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.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Shepherds tracks

Shepherds tracks

By Edgardo Civallero
Translated by Sara Plaza

March has found us spending a few weeks in a small village in the so-called "poor mountains" of Madrid, which belonged to the province of Segovia in the past. Its name is Bustarviejo. Although "modernity" keeps on moving forward, the place still preserves part of the peace and tranquility of some towns in the Castilian provinces.

Here, in Bustarviejo, where I am writing today, it is possible to walk along the Cañada Real, one of the old cattle tracks that cross the Iberian Peninsula, a cobbled paving built by the Romans that have witnessed the practice of moving animals to winter/summer pastures (transhumance) year after year. In the past –and even nowadays, in an effort to revitalize the shade of the old days– flocks of sheep (one of the main sources of income in this region, Old Castile) had to move northwards/southwards looking for pastures throughout the year. Long lines of animals moving slowly were driven along the "cañadas" from the Middle Ages. Those tracks kept the cattle away from the sown fields and allowed the Crown to collect the ubiquitous taxes.

Transhumant shepherds' life was connected with a particular culture with very peculiar elements: musical instruments, which hardly survive nowadays in the hands of a number of elders with good memories and some young that want to recover those wonderful memories; types of food relating to different kind of cheese, bread, seasonal fruit and cold meats; songs and tales; traditional customs and habits belonging to their nomadic style of life; and a series of techniques, activities, sayings and proverbs...

This very same culture –except for the distances and logical differences that separate one from each other– can be found around the people leading llamas across Bolivian highlands, carrying potatoes from the high Andean plateau to the salad lakes southwards to exchange them for blocks of salt and then take the latter to the warm valleys eastwards and once there give them and get coca leaves, vegetables, fruit and cheese in exchange. This culture includes old rites of passage and ceremonies performed for travelers and animals' protection; it also includes, as said above, unique musical instruments, sayings, rituals, customs...

And you may also discover similar traits around Sub-Saharan Africa camel-drivers; around yaks train drivers crossing the Himalayas between India and Nepal or Pakistan; around Saami people (Laplanders) taking their reindeers through Scandinavia; and around Masai people tending their precious cattle across western Africa...

These patrons and features make up an immense human mosaic in which we are all included. Some of them are expressed in many of the documents that we store up on the shelves of our libraries. However, this is only a tiny part, the knowledge that has been written. Most part of this culture keeps on showing its face and leaving its marks on the surface of our planet. It continues living, changing, evolving and, sometimes, disappearing. It is important that we do not forget all the knowledge that remains far from our hands: many things keep on beating out of the walls of our libraries, far from our catalogues, databases and the Internet. This knowledge also deserves our attention for it is the remains of an age where women and men still knew and recognized the rhythms of Nature.

As I told you before, a huge part of this traditional culture is alive in many corners of our world. Here, in Bustarviejo, there are still memories of the immense clouds of dust caused by the sheep movement to different fields in different seasons.

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Worse than being blind is not to want to see

Worse than being blind is not to want to see

By Sara Plaza

Probably you will become aware of it in the following lines, but I want to advise you anyway: I am a bit angry while I am writing them.

Today is one of those lazy Sunday mornings in which the world awakes later than me, for I get up very early every day of the week. There are still a few puddles in the street and on a number of flat roofs that we can see from our balcony, which seem silent remains of the summer storm that made the sky shudder last night in this part of the world that lies to south of the South and always looks at the North. For those who walk in this area still do it following the routes that were traced out by the conquerors that went back home with all that were able to steal from these parts. In this sense, we will never have the potholes of route number 40 repaired (the route that goes through La Patagonia, whose potholes were cleverly sidestepped by that traveling salesman who picked up my backpack and me in Esquel [1], when I took the four volumes of "La Patagonia rebelde" [2] in my hands and decided, three years ago, to follow the footprints of those men who, at the beginning of the last century, rose up to defend their employments against Lieutenant Colonel H. Benigno Varela troops) but we will soon be able to get on a high speed train between Buenos Aires and Córdoba, something like a modern Camino Real (highway) that, who knows, might have a stop in Potosí in the near future.

This great sense of indignation that I feel today is related with the one felt a couple of months ago while reading an article written by Norman Gall, where, in two lines, he explained "[t]he improvement in transports allows poor people to travel long distances to emigrate, to pay someone a visit or to do business" [3]. Sometimes I ask myself what it is that analysts analyze and which is the basis that allows them to reach their conclusions, for I do not know how they can be so distant from ordinary people's opinions and reality. I ask myself whether those professionals will not be inventing a reality that suits their numbers and percentages, whether they will not have much more imagination than the ones labeled as utopians or/and dreamers. One cannot avoid continue asking him/herself similar questions when s/he finds "little dialectical jewels" such as the words written by Spanish Foreign Affairs and Cooperation minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, who, after finishing a tour around Africa, stated one month ago:

No doubt, Africa is a continent full of problems, but above all it is a continent that is alive. Every day its inhabitants have to pass a thousand and one tests to survive. Most of them do it with a big and sincere smile, which reflects in those hairs in ringlets, in those magnetized eyes and in those elegant bodies that unleash their rhythm when the music begins. That movement spreads into the whole continent: a continent that wishes to come across happiness. Everything is conditioned to this search. That inner strength explains the high level of sacrifice and suffering in most of the citizens. [4]

After reading those lines I keep on asking myself whether Foreign Affairs ministers visiting the interior of a continent will not have to wear a certain type of glasses through which they perceive a reality that has nothing to do with the reality in which its people really and truly live. I ask myself how they come to know whether or not those smile that they see through the windows of their armor–plated cars are sincere, how they can state in such an irresponsible way that millions of hungry and sick people surrounded by poverty and never ending wars, start dancing as soon as music begins. I ask myself how they can conclude that sacrifice and suffering are the driving force that will help people to find happiness...

Luckily, that very same day, I came across Spanish writer Antonio Muñoz Molina's opinion about the film "Four months, three weeks, two days", which, in my view, was much more true–to–life than those comments made by the two "authoritative" sources that I have just mentioned above:

... I went in depth into my perception of those two women swept away by misfortune and fear, saved by a sort of fraternity made of innocence and courage, made of a rare women's alloy of fragility and fortitude. I went with them through the sordid night of a tyranny, and neither was it necessary to see uniforms nor to listen to political declarations in order to feel the cold of the despotic surveillance in the back of your neck and, on your shoulders, the entire grief and sorrow of a regime, which greatest cruelty seems to be its desolate duration. There are lives that are fulminated by the surgical brutality of executors: others, the majority, continue degrading through the years by diary dose of submission and conformity, deteriorating as buildings badly erected and old cars that are still in use, wearing out and getting dirty as painted paper on the walls of rooms that nobody cares for. [5]

I cannot stop asking myself and trying to find a few answers, to seek them at least, while I keep on moving forward on a bus, sailing through the pages of a book or a diary, talking with people around me, writing to those who are far away... So I get angry when I discover answers that are completely unsatisfactory as the ones provided by Mr. Gall or Mr. Moratinos. I am not talking about true or false answers, I speak of the sort of answers that allow me to keep on investigating, making inquiries, learning, criticizing. Regretfully, the explanations offered by those men are so superficial that nobody can take them seriously. Nothing can be built from them, much less valid reasons or valuable knowledge. What worries me the most is the fact that their answers become the basis for new cooperation and development projects. For on grounds so weak I cannot see how the children of people living in countries and continents with deep wounds as those still bleeding in Latin America, Africa or Rumania will be able to build their present and think about their future.

[1] It is an important city placed at the foot of the Andes in the Argentinean province of Chubut.

[2] This impressive work was written by Argentinean writer and lecturer Osvaldo Bayer.

[3] Norman Gall is managing director at the World Economy Fernand Braudel Institute of Sao Paulo. His words belong to the article "El olvidado progreso de América Latina" (The forgotten progress of Latin America), published in the international edition of EL PAÍS, Saturday 19th of January, 2008.

[4] From the article "Una mirada a África" (One look at Africa), published in the international edition of EL PAÍS, Saturday 9th of February, 2008.

[5] From the article "Regreso al cine" (Back to the cinema), published in the international edition of EL PAÍS, Saturday 9th of February, 2008.

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Aspiration and inspiration

Aspiration and inspiration

By Sara Plaza

I don't suppose that everybody have asked themselves what we intend to reach, professionally speaking. So, on the one side, it may be useful to check what those that have thought about it believe. The Spanish writer Juan Gil–Albert wrote: "I aspire to be as much subjective as possible. Only by talking in his name, a man achieves to agree, if not with the truth that might be a goal too abstract, at least with authenticity. To be authentic is worth as much as be true and is within our good–will reach". However, Graham Green was of the opinion that you have to write with a piece of ice in the heart, and the British author Ian McEwan agrees with this proposal for he believes that it is of vital importance to distance him from the characters of his novels...

On the other side, I consider the line between literature and life to be so fine that it would be possible to listen to both beatings as one. In my opinion, that piece of ice would end up melting as a result of beating, for I believe that you have to be able to recognize the world and yourself before trying to reinvent any of them. It seems to me that what we do is related to whom and how we are, and taking those authors' opinion as a starting I am going to reflect on human beings' aspirations in general.

If the poet was right and the path is done by walking on it, blow after blow, verse after verse, what we are and what we aspire to become should have something in common with our choices and the decisions we make. For that reason I believe that it is important certain fidelity to yourself. This quality of being loyal to you should be dotted with curiosity. Curiosity that has to do with our desire to learn a bit more in order to be unaware of a bit less.

Professionals, artists, apprentices, artisans, we all have something of warlocks/witches and wizards: we all transform into someone else by changing day after day. It does not matter whether we get transformed by an enchantment, a spell or a liquid with magic powers... but it is necessary to pursuit any sort of logic or coherence through the change and also to renew our efforts and illusions with a good deal of optimism. Manu Dibango, a famous musician from Cameroon, explained it a recent interview: "I consider myself as an old man with ability ... I am a grandfather perfectly capable of many things. In Africa the elders are respected. Not in vain they are the guardians of something. You have no option: despite yourself you must have stored experiences. Every day something happens and, in addition, there is your own transformation".

For we are getting older, instead of aspiring to be subjective, to cool down our heart or to get our production away from us when we write, but also when we compose, make music, lay bricks, work the land, manage information or have access to it... it would be better to turn back our faces from time to time while we keep on moving forward: imagining what might be possible by remembering what was impossible.

To make things
We don't stop being human beings,
To create
We don't stop living,
We don't stop breathing.

For we are both: Aspiration and inspiration. [1]

[1] In Spanish, both words "aspiración" and "inspiration" can mean inhalation. But, at the same time, "aspiración" also means "aspiration", while "inspiración" means inspiration.

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Voices from the past

Voices from the past

By Edgardo Civallero
Translated by Sara Plaza

The books than we have in our libraries are, on many occasions, voices from the past that sought refuge in writing to continue making ideas and feelings known through the centuries forever and ever. Those voices that tried to be preserved, perpetuated and reproduced, somehow understood –at that moment– that what they had to tell was of a lot of value and could help future generations. For the world is a wheel and even though history does not repeat itself –at least this is what modern historians assert– human being use to have a particular quality for making the same mistake twice.

Preparing a text about Mayan civilization during its post-classical age –I mean, the moment when the flame of such a magnificent culture started slowly to go out– I come across a story that is worth remembering. I found it in the pages of one of the "Books of Chilam Balam". These pages deserve to be commenting on in their fullest extent on other occasion.

After the Spanish conquest of Mayan territories (placed in Mexico and part of Guatemala), Catholic priests taught reading and writing skills to Mayan people in order to facilitate their conversion to Christianity. However, their "pupils" used that power to collect their old knowledge –which, recorded in codices until that moment, had then disappeared thanks to the memoricide carried out by conquers and priests themselves–, as well as the events that were happening at that moment (XVI century). In this way, they rescued their memory from oblivion when it was condemned to obscurity by the official story.

In various regions of the old Mayan territory, a number of books were written in the native language on Spanish paper and using Latin alphabet. Those manuscripts written in northern Yucatán (probably by Mayan ethnics groups Itzá and Yucateco) are called, in general, "Books of Chilam Balam". Some important passages from nine or ten of those books have come to the present moment, identified by the name of the city where they were written. I found the story I am going to speak about in the book of Chilam Balam written in Chumayel, one of the most complete works.

This book mentions an event that happened in Chichén Itzá many years before the Spaniards arrival; an incident that, due to its importance, was transmitted orally, by word of mouth, saving itself from being consigned to oblivion thanks to those writers who remembered it and noted it down. Chichén Itzá was one of the most powerful state-cities during the Mayan post-classical age. Settled in the Yucatán peninsula, the old Itzá land (Mexican, at present), it was –and continues being– famous for its beautiful architecture and, especially, for the so-called "sacrifices well".

This well was a natural opening as many of the holes so abundant in the Yucatec Peninsula, where limestone is easily bored through by rain creating collapses, caves, caverns and large open mouths in the surface filled with water. Named "cenotes" by modern archeologists (from Mayan "tsonoot"), those wells were used sometimes as the place where sacrifices were offered to Chaac, god of the rain, one of the most important gods for a people dependent on agriculture. This was the function of the Chichén Itzá well. This cenote was so important that the city was named after it: Chi Cheen Itzá, "Itzá side of the well".

The greenish waters of that well received propitiatory adornments –copal resin, golden objects, feathers, jade earrings– and human victims that had been previously selected. It was supposed that the well leaded directly to the realms of Chaac: there, the god would welcome the persons killed and, had he anything to communicate to the livings –waiting at the top of the well– one of the sacrificed would be allowed to come back with his message.

Regretfully, as it is to be expected, nobody, ever, came back being the divine messenger. The victims, drugged before being sacrificed, gripped by fear of the impending death, were swallowed by the boggy waters before they were able to think how to float to the surface.

Nevertheless, the "Book of Chilam Balam" tells that a young nobleman –named Hunac Ceel– had a revealing idea after watching those sacrifices. Tired of those events that shaken the political life of that region at that moment, he headed for the platform where offerings were thrown into the waters –votive and humans– and, before people and priests staring at him in astonishment, threw himself into the well. The greenish surface stood still for some minutes and then, beneath the bubbles and foam that had been formed, the man appeared on the surface with difficult breathings. Faced with the amazement of everybody and the incredulity of some, he shouted that the god Chaac had spoken to him and had said that, from that moment on, he, Hunac Ceel, of the House of Cocom, would be the regent of that state-city.

The people acclaimed him immediately. Bounded hand and foot by their own customs and traditions, knowing how clever and cunning the nobleman had been at getting what he wanted, priests and members of the nobility –not being able to contradict their religion– had to put up with that "divine" decision swallowing their rage and pride. What followed was one of the most relentless dictatorships that have ever been supported by Mayan people at that time. Hunac Ceel and those of his House handled the threads of the political intrigues and the wars against their foes.

With his court settled in the city of Mayapán, he led his forces towards Chichén Itzá, and, according to some historians, it was him who destroyed it to the ground, turned it into the ruins –magnificent, but ruins after all– that it is today.

The story has all the ingredients that a novel needs to be written. Although the "Book of Chilam Balam" adds many other legendary events to this account, the detailed study carried out by modern searchers also reveals the historic facts. The story was true, as it was true the serious consequences of what happened, a sort of madness that served the character right for running away with a power that did not belong to him.

Stories of this kind should make us reflect on the present time. Hunac Ceel would not be the first "leader" passing over his people using his society customs. Seeking protection in them, totalitarian fellows rule over the life of their nations abusing their authority. Taking advantage of civil and legislative codes, electoral laws, customs and habits, they abuse their position as principals and forget our rights and needs, using and exploiting us.

Our libraries are a constant reminder of all this, of all that happened and still happens... So many books had to be written with a purpose. We should make an effort to remember as well. Only knowing the past we will be able to understand the present and plan our future. However, human memory is extremely fragile and it seems as if we were not very familiar with the books resting on the shelves of our closer library.

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Saturday, March 01, 2008

To have or not to have prejudices? Is this the question?

To have or not to have prejudices? Is this the question?

By Sara Plaza

A couple of weeks ago I was reading quite an old English edition of "The travels of Marco Polo", and in chapter XLI of Book First "Of the province of Khamil" I came across a story that reminded me of another from Gabriel García Márquez's novel "A hundred years of solitude", for both of them have to do with fertility: the former refers to plants growing well in a particular region and the latter is connected with animals having a lot of young. Seven centuries and a good number of geographical features separate one from the other; however, they share certain reasoning regarding the gifts humans are awarded when Nature looks happy with their infidelities, what lead me to believe that they might be the reason we remain faithful to ourselves through history. I would like to share with you that chapter about Khamil, though it is my purpose to reflect on prejudices rather than on deceit...

Khamil is a province which in former days was a kingdom. It contains towns and villages, but the chief city bears the name of Khamil. The province lies between two deserts, for on the one side is the great desert of Lop, and on the other side is a small desert of three days' journey in extent. The people are all idolaters, and have a peculiar language. They live by the fruits of the earth, which they have in plenty, and dispose of to travelers. They are a people who take things very easily, for they mind nothing but playing and singing, and dancing and enjoying themselves.

And it is the truth that if a foreigner comes to the house of one of these people to lodge, the host is delighted, and desires his wife to put herself entirely at the guest's disposal, while he himself gets out of the way, and comes back no more until the stranger shall have taken his departure. The guest may stay and enjoy the wife's society as long as he likes while the husband has no shame in the matter, but indeed considers it an honor. And all the men of this province are made wittols of by their wives in this way. The women themselves are fair and wanton.

Now it came to pass during the reign of Mangu Khan, that as lord of this province he came to hear of this custom, and he sent forth an order commanding them under grievous penalties to do so no more but to provide hostelries for travelers. And when they heard this order they were much vexed thereat. For about three years' space they carried it out. But then they found that their lands were no longer fruitful, and that many mishaps befell them. So they collected together and prepared a grand present which they sent to their lord, praying him graciously to let them retain the custom which they had inherited from their ancestors; for it was by reason of this usage that their gods bestowed upon them all the good things that they possessed, and without it they saw not how they could continue to exist. When the prince had heard their petition his reply was "Since ye must needs keep your shame, keep it then," and so he left them at liberty to maintain their naughty custom. And they always have kept it up, and do so still.

It seems as if such custom was not of Marco Polo's liking, thought we do not know whether he came to know about it from others or from his own experience while journeying throughout Persia, in the XIII century. The book about his travels is full of similar anecdotes. Some of them affect him deeply, others make him shudder. While he finds some of them commendable, considers others to be regretful. He agrees that some of them deserve to be mentioned and feels sorry for not saying a single word about others, and... Always gives his opinion about them, always judge them, always challenges whether they are moral or immoral. Religion is present everywhere and while he praises the one he professes, is not very understanding with the rest. Accordingly, the same happens with those who follow one or the others. Neither intended our traveler to be objective nor seemed neutrality to have played an important role among their worries.

However, both concepts are of a lot of concert to some education and library professionals, who pretend to educate and manage information in an aseptic manner, as if such a thing might be possible. As if the matter of not having prejudices when they are next to the shelves or a blackboard was in their hands. We all have prejudices and it is worth asking ourselves about ours and trying to find them out: firstly, to become aware of them; secondly, in order to avoid the sort of discriminatory practices they may induce us to carry out; and in third place, to give ourselves the opportunity to overcome some of them: preventing them from getting in our way and not allowing them to obstruct others' path. We do not have to necessarily agree among all of us, but for being conscious that we think different from others, it is mandatory to know what we think and what the other thinks, and therefore to try to get to know each other... Marco Polo observes and tells. He tells whatever he sees and also which his opinion is about it, and I do not believe this to be wrong. Precisely for it let the reader the unfinished business of contrasting his lines with those written by other authors to build up our own opinion. And this is fantastic. I assure you that it is an exciting adventure to start doing some research and developing critical thinking.

Particularly, if you decide to take a few old maps out of the drawer and trace out the route followed by the Venetian, I believe you will not regret it. And if you prefer any other author, era or horizon, I imagine you will not be disappointed either. Travels' books are delightful. You will find yourself laughing sometimes and going red others. There will be occasions when you feel like running behind the main characters' steps and moments later you would rather take the opposite direction on others. It is impressive what those characters were able to attain and it is difficult to believe all that happened to the inhabitants of those remote areas. Nicolas Polo's son has no reason to be envious of the authors of travel guides such as "The Lonely Planet" or "El trotamundos", for at that time he was able to estimate how long a journey would be, how much it would cost and also the most interesting trading posts, exactly as modern guides indicate picturesque settings.

All in all, after reading about travels it is not difficult to notice that one has read about something else than the routes followed to go and return, for there are many paths and shortcuts in the middle, which use to be full of surprises. Once you have finished the book, you feel an irresistible wish to take your backpack, a pen and some paper and leave, ready to note down everything you see and listen to. I do not dare to encourage you to try and touch everything, since these are difficult times and you would have to pay a surcharged bill afterwards. Anyway, what I suggest you to do is to travel and read with your prejudices aside, which is not the same as without them, and to allow those how are heavier to get lost along the way. By experience I can tell you that it is easier to travel and read when one does it light. In addition, there will always be free space to bring new knowledge back home.

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