if controversial post about Jewish settlers in the Old City, the story of Israel’s ‘Eastern’ Jews, the Mizrahim, and what appears to be a potentially problematic Palestinian property boom. Th e-magazine Muftah published an article I wrote about the conflicting claims to the city of Hebron. And finally, there is a poem recalling our visit to the Shrine of Remembrance at Yad Vashem and honouring the Righteous Gentiles who saved thousand of Jewish lives during the Shoah.
Wintertime passed with our minds on the Tarkeeth Forest. I had the pleasure discovering the history of our locality, and connecting via Facebook with the relatives of the Fells family of Twin Pines. But the latter half of the year was very much taken up with enduring and bearing witness to the clear- felling of the forest to our east. “If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise. If you go down to the woods today, you’ll never believe your eyes”. And you’d ask “what would JRR Tolkien have thought?”
The UK And US paroxysms fascinated and exasperated the mainstream and social media in equal measure, whilst the outcome of the Brexit referendum and the presidential election has initiated an a veritable orgy of punditry. Never have so many column inches and kilobytes been spent on loud sounding nothings as the sifting through the entrails of such events as Brexit, the US election, and the Australian senate! With half a dozen elections coming up in Europe, Trump’s inauguration and the triggering of Article 50 to take Britain out the European Union, we’re gonna have to endure a lot more. I confined my posts to two insightful pieces by respected right-wing Australian commentators, Paul Kelly’s Living in Interesting Times, and Greg Sheridan’s The Loss of American Virtue, and my own reflection on the right-wing media’s strange fascination with “insiders” and “outsiders”.
Finally, in comparison to last year, this year was very light on music and poetry. But American satirist Tom Lehrer got a retrospective, and murdered Pakistani qawwali singer Madhaf Sabri, an obituary, whilst an abridged and vernacular version of John Milton’s Paradise Lost told the tale of Lilith, the first and greatest femme fatale. In the words of the gloriously-named jockey Rueben Bedford Walker III says in EC Morgan’s magnificent The Sport of Kings, the subject of my first post for 2017, “Malt does more than Milton can to justify God’s ways to man”.
On that wise note, I wish the world a Happy New Year – and may it be less interesting than this one.
Strangers in a strange land
When I first visited Israel in the early ‘seventies, it was a white man’s land with the look and feel of a European colony transplanted in Levantine soil.
The European Ashkenazim (literally, “German” Jews), the returnees of the diaspora, were in the majority. They had dominated politics and culture from the days of the first Zionist immigration, and through the mandate years of the Yishuv when Eastern Europeans predominated in the movement and in the fledgling military. The republic that the Ashkenazim prepared for during the Mandate and then built after 1948 was, in intent and in actuality, a white, secular, socialist outpost of Central and Eastern Europe.
The Sephardim, Jews who had lived in Palestine for centuries, and up to a million Jews expelled from Arab countries after 1948, were, for some forty years of Israel’s existence, a disadvantaged minority. The name itself was misleading. ‘Sephardi’ originally described Jews who had been expelled from Spain in the late fifteenth century. But it came to be applied to anyone who was not Ashkenazi. They were discriminated against in many spheres of Israeli life, regarded as primitive, backward, ill-educated, and poor – and more like Arabs than Jews.
And this was indeed the case in many respects. Jewish communities had been an integral part of Arab society for centuries. From Morocco to Iran, they had lived, thrived, and prospered among the their Muslim neigbours. The Jewish communities in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iran were old and populous, and indeed often predated Christianity. From high to low, they were entwined in their local politics and economics.The lower classes were as poor and as downtrodden as their Arab neighbours. The professional and mercantile middle class lived very comfortable lives, and under late Ottoman rule, and British and French suzerainty, enjoyed a cosmopolitan lifestyle.
Embedded in the heart and soul of their Arab homelands, they shared the same history, suffered the same depredations, wore the same clothes, ate the same food, made and listened to the same music. Many of their values and cultural norms had more in common with the east than the west.
Oriental Jewish culture was based on three pillars: the community, the synagogue and the father. Faith was the cornerstone and family paramount, and with these, the authority of the rabbi and the head of the household. Piety was respected, chastity honoured, modesty and decorum observed, and marriages arranged. Religion, tradition and patriarchy preserved the community for a millennium. It did not experience European-style secularization, western enlightenment, or a revolt against religion. Even when modernization came, the father and the rabbi remained dominant.
There was harmony between Arab and Jew. Life had order, meaning, and a timeless rhythm. No one imagined that one day, they would have to abandon their lives, their homes and possessions and the graves of their ancestors. Never did they contemplate having to flee, in fear of their lives from the people among whom they had lived for generations, and seek refuge in a fledgling European, secular, modern state on the edge of the Mediterranean.
After 1948, the relatively charmed existence of oriental Jews in North Africa, the Levant, and Mesopotamia ended, and thousand year old communities disintegrated. A million Jewish Arabs were uprooted, their world destroyed, their culture ruined, their homes lost.
In an ironic twist, their Aliyah (literally “ascent” to Eretz Israel) confounded the Zionist model. Israel was created to be the home of European Jewry – until the Shoah brought those Jews to the brink of extinction. Young Israel had to populate or perish, and whilst designed for a European population and culture, it had no choice but to accommodate an oriental one. .
In yet another ironic twist, the creation of the State of Israel doomed the Jews of the Middle East by making mortal enemies of its Arab neighbours. But by giving these exiles refuge, Israel saved them from a life of repression, misery and backwardness in an unstable and violent Middle East. And yet, even as their numbers rose from under ten percent of the population to over fifty today, they were looked down upon, humiliated, discriminated against, neglected, and indeed, ignored by the secular Ashkenazi establishment. They were the Israeli “other”.
Destitute and grieving for their lost world and their old identities, and for the manner in which their longtime Arab compatriots turned on them, they were like flotsam on the shore of a new land. But it was an unfamiliar world, a world made for and ruled by European Zionists with an ethos alien to their own. This was a pioneer society, spartan yet permissive, that valued the individual and his or her contribution to the new state’s collective enterprises above the ties of family, custom and congregation. And for sound if not satisfactory reasons: the ties that bound European Jews to their centuries-old communities had been severed in the killing fields of Mitteleuropa – so many had few or no surviving relatives and friends from the prewar days – and new loyalties forged in the displaced persons camps of Europe, the mass Aliyah into disputed Palestine, and the cauldron on the Independence War.
The immigrant nation of Israel was conceived as a melting pot. The goal of the education system, the exclusive use of a reinvented and modernized Hebrew, and mandatory national service in the IDF, was to assimilate all who made Aliyah as Israelis. To make them Ashkenazis, in fact. The Ashkenazi social engineers encouraged European Jews to get over the Diaspora and the Shoah, and the struggle for independence and national survival, and to get on with the challenges of nation building. These orphans of Europe neither appreciated nor accommodated the eastern Jews’ attachment to their Arab identity, tradition, and culture. And indeed, may have resented, both consciously and subliminally, the fact that these Arab Jews had not come through the Holocaust or fought in the War of Independence
In the national project, the easterners were banished to existential shadow lands. Isolated, marginalized, dispersed, and cut off from their roots and heritage, their rabbis and synagogues, they were consigned to arid development towns in the Negev, to remote villages, and to the impoverished suburbs of the major cities. The state provided refuge, housing, schooling, and jobs. But it took away community, honour and tradition, the social and normative structures that kept Jews together in the eastern diaspora. They were given few tools to deal with the new world of physical and economic hardship, no authority, no bearings, no compass, no meaning. They took low paid, menial jobs, and a lost generation of youngsters drifted into crime and gang culture, drugs and prostitution.
Decades later, these “forgotten people” rose up against the (self)chosen race in a political and cultural revolution that saw “downstairs” gate crash the “upstairs” party. In the political turmoil that followed the Yom Kippur war, they found a political voice and demanded a seat at the top table. They backed Likud against “born to rule”, secular, Ashkenazi Labour, and precipitated a new political dispensation based on faith and values-based political parties and shifting and opportunistic coalitions. They were the working class, the factory hands, the tradies, and the small business owners. They were the parvenus, the usurpers, the nouveau riche, rising about their station, and as such, were scorned and maligned by many Ashkenazim. But they were now the majority. Through immigration and natural increase, their numbers grew, and with it, their political clout. One no longer heard the term ‘Sephardi’ – but rather, ‘Mizrahim’, literally ‘easterners’ – the descendants of Jews from Middle Eastern countries. Their values, interests and expectations were different to those held by the secular, liberal-minded Ashkenazim.
The Garibaldi of this Mizrahim Risorgimento was the charismatic Moroccan Jew Ariyeh Deri who formed the ultra-Orthodox Shas party – Shomrei Sfarad, literally, “(Religious) Guardians of the Sephardim”. Through the late nineties and into the twenty first century, Shas has become a pivotal political player. In the hurly-burly of Israeli coalition politics, its Mizrahi constituency has delivered parliamentary numbers that can make or break governments, and through the torturous wheeling and dealing, it influences policies as diverse and as critical as education and defense.
One of Binyamin Netanyahu’s key people in the current right-wing government is his Minister of Culture Miri Regev, whose family came from Morocco, a former brigadier general in the IDF, where she served as chief spokesperson during the Gaza pullout. She is a member of Likud, not Shas, and Netanyahu needs her backing in order to maintain his support among the Mizrahim. Regev likes to rail against what she calls “the haughty left-wing Ashkenazi elite” and once proudly told an interviewer that she’d never read Chekhov and didn’t like classical music. She has sought to give greater prominence to Mizrahi culture and to deprive “less than patriotic” artists of government subsidies. Many of the government’s recent actions appear designed to address the traditional disenfranchisement of the Mizrahim and of citizens living in the country’s “periphery” (that is, far from the central Tel Aviv–Jerusalem corridor), whilst other measures are aimed at promoting social mobility amongst these “outsiders”.
A changing world
Which brings me back the present and to my return to Israel after an absence of thirty years.
The dazzling sunlight reflected off the limestone brickage was the same. The history literally oozing from the stones was still exhilarating and addictive. The dry heat of summer in Jerusalem was as ever cleansing and enervating. The sociability, conviviality, argumentativeness, and at times obstreperousness of Israelis was the same. But Israel, as a society, had changed – and not just the cosmopolitan cafe and restaurant strips, the vibrant arts scene, the high-tech, wired-to-the-world communication systems, and the ever-present security presence.
Israel’s complexion has changed. Over half of the Israeli population are now Mizrahim (and some twenty percent are Arabs), and Russians and Ethiopians have come in by tens of thousands. There is intermarriage between Jews of all colours and cultures, and the place has taken on a coffee-coloured hue. Israel became the multicultural country it is now.
And it is changing still. As more and more foreign workers come in to work here – one of the consequences of the lock-down and separation that followed the 2002 Intifada, as Chinese and Southeast Asians replaced Palestinian Arabs in many sectors of the booming economy, there will be an increasing number of Israelis taking Filipina, Thai and Indonesian brides..
On our recent visits, we noted the high proportion of Mizrahim, and also, to a lesser degree, Ethiopians – most particularly, among young people. In the street, in the cafes, on the light rail, and especially with respect to the conscript army in which all young Israelis, boys and girls, must serve when they turn eighteen (with the exception of the ultra-orthodox Haredim and Israeli Arabs).
We had been contemplating why in recent years, and particularly, during the last Israeli election, right wing politicians were able to capitalize on an anti-Arab sentiment so incongruent (to liberal-minded outsiders, at any rate) among a people that proclaims itself to be conscious of its history of victimization and oppression. Why Israeli street protests and social media feature virulent tirades and slogans against the country’s Arab citizens and Palestinian neigbours (such inflammatory sentiment is returned with equal if not more vigour on the Arab street, on tabloid television, and from the mana-bir of mosques during Friday sermons). And why, therefore, Bibi Netanyahu’s election dog-whistle was so effective, resulting in a coalition government that is probably the most nationalistic, anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian in memory.
Commentators have suggested that the political shift to the right and to an increasingly authoritarian character has been due in part to the influx during the nineties of tens of thousands of Russian Jews who have no experience, appreciation and empathy for the occidental democratic model established by Israel’s founding fathers. It has also been said that the shift has been propelled by the exigencies of the security state that has perpetuated a pattern of fear and retaliation with respect to internal and external threats, be these Palestinian resistance to the occupation, as in the violent street protests and and bombings the first and second intifadas, and the lone-wolf vehicle attacks and stabbings of recent times, the ongoing rocket attacks and tunnel construction of Gaza, or the calls for the destruction of the Zionist entity by the Iran and its Hizbollah proxy, and by the televangelists and shock-jocks of the Muslim media.
It may well be “all of the above”, but there is also possibly the Mizrahi factor.
Now the majority of voters – this is where I am going out on a polemical limb with an argument that runs counter to what I have written above about the Mizrahim and their oriental legacy – Mizrahim don’t want Arabs – as friends, as neighbours, as fellow-citizens. Although Arabs and eastern Jews are literally ‘brothers under the skin’, although they shared the same lands, cultures and lifestyles for centuries, have they grown so far apart that the chasm has bred contempt?
They have grown up with the stories of their parents’ and grandparents’ own Nakba, the Arabic word for “the Catastrophe” of the 1948 war, when their families were cast out of their oriental Eden, expelled from Arab countries amidst threats and pogroms, murder and plunder. They spend their military service as conscripts and as reservists either serving in the occupied territories, or subject to deployment there or in Gaza when tensions flare, as they do frequently. They are aware of Arab mainstream and social media denigrating Jews and Israelis and calling for the destruction of their country. They know that any time, they and their loved ones, including particularly their soldier children, could be attacked by car, knife or bomb, or worse still, killed or kidnapped. Young – and not so young – Mizrahim have been hearing all their lives from their families and from the Arabs themselves that “they want to kill us”.
Nowadays, in many quarters, the Arab pogroms of the twenties and thirties appear to feature more prominently in Israel’s creation story than they did in earlier decades, providing an historical leitmotif to contemporary acts of violence. Times past, it was always the about the Zionist pioneers and, inevitably and unavoidably, the Shoah (and left-wing, peacenik Jews are predominately Ashkenazi of pioneer or Shoah heritage). Back then, there was also the image of triumphant David fending off five Arab armies and killing and expelling Arab Palestinians to create a contiguous national territory. Over half of Israel’s Jewish population has no connection to the Shoah, and to the secular and socialist Zionist ethos and once-powerful foundation institutions like the Kibbutz and Histradrut. The Israel of today, and the average Israeli, indeed, are very different to those of forty, fifty, sixty years ago, as are their perceptions and prejudices.
Perhaps the “victim” narrative appeals to and exploits atavistic fears of Arab hordes threatening to push the Jews into the sea. Maybe, too, it is a function of Israel’s dysfunctional place in the turbulent and bloody Arab world: a garrison state of citizen soldiers on a permanent, war-footing, the only democratic nation in these parts that nevertheless, paradoxically and immorally, maintains a military occupation of a conquered people, and sustains politically, financially, and among many Israelis, ideologically and spiritually, a neocolonial settler society. But in a sinister twist of fate, it is a narrative that would have been music to the ears of those long-gone Revisionist Zionists who harkened to the call of Zeev Jabotinsky and his Eastern European Ashkenazi crew who had resolved during the Mandate years that there could only be one people in Ha’Aretz, and that The Land would range from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. Zeev’s vision inspired the vicious Irgun and Stern Gang, and these morphed in time into Likud, which is now effectively the ‘party of government, and the driver of all things intransigent.
One thing’s for sure: the Mizrahi factor adds to the many complications that hinder a just and permanent solution to the intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
In writing this piece, I am indebted to Israeli journalist and author Avi Shavit and his controversial and enlightening “My Promised Land – The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel” (Scribe 2014). Shavit wrote a brief, sad sequel in March 2015:
Veteran Zionist, humanist, journalist, and fighter for justice Uri Avnery wrote the following in February 2017: “When and how the Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Rift was born”. It is well worth reading:
In the statistics cited herein, there was no distinction made between Sephardim and Mizrachim. (If the Sephardim, Mountain Jews and other non-European groups are included in the Middle East and Asian group, then Middle Eastern and Asian Jews outnumber European and American Jews by a margin of 52 to 48
On a musical note:
From way back, I was particularly familiar with world-famous Israeli singers of eastern origin – Esther Ofarim, of dubious ‘Cinderella Rockefeller’ fame, (with her then-husband Abi, who was, incidentally, of Russian heritage), the late, sublime Ofra Haza, Noa, and latterly, Ladino diva Yasmin Levy].
When we were in Istanbul in 2014, we were particular keen to see the famous Viking graffiti on a rail of the gallery of the beautiful Aya Sofya basilica. And there indeed it was, carved by Halvden, a 9th Century soldier of the Emperor’s Varangian Guard, an elite force of Viking mercenaries. The name Varangian derives from the Greek via Old Norse væringi or ‘pledge’.
This year, we visited York, successively a Roman, Saxon, and Viking city.
I have an intense interest in connections, in the valences that link people, times, and places. And in York, there were many. Constantine, the creator of the Byzantine Empire, and founder of Constantinople, was declared emperor here on the death in York of his father. His statue sits (literally) outside York Minster. The Roman brickage we saw in Ephesus, Palmyra, and Jerusalem was replicated here in York, and in the forts of Hadrian’s Wall. And it was exciting to discover another connection to Istanbul, and that long-departed Viking warrior.
My story recalls one the most famous dates in English history, the the Battle of Hastings. But I shall not retell the story of that battle, nor of the battle at Stamford Bridge which preceded it. Rather, I will describe one particular Viking’s adventurous journeying before he met his doom near York in September 1066.
Harald Sigurdsson, named Hardrada (“Stern Counsel” or “Hard Ruler”), was born about 1015, and he was the first King to perish in 1066. King of Norway, his appetite grew with the eating, and he made unsuccessful plays for the thrones of Denmark and England. Failing the first, he invaded and raided east of what was then Eoforic (formerly Roman Eboracum, Viking Jorvik, and today, York – and there is an isolated hamlet on the plateau to our west in northern New South Wales called Ebor). His protagonist that day was one Harold Godwinson of Wessex, otherwise known as Harold II, King of England. Harold marched his army all the way up to Eoforic to confront his almost-namesake and Harald’s ally, one Tostig Goodwinson, Saxon turncoat and also, Harold’s embittered brother. In four days, Harold marched his army 180 miles from London, meeting and defeating Harald and Tostig at Stamford Bridge, just east of York. Hearing that William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy had landed near Hastings to challenge his claim to the English throne, King Harold then marched his army south again. 241 miles this time. The rest, as they say, is history.
King Harald is not hard to find on the Internet. There are websites, histories, and even novels that tell his story in lesser and greater detail – I republish a review of Don Hollway’s imaginative The Last Viking below. And, rumour has it, Leonardo DiCaprio is pondering the prospect of making a movie about him, and possibly starring in it. There are also many resources dealing with the Varangian Guard. I recommend Frank Westenfelder’s succinct blog history of mercenaries, Soldiers of Misfortune. So what follows is my own sensationalist synopsis, written as much for entertainment as for education.
As a teen Harald was caught up in internecine warfare between battling Viking eorls. Brothers and half-brothers, rebels and pretenders fought for lands and crowns in the realms that now constitute Scandinavia. Young Harald often fought and failed, and on failing, he fled. He washed up in Kyivan Rus on Lake Ladoga, east of present day Petersburg, and then entered the service of Grand Prince Jaroslav or (Yaroslavl) the Wise in Novgorod. The principality of Kyivan Rus, by the by, was the predecessor of today’s Ukraine, Russia, and Belorussia, and was established and ruled for over a century by Viking warriors. Harald captained the Grand Prince’s soldiery and, so the sagas sing, paid court to Jaroslav’s beautiful daughter Elesiv (Elisabeth). Ukrainian historians maintain that Yaroslavl actually ruled in raked in Kyiv and that his daughter was called Yelizaveta; but they tell the same story.
In Jaroslav’s service, Harold fought Poles, Estonians, Turkic nomads, and Byzantines. He eventually took five hundred Viking warriors to Constantinople – the Norsemen called it Mickelgard, or Great City – where his martial reputation saw him rise to head the Varangian Guard, that same mob that our Istanbul graffitist served in. Whilst this was specifically the emperors’s bodyguard, as an elite force, it fought on the empire’s frontiers against Arab pirates and raiders, marauding nomads from the steppes, Saracens, Normans and Bulgarians. The sagas say that Harald even traveled to Jerusalem – the Vikings called it Jorsalberg – protecting caravans of Christian pilgrims. Just picture it. A brigade of Norseman slashing and bashing their way through the wadis and wastelands of Syria, fifty years before the first crusaders put Jerusalem to the sword.
Harald passed twelve years in Byzantium departing a wealthy warrior. Not that his leaving was without complications. Implicated in murky financial dealings (including a fair amount of looting and blackmail), Byzantine power struggles, and, possibly, an illicit love affair with the Empress Zoe, he fled with his men in two ships. One was trapped by the famous chain that was strung across the Bosporus (see below for more details). but his boat reached the Black Sea and sailed thence to Rus’ once more, and the lovely Princess.
Elisef’s father, the renowned Jaroslav ‘the law giver’, was in fact the son of a Viking Varangian, and this may have been a reason he gave Harald sanctuary and employment in the first place, and encouraged him to seek service in Constantinople. Whilst there, Harald had secured sufficient funds to finance a bid for the Norwegian throne. After much battling and bargaining, he succeeded, and indeed, ruled Norway for twenty years until he made the fateful decision to try his hand in England.
Tostig was angry that Harold has taken the earldom of Northumbria away from him, and so encouraged Harald to challenge his brother’s disputed claim to the English throne. It is mooted that Viking Harald and French William each believed that he had been promised said crown by the dying English king, Edward the Confessor. Both therefore came ashore with their forces to claim what they reckoned was their inheritance. Which was why the unfortunate Harold did his exhausting round-trip in September and October of 1066.
At Stamford Bridge, Harald’s long run of good fortune ran out. the Norns, having long ignored him, decided to cut his thread. The Viking army was heavily beaten, and Harald himself was struck in the throat by an arrow and killed early on in the battle in a state of “berserkergang” or “battle rage”. He wore no body armour nor carried a shield, fighting fiercely with both hands clutching his heavy sword. Dying thus, sword in his hand, he was assured entry into Valhalla.
There’s a good account of 1066, the “year of the three battles”, in History Extra‘s story of the three battles that lost England.
And so our story ends. Scholars have considered Harald’s death in battle as the end of The Viking Age. He is also reckoned to have been the last great Viking king, indeed, the last great Viking.
© Paul Hemphill 2015
There is a song for every occasion, and with our our sojourn in York, and Viking fact and fiction echoing along its ersatz City Walls, I would like to share my very own Viking saga:
The Saga of Harald Hardrada
The original source for much of what we know of Harald is The Heimskringia Saga. therein is much more fascinating detail of his adventures, including the full story of his escape from Constantinople. All of Harald’s Varangians piled onto two ships and rowed like crazy for the chain. As they approached, he had every man who wasn’t rowing pick up any baggage he had and run to the back of the boat, so that the prow of was raised and the stern lay low in the water. Thus, the ships managed to run themselves halfway up onto the chain, whereupon all the vikings at the stern ran to the front with their gear, so that the ships tilted forward and came down on the other side. At least, that was the plan. Harald’s ship made it but the other broke its keel and sank, along with half of his men. The Saga is available in the online Gutenberg Library. Go to Saga 8, The Saga of Harald Hardrade.
Anglo Saxon Varangians
An exciting addition to the saga of the Varangian Guard is recent evidence that in the wake of they Norman Conquest, Saxon exiles emigrated from conquered England and joined the Emperor’s bodyguard. They acquired quite a reputation for martial prowess, and were believed to have established a city in what is today the Crimean Peninsula. Read Caitlin Green’s well-written post: New England on the Black Sea
The Vikings of Rus
The principality of Kyivan Rus, with its capital at Kyiv, was established and ruled for over a century by Viking warriors who ventured south down the great rivers of today’s Ukraine, Russia, and Belorussia. The Viking age lasted from the end of the eighth century to the latter half of the eleventh.
The vikings raided and traded, subjugated and ruled whole countries or parts thereof, transforming existing politics and creating new ones. In so doing, they butted up against the Byzantine Empire, even reaching the gates of Constantinople itself. Envoys of the king of Rus first came to the city in 838, offering peace, friendship and trade. But there was also conflict. In 860, Vikings besieged the city and passing through the Bosporus into the Mediterranean, plundered Byzantine-controlled islands. This was repeated in 959.
Over time, relations became much more cordial. Prince Volodymyr the Great of Kyiv converted to Christianity in 988, a purely political move to secure the goodwill of the Byzantine empire, his most powerful and dangerous neighbour. He adopted the Byzantine orthodoxy, thus drawing him closer to the empire, and proceeded to convert his subjects. Alliances of mutual benefit were formed, with Vikings fighting Byzantium’s border wars, and were often sealed with marriages between Viking lords and Byzantine princesses.
Constantinople was like a lode star to the Vikings. The princes of Kyivan Rus were attracted to its wealth and commerce, and also to the power, prestige and high culture. Indeed, they endeavoured to replicate it on the Dnieper. Voldymyr’s grandson Yaroslav/Jaroslav (he’s acclaimed by both Ukraine and Russia) rebuilt Kyiv in Byzantium’s image, in brick and stone, built a magnificent cathedral modeled on Theodosius’ Aya Sofia, naming it Saint Sofia, and a raised a Golden Gate like that in the Great City. Princes in other cities followed Kyiv’s example.
Everything was violently undone in 1238 when the Mongols invaded Kyivan Rus, and Kyiv itself was devastated in 1240, and did not recover its former importance and prosperity for centuries. Yet, the cathedral of St Sophia still stands in the heart of Kiev, as it has done for almost a millennium, its golden domes a symbol of the advent of Christianity in eastern Europe.
There’s a fascinating account of Kyivan Rus See Serhii Plokhy’s history of Ukraine, The Gates of Europe.
Read more in In That Howling Infinite :
Kirkwall Cathedral, Shetland, UK
If you love heroic fantasy a la George R.R. Martin, you’ll love ‘The Last Viking’
And none more so than Harald Hardrada, Harald the Hard-Ruler or Tyrant, whose marauding ways came to an end in England at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, near York, in the pivotal year of 1066. In effect, the 51-year-old invader, by then the king of Norway, was caught by surprise. The Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson unexpectedly quick-marched his army north, covering 200 miles in four or five days instead of the usual two weeks. Hollway calls this “one of the greatest feats of military tactics in medieval history.” Yet even though Harald, the “thunderbolt of the North,” was defeated and killed, he unknowingly exacted a cold revenge. Immediately after this costly, hard-fought victory, the Anglo-Saxon king and his remaining, exhausted troops were compelled to hurry back south to face William of Normandy — soon to be William the Conqueror — at the Battle of Hastings. A fresher, bigger army might have changed English history. As it was, in just three weeks both the age of the Vikings and the reign of the Anglo-Saxons reached a blood-drenched close.
When we think of Vikings, we generally picture dragon ships raiding the coasts of England and Scotland or intrepidly sailing westward across the Atlantic to Iceland and, quite probably, North America. Yet Harald passed much of his young manhood in the wild, wild East, where this “almost legendary Norse hero”— as John Julius Norwich calls him in “Byzantium: The Apogee”— served as a mercenary in the Byzantine Empire’s elite Varangian Guard, eventually becoming its de facto commander. He also participated in diplomatic missions and military actions in the Holy Land, Sicily and Constantinople itself. Beyond that, matters grow somewhat hazy.
Much of what we know about Harald derives from Icelandic sagas, poems and histories, supplemented by Byzantine sources, such as Michael Psellus’s “Chronographia.” In “The Last Viking,” Hollway, a journalist specializing in military history, dramatically weaves together all the facts and most of what is conjectured about the Viking, the result being at once a biography and “a melding, comparison and recounting of the old tales.” Was the handsome blond warrior a favorite of the aging, lustful Empress Zoe? Did he gouge out the eyes of the pusillanimous Emperor Michael V? Was he the secret lover of the Emperor Constantine IX’s mistress? Might the imperial throne have actually been within reach of his sword-arm? Though it’s impossible to be sure, all of these questions could plausibly be answered “yes.” That’s what the skalds and chroniclers believed and that’s the riveting story Hollway tells.
In the year 1030 Harald was 15 years old when he joined his much older half brother Olaf, the deposed king of Norway, in the latter’s attempt to regain his throne. Just before the climactic battle of Stiklestad, Olaf told Harald he was too young for the upcoming clash of arms, to which the teenager reportedly countered, “I will certainly be in this battle. I’m not too weak to handle a sword. If necessary my hand can be strapped to the hilt.” During the fighting, Olaf was killed and Harald left for dead. But the boy survived, recovered from his wounds, and with a small company headed for Russia, traveled up the Neva River to Lake Ladoga and then on to Kiev, where his kinsman Prince Yaroslav ruled. Three years later, only 18, Harald captained that prince’s household guard. Recognizing that he could rise no higher in Kiev, this ambitious, natural-born commander sailed and portaged down the river Dnieper, then crossed the Black Sea to Miklagard, the Big City, as the Scandinavians called Constantinople.
Hollway devotes half his book to Harald’s adventures and machinations during the decade he spent with the Varangian Guard. Toward the end of those years, the Viking and his closest lieutenants were cast into a lightless dungeon, yet nonetheless managed to break out, kidnap the emperor’s mistress and commandeer two galleys. But so what? Escape by sea was blocked by a heavy barrier chain stretched across the estuary known as the Golden Horn. Ever resourceful, Harald ordered his men to row toward it with all their might just as he and the others on board all rushed to the ship’s stern. This raised its bow high enough so that the vessel rode halfway over the chain, at which point everyone immediately raced forward to elevate the galley’s back half, allowing the ship to slide down into open water.
Once back in Kiev, Harald married Yaroslav’s pretty daughter Elisaveta, then journeyed homeward to seize power in Norway and attempt to subjugate Sweden and Denmark. Up to this point, the Viking could be construed a hero or at least a brilliantly audacious and quick-witted soldier of fortune, but in his unrelenting drive to be ruler of all Scandinavia he soon grew treacherous and cruel, looting and burning Danish cities, murdering any nobles who stood against him. His battle standard, white silk bearing the image of a black raven, became known as Land-Waster. The chance to bring England under its sway ultimately led to Harald’s last stand at Stamford Bridge.
A fencer and historical reenactor, Don Hollway excels at describing medieval weaponry, shield walls and battle tactics. Yet this isn’t just a book for military history buffs. If you love Frans Bengtsson’s picaresque masterpiece, “The Long Ships,” Robert Graves’s intrigue-suffused “I, Claudius,” or heroic fantasy in the mold of Robert E. Howard, George R.R. Martin and Howard Andrew Jones, you owe it to yourself to pick up “The Last Viking.” It’s that exciting, that good.
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.
The Last Viking – the True Story of King Harald Hardrada, Don Hollway, Osprey.
During its long history, Jerusalem has been destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times. Continue reading
“Cause out on the edge of darkness, there rides a peace train.
Oh peace train take this country, come take me home again.”
Cat Stevens, Peace Train
Completed in 2011, the Jerusalem Light Rail unites east and west Jerusalem. This how a light rail should be – small, light, and frequent, on a traffic free Jaffa Road. It links the Jewish suburbs of west and northeast Jerusalem with the Arab suburbs of the north and east of the Old City. The featured picture shows two trains passing at Jaffa Central, underneath a neat mural that shows one weaving down Jaffa Road through vignettes of Israeli urban life. Their destinations are shown sequentially in three languages. Synchronicity determined that in the picture, both were in Arabic.
It was controversial when first mooted, and extreme elements on both sides of the conflict opposed any such normalization of relations between the Jewish and the Arab communities. There were demonstrations in European countries against the “line that divided a city”, but these petered out when polls showed that Arabs in East Jerusalem found the line to be a blessing. It got dad to work on time; it got mom to the cornucopia that is the Mahane Yehuda fresh food markets, just four stops from the Damascus Gate; and it delivered the kids to school and back safely and punctually. It is said, with some justification, that earlier attacks on the line were perpetrated by thugs incited by Fatah, the political wing of the Palestinian Authority, which is alleged to control the taxi industry of East Jerusalem.
During the recent unrest, the line was often blocked and trains attacked during demonstrations and street fighting, but service was resumed quicksmart. Arab passengers were at times abused by Jews, and stations were the targets of random rammings by cars and heavy vehicles – the so-called “siyarah intifada” – with many Jewish casualties and “neutralized” perpetrators.
But calm appears to have descended, and folk of good will on all sides of the literal and figurative line pass in peace through Arab and Jewish Jerusalem.
“I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem”
Steve Earl, Jerusalem