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February 16, 2020

An Orwellian winter


February 16, 2020

After I disembarked at Milan’s Malpensa airport, it didn’t take long for me to be reminded that the world was still with me. So the escape I had planned from the raw winds of my own country was going to be less than perfect. Before I could get to the immigration windows, I had to pass through a medical team scanning all incoming passengers – a beep on the forehead to check coronavirus.

This intimation of a global crisis somewhat deepened when I settled in Monza, a quaint little town near Milan that is famous for its Formula One track. There were stories about the discrimination that the Chinese people are facing. It has a racial tinge.

For instance, the owner of a Chinese restaurant that has existed in this town for over thirty years, posted a notice that if customers continued to stay away, he would be forced to shut down the outlet. A Taiwanese family returning from home sent a WhatsApp message to parents of their daughter’s pre-school nursery, explaining that although Taiwan was not China, they had decided to not send the girl to the school for two weeks. And there was a sigh of relief, with responses of “thank you for being so considerate”.

In another sense, or course, the Chinese citizens have been warmly welcomed in Europe. In recent years, the rich Chinese are contributing an increasing share of income derived from tourism. Their faces would stand out against the backdrop of familiar sights such as the Colosseum in Rome or the Rialto Bridge on the Grand Canal in Venice.

But the Chinese are not there at this time and there have been assessments of how much revenue some specific tourist destinations have lost because of this coronavirus epidemic and the scare it has spread. Our own interaction with the Chinese is of a different kind and I do not know if their presence and visibility in our cities has been affected.

Another immediate impression I got was about the weather. This is not the central European winter that I would have expected. February is supposed to be the coldest month of the year and now temperatures during the day rise to double-digit Celsius. Is this a testimony of the dreaded climate change?

Anyhow, I feel deprived of the adventure of wandering through these environs in an extreme, snow-clad winter. On the other hand, I was able to take off my parka and sit in the sun on the stairs of the Milan cathedral. During this week, there was just one day that had clouds and some showers. It is going to be an early spring. Tiny, white bulbs are sprouting out of dead earth in some corners. Someone saw butterflies in the park.

Winter is also the season of art exhibitions and cosy, indoor events. The European fiction I had read as a teenager kindles, in my imagination, a fireplace in the room and snow falling across the glass windows on a moonlit night. Still, there is this considerable excitement of being in northern Italy, with easy access to a number of fabled locations. Speed trains have diminished distances.

In Monza, I was particularly attracted to an unexceptional exhibition of photographs now continuing for some weeks in the historic, red-brick town hall. It is titled ‘To Read’ – ‘Leggere’ in Italian – and is composed of photographs by the renowned Steve McCurry. My interest in it was aroused for two reasons.

One, I feel strongly for our lack of reading habits and think that this reflection of our state of intellectual deprivation is an important measure of our social condition. In addition, I was familiar with some of McCurry photographs on the subject. Hence, here was also some nostalgic value for me.

After all, the most celebrated snap of this iconic photographer was of that Afghan schoolgirl McCurry had found in an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan in early eighties. It was this image of the ‘Afghan Girl’ that made McCurry famous and after that he covered many human crises in the Middle East and South Asia.

This exhibition had an entry ticket of 10 euros and I got a two euro discount for being a senior citizen. Obviously, the photographs of people reading a book or a newspaper or separate pages in some very unlikely situations all tell stories. There was one of a woman reading a newspaper in a Peshawar refugee camp in the eighties when others in that tent are watching PTV.

I am tempted to dwell more on the photographs and on how the exhibition is curated with famous quotations on the value and the magic of reading. On this occasion, I will only reproduce two quotes. Josif Brodskij: “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them”. Hermann Hesse: “We should read not in order to forget ourselves and our daily lives but, on the contrary, in order to gain a firmer, more conscious, more mature grip on our own lives”.

Ah, so should we also read George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’? Yes, this subject of reading books brings me back to Pakistan of this week. On the very day that I was standing in front of McCurry photographs in the Monza town hall, former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was addressing the National Assembly in Islamabad.

He concluded his observations on the country’s ‘economic meltdown’ with the remark that Pakistan today is the embodiment of Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’. He suggested that all ministers should read the novel, which is an allegory of how a group of farm animals rebel against their human farmer.

Shahid Khaqan, who wants ‘Animal Farm’ to become a part of our curriculum, also offered to donate 200 copies for the benefit of the ministers and other members of the Assembly. Think about it. The photograph of a member of Imran Khan’s cabinet reading ‘Animal Farm’ – or any literary classic – could belong in an exhibition in some faraway, exotic location.

The writer is a senior journalist.

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