There’s no escaping binaries these days. Every conceivable detail of modern life seems to be reduced to digital 1s and 0s. As computing technology encroaches ever further, it makes resisting binaries seem harder than ever. In/Out, Left/Right, Same/Different, Them/Us. Read more
I have stood at the very spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were shot by Gavrilo Princip 100 years ago. And the impossible “What If” question occurred to me even then. So when I noticed that eminent historian Ned Lebow had published an examination of the issue, I leapt at it. The assassination was such a fluke, so preventable, so absurd that the yearning for a different outcome of that moment is great. As he says at the start (having summarised some of the counterfactual options),
None of these what-ifs strains our understanding of the world because most royal processions do not stray from their intended routes, and most security details would have rushed the archduke and his wife to safety at the first signs of violence. In this instance, the so-called factual, not the counterfactual, is what strikes us as unrealistic and incredible. (p16) Read more
Without a doubt, the greatest privilege of working for Langham Partnership is the opportunity to make friends all over the place, especially when one returns to specific places over time. This is certainly the case with a number in the Balkans, of whom Slavko has become the closest. He has been to stay with us in London on numerous occasions (including with his family), and I’ve been able to spend time with them over there. Read more
There is a clear counter-argument for every point I want to make here. In fact, I sort of agree with every counter-argument myself. But I feel the need to make them nevertheless. For my hunch is that one of the key factors in ministerial burnout is that we are far more influenced by post-enlightenment modernism than by the values of the Kingdom. It shouldn’t come as any surprise – we’re always more insidiously affected by our culture than we appreciate. It’s just so sad how little we face the problem. Read more
I don’t cry in movies. Sometimes I’d quite like to. But that’s a different story. I just don’t. Usually. But one of the greatest films of recent years (and that is no hyperbole) made me weep: The Lives of Others. The scene in question is one that affected many other friends similarly. It is the moment when the Stasi agent, Gerd Wiesler, eavesdrops on the playwright Georg Dreyman playing a piano piece given to him by an old friend driven to suicide by being blackballed by the East German officialdom. Read more
- The dilemma for Iraqi Christians
- Charts showing the difference between NIV2011 and previous versions, and here. (HT Antony Billington)
- Full schedule of Lausanne III at Cape Town to see videos of main talks etc
- Bring Advent to life by following Natwivity on Twitter
- David Instone-Brewer at Tyndale House has very helpfully reviewed a variety of computer resources for the bible scholar – check them out at Tyndale Tech
- If you know anything about recent Balkan history, this news is an encouraging sign.
- Books vs eBooks – an interesting Newsweek chart
- Very interesting article about what Americans feel about their ex-Presidents.
- Scary infographic about internet porn. (HT Simple Pastor)
- The problem of contemporary parental discipline:
- Ever been on an overnight flight? Well this sums up the experience perfectly.
- I love tilt-shift photos – clever focus manipulation that makes real life scenes look like models. Check these out.
- Some rather fun and quirky photographs from everyday London.
- I rather like these Ukrainian designs for playing cards
- 50 office jargon phrases we just totally hate
- Some fascinating cartographic futurology from the ever reliable Strange Maps
- People are awesome (not dumb… mostly) …!
- Rather fun reflection by Kevin Connolly on James Bond, America and post-war austerity
And as I was doing a bit of rejigging and final prep on it, I realised it was absolutely appropriate to include Miss Sarajevo at the end of the set list. (This (right) is the view from my desk as I was adding words to the song’s video).
During the talk there had been quite a bit of interaction and discussion – some sceptical of the general points I was making (inevitably!), some amazed by some of the content of songs they thought were familiar but which they’d never listened to closely.
But when we closed with the Miss Sarajevo video, there was stunned silence. Most knew the song. Few had seen the video. And as you can see if you watch it below (especially the last minute or so), it is agonising to watch. There was stunned silence and reflection, having been forced to reflect on the horrors of the siege. It was almost too painful.
For the unfamiliar, the song is about a Beauty Pageant that took place in 1993, while the shells and bombs fell all around. It is thus a potent symbol of the semblance of normal, peaceful life in the midst of war. Worst of all was the image of the girls lined up in the parade holding up a sign in English for all the world to see:
Don’t Let Them Kill Us
It’s a very simple song, essentially a series of questions. And interestingly, of all the songs he’s written, Bono says this is his favourite…
Is there a time for keeping your distance
A time to turn your eyes away?
Is there a time for keeping your head down
For getting on with your day?
Is there a time for kohl and lipstick?
Is there time for cutting hair?
Is there a time for high street shopping
To find the right dress to wear?
Here she comes, heads turn around
Here she comes, to take her crown.
Is there a time to run for cover
A time for kiss and tell.
A time for different colours
Different names you find hard to spell.
Is there a time for first communion
A time for East 17
Is there time to turn to Mecca
Is there time to be a beauty queen.
Here she comes, beauty plays the clown
Here she comes, surreal in her crown.
[Pavarotti’s Italian bit]
Dici che il fiume // Trova la via al mare (You say that the river finds the way to the sea)
E come il fiume // Giungerai a me (and like the river you will come to me)
Oltre i confini // E le terre assetate (beyond the borders and the dry lands)
Dici che come il fiume // Come il fiume…
L’amore giunger // L’amore… (You say that like a river the love will come)
E non so pi pregare (And i don’t know how to pray anymore)
E nell’amore non so pi sperare (and in love i don’t know how to hope anymore)
E quell’amore non so pi aspettare (and for that love i don’t know how to wait anymore)
Is there a time for tying ribbons
A time for Christmas trees?
Is there a time for laying tables
When the night is set to freeze?
This rather unprepossessing, pock-marked (i.e. bullet-riddled) house was Sarajevo’s lifeline during the 4 year siege in the mid-9os. I posted about that siege the last time I was here. Am here for the first ever Bosnian Langham Seminar (the preparations for which brought me here in February) and had an afternoon off yesterday to visit the Tunnel Museum. Road signs near by direct people to Tunel Spasa – the tunnel of hope or salvation. And it was well-named. For it kept a city of 1000s of people alive.
From the outside, it looks like many of the other buildings in this area – a narrow strip of land by Sarajevo airport which was held by the UN during siege (the main runway is beyond the end house’s garden fence in the right photo above).
The city was completely surrounded by Serb forces apart from the airport – an area that cut the city off from the Bosnian forces up in the mountains (as this map below shows). The UN was only allowed to occupy the airport (the blue strip crossing the neck of Bosnian territory) on condition that they did not allow Bosnians to cross it. As a result, the Bosnians were forced to build a tunnel underneath the airport. The Serbs knew it must exist, and they shelled the area constantly – but never actually found its exact whereabouts.
It was an extraordinary feat – nearly 1km (half a mile) long and only 1.6m (ca 5ft) high. It’s impossible for a man of average height to stand up straight in it – as my good friend Slavko Hadzic proves. But this was a lifeline – as someone rather ironically highlighted in the sign above the entrance (left): 1993-1995 SARAJEVO CITY GATE
Through this tunnel came troops, weapons, food, oil (in pipes along the roof), animals, supplies – everything in fact. It was controlled by Bosnian military police – and could only work if traffic travelled in one direction, and then swapped around every 30 minutes or so.
In my two visits to Sarajevo, nothing has brought home to me the horrors of a living in city under a 4-year siege more than visiting this place.
This is not quite the biography of the Man who was Q I was hoping for (for that you need David Porter’s The Man Who Was “Q”) – but then I should have read the small print! But it does recount a story that he was undoubtedly desperate to tell for years but prevented from doing so by the 30 year restrictions of the Official Secrets Act.
Before World War II, Charles Fraser-Smith had been many things: a prep school teacher, a despatch rider, a factory worker and a missionary agriculturalist in north Africa. In their different ways, all wonderfully equipped him for his extraordinary, secret role during the war as an inventor at the Ministry of Supply. He had been recruited, bizarrely enough, while on missionary deputation at an Evangelical church in Leeds. They invited him to join them, ‘to do a funny job in London’.
Ian Fleming encountered him in that capacity when he worked for Naval Intelligence – and it is widely accepted that he was the inspiration for Bond’s supplier Q. And in this book, Fraser-Smith (who died in his 80s in 1992 – see New York Times obit) lists the gadgets and schemes that were a lifeline to those working undercover on the continent, or those who were trying to escape the clutches of the enemy. Consequently, the book zips along with a narrative that could have been told by a character from Boys’ Own or Biggles. There are the wonderful colloquialism of 1940s received pronunciation and understatement. The enemy are despicable, diabolical and dastardly; our chaps (especially the heroes of S.O.E.) have real pluck and vim, for which he has only admiration; and when people on our side don’t pull their weight (e.g. businesses looking to their profits rather than supplying the war effort) he writes ‘the worst stinker of a letter I was capable of writing. It made my day.’ (p141)
Above all, this gives an extraordinary insight into a world which was by necessity secret until long after the events described. Fraser-Smith invented all kinds of things and he gives details of how they were supplied (and which firms ‘came up trumps’. He would be sitting in his drab civil service office at the Ministry of Supply (where he was undercover as a regular civil servant) and get a phone call from an anonymous voice who would bark a password and a demand – 400 miniature cameras by next week. And so he would have to find them. But as well as finding the impossible (like special Balkan tobacco to supply as morale-boosters to Tito’s partisans in former Yugoslavia), he came up with some classics which became integral to escape packs smuggled to POWs in camps. Hairbrushes, dominoes and pipes containing maps, fountain pens containing miniature magnetic compasses, shoelaces containing surgical saw-wire. He came up with the idea of chocolate infused with garlic to give airmen who landed instant garlic breath to help them blend in more to French life. And he can take the credit for having the brainwave while brushing his teeth of supplying food inside toothpaste tubes (vitally portable for escapers), which is now a multi-million pound industry.
The ingenuity knew no bounds. But just occasionally, in this book, there are hints of the wider, Christian worldview which was Fraser-Smith’s bedrock. So here is one example which both illustrates the horrors of war, Fraser-Smith’s turn of phrase and the beliefs he held to. Michel Hollard was a key member of the French resistance, and he had used a miniature camera supplied from the British very effectively for getting intelligence of enemy activities back to Britain:
Hollard’s personal story came to me long after the war. He was finally captured by the Gestapo. After a year in a concentration camp, he was loaded and locked into the hold of a German ship. This was one of those crammed with ‘unwanted’ prisoners which were abandoned in the North Sea with engines running but no crews aboard. When challenged by Allied aircraft or ships, the floating coffins would fail to heave to, thus inviting certain attack and destruction. This diabolical way of getting rid of hapless prisoners was typical of the Nazi mind, and horribly successful. Two of the ships, the Deutschland and the Cap Arcona, were sunk and thousands perished.
Fortunately Hollard was on the third, the Thilbeok. Locked in the hold, he heard the ship’s engines stated up and guessed the fate in store for them. Later that day he raised his voice, inciting all his doomed companions to link hands and pray. IT is a matter of record that those prayers were answered. A Swedish Red Cross boat mercifully arrived at that moment and took possession of the hapless Thilbeok. (p40)
He was desperate to cut through red-tape, overcome desk-bound idiocy and to find better ways of operating. So another idea was to encourage Arab farmers behind German lines in North Africa to develop farming practices that would sustain them and supply the war effort when the time came.
My Moroccan farming, the Malta storage experience, a strong BBC overseas service and some rather heavy-handed but quite sincere messages of inspiration, all tossed into a plan which was basically just common-sense. But when one remembers the story told of the First World War – when sandbags needed in the desert were reportedly sent by sea from Europe, filled with sand – the need for this commodity can be fully appreciated. (p124)
All in all, this is a very enjoyable book – patriotic, justly proud but quick to give credit where credit is due, an insight to a bygone era. To coin a cliché, they don’t make ’em like this anymore.
I leave off 1 star only because there are no pauses for reflection or questioning of the rightness of everything done by the Allies. This is the breathless account of a dutiful servant of the war effort, who unthinkingly obeys orders and would never for a moment seek to do less than his best. But then, in an account of the whys and hows of Q gadgets, perhaps that is all one can expect.
Having blogged a few weeks back about the tragedy of Tani Prroj, it seems that all kinds of things have been happening. It has made waves. Out of that terrible evil have come glimmers of good and redemption.
- A big rally against Blood-feuds took place the other day in Tirana, organised by VUSH (the Albanian Evangelical Alliance). The photos and short clip gives an idea of the crowd (filmed during the singing of the national Anthem)
- Various speakers addressed the crowds – but Elona, Tani’s remarkable widow, spoke powerfully and movingly, about the situation despite her profound grief. She made clear that she forgave the perpetrators and that wanted the cycle to stop. The rally was a powerful call for the tradition to end, and justice to be done, right in the heart of the capital.
- On a much smaller note, it has been really encouraging to me (and will certainly be to Elona and the children) to see that readers and friends of this blog have raised well over £3000 for the family – a wonderful testimony to global Christian ties that cross boundaries and even non-acquaintance.
Of course, after the intensity of these weeks, now the real agony begins as the reality bears down on the family. PLEASE PRAY hard for Elona, and the two children (both under 10) who are struggling to come to terms of life without their father.
And while we’re on the subject, a major article (and quoted below in translation) was written in one of the main Albanian newspapers by Besnik Mustafaj (right). He is a former Albanian Ambassador to France and Foreign Minister.
On October 8 this month, the center of Shkodra, in the pedestrian path that Shkodra proudly call “Piaca” in the middle of the day, exactly at 13:30, was killed a man about 30 years old, a father, an Albanian-servant of God, whose name was Dritan Prroj. I have not had the chance to know him. And from his short life mostly just know the circumstances under which he was massacred and those learned from the press. Even know who was a member of the “Evangelical Alliance in Albania…
He was an Albanian pastor at the church “Word of Christ” in his hometown, a choice that he certainly has made himself and sufficient showing his good nature, said more clearly, for his love for people. He was completely innocent. But his life was not snapped in between the age of the most beautiful by accident. It makes our pain and his loss to us even more severe. Killer is a guy 21 years old. I do not deserve mentioning his name in homage to Dritan Prroj. But one thing must be said: he has committed a barbaric act. Killer is in jail now and will probably rot all his youth there and possibly the age of the husband. Woe to the soul the suffering that awaits him!
Dritan Prroj certainly knew that the disaster had caused five years ago his uncle in the family of killers. His family came from Dukagjin and he must have known that Canon. But Dritan Prroj has judged as belonging to adjudicate a citizen of 2000, an Albanian to be honest, a man of God: he is not stuck. Hiding in the house would make Dritan Prroj part of a fault where there was no finger. He has continued to make his own life to help his family, his fellow believers church where served. Dritan Prroj not knowingly be admitted so in tune with his assassin, has refused to do his evil game. Contrary. Blessed his soul to the memory that has left!
Dritan Prroj, refused to hide in the house and this is a adorable and bravery. He paid a very expensive price, it is true. But this is not a reason to think today penance he should be preserved. Why should be preserved when he was not guilty? And by whom should be preserved in the end, when he did not make anyone worse? I guess he guarded by himself, yes, probably preserved by himself not to lose the way of justice. One thing is clear as the light of the sun: from the barbarity of this kind does not save by hiding. Until the last moment of life when even stopped to tell his name to the killer, Dritan Prroj has proved that there was a quiet man with a clear conscience. Such people, who have the audacity to disagree with evil, our civilization needs as much as air. In this sense and this is a superb sense, Dritan Prroj is a hero for our time. We, all of his compatriots, we must turn our eyes for a moment with deep humility towards the hero. Who said that the time of heroes has gone?
Evangelical Alliance in Albania gave to Dritan’ funeral the event that it deserved. And it would like, I am sure now, even the deceased. They walked in silence, dignified city center, upholding placards with calls. I turn to the conscience of our society as much as state law, including leaders of religious communities to join all the weight of each word of his work on behalf of the need to end feud , this “national disaster”, as called Fitor Muça, president of the Evangelical Alliance.
Among those who joined the calls were relatives of Dritan Prroj. And this is a fact particularly important. The significance of his example would be incomplete without their presence at the event where combined into one policy as the work of citizens, morality as obedience of believers and culture like behavior of people who love life, to serve a purpose common: order and social peace. I believe that the presence of relatives of the deceased at that escorts have understood the relatives of the killer, as I found out in Tirana, as an advertisement that between their family and Prroj there will be no revenge. This ominous chain is broken here. Glory to those who breaks the chains like that!
Believing with all my heart and mind in these words that I say, I feel obliged to explain better my opinion. May God forbid anyone to make the mistake and ask to the Prroj family to forgive the killer. Prroj family has no right either to forgive or to punish. It has power only to believe the killer in the hands of justice, in the hands of the law, who strongly wish to show in this case too harsh. With my heart in hand I feel no compassion for the lost youth of the killers, as I do not feel compassion for the endless torture of his parents’ mind today and in the future. I am convinced that 21-year-old boy would not do this if he would not been pushed and encouraged from his close circle of his family. Now it is late to ask them if they really wanted their son to do all this tragedy and to take an innocent life. A few years ago they remained without a son, and that time they were to be comforted, now they are left without two sons. Lord grant them the knowledge to understand how great fault they made to themselves and to the Prroj family!
Besnik Mustafaraj, President of the Albanian Forum for the Alliance of Civilizations
Following on from yesterday’s post, Lewis offers a very helpful articulation of how the Western and Islamic worlds diverged so drastically over the last 500 years. From a situation of great and proud cultural preeminence, the Middle East seems to have stagnated and even regressed. How did this happen?
Hermetically Sealed Isolation
One factor was the complacent assumption that there was nothing to learn from those who were different from themselves (always a dangerous step). One illustration of this was the culture of learning foreign languages.
A translation requires a translator, and a translator has to know both languages… such knowledge, strange as it may seem, was extremely rare in the Middle East until comparatively late. There were very few Muslims who knew any Christian language; it was considered unnecessary, even to some extent demeaning. (p147)
So as Europe emerged from the medieval world into the flowering of learning we call the Renaissance, with its rediscovery of the texts of the ancients and the cross-fertilisaztion as well as tensions that arose from Europe’s different cultural identities, the Ottoman empire remained blissfully unaware. Very few European publications were ever translated, and the new-fangled printing press was largely absent, and in places even banned. Interestingly enough, this was not mutual. Various Arabic documents were translated into European languages by Renaissance scholars – including an important medical text about blood circulation that highly influenced one Dr Michael Servetus (yes, the very same person, familiar to those aware of some of the darker moments of Geneva’s Reformation history).
But the other way around? There’s hardly anything. And where there are translations into Middle Eastern languages, the reasoning is both obvious and revealing. For instance, medical treatises on the treatment of syphillis (called in the Ottoman world the ‘Frankish pox’) were fine for translation. (p39) After all ‘a European’ disease clearly requires European expertise! And then the only other major imports, acceptable for translation and assimilation, were European military strategy and the accompanying weaponry technology.
As time went on, then, the culture gap inevitably grew. There’s surely a lesson for all those who self-consciously avoid learning foreign languages – and even if people are not linguistically-minded or -gifted, to avoid engaging with other cultures is dangerously narrow.
While on the subject of translation, another revealing moment comes in the underlying assumptions of the Ottoman Sultan, Murad III, as he wrote to his enemy’s enemy, Queen Elizabeth I (a letter which bizarrely enough was the subject of very recent diplomatic niceties):
In the correspondence between the Sultan of Turkey and Queen Elizabeth of England at the end of the sixteenth century, the letters are mostly concerned with commerce, but they do occasionally refer to the common Spanish enemy, a shared concern of London and Istanbul at the time. It would be an exaggeration to call this an alliance, and it was certainly not on equal terms. In the documents, the sultan, addressing the queen, uses language indicating that he expects her to be “… loyal and firm-footed in the path of vassalage and obedience… and to manifest loyalty and subservience” to the Ottoman throne. The contemporary translation into Italian, which served as the medium of communication between Turks and Englishmen, simply renders this as sincera amicizia. This kind of diplomatic mistranslation was for centuries the norm. (p22)
Tolerance & Freedom
I’d often heard the Islamic claim to be a tolerant religion. And I confess that it had always been hard to see beyond the negative image painted by the Taliban, now, of course, a byword for profound intolerance. Yet the truth is that there is clearly some historical validity to this claim, as proven by the way people voted with their feet.
The confrontation between Ottoman Islam and European Christendom has often been likened to the Cold War of the second half of the twentieth century. There are indeed some similarities between the two confrontations, but also significant differences. Perhaps most notable among these is the movement of refugees. In the twentieth century this movement was, overwhelmingly, from East to West; in the fifteenth, sixteenth and even in the seventeenth centuries, it was primarily from West to East. Surely, the Ottomans did not offer equal rights to the subject – a meaningless anachronism in the context of that time and place. They did however offer a degree of tolerance without precedent and parallel in Christian Europe. Each religious community – the Ottoman term was millet – was allowed the free practice of its religion. More remarkably, they had their own communal organizations, subject to the authority of their own religious chiefs, controlling their own education and social life, and even enforcing their own laws, to the extent that they did not conflict with the basic laws of the Empire. While ultimate power – political and military – remained in Muslim hands, non-Muslims controlled much of the economy, and were even able to play a part of some importance in the political process. (p33)
I found this was very striking indeed.
Lewis does note, however, that many of the more aggressive propagators of Islam today would have little time for such attitudes. And furthermore, this tolerance and equality was by no means uniform (nor, to be fair, was it anywhere else). This is clear from the prevailing status of 3 groups of people, who, down the centuries, have suffered wherever they have lived: foreigners (or in an Islamic context, infidels), slaves and women. Lewis goes to some length to analyse their respective situations (and though he doesn’t draw the parallel, it reminded me of that old Jewish, Pharisaic prayer “Lord I thank you that I was not born a Gentile, a slave and woman.”) and makes this observation:
According to Islamic law and tradition, there were three groups of people who did not benefit from the general Muslim principle of legal and religious quality – unbelievers, slaves and women. The woman was obviously in one significant respect the worst-placed of the three. The slave could be freed by his master; the unbeliever could at any time become a believer by his own choice, and thus end his inferiority. Only the woman was doomed forever to remain what she was – or so it seemed at the time. (p67)
And therein lies a strange tension that is current in the Middle East. Lewis nicely articulates this as the difference between Westernisation and Modernisation. Thus:
[Western dress has] become powerful emotive symbols of cultural choice. They are especially so in Turkey and Iran, the two countries that most clearly formulate the alternative choices and alternative futures that confront the Muslim – and not only the Muslim – Middle East. For men to wear Western clothes, it would seem is modernisation; for women to wear them is Westernization, to be welcomed or punished accordingly. (p76)
But this is where the biggest difference with gospel equality truly lies. And for me, this was the most revealing thing of the book…
But no grace…
It is often said that Islam is an egalitarian religion. There is much truth in this assertion. If we compare Islam at the time of its advent with the societies that surrounded it – the stratified feudalism of Iran and the caste system of India to the east, the privileged aristocracies of both Byzantine and Latin Europe to the West – the Islamic dispensation does indeed bring a message of equality. Not only does Islam not endorse such systems of social differentiation; it explicitly and resolutely rejects them. The actions and utterances of the Prophet, the honoured precedents of the early rulers of Islam as preserved by tradition, are overwhelmingly against privilege by descent, by birth, by status, by wealth, or even by race, and insist that rank and honour are determined only by piety and merit in Islam. (my highlights)
The realities of conquest and empire, however, inevitably created new elites and in the natural course of events these sought to perpetuate for their descendants the advantages that they had gained. From early until modern times there has been a recurring tendency in Islamic states for aristocracies to emerge. These are differently defined and arise from varying circumstances at different times and in different places. What is significant is that the emergence of elites or casts or aristocracies happens in spite of Islam and not as part of it. Again and again through Islamic history the establishment of privilege was seen and denounced by both severely traditional conservatives and dubiously orthodox radicals as a non-Islamic or even an anti-Islamic innovation….
… none of these movements ever questioned the three sacrosanct distinctions establishing the subordinate status of the slave, the woman and the unbeliever. (p82)
So therein lies the problem. There will always be a clear set of distinctions in the community – and I don’t just mean slaves, women and infidels. I mean an even more profound and alarming distinction. That formed by personal merit. For in the Christian gospel (as Galatians, for one, is at pains to make clear) the true reason why there is no status distinction whatsoever between Slave & Free, Jew & Gentile, Male & Female is the double whammy of our creation in the divine image, and the wonder of divine grace. (Galatians 3:28-29) In other words, a religion of grace alone can bring true equality, in a way that a religion of merit and works never can.
Not on our watch…
This is certainly a fascinating book and I learned much. I don’t think I’m much the wiser in answering the specific question of the title, though. Perhaps the book is too short (at only 160 pp) and the issue is so deep and complex. Or perhaps the question is not quite the right one. As a description of how (as opposed to why) the shifts in balances of power happened, this is a helpful analysis. What’s certainly clear is that history is messy, that the Christians in history certainly didn’t get it all sorted, and that there were many aspects of Islamic culture and history from which there is much to learn. This thought did cross my mind though: ‘Christian’ societies fared little better, and were often much worse, than other cultures as soon as they lost their moorings in the gospel of grace.
Pray that we never allow that to happen under our watch.
I’ve visited Albania to speak on Langham conferences 5 times now – and one or two delegates have been to every single event. One of them is Dritan (known as ‘Tani’) Prroj. I actually alluded him in a post a few years back, although of course not by name.
His story was one that i found impossible to relate to, let alone comprehend. The ‘system’ of blood feuds (if you can call something as irrational and evil as this a system) goes back centuries. (Wiki has some helpful background to blood feuds in general, and the Albanian form, Gjakmarrja in particular). It is all to do with family honour and revenge. One male from a family gets killed – the victim’s family is duty bound to do the same to the killer’s family. And so it goes on.
Some restrictions were laid down in various codes, like the medieval Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini – so you could not take out revenge on women, children and specifically those doing ‘the Lord’s work’. But still, in various places in northern Albania (where it is most common), it seems that hundreds of school children cannot go to school out of fear and their mothers have to be very careful. It’s truly insane. Whole communities have had their men wiped out in the interminable chain of revenge.
A Terrible Legacy comes close to home.
Tani came from northern Albania – the town of Škodra – which is the epicentre of this legacy. He was pastoring a church in the town – the Word of Christ church. But his uncle had murdered someone some time back. So Tani knew that he was a target. Thus, for 3-4 years, he could never set foot outside his house during daylight. In order to come events such as our Tirana conferences he would have to leave under cover of darkness. He led the church from his front room. Leaders in the church would come to him during the week to be mentored, trained and built up. Then they would run things on Sundays in his absence. It’s impossible to conceive of the psychological effect this must have had on him, his wife Elona and their 2 young children (quite apart from their extended family and the church).
But I’d got to know Tani over the years – as I say, he never missed any of our events. And in 2008, he made it to a 3-day retreat I led for 6 pastors in Tirana. We prayed for him and the family specifically for relief over this issue.
So 3 weeks ago, when we were in Vlore, Tani, Elona and I chatted over coffee – and he said that about a year ago, he remembered that he had sensed the Lord’s peace and providence way back at his conversion. And this was renewed, such that he had the courage to give up the hiding and start carrying on their ministry openly. So for the last year or so, having made the deliberate decision to reject their fears and restart normal living. Very excitedly, the told of the amazing fruit from the ministry in their town, with many being struck by the church’s commitment to supporting those in suffering and difficulty. They’d seen a number of people even baptised. Fantastic and not especially common in this part of the world.
And then on Friday afternoon i got an email. Tani had been murdered that day. Leaving a widow and 2 fatherless children. Senseless. Irrational. Evil.
Friends were at his funeral yesterday (Sunday) and it was a very powerful service. Hundreds were present and heard explanations of the hope that the family profess.
What can you do?
- Pray that out of this evil there would be redemption – that this would somehow break the chain of such madness.
- Pray for the family. That in the bitterness of it all, they would … somehow … cling to the merciful grace and providence of their Lord.
- Give. On the encouragement of some friends, I will do what I can to channel any money to Elona and the family as a way of both supporting her and demonstrating our solidarity with her, across cultures and oceans.
Because of the need for simplicity and urgency, please can you either:
- Send me a cheque (made out to me)
- Give me cash if you bump into me – but please don’t send cash in the post if you can possibly help it.
- Pay online directly through Paypal (it can be in US$, € or £ if you do it this way)
Which every way you use, please LET ME KNOW YOUR INTENTIONS by email (if you know it) or by contacting me through this blog). I fully realise that for those who don’t know me it sounds totally iffy that you’re paying me. I will send you a receipt, and send you proof of the transfer when it’s all done. But I wanted to get this done as quickly as possible and this seemed the simplest and least bureaucratic. The only expenses involved will be the cost of the transfer and currency exchange and nothing else. So 99.9% of what is raised will go to the family at this terrible time.
Strange Maps has done it again. This is great – maps full of prejudices, stereotypes and cross-cultural offence. But could there not be some truth to some of them!? No smoke without fire etc. Although some are definitely weird…
Check out the others and the fuller explanations.
Below are maps of Europe from: Read more
It was just a few years ago. 1966 in fact. An Albanian (Vangjel Toçi) living in Durrës (the country’s largest port and site of the ancient Roman city of Dyrrachium), noticed that a fig tree in his garden had suddenly sunk a few feet into the ground. All very weird. Read more
Am in Vlorë, a dusty and concrete port city situated in a beautiful area of southern Albania, for a Langham conference (here’s the sunrise from my room yesterday). All seems to be going really well, which is no small relief.
I was chatting to a friend this morning, who told me about a classic example of good intentions going pear-shaped when crossing cultural divides.
Emerging from decades of suffering under the world’s only officially atheist communist regime, Albania was in terrible shape in 1991. The church was barely existent – and the national economy was a disaster. No wonder, then, that as people came into pastoral work, financial support was a huge problem. And naturally, overseas churches wanted to help. But such help can really backfire, unless there is real care and cultural sensitivity.
My friend told me about a church in a small, relatively remote village, which would have an annual summer camp at the seaside. The venue was very basic, to say the least. Basically a field, without many facilities or toilets etc. But it was a great event, and it was an annual highlight for the church community for several years.
A church in the US (though it could have been from anywhere, since churches from many other countries have done similar things) developed a relationship through this fellowship and sought to help. So a couple of years ago, they kindly sent over a sum of money (not a large amount from an American perspective but huge for Albania). This enabled the church to book a small hotel – and everyone, naturally and wonderfully, had a great time.
But this was a one-off gift. Generous, well-intentioned, but limited. And there was no way that the church could repeat the booking. However, having tasted the (relatively) high life, no one wanted to go back to their field.
Consequently, the church has not had any camps since. Their gain had been great but short-lived; in the longer-term, their loss was huge.
Gjirokaster is an ancient stone city in southern Albania – not far from the Greek border. It was the birthplace and hometown of the wonderful novelist, Ismail Kadare. It was also where the terrifying Communist dictator, Enver Hoxha came from. Hoxha is a ghostly figure who lurks on the peripheries of many of Kadare’s books (some of which I’ve posted about before). And his great (semi-autobiographical) masterpiece, Chronicle in Stone is no exception. As I’m due to return to Albania in a few weeks, I eagerly picked this book up on holiday and my expectations were surpassed.
The narrator is a young boy trying to come to terms with the turmoil of war. His ancient city is swarming with occupiers, collaborators, revolutionaries, survivors, ordinary folk just trying to exist. And in the early 1940s, all is confusion – only a few decades after Albania’s independence from the Ottoman Empire, the city changed hands several times back and forth between Italians, Greeks (with the aid of the British RAF bombers), Nazis – not to mention the various Albanian factions each with their own agendas (monarchists, nationalists, communists). Trying to understand the world of adults is hard enough for children – but when this is going on, it’s impossible.
Kadare recaptures the innocent confusion of children with pitch perfect poignancy. Here is a little moment where the young narrator has a go.
I wondered how it was that it had occurred to people to pile up so many stones and so much wood to make all those walls and roofs and then call that great heap of streets, roofs chimneys and yards a city. But even less comprehensible were the words “occupied city”, which came up more and more in the grown-ups’ conversations. Our city was occupied. Which meant that there were foreign soldiers in it. That much I new, but there was something else that bothered me. I couldn’t see how a city could be unoccupied. And anyway, even if our city wasn’t occupied, wouldn’t there be these same streets, the same fountains, roofs and people? Wouldn’t I still have the same mother and father and wouldn’t Xhexho, Kako Pino, Aunt Xhemo and all the same people still come to visit? (p25)
Without giving much away, these words would prove to be strangely prescient.
One aspect of childhood that Kadare vividly evokes throughout the book is the inability of young children to understand metaphor and allusion (let alone the simple issue of gravity). Everything gets taken too literally. [Incidentally, this insight definitely provoked all kinds of thoughts about how people handle the bible – and whether it is itself an indication of maturity or the lack of it – but that’s another story!].
Here our narrator is chatting with his best friend Ilir. His wonderful imagination gets carried away as he processes what they have overheard. The cause of some of the confusion is that he and Ilir a few months before had secretly gone to check out the local abattoir.
Ilir raced down Fools’ Alley.
“Guess what?” he said, as he came through the door. “The world is round like a melon. I saw it at home. Isa brought it. It’s round, perfectly round, and it spins without stopping.” He took a long time to tell me what he had seen.
“But how come they don’t fall off?” I asked when he told me there were other cities under us, full of people and houses.
“I don’t know,” Ilir said. “I forgot to ask Isa. He and Javer were home looking at the globe. Then Javer tapped it with his finger and
said, ‘Soon it’ll be a slaughterhouse.’”
“Yes. That’s what he said. The world will drown in blood. That’s what he said.”
“Where will all the blood come from?” I asked. “Fields and mountains don’t have blood.”
“Maybe they do,’ said Ilir. “They must know something, they way they talk. When Javer said the world would be a slaughterhouse, I told him we’d been there and had seen how they slaughter sheep. He started laughing and said, ‘Now you’ll see what happens when they slaughter nations.’”
“Nations? Like on the postage stamps, you mean?”
“Right. Like that. Nations.”
“Who’s going to slaughter them?”
Ilir shrugged. “I didn’t ask.”
I thought about the slaughterhouse again. One day when she was talking about the aerodrome Xhexho said that the fields and grasses would be covered with cement. With wet slipper cement. A rubber hose sluicing cities and nations. To wash away the blood… Maybe we were only at the beginning of the slaughter. But I found it hard to imagine nations being led to the slaughter, bleating as they went. Peasants in their black woollen cloaks. Butchers in white coats. Rams, ewes, lambs. People standing around to watch. Other people just waiting. Then it was time. France. Norway. The square awash with blood. Holland bleating. Luxembourg like a newborn lamb. Russia with a big bell around its neck. Italy a goat (I don’t know why). Something mooing all on its own. Who could that be? (p91-92)
The book opens with a massive rainstorm (which causes all kinds of overnight chaos with flooding cisterns and streets) – but within a few pages the storm abates, and all is calm.
I went back up the two flights to the living room, looked out and saw with joy that far off, at a distance too great to measure, a rainbow had appeared, like a brand-new peace treaty between mountain, river bridge, torrents, road, wind and city. But it was easy to see that the truce would not last long. (p10)
And in many ways that longed for, far off peace treaty is what everyone in the city craves, as the storms of war descend. Yet the book doesn’t end with a rainbow. Interestingly, as the excellent introduction by David Bellos observes, it doesn’t end with Enver Hoxha’s triumphant conquest of his own country in the name of the people – we just know that it is coming (though not as triumphant as he’d have liked). This is in itself a sly form of Kadare’s rebellion against the official propaganda about the inevitability of the regime’s victory. But that is part of the book’s brilliance. He sustains his artistic and human integrity without compromising too much with the regime he submits too.
This boy (clearly based on Kadare himself) is a impressionable, curious and above all resilient observer of the world he’s in – and he sees the glimmers of hope even in the darkest corners. He is obsessed with Shakespeare’s Macbeth which he discovers in the course of the book – and sees all kinds of resonances within the stone walls of his own medieval home town. And the walls have seen it all. The people who inhabit them pass – but the walls survive (despite the aerial and artillery bombardments) – and tell their story. They are a chronicle in stone of the many rulers that have claimed Gjirokaster as their own.
But this book, a chronicle in its own right (interspersing the narrative with only apparently irrelevant snippets of news items, observations and reflections), is a true act of bravery. First published in Albanian in 1971 when the Hoxha regime seemed so unassailable, to even hint that it might pass was potentially reckless. But it is more than a brave book. It is also a beautiful book and a humane book. And I suspect it is a book I will return to again and again.
One edition of this book (more recent than the 1997 edition that I had pictured here) begins with a preface by someone who suggests (apparently) that it is impossible as an outsider really to understand or empathise with what happened in Bosnia in the 90s. Well, of course, we can never really understand what other people go through. But that doesn’t mean we can understand nothing. My copy, however, comes without a preface and so launches us immediately into Jergovic’s world – which is probably just as well. This gripping anthology of short stories can therefore speak for itself and stand on its own. And speak they do – with great force and poignancy.
Having visited Sarajevo recently, I kept on trying to imagine what it must have been like constantly to fear snipers and mortars from the surrounding hills. The hills loom large, of course, still, though the dangers have thankfully gone. It is just so inconceivable that in the 20th Century, months-long siege warfare (a phrase that has positively mediaeval echoes) still took place – and this in the era of TV cameras and 24 hour news cycles…
And yet this book does go a long way to help the outsider to be immersed. These short stories (and they are nearly all very short) powerfully capture what it must have been like. The evoke the sounds, the fears, the despair – above all they evoke the humanity of Sarajevo. For as such traumatic episodes in European history recede into the past, it is all too easy (for those with any interest in such tragedies at all) to focus on the statistics and decisions made in far-away conference rooms. But books like this won’t allow that. The fear and the despair are expressed on faces with names, they are expressed by people with pasts and memories. Shared experience from decades of living together, memories of who did what during the Second World War (say) are carried into the present, so that these inform who the individuals and their families are.
Ignorant and unaware of such legacies (inevitably), outsiders come in, looking for a story perhaps: like the nameless American journalist in the story from which the book gets its title (Sarajevo Marlboro was one of a number of localised cigarette brands Philip Morris produced for different markets). The gravedigger he interviews comes to realise that it will be impossible for this intruder to understand what being a Sarajevan is really like. Not because outsiders inevitably struggle with that – but because he’s not genuinely prepared to try. He just needs his story. So, the gravedigger depressingly realises he would have been better off saying ‘we are an unhappy and unarmed people who are being killed by Chetnik [i.e. Serbian nationalist] beasts, and that we’ve all gone crazy with bereavement and grief’ (The Gravedigger, p84), and thus complying with outsiders’ assumptions, rather than trying to explain nuances. For from the inside, a refrain could be ‘it’s never quite as simple as that.
Which of course does mean that it is hard for outsiders to understand, inevitably. But we can, and must, learn to empathise. And these stories help us do just that. Their protagonists are many and varied:
- From the daydreamer who feels he simply can’t leave or function well outside his home city of Sarajevo to the man surprised to be given a cactus by his girlfriend;
- from the retired boxer in a bar who can’t help himself from raising his fists and punching whenever the bell of a passing tram is rung, to the woman in a fairytale marriage who discovers the photograph of her husband’s lover when his personal affects are returned to her on his death at the front.
Tragedies, agonies, histories. These are all very human realities.
And yet through it all, there is resilience and hope, and not a little fatalism. The stories are beautifully, if sparsely, told. Every word is weighty, but every story economical – everything a short story should be, in fact. They all serve to evoke and illustrate, in some way or another, how life goes on even under siege, proving that people, through life together and hope for something else (however vague or wishful), can get through. Somehow. But this is not light reading, nor gentle escapism. Far from it. It is immersive and disturbing. It is an extraordinary collection.
The words that introduce one story (called ‘Bosnian Hotpot’) have stuck in my mind ever since, and they could stand as an explanation for the whole anthology.
‘I know what the speed of light is, but we haven’t learned about the speed of darkness yet’ – Dino from Zenica, twelve years old, temporarily at school in Zagreb (p35)
Ismail Kadare is fast becoming one of my favourite writers. An Albanian who has divided his time between his native land and Paris since the early 90s, Kadare ingeniously captures the disorientating experience of life under dictatorship. In some ways, he is the iron curtain’s equivalent of George Orwell, except for the obvious difference that his experiences were first-hand.
This book, Agamemnon’s Daughter is actually a compilation of 3 short stories, fluently translated from a French translation of the original Albanian by David Bellos.
- The title story is set in Tirana in the 1980s, as the unnamed narrator unexpectedly finds himself granted a ticket to the senior stands at the annual May Day Parade (normally the preserve of the communist party elite).
- The Blinding Order is set in Istanbul during the reforms of the Ottoman Empire that occurred during the 1800s
- The Great Wall is set on the Chinese frontier during the 1300s, the time that imperial China faced threats from the hoardes of Timur (or Tamburlaine) the Great.
They’re very different tales. But they share the loose but common thread of Ottoman history; and they all depict the bewilderment of those desperately second-guessing despotic regimes. Nothing is ever as it seems – the powers that be always more Machiavellian than one thought possible. The only certainty is that one’s initial interpretation of political moves or decrees is wrong. It is grimly cynical – but then if you’ld lived under Albanian communism (supposedly the ‘purest’ in history), you’d be too. As the hapless sentry on the Great Wall in the 3rd story narrates:
That night a swarm of thoughts buzzed in my head. States are always either wiser or more foolish than we think they are. Snatches of conversations with officials who had been posted on the other side came back to me, but I now saw them in a different light. (p217)
I reviewed Kadare’s gripping but terrifying book The Successor a while back. Agamemnon’s Daughter was written a few years before, and involves some of the same characters. It was written during the dying days of Enver Hoxha‘s brutal regime, and smuggled out to a Parisian publisher 2 or 3 pages at a time (that story’s worth another novel all by itself). While the other 2 stories in this book are certainly good, I want to focus on the title (and much longer) tale. For it illustrates how stories, especially ancient ones, can uniquely make sense of the present.
A Daughter Sacrificed for a Father’s Ambition
The narrator has fallen in love with Suzana, the beautiful daughter of a top party official (one of those touted as successor to dictator, ‘The Guide’, who’s clearly modelled on Hoxha). But as a fairly lowly worker in National Television, and because of his subversive, anti-regime views, the relationship was doomed and thus forbidden by the girl’s father. Nevertheless, despite having been caught up in some murky Party purges in the past, he finds himself with the Parade invitation, much to the acute jealousy of colleagues and rivals. He can’t fully comprehend why he has this ticket, and nor can anyone else – but while at the parade he catches a few glimpses of Suzana ‘higher up’.
But in the days before the parade, he had been immersed in Robert Graves’ classic Greek Myths. Presumably this was one of the few western books available in hermetically sealed Albania, both for the narrator and Kadare himself. Yet this book, for all its ancient and mythological subjects, has profound resonance, a relevance that evidently slipped under the censors’ radar. The narrator can’t help but find in ancient legends analogues and articulations of his pain. 2 in particular ring true of the regime and those who suffer under it.
The first is from the era of Homer and the Trojan War. King Agamemnon has offended the goddess Artemis and so she has used the winds to prevent his armada from setting sail for Troy. A soothsayer, Calchas (as it turns out, a Trojan turncoat, now working for the Greeks), informs him that the only way to appease Artemis is to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. This he duly does.
But this is where Kadare’s genius comes into its own. He turns the myth inside out, deconstructing it through the lens of the Hoxha regime. For the narrator suddenly realises how implausible it would have been for the king to take the word of the Trojan Calchas seriously. He could have been a double agent, after all, especially after making such an horrific suggestion. No – it was the king himself who devised the plan – such was his zeal and fanaticism for the war. For now, who of his band of soldiers, sailers and mercenaries could possibly find an excuse not to play their part? Who would dare suggest they had paid a higher price during the war than the king. He’d had to sacrifice his very own daughter, hadn’t he?
Which is of course what, in the narrator’s eyes, Suzana’s father had done. He’d sacrificed her future happiness for his own future career. But this is completely true to the smoke and mirrors world of spin and propaganda – and it clearly heralded a terrifying future for the country. If he’s prepared to sacrifice his own daughter like that, what might he demand of everyone else? What hope does anyone now have? And then it occurs to him that Stalin had done something with his son, Yakov, by refusing to accept an offer to exchange him after he’d been captured by the Nazis and held in Sachsenhausen concentration camp…
The other myth that the narrator ponders is a dark Albanian legend, that of Bald Man and the Eagle. This has particular resonance because Albania’s indigenous name (Shqipëri) actually means Land of the Eagles – hence the double-headed eagle on the national flag.
One night, Bald Man fell all the way down to the netherworld… After his fall, Bald Man strove with all his might to find the way and the means to clamber back to the upper world. He wore himself out searching every corner, until an old man whispered the solution in his ear. There was an eagle that could fly all the way up by the sheer strength of his wings – but on one condition: throughout the flight, the raptor would need to eat raw meat. Bald Man didn’t think this would be a problem. (p37)
The eagle’s flight to the upper world was taking much longer than Bald Man had expected.
When Bald Man finished off the meat he had brought, he cut into his own flesh and fed the eagle with that.
It’s not known if Bald Man was still alive when the eagle came out into the upper world. People say that locals who happened to be around at the time couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw a huge black bird carrying a human skeleton on its back. (p41-42)
This tale’s significance is obvious. It’s interspersed between the story of a man who, in order to reverse his fall from political grace, denounces and tramples on others to climb his way back up. But then the narrator realises that he too has had a close escape in the party purges and is now making his way to the senior parade stands. After all, if he’s been given the parade invitation, does that mean he’s also (however unwittingly) offered others up? And what of his own flesh? Has he lost his soul in return for his life? But the significance goes wider too – Suzana’s father has paid with others’ flesh, and his own – and has lost his own soul. A terrifying thought for someone on the cusp of becoming supreme leader…
The Power of Literature
Kadare won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize in 2005 – and his recipient’s speech is included in this edition, and has been posted online. I found his account of the power of literature incredibly moving and thoroughly recommend it (it’s worth checking out prize chairman John Carey’s speech in awarding the prize too). There’s one paragraph that particular struck me. In answer to the question of how such writing was even possible under such oppressive regimes, Kadare says:
To explain myself briefly, I’d like to refer you to an episode in the Divine Comedy. Dante Alighieri, as he travels through Hell, is frightened of a huge, oncoming storm. Dante’s master Virgil tells him: “Be not afraid, for it is a dead storm!”
That phrase helps to clarify what I was just saying. If you can manage to make yourself see the rough weather of dictatorship as a “dead storm”, you’ll have the key to the enigma. But a writer can only get that key from literature.
That’s a potent phrase. To see all regimes as dead storms helps us to weather them. But this is where I gently venture to disagree with the great man – or rather, to quibble slightly with that final sentence. It is not just from literature. Dead storms become visible from the perspective of history, and above all of prophecy. This is what has struck me again and again as we have been working through the early chapters of Daniel over the last few months. For every regime faces its own writing on the wall…
Having painted something of an amateurish potted 20th Century history of Sarajevo, here is one story that gave me great hope.
Last week, I was meeting in Sarajevo with a small group of pastors in Bosnia. It’s estimated that there are only around 750 Protestant believers in the whole country (pop: 4.6 million) – and one of the hard things about being Protestant in the Balkans is that you’re misunderstood at best, avoided or despised by everyone else (because, of course, religion is integral to Balkan identity: Croatia=Catholic, Serbia=Orthodox, Bosnia=Muslim).
And yet the Christian gospel has the power to rise above and transform these identities.
One friend, R, had been in what was then the Yugoslav army – after the fall of communism, this was commandeered by the Serbian government in Belgrade and in 1991 sent into Croatia to prevent it seceding from Yugoslavia. S was just a regular soldier, but found himself fighting in Vukovar – the subject of a post from a previous visit to Croatia and a brutal episode in a horrifying decade. R is ethnically Serb but from Bosnia, and wasn’t a Christian at the time. After a year, he went AWOL from Croatia, and left for his home town of Sarajevo. Only to find that this was now under siege. Unlike many of his relatives who joined the Serb army because of ethnic allegiance, S fought to defend his city with fellow Bosnians. But he was lost in life, a feeling exacerbated by month after month guarding his sentry post during the siege. Drink and despair drove him to a friend who told him about the Christian message. He is now full-time in ministry.
P is a Croatian by background, whose family comes from Vukovar. During the 1991 siege of the city, P’s mother was injured by gunfire, but mercifully not killed (unlike many others). P’s family has been in ministry over several generations, and he is now committed to working in Bosnia.
Years later, P was talking about the past in a meeting (not an easy thing to do in this part of the world) and he mentioned what had happened to his family in 1991. And suddenly R realised the implications – in fact, he could even remember the specific day. Horrified, he realised that it could even have been him who fired the very shot that struck P’s mother. And at that point, he was overcome. He asked R for forgiveness, which P was willing to give… to his brother in Christ. The gospel transcended horror, history and ethic strife.
What else could have the power to do this? What else could unite and reconcile like this or in the way I saw during a previous visit?