The Dreaming of the Bones by W. B. Yeats provides some unexpected insights into the current crisis in Libya.
Yeats’s work might seem an unlikely place to discover a clue to a part of the current Libyan crisis. Yet it was just in such an unanticipated way that I came upon the route to something which Muslims, to their deep frustration, have been unable to articulate satisfactorily and yet which Irish people, above all, should be able to understand.
The Dreaming of the Bones is a simple yet intense and demanding piece of theatre. When I saw it, sandwiched, as it was in the Abbey Theatre’s production, between Cathleen Ni Houlihan and Purgatory, the whole evening added up to a sombre but rewarding experience.
In The Dreaming of the Bones a young man wanders the hills, on the run from the fallout of the “Easter Rising”, the 1916 Post Office debacle. There he chances on two ethereal figures who, it becomes clear to all but the young man himself, are in fact the ghosts of the adulterous couple “… Diarmuid and Dervorgilla who brought the Norman in.” They endlessly swirl around each other aching to kiss, yet not having done so in almost nine hundred years. At the moment of closest encounter, the memory of their crime, which is not their adultery but their having invited Norman troops to come to Ireland to take their part against the wronged husband of Dervorgilla, comes between them and foils their attempt to embrace.
The Normans once in Ireland, of course never left, and their presence gradually transformed into the full-blown occupation of Ireland by the Tudors who were in the process of giving birth to a modern state which under Elizabeth took on an oppressive and cruel character that endured right up until the early twentieth century and his since morphed into Irish state decorated with shamrocks. The play inescapably links the couple’s act to the entire history of Irish oppression. The characters gaze from the summit of the hill on “…The Aran Islands, Connemara Hills, and Galway in the breaking light; there too the enemy has toppled roof and gable, and torn the panelling from ancient rooms …” Are we looking at English oppression or the results of bankers’ depredations? It is a continuum.
The couple tell the young man that Diarmuid and Dervorgilla can be forgiven “If somebody of their race at last would say, ‘I have forgiven them.’” Unaware that they are indeed the very couple, he cries passionately, “O, never, never shall Diarmuid and Dervorgilla be forgiven.”
A long way from “The Tyrant of Tripoli”, the Arab Spring and the Iraq War. Yet it was while on a visit to England in the early 90s and in conversations with ordinary Muslims and people with some knowledge of the Middle East, that the parallels hit me. It was a matter of some surprise during the Gulf War occasioned by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, that even a politician as compromised as King Hussein initially opposed any outside interference in what he insisted was an internal Arab affair, a line that he steadfastly held to ever after. It was also obvious at the time that the Saudi royal family were extremely reluctant to invite in the Americans, supremely sensitive to its effect on their already tarnished image. How they manoeuvred or were manipulated into the position of being hosts to US forces is unknown to me.
The parallels with Libya are too obvious. The rebels have brought destruction down on their own people’s heads, paralleled all too brutally by the devastation visited on Iraq. Moreover, they have invited the global banking industry and corporate capitalists in to feast off the carcass. The oil giants and other corporate interests have moved into Libya with an alacrity that is indecent and has appalled even hardened journalists, who thought they were inured to the excesses of capitalism.
Why will the Saudis and Qataris et al not be forgiven in the Gulf nor the rebels in Libya? The Americans for various strategic reasons (spelt O I L) had always wanted a permanent base in the Gulf, and it is widely believed that they desperately needed a toehold in North Africa, and they will not now leave. And, as we have seen, when there is war, the Americans unfortunately have a rather clumsy record, in Vietnam particularly where they polluted sky, sea and earth with defoliants, and hit men, women and children (only Gooks after all) in order to achieve their aims, finally to be driven pathetically home by little men with rusty rifles and a lot of patience. The Yanks’ inability to distinguish friend from foe, soldier from civilian or even man from woman introduced a truly frightening element into Vietnam, just as have they and NATO in the Iraqi and Afghani confrontations and anywhere they become involved. They had been desperate ever since Vietnam to expunge that shameful war from their memories. Gore Vidal remarked that, courtesy of Hollywood, the US has won a hundred times over the conflict which historically it lost. Yet they were not satisfied and wanted to restore their image as policemen of the planet.
More seriously, in peacetime, their amoral troops are literally the equivalent of the Plague, as they are probably the most effective HIV Positive agency on the planet, just ask the Philippinos and Thais. An American friend snorted with laughter at the elder President Bush’s cynical “defence of the American way of life” rationale, echoed down the subsequent two decades by his son and Obama and every other feckless demagogue: “Yeh,” he said, “To shoot heroin, sniff cocaine and murder people (tens of thousands of cases annually in the USA).”
None of this is to excuse Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi or any of the other tyrants. Yet the great Irish poet and playwright’s work should at least give us pause before we give credence to the posturing of the UK’s and USA’s politicians. After all, who can take seriously their pretensions to the moral high ground?
However, the Muslim perspective on politics and geo-politics, guilt and forgiveness is far removed from the long lament of Irish history. It is based on a kind of pragmatism that stems from the fundamental belief that whatever has happened was destined by its Creator and nothing else could have happened. Far from being fatalistic, the result of this is exceedingly dynamic and far from the modern Arabs’s moan about Israel.
Similarly, with forgiveness, rather than positing crimes that can never be forgiven, the Qur’anic perspective is made most clear by the extraordinary ayat in Surat al-Buruj in which Allah, exalted is He, says, “Those who persecute men and women of the believers, and then do not repent, will have the punishment of Hell, will have the punishment of the Burning.” (85:10) The word for persecute here is derived from fitnah in its root meaning of ‘burning’, and the surah is widely believed to have been revealed about the small Christian group who were burned alive by the Jewish convert ruler of the Yemen, Dhu Nuwas. The astonishing implication of the verse is that if they had burned men and women of the believers alive and then repented, if their repentance had been accepted they would not have been punished. Of course, this get-out-of-jail-free card is conditional, and that is explicated by the famous case of Ibn Abbas giving two contrary judgements to the same question asked by two different men: can the person who murders a believer ever be forgiven? When asked by the people who kept his company the reason for two entirely opposite judgements, he explained that the reason for giving the answer no was because the man who asked was on his way to kill someone, whereas in the other case he had answered yes, because the man had killed someone and was full of contrition and remorse.
So with this dynamic perspective, the Muslim who is thoughtful and active – and is there any other kind? – whether he is one of those who have made a preposterously stupid mistake in trusting NATO to aid him in overthrowing a tyrant, or whether he is just a concerned Muslim, will immediately want to see what is the best way forward for Islam and the Muslims in this context.
Now see this: