This week I’m reading about the attack on Paris. I don’t need to tell you about it. The media is full of front-line news on continual loop. It’s got that feel of 9/11 about it, but closer to home.
Last week I was reading Reportage, Cemetery of Lost Souls, photographer Giles Duley on the Greek Island of Lesbos, where many refugees end up on the beach. Some die, as the image of the Syrian boy that went global show. Perhaps it softened Western European perceptions of refugees a little, and for a short time, but most live. On that day 3rd November 2015 an estimated 7000 men, women and children had landed. Two men and two children had drowned. An Afghan father, with baby in arms, tries to find a place to for his wife and child to sleep. Here we are in the familiar world. When the father asks at a local hotel for a place to stay it wouldn’t surprise us if he’s shown round the back to a stable and a couple of guys riding camels appear with gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh. That doesn’t happen. The proprietor explains there’s nowhere left. Families are sleeping where they fall and they can’t even offer blankets. The father’s response is poetic, ‘Touch me, am I not human too?’
The answer of course is he’s not. Shylock says much the same thing to Salerio in The Comical History of The Merchant of Venice (although I can’t say I see much comedy):
I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die?
Solerio describes Shylock as, ‘A creature that did bear the shape of a man’. In the same way David Cameron, accidentally, on purpose, described refugees across the channel as ‘a swarm’. Swarms aren’t human, but something that needs to be contained. Shylock is a creature that is kicked, spat upon, and beaten. Shakespeare understood power. There’s been a shift in power and perceptions of what needs to be done. The disturbing news that Isis terrorists posed as refugees, at least one with a Syrian passport, passing through the Greek island of Leros in October and from there into mainland Europe, is a godsend to the far right. Overnight Angela Merkel and Germany’s humanitarian response to the movement of three million refugees is called into question, as is her leadership. Razor wire and border controls are the new real-politik. Poland’s new right-wing government have refused to play by the rules and take the 160 000 refugees that were to be re-located in their country as part of a pan-European agreement. As all those tens of thousands refugees hunker down in whatever shelter they can find tonight they will find that the Muslims are the new Jews. In this more bitter world, right-wing voices demands its pound of flesh. They will pay and keep paying, because what other choice do they have?