Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Times They are So Strange

We do seem to live in strangely uncertain times which can gift us some indelible memories. The last New York Times magazine had a wonderful story from a journalist who spent an amazing evening in an apartment on Cairo's Tahrir Square where many leading lights of the recent revolution hung out. He lovingly describes the eclectic collection of  house guests and their bedazzlement when that night Egyptian tyrant Hosni Mubarak stepped down. It's a powerful piece of writing that quickly drew me into my own memories of being  amazed.

News of the fall of the Berlin Wall was one.
I've mentioned in another post the ever-present sense of threat felt by postwar Europeans for much of their lives. My parents were both officers in the Civil Defense, the UK's attempt at social infrastructure for the aftermath of nuclear attack. The family had a designated spot in a municipal fallout shelter but with a ten minute drive when the time to impact of a Soviet-launched ICBM was about four minutes. Our radio dial was cluttered with the propaganda stations of both sides and the Cold War was the core fact of national existence in the latter half of the C20th. This made the fall of the most tangible symbol of the Evil Empire, the Wall, a really mind-bending event for us. Vivid images still stay with me today of young people pulling it down and clambering over.

Some while ago I was in Berlin with a Canadian-born colleague who had married an East German before the collapse and even got her out though not through the wire. He took me to see bits of the Wall that remained strewn out of the way across the city side streets. As the sudden collapse of communism still seemed like a fairytale, we were both greatly moved. Just like the NYT author's Cairene companions around the wholly unexpected collapse of the defining presence in their own lives.

Things move so fast these days and our attention is already elsewhere than Egypt. As a youth I enrolled in army cadets and after in the militia at my university. Both were voluntary but seemed good insurance at a time when compulsory military service was only just ending. For my first summer in the militia Officer Training Corps a trip was announced to train in the Libyan desert. They had a king and stories of Field Marshall Montgomery's daring WW2 North African desert campaigns against Rommel came freshly to mind. But I didn't sign up.

I reasoned I should at all costs avoid six weeks at close quarters with our commanding officer, who was  seconded from a very posh Guards regiment and the nephew of Earl Haig, a prominent general of WW1. Haig, like many of the generals on both sides, would likely in a later age have been a candidate for a war crime trial in view of the senseless slaughter in that war of hundreds of young men each day going 'over the top' to no avail. His nephew epitomized the brainless privileged that us middle classes had by then come to despise. I remember my decision because time quickly proved I may have been unwise in passing up a Saharan adventure. Everything changed soon after in Libya as it did elsewhere in the old empires.

I recall from that same period during a stay in a youth hostel talking with the only other guest, an Egyptian youth, who spent the evening glorifying their dictator, a man who had already toppled his king. To us Gamal Abdel Nasser was an ogre. He was the tyrant who seized the Suez Canal from us and the French. The villain who gave me three nights of poor sleep as newly desert-coloured military hardware rumbled all day and night down the highway past my parents' house on the way to sailing for Egypt during the Suez Crisis. TV and movies were full of the glorious and still recent success against global fascism, and yet here we were dealing with a whole new cast of  threats from folk who should have been grateful! Just like for many Americans and Israelis right now, in those days we, the older imperialists, were torn. Though it is clearly right to end control without representation, gratitude is usually in short supply and what follows is mostly strange and often threatening.

Times seem to always remain surprisingly unpredictable. Why do they make it so hard to do what history will later judge to be the right thing?

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