Library of Babel

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.

Sports and National Identity

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.

Armistice Day

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.

Alternative currencies

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.

Legislate for the whole country

Rachel from north London was on the tube from Kings Cross to Russel Square that was attacked on 7th July 2005. During this week of political hand-wringing over whether to intern people for 90 or 28 days without charge, she has published some very pertinent posts, the most recent on the folly of legislating in the name of the terror victims:

And how I wish The Sun, and Tony Blair and Charles Clarke had remembered that, before they start screetching ‘It’s for the Victims!’ when trying to drive through panicky Terror legislation… You don’t cobble together any legislation on the back of feeling sorry for people who were hurt or killed by criminals in one particular incident.

That’s not democracy, that’s a PR and media strategy.

On BBC Radio 4’s Any Answers today, a caller pointed out that the erosion of civil liberties is a one way street, so it is important the laws we do make are considered properly.

Laws should be made in a more sober and detatched manner, not to be populist, or out of panic and fear like this one.

Many unthinkables

I don’t usually read the Daily Mail, but I’m in a pub by myself and there is a copy of the scottish edition on the bar. And there’s more: not only do I not usually buy the Daily Mail, but I don’t usually find myself in agreement with it either.

In the aftermath of the defeat of the 90-day terror bill, the Daily Mail editorial has a stab (definitely the operative word) at criticising Blair’s leadership style. It rightly highlights the inconsistency whereby he cites public opinion as a reason for action – it did not stop the invasion of Iraq. However, I disagree with the paper over the assertion that the Labour MPs have “tasted blood [and] have an appetite for more.” (Surely that is a more likely metaphor for the pro-hunting Tories). Instead, what we are seeing is Tony Blair reaping what he has sown, two years later. He may have survived the Hutton Inquiry, and the decision to go to war in the face of massive opposition and no UN sheild. But the legacy of the bogus WMD-claims is that he now finds that people do not trust him on matters of national security.

Indeed, recent events mean that the police have lost that trust too. After the rightly publicised shooting of Jean Charles De Menezes, and the ridiculous spectacle of an aged Labour party member being arrested under the Terrorism Act for heckling, it is legitimate and patriotic to ask whether we should grant every power the police ask for. Public perception plays a huge part in political decisions.

On the opposite page, Colette Douglas Home has some sane advice: Go against the grain.

Our best chance of beating terror is to hug the Muslim population so close it perceives its first loyalty to be to its fellow Britons – making it impossible for terrorists to infiltrate undetected. We will not do that by plucking people from their midst and effectively interning them.

These are tactics however. What about the moral argument? That habeus corpus should be preserved is a notion that has flown the nest, after MPs agreed that a 28 day sentence without charge is acceptable. A veritable outrage, yet no-one flaps an eyelid in response. The implied argument is that protection of our citizens is ultimately more important than the protection of our civil liberties, our freedom… the same freedom for which we wage the war on terror in the first place.

Freedoms will be destroyed in this so called war on terror. Better they be destroyed by terrorists, as they kill, maim and disrupt, than by the police, our agents of the state. We should play by the rules we have followed for centuries, even if that increases the risk of our being attacked. That is the price we pay for being better than them.

I’m glad to see that this is not such a taboo opinion. Chris at qwghlm makes a similar, difficult point. He links to a supporting post on Where There Are No doors too, which I noticed was also quoted on Tim’s Britblog Roundup, along with this amusing version from Fair Vote Watch:

This lot [militant commenters at Harry’s Place] remember, like to bill themselves as Muscular Liberals. Muscular in the sense of Complan-drinking surrender monkeys that happily ditch 700 years of common law precedent as soon as some twat blows up a bus.


More trouble brewing in Zim

During last week’s special edition of BBC Question Time, a flustered David Cameron said that his party needed to show how enthusiastic they were about foreign affairs:

And when the Conservative Party talks about international affairs, it can’t just be Gibraltar and Zimbabwe – we’ve got to show as much passion about Darfur and the millions of people living on less than a dollar a day in sub-Saharan Africa who are getting poorer while we are getting richer.

Given that Zimbabwe looks set to sink deeper into crisis in the coming weeks, I thought it was bizarre to lump it in with Gibraltar in this way.

The Zimbabwean Pundit reports on police brutality to stamp out demonstrations, and reminds us that the Zimbabwean Congress Trades Unions, the organisation formerly led by Morgan Tsvangirai, will be leading a protest tomorrow, 8th November.

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is itself in turmoil, ahead of the senate elections. While Tsvangirai wants the party to boycott the elections, fellow party members are not in agreement.

The US ambassador may well be expelled in the coming days, for criticism he levelled at the Zimbabwean Government. What with the township demolitions (now completed without severe sanction to the administration), and the upcoming senate elections providing another career opportunity for ZANU-PF politicians, President Robert Mugabe’s regime will be buoyed.

This is bad news for Zimbabwe. Nowhere is the failure of the state more serious, the failings of the leader more apparent. Calling for an end to this human rights outrage would be a good starting point for Messrs Cameron and Davis to show us just how passionate about international affairs they are.

Kidney's don't have a religion

It was heartening to read that in their moment of tragedy, the family of shot Palestinian Ahmed Khatib have donated one of his kidneys, to an Israeli boy in need of a transplant. 12 year old Ahmed was shot in the head by Israeli Defence Force soldiers on 3rd November. One kidney does not a peace-process make, but it is a powerful gesture of shared humanity.

The act echos a previous donation in 2002, when the kidney of Glaswegian student Yoni Jenser, who killed in a bus suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, was transplanted into an Arab girl from East Jerusalem.

Update: Thanks to Intifada Kid for drawing my attention to Laurie King-Irani’s fascinating article Of transplants and transcendence: Questioning social and symbolic categories in Israel, which mentions the Ahmed Khatib case. It discusses the symbolism of the body in political conflicts.

Ahmed’s parents had many choices of how to react. The choice they made violated the grammar of the conflict and illuminated the intimacy and interconnections between people whom policies and practices divide and separate. Ahmed’s parents decided that their brain-dead son’s organs should be given to people needing transplants. On Sunday, Ahmad’s organs gave new life to six Israelis, Jews and non-Jews alike.

The article discusses suicide bombing and other political (mis)uses of the body.


Earlier this week, I was fortunate enough to be invited to an advance screening of Murderball, which opened in the UK yesterday, 4th November. The film follows a group of young men competing in international ‘Quadraplegic Rugby’ competitions, described by one of the players as essentially “bumper cars for wheel-chairs”. It is a fast sport, which the film depicts well with many of the shots from ‘chair-cams’. Our tendancy to think of quadraplegics as people to be treated with awkward pity is totally debunked, as the players swear, shout, and intimidate their opponents. The frequent clashes which overturn the chairs (and their occupants) is an extremely cathartic experience.

Speaking after the screening, co-director Henry-Alex Rubin admitted that the movie was almost ‘ready made’, with a set of strong characters and storylines already in place. The rivalry between the USA and Canadian teams is twisted by the fact that the Canadian coach is Joe Soares, an American who ‘defected’ to Canada after being dropped from Team USA. An early scene depicts three men, all wheel-chair bound, having a drunken argument. “How does it feel to betray your country” says one to Soares. A better set-up could not have been scripted.

Murderball is sentimental in places, but never over the players’ disabilities. It is this robust approach, combined with an uncomprimising wit, whcih makes the film so unexpected. Crucially, the music by Jamie Saft is beautiful, binding the scenes in together in just the way a good sound-track should. This is a surprising documentary that could well receive an Oscar nomination.

Waiting for the Barbarians

My friend and colleague Sharif Hamadeh has just posted an essay on Waiting for the Barbarians at OpenDemocracy. Its one of my favourite books, a stunning examination of our fear of the ‘other’.

Update: Guy Keleny’s ‘Errors and Omissions’ column in The Independent compliments Hamadeh’s article.

The assumption behind the word [barbarian] … is that people who live in cities, pay taxes and obey written laws are superior to the more disorderly and robust denizens of wilder regions.

You may argue that this is so, but is it really fair to regard it as axiomatic, and to imbed in our language an insult to human societies with many admirable features? When people talk about ‘barbaric crimes’, I wonder what would be the reaction of an honourable barbarian such as Vercingetorix, Boudicca or Sitting Bull to the unspeakable crimes comitted by civilised peoples in the 20th century.

I had best find use another word to describe fox hunting.