They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Un populu diventa poviru e servu quannu ci arrubannu a lingua

Un populu diventa poviru e servu quannu ci arrubannu a lingua

By Edgardo Civallero
Translated by Sara Plaza

God's Punishment. That was it.

It seems that, in the beginning, all men and women spoke the same language. But one day, it occurred to them that it would be a good idea to construct a city and build a tower so high that it could reach Heavens. In the believe that punishment should fit the crime of such presumptuousness on their part, God confused them with many languages in a way that they could not understand each other and were impossible for them to keep on making that building higher and higher: the well-known Tower of Babel.

This is the story written in Genesis (xi, 9), the most read collection of ancient Semitic oral traditions of all times. Thousands of languages and speakers: all of them different from each other, all of them incomprehensible to the rest. God's Punishment, no doubt.

This impressive variety of ways of speaking, words, grammars and sounds make up an important part of our cultural diversity, which is one of our major treasures as species, according to the UNESCO's Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2002). However, as it usually happens with humankind, we are destroying this miracle with our own hands at every turn. Just have a look at the following data from 2005 provided by UNESCO itself to confirm my previous statement:

... only 4% of the languages are used by 96% of the world population; 50 % of the world languages are in danger of extinction; 90% of the world's languages are not represented on the Internet; some five countries monopolize the world cultural industries trade.

[Source: Knowledge versus information societies: UNESCO report takes stock of the difference].

Certainly, the use of some languages as means of exchange (e.g. English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese) in order to overcome linguistic barriers and facilitate communication can help us a lot. However, these languages have stop being a "vehicle" to become "dominant speeches" by pushing the rest aside and successfully removing many of them from the face of human memory.

What happens when a language is lost? I would like to share a poem with you, "Lingua e dialettu" ("Language and dialect"), written by Ignazio Buttitta in his mother language/dialect: Sicilian.

Un populu
mittitulu a catina,
spuggghiatulu,
attuppatici a vucca:
é ancora libiru.

Livatici u travaggghiu,
u passaportu,
a tavula unni mancia,
u lettu unni dormi:
é ancora riccu.

Un populu
diventa poviru e servu
quannu ci arrubanu a lingua
addutata di patri:
é persu pi sempri.

Chain up a people,
divest it,
cover its mouth:
still, it is free.

Steal its employment,
its passport,
the table it eats at,
the bed it sleeps on,
still, it is rich.

A people
becomes poor and slave
when it has the language inherited
from their parents stolen:
it is lost forever.

Without the words we speak and use at a daily basis, our life has no sense at all. Many concepts that are unique to our cultures, many ideas that were born in our hands and later adopted by others (even by using our own language) would disappear. As the word dies the idea does, too, no matter how hard other languages try to reproduce it. What would Latin American music be like without local words such as "joropo", "huapango", "cueca" or "huayno"? How do we name many animals and plants if terms like "ñandú", "vicuña", "quirquincho" or "colibrí" are taken away from us? How will Inuit people manage to name its surroundings if we replace all the words they use to refer to the many colors and textures that frozen water has, with the general term "snow"? Our language is the vehicle for expressing our culture, a custom-made vehicle that meets all its requirements. Without language we would be nothing at all; because a people without its language cannot find its north and becomes lost.

There are many peoples that have lost it already, many peoples that have had to adopt foreign languages and have forgotten the sounds of their parents and grandparents. Latin America is a great continent full of broken memories and subdued voices. We should know, better than any others, how a people felt when has its language stolen and which the consequences are of such a lost: something that also happens in Africa, in Asia or among European minorities.

As librarians, as information managers and culture advocates, what do we do about it? Our collections, are they a home for all languages spoken in our community, in our country, among our users? With all due respect, I doubt it. Resources, spaces and budget cuts make it easier to commit ourselves to "dominant" leanings. What is "small", "little" or "slight" –valuable as it might be– has no importance at all. The same can be applied to the mass media, publishing companies and many other culture and information channels. The world has been organized –in every single aspect– to fulfill an "evolutionary" obligation: only the strongest will survive. What is referred as "minority", "weak", "insignificant" does not count at all and, consequently, must disappear. And in no time it would be removed from the face of the earth, unless we become aware of its real value.

The good news is that there are many people who do not resign themselves to being quiet, and there are a good number of others who, in an independent way and risking a lot, commit themselves to study, recover, publishing and disseminate their endangered languages and literary traditions. And we are also many getting in love with their work and with the sound of words that we never heard before. For those of you who have an interest in the linguistic diversity of our planet, and want to learn more about it (features and problems alike) I highly recommend you to have a look at the following online sources: the websites Omniglot, BBC Languages homepage, CoE Euromosaic, and Linguapax, Terralingua project, French initiative Babel and UNESCO's MSST Clearing House Linguistic Rights.

For those who want to learn a foreign language, the Internet can be a privileged environment. Those with exotic likes may have a look at the UN Peace Corps handbooks, which allow you to learn quickly languages such as Romanian, Guaraní, Estonian, Filipino, Wolof, Uzbek, Azeri, Ukrainian, Arabic, Swahili, Kazakh, Bulgarian, Russian or Armenian. You can download all of them from ERIC free of charge.

There are plenty of pages with linguistic resources, and this announcement is addressed to special libraries dealing with languages, which use to strongly depend on the books they store and "dominant" resources, without noticing that there are thousands of documents in Open Access archives that can be easily accessed by their users.

You may think that mine is a utopian discourse, and also think that if you know your own language plus a more general one (that is to say, English) it will be easy to move around the world without problems. Perhaps you are right. However, I have traveled a lot and, even if I am fluent in English and have reached an intermediate level in a set of "known" languages, I always try to learn as many sentences, expressions, and words as I can of those other languages that nobody would learn because are "minority" idioms. And I can assure you that they have always been of use to me: in Korea, in Malaysia, in Sweden, in Norway, in Ecuador... For not everybody speak English, Spanish or French, believe me. We may wrongly believe that those languages are "minority" idioms but their speakers do not agree. Either would I if one of them was mine.

We should not forget that using a "dominant" language as a vehicle is only that: a bridge. If we really want to understand other people and come closer to their culture we should learn their language (and the other way round). Bridges join peoples as long as they cross them together in both directions.

A world where many different languages can be spoken does not necessary means a lack of communication as homogeneous and totalitarian discourses pretend us to believe. The lack of communication has nothing to do with the number of languages, but with our incapability to listen to their speakers and understand their ways of thinking. As long as we preserve this linguistic plurality, understand that our identity is "ours" because others have their one identity as well, and feel proud of our cultural joins there will always be a way to demolish those walls that are meant to separate one from each other day after day.

And, if in the end it was a God's punishment, we have now the opportunity to make the best of it and demonstrate that the story can be told in a different way: "fortunately, the author of this punishment did not attain his purpose".

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

So, tolerance wasn’t that good?

So, tolerance wasn't that good?

By Sara Plaza

No, it was not and it is not. Let's say that it is not good enough, that it is not that much. Let's say that it was meant to be good but could not, it intended to be good but did not work. And that's it: we continue talking about accepting others, about acknowledging the difference, even about valuing it. However, we do not take any step further. We are quite comfortable with just an underlying note of folklore in our homogeneous, global and insipid systems; a colorful mark in the grey standardization of our uses and manners, of our customs; a subtle touch that lightens or darkens the pastel drawing without stridencies in which we are immersed. We behave as if everything was right. It does not matter if, in fact, everything is wrong. It makes no difference whether we have any intention of getting it better either.

A few weeks ago, I read some lines in the newspaper from the Peruvian writer Iván Thays, in which he recommended:

Withdraw from use the word "tolerance", much of the liking of these writers eager to tolerate, with good sense of humor, those who they consider hegemonic or excluded minorities, and let's propose "plurality" instead. And better than arguing for being falsely united around a duty, do it for defending others' difference.

His thoughts were related to the fuss about nothing that a number of Peruvian writers kicked up a few months ago when they intended to decide which of them, "hegemonic" vs. "excluded", or "Creole" vs. "Andean", best represented their country's literature. However, I believe that his lines are equally appropriate to other fields, not only literature. Precisely because, as this author born in Lima stated in the same article:

Just read any biography of writers, or any story of an age, to know about quarrels and more quarrels. Actors change, arguments change, everything and whatever changes, literary and human quality change, but it never changes the instinct for confrontation and the need for defeating (with or without arguments) the other.

Will it be necessary to tolerate at first in order to defeat later? Will tolerance be the first step towards victory? Let's imagine it: we come closer, get into confidence and zap! break it into pieces; everything with a smile, of course.

This is what I was doing, analyzing with humor all kinds of meaning that my dictionary suggested for the word "tolerance", and deciding whether it seemed worse to me "the difference that is permitted" or the "willingness to admit the way someone is, does and thinks different from me, especially regarding religious issues and practices" – I had previously rejected "body ability to withstand higher doses of a drug"–, when I turned a few pages back and came across the not very enlightening explanations about "plurality". Then, I remained thinking whether "the quality of being more than one" was really better than "the action of tolerating", what forced me to also look up "to tolerate": to stand others with indulgence [doing something that you disapprove]". Quite honestly, in case of doubt dictionaries enlighten as less as priests. If you do not believe me, ask Ramón, the main character in Mario Benedetti's novel "Gracias por el fuego" (Thanks for the fire):

I have not committed any sin, I said at the confessional. Son, you should not be such a haughty boy, have you not thrown your schoolmates a sinful look? From that moment I decided to get rid of my haughtiness. I had not looked at the girls. However, the following day, I did everything possible to look at them sinfully. Today I can confess a sin, I said on Sunday at the confessional. This priest was older that the previous and looked at me with suspiciousness. Which one? I threw my schoolmates a sinful look. I was brimming with satisfaction because I had defeated my haughtiness. You do not have to be haughty, said the older priest, you should never be proud of being a sinful person. I said quickly the thirty Lord's Prayers and got out of there running. I opened my dictionary at the word sinful: event, say, desire, thought or omission against God's Law and its precepts. Yes, of course, I had looked at the girls with omission.

Yet smiling, I shared my findings with Edgardo (reading in silence has never been of my liking and I use to make comments on every line with those who surround me, showing very little respect, I have to admit, towards whatever they intended to concentrate on), and a bit later I sat down to do it also with you. So far I had already heard about "getting charity wrong" or "not understanding charity correctly", and Edgardo and I have continued our after–lunch conversations longer than expected discussing about cultural plurality, multiculturality, transculturality and so on, but never had I start to think of many other terms –and the actions, abilities, capacities, etc related to them– that are not pertinent to talk about how things should be, and which, however, define perfectly well the long list of those that remain as they are and are not as they should.

The power to name is extraordinary, but I am not trying to suggest that we have to be more careful with what we say than what we do, maybe the same. However, we have to pay attention to the purpose of our words. It matters a lot, perhaps too much. To be conscious of their strength may help us to use words better, to know exactly what we are saying and why we are saying it. Nevertheless, there is more to words than their intention: they put our thoughts behind bars though we do not consider them as prisoners.

Allow me to finish with a few more words from Ramón, in the already mentioned Benedetti's work:

It has stopped raining. However, it is not colder. The Old man corners him as many times as he wants. For doing so he makes use and abuses of his elegant arrogance. Last night he wanted to force him to support his political attitude. Afterwards, little by little, with smiles, with ironies, with jokes, with plays on words, even with some arguments, he discouraged him as time passed, leaving him speechless and feeling resentful. Suddenly I became very fond of him, not the sort of mild fondness that I usually had for him because he was my son, but an active, renewed and militant fondness. The Old man is not sure, but he demonstrates a lot of security. Gustavo is sure, but he does not know how to explain his own security. The Old man is a veteran, a champion of controversy, a master of his tricks. In this sense, poor Gustavo is still on milk. Nevertheless, how much I wanted to bet on him. In the centre of his lack of experience there is a conviction.

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Saturday, February 09, 2008

About yawns... and some other “mysteries”

About yawns... and some other mysteries

By Edgardo Civallero
Translated by Sara Plaza

Do you know why do we yawn?

This is one of the many questions that I made myself when I was a child. I was a very little person when I started tormenting my parents, acquaintances and teachers with this sort of questions. "Mum... Why is it that we 'cry tears' when we are sad?" (Mum's answer: looking at me in surprise + open mouth). "Dad... Why is it that we laugh at something funny?" (Dad's answer: "Just because"). "Teacher... What is fire made of?" (Teacher's answer: "Civallero, do not disturb, please"). "Uncle... Where do magnets hide their strength?" (Uncle's answer: silence + shrugging his shoulders).

Please, allow me to repeat my first question once more. Do you know why do we yawn?

No, do not bother seeking. Nobody knows it yet. There are a number of theories, one more surprising than the other. Some people say that it is to cool our brain. Others think that it is a physiological answer when we feel tired. Some elders believe that it announces something wrong and harmful is about to happen, and from ancient Maya people we have the following explanation: when we yawn we unconsciously show our sexual interest in someone who is close to us at that moment (this one seems quite interesting, I'll keep on doing some research...). Finally, some others consider it as a simple reflex action. In fact, you are probably yawning at this moment, or do it in a short time: if you do not get bored, you will do it as a reflex action.

What are my words aimed at? I want you to notice that those basic, simple and "childish" questions are the ones that we have not been able to answer yet. Can you believe this? In a "civilized" world where scientists have made it possible that men travel to the moon, have read our genetic code and have successfully sent words and sounds across the planet in a few seconds, we still have to find a good number of answers.

We believe that we know everything in this "Knowledge Society" (the Argentinean humorist Quino would write something like "Zoociety"); however, the most important answers seem not to be anywhere. At least, this is my feeling after working as a librarian for some years. "I only know that I know nothing", as Socrates (a very realistic guy) said.

Daniel Quinn, in his novel "Ishmael" –which was an austral summer gift from our close friend and North American colleague Elaine Harger– states that man, by knowing so little, does not even know how he should live. The progressive deterioration of the environment and a good number of other visible failed attempts at living in a "civilized" world that you can read in the news are the best example of it.

Going one step further –and forgetting this interesting matter that we may know a lot but we still fail to know very basic things–, another feature of the human knowledge systems that I want to point out is the fact that the available information (I mean, what we already know) is fragmented, spread, scattered all over the world. Not even modern information networks have managed to make all information accessible. This point reminds me of a tale from the Ashanti oral tradition, a people from Ghana, in Western Africa.

Ashanti people tell that Nyame, the Heaven's God, gave to Anansi (The Spider, Ashanti cultural hero) a vessel where all wisdom had been kept. Anansi was meant to distribute it among all human beings. However, Anansi wanted to keep it only for him, and made the decision of hiding that big container in the top of a high tree for nobody could steal it from there. Whether he was in a hurry or did not pay enough attention, it happened that the vessel fell down while Anansi was climbing the trunk, and it broke into pieces on the ground. As a consequence, fragments of wisdom spread all around the world. Men and women got some of them, but many were lost and, in the end, nobody could be the owner of all wisdom. From that moment onwards, when meeting each other, men and women exchange the pieces of knowledge they have found, trying to rejoin the original set.

Let's sum it up: we do not know basic things (though we have been very busy learning other not that necessary). What we already know is scattered. In addition to this confusing situation, the socio-economic system we are immersed in makes it really difficult to successfully exchange the scarce knowledge that men and women could recover after Anansi let the vessel fall from the tree (I am talking about copyright legislation, locked information, very expensive books, etc.).

It can be concluded that ours is a complicated profession: we intend to manage fragmented information that is not always accessible.

The good news is that humankind is like water. Before a wall it stops, but slowly begins to look for some chinks in it to leak through. And this desire to exchange knowledge, to acquire more knowledge, to find out new things, to learn, to make culture alive and multiply it, can never be stopped (no matter what international laws and companies' interests have to say about it), because this desire is as old as our species. It was accomplished first through everybody's lips and later by means of books and records' exchange. Now we call it "sharing" and it happens across the digital universe surrounding us. A myriad of free platforms make it possible to upload any kind of information (books, music, images), skillfully avoiding legal barriers, and making it accessible to everybody else. It is true that we do not know what is unknown, however, there are many of us intending that what it is already known by a few can be known by all, can be exchanged, and that it can flow and be free. There are many of us striving for allowing intellectual and artistic human production to reach everybody's hands, eyes, ears, hearts and minds.

Of course, many of you can have a different opinion about it, and some may point to me the fact that there are authors making a living from their own production who will not agree with my perspective either. Right, nonetheless, there are very few who can earn their living as writers, painters, musicians... On the contrary, there are many who have decided to edit their work online, to promote their production through the web, to share it. Surprisingly enough, these authors have noticed that those who discover their work in this way begin to track it. There are many users that, after knowing what the artists do, go and buy their books and their music to thoroughly enjoy them, or go and see their exhibitions, attend their conferences, get tickets for their concerts...

I believe that, in this sense, a new paradigm is being developed, which, in the near future, will be able to deal with the present barriers of the copyright. These barriers, and many others, in addition to be a trap for culture consumers, has also become a jail for authors themselves, who are kept in the interested hands of a few (who are the ones making a real profit).

If you want to know more about this, you may find the following work very interesting. It is the Copy/South Dossier, which has been elaborated by the international research group Copy/South, based in United Kingdom. You will find a number of strategies, analysis and reasons that are meant to skillfully handle copyright-related issues. It also has a curious poster series.

And about yawns... what else could I say? I have been unable to dispel my doubts yet. Meanwhile I will keep on putting my hand over my mouth (for evil spirits cannot find the way in or count my teeth and make me loose a few years of life, as ancient tradition tells). No matter how unlikely it may seem to discover the answers, I will also continue asking myself other "difficult" questions.

And, in revenge for the many silences that I have obtained since I was a child, I hope to find the response to other people's doubts (provided that information was available and can be freely accessed).

Now you can yawn in peace... A huge hug from Córdoba, Argentina.

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Saturday, February 02, 2008

- And... What are you going to do now with all that money?...

– And... What are you going to do now with all that money?

By Sara Plaza

... Frin's father asked him kindly. And this question meant several things: they won't ask him for the money, he would spend it and nobody will tell anything, and they won't meddle in whatever he did with that money. He went three days without knowing how to spend it.

–See, Frin, if you save it you'll get more each time (his father explained to him).
–And, what for?
–For being able to buy more once you have save enough.
–(Frin shook his head)... no, I prefer to go buying and I'll buy more likewise.

Lynko did not get tired of making suggestions:

–See that ball, Frin!
–(No)...
–See that fishing pole!
–(No)...
–A backpack for going camping!
–(No)...
–And, what are we going to take with us on Sunday, then, Frin?!

Finally he saw the volume of an encyclopedia in a bookstore and knew what he wanted. It was an encyclopedia that also came out in installments and Arno always took it with him when they had to look something up in class. He went into the bookstore and bought the first volume. To his great surprise it cost less than he believed. The money was enough for buying another book. One about rare phenomena happened through history. That way he spent his first wage.

When we arrived at home placed the volume of the encyclopedia in the small library in the dining room and sat down in the courtyard to read the other book. A bit later Alma came in through the courtyard door. She liked to see him with that book open, which he hold with a hand while the other resting on his head. Since he didn't notice her presence she went on looking at him for a while. It was beautiful that he was so concentrated. He looked more important. He was so serious. Never had she seen anybody to read that way: it seemed as if he was in a different world.

–Hello, Frin.
–... eh? Hi.
–What are you reading?
–Look! In 1953 a ship with all its crew disappeared.

Alma sat beside him. Frin kept on reading aloud and she paid attention to what he was saying; but it was also nice to be there with Frin. Close, while he was reading aloud to both. Frin's voice wasn't unpleasant. A ship has disappeared with all its crew. Moreover, it was a very nice voice. And it didn't sink. And he read very well.

These lines belong to the children book titled "Frin" by the Argentinean writer, actor and musician Luis María Pescetti. A fantastic work that captivated Edgardo and me the first time we got our hands on it and our eyes could witness, page after page, what this young character did, thought and felt while he was at school, met a new friend, liked a girl from his classroom, got his first job... We thought it was a magnificent history and almost devours it when we took it from the library of the Centro de Difusión e Investigación de Literatura Infantil y Juvenil (CEDILIJ, Diffusion and Research Center on Children and Young Literature). With the same illusion as Frin spent his first salary on the first volume of that encyclopedia, which was even enough for buying a second book on rare phenomena, we wrote to The Three Wise Men asking for his adventures in print. When we opened our presents the 6th of January, nobody was more surprised than us noticing that they had brought us not only "Frin" but also "Lejos de Frin" (Far from Frin) by the same author and "Los selk'nam. La vida de los onas en Tierra del Fuego" (The selk'nam. Onas' life in Tierra del Fuego) by the French anthropologist Anne Chapman. Edgardo had asked for Pescetti and Chapman was my election, but we never imagined that we would get everything we wanted to.

That morning we begun to read our presents and like Alma, we spent a few minutes looking at each other in silence, observing his/her seriousness, his/her smile, his/her surprise... Each one in his/her world, in a different world, in another world... While one of us was remembering his childhood, the other recovered the memory of an extinct people; both of us turning back our faces, Edgardo a few years only and I a couple of centuries (Chapman's informers were born in the XIX century and all of them died during the XX). In a way, we both were looking back, to the own past and to the past of a people who knew about their defeat at the hands of white men from the very moment that they arrived at the Island with the aim of staying (around 1880). The newcomers smoothed the path for themselves by destroying an original culture and killing the people who, along the centuries, kept it alive and passed it down from generation to generation. There was nostalgia in Edgardo's eyes and I could listen to his laugh from time to time. In my case, not a word passed my lips all morning and my sight was lost in any of the four "skies" that selk'nam people knew.

A couple of days later, we interchanged our books not allowing them to rest even a night next to the other books that are part of our beloved library. My smile reappeared in a moment and Edgardo's lips froze walking across any of the haruwen (pieces of land) in which the Island was divided were the onas (the name that first travelers gave to the self–named selk'nam) lived there.

Is it not fascinating how books can take us with them, their power to catch us, to draw us into new places, different times, unknown cultures, our own childhood...? Is it not incredible to follow other steps through their pages and discover horizons that we never dreamt to reach? Is it not marvelous to travel light and be always well–equipped? It took Frim three days to decide on what he wanted to spend the money he had just got, and we needed a few hours to write the letter to The Three Wise Men. We three chose a book and each of us lived a different experience when opened ours. The three of us had to think first what we wanted most, and once we got it, each one had to concentrate on their own reading. It is almost certain that, in our own way, we three re–wrote some passages, invented and dreamt them; that, at some moments, we forgot where we were staying and almost, who we were; that, in more than one occasion, we turned one page back or moved forward two or three, even several chapters because we were bursting with impatience...

Since with a book in our hands we can achieve so many things, live a lot of adventures, discover countless stories... it would be fantastic if we do not have to "spent all that money" in order to place in our own small libraries a new friend, and to allow each of us to find what we like, need and have an interest for us, in the big libraries that belong to everybody. Considering that The Three Wise men have many other requests to attend and that they only come once a year, books should be made more accessible to everybody and that way we could also ask librarians, booksellers, our parents, our children, our friends and teachers for them. I strongly believe that to read is a wonderful need and books are the essential accompaniment to every good meal that we eat every day to grow up (in any and all possible senses).

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