In the Critics this week

A History Special featuring David Cesarani on Holocaust studies, John Gray on the history of political violence and Sherard Cowper-Coles on Aghanistan.

Much of the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman is devoted to our annual history special. In his “Critic at large essay”, the historian David Cesarani surveys the changing face of Holocaust historiography. “Holocaust studies” as we recognise them today were born, Cesarani argues, in the aftermath of the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann in 1961. The work of Jewish historians who’d either been interned in the camps or had fought as partisans shattered forever “the stereotype of Jews passively accepting their fate”. Nevertheless, Cesarani concludes, “the ‘lessons of the Holocaust’ seem no clearer” than they did 50 years ago, and “efforts to comprehend the Jewish tragedy continue to provoke as much controversy as reflection”.

In the lead book review, John Gray considers the long and bloody history of political violence. Reviewing Max Boot’s history of guerrilla warfare, Invisible Armies, and Martin A Miller’s The Foundations of Modern Terrorism, Gray argues that “lumping together every kind of irregular warfare into the category of terrorism, as is often done today, blurs the difference between those who have terror as a tactic in guerrilla warfare … and networks such as al-Qaeda that have opted for terror as their sole strategy.” Happily, Gray concludes, “we hear little these days of the absurd ‘war on terror’”.

Also in Books: Britain’s former special representative in Afghanistan, Sherard Cowper-Coles, reviews Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple and Games Without Rules: the Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan by Tamim Ansary (“if those who have directed [the latest war in Afghanistan] had applied the lessons that leap from the pages of both these books, the Afghan people might have harvested a more enduring dividend from the spilled blood and squandered millions of the last, lost decade”); Juliet Gardiner reviews Engineers of Victory by Paul Kennedy (“[Kennedy shows that] a greater understanding of the vital contribution of logistics and supply lines, plus the imagination, practical ability and dogged hard work of the ‘problem solvers’, … eventually coalesced to achieve an Allied victory”); Daniel Swift reviews The Pike, Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s biography the Italian nationalist poet and later fascist sympathiser Gabriele D’Annunzio (“In fashioning himself into a public figure, D’Annunzio prefigured both mid-20th century fascism and our modern cult of celebrity”); Connor Kilpatrick, managing editor of Jacobin magazine, reviews Freedom National, James Oakes’s book about the destruction of slavery in the United States (“it was not the inevitable march of progress that destroyed American slavery – it was a political movement”).

PLUS:

Jonathan Derbyshire talks to the historian Norman Stone about his latest book on the Second World War, his admiration for AJP Taylor and the future of secularism in Turkey, where he lives and teaches: “[Syrian refugees] make sure their little girls and little boys are doing their Quran lessons separately. But that’s precisely the kind of thing that secular Turkey was set up stop. This is fantastically dangerous …”

Elsewhere in the Critics:

Ryan Gilbey reviews Pablo Larrain’s film No (“No is an inspiring watch”); Kate Mossman reviews new albums by Anais Mitchell and Jackie Oates (“much of the thrill of this music lies in [Mitchell’s] fresh utterance of attitudes and ideas that have slipped out of view …”); Thomas Calvocoressi visits “Light Show”, a new exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London; Rachel Cooke is not convinced by Stephen Poliakoff’s latest magnum opus on BBC2; Antonia Quirke is delighted to hear some frank discussion of sex on Radio 4; plus Will Self’s Madness of Crowds.

 

Afghan children play in a street in Herat. [Photo: Aref Karimi/Getty Images]
KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism