Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Foreword to the Arabic translation of Howard Zinn's "Artists in Times of War"

Foreword to Howard Zinn's "Artists in Times of War", translated into Arabic as "Stories Hollywood Never Tells" by Hamad Alisa

Published by Al Maaref Forum, Beirut, Lebanon, 2012

By Paul Cochrane

You hold in your hands something powerful: the texts of speeches and essays by the late Howard Zinn that could very well alter the way you see and interact with the world. That is a bold statement, but it is no hyperbole. Zinn had that power as a writer, political activist and historian to make people question power, society, politics and entertainment.

One of Zinn's abilities was explaining an idea or a period of history in engaging, straightforward prose. On first read the thrust of his statements are clear, allowing further re-readings to be the fodder for deeper reflection on his concepts. That was one factor contributing to the success of his most renowned work,A People's History of the United States(1980). But writing style is a means to deliver content, the story, and Zinn did this by rendering the past, as the title implies, from the people's perspective, which is not that of the elite, that line up of history's usual suspects: kings, emirs, presidents, generals, ladies and gentlemen.

History is more than dates and names of big men – behind those figures, slightly blurred out of focus in the lens finder of the cameraman, are the unheralded people: the masses, you and me. Among us are those that support and work to forward the aims, wittingly or unwittingly, of the current political-economic set up; others are ambivalent about power and those who wield it; there are those who complain of the ills of the status quo and others who want to tear down the system by any means necessary – everyone plays their microscopic part that contributes to the macro level of human history.

Zinn uses this approach to engage the reader, to show that the past is indeed interesting, as interesting as the present, and that there is a crucial need to understand history to help us understand the world we live in. This can come through discussions with “ordinary” people who have lived the history being discussed – the eyes of my 97 year old grandmother have seen the world transformed since her birth in 1915, and instilled in her are the stories of her own grandmother, which means going back well over 150 years. The past really is not that distant. But for numerous reasons, history is not taught like this in most schools. What is taught is selective, and to fill in the gaping moments in between, one must apply one's own initiative.

Which returns us to this collection of works and interviews in the twilight of Zinn's life – he passed away in 2010. The first two speeches were written in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks – Zinn wanted people to question government motivations and uses history as an example, highlighting individuals that resisted and spoke truth to power.

Zinn considers this a primary role of the artist, of creators, especially in a time of conflict. This is where the importance of “edutainment” comes in, educational entertainment, which Zinn superbly addresses in the third speech, “Stories Hollywood Never Tells”. It makes one think comparatively of all the stories that could be told of the Arab world's long and vibrant history that are not being told in musalsals (soap operas) and Middle Eastern films. Indeed, this pamphlet, while focused on the United States, can be a spring board for ideas.

The events of the Arab uprisings (and the counter-revolutions that followed), where the people rose up to challenge and overthrow power, are a testament to the role of the people in history. From this pamphlet (in which pamphleteering is the subject of an essay in this collection) the reader recognizes the struggles that took place in American history, short though it is by global standards, involving the Industrial Workers of the World, Emma Goldman, and others. After all, American history, like the rest of the world's modern history, is one of struggles by, and for, the people.

Hamad Alisa has done a great service to humanity in translating such a succinct pamphlet that is crammed with possibilities and lessons to be learned from history. How the pamphlet “Artists in Times of War” was passed from hand to hand to finally be received by Hamad also speaks to its authenticity as a document of the people, as I was first given it by a friend, Karim, as a photocopy, and I in turn copied it for Hamad when he was visiting Beirut. When Hamad decided to translate the pamphlet into Arabic, he beefed it up by adding a 2009 essay by Zinn on President Barack Obama that was published inThe Progressive magazine, and two interviews with Zinn, of which one is a debate with Thom Yorke, an artist and the lead singer of British band Radiohead, on the artist's role in saving the world.

Artists in Times of War” could not come at a better time in translation, given what is happening regionally and globally. What is going on is not a straight-forward affair and cannot be viewed in the black and white of mainstream media portrayals. The boundaries must be pushed for there to be progressive change. And artists are at the forefront of this.

Occurrences like what happened in March, 2012 in Kuwait City when an exhibition by Kuwaiti artist Shurooq Amin called “It's A Man's World” was shut down by the state censors must be challenged, if not just to embarrass those in power. A crucial point is that power wants to be taken seriously – by laughing at and ridiculing the authorities we undermine their power simply because we do not take them seriously.

An event last year (2011) neatly exemplifies this, when the Sharjah Foundation in the United Arab Emirates dropped a film it had commissioned by Iranian-American film maker Caveh Zahedi, which was on, of all topics, “art as a subversive act.” The film was banned because Zahedi poked fun at the ruler of Sharjah. As Zehadi remarked: “In a place where there is no freedom of speech, you cannot say there is no freedom of speech.”

Let us not be in any doubt. Artists, writers, teachers and the wider populous have a duty to stand up and speak out in the Middle East, as anywhere else on the planet. As Zinn writes of the need for people to participate, whether against war or in political policy in general: “The historian says, 'It's not my business.' The lawyer says, 'It's not my business.' And the artist says, 'It's not my business.' Then whose business is it? Does that mean you are going to leave the business of the most important issues in the world to the people who run the country? How stupid can we be?”

We are living in extraordinary times, and it is not a time to be consumed by the spectacle flickering on TV screens but by what is real, and to actively be involved in progressive change. This can only happen when the public opposes and challenges those in power, and does so with those most dangerous of weapons: knowledge and ideas.

An anecdote from the Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union in 1956 is worth relating: A dissident is taken in for questioning by the secret police. He is asked if he is armed. The dissident replies “yes”, and reaches slowly into his jacket pocket. He pulls out a pen and puts it on the table.

Today a dissident may well pull out a smart phone or a laptop rather than a pen, but the saying the “pen is mightier than the sword” still holds true. Power can be challenged via a computer keyboard, a camera, the artist's brush, the graffiti artist's spray-can or the musician's microphone.

I will end this foreword with the poem “Questions from a Worker who Reads” (1935) by the German writer Berthold Brecht. This poem is also found in the introduction to a book inspired by Zinn's history of America, which became a book on Zinn's own book shelf: Chris Harman'sA People's History of the World(1999).

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the name of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glitering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years War. Who
Else won it?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.

Note: The Arabic translation of the foreword was an abbreviated version of the above.

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