Faith, Falsehood, and Fiction

Here’s Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, the newly crowned Nobel literature laureate and a proud agnostic, talking about truth, lies, and fiction in a piece called “Is Fiction the Art of Living?“:

THE lies in novels are not gratuitous – they fill in the insufficiencies of life. Thus, when life seems full and absolute, and men, out of an all-consuming faith, are resigned to their destinies, novels perform no service at all.  Religious cultures produce poetry and theater, not novels.

Fiction is an art of societies in which faith is undergoing some sort of crisis, in which it’s necessary to believe in something, in which the unitarian, trusting and absolute vision has been supplanted by a shattered one and an uncertainty about the world we inhabit and the afterworld.

I’m not at all sure about that idea of novels providing a “service,” but this is nevertheless an excellent explanation of why totalitarian societies clamp down not only on civil rights and freedom of expression, but on that most essential and potentially most subversive of individual rights — freedom of imagination.

Now it’s time to catch up with Vargas Llosa.    Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter sounds like farcical fun, but this accidental theologist really has to start with The Storyteller, in which a saintly, disfigured student presents himself as the official storyteller for a rainforest tribe and the repository of its collective memory.

Long live stories!

Holy Bull

Must-read for non-hypocrites:  an open letter to Elie Wiesel in response to his urging President Obama not to “pressure” Israel into stopping Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem (the latest stage being the eviction of Arab residents of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, which has led to a protest vigil).

Wiesel maintained that Jerusalem, the most politicized city in the world, is “above politics” by virtue of its holiness — an argument that looks and smells like what it is:   a steaming pile of holy s**t.

Fortunately, the Israeli writers of this open letter, among them political scientists and Israel Prize laureates Avishai Margalit and Zeev Sternhell (who not long ago survived attempted assassination by a fundamentalist Jewish settler), put it rather more elegantly.

“We cannot recognize our city in the sentimental abstraction you call by its name,” they say.   To claim that Jerusalem is “above politics”  is outrageous.  “Being above politics is being devoid of the power to shape the reality of one’s life.  We cannot stand by and watch our city… being used as a springboard for crafty politicians and sentimental populists who claim that Jerusalem is above politics and negotiation, while all the while frantically ‘Judaizing’ East Jerusalem in order to transform its geopolitics beyond recognition….

“We who live in Jerusalem can no longer be sacrificed for the fantasies of those who love our city from afar.  Jerusalem must be shared by the people of the two nations residing in it.  Only a shared city will live up to the prophetic vision ‘Zion shall be redeemed with justice.’  As we chant weekly in our vigils in Sheikh Jarrah, ‘nothing can be holy in an occupied city!'”

To which, as a former Jerusalemite, I’d say ‘Amen,’ and add this:

When he was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, Wiesel was cited for his “practical efforts in the path of peace” and for his “powerful message of peace, atonement, and human dignity.”   If it was unclear exactly what he’d done for peace, people kept quiet(ish) about it.  Now that it’s crystal clear what he’s doing against peace, it’s way past time for the Nobel Committee to demand their prize back.

Kaddish for my Mother

The day we bury my mother, the rabbi surprises me.  He asks if I’d like to lead the Kaddish prayer alongside my brother.

He’s new to this orthodox Anglo-Jewish congregation, but perhaps he’s heard of “the scene” I made at my father’s grave thirteen years ago.  In insult at being excluded when the shovel was handed first to my brother and then to my uncle, I’d grabbed it and offered it to my mother, then warded off all protests as first she and then I sent dirt thudding onto the pine boards of the coffin — the terrible, sobering sound of undeniable reality.

Now, as my brother and I lead the Kaddish together, there’s a murmur of consternation behind us.  Women in orthodox Judaism are not even counted as part of the minyan, the community of prayer.  What we are doing is distinctly unorthodox.  But the ripple dies down as my voice rings out — louder and more confident than my brother’s since my Hebrew is fluent while he just sounds the letters.

I am surprised by how right this feels.  Surprised at my agnostic self finding consolation in any prayer, let alone this haunting one whose words have nothing to do with death.  On the page, it’s just another prayer in praise of God, whom I am in no mood at all to praise, even if I thought there was something as simple as a “who” to be praised in the first place.

But then this is not about God.  It’s not even about what most of us think of as religion.  It’s about tradition, and identity, and family loyalty.

It’s about gratefully submitting to familiar ritual when death has utterly disrupted the familiar.

It’s about standing up and being counted, not as a silent bystander in the gallery but in a daughter’s rightful place, at the head of the community of mourners.

It’s about honoring my mother.  And in doing so, honoring all women.

— For Sybil, for Mothers Day.

Let’s Ban Sunglasses!

If the Islamic veil needs to be banned for security reasons — if the full niqab is indeed a form of criminal concealment, foiling identification by security personnel — then let’s be logical:

let’s ban sunglasses

and big floppy sunhats

and tinted contact lenses.

let’s ban wigs

and hair extensions

and make-up.

let’s ban beards

and clowns’ faces

and cosmetic surgery

and mustaches

and baseball caps

and hair dye

and skin lighteners

and spray-on tans.

let’s ban and ban and ban

until there’s nothing left to ban any more

and then we’ll be….


Veiled Hatred

This obsession with the Islamic “veil” gets more absurd by the day.  I had no intention of posting more about it so soon, but now a Tunisian woman has been fined in Italy for wearing a full veil — niqab — as she walked to the mosque.   Belgium passed a no-niqab law last week, and France is about to do the same even though fewer than 2,000 Frenchwomen wear the damn thing .  And my brother let loose on the phone from England last night, shouting at me that every leading French feminist was against the niqab, that it was all part of France’s concern for separation of church and state, and that besides it was essential for security to be able to see people’s faces.

My brother the political cynic arguing for natonal security by lecturing me on feminism?  What kind of brave new world is this?

My feminist credentials are impeccable — infinitely better than those of all the male European politicians busy yammering on about women’s dignity, let alone my brother’s.  And I’ve been at it long enough to know when my feminism is being manipulated.

Of course I’m not “for” the veil.   I hate the idea of it.  But for European governments to legislate against it?  How exactly is this different from the Taliban legislating for it?

Good minds are being driven over the edge by the veil.  Just try reading this op-ed piece, a convoluted argument which appears to be that the essence of civil society is being able to see the whites of someone’s eyes.  Not so long ago, soldiers were ordered not to shoot until they could see those same whites of the eyes…

Do niqab-wearing women choose it or are they being coerced?  Nobody really knows, though we do know that banning it takes away all element of choice.   But then despite all the high-falutin’ talk about women’s dignity, that’s not really the issue.   The real issue is fear of Islamic extremism, and the veil as a convenient symbol of presumed extremism.  And women are just pawns in this game, being used by liberal secular authorities no less than by conservative Muslim ones.

Just How Kosher Does a Muslim Intellectual Have To Be?

A bonfire of vanities is breaking out in the American political punditry about one single Muslim.   Not a terrorist, but a European intellectual — scholar and activist Tariq Ramadan, the Oxford professor who argues that Islam has a positive, ethical contribution to make to Western culture, and who was named one of the top innovators of the 21st century on the impeccably non-radical

Fresh fuel for the fire comes from The Flight of the Intellectuals, a new book accusing American and European intellectuals of pandering to Islam, specifically to Ramadan, while ignoring signs of his extremism.

It will appear to be a splendidly principled debate, with everyone taking impassioned positions in defense of liberte, egalite, and if not fraternite, certainly sororite.   Women in Islam, that is.   As usual, male Western intellectuals get most worked up about “the question of women” in Islamic societies, thus presenting themselves as comfortably situated white knights in shining armor, armchair warriors protecting the innocent from barbarism.

It will also be a peculiarly sophomoric debate, essentially asking “who’s our Muslim intellectual?”  Is it Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose book Infidel rejected Islam outright and led to her flight for safety to the US, where she’s now at the American Enterprise Institute?  Or is it Tariq Ramadan, who has consistently argued for a “third way” blending traditional Islamic values with western democratic ones?

In books like What I Believe, Ramadan advocates greater democratic political involvement by western Muslims.  This may seem reasonable enough, but reason, for his critics, is just a mask.   His hidden agenda is an extremist one, they say;  see how he refuses to outright condemn punishing women for adultery (he only says he opposes it)  or antisemitism (oops, strike that one, he did).

In fact the language used about Ramadan has a distinctly antisemitic tint.   He’s shifty, they say;  he’s two-faced;  he hides his true loyalties — all the sort of things said about Jews in 1930s Germany.   They point to Ramadan’s “connections” (his grandfather founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, so obviously the grandson is carrying out the grandfather’s program).   So what if Ramadan is a charming and sophisticated European intellectual?  That very charm and sophistication make him suspicious.   (There’s a strong tint here of “who does he think he is?  he’s just a Muslim putting on airs”).  He has to be a fifth columnist in the ranks of naive post-Enlightenment scholars who have no idea of the treacherous and devious depths of Islamic thinking.

The ultimate insult for such critics seems to be that Ramadan is a religious man.   A pious Muslim, as they see it, cannot possibly be a liberal intellectual;  his whole argument that Islam and social democracy are not necessarily opposed can thus, ipso facto, only be false.

What they’re really saying is that the only kind of Muslim intellectual who’s acceptable is one who’s absolutely kosher.  One who, like Hirsi Ali, has renounced all ties with the demon Islam.  One who has repented, seen the error of his/her ways, and accepted the superiority of the secular.

Perhaps that’s why the bonfire:  the language, attitudes, and assumptions behind this debate all seem to me to bear the distinctly pious fervor of  Inquisition.


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