The War on Literalism: From Aleppo to Ankara

The War on Literalism: From Aleppo to Ankara
Blog: Cultural antidotes in a fortnight of terror, reflections by Hadani Ditmars.
5 min read
22 Dec, 2016
Guernica in sand: We can't allow violence to sweep away our weapons of culture [Getty]

In a fortnight of terrible acts - in Ankara, Aleppo, Mosul, Berlin, Zurich and beyond - I am comforted by art and by poetry.

I am turning to the very things that express the essence of the mystery of being human, the very things that seem to terrify the absolutists of this world whose larger war on culture should alarm us all.

It's time to free love from the terror of literalism and turn to the words of Jalal din Rumi and Leonard Cohen, or perhaps to re-examine Goya and Picasso to try to make sense of all these fresh new agonies perpetrated by young men brainwashed by poisonous ideologies.

It's engineers - not poets or artists - who tend to take things literally. Unsurprisingly, they - not, say, students of literature or history - make up the professional majority of young men recruited as jihadis. Counter-intuitively to the golden age of Islam, when arts and sciences were combined, they think in Cartesian lines, ugly, unyielding absolutes - and they miss the poetry, the nuance, the very ephemeral fragility that is our humanity.

The real "war on terror" should be a rejection of unthinking, unfeeling absolutism, whether it manifests in Ankara or in New York City, where a group of LGBT gallery-goers were this week beaten up by Trump supporters as they left an artist-run space in Tribeca.

This week I also spoke with an Iraqi woman archeologist, who has the terrible, still dangerous - thanks to inter-militia violence and little in the way of state or other security - and yet very important job of assessing the damage done to Nimrud, after its destruction by the Islamic State group. 

IS likes to blow up large scale sites because it's easier to sell off antiquities on the black market in portable bits, and because it guarantees media saturation in the West, where consumers of visual media seem to pay more attention to such acts than say, the massive humanitarian disaster unfolding in Iraq, or rampant sectarianism and corruption.

But it also speaks to a fear of expression of what is intangible, foreign or an alternate worldview - and in this IS is not unique - and perhaps even to a frustrated artistic expression. Failed painter Adolf Hitler, of course, had a unique talent for demonising modern art as "degenerate", "communist" and "Jewish".

There is an ongoing tradition of extremist attacks on art galleries - from the gallery in Germany blown up by neo-nazis to this week's violence in Tribeca and Turkey. One can only be thankful for the bit of good news this week that Sylvester Stallone - a painter as well as an actor - who did cosy up to Reagan in the testosterone-fuelled 1980s landscape of Republican politics - refused Trump's offer of becoming chair of the National Endowment for the Arts.

If the young man who shot the Russian diplomat in the Ankara art gallery this week had been a performance artist, and not a police officer/assassin, he might have imagined the terrible scenario he created as an act of premonitory art, and rehearsed it with blanks and arts council grants.

Perhaps, like so many young men recruited as cops/ jihadists/militia men his cultural diet consisted of junk food - the detritus of modernity - dubbed Steven Seagal flicks, combined with violent ideological pornography disguised as scripture.

If he had read Rumi poems, he would have rejected the literalism being peddled by merchants of death, and embraced the mystery of existence, or at the very least the poetry - not the perversion - of the Quran.

In the aftermath of the attack on the mosque in Zurich, the Christmas market in Berlin and in the wake of the ongoing trial of Dylann Roof - the white supremacist who not only killed black parishioners but did so in one of the most historically significant black churches in America - this would be a good week to re-read Rumi's Like This.

If anyone wants to know what "spirit" is, 
or what "God’s fragrance" means, 
 lean your head toward him or her. 
/Keep your face there close.

Like this.

When someone quotes the old poetic image
 about clouds gradually uncovering the moon,
 slowly loosen knot by knot the strings
 of your robe.

Like this.

If anyone wonders how Jesus raised the dead, 
 don't try to explain the miracle. 
Kiss me on the lips.

Like this. Like this.

It would also be a good week to contemplate the words of the great Canadian bard who left this planet just before Trump was elected. Oh, young murderous cop in the Ankara art gallery, have your heard of Leonard Cohen?

Shouldering your loneliness
Like a gun that you will not learn to aim,
You stumble into this movie house,
Then you climb, you climb into the frame.
Yes, and here, right here
Between the moonlight and the lane,
Between the tunnel and the train,
Between the victim and his stain,
Once again, once again,
Love calls you by your name.

And here, right here,
Between the dancer and his cane,
Between the sailboat and the drain,
Between the newsreel and your tiny pain,
Once again, once again,
Love calls you by your name.

With Rumi and now Cohen gone, the rest of us are left - like my friend Layla the Iraqi archeologist - to pick up the pieces and rebuild. Or like the good parishioners in South Carolina, to keep on singing the hymns of their ancestors with love, not hate, in their hearts.

In a new age of darkness, it's up to us to keep the flame of culture alive. It our only real weapon in the wars.

Follow Hadani Ditmars on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars