They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Ink road across Africa

Ink road across Africa

By Edgardo Civallero
Translated by Sara Plaza

If I ask you to think about "African libraries", most of you will probably create a picture in your mind of modern units from different nations of the great continent. However, if I ask you to think about "African libraries a long time ago", when a great part of those territories were still a mystery for Europeans that will only "discover" them a long time afterwards... what would you think of?

[If this was an auditory, this would be the moment when everybody is silent and thoroughly checks their hands, the back of the neck of the person before them, broken floor tiles...].

On many occasions we have been sold an image of this part of the world as "tribal Africa", "the black continent", "tam-tam and oral tradition land", "artistic works as a means of transmitting wisdom"... Hollywood classics, travel books written by the XIX century explorers and the huge popular imagery they slowly created will probably make us think of an Africa consisting of exotic dances and even more exotic songs, and of peoples without writing, without books and, of course, without libraries.

Maybe some of you will be surprised when I tell you that one of the greatest knowledge centers of that continent –one as important as other contemporary units– was placed on the fringe of the Sahara desert, at one of those crossroads where the main trading roads met.

It was –and is still– called Timbuktu. In this post I will try to tell you a small part of its history and the history of its books.

Timbuktu (or Tombuctu according to the French spelling) is situated in the present State of Mali, Western Africa. It was founded ten centuries ago by Tuareg o Targui people, those famous "desert blue men", nomads of Berber origins that moved on their camels from place to place across this huge country without owner that was the Sahara Desert (did you know that "Sahara" means precisely "desert" in Arabic?). These peoples –that, curiously, had already developed a millenarian system of writing– established the original settlement, but initially it was populated by merchants from the neighboring city-state of Djenne, putting up a lot of markets and commercial headquarters. Timbuktu became a prosperous city very soon, for it was the place where trans-Saharan caravans met and cross each other. These caravans exchanged goods between the Islamic North (salt) and the southern area of Niger (gold, slaves, fruit, ivory), and Timbuktu was a rest area for camels and their owners. In the XI century there were many traders of Fulani, Mandé and Tuareg ethnic groups settled there. All of them were Muslims. The city belonged to several different empires: Ghana, Mali from 1324, Songhay from 1468... And it was under Songhay rule when Timbuktu became "the crown jewel" and reached its entire splendor.

[It is unbelievable how many and how different city-states, empires and confederations emerged and disappeared in Africa before European history touched those peoples. Many times we are ready to believe that there was no history or anything worth to mention up to arrival of explorer such as Livingstone, Stanley, Burton... However, as I stated at the beginning, they are only part of our popular imagery].

In 1591, the city was captured by a band of Moroccan adventurers taking orders from a Spanish renegade named "Pasha Joder". "Pasha" was an honorific titled and the other word (a common Spanish swearword, it seems) was the expression this so foul-mouthed guy used most.

This marked the beginning of the end of Timbuktu grandeur. In 1893 it fell in the hands of French colonial power –despite Tuareg strong resistance– and in 1960 achieved its independence together with the entire French Sudan (present Mali). In the 1990s, the city was attacked by Tuareg people pursuing the creation of their own State. The so–called "Tuareg Rebellion" did not last long and ended in the burning of their weapons in 1996.

Nowadays, Timbuktu is an impoverished city. However, it was a mystery to Europeans for centuries, especially because being a Muslim center, anyone not professing Islam was forbidden from entering the city. At that time many legends were told about its wealth –many of them based on real facts– and a lot of men and western organizations set out to "discover" Timbuktu and its fabulous treasures. In 1788, a group of Englishmen formed the "African Association" in order to find the city and place it on the map. In 1824, the Geography Society of Paris offered a 10.000 francs prize to the first non-Muslim that got into the city and came back with relevant information. The Scot Gordon Laing arrived in 1826 but was assassinated. The French René Caillié, disguised himself as a Muslim, was there in 1828 and came back to tell everybody about it and win the prize – and the honor of having being the first European in entering the legendary city. Only three other Europeans were able to imitate his heroic deed before 1890.

It is one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites from 1988, and its mosques made of adobe and mud gives Timbuktu –and many other places in the region– the aureole of mystery that still hangs over the city. It is said that the silhouettes of these buildings were a source of inspiration for the Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí. Regretfully, the city is turning into desert and has been declared in danger from 1990. Timbuktu is so enigmatic that a survey carried out in 2006 among Britain youth revealed that the 34% did not believe that the city was real and the 66% regarded it as "a mythical place"

Throughout the XV century a number of Islamic institutions were created in Timbuktu. The Sankore mosque is one of the most famous, also known as "Sankore University" for the madrassa or Islamic school housed inside. It was built in 1581 and became the center of the Islamic academic community of that region though other surviving mosques –such as Djinguereber and Sidi Yahya– are even older. An Islamic madrassa does not look like a medieval university (comparing educational institutions in the same period). The madrassa consisted of a group of independent schools, each of them managed by a teacher or imam. Students joined a certain professor and classes took place in open places in the yards of the mosque or at private residences. Classes were mainly focused on the study of the Koran, but subjects such as Logic, Astronomy, History, Music, Botanic, Religion, Commerce and Mathematics were also important taught. Academicians wrote their own books as part of a socio-economic model based on scholarship. Benefits got from books sale were second in order of importance behind gold and salt trade. There were more than 100.000 books in the city, most of them written in Arabic or Pulaar (the language spoken by Fulani people), and their contents included the subjects studied at the madrassa. Between the XVI and XVIII centuries, the amount of books and the standard of knowledge reached such a high level that it was wisely expressed in the following saying: "Salt comes from the north; gold comes from the south, but God's word and wisdom treasures come from Timbuktu".

It is believed that there were more than 120 libraries in the city as part of the African "ink road", which connected northern Africa with the east of the continent –under Arab traders' control also– following the caravans' roads. In recent times, libraries were reduced to 60-80 private institutions devoted to the conservation of priceless manuscripts. At present, Mamma Haidara, Kati, Al-Wangari and Mohammed Tahar libraries are good examples. The library that belongs to Kati's family encompasses 3.000 documents from Andalusia, the oldest dated between the XIV and XV centuries. Nowadays, there are more than one million original documents kept in Mali and it is believed that 20 million more might be found in other parts of Africa, especially in the neighboring region of Sokoto, Nigeria. Many of them are kept as a family treasure and nobody will reveal their existence...

There are several joint international projects aimed at recovering this heritage in every way possible. In August, 2002, the Ink Road International Symposium was celebrated in Bamako (the capital of Mali). In 2006, joint efforts between Mali and South Africa governments made it possible to initiate a research on this matter. The UNESCO has set in motion the Timbuktu Manuscript Project and there is a foundation committed to preserving historical documents in the city itself.

Although there are no book artisans left, memories of their trade still remain that remind us of a flourishing business a long time ago.

The history we are usually told –not only about books– seems to be focused on Europe and very few times pays due attention to other geographical and cultural spaces. The Western Africa's rough draft made in these lines might also be written about pre-Hispanic Central America, about its beautiful codices and its paper industry of amatl fig tree. How much have we been taught about it? How much have we learnt about it? How much do we know about it?

Far from pretending to "give voice to those without it" –Sara will talk about this issue next week–, maybe we can try to "refresh memories": memories of worlds that also had skillful bookbinders, fantastic illustrators and expert researchers, such as the ones from Timbuktu.


Saturday, May 24, 2008

Are conflicts read differently as time passes?

Are conflicts read differently as time passes?

By Sara Plaza

Sometimes, it is curious to observe how different readings of conflicts –both resolved and unresolved– have developed through time. On some occasions it is not even necessary to wait for centuries to go by, for just a few years are enough to talk in a different way of the same problem that, as time passes, will undoubtedly suffer a lot of changes in order to remain unsolved or end in agreement.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Israel's independence declaration. This State was created in the territories of Ancient Palestine, a region whose names and boundaries have varied throughout history

Allow me to bring back some memories and look through a little piece of the history surrounding this geographical area.

First human remains date back as early as 500.000 years ago. Twelve thousand years BCE. Natufian culture elaborated wood, stone and animal bone tools, and the agricultural communities were established between 10000 and 5000 BCE. New migrant groups, marked by the use of copper, were brought to the region from a culture originated in Syria, and between 3000 and 2200 BCE the first independent Canaanite city–states were settled. Civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria and Phoenicia had a great influence over Canaan due to commercial and diplomatic ties, and in 1190 BCE the Philistines arrived at this region and mingled with the local population introducing iron weapons and chariots to them.

It is said –though some historians do not even believe in his existence– that between 2000 and 1000 BCE, Abraham moved from the old city of Ur (ancient Mesopotamia) to Arum (modern Turkey) and once there he parted from his tribe and abandoned idolatry. Then he set off with his family and flocks to Canaan, the land promised to him, by God, as their homeland, where he should establish a monotheistic people. Canaanite people called Abraham Ibri and those who came with him became known as ibrim ('from the other side'), term that gave birth to the word 'Hebrew'. It is told that Isaac, Abraham's son, went on to the south of this 'Promised Land', the Negev Desert, and that his younger son, Jacob, after deceiving his older brother, Esau, fled back to Mesopotamia, were he was renamed Israel (after successfully wrestling with an angel of God). It is also believed that Israel had 12 children. Joseph, his favorite, was the first brother who moved to Egypt. A few years later, hunger in Canaan forced the rest together with their father to follow Joseph's steps.

In Ramesses II's reign, Jews were treated as slaves and they could only leave Egypt after Moses appeared –apparently called by God to endorse the agreement made with Abraham and guide Israelites towards the Promised Land– and announced the famous seven plagues of Egypt. It is said that Moses waited 40 years in the Desert before coming back to Canaan. Then his disciple, Joshua, followed the Jordan River and captured Jericho in the first place and immediately afterwards took place the conquest of Canaan, which was divided among the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

At the beginning, the tribes of Israel were governed by successive judges, of whom Samson, betrayed by philistine Dalila, became very famous. According to Biblical tradition Saul, a peasant warrior, was the first king of the United Kingdom of Israel in 1020 BCE. His son–in–law, David –who won the Philistine giant Goliath–, came to the throne after his death. It is believed that David seized a small village on a hill and Jerusalem was made the capital of his kingdom there. During the reign of his son, Solomon, these peoples gained their greatest splendor, but after his death internal disputes caused the united kingdom to split and two new kingdoms were formed: the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah (origin of the word 'Jew'). Both kingdoms coexisted in this region together with many others, including Philistine city–states.

The Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrian Empire two hundred years later and those 10 Israelite tribes –thereafter known as the Lost Tribes– were exiled. In 587 BCE, Judah was conquered by Nebuchadnezzar, and surviving Jews together with much of the other local population were deported to Babylonia.

After the Persian Empire was established in 538 BCE, king Ciro allowed Jews to return to what their holy books had termed the Land of Israel. The Persian Empire fell to Greek forces of the Macedonian general Alexander the Great and the Jewish population in Judah saw their autonomy in religion and administration limited. Fascination in Jerusalem for Greek culture resulted in an internal divide between reformist and orthodox Jews that ended in a sort of civil war, which allowed the intervention of Syrian Antiochus IV Epiphanes. In 167 BCE the Syrians will be expelled from Jerusalem by Judas Maccabeus and it is said that the Jews will progress under Maccabean. However, a century of independence disputes led to control of the kingdom by the Romans in 63 BCE. Judah was renamed Judea and became a Roman client kingdom. Roman rule was solidified when Herod was appointed as "king of the Jews". As a result of the First Jewish–Roman War (66–73), Titus sacked Jerusalem. Surviving Jews were forced into exile following the fall of a Jewish revolt led by Bar Kokhba in 132–135, and the Romans joined the province of Judea (which already included Samaria) together with Galilee to form a new province, called Syria Palestine (to honor the Philistines) administered by the governor of Syria.

The Land of Israel fell under Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Sassanian, and Byzantine rule, between the time of the Jewish kingdoms and the 7th–century. Over the next centuries this region was captured by Arabs in 636, Crusaders in 1099, Tartars in 1244 and the Ottoman Empire in 1517, before falling in British hands in 1922.

The British had defeated Turkish forces in Palestine in September 1918 with the help of Arabs –who thought possible the creation of a new independent Arab State– and in July 1920, the French drove Faisal bin Husayn from Damascus. The British gave priority to their agreements with the French and broke the promise made to Arabs. In April 1920 the Allied Supreme Council (the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan) met at Sanremo and The United Kingdom accepted a mandate for Palestine. However, the boundaries of the mandate and the conditions under which it was to be held were not decided. On 24 July, 1922 the League of Nations approved the terms of the British Mandate over Palestine to secure the establishment of the Jewish national home. The population of the area at that time was predominantly Muslim Arabs while Jerusalem was predominantly Jewish. Five years before, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour had issued what became known as the Balfour Declaration, which acknowledged the historical connection between the Jewish people and Palestine territories. Under the administration of the mandate Britain favored Jewish population while the Jews maintained a policy of native population negation.

In the years following World War II, Britain's control over Palestine became increasingly uncertain. Finally in early 1947 the British Government announced their desire to terminate the Mandate, stating it was unable to arrive at a solution acceptable to both Arabs and Jews, and passed the responsibility over Palestine to the United Nations, which approved the partition of the Mandate over Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, with the Greater Jerusalem area coming under international control. Jewish leaders accepted the plan, while Palestinian Arab leaders rejected it. Regardless, the State of Israel was proclaimed on May 14, 1948, and the neighboring Arab states and armies immediately attacked Israel following its declaration of independence and 1948 Arab–Israeli War broke out. During the war, according to UN estimates, about 80% of the previous Arab population, fled the country. Israel was established in three–quarters of this territory by the end of the war, and the remaining quarter, comprising the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, was occupied by Egypt and by Jordan, and later conquered by Israel during the 1967 war.

Up to here the memory exercise and the rough draft of the history that I wanted to check before the creation of the New State of Israel.

Now I would like to share with you two moments of the most recent history that I found while reading two different texts on the very same subject. One of them is the article 'El sufrimiento como identidad' (The sufferings as identity) written by the journalist, expert in international policy, Andrés Criscaut, for the international Argentinean edition of the journal Le Monde diplomatique, 'el Dipló' in May, 2008. The other is a book titled 'Israel' by Robert St. John that was published in 1962 and belongs to the collection 'Biblioteca Universal de LIFE en Español' (LIFE Universal Library in Spanish).

This is the way Andrés Criscaut describes what happened between 1936 and 1939:

'The Palestine Arabs both urban and country men, found themselves alone and facing a Jewish colonization that raised from 12500 people in 1932 to 66000 in 1935, when refugees fleeing from Nazi Germany increased their numbers. Between 1936 and 1939 a spontaneous revolt took place –similar to the one staged during the last decade with both Intifadas– basically by ordinary people of the country and people living in the fringes of urban centers, and it was known as the Great Arab Revolt in Palestine, which took by surprise the small elite of Palestine leaders (only 9% participated and less than 5% directed operations or guerrillas).

The uprising, although started off by challenges and inequities due to the growing Jewish enclave during the mandate, had a clear anti–British orientation, for the Crown was immediately responsible for this imbalance.

Nevertheless, at its late stage it ended up being a real civil war between Palestinians. The revolt put the mandate administration in an awkward position, and there were more troops deployed in the small territory of Palestine than in the whole Indian subcontinent'. (p. 33)

And these are the lines of Robert St. John explaining the same conflict:

'In the middle 1930s, anti–Semitism in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, and reluctance on the part of Australia and under populated American countries to open their doors to Jews fleeing from Central Europe to save their lives caused many of them to seek refuge in Palestine. Now, the Arabs, as a gesture of protest, organized a rebellion on a large scale that sparked off in the spring of 1936. What caused it to start was first in Jaffa and later spread to every place with Arabs and Jews population. Many people died and everywhere the normal life was disrupted by the general strike declared by the Arabs. The British sent military forces from Egypt, Malta and Great Britain, and order was restored in the end'. (pp. 39–40)

One might carefully check a lot of things, but what attracted my attention first was that Criscaut calls 'revolt' what St. John considers a 'rebellion', and the spontaneity attributed to the former contrast with the organization of the latter. Only the methods used by the British seem to be quite clear to both authors.

Forty four years separate St. John's book from Criscaut's article, which seem to have been of great importance according to the different names given to the armed conflict in 1948.

Criscaut writes:

'For the Israelis, 1948 was the year when the Jews won the "Independence War" and created the State of Israel. For the Palestinians, it was the year of the Nakba (the Disaster), the year when they lost Palestine and their society was devastated'. (p. 33)

St. John states:

'However, during the war that followed after the British forces withdrawal in 1948, [Jerusalem] was the scene of bloody combats between Israelis and Arabs ... since they defeated the Arab army ... [the Israelis] proudly call this conflict "Liberation War"'. (pp. 12–14)

In the excerpts shown above, both texts talk about the same facts, how can they look like so different in the eyes of each author? Could it be said that it has been time the only cause for their different gazes? What about our own analysis? Has it also changed during the last years? I believe that time plays a key role, of course; however, maybe authors and readers' prejudices are the ones to blame. On many occasions, mostly when we do not have enough experience or information of something –or we are deliberately misinformed about it–, we start from preconceived notions to reach preconcluded conclusions.

Before finishing this post, I invite you to look for and do everything possible to find and sit down in front of your TV or your PC to watch the great film 'Private' (Italy, 2004, 35mm, AM13, 90'), directed by Severino Costanzo. It was awarded in a number of Cinema Festivals and Costanzo won the 'David di Donatello' prize in 2005. You will be able to put yourself in the place of a Palestinian family whose house has been confiscated by Israeli army. You will have the opportunity to make yourself many questions and, probably, won't be able to answer most of them, however, is worth the effort to be left with some doubts in order to keep on thinking about it.


Sunday, May 18, 2008



By Edgardo Civallero
Translated by Sara Plaza

Encyclopedia: a word derived from misspelling the original Greek "enkyklios paideia", which means "general education". That name passed from Greek into Latin and from Latin into almost every European language, and became a synonym for "general knowledge".

Encyclopedias were a solid ground on which libraries built their reference collections. Even nowadays, in a world were digital media become dominant day after day, they continue being the first step that anyone must take before carrying out a research on any subject. A good example of the importance that they presently have is the astounding development and diffusion attained by Wikipedia, where, under the leadership of a plural team of editors, an even bigger group of contributors provides a variety of information about the topics concerning their area of expertise.

A similar process happened, some centuries ago, when the most famous European encyclopedia was being elaborated by Diderot and d'Alambert. There are a good number of curiosities related to it. Allow me to share a bit of its history with you.

In 1728, Ephraim Chambers published in London his "Cyclopaedia", subtitled "A Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences". It consisted of two thick volumes in folio, with almost 2500 pages, which became soon one of the first –and most celebrated– general encyclopedias in English language. It had a solid cross-reference system and the articles were ordered following one of the first subject headings classifications (which included 47 subjects). Based on previous works (such as the one carried out by John Harris in 1704), Chambers's work stand out because of his seriousness and good judgment. In fact, it remained very popular for a long time and turned out to be the origin of the famous French "Encyclopédie".

The "Encyclopédie" or "Reasoned Dictionary of Sciences, Arts and Crafts" was published in France between 1751 and 1772, with later reviews and supplements (1772, 1777 and 1780), and numerous subsequent translations and derivative works. Originally, it intended to be a simple translation from Chamber's into French. For that purpose, in 1743 the publisher André Le Breton asked John Mills to do the job. Mills was an Englishman settled in Paris, a modest writer who has produced a few texts on agriculture in his native country. In May, 1745 –two years later– Le Breton announced that the work was ready to be sold. His surprise and dismay were great when he discovered that Mills was not only unable to speak or write properly in French (many affirm that he was only just coming out with his first faltering words in that language), but he did not have a copy of the "Cyclopaedia" either. As you may guess, the job had not even been begun.

Le Breton had been shamelessly swindled. He looked angrily for Mills and beat him up (some say that he used a cane, others that it was a stick) so badly that the "translator" took the publisher to court for hitting him. The court, after studying this case, reached a decision and agreed that Le Breton had his reasons for acting like that. In their opinion, the aggression was justified by negligence on the part of Mills.

Mills was replaced by Jean Paul de Gua de Malves in 1745. Among those hired by Malves to carry out the huge work of translation were Étienne Bonnot de Codillac, Jean le Rond d'Alembert and Denis Diderot. In August, 1747, Malves was removed from his job due to his rigid working methods. Other version explains that Malves himself decided to abandon because he had grown tired of his employment. Then Le Breton hired Diderot and D'Alambert as new editors. From that moment onwards, the initial work of translation would turn into a complex work of writing.

Diderot would remain in his position over 25 years and was able to see the completion of his work. It consisted of 35 volumes, 71.818 articles and more than 3.000 illustrations. Many of the most celebrated figures during French Enlightment took part in the elaboration of those articles: Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu... Louis de Jaucourt was the author that contributed the highest number of writings: 17.266 articles. Eight every day, between 1759 and 1765...

Even Le Breton allowed himself to write an article for the "Encyclopédie": the one related to black ink, "Encre noire". He also had the "satisfaction" of censoring a good number of texts to turn it less "radical". This fact annoyed Diderot on many occasions. Le Breton especially cut out articles related to "Saracens or Arabs" and "Pyrrhic Philosophy". In all cases, there were political reasons for his policy of censorship.

The writings that make up the "Encyclopédie" were revolutionary due to the confrontation between those lines and Catholic dogmas. In fact, the whole work was forbidden by a Royal Decree in 1759. Fortunately, thanks to the support given to it by influential characters –like famous Madame de Pompadour– the work went on "secretly". In reality, civil authorities did not want to give up an economic activity that employed so many people. The ban was actually a sort of "front" in order to silent the furious attacks from the Church.

The "Encyclopédie" became a famous work considering both the ideas presented and their authors. However, other works done by single authors some centuries ago were much more relevant. Regrettably, many of them have vanished or disappeared into oblivion. Some examples might be the following:

– The medical encyclopedia written by Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi, the father of modern surgery, in the year 1000, which consisted of 30 volumes.

– The first scientific encyclopedia ever known, "Kitab al-Shifa", by Ibn Sina or Avicena, written between 1000 and 1030. It consisted of 9 volumes about Logic, 8 about Natural Science, 4 about Arithmetic, Astronomy, Geometry and Music, and the same number about Philosophy, Psychology and Metaphysics.

– The "Canon of Medicine", an encyclopedia with 14 volumes also written by Avicena around 1030. This work was reference and model in many European and Muslim universities until XVII century. In it pages, experimental medicine and a good number of new infectious-contagious diseases were explained together with many other findings.

– The "Canon Masudicus" by Abu al-Rayhan al-Bisudi (1031), an extended encyclopedia on Astronomy.

– The 43 volumes encyclopedia by Ibn al-Nafis (1242-1244) entitled "The Comprehensive Book on Medicine", one of the greatest medical encyclopedias in history, though very few volumes have survived.

Sadly, the majority of the most important works of Islamic knowledge –whose information, understanding and skills were the basis for many "discoveries" made in Europe centuries later– disappeared in Baghdad when the Mongol invasions took place; in Damascus with the Crusades; and in Al-Andalus during the Reconquest (of Spain from the Moors). Most of it was burnt and destroyed. Only the texts translated into Latin –during XII and XIII centuries– in culture and knowledge centers such as Toledo, Segovia, Catalonia, Sicilia or southern France, could be preserved and handled down to posterity.

Centuries later, there were many who thought they succeeded in discovering such and such and went down in the books of history and science as great figures when, in reality, those findings had been done hundreds of years ago. History matters...

Actually, Eurocentric history matters..."Euro-whatever", would say Eduardo Galeano: that is the headline ("Eurotodo" in Spanish) chosen by the Uruguayan writer in page 103 of his last work, "Espejos" (Mirrors):

"Copernicus published, when he was dying, the book that laid the foundations of modern Astronomy.

Three centuries in advance, Arab scientists Muhayad al-Urdi and Nasir al-Tusi had elaborated theorems that were very important for carrying out his work. Copernicus used them but did not quote those sources.

Europe saw the world looking at itself in a mirror.

Further away, there was nothing.

The three inventions that made it possible for the Renaissance to take place –the compass, the gunpowder and the printing press– came from China. Babylonians had announced Pythagoras one thousand and five hundred years in advance. Before anyone else, Hindus knew that the Earth was round and had even calculated its age. And better than anyone else, Mayans had known the stars, the eyes of the night and the mystery of time.

This trifling little things were not worthy of attention."

Galeano also affirms in the same page of his book, under the title "Sur" (South):

"Arab maps still outlined the South at the top and the North at the bottom; however, in the XIII century, Europe had just established the natural order of the universe [upside down]."

The author tells us that the Imperial Library of Beijing had, in the XV century, 4000 books that gathered together the knowledge of the world. The king of Portugal had only six books at that time.

History matters. Memory matters. Fortunately, today's virtual encyclopedias –such as the already mentioned Wikipedia– allow easy access to versions in Chinese, Arab, Russian, Greek and many other languages. Sadly enough, those of us who can only read Latin alphabet and know just a couple of European languages will never find out what happened and is happening on the other side of the mirror.

I go back to the beginning in order to finish this post. The word "encyclopedia" derives from Greek and means "general education". Maybe someday we will have a "generality" that will bring together and take notice of everyone and everything. Perhaps, that day we can learn something new, diverse and of great value. Meanwhile, we will have to make it with the only hitherto known "generality".


Sunday, May 11, 2008

Book pages are like a friend’s shoulder

Book pages are like a friend's shoulder

By Sara Plaza

The other day, Edgardo and I were going through the shelves of our library and rediscovering aged volumes –most of them from second–hand bookshops– in the lowest ones when I came across an old English edition of "Anna Karenina". Its covers were worm out and while I was turning carefully those thousand pages it came through them that smell of old paper that characterizes libraries and archives stores. There was a number of other "paper treasures" in those shelves but for any special reason my interest –a boat with many curious sailors– put in at that port with woman's name. Without sitting up straight yet –I had lay down on the floor and was surrounded by low piles of books that we intended to organize together– I started to read those words by count Leon Tolstoy and I couldn't stop until I got awful pins and needles in one of my legs. Then I urged myself to put all those books back in their place –if I remember rightly, at that moment Edgardo was as absorbed as me in his own discoveries– and, getting up off the floor, trying it slowly to awake my limb from its painful sleep, I walked to my chair with very little steps. This time, sitting down "properly" –I use to put my feet on the seat of my chair and rest my chin on my knees when I read– I keep on finding out more and more things about that Russian society from the late XIX century. At the beginning of chapter twenty nine in the first part of the book, I discovered some very fascinating lines that I couldn't prevent myself from reading once and again and thought of sharing with you. They reminded me of many other readings, of many kilometers sitting on a bus with a book in my black traveling bag, of many times looking through their windows while playing with the pages marker in one hand and drawing the line of the horizon with the other, of many others closing my eyes to dream awake with the life of those characters that –without my being aware of their escape– have sat down on the traveler's knees that was placed in the seat next to mine, and smiled broadly at me noticing my surprise after finding them out of the pages that I had left open. Those books and those sights through the bus windows have been –and still are– the best interlocutors to share an important part of my life. For years I have put my eyes, my hands and my thoughts on them, for they are like a friend's shoulder: the place where one's projects, complaints, annoyances and illusions can rest. The other day, Tolstoy took them back to my memory and Anna Karenina managed to revitalize them. I would like you to have a look at the following excerpt from the novel where I acknowledged many of my steps as reader. Who knows, you might find yours as well...

"Come, it's all over, and thank God!" was the first thought that came to Anna Arkadyevna, when she had said good–bye for the last time to her brother, who had stood blocking up the entrance to the carriage till the third bell rang. She sat down on her lounge beside Annushka, and looked about her in the twilight of the sleeping–carriage. "Thank God! Tomorrow I shall see Seryozha and Alexey Alexandrovitch, and my life will go on in the old way, all nice and as usual."

Still in the same anxious frame of mind, as she had been all that day, Anna took pleasure in arranging herself for the journey with great care. With her little deft hands she opened and shut her little red bag, took out a cushion, laid it on her knees, and carefully wrapping up her feet, settled herself comfortably. An invalid lady had already lain down to sleep. Two other ladies began talking to Anna, and a stout elderly lady tucked up her feet, and made observations about the heating of the train. Anna answered a few words, but not foreseeing any entertainment for the conversation, she asked Annushka to get a lamp, hooked it onto the arm of their seat, and took from her bag a paper–knife and an English novel. At first her reading made no progress. The fuss and bustle were disturbing; then when the train had started, she could not help listening to the noises; then the snow beating on the left window and sticking to the pane, and the sight of the muffled guard passing by, covered with snow on one side, and the conversations about the terrible snowstorm raging outside, distracted her attention. Further on, it was continually the same again and again: the same shaking and rattling, the same snow on the window, the same rapid transitions from steaming heat to cold, and back again to heat, the same passing glimpses of the same figures in the twilight, and the same voices, and Anna began to read and to understand what she read. Annushka was already dozing, the red bag on her lap, clutched by her broad hands, in gloves, of which one was torn. Anna Arkadyevna read and understood; but it was distasteful to her to read, that is, to follow the reflection of other people's lives. She had too great a desire to live herself. It she read that the heroine of the novel were nursing a sick man, she longed to move with noiseless steps about the room of a sick man; if she read of a member of Parliament making a speech, she longed to be delivering the speech; if she read of how Lady Mary had ridden after the hounds, and had provoked her sister–in–law, and had surprised everyone by her boldness, she too wished to be doing the same. But there was no chance of doing anything; and twisting the smooth paper–knife in her little hands, she forced herself to read.

The hero of the novel was already almost reaching his English happiness, a baronetcy and a estate, and Anna was feeling a desire to go with him to the estate, when she suddenly felt that he ought to feel ashamed, and that she was ashamed of the same thing. But what had he to be ashamed of? "What have I to be ashamed of?" she asked herself in injured surprise. She laid down the book and sank against the back of the chair, tightly gripping the paper–cutter in both hands. There was nothing. She went all over her Moscow recollections. All were good, pleasant. She remembered the ball, remembered Vronsky and his face of slavish adoration, remembered all her conduct with him: there was nothing shameful. And for all that, at the same point in her memories, the feeling of shame was intensified, as though some inner voice, just at the point when she thought of Vronsky, were saying to her, "Warm, very warm, hot." "Well, what is it?" she said to herself resolutely, shifting her seat in the lounge. "What does it mean? Am I afraid to look it straight in the face? Why, what is it? Can it be that between me and this officer boy there exist, or can exist, any other relations than such as are common with every acquaintance?" She laughed contemptuously and took up her book again; but now she was definitely unable to follow what she read. She passed the paper–knife over the window–pane, then laid its smooth, cool surface to her cheek, and almost laughed aloud at the feeling of delight that all at once without cause came over her. She felt as though her nerves were strings being strained tighter and tighter on some sort of screwing peg. She felt her eyes opening wider and wider, her fingers and toes twitching nervously, something within oppressing her breathing, while all shapes and sounds seemed in the uncertain half–light to strike her with unaccustomed vividness. Moments of doubt were continually coming upon her, when she was uncertain whether the train were going forwards or backwards, or were standing still altogether; whether it were Annushka at her side or a stranger. "What's that on the arms of the chair? Myself or some other woman?" She was afraid of giving away to this delirium. But something drew her towards it, and she could yield to it or resist it at will. She got up to rouse herself, and slipped off her plaid and the cape of her warm dress. For a moment she regained her self–possession, and realized that the thin peasant who had come in wearing a long overcoat, with buttons missing from it, was the stove heater, that he was looking at the thermometer, that it was the wind and snow bursting in after him at the door; but then everything grew blurred again... That peasant with the long waist seemed to be gnawing something on the wall, the old lady began stretching her legs the whole length of the carriage, and filling it with a black cloud; then there was a fearful shrieking and banging, as though someone were being torn to pieces; then there was a blinding dazzle of red fire before her eyes and a wall seemed to rise up and hide everything. Anna felt as though she were sinking down. But it was not terrible, but delightful. The voice of a man muffled up and covered with snow shouted something in her ear. She got up and pulled herself together; she realized that they had reached a station and that this was the guard. She asked Annushka to hand her cape she had taken off and her shawl, put them on and moved towards the door.

"Do you wish to get out?" asked Annushka.

"Yes, I want a little air. It's very hot in here." And she opened the door. The driving snow and the wind rushed to meet her and struggled with her over the door. But she enjoyed the struggle.

She opened the door and went out. The wind seemed as though lying in wait for her; with gleeful whistle it tried to snatch her up and bear her off, but she clung to the cold doorpost, and holding her skirt got down onto the platform and under the shelter of the carriages. The wind had been powerful on the steps, but on the platform, under the lee of the carriages, there was lull. With enjoyment she drew deep breaths of the frozen, snowy air, and standing near the carriage looked about the platform and the lighted station.


Sunday, May 04, 2008

Freedom of knowledge

Freedom of knowledge

By Edgardo Civallero
Translated by Sara Plaza

When humankind had memories and became aware of the need to pass those recollections from one person to another in order to keep them alive, knowledge began to be transferred from hand to hand and from mouth to mouth.

At that time knowledge was free. It was the basis of development in any society. It was the sort of information that allowed them to best grow plants, to hunt animals, to heal illnesses and wounds, to build a house or a temple, to understand world order and to remember the deities' mysterious ways.

Human imagination burst into thousands of artistic expressions: from music and songs to dances and tales, and from paintings made of sand and sculptures made of bones to stone carvings and baskets made of wicker.

This knowledge was huge and, due to the sheer impossibility of being remembered by one only person, its custody and survival went on to depended upon particular groups. That way, artists lived, transmitted and perpetuated their skills, farmers passed on theirs and craftsmen did exactly the same with their abilities.

Many scratched a living doing what they knew and made enough money to live on, but with difficulty. A great deal of the knowledge available, however, continued being common property, vital to support group development.

Unfortunately, little by little, things started to change. Information became power and was stored up by dominant classes. Calendar control –which caused crops to succeed– and the knowledge of healthy substances remained in the hands of the few elected, who had to pass difficult tests to show how good they were for such purpose. Something similar happened with writing skills, and so forth. What at the beginning had been a common asset within a horizontal society became a consumer item in a vertical structure. In fact, it might well have been one of the pillars of such pyramidal society.

At present, we continue witnessing continuous buying and selling of strategic knowledge. We are so familiar with it –practical experience during the last twenty or thirty centuries has made us used to living with it– that, sometimes, we are not conscious of the damage caused by such practice. Our doctors, architects, engineers, biologists and the like, must buy the most advanced knowledge –handled by publishers that make huge profits from their activities– in order to become good professionals. Those unable to access such information –without the money that is needed to pay for their training– face an incomplete and impoverished education lacking in the most recent information on the subject. As information professionals, we also take part in those movements: buying a particular database in order to provide information to our users, we agree to this unfair system and, somehow, allow it to go on as it is. It seems as if there were no other possibilities for our libraries to continue working. However, there are a few ones. Open Access archives are a good example.

Current discussion on the subject is focused on authors' property rights. Very few know that those authors hardly make any profit from the money we spend to buy the knowledge they produced. Most part of it remains in the hands of intermediaries, people who neither wrote, nor did any search, made any effort or studied, but who came to know, on the one hand, how to take advantage of the professionals' need to publish and share knowledge, and, on the other, how to exploit the need to read and learn of the rest.

Authors' property rights are mentioned a lot when talking about music, literature and software programs, especially in a modern framework where such cultural property can be downloaded free of charge from the Internet.

Big companies get angry and remind potential buyers of the damage caused to artists, writers, musicians, etc. by "piracy"... However, it is curious to know that those artists –with the exception of the handful of acclaimed ones who have signed "juicy" contracts– hardly make any profit at all. Therefore, we are in a situation that should be known and acknowledged by everybody. It has nothing to do with whatever multinational corporations and their messengers have to say: it refers to knowing what is really happening. Why strategic knowledge is sold when a great part of the world population can't manage to buy it but need it even more than the part that can afford it...? Why do artists "starve to death" while their production companies get bigger and bigger and their products cost more and more...? Where does the money that we invest in strategic knowledge and artistic and cultural property, go to? Does it end up in the hands of those who produce it? Do they make any profit? Are we feeding those members of our society who have decided and chosen to perpetuate our knowledge? Or, on the contrary, are we feeding "lazybones" who, taking advantage of market forces and copyright laws, have been deceiving us for years and continue swelling up at our expense?

On many occasions, from these same pages, we have encouraged the publication of scholar knowledge in Open Access archives, and we have also provided relevant information on the way to do so. Likewise, we have spread many documents and resources closely connected with the subject. We have gone even further and, according with our way of thinking, we have placed our complete work in open and free access archives, as Open Access documents or blogs. Now, we would like to join in advertising the Spanish version of the English original "Dossier Copy/South", elaborated by an international and multidisciplinary group of research. This document considers, from different points of view, the problem of copyright, especially in contexts of the so-called "Third World". It analyzes and goes through the iron laws regarding authors' property, the many interests hidden behind them, the knowledge producers' point of view, hypocrisy that can be found in many of the calls for "piracy" end...

From these pages, we celebrate the publishing of such documents. We acknowledge the right of our modern "culture perpetuators" to make a living from what they do best –for this has been their choice and we need them for the healthy growth of our society–, but we also know that, at present, there are less people earning their living as artists or scientists. Maybe this is the time to identify exploiters and find out alternatives that allow us to get rid of their bad influence and their "invisible" clutches.