Why Culture Matters

Tomb of Ahmad al-Mansur

Image by Sheriff of Nothing via Flickr

 

Why Culture Matters

 

In September of 2006, in Lewisburg, Tennessee, a neighborhood group protested because the public library was investing resources in the purchase of books in Spanish.  Of the sixty thousand volumes, only one thousand were published in a language other than English.  The annual budget, totalling thirteen thousand dollars, dedicates the sum of one hundred and thirty dollars to the purchase of books in Spanish. The buying spree representing one percent of the budget enraged some of the citizens of Tennessee, causing them to take the issue to the authorities, arguing that a public service, sustained through taxes charged to the U.S. populace, should not promote something that might benefit illegal workers.

 

Thus, the new conception of culture surpasses that distant precept of the ancient library of Alexandria.  That now almost completely forgotten library achieved the height of its development in second century Egypt.  Its backward administrators had the custom of periodically sending investigators throughout the world in order to acquire copies of texts from the most distant cultures.  Among its volumes there were copies of Greek, Persian, Indian, Hebrew and African texts.  Almost all of those decades-long efforts were abruptly brought to an end, thanks to a fire caused by the enlightene ships of the emperor Julius Caesar.  Nearly a thousand years later, another deliberately-set fire destroyed the similarly celebrated library of Córdoba, founded by the caliph Al-Hakam (creator of the University and of free education), where the passion for knowledge brought together Jews, Christians and Arabs with texts from the most diverse cultures known in the period.  Also in this period, the Spanish caliphs were in the habit of dispatching seekers throughout the world in order to expand the library’s collection of foreign books.  This library was also destroyed by a fanatic, al-Mansur, in the name of Islam, according to his own interpretation of the common good and superior morality.

 

The Tennessee anecdote represents a minority in a vast and heterogeneous country.  But it remains significant and concerning, like a sneeze on a passenger train.  Also significant is the idea, assumed there, that the Spanish language is a foreign language, when any half-way educated person knows that before English it was Spanish that was spoken in what today is the United States; that Spanish has been there, in many states of the Union for more than four hundred years; that Spanish and Latino culture are neither foreign nor an insignificant minority: more than forty million “Hispanics” live in the United States and the number of Spanish-speakers in the country is roughly equivalent to the number of Spanish speakers living in Spain.  If those who become nervous because of the presence of that “new culture” had the slightest historical awareness, they would neither be nervous nor consider their neighbors to be dangerous foreigners.  The only thing that historically has always been dangerous is ignorance, which is why the promotion of ignorance can hardly be considered synonymous with security and progress – even by association, as with the reigning method of propaganda, which consists of associating cars with women, tomatoes with civil rights, the victory of force with proof of the Truth or a million dollars with Paradise.

 

Translated by Bruce Campbell

 

Jorge Majfud

The University of Georgia, October 2006.

 

 

Roman Apocrypha

A street of Pillars at the ruins of the city S...

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Apócrifo romano (Spanish)

 

Roman Apocrypha

Jorge Majfud

 

At the edge of the Empire and of the world, an old man lamented day and night and futilely awaited death. While he waited he told this story to those willing to venture out so far:

 

I have discovered that in the subsoils of the Empire my name is cursed. It would be useless to pursue those who remember me and would only augment the sad fame that will extend my shadow to the end of time. They will remember me for only one day, snuffed out forever in Palestine.

When the protests began (not against my government nor against the Empire, but against one lone man) I never thought of the seriousness of such an insignificant deed. I knew that the Caesar would only care about order, not justice; besides, the rebel was not Roman.

I will say that I, in some way, knew my fate, like someone who has received the revelation of an absurd dream which is quickly forgotten. During the protests I thought, time and again, about the memory of that distant people I governed. I also knew of the case of a Greek prisoner, philosopher or charlatan by profession, who had been condemned to death and the intellectuals remembered him more than they did Pericles. I learned in that now far away land that Eternity depends on the fleeting and confusing moment which is life. Rome is not eternal and one day it will be nothing more than a memory of stones and books; and what the future remembers will not be the best of the Empire.

When everyone was demanding that I crucify the rebel and nobody knew why, I asked for the counsel of others less great than I. The Romans did not care or were distracted, and so I had to turn, several times to Joachim of Samaria, a wise man who I had previously made use of to try to understand his people.

“Tell me, Joachim,” I asked him that day or the day before, “What can I do in these circumstances? I must be a judge and I am not able to distinguish clear water from bad. Is there even anything I can do? I have heard that the rebel himself has announced his death, just as others among your people announced his arrival.”

“The world is in your hands,” said the old man.

“No!” I shouted, “…it is not yet in my hands. First I will be Emperor of Rome.”

“Perhaps Rome and all the Romes to come will remember you for this day, my king.”

“And what will they say about me?”

“How could I know? I am a blind man,” answered the old one.

“As blind as anyone. I would give my eyes to see the future!”

“Even if you had a thousand eyes you would not see it, my king, because the future does not exist for men. It only exists in God who encompasses all things.”

“If your god knows it, then doesn’t the future exist somewhere?” I reasoned. “If God or the rebel can predict what will occur, what is to be done was already done…” I concluded, eloquently. I felt satisfied with that triumph over the wise foreigner.

When the rebel was brought before me, I began to interrogate him, stammering; I knew that was unfitting for a future Caesar and I could almost not contain my anger.

“So you are king?” I asked.

“You have said it,” stated that dark man, serene as if nothing mattered to him. “I came to this world to bring the Truth. And those who can understand it will listen to me.”

“And what is the truth,” I hurried to ask, certain that his answer would not be so great.

There was an infinite silence in response. Immediately the impatient multitude exploded again: “Release the son of man!,” the crowd began to shout, referrng to another prisoner who had used weapons against Rome, not words. And the Caesars will always fear words more than weapons.

I tried to be careful. I calculated my options. I understood that if I chose poorly, Palestine would go up in flames. So many people could not be wrong, and therefore there could only be one decision in the clear mind of a king.

When the soldiers finished whipping the rebel, I took the prisoner out again and said to the people:

“Look, here he is, I have taken him out so you can see that I find no crime in him.”

But the people insisted again:

“Kill him, crucify him!…”

“Better that you take him and crucify him yourselves,” was my answer.

“No, we cannot,” they yelled again, almost as one voice. To one side, the lords of the Law waited patiently for the inflamed masses to restore the sacred order.

Then, I saw the Rebel enter and I asked him:

“Where are you from, that you put me on this crossroads?”

But the Rebel did not answer this time, just like he hadn’t answered the last time.

“Are you not going to answer me? Don’t you know that I have the authority to crucify you or to set you free?”

“You would have no authority if God had not given it to you.”

So I, the governor of Palestine, finally yielded to the crowd, or to the arrogance of that prisoner. I decided for the good of the Pharisean Law and for the peace of Rome.

I delivered the dangerous rebel for the cross, and since his was not a crime against the gods but against the politics of the Caesar and of our allies, I had him executed along with other thieves.

The cries of that day long ago reached all the way to the palace. The people and their priests were satisfied. Except for an infamous minority. The same minority as always.

They crucified him at noon and, until mid-afternoon, the whole land fell dark. A deep cold covered the palace and perhaps the entire city.

“What is happening, my king?” asked Joachim, from some dark corner.

“You cannot see it, but the whole Earth has gone dark and it is because of the Rebel,” I murmured.

“Rome and the World will remember you for this day,” the blind man said.

“How can I be the guilty one? Did you not say that God knows what happened and what is to come? If your God knew that today I would err, how could I be free not to do so?”

“Listen, my king,” said the blind man, “I cannot see the present that you see. Nor can I see the future.  Nevertheless, now I know, almost before the rebel knew it, that you made a mistake. But this knowledge, oh, my king, does it suppress something of the freedom you had today to choose?”

Perhaps that is what fate and freedom are together. Now I only have the consolation that one day that handful of men and women will be the people of Rome. My fame will extend, dark and damned the world over, but I will become once again the honorable governor of a province of the Empire, freely deciding on behalf of its fate. And I will be once again remembered in infamy by another handful of prisoners, simply for fulfilling my divine duty. Now I know definitively my other fates. But I will believe once again that I am free, vested with all of the power of Rome.

 

Translated by Bruce Campbell