Wednesday, 19 September 2007

The importance of words

If there is something I like about Austrians is their sincerity and how do they say stuff in a straight way. For good and for bad, they do not talk in roundabouts. Which is something quite nice, because understanding certain euphemisms in a foreign language is no easy job. Like the time I was at the doctor and the nurse asked me if I could make a Hahn (which may mean rooster, tap or valve). Even though I said yes without a doubt, used as I am to understanding things after a little delay, I guess my face might have been quite explicit, because until she had some mercy and pronounced the word Urin I did not realise that she was asking me for an urine test.

But I am loosing my focus. I was saying that Austrians do not like roundabouts and tend to call a a spade a spade. As an example, the piece of news that I read yesterday about the doormen of one of the most poshy locations in Salzburg, who did not let in an Iranian and a Bolivian because, using their own words, "there were already too many foreigners inside." No roundabouts. No evasive answers. And no shame, I would point out.

The arrest of an alleged group of Islamist terrorists in Vienna (who were, in fact, nothing but three morons that used the Internet to utter threats and, allegedly, could have got some information about what would they have to do in the event of having to get themselves some explosives) has been all too good for some critical voices with Islam and its presence at the heart of Europe. The usual hatemongers appeared on the media right away: Jörg Haider, from his Carinthian fief, championing a veto on headscarves and minarets, and HC Strache, shielded by the intellectual elite in Brigittenau, picketing the building of an Islamic cultural centre. The novelty this time is that they come along with some other characters, who do not lean so much to the right, like Lower Austria's Landeshauptmann (something like the head of the provincial government), Erwin Pröll, a couple of weeks ago.

There is no need to erect a mosque in Lower Austria, stated the guy, because "minarets are foreign (etwas Artfremdes). And, in the long run, foreign does no good to a culture." And let us stop here for a moment to weigh the word choice. It is difficult to translate the word Artfremd. It might be something alien, something foreign. This word is by no means new and has some quite negative connotations. It was used, along with entartet (degenerate, depraved) and ungesund (unhealthy, noxious), to refer to the work of Jewish artists. In 1937 the Entartete Kunst (degenerate art) exhibition opened in Munich, featuring over 650 paintings, sculptures, prints and books by modern artists like Oskar Kokoschka, Marc Chagall, Otto Dix or Emil Nolde, selected by the Reich Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda among the 16000 confiscated by the Nazis. The exhibition wanted to horrify the visitors with the depravation of Jewish art. Interestingly enough, it has been the most successful modern art exhibition in Germany ever since, with more than 2 million visitors.

Mr. Pröll might have chosen fremdartig (exotic, alien, unfamiliar), which sounds far less harmful than artfremd. Although I have read that he also likes to use Überfremdung, a word meaning something like "foreign infiltration", which is one of the favourite words of the right wing extremism, and was voted Faux-pas Word of the Year (Unwort des Jahres) in 1993 by the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (Society for the German Language).

Setting the word choice aside, I think claiming that foreign does no good to a culture is very sad and shows an alarming simple-mindedness. How would be Lower Austria today, had the "foreign" Celtic and Roman people not come? But I guess that my buddy Pröll, seeing how extended that profound ignorance that identifies Islam with terrorism is, does nothing but catching a cheap argumentation train. With quite undesirable travel companions, might I say.

Maybe it is the need to feel themselves members of a group, the need to feel special, what drives those not-any-more-teenagers to believe that shouting Allah Akhbar before pushing that little button will bring them into Paradise... Maybe we all have this need to belong to a group, to feel special.

From my side, I do feel quite special when I realize, for example, that the Spanish word zanahoria bears no resemblance to any other language whatsoever (neither the English carrot, nor the German Karotte or Möhre, nor the Italian carota, nor the French carotte, nor the Catalan pastanaga, nor the Occitan pastenaga, nor the Greek καρότο), except perhaps the Portuguese cenoura. When I realize that "Spain is different", and probably the most admired here Spanish spiritedness, have their roots in Al-Andalus and in Islam. When I listen to the lively phone conversation of that friendly man wearing a turban who sometimes shares the bus with me on the way back home and I realize that, if I don't pay much attention to the words but only to the melody, he could be perfectly taken for someone from Málaga or Córdoba.

And on realizing all that, I feel really proud of that Moorish DNA, of that Maghreb and Arabic heritage that we Spaniards have in our blood, an old and wise heritage that, were we able to listen to it, would tell us its story. Our History.

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