Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 2, 2013

Behind the Blue Veil; Following the Ninth

Filed under: Africa,Film,music — louisproyect @ 7:12 pm

Woe betides a people unfortunate enough to have been excluded from statehood as colonialism drew its final breath. The Palestinians and the Kurds come immediately to mind but so do the Tuaregs who like the Kurds were dispersed across a number of states, often with clashing interests but who could agree on the question of keeping the Kurds down.

“Behind the Blue Veil”, a documentary that opened yesterday at the Quad in NY, is an excellent introduction to the people who were able to make a home for themselves in the Sahara desert for thousands of years but who are now driven to undertake a costly civil war against a Malian government more deadly than the arid sands. The wisdom of the ages handed down over generations allows the Tuaregs to find an oasis but there are no easy answers to a dictatorship’s tanks and planes.

Directed by Robyn Symon with very few frills and clocking in at a brief but meaty 62 minutes, “Behind the Blue Veil” consists of interviews with Tuaregs in Mali as well as academic experts who identify the problems of a people cloaked in obscurity. The “blue” of the film’s title refers to the dye used in Tuareg garments that tends to color the skin of those wearing them. Unlike other peoples of Muslim North Africa, it is the man rather than the woman who wears the veil. Also, unlike other Muslim ethnicities, Tuareg society is matrilineal. These are just some of the things that you will learn from this most informative documentary that is never stodgy.

What enlivens it the most is the force of the Tuareg personalities, especially the “star” of the film, the music producer Mamatal Ag Dahmane who warns that unless something is done as quickly as possible, his people will disappear. The underlying cause of Tuareg desperation is the loss of their basic economic role as a kind of communal transportation company connecting Sub-Saharan Africa with the North. Their camels carried precious goods like salt and gold back and forth. Once highways and air transportation became prevalent, they became redundant. Mali and Niger have done little to help the Tuaregs out of a combination of chauvinism and a lack of funding.

Most people became aware of the Tuareg in the aftermath of the rebellion against Gaddafi. They were mercenaries used against the rebels driven more by economic desperation than any kind of fervor for “Green Socialism”. Some Gaddafi supporters stigmatized the rebels as racist because they sought reprisals against the Tuaregs as if it were a conflict mapping to skin color. However, when you look at all the personalities in the film, you will see only one that appears Black. Most in fact resemble the ethnic group they belong to—the Berbers who proved decisive in the dictator’s overthrow. The Tuareg language is a subset of Berber and they share the same mode of subsistence as nomadic herdsmen.

Once Gaddafi was overthrown, the Tuaregs returned to Mali and Niger with their weapons determined to create a new state in the north of Mali called Azawad. Almost as soon their insurgency started, jihadists began their own armed struggle with its own agenda using the same totalitarian tactics against “infidels” such as the kind being used now in Northern Syria. As a sign that the US has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests—as Kissinger put it—it has been training Tuareg rebels so that they can fend off the jihadists.

The film is not primarily a guide to all the factions on the ground in Northern Mali but an introduction to a people that is sorely needed. Since Mali appears to be a country that is subject to the same contradictory dynamics of ethnicity, religion, and class at work in the tribal areas of Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere, it is incumbent on the left to keep an eye on the region. Robyn Symon’s film is a good place to start.

Also opening yesterday at the Quad is “Following the Ninth: in the footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony”, a documentary by Kerry Candaele that explores the importance of this great work to people living in China, Chile, East Germany, and Japan. The first three nations appropriated their music for freedom struggles, while in Japan it functions more as a kind of semireligious ritual in December celebrating the people’s humanity and the divinity of music.

In interviews with people who put their bodies on the line in Tiananmen Square, defending Allende against the military coup, and opposing Stalinism and the artificial barriers of the Berlin Wall, Beethoven’s Ninth was as important as any leaflet. The “Ode to Joy” was often sung in the spirit of Billy Bragg who performs it at the beginning of the film with his own words.

If you’ve read my review of “A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology”, you will know that Zizek is unimpressed with all this, stating that the Nazis also loved Beethoven’s Ninth. While it is difficult to argue with this, it is also difficult to argue with the notion that Friedrich Schiller’s worldview was antithetical to that of National Socialism. Schiller’s play “Don Carlos” that was adapted for Verdi’s opera is a stirring denunciation of monarchy.

This is not to speak of Beethoven’s own politics that were in sympathy with the French Revolution even when Schiller recoiled from its excesses. None other than the composer who fled Bolshevism made the case for Beethoven’s revolutionary fiber:

Beethoven is the friend and contemporary of the French Revolution, and he remained faithful to it even when, during the Jacobin dictatorship, humanitarians with weak nerves of the Schiller type turned from it, preferring to destroy tyrants on the theatrical stage with the help of cardboard swords. Beethoven, that plebeian genius, who proudly turned his back on emperors, princes and magnates – that is the Beethoven we love for his unassailable optimism, his virile sadness, for the inspired pathos of his struggle, and for his iron will which enabled him to seize destiny by the throat.”

–Igor Stravinsky


1 Comment »

  1. You describe Stravinsky as “none other than the composer who fled Bolshevism.” Nope.

    Stravinsky (b. 1882) was in the lower rung of the upper middle class of tsarist Russia. His father, from a Polish aristocratic family, was an opera singer at the Imperial Opera in St. Petersburg. Before World War One Stravinsky had an estate in estate in the Ukraine. Ffrom 1910 he lived in Switzerland during the winters. He lost the income from his estate and royalties from his Russian music publisher when he established full residence in Switzerland at the outbreak of the war.

    All this happened three years before the October Revolution. When Stravinsky speaks of Beethoven as someone who “proudly turned his back on emperors” and remained true to bourgeois revolution, he apparently identifies himself with Ludwig. Ha! Beethoven was anti-feudal and bourgeois democratic. Stravinsky rebelled against the bourgeois musical orthodoxy of 100 years later – as an individualist, not a supporter of the next rising class, the working class — a common avant garde pattern.

    Comment by Failing the Ninth — November 4, 2013 @ 1:48 am

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