Thursday, November 29, 2012

Letter to the Qatari Ambassador

H.E. Mohamed Bin Abdulla Al-Rumaini
Ambassador of Qatar to the United States
2555 M. Street N.W.
Washington D.C. 20037-1305

Your Excellency,

I am deeply concerned about the fate of poet Mohammed Ajami, who has been sentenced to life in prison for his work, "Jasmine Poem." I read about his plight in our "Los Angeles Times."

My suggestion that he be released, in the dark of night by a back door to the prison, would result in a win-win situation for all parties involved.

Mr. Ajami gets to go home, the Qatar government avoids the negative of appearing completely medieval in its administration of justice, and the poem takes on the importance all political poems enjoy when ignored by those in power. None.

You should try this. As a poet I can tell you it works great here in the U.S.

But seriously, the emir must be a very special guy if no one can speak a truth or, as you would have it, an untruth about him. Life in prison for some scribblings? Surely sir, your country adheres to a standard of justice more in line with a sense common to people the world over.

To wit: You kill somebody, you go to jail for life. You write a poem, you get a lifetime at a coffee shop and some pocket change to launch the literary effort.

You can't put up a wall around your kingdom and force its denizens to live in the past. Why, for example, I could get a large list of e-mail addresses in your country and, from my perch in California, pen "The Emir Really Sucks."

The emir lives in fear
he doesn't like to hear

the impact of his policies
on Qatari families

He doesn't give a fuck
if his subjects' lives suck.

And then I could send it to as many Qatari citizens as possible and everyone would know the truth about the emir: Which is that he can't hear the truth about himself.

What will you do? Arrest and sentence me to life in prison as well? Or would you empty the jails given that the secret is out?

Just some things for you to think about while you're informing the emir of our country's general embarrassment for him.

Warmest Regards,

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Monipodio's House: A Consideration of Cervantes' Villain

Back in the early 1990s, highwayscribery lived in Spain where he'd gone to write his novel "Vedette or Conversations with the Flamenco Shadows."

When the book was finished and the money gone, the highway scribe moved to Seville from Malaga to start a newspaper with Jose Pérez de Lama Halcón and Angel Delgado.

It was called "La Otra Orilla" and covered that part of Seville located on the right bank of the Guadalquivir River. The district was made up of two barrios, Los Remedios and Triana.

The latter whimsically declared itself a republic independent of the bigger burg while claiming to be the cradle of flamenco and the bullfight arts alike.

There are other barrios in other Spanish cities making like claims. But that's not the point. If you're from Triana the truth there is that they started "los toros" and "el flamenco" in Triana. Case closed.

The barrio was nothing if not historic and many locations were posted with ceramic-tiled signs explaining a particularly noteworthy event that had occurred there, or a person who'd resided and made art in the space.

"La Otra Orilla" ran a series called "Triana by Plaque" (Triana por Placas) wherein a reporter would flesh out the person or event highlighted with greater detail.

In the piece below highwayscribery, together with Jose Pérez de Lama Halcón, set out to determine whether a location claiming to be the place where Miguel de Cervantes' "Rinconete and Cortadillo" was inspired, was in fact that place.

Specifically, the plaque (pictured at right) claimed the Andalusian patio contained within served as headquarters for the den of thieves run by the novela's primary character, Monipodio.

We scribes turned to the actual text to determine the claim's veracity and have a little fun with literature in the process.

Monipodio's House

Obligated to Stay in Seville at the Service of Philip II, Cervantes Traveled the Nether Regions of the Imagination

According to the plaque which concerns us this week, the house found at the corner of Betis and Troya served as redoubt for a brotherhood of thieves led by the infamous Monipodio of Miguel de Cervantes novela, "Rinconete and Cortadillo."

It is enough that a student of local cultural, such as our own staff writer Marco Severo, says that this is not the case for a brief investigation into the claim to be launched.

You'll see that this investigation did not permit us to reach a sure conclusion, but did invite an engaging comparison between the Triana and Seville of today with that of Don Quixote's creator.

Cervantes came to Seville against his wishes. His petition to King Phillip II for a post in the Indies having been rejected, the writer was sent to Seville with the charge of gathering provisions for "The Invincible Armada" that would suffer a famous route in the English Channel.

Requisitioning wheat and olive oil from an unwilling populace was apparently a disagreeable task. According to his biographer Professor Valverde, Cervantes was subject to such indignities as being thrown into wells and "other tiresome pranks."

In 1597, the bank where Cervantes kept his ducados went belly-up and he found himself, not for the first time, in jail. If his incarceration in Algeria did little to dim his passion for adventure, his majesty the king was no more successful in dampening his lust for life.

In jail, Cervantes did not travel to distant locations, rather to the boundaries of his own imagination. Perhaps it was in jail where he learned the peculiarities of Sevillan thievery so wonderfully detailed in the novela.

"Rinconete and Cortadillo" is written by an outsider with the understanding of a person who has lived their entire life in Seville. En these two lads, about whom we know, among other things, "that neither one or the other exceeded 16 years of age, both of good humor, but very raggedy, broken, and maltreated."

It is no surprise for anyone familiar with Seville that the boys' first lesson upon arrival in the Andalusian capital is that it is far from an open field. In fact, it is just the opposite. Even in the world of robbing and mugging there are customs and a tax, in this case the monopoly is Monopodio's (El monopólio de Monipodio).

Having just committed their first bit of pilfering, the pair are pinched by a youth under the command of the King of Thieves who recommends they go and "register" with Monipodio and if not, "that they avoid stealing without his blessing for otherwise it would cost them plenty."
Rincón and Cortado (whose names will later be refined by the very same Monipodio), decide to take the youth's advice and depart with him from Plaza de El Salvador toward a destination unidentified by characters and author alike.

Triana is not mentioned in the ensuing discussion, nor does the Guadalquivir River, which one must cross to get there, although Cervantes informs us that the walk lasted as long as the speech by Monipodio's pawn, Ganchuelo, "which was long."

The trip is one across the surface of the soul, eschewing descriptions of the actual landscape. Ganchuelo explains to them that he, too, is a thief, but "one who serves God and good people."

"It's news to me that there are thieves in the world to serve God and good people," responds Cortado and thus it would appear that in the 16th century, as much as today, those who come from beyond quickly learned the extent to which Seville is steeped in Catholic ways.

Finally, at Monipodio's retreat, Rincón and Cortado are left to wait "in a small brick courtyard, so white and scrubbed that it emitted the richest carmine scent. To one side was a bench three feet in height and the other a broken jar with a pitcher on top that was in no better condition. Elsewhere was some matting made of cat's tail and in the middle of it all, a flower pot with basil growing.

"The youths," Cervantes writes, "looked attentively at the treasures of the house as Monipodio came down. Marking his slow pace, Rincón dared to enter one of the lower apartments accessed from the courtyard and saw two fencing swords, two shields of cork hanging from four spikes, a giant chest with nothing covering it, and more Cat's tail mats laid about the floor. On the front wall was stuck an image of Our Lady, one of those low-grade reproductions. Lower still hung a wicker basket and encased in the wall was a basin. Rincón reasoned that the first was for charity and the second for holy water. And this was true."

It was Cervantes' intention through his first draft of "Don Quixote" to pen a simple novel during his stay in Seville. If "Quixote" is, in part, a parody of the wealthy society upon which artists of his time so desperately depended, it's not out of line to suggest we find a little bit of the same in "Rinconete and Cortadillo."

The epic tale about the Madman of La Mancha was dedicated to a Sevillan aristocrat in an effort to curry favor, although it apparently did little to achieve the author's goal.
Rincón and Cortado find that the household of Monipodio is organized like that of a gentleman of the time, around a courtyard, mise en scéne and architectural symbol of the small aristocratic courts that marked the city.

In him they encounter a man who carries the contradictions of life itself.

Writes Cervantes, "The pair were in awe of the obedience and respect everyone in the house had for Monipodio, a man who was barbaric, rustic, and heartless."

Nonetheless, this Monipodio is capable of receiving guests "with much contentment and courtesy, because he was extremely well-bred."

And it is precisely with Monipodio that Triana possibly emerges for the first time in the story, because the man encompasses the same contradictions as the barrio that treasures both holy virgins and the flamenco ghost.

"And Escalanta, removing her clog, began to beat it like a tambourine. La Gananciosa took a palm broom laying about and began scratching it against the floor, making a sound that, although rough and grating, kept time with the clog. Monipodio broke a plate in two pieces which, placed between his fingers and clicked with grand dexterity, carried a counterpoint to the clog and broom."

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

All Hail "The Fact"

Aside from representing a sweeping progressive victory, the elections stand as a reassertion of the American faith in science and The Fact.

It turns out that just saying something over and over again doesn't mean it's true, nor will it fool everyone.

The durability of The Fact began to impose itself even before last night's results swept away the counter-narrative cooked up on the right 'lo these many years.

It played loudly in the debate cycle when the premise cooked up in the Republican bubble, that Obama did not consider Benghazi a terrorist attack, was put to rest by the moderator, who noted that the president had, in fact, characterized it as so.

The wall against obvious and verifiable truths began to crumble even as Republicans, faced with a television graphic quoting the president on this matter, chose to deny what was before their very eyes.

The American people did not. If you have a tape and transcript of the president saying something, it's fair to accept that he said it, based on the evidence.

Then there were the polls, those science-based thermometers cooked up by liberals to mislead voters about The Fact of a new and silent majority in America. A multicultural, youthful, sexually tolerant, weed-supporting mass that does not caterwaul much, does not parade, and did not go in for political kitch and lawn signs this time.

But they came out to vote, just as the polls predicted they would.

All of which brings us to the further diminished status of the untruth wurlitzer itself, Fox News.

On Election Eve, the highway scribe soaked up the Fox Team's frustration and marveled at the herd of experts predicting a Romney landslide in contrast to what the Non-Fox Media ("The NFM" as per Anne Coulter) was saying.

Trapped in their own ghetto, convinced their hatred was national and universal, the Foxies banged pots and hammers about Bhenghazi and "Obama's Katrina" to the general indifference of everybody else.

The image of Karl Rove campaign hacking from his perch on an election night panel at Fox was a new low in the Fair and Balanced bull chips the news operation serves up.

The guy had a ton of skin in the game and yet there he sat, posing as an expert whose objective opinion should be respected. Days before, Rove too, predicted a Romney landslide in a major American newspaper owned by the guy who signs his checks at Fox.

One has to wonder what Fox's credibility will be going forward with the true believers who kneel daily in its church. For months it posted news and facts from an alternative universe that never ceased to insist the president's coalition was coming undone and that red state redemption was just around the corner.

Fool them once, shame on Fox. Fool them twice, shame on them.

For the second election cycle -- this one spent attacking the president 24 hours a day -- Fox has been unable to impact the final outcome of either the Republican nominating process or the general election.

For a time, its reign as the first partisan news operation gave it a leg up. But its diversion from American journalism's long striving for objectivity led to the establishment of a similar enterprise at the opposite political pole.

MSNBC, while equally harmful to older journalistic traditions, does a nice job of articulating and packaging progressive views into palatable, televised messages and debate. It helped.

The center-left network's existence erases the old Fox advantage at partisan mind-bending while serving as effective check on its ability to manufacture its own truths out of whole cloth.