Babel’s Exiles, Kosovo, Galacia and the confusion of Tongues

By Tom Sandborn | January 19, 2001

We’d planned the trip before the bombs began to fall. And so, early this May, I found myself hiking for ten days through the mountains of the Spanish northwest. NATO was making war in the Balkans, and I, implausibly, was walking the pilgrim trails in Galicia to Santiago de Compostela. My Spanish, at best, extends to ordering coffee and finding toilets, so in an environment nearly empty of English language TV, or press, I had no way to follow the war’s progress. True, our path took us into countless villages. Each had at least one bar, and each bar featured the same wall mounted colour TV, and a scatter of local papers on the counters. So I had to make do with a montage of news footage narrated in Spanish and newspaper stories decyphered with the uncertain Rosetta stone provided by my scraps of French and Italian. This thin gruel of guessed- at meaning had to substitute for my usual three newspaper, two TV, multiple radio channel media habit at home.

Footsore, soaked and hobbling over twenty kilometers a day through the green trance of Galicia’s lush, humid hill country, I was closer to Kosovo by thousands of miles than I was in Vancouver. But I was much further away in language and mind. My ignorance of Spanish denied me that odd civilian comfort, the daily flood of known language, the river of atrocity stories, talking heads and endless commentary that places us, bloodlessly and without pain, within the simulation of war. I missed my daily fix of virtual war and simulated understanding.

My isolation, of course, was incomplete. Kosovo is, after all, one of the new breed of wars, conducted on-line for a world audience. In the most remote villages, we’d step out of muddy lanes into dim bars, flickering with uncertain light from the shrine-like screen. Soccer games, weather reports, Galician variety shows oddly reminiscent of 50s American classics-sort of Lawrence Welk with bagpipes; these images alternated with visual shards from the front. Smart bombs fell on Belgrade. Kososvars, blank faced, stood in lines at borders and refugee camps. A flicker of light, and the pixels shifted to form roadside scenes of corpses and crushed tractors, close ups of weeping children, a broken doll, a severed limb. Next the screen would light up with long shots of NATO fighters sweeping off the tarmac, heavy with bombs, or their triumphant , post battle return. We saw enigmatic shots of Clinton looking chaste, resolute and presidential, and of Tony Blair doing his best Margaret Thatcher impression.

Thanks to the roadside TV, we had a wealth of images. All we lacked was language and meaning. There were twelve Canadians and one Dutchwoman in our party, walking a thousand year old path from central Spain toward the shrine city of Santiago in Galicia.

Believing Christians walk this trail believing it leads to the relics of Saint James the Apostle, martyred in Jerusalem and miraculously transported to this wet, Atlantic coastal region in northern Spain. There the cult of Santiago (St. James) has flourished since the Middle Ages. The legends call him Santiago Matamorros, the Moor Slayer, and revel in accounts of the saint leading murderous Spanish armies in the wars that re-conquered the Iberian peninsula after centuries of Islamic rule.

I believe none of this, but I do hold, more and more as I age, with the value purposeful, meditative walking. So I found myself, secular, agnostic, footsore and perfectly happy, making my own dubious pilgrimage toward Compostela.

My fellow pilgrims and I shared little beyond a common need to step out of the business of our everyday lives and into a slower, walker’s rhythm, a pace that offers at least the chance for deeper self knowledge and reflection, perhaps even that rare commodity, a little peace.

Some of us meditated on Scripture as we walked, some on more vaporous New Age teachings, some on the unfinished grief and remorse we carried with us onto the path. Some were puzzling over pivotal life changes-lost loves, lost family members, decisions about career and marriage. We all sought the strenuous, narcotizing certainties of wet feet, sore legs, blank, overwhelming hunger, the inutterable pleasures of bird song, mountain top and road’s end-the sensual finality of a load carried all day up the mountain, laid down for the night.

The trails we walked on had been etched onto the refractory surface of Spain for over a millennium, over the granite heights that separated the Castilian meseta from Galicia’s green hills, and then down through those hills into the narrow river valleys that separate them. We limped up barren, granite toothed slopes, edged precipitously down into forests of pine, oak and eucalyptus, out across fields emerald with new wheat or colour quilted with stands of scarlet poppies, purple heather, yellow broom and wild lilies the colour of old wedding lace. Ungainly, improbable, the wild storks lumbered through the air, giving a rough cry like out-of-tune castanets. Cuckoos sounded in the distance.

And all of this was seen and done to the drum beat of shared language. Clustered around the seeming certainty of shared English, we talked sometimes to each other, often to ourselves and our journals. We webbed together the flares and fragments of our experiences-wove them, as do all of Babel’s exiles, into more or less coherent narratives.

Some of us tried to do the same with the Balkan war news. We compared notes on the auguries we had puzzled out from the images on the Spanish TV. We pestered the few Spanish speakers in our group for quick translation. We traded rumours and reports we got from phone calls home and our conversations with other pilgrims along the day’s hike.

One of us learned from a call home that NATO bombs had hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. A Brit on the trail told us earlier about a missile gone adrift that ended up in Bulgaria.

But these were only fragments, lucid patches of story in what was otherwise a late century Babel of confusing, misunderstood and disconnected words and images. We weren’t able to make a coherent story to tell ourselves about the war.

Ten days later we limped through the last suburban kilometers of modern Santiago and into the medieval square, where the pilgrimage traditionally ends at the cathedral’s ornately carved Portico of Glory. All around the plaza stretches a prosperous city, grown fat for centuries off the hungers the pilgrims bring with them off the trails of Galicia. We all wanted hot showers and soft beds; some us were equally desperate for press we could read. I scoured the old city, and finally found a kiosk that would sell me the European edition of Newsweek and recent editions of The Economist and the Paris Herald Tribune.

In a day, I’d read them cover to cover, and had sorted out the narrative raw materials to produce a story of what had happened while I was out of touch in the mountains. I was ready to talk knowledgeably about Russian diplomacy, Apache helicopters, the allied apology to China, the refugee pressures on Macedonia and Albania, the release from captivity of three US soldiers and one Kosovar pacifist.

Even though all three journals I could find were cautiously pro-NATO, it wasn’t much of a task to fit their facts into my own preferred anti-war narrative. In my story, NATO forces are conducting a kind of twisted, end of millennium Crusade, raining down death on Serb and Kosovar alike, and helping no-one but the multi-national corporations. ( I noted with sardonic interest that the Dow had shot up to record-breaking heights while I was in the mountains. War seemed, as usual, to be good for business.

Smart bombs, stupid generals, human casualties and corporate profits, real dangers of setting off another world war by mistake; all these unsettling elements figured in the version I put together. It was a pleasure to be back inside the English language news world, but little of the news was good.

Once back in Canada, of course, I’d sign more petitions, attend more rallies and try to tell my anti-war story to the people I know at work and in the neighborhood. But in a way it all seems like sending semaphore in the dark. Most of the media is pro-war, with the debate limited to how soon the ground troops should go in; nobody seems to feel the need for actual declarations of war, and the polls in the US, UK and Canada all seem cheerfully supportive as long as the dead are primarily foreigners.

Besides, I’m painfully aware of how many good, intelligent observers support NATO’s war. These good people, many of them innocent of any stake in war profits or a stronger American Imperium, survey the same data I see and make a very different meaning out of it. In their story, NATO’s intervention is a flawed but honourable fight to stop a dictator, interrupt a genocide and learn from the lessons of Munich. It’s the penance the West should perform to expiate earlier inaction in Bosnia and Rwanda. Even Vaclav Havel, surely one of modern Europe’s most distinguished public intellectuals, has supported the war. A cynic might read this support as the price Havel chooses to pay for the Czech Republic’s entry into NATO and hopes for early admission to the European Union. The cynic would probably be right, but not all the support for NATO comes from such self interest or raison d’etat. Many support the war out of a puzzled sense that some action is better than nothing in the face of Serbian atrocities. Opponants of the war argue that Serb atrocities don’t justify NATO atrocities, and point out that the Kosovars haven’t been visibly helped by the attacks so far. And the debate grinds on while the bombs fall.

In the end, I’m not sure that our bemused ignorance on the pilgrim trail is so very different from what we experience at home. Even immersed in print, CNN and Newsworld, we seem to get our news from the front in jagged fragments of rumour and rationalization. The main difference is that on the trail the fragments were awash in commentary I literally could not understand. At home in Canada, the same fragments are mortared together by great volumes of commentary I can seldom believe. At least in Galicia we knew that we didn’t understand; we were left with the images- post cards from Hell- floating in the darkness of the bars-blood, bombs, shining weapons and well fed generals, pundits and politicians mouthing words without meaning . How is this so different from our situation at home?

It may be better, in a way, to frankly know we are Babel’s exiles, cut off from authentic speech with each other, than to fall for the preposterous claims that our shredded tongues can say anything that makes sense of the hacked off legs, the sobbing children, the shuffling lines of the dull-eyed refugees, the burnt-out villages and smeared cobbles. Maybe all our words, pro and anti war, just keep the dreadful wheel turning.

In the towering dark of the Santiago cathedral, the austere tones of chiseled granite give way at the altar to hammered silver, gold and terrifying, enormous, rosy cheeked angels . Above all this rears the equestrian saint in his Moor killing persona, brandishing a sword.

Between the pews where we knelt, faithful and faithless alike, and this monumental efflorescence of devotional kitsch hangs one of the treasures of the cathedral, a huge incense burner suspended by ropes and pulleys. On high holy days this object is loaded with incense and swung like a perfumed pendulum before the altar. Just to point up the intricate relationships between faith, idealism and atrocity, the cathedral guide book advises that a silver replica of this 19th century treasure was donated to the church by a devout group of veteran 2d. Lieutenants from Franco’s Spanish Civil War brigades. We can only wait breathlessly for the Friends of Lt. Calley to make a similar gift somewhere in Washington, D.C.

Before facts like these, or the daily torrent of war factoids from the Balkans, language and meaning collapse. The darkness in the roadside bars, the dim cathedral, the human heart is all one darkness. The uncertain light of the TV screen, the gleaming , murderous saint, uncertain human reason, all one imperfect illumination.

The dead remain, no matter what we say. The pilgrim flight from Babel, the illusions of shared meaning, the writing itself, all are reduced to sounds we cannot understand. What remains? Death from above, the defeated refugees, the casual litter of body parts.

I meant to end this essay with a list of policy proposals and arguments. I meant to invite you, in your safety, to join me in lobbying for a cease fire, for more strenuous diplomacy, for a stronger UN presence, international investment in rebuilding the Balkans and the other world battle grounds. I meant to argue for reforms designed to limit the power of the market to make wars and profit from them. All this can wait for another day. The morning news for the last few days, although confusing and uncertain, seems to indicate there may be some sort of Balkan peace soon, if none of the larger reforms I would like to see.

This ends, instead, where it began-on a terrain where I can only see fragments, and cannot understand the language. In the dark, lit by pixel flashes and cigarette ends, the images flicker-the dead, the fleeing, the shining weapons, the self congratulatory saints and statesmen. All the narratives collapse. Only mourning, grief and strangled tears remain.

Dreadful things have been done in the Balkans, and some of them we paid for with our taxes. They are done in our name, and no language seems adequate to respond to that, and to our inability to stop it.

Clearly, however, my despair about narrative is limited. I still write, still talk, still, in the face of it all, try to find a story to tell. Maybe that’s what writers do when we recognize we cannot change the world. Stories are the post cards we send home to Babel.

January 25, 2001


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