Sunday, September 05, 2010

Rihla (Journey 17): Corsica – Hairy Chestnuts, Identity Politics and Unanswered Questions

Castallare di Mercurio, near Corte, Corsica

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have undertaken on foot in past years.

This rihla is about Corsica.

On a balmy early September morning in 2001 I was driving on a dusty, mountainous road about 8 km to the east of Corte, the ancient capital of Corsica, meandering my way downwards to Aléria on the eastern coast.

Corsica, a fiercely unforgiving place, was etched in my imagination. Once a land of honour killings – the vendetta – and a veritable Kurdistan of the middle-sea it has been populated from the very earliest of times. Neolithic, Nuraghe (or Torréens after their characteristic torri), Phoenician, Greek, Etruscan, and Carthagenian peoples settled there, evolving their civilizations. Rome on the other hand imposed its government to be followed thereafter by Byzantine, Papal, Pisan, Genoese, British, and ultimately French control. But nobody has ever fully controlled Corsica and certainly not in the central highlands where I was driving.

I had come to Corsica by way of a book entitled Time Was Away – A Journey through Corsica by the poet Alan Ross and illustrator John Minton, first published in 1947, and a desire to experience first hand the atmosphere of the famous fair of Santa di u Niolu, a festival of Corsican shepherd song, devotion, trade and nationalism that was held in the mountain village of Casamaccioli on September 8th every year.

The festival was still two days off and on that particular morning I stopped the car to look south at a distant village that appeared to perch precariously on a mountain outcrop. At that moment a lammergeyer – bearded vulture – soared into view to hover for a time over the village searching for corpses of animals. Lammergeyers feed on the marrow from dropped and shattered bones but in Iran the lammergeyer is associated with the legend of the huma and is a rare sighting. There it is a symbol of luck and happiness so I followed its shadow.

Identity Politics

The road to the village was windy and steep and had to skirt what appeared to be an off-limits area, which once was a training camp for soldiers of the French Foreign Legion. Slowing on occasion for herds of wandering goats – all their ears notched for identification in the Niola fashion – I finally reached the village. It was called Castallare di Mercurio and according to my guide 69 people were meant to live there. It appeared deserted.

As I made my way towards the church at the centre of the village, I had almost given up on seeing people, when in the cool shadows of a house doorway I saw an old man in a flat cap watching a small child play on the ground in front of him. The scene would have been innocuous enough save for the fact that the man had an old rifle slung over his left shoulder. I introduced myself in hesitant French. He asked me where I was from. I replied ‘Irlande’. ‘Ah’, he sighed as his beaten leather face with the occasional tooth broke into a smile. ‘Gerry Adams.’ What, I asked, taken aback by the reference to the President of Sinn Fein and former IRA commander … and it must be noted the ‘bearded vulture’ of Irish politics. I supposed that if anybody is going to be famous in fiercely nationalist Corsica then Gerry Adams was not an unexpected choice.

The old man smiled again, noting my surprise. He took the trouble to explain, very matter-of-factly as he put out his hand to touch the child’s head, that many of the children of the villages in this particular area do an exchange every summer with children in Belfast. ‘A scheme set up in the Ghjurante,’ he said before turning and retreating into his house after calling for the child to follow.

The 2010 poster

The Ghjurante di U Populo Corsu or International Festival of Days is a celebration of Corsican culture that is held every August in Corte. Established now for about 30 years it is and has been an annual forum where the political wings of the world’s armed separatist movements such as the IRA, FLNC, ETA, etc. could meet to discuss areas of common interest. At this year’s Internationale Paul Fleming, the recent mayor of Derry, represented Sinn Fein and although very supportive towards an aggressive Catalonian and Corsican independence movement appeared to advocate an engagement in political dialogue rather than armed confrontation.

Increasingly, it seems to me, the notion of nation building as a reflection of popular political desire that began in the early 1600s, is now primarily determined by the economic impact of geographic definition. Nationalism as unifying inclusive concept to enable escape from empire has given way to far more exclusive regional separation or identity politics based, in the absence of an economic mandate, on a belief system that is often rooted in language. The separation then demands a faith in the purity of that language and by extension faith in the purity of purpose.

Unfortunately for the language of militarized separation politics Semtex and Khalashnikovs are international loan words.

Separation Anxiety

I left the village and made my way towards Aléria on the coast. The journey through the mountains, heavily forested in places by holm oak and the European sweet or hairy chestnut, was wonderful. The chestnut plantations, which provide fruit for flour and Corsica’s unique beer, are the result of a 1584 decree, by the resident Governor appointed by the Bank of Genoa, which stipulated that every land occupier had to plant one chestnut, one fig, one olive and one mulberry tree every year. The hoped-for silk industry based on the mulberry never materialized but interestingly it was the plantation of another ancient fruiting plant in Aléria that was to provide the spark for a renewed Corsican nationalism in the 1960’s.

The European Sweet (and hairy) Chestnut

Aléria on the eastern coast of Corsica had been founded in 566 BCE by Greek Phocaean colonists – who used the dolphin as their symbol on coins – and by 1962 somewhere between 12,000 and 17,000 former Algerian-French colonizers, known as the Pied-Noir, had resettled in the Aléria district following the establishment of Algerian independence. The ignition of this Corsican settlement was the ‘invasion’ of Corsica by General Massu’s paratroopers on the 24 May 1958.

The Pied-Noir came to dominate the wine industry and by 1970 were causing enormous resentment in the minds of Corsican natives. On August 21, 1975 a group of nationalists angry at a wine-adulterating scandal involving the Depieille Pied-Noir family occupied the Depielle cave. In the resulting shoot-out 2 police officers were killed and the nationalist leader the physician Dr Edmond Simeoni was arrested. As a consequence the Fronte di Liberazione Naziunale Corsu, or FLNC was formed and which subsequently launched its armed separatist agenda with a series of bombings across the island on May 4, 1976. Like the IRA by the late 2000s it had split into three factions yet in 2009 claimed that they had reunified to carry out a bombing at the barracks in Vescovato.

The French government response to the occupation of the Depielle cave was heavy handed in the extreme and ignored the real resentment felt by the native Corse. Unfortunately for the nationialists the Depielle family were personal friends of the then French Interior minister Michel Poniatowski and in authorising such an aggressive armed response Poniatowski demonstrated he had learnt a great deal – and nothing – about confronting an independence agenda.

In 1958 Poniatowski had been chief-of-staff to Pierre Pflimlin, a very early advocate of European integration, who on his very short-lived appointment to the position of Prime Minister was immediately faced with the Algerian insurrection and encouraged negotiation rather than an armed response. The French troops in Algeria, under General Massu, revolted and he ordered the paratroop ‘invasion’ of Corsica as part of Operation Resurection to force Pfimlin from power in favour of Charles de Gaulle who Massu had calculated would be more supportive of the Algerian French. Poniatowski had watched this unfold and unfortunately had determined that an armed response was better than negotiation.

French 'stamping' grounds

Massu was of course to be disappointed by de Gaulle who declared 'Algeria for the Algerians.' In a later statement, which led to his dismissal from command, but which is eerily similar to something that might be currently issused by the Israeli Defence Forces in respect to the occupied territories, Massu declared,

The Army has the power. It did not show it yet, because the opportunity did not arise. But the Army will use its power in one precise occasion (...) it encourages settlers to constitute paramilitary organisations and provides them weapons.

Massu had also advocated the use of torture and the rise of separtism in Corsica was a direct response to this type of rhetoric, a separation anxiety rhetoric that had sanctioned in a continuity of purpose not only the supply of arms to settlers but also the use of torture as a method of political control by occupying French forces from Indochina, to Madagascar, to Algeria and now to Corsica.

Chjam e Rispondi

On September 8th I was back in the mountains and after driving up the narrow road, carved out of the precipitous ravine walls that had been etched deep by the Golo river, arrived at the village of Casamaccioli about 10 am. Parking on the outskirts I walked towards the village square through a forest of temporary stalls selling everything from membership of the various nationalist organizations to lonzu, coppa, CDs and knives.

The morning began with a service in the church square. After the mass the procession of the statute of the Virgin began. The wooden statute originally arrived in the village after escaping from raiding Barbary pirates on the coast and it was carried by the white-robed members of one of the religious brotherhoods, the cunfraterna, from the church square to the village square. Here in a sequence of highly choreographed moves the famous spiral procession or granitula begins and weaves its way around the square. In the background you can hear the mesmerizing traditional song-chant of the a paghjella singers, singing their shepherd’s lament.

Corsican music is fatalistic.

In the afternoon it is a different type of engagement. All around you there suddenly erupts a singing competition between different pairings of two male singers. This is a form of improvised dialogue based on a question and answer or the chjam' è rispondi as it is called. Often the singing involved, from what I could make out, abuse of the crowd for their political views: a Punch & Judy show of vocal dexterity and identity politics. The winners of these individual contests were declared by public acclaim.

Unanswered Questions

By the end of a long day and after too much wine and food I slept in the car. I was not prepared to undertake the ravine road until fully in control of my senses. Three days later I took the ferry from San Bonifacio and returned to my hotel in northern Sardinia to find the hotel manager white-faced. The first plane had just hit the Twin Trade Towers in Manhattan and we could only sit mesmerized as the events of that day unfolded live on television.

Alan Ross, whose book had attracted me to Corsica, felt that Corsicans in general spent a disproportionate amount of time rehearsing death. A much earlier visitor to Corsica was Seneca the Younger, the stoic philosopher and future tutor of the Emperor Nero. Exiled there in 41 CE he declared in a very Corsican fashion in his book De Beneficiis:

“Nothing is more bitter than long uncertainty; some can bear to have their hopes extinguished better than to have them deferred.”

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