Saturday, November 12, 2016 12:52 pm
When Donald Trump, the US property magnate, won the US presidential election with the ticket of the Republicans, people were disappointed. What followed was a transferred aggression on Professor Wole Soyinka by critics who asked him to carry out his threat of shredding his Green Card.
Now, Soyinka has replied his critics, waving them off as ‘“literalists’ who obsess over a time scheme of their own assessment.”
Red Card, Green Card–Notes towards the management of hysteria
By Wole Soyinka
I shall begin on a morbid note. One of the horror stories that emerged from the Daesh (Isis) controlled parts of Iraq was the gruesome tale of the mother who had a daughter affected by wanderlust, even in that endangered zone. One day, when she looked for her to attend to some home chores, she found that she had gone missing yet again. As she searched, she shouted in frustration: “As Allah is my witness, I’ll kill that girl when I catch up with her”. A neighbour overheard and reported her to the Hisbah. The mother was summoned by the mullahs who ordered her to put the child to death, since she had sworn by Allah. She refused, so they took the child by the legs and smashed her head against a wall. End of story.
True or false? It certainly was published as true testimony. That is all I have to say to the “literalists” who obsess over a time scheme of their own assessment. Thus, failure to have torn my Green Card “the moment” that I learnt that Mr. Donald Trump had won the presidential elections of the USA. It did not matter what I was doing at the time – teaching, eating, swimming, praying, under the shower or whatever. Or a family member saying, “Wait for me!” – speculatively please, no such disturbance ever took place. If it did however, I am supposed to contact the Nigerian media – to whom I have never spoken, and who never contacted me – except one – to beg permission to pursue a realistic definition of “the moment”. Media fascism is however a subject for another day,
For now, that moment having passed, I must be culpable of breaking a solemn promise. By the way, since we are on the terrain of literalism, has anyone attempted to “tear” or rip apart a Green Card? Even a Credit Card? For the average hands, that would take some doing! I have actually considered garden shears for a dramatic resolution, this being closer to my real profession.
I have been asked several times – interestingly only by the foreign media, with the exception of THE INTERVIEW – whether indeed I did make such a statement at any time, and whether I still intended to carry it out, and the answer remains a categorical ’Yes’. Not recently, mind you, nor, in the inaccurate blazing PUNCH headline of Thursday Nov. 16 , but in the accurate wording that is contained in the actual story on page 9. So, where and when did I first notably make that declaration? Answer: Addressing a group of students at Oxford University and fielding questions. It was NOT a public lecture. I have never summoned a press conference on the issue. The organizers did not invite the (unregistered) Association of Nigerian Internet habitués. It was the accustomed student seminar format that moved from the light-hearted to the serious, the ridiculous and (hopefully) the profound and back again. I even used the encounter to compare my threat with the public antics of a former president – unnamed, I assure you – who tore up his party membership card of a moribund ruling party. Whatever my failings, I do not lack originality, and I was not about to be find myself indebted to that contumacious general!
Nonetheless, did I mean what I said – that is, ’exiting’ the USA? Absolutely, and that is the very theme of this address. It will not attempt to deal with the notion of an exit time-table as conceived by others, as if even the incumbent US president and his replacement are not even permitted over two months to pack their bags and prepare to move in and out of the White House, but must exchange positions the very moment that a winner was proclaimed. Anyone would think that the Brexit Vote made it imperative for the Brits to plunge into the English Channel instantly, instead of negotiating two years for an orderly withdrawal. Plebians like me of course need far less time, nevertheless they do not uproot overnight. Any other proposition speaks of a permanent agenda, of frustration and hidden histories – such as opportunities to rehabilitate themselves in the public eye. There is also recession in the land, and I can understand the psychology of impotence and thus, transferred aggression. Let it be understood – before I move even one word further – that I interrupted my present commitment in the United States solely for an urgent meeting with the Ooni of Ife on an ongoing project. I am obliged to return to the US in a matter of two or three days to complete my interrupted mission. Fortunately, that mission is guaranteed to end long before the United States becomes Trumpland Real Estate.
And now we move from absurd, frankly idiotic distractions to Substance. Why, in any case, am I pulling out of the United States? Why – as demanded of me by some of my genuinely concerned and sober interlocutors around the world – why such an extreme reaction? Why the terminal response to the elections of another land? Also, and perhaps most crucially, why am I left virtually mouth agape at the furore my stance has engendered? I simply fail to understand why this has gone beyond a flurry of public commentary and hilarious cartoons, and turned into a masturbatory for some, a vomitory for others, and an epileptic sanatorium for a self-reproducing number? Why, in genuine bafflement, do I experience astonishment? Why do people find this commonplace, accessible-to-all act so extraordinary?
The answers to all the foregoing can be summed up in a familiar expression: a life of environmental sanitation, or call it – sanity. My temperament requires a certain minimum level of environmental health to function properly. I use the word ’temperament’ as a historical fact, a personality development that first manifested itself all the way back to student days, and has remained consistent all my life. Nowhere is perfect, certainly not all the time. Nonetheless, every human being has this need, however approximate, some perhaps with objective awareness, others intuitively, some more acutely and intensely than others, especially when defined by their professions, occupations, social and other involvements. The craving is common to all humanity – if I am wrong, then I must have dropped from Mars.
Here now is a potted history of the choices made by this contributor over the years in pursuit of this need, all the way from student days. Read carefully and learn!
As a student in Leeds University, one of whose subjects was Spanish, I steadily refused to accompany other students on long vacation job opportunities in Spain, designed to make us master the spoken part of the language. Apart from the Isle of Man, I went to France and Holland instead, whose languages were not part of my studies. And yet I had already fallen in love with flamenco music – played for us from records by our Spanish lecturer, and was dying to watch flamenco dancing in the flesh. Language study however involves, as we all know, the study of a people´s history and culture. I had encountered the history of the Spanish Civil War, the violent overthrow of a legitimate Republican government, and the ’white terror’ of the Falangist leader, General Franco. I identified with the volunteer soldiers of the International Brigade. Spain was under boycott in parts of Europe, so there was a choice to be made. I refused to step into Spain until years after I had graduated and returned home, and General Franco was certified dead and buried. A personal choice.
Australia: It is now some twelve to fifteen years since I issued a Red Card to Australia, unannounced. That Red Card subsists till today. The occasion was a conference of PEN International, and I had made the usual visa application. When the forms arrived, I found the requirements for applicants over 70 years (I think) so obnoxious, intrusive, and degrading that I refused to fill them. Negotiations with the Australian government by Australian PEN led to an exception being made for me. When it was communicated, I wrote back: Absolutely Not. I refused to be the token geriatric. That application document was highly disrespectful of age and I wondered what kind of mentality had crafted it, wondered if the Australians themselves knew what image was being projected in their name. I said to our go-betweens: Not for a moment am I equating myself with Desmond Tutu or Nelson Mandela, but they are older. Does it mean that, if they decide to visit Australia, you would subject them to this form of degradation?
Till today, I have routinely declined any invitation to Australia, a country I had visited years earlier to sumptuous hospitality. I learnt some time ago that the obnoxious requirements have been removed but have not bothered to check. The reason was this follow-up: a journalist heard about my absence from the PEN conference and made enquiries. He interviewed me and I told him the cause. After visiting the Australian embassy for their side of the story, he reported back that the diplomat in charge responded to his questions with the comment that the embassy was too busy with more important matters. I did not make a fuss. My position was based on principle but, basically, it was a personal affair between me and Australia. It remains so till today.
China: I did not, could not visit China for years after Tiananmen Square. I was dying to visit that remarkable nation of culture and history, itching to go with every invitation. The Chinese ambassador in Nigeria tried to win me over after the ousting of the Gang of Four. I declined, but accepted the books he had told me did not exist while the Thought of Chairman Mao ruled the waves. Even when, years later, one of the top American travel agents organized a visit of Nobel laureates with mouth watering honoraria, I could not bring myself to join others. Constantly swimming before my eyes was the image of armoured trucks and tanks running over students encamped in Tiananmen Square, leaving behind rivulets of blood. Before I eventually accepted an invitation from the University of Beijing, I checked with some of the dissident poets – was it a decent time to visit? Had sufficient time passed for the average survivor of that carnage to obtain closure? Until they gave me the green light, I refused all invitations. Again I did not fuss. I did not call an international press conference in the interim.
Back home to our continent – this time, post-Apartheid South Africa. How many of these hysterical purveyors of Internet obscenities – including some printed media – are aware that for nearly two years, I handed South Africa the Red Card? And why? Because of her then astonishing display of xenophobia, most notably against Nigerians. I was a personal recipient of that treatment which took place – of all occasions imaginable – on the occasion of my visit to deliver a three-part memorial lecture in honour of the late Nelson Mandela. Undoubtedly, on that very occasion, there had been a misunderstanding over visa issuance. Nonetheless, taken in the context of the rampant humiliation of Nigerians at the hands of South African authorities, and the South African civic pockets also, I went to the final lecture with my luggage. The moment I concluded the last of my lectures, I insisted on being driven to the airport, silently shaking off the South African dust off my feet for ever. It was only to my hosts that I uttered the declaration that they were seeing me in their nation for the last time. Until I withdrew the Red Card, I did not summon the Press.
Now, how did that boycott end? It is a remarkable story which deserves its place in the narratives of sheer serendipity. It involved Dennis Brutus, the South African poet, an enlightened Head of Nigerian Immigration and, indirectly, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Albie Sachs, former chairman of the South African Constitutional Court. Also, retrospectively, the role played by Nelson Mandela’s widow, Graca Machel, during my ordeal at the airport. While the boycott lasted however, I declined between seven to nine invitations to South Africa, including a UNESCO event that was however billed to take place there. The ending of that boycott, like the beginning, was ultimately my private and personal decision.
Shall we take Cuba, that revolutionary island where I was personally decorated by Fidel Castro with the Felix Valera medal of honour? Despite all efforts by the then Cuban ambassador to Nigeria, and very valued friends and colleagues in Cuba, I issued her my usual silent card some years ago. I found the execution of those ill-fated adventurers who tried to escape on a raft excessive, not forgetting the shooting down of a hi-jacked plane. Were their acts condemnable? Indisputably! Did the punishment fit the crime however? My answer is obvious – No. Jose Saramago, the late Portuguese Nobelist had apparently taken the same position, as I found out when we both met at a subsequent event in Cuba when our Cuban boycotts eventually ended. Were we wrong or right? That is immaterial. The point is that neither called a press conference or publicised our individual decisions. They were personal decisions, made independently.
And so on, and on, and on….brief to prolonged, reluctant to instant boycotts of places of normally congenial roosting, for a variety of reasons, and dictated by individual temperaments. And so we come finally to Donald Trump, and the sometimes travesty of collective choice.
I was in New York during the run-up to elections. I watched this face, its body language, listened to his uncouth, racist language, his imbecilic harangues, the insults to other peoples, other races, especially the Hispanics, Africans and Afro-Americans, even citing once – I was told – Nigeria as an instance of the burdensome occupation of global space. I watched and listened, disbelievingly, since this was America, supposedly now freed to a large extent – as we like to believe and have a right to expect – from its lamentable history of racism. But I saw, not only this would-be president but – enthusing followers on populist a populist roll at the expense of minorities! I followed the fluctuating poll statistics. I began to warn my colleagues, friends, my family: listen, this thing is happening right before our very eyes. This is how it begins, how humanity ends up with Cambodia, with Rwanda, with Da’esh. We are watching a Hitlerite phenomenon.