April 27, 2007

Before Darfur

Last month nine prominent men of letters placed their signatures at the close of a brief statement on Darfur. Their intent was to shame the European Union for celebrating its postwar unity while not doing more to punish the men of Khartoum. Recalling the Holocaust, they argued for the steadfast adherence to the spirit of "never again."

"The Europe which allowed Auschwitz and failed in Bosnia," they wrote, "must not tolerate the murder in Darfur. Europe is more than a network of the political classes, more than a first world economic club and a bureaucratic excrescence. It is an inherited culture which sustains our shared belief in the value and dignity of the human being. In the name of that common culture and those shared values, we call upon the 27 leaders to impose immediately the most stringent sanctions upon the leaders of the Sudanese regime."

Years before the celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy joined Havel, Habermas, Eco, and others in signing that statement, he had traveled to the heart of Sudan, literally the northern most point of the southern part of the nation, the land controlled by the SPLA (Sudan People's Liberation Army) and ravaged by the Sudanese government. From this trip emerged the essay, "The Pharoah and the Nuba," which appears in War, Evil, and the End of History (2002). There he wrote of meeting the then Sudanese resistance leader, John Garang. We read that Garang claims to read De Gaulle on resistance, and it is impossible to know if Levy is, as he has sometimes done elsewhere, embellishing in the course of his feverish prose. (He is often mocked for his Parisian affectations, his moralistic liberalism, and his falling for the seductions of U.S. power, and rightly so. But in spaces of extremity, his writing can sometimes manage to bring a Hunter S. Thompson quality to his witnessing; a truth wrapped in the abundance of style, and the impossibility of missing that the truth is a rhetorical construction, inseparable from the articulation itself).

In the essay he describes moving across scorched earth, past wretched refugees who are weaving with hunger. He sees, he tells us, the abandoned camps of NGOs driven out of their humanitarian hopes by the fighting, sees the craters left by the government's assaults on the rebels--where the "tactic" of bombing with oil barrels dumped out the back of an old Russian cargo plane got its start--and learns about the brutality of both sides caught in a ceaseless civil war; the true definition of a perpetual state of emergency.

Of the ghost city Gorgial, he performs the stammering gag of an encounter that will exceed his prose:

"This. . . . This desolation. . . . This desert. . . . These little piles of mud which had been houses. . . . These bricks with which they've made bunkers. . . . These fires. . . . These tents. . . . These nests of snakes. . . . This filth. . . . This rotting smell of shit and corpses intermingled. . . . These weird dogs, too fat, who are no longer afraid of humans. . . . "

And there, the child-soldiers. From Gorgial, he moves on to the Nuba mountains where children not only fight, but too often die or disappear, the remaining people are cut off, rounded up into "peace camps" controlled by the government, bombed, and are often left starving. There, the "system" of Darfur's disaster was first apparent in the total war of containment, destruction, and "famine as a weapon."

To the squadron leader, Abdel Aziz Adam al-Halu, Levy brings a book of photographs. They are of the Nuba. They were taken by the infamous Nazi propagandist, Leni Riefenstahl, in the 1970s. The series of lush images she created was one gesture in her career of rehabilitation; rightly undone by Susan Sontag in the scathing essay, "Fascinating Fascism."

Picturing Riefenstahl picturing the Nuba the way she does seems surreal now, as if it captured a moment equidistance between two disasters--long after the European and just before the dawn of the ravages Levy encountered later in their green-hilled graveyard. There the faint remains of a people; once more than a million, reduced to three-hundred thousand: oil interests, the slave trade, the war. Always these lists. . . Like Levy's bile-choking response to Gorgial.

The squadron commander, Aziz, however, begins to leaf through the book of images, "as if it were familiar to him," as if the image-maker of one destruction had somehow managed to salvage a slice of immortality for others damned to a similar fate as European Jews. Of course. The memory of a time annihilated surely emerged, prompted by those scandalous photographs, now transplanted to Aziz like epitaphery. The children die of "forgotten illnesses they no longer know how to cure," but he tells Levy his memories of the many languages spoken, the rituals, the culture living in the people, the people who are now dying before his eyes, while on the page they remain caught in the gaze of the propagandist. What sustenance, then, do the images deliver in a realm without living archives outside the damaged and diminished bodies.

Soon after that encounter, the world would mourn the bombed Buddhas of Bamyan while the Nuba obscurely died. Now men of letters sign a letter of protest. Instead of that proclamation, perhaps this earlier signature from Levy, from a site too much like but not-yet-named, Darfur:

"'Look what they've done to us,' Aziz murmurs, leafing through the book. 'Look.' It's the photos he's showing . . . the legendary Nuba in well-composed photos, by the filmmaker. But it's the others he wants me to look at, the real Nuba, his own, with their emaciated faces, their rags, who no doubt seem to him, at this instant, the shadow of these shadows. But his officers . . . come very close, very close to the photos, so they can admire them too; the children also come closer and slip, very excited, among the squadron leaders; the teacher comes close too, and even the peasant who had climbed up on the wing of the plane to help the pilot recharge his fuel and who chuckles with joy at the sight of these elder brothers, naked and scarified. I look very carefully at what Aziz wanted me to look at: together, almost superimposed, the shadows and the shadows of the shadows. But I see the opposite in them, it seems to me, of what he was inviting me to see. Not the degeneration of icons. But, miracle of art or of life, I don't know, a stubborn faithfulness to the finest quality the photos had, of which, I'm sure they have only captured a vibration; a force risen from the depth of the ages; an indomitable courage that, today as well as yesterday, emanates from these ashen faces; miserable, abandoned, pawns for all the governments, the great forgotten ones of this forgotten war, men whose tragic grandeur compels us all the more since their disappearance wouldn't affect the world's economy in the least."

The solider and the children, the teacher and the humanitarian aid worker, a pilot and a peasant, a journalist-philosopher and soldiers, cannon fire in the distance and those infamous photos at the center, things turning into their opposite, and what was once claimed as an aesthetic rendering of the immemorial grace of power is now another kind of scarification, and the promise that what we witness here is "indomitable courage" is in fact, its opposite, a condition that cannot be gathered up in the language of the traveler: an unnameable struggle to hold to a being that can cast a shadow, any shadow, despite the bombs and camps and disease and all those other investments of the world's economy and senses.