Monday, May 22, 2006

Salaam Marseille

Blogging from Marseille, down on the coast of the Mediterranean, the most African of European cities. It is such a relief after a couple of days in Northern Germany, with sky so overcast to resemble a nuclear winter scenario. Down here the sun shines and the sky is some color other than dark gray. So much for sightseeing. There seems to be an algebraic geometry conference going on here, next to the beautiful view of rocks, sea, and sky that is the Calanque of Sugiton, but I will probably steer clear of it for the time being and give myself some quiet time for thinking, at least for a couple of days before delivering my lectures (not at the conference but at the university). I sometimes miss the Mediterranean more than most other places on the globe: salty waters of a dark blue color and rocky shores shining white in the bright light.

Related Links:
CIRM Luminy

It's inevitable these days, especially in a city like Marseille that is a hub to new and old immigrants from the South and the East, to think about the toughened immigration laws that some European countries like France seem so keen on enforcing. They like to talk about favoring "skilled workers" as opposed to the general allegedly "unskilled" immigrants who will no longer be allowed into the country as easily (?) as in the past. They say that these "skilled workers", whom they are ready to welcome in their affluent society, will nonetheless be required to pledge alliance to the (French) language and culture. Come to think of it, I think I can take myself as an example of one of those "skilled" immigrants (or migrants) everyone claims to like: I hold three university degrees in science, one of which a PhD from a famous American university, which seems to put me in the desirable list of any government. Still, though I have been working on and off in Europe for the past six years, I still cannot claim proficiency with any of the (many) local languages. If on the one hand I can boast that I read (occasionally) in French, German, Spanish, Italian and Russian, on the other hand I am certainly not fluent in any of these idioms, not to mention my far less than satisfactory performance when it comes to understanding what the local say. I go by quite well despite all this because --like it or not my dear French-- English is the official language of modern science and technology and, as long as one (like me) moves around within that professional circle, one has no real need to learn any of the local languages at any more than basic survival level. As for culture, well, with much respect due to all the different cultures of Europe and elsewhere, does one really need to assimilate? Assimilate to what, to where? How is that supposed to happen if one is always on the move between different cultures and places as most of the modern "skilled migrants" inevitably are? Is assimilation a desirable quality as opposed to diversity? As for this "skilled/unskilled" business, now that's really nonsensical: do we need a society full of software engineers and computer programmers but without a single electrician? Where will people plug their computers in? A healthy society obviously needs both and both can and will be provided more and more by migrants as is inevitable within the changing texture of modern societies. It is already the case that the shortage of plumbers or electricians in big European cities gives rise to rings that rip off unsuspecting customers capitalizing on the desperate need of basic services. I have friends who fell for one such scam in Paris not so long ago. So let's allow only people with a PhD to immigrate and settle into our cities and lets the sewers burst for lack of plumbers!

Related Links:
French Prime Minister

All this reminds me of a poem by Bertold Brecht:

Wer baute das siebentorige Theben?
In den Büchern stehen die Namen von Königen.
Haben die Könige die Felsbrocken herbeigeschleppt?
Und das mehrmals zerstörte Babylon –
Wer baute es so viele Male auf? In welchen Häusern
des goldstahlenden Lima wohnten die Bauleute?
Wohin gingen an dem Abend, wo die Chinesische Mauer fertig war
die Maurer? Das große Rom
ist voll von Triumphbögen. Wer errichtete sie? Über wen
triumphierten die Cäsaren? Hatte das vielbesungene Byzanz
nur Paläste für seine Bewohner? Selbst in dem sagenhaften Atlantis
brüllten in der Nacht, wo das Meer es verschlang
die Ersaufenden nach ihren Sklaven.
Der junge Alexander eroberte Indien.
Er allein?
Cäsar schlug die Gallier.
Hatte er nicht wenigstens einen Koch bei sich?
Philipp von Spanien weinte, als seine Flotte
untergegangen war. Weinte sonst niemand?
Friedrich der Zweite siegte im siebenjährigen Krieg. Wer
siegte außer ihm?

Jede Seite ein Sieg.
Wer kochte den Siegesschmaus?
Alle zehn Jahre ein großer Mann.
Wer bezahlte die Spesen?

So viele Berichte.
So viele Fragen

Related Links:
International Brecht Society

But back to Marseille now. I never quite feel at ease in the secluded atmosphere of the center, despite the marvelous view of the Calanque and the Mediterranean. I keep going back to the Arab quarters in the center of Marseille at every possible occasion. I have my favorite spots in the chaos of downtown Marseille: the Arab street market near Noailles, a Berberian restaurant up on Cours Julienne, the second hand bookstores nearby. I feel much better with that crowd, where at every street corner you hear a different language spoken. I like to think of it as a weird corner of Africa transplanted in the heart of Europe. There should be more of this kind. I spent many years in Europe, just prior to the end of the Cold War. I left shortly afterwards for North America. When I returned to Europe for the first time after nearly ten years things had changed all right. I loved to see the new diversity of population clearly detectable in all European cities: people were no longer all of the same color, language and culture, finally. Now that nearly another ten years have passed (not quite, but we'll soon be there) has Europe kept its promise of diversity and integration (which does not mean assimilation)? I wish I could say it has, for that hope was one of the main factors that lured me back to spend extensive periods of time on this side of the Atlantic. Well, despite the fact that travel within the EU nations is now much easier, that employment of EU nationals in other EU countries is also hassle free, well all in all I do not think that that early promise was fulfilled and the more time goes by the more I think that it never will. Europe is too slowly moving, its society generally static and conservative, its people still trapped in the nineteenth century logic of national states. That's perhaps why I try to also keep my options open elsewhere in the world and refuse to settle down in this old continent and to assimilate to whatever culture demands it.