It’s been an obscenely long time since I last posted, mainly because this week’s book is the nearly 800-page Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. It’s been a fascinating read thus far, meditating with such unexpected humour on the phenomenon that is dictatorship. Reading this book during what is unquestionably going to be a defining moment in our history, with newborn revolutionaries fighting and in some cases toppling dictatorships across the Middle East and the Maghreb seems fitting. Today the UN (finally) declares an international no-fly zone over the country. The megalomania, the repression, the irrational thirst for power and glory at the cost of individual freedom that wa Thiong’o deals with could not be more salient in the current context – the Ruler of the fictional African country of Aburiria, could easily be a Gaddafi, although one imagines he had other leaders in mind at the time of writing (c.2006).
What makes wa Thi’ongo such an immensely powerful writer is that his critique is in the form of devastatingly acute satire – he reveals absurdity through the use of exaggerations, magic and mysticism, caricatures, and farcical situations. Dominating the narrative is the Ruler’s project to build a literal stairway to heaven so that he can talk to God each morning. This is to be a modern-day Tower of Babel, funded by the “Global Fund”. His advisers are self-serving politicians that have undergone cosmetic surgeries that epitomize their use to the Ruler – the Minister of Foreign Affairs is the aptly-named Machokali, who has had his eyes enlarged so he can see the Ruler’s enemies better. This is not the overt bitterness one might expect from the Kenyan author: Wizard of the Crow was his first work after 22 years of exile for daring to critique dictatorship. Nor is this a picture of unrelenting misery, but perhaps both those sentiment will grow stronger as the book goes on.
It got me to thinking about the way we deal with things that seem so removed from us, or rather, the way we make those things seem far removed from us. If one looks at press reportage of the Libyan situation, for example, one detects a certain element of mockery prevalent alongside and within political commentaries. This is not something wholly new – Gaddafi’s appearance, his long and rambling speeches to the UN, his shameless milking of situations such as the return of the Lockerbie bomber have raised eyebrows in recent years, even while politically Western governments tolerated his regime because of the advantages that stability in this region provided. He had been cast in the role of the jester at the court, the fool that we sadly couldn’t do without. A prime example was Vanity Fair‘s 2009 piece on Dictator Chic.
Since completing his transition from international pariah to statesman, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi—the longest-serving leader in both Africa and the Arab world—has brought color and his own eccentric panache to the drab circuit of international summits and conferences. Drawing upon the influences of Lacroix, Liberace, Phil Spector (for hair), Snoopy, and Idi Amin, Libya’s leader—now in his 60s—is simply the most unabashed dresser on the world stage. We pay homage to a sartorial genius of our time.
At a time when Libya wasn’t the hottest news story, the montage of photographs no doubt seemed harmless. As the magazine wrote, he was a “statesman” now. But retrospectively it seems to create a distasteful parallel between Gaddafi’s treatment of his people and country (which let’s face it, was no less objectionable in 2009), and his fashion crimes: “We should have known he was a crackpot – look at him wearing huge Africa motifs ALL OVER HIS CLOTHES!! And a jauntily-angled fishing hat?! That was so last decade.” Or something like that. (Think too of the metaphor for foolish excess that Imelda Marcos’s shoes became…) Is this just a way for us to deal with the unthinkable nature of dictators? Comedy as catharsis for the guilt of years of complicity? A way of “Othering”? The photos do reveal at least that the common shirt has been hugely underestimated as a canvas for political propaganda by our more sartorially-conservative politicians, right…?
If one were to consider his choice of clothing as part of his politics, one would see his African garbs as part of his quest to cast himself as the vocal leader of all-Africa. One might see indeed a championing and celebration of Africa in an era when despite the space afforded by mass media the continent only warrants narrow news coverage focused on famines, wars, and poverty. Albeit at the cost of a repressive dictatorial regime, Libya has been relatively successful in increasing the basic welfare and life expectancy of its people and leads Africa in this respect. What are we to do with a contradiction such as this? The rejection of the Western statesman’s suit-and-tie and rants about Western colonialism are further contradictorily coupled with Gaddafi’s happy trading of oil with the West. (In contrast the Ruler of Aburiria, an African leader of immense power who is nonetheless shackled by his dream of becoming a white man, remains bedecked in Western suits.) Suited or not, history has shown that capitalism and dictatorships are more often than not close bedfellows.
We can but wait and see how events unfold in Libya and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the current situation is producing the natural spate of cartoons. Steve Bell has been going for Gaddafi in the guise of various bugs.
Gaddafi’s image has been shifting day by day in the press along with attitudes towards military intervention. For the interventionist-apologists, he is a mad man that needs to be stopped, by any means necessary. Regime change has become tantamount to removing one man (not unlike Iraq, then). In contrast, take Seumas Milne (Guardian, 23 March), who has denounced Western entanglement in yet another Muslim, oil-rich country. For the purposes of his argument Milne was forced to obfuscate the “moral” question and depict the media as baying for the blood of a ‘pantomime villain leader’ incapable of launching a lethal assault on entire towns. This is a near-complete opposite assessment of the situation to that which led to the no-fly zone in the first place. It’s intriguing how Gaddafi, despite his voluminous defiant outpourings in recent days, is still a malleable character in our media. This is a cult of the individual in which the individual does not speak for himself anymore – apparently he does not know his own power, or indeed his own limits. A fuller review of Wizard of the Crow will hopefully appear sometime in the near-future.