Men said after that there had never been such a stillness, such rapt attention among the tables in Solinghi’s. Even the servants waiting on patrons and the cooks in the kitchens behind the bar stopped what they had been doing and stood listening. No one moved, no one made a sound. There were pipes playing, and a solitary voice singing the oldest song of mourning in the Palm.
– Guy Gavriel Kay – Tigana
Over the past year, we’ve watched heartbroken as religious totalitarians have destroyed beautiful historic sites. Recent news of destruction in Palmyra has summoned a mixture of grief, defiance and hope. Reports sway from condemning the savage vandalism, to claiming that buildings survived their attacks. How can we make sense of such destruction, and save something from the shattered remains?
Travelling to Tigana
Around the time reports were coming from Palmyra, I was finishing Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana. Like most of Kay’s work, it’s a spellbinding novel, well worth your time. And like all great literature, it helped me reflect on the world I live in.
In Tigana, art and political resistance are closely tied. On the one hand, the invading Brandin of Ygrath has obliterated the art and architecture of the province of Tigana, using magic to obliterate even its name. Against him rise the scattered people of Tigana, their leaders using music not just as a cover for their travels, but as a way to stir emotions and to keep the memory of their homeland alive.
Empathy For the Oppressor
One of the beauties of Tigana is that it does not present the world as a simple place of good and evil. Brandin of Ygrath is doing terrible things, but he does not consider himself evil. He is seeking revenge for the death of his son. It makes his behaviour understandable, though no less terrible.
In the same way, the IS troops destroying ancient monuments are not being thugs for the sake of thuggery. They are trying to forge a state in a region devastated by war and by economic imbalances. To do this, they have chosen a fundamentalist religious doctrine whose logical conclusion is that, to save people, you must obliterate the signs of dark and tempting paths.
I have no more sympathy for the behaviour of IS than I do for Brandin of Ygrath, no more respect for their beliefs than I do for Darth Vader’s desire to crush all before him. But as in Tigana, so in real life – we cannot grasp what is happening without opening our minds to the motives of the other side, and seeing the warped lens through which such behaviour appears reasonable.
This is a central theme of Tigana. Brandin has cast a spell so that the name Tigana cannot be remembered by most people. Those who resist him keep that name alive. Without a name to build their identity around, their culture may be lost forever.
In the case of IS, names matter too. In calling themselves the Islamic State they are asserting a moral and religious position, a claim not only over the land they have taken but over the right to represent Islam. Some people, notably British Prime Minister David Cameron, have tried to resist this by not using their full name. Others resist by asserting their own definitions of Islam, definitions which are consistently more liberal than that of IS.
IS’s cultural war is as much about defining those words as about smashing temples. The war of words matters, because it can define concepts and memories.
Art Brings Hope
While Tigana provides a complex lens through which to examine this real life conflict, it also offers a simple message of hope. In the story, the province of Tigana will last as long as its memory does. While the name is kept alive, there is still hope.
In our world, IS are trying to obliterate what came before them. But as long as we keep those places alive in memory, as long as we treasure their names, gaze upon their photos, record what they were, these places will endure, and the cultural bullies will never win.
Remember Nimrud. Discuss Palmyra. Go look at a picture of the mosque of Jonah in Mosul. Keep that culture alive.
And, of course, go and read Tigana.