In this season’s
, Fintan O’Toole, an Irish writer, speculates that the enduring appeal of the British monarch is that she makes the British crowd feel good about itself, about its manners, its patience. During the Golden Jubilee, O’Toole noticed that hordes of people would wait for a view of the Queen and even anticipate with proud yet self-deprecating humor the resignation they would feel afterward about having glimpsed only, say, her hat, or the tip of her hat, or her sleeve, or–worse–only Philip.
Monarchy means different things to different people. While the cover of Granta is graced with a portrait of Elizabeth R II, silver-haired and honest-looking in a blue suit, a black-and-white picture inside the magazine shows the late Emperor of the Central African Republic, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, in fur-trimmed crown and robe, seated on a gilt throne overarched by an eagle that would do a German fascist proud.
What I dislike about Riccardo Orizio’s Bokassa story is how easily it falls into subtle colonial arrogance, how it laughs up its sleeve at this ridiculous African. Of course, one hated Bokassa for his foolishness, too, as well as for his thuggery and his drawersful of diamonds and his murder not only of his enemies but of thousands of elephants for the ivory trade, etc., etc. Bokassa was a monster and a creep and a killer, but what can’t be forgiven–in addition–is that he was a buffoon; because of that, it’s permissible for Orizio, a well-known Italian travel writer, to disdain him in print the way Westerners have historically done with Africans, legendary or not.
The worst charge leveled against Bokassa is that he indulged in cannibalism. Western literature about Africa abounds with lavish descriptions of cannibal ritual, so it was unlikely that a tyrant like Bokassa would escape this, even though assertions about African and Polynesian cannibalism have been widely disputed by anthropologists and other social scientists. Yet Orizio rehashes the rumors: French troops supposedly found human cadavers in a freezer near Bokassa’s kitchens after he was deposed with French support in 1979, and this gruesome anatomical trove was promptly cited as “evidence.”
Even when Elizabeth behaved badly about Diana’s death and her subjects were a tad shocked at her coldness, no one charged her with eating her in-laws. Why? Because white people don’t do that. I hate to defend Bokassa’s rep against anything, but an unfounded charge of cannibalism, with its taint of cultural stereotype, trivializes the other really bad things the Emperor did, and turns both him and his victims into inky-skinned, white-toothed figures of derision.
Speaking of royals, a wonderful magazine dedicated to them is
, published out of London, where else? Who knew there were so many monarchs remaining in this world? Of course, Prince William the Handsome figures largely, but we have a full-page color photo of Princess Alexandra of Denmark and her new baby boy, another of Crown Princess Mathilde of Belgium holding flowers, and Queen Silvia of Sweden appears in a shirt that is rawthah décolleté. To say nothing of the blue-eyed King of Jordan, Abdullah, and his incredible Palestinian wife, Rania, who have had themselves photographed like a normal Muslim family (they’re anything but). Although Diana is largely missing from this issue, being dead and all, Princess Grace of Monaco, very similarly deceased and even longer ago, is the subject of a full feature. And the royals get to do funny things, like visit lizards and make eye contact with dinosaurs (what is it about the Battenbergs and reptiles?) and play bicycle polo. Prince Charles, who is more than 50 years old, tweaks the nose of a six-foot shrew–though the shrew is not real. One feels very much in the company of Waugh as one pages through the magazine.
Middle East Policy
, a somewhat more down-to-earth publication, has a major takeout on another royal, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and his peace proposal (sorry girls, no pix). The September issue, which also includes a smart article on the peace process and its foibles by John Lister, starts off with a symposium on the Abdullah Plan that is both moving and important because of its unflinching honesty, so rare in public discussions of the subject these days. The conversation among a handful of people, including Arabists like Edward Walker, former US ambassador to Egypt and onetime Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, an Israeli clinical psychologist (Ofer Grosbard, who is very good on the conflict), as well as Mamoun Fandy, who teaches politics in the Near East/South Asian studies department of the National Defense University, touches topics not often broached on the op-ed pages: How “Mohammed Sixpack” does not give a hoot for the policies of princes; how mainstream Palestinian and mainstream Israeli sentiment are surprisingly similar on a final peace; and how, as Michael Hudson, a professor of Arab studies at Georgetown, says, “it is not just your mood that makes you unhappy if you’re a Palestinian these days.” Hudson also discusses the “enormous disrespect [among Arabs] for what the Arab governments actually do,” Prince Abdullah’s included.
The Arabs, Hudson says, see Abdullah’s ideas not as a “plan” but as a “plea” to the Americans to “please do something.” In light of Israel’s recent incursions into Gaza, it’s unclear what the United States intends to do. But all the participants in the symposium agree: A useful, aggressive policy from Bush is long overdue. As Fandy says bluntly: “The American role…has to be rethought carefully, to serve the interests of America alone, not anybody else.” He suggests that it’s time for Americans to assess the needs of their empire. Crown princes, it turns out, can’t really shoulder much international responsibility, even if, like Abdullah, they’ve spent years in the desert living among the Bedouin and decades becoming familiar with Washington. If not emperors, then empires must take the lead.