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Our writers failure
13 June 2002
Our writers failure - Martin Amis represents a problem: that some of the most acclaimed and privileged writers in the English language fail to engage with the most urgent issues of our time.
On 1 June, the Guardian published a long essay by Martin Amis, entitled "The voice of the lonely crowd". It was about 11 September and the role of writers. What did Amis think about on the momentous day? He thought he was "like Josephine, the opera-singing mouse in the Kafka story: Sing? 'She can't even squeak.'"
By that he meant, I guess, that he had nothing to say about "the conflicts we now face or fear", as he put it. Why not? Where was the spirit of Orwell and Greene? Where was a modest acknowledgement of history: a passing reflection on the impact of rapacious great power on vulnerable societies, which are the roots of the current "terrorism"? Amis referred rightly to the "pitiable babble" of writers following 11 September.
Most of the famous names were heard, their contributions ranging from morose me-ism to an aggressive defence of America and its "modernity". Not a single English writer commanding the celebrity that provides an extraordinary public platform has written anything incisive and worthy of our memory about the meaning and exploitation of 11 September - with the exception, as ever, of Harold Pinter. Compare their "babble", and their silence, with the work of the celebrated Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, the subject of a fine Guardian profile on 8 June by Maya Jaggi.
Darwish is the Arab world's bestselling poet; people's poet may sound trite, but he draws thousands to his readings, thrilling his audiences with a lyricism that touches their lives and makes sense of power, injustice and tragedy. In his latest poem, "State of Siege", a "martyr" says:
I love life
Darwish's manuscripts were trampled under foot by Israeli soldiers at the cultural centre in Ramallah where he often works. I was in this building last month, not long after the Israelis had left. They had defecated on the floors, and smeared shit on the photocopiers, and pissed on books and up the walls, and systematically destroyed manuscripts of plays and novels and hard disks. As they left, they threw paint on a wall of children's drawings. "They wanted to give us a message that nobody's immune - including in cultural life," says Darwish. "Palestinian people are in love with life. If we give them hope - a political solution - they'll stop killing themselves."
Perhaps it is unfair to compare a Darwish with an Amis. One is speaking for the crimes against his people, after all. But Amis represents a wider problem: that some of the most acclaimed and privileged writers writing in the English language fail to engage with the most urgent issues of our time. Who among the collectors of Booker and Whitbread Prizes speaks against the crimes described by Darwish - the product of the longest military occupation in the modern era? Who, since 11 September, has defended our language, illuminating its abuse in the service of great power's goals and hypocrisy? Who has shown that our humane responses to 11 September have been appropriated by the masters of terror themselves? - by Ariel Sharon and his "good friend" George W Bush, who bombed to death at least 5,000 civilians in Afghanistan.
Consider Amis's unexplained reference to the conflicts we must now "face or fear". The Palestinians have been facing and fearing an occupation for more than 35 years: an atrocious stalemate sponsored by every American administration since that of Lyndon Johnson and reaffirmed this month by Bush himself. Since 11 September, those who have been allowed to grind English into a series of clichés propagating their "war on terrorism" have also supplied the Israeli regime with 50 F-16 fighter-bombers, 102 Gatling guns, 228 joint direct attack munitions (JDAMs) and 24 Blackhawk helicopters. A batch of state-of-the art Apache helicopters is on the way.
You may have seen the Apache on the news, firing missiles at civilian apartment blocks in occupied Palestine. The other day, I spoke to a group of children in Gaza. They smiled, but it was clear that their dreams, indeed their childhood, had been despatched by Israel's attacks on a people who, for the most part, have defended themselves with slingshots. Among these children, almost certainly, are those who will sacrifice, as Darwish wrote, "the last thing that belonged to me". Who is his equivalent in the west, setting that wisdom against our government's part in the making of this terror?
In the 1980s, Martin Amis published a valuable collection of essays on the threat of nuclear war. Today, India and Pakistan seriously threaten nuclear war, which is not surprising, in a world dominated by threats since 11 September: a world of either-you-are-with-us-or-against-us, of bomb now and talk later. What does Amis or any English writer have to say about the great warrior against terrorism in the White House, who says that "first strike" is now the superpower's policy and that America "must be ready to strike at a moment's notice in any dark corner of the world"? This includes the nuclear option, Martin Amis, should you still be interested.
"After 11 September," wrote Amis in the Guardian, "writers faced quantitative change, but not qualitative change . . . They stood in eternal opposition to the voice of the lonely crowd, which, with its yearning for both power and effacement, is the most desolate sound you will ever hear." Those who publish and promote such empty words, holding the robes of English literature's current emperors, have an urgent responsibility to hand the space to others. Our language should be reclaimed, its Orwellian vocabulary reversed, its noble words such as "democracy" and "freedom" protected, and its power redeployed against all fundamentalisms, especially our own. We need to find and publish our own Mahmoud Darwish, our own Arundhati Roy, our own Ahdaf Soueif, our own Eduardo Galeano, and quickly.