Reflection: As another tumultuous year ends, amen to all that
By ROGER COHEN
Last Updated: Dec. 25, 2004
The end of the year is near, a time for reflection. So in search of understanding, I recently visited my grandmother, who is 104.
She was 14 when the shot was fired in Sarajevo that sparked World War I. As the stones of the old city have been smoothed by countless footsteps, so have her memories been honed by time. Honed to silence, or so it seems. She was loquacious on her 100th birthday, but has gone quiet these last few years. Her eyes are now closed much of the time. In her touch, there is recognition, but her eyes, when they open, are impenetrable as pools.
But some things never return. Marriages, great loves, gone and sundered as completely as the empires and nations that have disappeared in her lifetime. Austria-Hungary, the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Soviet Union, East Germany, Yugoslavia - all vanished as a single life has been lived.
The birthing of countries has been more hectic in her time than the dying. An independent Croatia was reborn after more than eight centuries: The loops of history can be circuitous. Indonesia came into being, as did Israel, Uzbekistan, myriad independent African states and North Korea.
Some states moved. Poland journeyed westward. Hungary shrank. Some borders did a vanishing act, like those within the European Union.
Political ideologies came and went, taking tens of millions of lives.
So it goes. States are living beings. They shift, they wed and divorce, they wither and perish, as one woman lives her life.
I considered my grandmother’s skin: fissured as parched earth, yet soft as a newborn. I considered her silence. It seemed more sage than vacant.
We do not like riddles or silence; we prefer pronouncements. Journalism is the day-after-yesterday craft. We need to say where things are going, what they mean.
But the living of 104 years speaks for caution. Such longevity is itself unexpected and, scientific advances notwithstanding, unforeseeable.
She was 21 when the British installed a monarchy in the modern Iraq carved from the defunct Ottoman Empire. Eighty-three years later, the country’s statehood still seems tenuous.
It is tenuous because different currents in history, different epochs almost, are clashing there, as they do now throughout the world.
It used to be that we could ignore our differences. No longer. Asian nationalism, European post-nationalism, American expansionism vie for influence.
In Iraq, at the very least, we see the following forces: the apocalyptic fundamentalism of Islamic jihadists; a classic guerrilla struggle against an occupying army; the national aspirations of the Kurdish people; the battle between Shiite and Sunni strains of Islam; an old-fashioned fight for resources; and the zeal of the United States, a country at or near the zenith of its historical power, to fashion more of the world in its image by delivering the freedom that President Bush believes is God’s design for humanity.
Where all this will lead, I do not know. I did not ask my grandmother; she would have responded with the wisdom of silence.
It is possible that the borders of Iraq will not withstand these forces and the country will break up, as Yugoslavia did in the 1990s after its release from despotic rule. But I doubt it, for the simple reason that agreement on the shape of the broken-up parts would be impossible.
I do know that American forces will leave Iraq one day and that it is possible but not inevitable that the young American lives lost in Iraq, more than 1,280 already, will have been lost in vain.
I also know that Iraq in 2004 stands at what the Germans in 1945 called Stunde null or zero hour.
It is quiet in my grandmother’s Johannesburg apartment in South Africa. There is no television; she lives without news.
It is possible to live without news, of Iraq or American elections. So she did not hear the good news of 2004: the Chilean army’s extraordinary apology for the killing and torture after the 1973 coup and the Bosnian Serbs’ apology for the slaughter at Srebrenica in 1995.
Truth, it seems, is gaining a global toehold. For much of her life, it was not so: The lies that exalt and kill were the stuff of political discourse. There are grounds for guarded optimism.
When she was born, the city of Johannesburg, founded in 1884, was a mere teenager. Her father came penniless from Lithuania. Her daughter went to England. Four of her great-grandchildren live in the United States.
Over 104 years, a lot happens. Although she has seen a lot of it, she never liked change much.
“The things you see when you don’t have a gun” was a favorite expression, delivered on encountering any novelty or irritant.
Her husband died a few years back at the age of 98; they were married 75 years. She loved him deeply, and I think she may have forgotten him entirely - proof, if needed, that in the great scheme of things, three-quarters of a century is the blink of an eye.
Occasionally, the silence is broken. My grandmother speaks: “On earth as it is in heaven, forgive us our trespasses.”
Fragments of the Lord’s Prayer, summoned from somewhere. She is Jewish but attended a convent school long ago. Perhaps her last lesson is ecumenism. Or love.
She will not release my hand. I try to ease it away but she clings with surprising force. In her silence, there is indeed knowledge.
A nurse confides: “She’s talking to the people on the other side.” To whomever she is speaking, she has a last word, pronounced slowly: “Aaaa-men.”
Perhaps we can all agree on that.
Roger Cohen writes for The International Herald Tribune. This article first appeared in The New York Times.
Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Dec. 26, 2004.