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.