A Little Beauty in the Middle of Chaos

There’s been a lot of awful news this week. But in the middle of that, beauty and joy persist. Here are a few things that reminded me of that.

Rabih Alameddine’s Tweet Stream

You may remember that I read and loved Alameddine’s novel An Unnecessary Woman. In that novel, Aliyaa lives in a world of books, art and music, and she also lives in Beirut. Violence is part of her world, just as much as beauty. Ultimately, I think the novel shows that art can’t (or shouldn’t) be an escape from life, but it is a part of life, probably even a necessary part. Beauty is not less real than chaos.

I recently (because of his World Cup tweeting and posts) started following Alameddine on Twitter. This week, his tweets, like his novel, have represented both art and political chaos. He has tweeted about Gaza, and he has tweeted a daily poem and images of artworks. I have been so glad to have those drawings, paintings and mosaics show up in my feed alongside photos of air strikes, tanks, and the wreckage of a downed passenger jet.

Big Fat Book Music

I have no interest in enhanced ebooks for fiction. I want to be immersed in a fictional world, not pulled out by links to related images, music, and information. For non-fiction, it’s a bit different–I sometimes seek out my own enhancements when I read.

David Van Reybrouck explains that the only images included in his book Congo are maps because “I value photography highly as an independent form of discourse”–he didn’t want to include photos as illustrations. For the most part, I’ve respected that. His descriptions evoke places and people clearly enough that I haven’t felt Googling a picture of Mobutu, say, would add anything to my reading. But this week, I enhanced my reading with a little YouTube music (Van Reybrouck points out in the book that you can find the songs there).

I have reached the halfway point in the book and the early post-colonial years of the 1960s. They were certainly a time of chaos. The decolonization of the Congo was a rushed affair. Belgium had allowed native people into only the lowest levels of the government, army, and civil service. A few Congolese were invited to study in Europe, but they were limited to fields like psychology and education. Thus Belgium left behind a country ill-prepared for independence–and the former colonizer kept control of as much of that country’s wealth as possible:

On the day of its independence, the country had sixteen university graduates. And although there were hundreds of well-trained nurses and policy advisers, the Force Publique did not have a single black officer. There was not one native physician, not one engineer, not one lawyer, agronomist, or economist.

[T]he decolonization had begun much too late, independence came much too early. Disguised as a revel, the breakneck emancipation of Congo was a tragedy that could only end in disaster.

But on the brink of independence, before the years of political chaos and civil war, there was joy. As there should have been. Van Reybrouck is lamenting not independence, but the way Belgium shirked its responsibility in planning for and supporting it. When the date for independence was agreed on, the popular band African Jazz composed the “Indépendance Cha-Cha.” And here they are performing it. That’s pretty cool.

I also heard “Jamais Kolonga,” a song which made its title character something of a celebrity in the Congo after he danced with a white woman at a European wedding. Later, Kolonga became a radio journalist and reported on the independence ceremonies. Van Reybrouck tracked down the elderly, ailing, but still vibrant Kolonga and interviewed him for the book.

A Word From A Monk

I subscribe to a daily email from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist called “Brother, Give Us a Word.” Each day there is a short reflection on a word from one of the brothers. Yesterday’s word was “call,” and I don’t think you have to be religious to appreciate what Br. Curtis Almquist (who went to seminary with my dad) has to say about it:

This is where you’ve been called; these are the pitifully, painfully inadequate resources you’ve been given to work with; this is the talent pool from which you can draw; this is the weather that you find; and with wide eyes, you sow and sow and sow the very best seeds of life and love among those with whom you live and work.

The world could use more sowing of life and love. I hope some beauty finds you this week.

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4 Responses to A Little Beauty in the Middle of Chaos

  1. Miss Bates says:

    What a lovely post. I loved Br. Curtis’s word. :-)

  2. Sunita says:

    What a lovely post for a horrible, horrible week. I’m not sure I could keep reading Congo this week, although I’m enjoying your posts. I’ve been using that point about the lack of Ph.D.s in my South Asian Politics class for years, to combat the conventional wisdom that differences in decolonization are explained by culture. The differences in social capital among newly independent colonies were huge, and they had such lasting consequences (and that’s true even accounting for different policies across empires).

    Your discussion of the book has also made me think of Frederick Forsyth’s novel on mercenaries and African conflict, The Dogs of War. Apparently Forsyth spent quite a bit of time in a couple of African countries and pretended to be in the market for a coup in order to glean information about the process. It’s a gripping book, although depressing in obvious ways.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I don’t even think he meant PhD’s–I think he meant undergraduate degrees. There was a university in the Belgian Congo at that point, though, so maybe he meant European degrees? Or maybe it was too new to have graduates? I can’t quite remember–and in any case, the point is the same. There weren’t people who had the background to run a country, and suddenly they were left to run one. The Belgians basically threw up their hands and said “OK, be independent.” And when the unrest started immediately after, they fled the country instead of staying to help. And while one African country certainly can’t represent them all, it’s a pretty clear picture of why things might be so messed up. If your country has spent its first 5 years fighting and fracturing, well, a military dictatorship might not look too bad.

      I would not say the writing is detached, but he doesn’t go into really graphic detail about things like murder and torture, and that helps keep it from being too bleak to read. Luckily, the mercenaries are lightly touched on (and that was bad enough)–I think that Van Reybrouck really wants to let Congolese voices and perspectives speak as much as possible, and that’s partly why there isn’t much on them.

      I highly doubt anyone is going to be inspired to read this by my blog, so I try to find things about it that could be interesting even for those who won’t. Because it’s bascially taking all my reading time right now.

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