Since the month of June is about to end in a few hours, and I’ve seen little anywhere about it, I’d like to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the death of Jorge Luis Borges, my favorite writer, who died on 14 June 1986.

I’ve been reading and re-reading Borges for years and collecting snippets to use, one day, on an essay on the role of Arabs and the Arab world in Borges’ writing. But that will be for another day. Today, I’d like share just one of those snippets:

A few days ago, I discovered a curious confirmation of the way in which what is truly native can and often does dispense with local color; I found this confirmation in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon observes that in the Arab book par excellence, the Koran, there are no camels; I believe that if there ever were any doubt as to the authenticity of the Koran, this lack of camels would suffice to prove that it is Arab. It was written by Mohammed, and Mohammed, as an Arab, had no reason to know that camels were particularly Arab; they were, for him, a part of reality, and he had no reason to single them out, while the first thing a forger, a tourist, or an Arab nationalist would do is bring on the camels, whole caravans of camels on every page; but Mohammed, as an Arab, was unconcerned; he knew he could be Arab without camels. I believe that we Argentines can be like Mohammed; we can believe in the possibility of being Argentine without abounding in local color.

Jorge Luis Borges,
The Argentine Writer and Tradition

What I find interesting about this is that Gibbon (and thus Borges) was wrong — there are actually many camels in the Koran. It’s hard to believe that a man of Borges’ learning did not know that. But since so much of his writing is about fictional worlds and disinformation, one is left wondering whether he did not do it on purpose.

Yet, the point he makes is in a way valid: nationalists vulgarly exploit what is commonplace in their country, often adopting the clichés of foreigners in doing so. This is doubly true of nationalists in former colonies, and of course very true of Arab nationalists in particular.

There is a lesson in this for all the nationalists who are — rightly — protesting what is happening in Gaza. It’s about time that the occupation of Palestine ceases to be a symbol of Arab causes, manipulated by governments and the source of unending, impotent anxiety to those who care for the Palestinian people. The Palestinian cause is not an Arab cause: it is a human, a universal, in other words a just, cause. We can be Arab without constant references to it; however, I do not believe we can be human without condemning what is happening in Palestine and wanting to right that wrong. The trick, of course, is now to convince the rest of the world of that. Until then, it’s quite clear that the rest of the world simply does not care about Palestine while it remains a mere Arab cause.

0 thoughts on “Borges”

  1. the problem is:

    what if some people are fighting for a just cause with the wrong means?

    what if both sides have a just cause?

    what if a just cause is used by people very wrongly in a completely different context?

    what if those with the just cause believe in an impossible solution?


  2. Borges is the attributed source of one of my favourite quotes, describing the Falklands/Malvinas war as “two bald men fighting over a comb.” I’ve meant to read him ever since I first saw that, but am still getting there. What do you recommend for someone who’s never read him before but would like to?

  3. Hey! Mine, too! What to recommend…I’m trying to remember which book got me started- I think it was Labrynths, although his Ficciones is really good. Whatever you choose- get a really good translation.

    The only problem I have with Borges is that he did not speak up during Argentina’s Dirty War. He wrote about Peron but not about The Generals and that is unforgiveable.

  4. Sorry, for some reason didn’t see the bottom end of the post-

    About the Palestinian Cause- yes, absolutely it is a human issue. Is it an Arab issue? That’s a harder one- yes, in that in involves specifically an Arabic-speaking, self-identified Arab population the same way Rwanda was also an African issue as well as a human one. But, imho, it has been shamelessly exploited by governments seeking to divert their population’s attention away from the problems at home, thus focusing their attention and energies on somewhere where they cannot do a thing. If some populations had spent a third of the energy they expended worrying about, demonstrating on behalf of, getting worked up about, discussing the Palestinian issue and turned it on their own governments, things might be different today in several places.

  5. @ Moritz
    I qgree with your questions!
    The human problem is in both sides, and the evolution here in Israel is so that the majority of Israeli recognise the necessity for a palestinian state and the “legitim rights of the Palestinian people”. However the arab world and the palestinians in particular ignore up to now the “legitim rights of the Jewish peopl”. This was one of the problems in Oslo process: the legitimity of the palestinian people to a state has been regonised by Israel wether the legitimity of the Jewish people to a state has not been recognised per se, but the existence of Israel de facto by the palestinian.
    In general Sionism has been successfull because it was ready to 1- fight for the righs of the Jewish People to come back home 2- to compromise and to reduce its dreams.
    In the other side, the arab nationalism did an abtemps to unify all the arab word, as for Nasser, and the palestinain problem was no more than a tool in the nationalist hands to keep the power and put their peoles down.
    Now we are in a situation were the islamic movement uses the palestinian problem as a toll to try to cach the power, keep it and, again, put the peolpe down! Hamas is no more that the Muslim Brotherhood, is part of it and the palestinian specificity will be eclipsed under their fascist regime, for a broader community: the “Islamic nation”. So in Lebanon with Hezb and Egypt with the Bortherhood etc…
    So the situation of the arab peoples is going worth: they sit down on the greatest whealth in the world but their regimes put them down first with arab nationalim now with islamic ideas, and in all that the palestinians are a tool or a toy in the hand of holigans

  6. I’m surprised not to have read any comment here on the article that has already made so much noise elsewhere : The Israel Lobby, by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt

    The most interesting is surely to see such a politically incorrect paper in a review like LRB.

  7. for true borges fans there’re some borges manuscripts on exhibit at the biblioteca alexandrina….or at least they were 10 days ago-

  8. For Borges beginners – in English, start with Fictions or Labyrinths. Penguin recently (a few years ago) republished all his catalog at an affordable price. I bought all of them in Istanbul a few years ago (unfortunately, there is still no truly decent English language bookshop in Cairo, although the AUC bookshop makes a valiant effort.) In French, Fictions is fine in the cheap Folio edition. In Arabic, there is very little choice – probably only“ rel=”nofollow”>this. Obviously in Spanish there is a wide choice available. There are also big compilation editions, notably an American one (Everyman I think) with critical essays, but I haven’t read it.

    The thing is, Borges reworked on a lot of his stories over the years, and republished them in slightly different versions in various collections in the original Spanish. Also the Penguin set has some repeats if you buy them all. I really recommend the collected non-fiction too, some great stuff like his (extremely short) review of the original King Kong movie and a lot of diverse things.

    Yesterday I sat down at a café and read, in a single seating, Bioy’s “The Invention of Morel,” which I’d bought the day before in a used bookshop in Rabat because it had a preface by Borges describing it as “perfect.’ In a sense, it is — I highly recommend it to anyone who likes Borges or the literature of the fantastic.

    Re: Palestine, I wrote this post last night partly because I’ve been thinking about posting about Palestine but couldn’t bring myself too. It’s all too repetitive — what’s happening in Gaza is just the prolongation of one long string of humiliations. What I meant by writing that there is a need to make the Palestinian cause universal rather than Arab was not only to condemn the misuse of the cause, but also that the West is so biased against Arabs that making it an Arab cause will doom it as yet another irrational Arab demand. I mean, you only need to take a look at the editorial pages of the Washington Post, New York Times and even Le Monde — they’re blaming Hamas for this — which is utterly surreal when you think that at the bottom of it all there is a colonial project, the Zionists’, an occupied territory, and all the power is in Israel’s hands. I’m sick and tired of the “both sides are to blame” rhetoric when it is clear that one side holds all the cards. Israel — at least the Israel that we have today — is a thorn in the side of the entire region, which poisons our lives, throw off the entire regional balance of power and has turned Arabs in their own minds as perpetual victims, which has only helped the forces of reaction in the region. The end result: in all the senses of the word, a loser mentality.

    Moritz: I use to believe both sides had a just cause. Now, I think only one side does — if you look at the history of the Zionist movement, it’s nothing more than one of these horrible messianic nationalist movement that scarred much of Eastern Europe and has done a lot of damage elsewhere. The Holocaust is irrelevant, at least it is to non-Europeans, even if it helps you understand how many Zionists feel about Israel and makes you feel sympathetic to them. But, in any case, it’s not about who’s right or wrong anymore. It’s about how to convince the victors on the battlefield to not want it all, for their own sake.

  9. issandr, what do you expect? in a war both sides are to blame and both sides have to work on a solution. both sides – if there is no absolute victory and i do not think there will be one – have give up certain things, which they fight for. if you honestly believe, that only one side has a just cause and that only the israeli are to blame, then there is no way to peace, there is no solution.

    >But, in any case, it’s not about who’s right or wrong anymore. It’s about how to convince the victors on the battlefield to not want it all, for their own sake.

    especially as in assymetric warfare there usually is no winner.

    about the question of the zionist movement. one always forgets that the original movement was far from being united. some considered that nation, which they wanted to build, as an intellectual idea, not a real geographic entity. some wanted to build a nation, but not where it is today. it seems rather a string of coincidences than much of a plan which finally resulted in the settlement in the near east.

    yes. with the foundation of the israeli state wrongs have been committed. but these wrongs are long ago. it is the children’s children who left as refugees or settled in israel who constitute the majority of the fighting groups. in the second world war germany lost silesia to poland. my father and my grandmother left silesia as refugees to go to the west. they lost practically all they had. would it be just for me to go to silesia to ask for what belonged to my grand parents and belongs to the grandchildren of some polish man now? would it be more just when i fight for my right by blowing myself up? nah, i didn’t think so.


  10. Moritz,

    I think we’re talking past each other. The wrong committeed by the Zionists (and their Western backers) was not the Stern Gang or Irgun, it’s that a state was created all without even consulting the people who lived there simply because Europeans felt like it and the UN endorsed it. But that’s largely irrelevant today. The wrongs committed today are the continued occupation of the West Bank, and the idea that’s it’s OK to launch a military attack on a place because one solider was kidnapped. There’s zero proportionality in the Israeli reaction, especially that it continues while Hamas has more or less agreed to the 1967 lines.

    Re: early Zionism — I don’t buy for a second that it’s an “string of coincidences” they ended up in Palestine. The Uganda option (and others) were never taken seriously by most Zionists, and indeed they don’t make sense.

    I don’t like Hamas and suicide bombings either, and your Silesia/blowing yourself up analogy doesn’t really work. The current crisis is Israel’s retaliation for Hamas’ attack of a military target and capturing of an Israeli soldier, not a suicide bombing against civilians. In any case, it’s besides the point, since the argument is really about the settlements and the need to for Israel to withdraw to the 1967 lines, as internationally agreed and that most Palestinians (including, it seems, Hamas) now agreed to. If that happened and Hamas or Islamic Jihad continued to carry out suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, I would be the first to encourage their capture or killing.

  11. Rabat! Say hi to Rabat- I miss it a lot sometimes. Do you know anyone at La MAP or the Ministry of Culture- if so, would you mind telling Nourredine Bendahou that Rebecca and Abdou say hello? Thanks!

    As for bookstores, there used to be an amazing little one right near the gare, run by two brothers who were extremely well-educated and widely read. If they are still there, it is highly possible they might have something for you.

    As for Palestine- it needs to become part of the list of human problems if only for the fact that disenfranchising an entire population has consequences for us all, just as the Armenian massacres in 1915 have echoed down the years. Contrary to what many Zionists in the US believe and plenty believe in France (Moritz, I lived in Paris and hung around with a number of Jews who had served in the Israeli army), the Palestinians are not an optional indiginous population and to treat it as such is to ignore history, Isralei immigration policy and social structure.
    Moritz, since you read French, read Ami Bouganim’s Le Cri de l’arbre, it is not for nothing that the mizrahim have felt doubly betrayed.

    And by casting the Palestinian problem as a strictly radical Moslem/Jewish binary is to ignore places such as Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, where the Christian populations have been there for two thousand years. They are home and why should a bunch of Lubovitch Jews force them out of their own streets, close down the Via Dolorosa and block religious processions?

    If there is to be a two state solution, let it be a two state democratic solution. Again, many Zionists feel there is no such thing as a Moslem democracy-well, there is no such thing as Jewish democracy , either, especially when the national identity is coded as Jewish- that leaves no room at all for anyone else. Both sides need to safeguard the rights and identity of its minority populations and that would mean no dimmi tax structure for Palestine if it goes into a national Moslem identity, and no second class/invisible minority status for Moslems and Christians in Israel.

  12. Moritz, a big difference between your grandparents’ flight from Silesia and the situation of Palestinians today is that your grandparents had a chance for a new and decent life in a different place – most Palestinians did not, and generations were left to grow up in refugee camps. And it’s the ongoing wrongs and Israeli efforts to chip away gradually and constantly at what remains of Palestinian territory that make it hard to forget those old wrongs.

    The argument that Israel’s founding was the result of a string of coincidences has been fairly soundly refuted by the historical evidence. Benny Morris goes over the evidence for the popularity of the “transfer” option among early Jewish leaders in the mandate as well as in the early years of Israel, and recognizes the deliberate nature of the founding of an ethnically exclusive state even though he ultimately supports the whole exercise (and has become an even stronger supporter).

    Speaking of symbolic nationalistic rallying cries and bald men’s combs, did y’all catch this in the Guardian today:,,1810397,00.html

  13. > There’s zero proportionality in the Israeli reaction

    i absolutely agree with you in this point

    > The current crisis is Israel’s retaliation for Hamas’ attack of a military target and capturing of an Israeli soldier

    ok, i was taking a more long term approach. the current crisis does not fit my analogy at all. but what you were talking about in the beginning was the palestine quastion in general and not the current crisis.

    you say, even so my analogy does not work? in german we have a way to say (approximately translated) if it does not work out properly, it has to be an analogy.

    there has been germans who never accepted the “new borders”. i always considered them to be nuts. but you yourself pointed out in the beginning, that it is less what the international community believes, but if it is a just cause or not. these people certainly believe that fighting for getting back their property in silesia (by legal and other peaceful means) is a just cause.

    i am the first to agree with you, that israel is not handling hamas very smartly. yasin offered some kind of a peace deal only a short time before he was blown into pieces. now hamas offers to talk. one should at least figure out first how serious they are. arresting elected politicians in such a situation is a stupid idea in any way. that only legitimizes the hamas and the islamic jihad to start suicide attacks on israeli politicians.

    the interesting question is: how far can the israeli retreat without guarantees of hamas and without endangering the existence of their state in the long term? i personally would propose, they should give it a shot and retreat. (besides being able to reinvade the areas anyway, it can’t be worse from a results perspective than the current situation.)

  14. Those guarantees could come not only from the Palestinians (fair enough if Israel doesn’t want to trust them) but a region-wide security system, that would obviously include the US but also why not the EU, to protect Israel in case of an unwarranted aggression. If you can get Arab states to join in too, great. I don’t think guaranteeing Israeli security is the problem — it could be done by Israel becoming a member of NATO, bilateral treaties with the US, or indeed Israel’s own nuclear dissident.

    What this is really about is a complete and total Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian affairs and a dismantling of the settlements and East Jerusalem, which the the current government won’t give, vs. the Olmert/Sharon plan of annexing some settlements into Israel, plus retaining some control elsewhere in the West Bank (borders, some roads, etc.) and of course the vast majority of Jerusalem.

  15. @ SP

    you are absolutely right, that there is a big difference. i am not complaining about my situation and in no way, i would like to trade it with any palestinian.

    obviously my grand parents were able to rebuild a life. but when they arrived they were refugees non the less. and as refugees, they were not very popular, where they arrived. it was a long process, which in the end resulted in integration. (it is a modern german myth, that the refugees were welcomed with open arms.)

    however there is also another big difference. when my grand parents left, what is poland today, they knew, that there was no coming back – and maybe even more importantly they accepted the new situation. they did not just cross the border and sit down to wait what happens. they looked for a new place to live and create a new life.

    this is what never happened in palestine – obviously again this is not or at least not only the refugees fault. the number of people actually grew in the camps, but many areas they left, will not be open for return. here compensation has to find other ways. but these other ways have to be accepted by both sides – and here i see a bit of a problem…

  16. Moritz, my grandparents were refugees too, and fairly bitter about having had to leave everything behind and knowing there was no going back. I always thought it pretty pointless to hold grudges because lots of people suffered back then and they were lucky to have family support and other resources that allowed them to pick up their lives without too much difficulty. But their nostalgia for the old land and their birthplaces was understandable and you couldn’t just expect them to stop pining for their old lives just because they had a new house somewhere else. If they had had to live in refugee camps all their lives, or if they had been kicked around from host country to host country like the Palestinians, or not had the skills to do something other than farming (and therefore not been able to start a new life elsewhere) they may very well have taken to violence.

    I don’t see the Israelis sitting down to talk about compensation for Palestinians who have been forced to flee their homes, because to do so would mean recognizing Palestinian Arabs as having rights on par with Jews or some sort of claim on the land. Israel is about ethnic solidarity, not human rights or justice – an American Jew with a safe and comfortable life is more likely to be accommodated than any non-Jewish refugee.

  17. On the compensation issue- here is a possible comparison:

    In Los Angeles (I believe) is a Jewish woman who sought compensation for art seized from her family by the Nazis/and or sold in forced sales. The work by Klimt, depicted the woman’s aunt. The request was that the art be returned by the current holder (which was, I believe a museum) or some kind of compensation given. The work was returned- which I think was appropriate.

    If one supports the return of family property and good seized by the Nazis in WWII, why is the same request by Palestinians who had their land seized in ’48 not acceptable?

  18. i did not expect the israelis to pay that compensation. that’s what you call european wallet diplomacy. if peace in the near east is viable the union will readily jump in to pay those compensations.

    on the art issue. it is easier to return art (even though even that is difficult.) but if a family loses their house. that house is destroyed. later someone else buys the property and builds a new house. now the children or children’s children of that person live in that house, it will be hard for them to accept, that now they have to move out.

    to give you another example. there as a cse in the US where a group of indian could prove quiet well, that manhattan island was taken from them on basis of illegal treaties. theoretically as those treaties were null and void, they should have been returned the full property, which is manhattan island. obviosly this was not viable. but even more so, it would not have been particularily reasonbale. therefore they were compensated by other terms.

    compensation will most probably follow different lines and return of refugees will be rather an exception than the rule. but obviously all of that is purely hypothetical. we’re still far from the point, where this issue would matter.


  19. Interesting point, Moritz, but Manhattan Island was well over 2oo years ago while both the houses and the art are about 60- huge difference.

    As for the Palestinian right of return, I can see why that would cause issues with demographics but the Law of Return has been consciously interpreted to replace Palestinains who left in the 40’s by at least 1.5:1 so there has been a concerted effort to make sure there is no room for them. With immigration levels at between 15,00-20,000 in the 80’s and early 90’s, the groups that encourage and aided immigration from the Soviet Union, etc. have made it quite clear that creating settlements and co-opting former Palestinian lands was necessary to house these people- thus creating an articifial need for expansion.

    If you really want to play the rock of ages game, why should someone whose family did not leave the area for 2,000 years be expelled for someone who did?

  20. @zazou

    i am not saying those people have no rights. that was not my point. of course it would always be nice to give back what is rightfully theirs. i am just saying, do not forget your individuals about all the politics. yeah, israels policy is bad. some of the fiercest crisitcism is by liberal israelis in israeli newspapers. sure, zionism was not a particularily good idea, but many people who grow up in israel today are as much zionists as i am a nazi. of course compensation is necessary. but one has to be a bit flexible when talking about the type in which compensation is made.

  21. Moritz,

    Good point. And you’re right about the liberals. I have some liberal filmmaker friends who take some very enlightened positions. I just think that in the compensation discussion, there needs to be a clear recognition that people have been divested of what was properly theirs-and very recently. The belief that all Arabs are the same so go live in some other country, just doesn’t wash- the same as the belief on the part of some that Ashkenazim, Sephardim and Mizrahim are all the same. And, as I am sure you know, obviously they aren’t. And there needs to be some recognition that Israel’s immigration policy was constructed, in part, to make sure that there was no place to come back to.

    You really can’t expect someone who has had their land, livelihood and heritage taken away to be grateful to have any level of compensation, no matter how little- the same way Jews in Eastern Europe, Germany, France, Holland, etc, lost what was rightfully theirs, and in many cases got nothing. They, too, deserve compensation and recognition that what was done to them was unacceptable.

    But to go back to the right of return question for a moment- no Eastern European or Western European Jew can say legally I cannot return to the country my people came from. They may feel uncomfortable, sure, but none of the former Soviet Bloc or European Union countries have passed laws saying they cannot visit, return to live, marry someone from that country.

    And the US Jews certainly cannot say that.
    Nor can the Mizrahim, who are starting to return to Morocco and Tunisia.

    But Palestinians from former Palestinian villages and other cities can say that. Why?

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