Why the Hardliners of the World Fear the Word
From Jaipur to Iceland, on the Power of Language
One of the questions a writer is bound to ask him or herself is whether art can change the world? Can it unite people across languages, politics and religious beliefs? Change the way people view the world and their “opponents”? My answer, my method as an author, is simple and twofold. On one hand, it is to give a voice to those who have no voice—those who cannot shout out loud enough to attract the attention of the world—and, on the other hand, to look on ourselves as if we are the others. And the others are us. That, of course, does not preclude the fact that human nature has many faces and that paradoxes form the core of what makes us human.
Not so long ago I came across an interview with one of the most interesting film directors in the world, the Iranian Asghar Farhadi, who is the winner of both a Golden Bear in Berlin and two Oscars for Best Foreign film, (A Separation 2012 and The Salesman 2017). In the interview, the film director said that hardliners, regardless of their nationality, the political arguments they use, and the wars they are waging, all view and divide the world in the exact same manner. They divide it between the us and them and create a fearful image of those who belong to the “them” category. And then he added that “people’s similarities far outweigh their differences.’’ Farhadi draws a familiar picture of nationalist populists around the globe, their demagoguery, their egocentric fear of the enemy and exclusion. Their worldview is starkly divided between mine and theirs. In the message Farhadi sent to the Oscar’s ceremony, he placed an emphasis on the role of the director to show that human nature is the same everywhere. He also stressed the importance of solidarity between people across borders and belief systems—and here I might add—beyond their national leaders.
And what should the hardliners and extremist groups of the world fear the most? What could be more dangerous in their eyes than long-range missiles and tanks, much more dangerous than natural disasters and climate change, even more dangerous than the dark night of the soul? What is the most dangerous thing in the world? Words. Dialogue. To speak to your enemies. Maybe what scares them the most is the possibility they’ll realize that we are all made of “such stuff as dreams are made on”—what do I know?
Hardliners’ fear of words is consistent with their fear of the most dangerous profession in the world, judging by the number of those who vanish from the face of the earth when dictators come to power: journalists, writers, publishers, university professors, the people who advocate human rights and free speech. Perhaps this fear stems from the suspicion that between the words, between the lines, there lies a deeper meaning; I believe it’s subtext that people fear the most. The meaning beneath the meaning, which lies in multiple layers, like an onion, like a glittering patch of treacherously still water, like a deep blue sea. I could well believe that metaphor is one of the most dangerous words in the world.
I think it can be assumed that these hardliners of the world are not particularly literary people. And for those who haven’t read a book, the book doesn’t exist, and therefore it is not a part of their life experience, their memory, sorrows, goals, understanding, regrets.
It is significant that those who fear words also fear women, and in particular many of them fear the education of women. Even little girls just learning how to read and write is enough to instill fear in some extremist groups. Attacks on girls’ schools regularly crop up in the news and, in some parts of the world, the lives of girls who long to be educated are in constant jeopardy. The title of a book that I have on a shelf at home springs to mind: Women who read are dangerous. (And here it would be tempting to open a parenthesis and point out some statistics: women do about 70 percent of the work in the world, receive 10 percent of the world’s wages and own only 1 percent of the world’s assets.)
A year ago, I was a guest at the most colorful literary festival in the world in Jaipur, India, which is held under giant tents and attended by three hundred thousand guests. The astounding number of people who attend a poetry reading there is about as high as the number of people at a Robbie Williams concert. One day, a woman, who wasn’t even on the scheduled program, stepped onto the stage—Taslima Nasrin, a writer from Bangladesh and an activist struggling for women’s education and human rights. Like Salman Rushdie, Nasrin has a death sentence hanging over her head, a so-called fatwa for having, among other things, criticized the religious leadership of Muslims in her homeland for their hostile attitude toward women. As Nasrin stood alone with a microphone on the largest stage of the festival, clad in a beautiful sari (I include this so as not to neglect to mention how the woman was dressed: an often-reductive detail beloved by the media) and addressed the crowd of thousands with an inspired and unwritten speech. Meanwhile, a group of angry protesters shouted loudly at the entrance of the festival in opposition to her speech, demanding a meeting with its management.
No problem. That was readily granted. People should speak together. The protesters demanded a promise that neither Taslima Nasrin nor Salman Rushdie, who had previously been invited to the festival, would be invited back. The men felt insulted, threatened, and demanded an apology. None was given. In response, the Jaipur festival organizers sent out a proposal with the brilliant idea that at the next festival, one year hence, they would host a special symposium to discuss the issue of why authors like Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin should not be invited to literary festivals. The protesters were invited to send their representatives to participate. What did they say about that? No, discussing the issue did not appeal to them.
I believe that there is some truth in the assertion that artists can serve as bridge builders in the global village, as the words of the director Farhadi suggest. Literature enables us to participate in other lives and to experience many parallel realities so that eventually everywhere feels like home. But I also believe, as Rimbaud wrote, that “man is ugly, sad under this vast sky” and that literature is really about nothing less than how impossible it is to understand one another and how we miss the meaning.
The language of literature is a language of its own. It is a specific language that uses its own inner logic (such as poetry) and that has an inherent sense of time (a sort of timelessness) that is neither the time of history (which is past) nor the time of politics (which is skewed through profit and propaganda). The language of literature distinguishes itself from any other type of language and any other kind of usage in a contemporary society—it is not about having control over the word but rather freeing it so that it stops being a link in a chain of thought. In the words of Octavio Paz, writing is “a means of access to pure time, an immersion in the original waters of existence.”
Each and every language is inhabited by its own unique ways of thinking and history and culture. This is true even in the smallest linguistic communities in the world, such as my native Icelandic one which only counts 330,000 souls. In Icelandic, we decline the pronoun enginn (which means “nothing” in English) in three genders, singular and plural, and four cases. That means that we have 24 possible variations of a word that represents that which is not, depending upon which meaning we choose to give “nothing.”
I believe that the essence of writing lies in its attempts to give words to that emptiness that we call the nothing. It reminds us that what lies between the words is just as important as the words themselves. In fact, the gap between the words is even more important than the words because it is through those blank spaces that the reader can penetrate the story and attribute his or her meaning to the work. We could call this silence. An interval in time. It is like the Icelandic wilderness. Without silence there is no meaning. Without silence there is no healing. It is precisely there—on the edge of that vacuum in the unarticulated space of thought, dreams, and the imagination—that the author nests, with wings so thin and transparent that they can only carry those who do not comprehend the laws of gravity.