Friday, 6 August 2010

1492: Year of Reconciliation and Reparation

Jim Northrup harvests weegwas/birchbark for a winnowing basket.

Granada: Two remarkable things happened in Spain last week. First, a stunningly beautiful art exhibition “Islamic Treasures” opened at the Alhambra, an astonishing ingathering from all over the world of the greatest works of art Islam produced in Spain during their seven centuries of occupation. The captions indicating current holdings are a global litany: Cleveland, London, Marrakesh, Moscow, the Vatican, and so on and on. The ecumenical nature of the medieval interactions between Christian, Moor and Jew was in itself a revelation to me.

Did you know, for example, that the legendary stepped arch of the Cordoba synagogue was picked up from the invading Visigoth Roderick the Great? In those less ideologized times, the diverse religious communions actually learned from each other and were, aesthetically, unabashedly eclectic. When “Islamic Treasures” opens at New York’s Metropolitan in June you’ll be denying yourself a transcendent experience if you don’t go. Of course, the Met is not in the same league as the Alhambra as a venue for this act of cultural reparation and reconciliation. But then not everybody uses Eurail passes as obsessively as I do.

The second truly remarkable thing that happened in Spain last week was King Juan Carlos donning a yarmulke and entering Madrid’s chief synagogue and apologizing to Spain’s leading rabbi for the transgression of 1492 when Ferdinand and Isabella, motivated by the implacable religious bigotry of Tomas Torquemada expelled all the Jews who would not convert to Christianity.

The generosity of this symbolic action by the King shows you just how far Spain has come since Franco died in 1975. For it is an illuminating experience for the visiting American for whom 1492 means Columbus sailing the ocean blue to discover that for Spaniards that year began with the defeat of the Moors at Granada and ended with the expulsion of the Sephardic Jews in the biggest single diaspora before the forced migrations (too often into eternity rather than merely another country) of our disastrous twentieth century.

How exemplary are the actions of Spain for those in the United States embroiled in trivial issues like the renaming of the Washington Redskins or the banning of the Atlanta Braves chop chop. As October 12th approaches, will George Bush have it in his “vision thing” to act as nobly as Juan Carlos has to expiate the errors and injustices of the past? I just received a mailing for the newly established United American Indian College Fund—ironically the same day I got the annual mailing for the United Negro College Fund. AICF’s theme is it took 500 years to come up with this good idea.

I sent them a check, prepared to be generous in way by my son Michael’s (Central High 1968) fourth film for Minnesota public television—on the Lake Superior Chippewa poet, story teller, and birch bark basket maker Jim Northrup. The forty-four-year old Vietnam vet and autodidact is just the kind of reconciling voice our QuinCentenn needs: he doesn’t programmatically hate the white man, though God knows he and his ancestors have had plenty of cause to do so; he actually feels sorry for them, trapped as they seem to be in an unsustainable ideology of unbridled consumption. But listen to him sing. (“Weegwas” is Chippewa for birch bark.)

Time to gather bark
another gift from the Creator
just doing what grandpa did
like his grandpa before him
went with a cousin I’ve known
since we ate oatmeal
from the same bowl
mosquitoes and deer flies
welcomed us to their feast
a sparrow hawk flew by
supper in his feet
watched a deer feeding
in the lake shallows
each tree leads to others
farther from the road
found one that’s been
waiting sixty years
to become a basket
a cut allows the bark
to crack crack open
hands slipped inside
feel the smooth wet
the bark jumps from the tree
eager to help us
make a basket or two
finally we have enough bark
it was time to go home
we were getting hungry

That’s the perennial life style of the Chippewa. Here’s its disruption:


She’s 50 alone and drunk
She has pride in her language
but no one to talk to
Some don’t understand
some can’t some won’t
She’s buried two husbands
warriors in the white man’s wars
Her children are raised and gone
a five year battle with cancer
a longer battle with the bottle
she’s broke and 50 miles from her empty bed
Alcohol failed her, she’s too
drunk to talk, but not drunk
enough to pass out
Her eyes show a lifetime of sad
She cried out for beer, smokes
attention or affection
She only got the attention
When she was caught stealing
food from the house she was visiting
she was asked to leave
she left, 50 alone and drunk

When Michael’s documentary airs in Minneapolis on October 12, 1992, a few people in the Twin Cities will be better able to empathize with the tragic side of our national history and be in a fuller, more generous Juan Carlos manner.

But it’s surely perilous to become too Pollyanna about the future. For example, died in the wool American Litter that I am, I just had to go into the Washington Irving hotel across from the Alhambra to look around. I got more than brochures. Checking into the hotel that very moment was a journalist lawyer from Casablanca. When I told him how elated I had been to celebrate my 50th birthday on baked dove and a local red wine in a small restaurant in Casablanca, he shifted happily into his schmooze mode.

When I told him about my greatest Moroccan adventure—an overnight bus ride across the High Atlas Mountains to Tafroute for their almond festival, his happy face clouded over. It seems that the 60 year old lawyer had just gotten out of jail in Tafroute where he had been incarcerated for a year for writing something in “L’Opinion” (the Welcomat of Casablanca) that offended King Hussein II. He and his wife were having a second honeymoon at the Washington Irving to start their lives over.

I also had a serendipitous encounter the next day on the overnight Madrid/Paris express. In the next sleeping compartment was sixty-five-year-old Dr. Otto Hettinger, for thirty years the Middle East correspondent for Neue Zuricher Zeitung, Switzerland’s leading liberal daily. He was on his way to Zurich to file his review of the “Islamic Treasures” exhibition. His curriculum vitae was germane to the acts of reparation and reconciliation we had both just witnessed.

He had taken a Ph.D. in Spanish philology at Basel, with a dissertation on the medieval translation boom of the Arabic classics—like the Arabic Aristotelian Avicenna. He was as euphoric as I at both the intrinsic glory of the objects in the art exhibition we had just seen as well as the cultural implications of the temporary ingathering of these art works that had suffered for centuries their own little diaspora. He had been based in Cyprus for three decades for the Swiss paper.

But now semi-retired, he had acceded to the wishes of his American wife (they met in Chicago when he was on a fellowship at the University) to settle down in their waning years in Madrid, removed from the constant tension in Nicosia. Here was the future of Europe in a nutshell: Mohammed jailed for his opinions, or Otto turning to the New Spain after an exemplary life as a war correspondent in an era that finds peace so hard to find.

Will Europe, and the world (because I believe the emerging EEC is the last best hope of mankind for a future global culture of enriching differences), go Otto’s way or Mohammed’s? Cynics will say Hussein’s narrowness will prevail. I believe, on the contrary, the future belongs to the Juan Carlos’s of this world. If Franco’s Spain can become in seventeen short years the triple play of Madrid the Cultural Capitol of Europe for 1992, Barcelona of the Summer Olympics, and Seville of Expo 92, then the whole world is, at least in theory, redeemable.

No comments: