The last week I’ve been haunted by the regular updates in the Dutch newspaper De Pers about Albania. De Pers sent one of its journalists off to my country of residence, the so-called “black hole of Europe.” Day after day, sketchy analyses littered my browser window, but I couldn’t stop reading; what was this fellow countryman of mine writing about the place that I now call by the ominous name “home”?
Annoyed, insulted I felt, whenever I read yet another badly written blurb about almost all the cliches a first-time backpacker rambles about on a blog updated for the curious homefront. I felt annoyed, but the precise source of my annoyance remained unclear for several days. Mark van Assen’s articles were mediocre, but not of a level much lower than the average online news website. In fact, I should be happy, a Dutch newspaper was spending their precious money and webspace on a series about Albania! A guest visiting the country of eagles…
Already the introduction, an overview of Albania’s history for dummies, mixed with the author’s personal memories of holidays in Ohër, was stained by a picture, of what is probably the seafront near Vlorë in 1997. Several drunk, aggressive looking men with kalashnikovs on the beach, a Roma family with overweight wife. It is a fascinating picture, but not one to be used for this occasion, according to the timeless rules of good taste. Unless, of course, the agenda of the author is a sensationalist one. Again, I felt caught up by my own feelings: these are common, mediocre, journalistic tactics. Every day they surround me, whenever I open a browser window or pass a newspaper stand…
On the front page of Oct. 31: “Albania is a very nice ‘monkey country’ [gezellig 'apenland']” (the Dutch phrase is much more insulting and infantilizing than the English translation suggests). Although De Pers later removed “monkey” from their website, one of my friends was kind enough to email me a picture of the hardcopy version. How can anyone who feasts on the hospitality of the ones who live what he gathers his livelihood from think of opening a first-time overview of a perhaps undeservedly neglected country with “monkey country”? True, the words are between quotes, and, if I remember correctly, uttered by one of the Albanian youths Van Assen interviewed during a coffee somewhere, who knows. But as Derrida already exclaimed some decades ago, “How many quotation marks are enough?”
Still, nothing to be shocked about. Our airspace suffocates in this language. But perhaps my feelings about this type of lifestylish (or, to use Said, orientalizing) journalism were stronger because the contrast between Van Assen’s writing ethos and my own (and the ethos of the people I am surrounded by on a daily basis) appeared with more force than I ever experienced before. He is Dutch, I am Dutch. He is supposedly a war journalist for a reasonably respectable free newspaper, I am supposedly a philosopher at war with language (right now we’re in a temporary truce). Yet, when it comes to honor, we are separated by an abyss.
Yes, I use this word, honor. I am not sure what it is — a concept, a notion, a term, a signature (yes, perhaps a signature). I don’t think that I have ever used this word before, nor have I recently read extensively about this word. But what I know is that I am surrounded by people whose sense of honor is much more present than in Dutch society. This is not to depreciate Dutch society; I am just pointing to a differently organized ethos. Perhaps I should thank Pasolini (and Nick, whose first blog post proposes a Pasolinean analysis of this season of revolt) for orienting my thought toward the problem of honor (and its loss in modern society).
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I feel at home here. Although I have been raised by common Western-European standards, which no longer assign any place for honor, I think the only concrete aspect of Chinese Confucianism that entered me through my mother’s side is precisely this sense of honor and respect for the family, a sense that ties in with giving and receiving presents, the way one presents oneself (and the family, clan, or nation) to the outer world, hospitality, a sense that, I “discovered,” seems to agree much with something very present in Albanian society, though definitely under attack (like in Pasolini’s Italy from the 70s) by an upcoming nouveau-riche bourgeoisie driving matte white BMWs.
Although this recognition (and clue to my at-homeness here) has revived my perception of certain thematics in Western philosophy (think: Derrida’s hospitality, Levinas’s face of the Other, and the derivative issues of contemporary democracy), which however, fail (in my memory of them) to notice this forgotten word, honor (except Foucault’s work on a boy’s honor in The Use of Pleasure), I feel at the same time a certain feeling of shame. It is the same type of shame I felt in China, which I was visiting a few years ago with some colleagues who certainly didn’t have the same approach to gift-giving and -accepting as I would consider “correct” — I remember the words “you are too obsessed with blending in and following the rules” –, a discomfort with a sensitivity that (I think) should arrive with the position of the guest, which I am here. The only thing that I vividly remember is arriving at the airport of Beijing and feeling at home. Handshakes, glances (or, as Gombrowicz would exclaim in horror: asses, calves!), cigarettes between lips. Nevertheless I am certain that this discomfort and uneasy sense of shame when confronted with my own ethos (this is connected to honor, but how precisely?), especially in the eye of the Other, in casu a Dutch journalist, a compatriot exhibiting the bluntness and lack of sensitivity that I have been so familiarized with, necessarily accompanies a sense of honor. But then: has this really been my upbringing? Am I exaggerating?
Rama vs. Berisha, religious tolerance, koka qingji, sworn virgins, and so on, and so forth. I should be honored to have a guest that shows an interest in the house where I live, whose language I try to speak, whose culture I try to understand. But the guest shows an ironic distance, criticizes the sightly stained linen, my bathroom fixtures, pees in my garden, and insults my friends behind their backs. Whenever he writes about my house, he talks about the dirty spots behind my fridge, and that I imported my kitchenware from China, that the books I read are outdated, and my jeans torn at the seams. Whenever he praises the interior it feels as if he is insincere and only thinks of the next family to jump upon. He shows his camera wherever he goes, erect like his supposedly mediocre sex. His writing reads as if directed at children, implying that I’m not even worthy of serious criticism which I could respond to. I can’t throw him out, but I wish he had the honor to go by himself.
In Albanian, the phrase “thank you” (faleminderit) means literally “We praise your honor.” My only advise to Mark van Assen is this: don’t use it, you don’t understand its meaning.
(Next time, a post on pathos.)