Some friends of mine returned from the land of the Pharoahs with a beautiful blue vase. It was wrapped in newspaper, the page covered in curls I do not understand. The box below caught my eye.
I post it on these pages without the faintest idea what it says. It could be a short news report, a sports result, an obituary, a religious edict, or an advert for a washing machine.
My grandmother found the following inscription inside a notebook belonging to her brother, my great-uncle. Apparently the writer was a young Indian man, a student friend, who stayed with the family in Bargoed, in Glamorgan, for the summer.
It is signed and dated 1937, and we don’t know what it means.
Is it really necessary to find out? I think it could be a shopping list, but my grandmother hopes it is a message of kindness to her brother, from a young man who was shown hospitality in a strange land. My great-uncle was struck down by a heart attack thirty-five years ago.
It is as though these papers belongs to Schroedinger. Someone will be able to decipher them, but for my grandmother and me, the meanings are in our imagination, and perhaps we should keep them that way. Perhaps the true answers will throw up more questions than they solve.
Imagine the Arabic speaker, or the Urdu speaker, who cannot read English. They might stumble across this page, read the images that they understand, and be baffled by the words that surround them. What fantastic meanings might they believe my paragraphs to contain?
In Jorge Luis Borges’ fantastic Library of Babel, he imagines a vast library, which he calls The Universe. It holds every possible combination of letters, every possible book. It is the collected works of the infinite group of monkey typists, complete and unabridged.
If a number of possible languages use the same vocabulary; in some of them, the symbol library allows the correct definition a ubiquitous and lasting system of hexagonal galleries, but in other vocabularies library means bread or pyramid or anything else, and these seven words which define it have another value. You who read me, are you sure of understanding my language?
So it is with my salvaged scraps of paper, hastily scanned and posted here. Those of you who are bilingual, and would translate them for me: please do not. Yours is only one possible language, and one possible interpretation. There are countless others, locking away their secrets, the ramblings of a people who may never have existed, yet whose history is chronicled meticulously, in some book in Borges Library.
The quality of the articles on race and identity at Minority Report is consistently very high, so I have added the site to my blogroll. David’s latest post is titled Overlapping Circles, and highlights the curious world of national sports. A country’s sporting heros are usually its most famous citizens, held aloft as model citizens who exemplify the national character. And yet in the sporting arena, nationality is a very transient quality indeed.
Sport takes nationality fairly loosely at the best of times. Or rather, in order to cast the net wide, rules are relaxed. At one time it seemed that to play for Ireland the requirement was only that one of your grandparents had sipped a pint of Guinness.
Another stark example of this is in the world of cricket, where many members of the English side have been of Southern African origin (with Kevin Pietersen the notable, recent example). A lament at the talent drain from the Zimbabwean national side forms the beginning of Let’s Talk Cricket from ZimPundit. White players are alienated, if not overtly excluded from the side, as their race becomes increasingly at odds with their nationality (as defined by their government). Those that remain, black and white, are abused and disrespected by the authorities:
… if you want an idea of how well a society is doing, take a look at their sports.
Pure blue skies. People in anoraks and kilts gather in a traffic island, next to a pub and a billboard that advertises insurance. Vehicles stream past, ignoring the throng.
Then, at one minute to eleven, the policemen step confidently into the road to stop the traffic. The pedestrians pause and look towards the gathering in the centre of the junction. A lone piper plays The Last Post. The traffic lights keep changing, from green, to red, to amber, and back to green again. But nothing moves.
Two alternative currencies from two African countries.
Listening last night to the BBC World Service programme Global Business, we heard from presenter Peter Day that mobile phone credit has become a currency. Apparently, SafariCom phones have the ability to transfer credit from one phone to another. A man can ‘top-up’ his own phone in Nairobi, and send some of the credit to his mother in the rural areas. She can in turn send that credit on to the phones of traders in the market place, in exchange for goods. Entrepreneurs place a high value on mobile phone credit, as the pricing and market information they recieve via their mobile phones is essential to their business.
Unfortunately, the presenter missed the crucial question in his interview with the SafariCom CEO. If their phone credit is being used as currency, what happens when the company decides to raise the cost of their calls? They will effectively devalue a common currency, which could ruin the smaller traders. Should a telecommunications company have this kind of power?
In contrast to Kenya, the economy in Zimbabwe shrinks further every day. Now it transpires that Zimbabwean prostitutes are demanding payment for their services in gasoline.