Sunday, November 11, 2007

Millet or silver cookies

Amadou Hampâte Bâ tells in his book Mémoires that, in the French West Africa, the governor of Dakkar imposed a tax to the indigenous people in his territories, something ironically called "the price of the soul", because of being the tax to be paid for the right to life. It was through the circle commanders that taxes were collected.
"Silver cookies?"

One day in the year 1916, the governor had decided that, since then, the tax could not be paid in nature anymore, but in cash. The commander in the circle of Dori gathered the chiefs of tuareg tribes to let them know the new rule.

When the chief of Logomaten tribes was present, he told the interpreter: "Tell the chief that, by the governor's order, from now on the tax will not be collected in nature, but in currency."

The interpreter turned to the chief and expressed in the Fula language of Dori: "The commander has said that the great governor has said that from now on the tax must be paid in bouddi". It must be said that, in Fula, the word bouddi is used to designate coins of five francs, but also boiled millet cookies.

The tuareg chief, very happy, smiled and said: "Interpreter! Thank the commander, and tell him that I own a great amount of millet, and also servants that can prepare as many bouddi as he wants, enough to feed the population of Dori during months!".

The interpreter realised about the mistake: "He does not mean bouddi of millet flour, but bouddi in money." The chief, confused, asked to be shown a sample of the cookie he was demanded. The commander gave a five francs coin to the interpreter, who held it to the chief. He turned it, stared at it, weighed it, bite it... afterwards gave it back to the interpreter: "This silver cookie, where was it cooked?". After listening to the interpreter, the commander exploded: "In France! Where does he want it to come?".

"In France?", said the interpreter, surprised. "Interpreter, tell the commander to be reasonable. He is asking me to give him money cookies that have been cooked in France, being French himself. I am a tuareg from Dori, who can only make millet cookies. It should be me who asked him for money cookies from his home, and not the contrary! If the commander wants the tax to be paid in camels, oxes, lambs, goats, millet, rice, butter or slaves, then I can do it. But if he is demanding me to give him the cookies he is showing me, which are cooked in France, then he wants fight. I accept! But I warn him: the tuareg I am finds fight as one's element!".

Immediately after, he showed the right arm to the commander: "Interpreter! Tell the commander to look at my arm. It is not less white neither worse that his. Look at my nose: it is not less straight than his. I am as white as him. If we were alone, man to man, the commander would not dictate me his will, as he is not stronger neither braver than me. If he wanted, I would invite him for a personal duel at the dunes, and I would be sure to beat him. But no... the only advantage the commander has on me, which allows him to torment me with his "I want this" and "I do not want that", is because his country is stronger than mine."

Whitout saying farewell, the tuareg chief went out and jumped on his dromedary. There was never a duel between the commander and the chief, but a war between France and the tuaregs, specially the tribes of Logomaten and Oudalan. It was the great revolt of 1916.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

A retirement that resulted expensive

The reign of Philip IV of Spain, "the Planet King", witnessed one of the biggest urbanistic disasters in Modern History. It was the Palace of Buen Retiro ("Good Retirement"), that his minister the Count-Duke of Olivares planned in 1629 so that the decadent Court was entertained and therefore put aside of government responsibilities.

El Buen Retiro

The place started up being a terrain property of the Count-Duke close to the Monastery of Jerónimos in Madrid, later acquiring nearby lands from the marquises of Poyar and Tavera, besides donations of the city itself, becoming a terrain of 145 hectares.

The project was encharged to the architects Giovanni Battista Crescenzi and Alonso Carbonell, who designed large gardens with woodlands and entertainment areas, ponds, theatres, one colosseum, one lion's den and an exihbition of exotic birds. Since 1633 the greatest king partyies were celebrated in here, if they were dances, bullfightings, naumachias, and performance of the best playwrights of the Golden Century (Calderón de la Barca, Lope de Vega and Tirso de Molina acted there). During his reign, it was never open to the population.

But outside the reality was very different. The people of Madrid, overwhelmed with oppressive taxes to pay the endless Flanders wars and with an inflation caused by the gold from America, was in a precary situation. And the works carried out in El Retiro only caused a greater poverty, riots and critics.

Worsening the problem

The king's obsession for collecting artworks took him to buy large collections of pictures (more tan 800 in ten years) from painters in Madrid, Rome and Naples. In 1633, he asked for a palace-museum with luxury interiors able to store all these acquisitions. So it was imperative to plan a new great building, to which the king continously added endless annexes, and make it in a cheap and quick manner in order to silence critics. The palace was built in only seven years, leading the country to near economic collapse, and using low-quality materials (stone only in basements, the walls were made of bricks and forge was wooden).

Quevedo is attributed the verses "it is not a good occasion / that when so many disasters happen / you make water fountains spring / you are making retirements (Retiros) / and not loneliness". Matías de Novoa blamed Olivares for "making a ridiculous, non-profitable building and useless in all manners, of thin walls and weak basements, unfavoured by Nature and Heaven, sterile and sandy, wanting to force it to fecundity and decoration from plants helped by money, not from him or his possessions, but from the belongings of the city". The capital was full of rumours and jokes about the palace, that was called "the hen run", due to its exterior ugliness and the big bird store it housed.

From 1735 to 1764, when the new Royal Palace was built, the royal family had to live in the Palace of El Retiro, that hated it because of the walls' slimness and the low quality of the building. This was finally the cause of its end, a progressive degradation that, when the French installed there during the Independence War, provoked the complete ruin of the palace.

The palace was a good reflection of Philip IVth reign, a greatness built on mud feet. Its sad end came with its pulling down by order of Isabella II, and the requalification and sale of its lands, that had already become the centre of Madrid, in what became one of the great fishy urbanistic deals in Spain History. Today the majority of the gardens (completely reformed) remains, and also a salon for parties (Casón del Buen Retiro).