Sunday, November 12, 2006

Tangled Up in Babel

How is it ever possible that we understand one another?

In director Alejandro González Iñárritu's superb new film, "Babel," the characters struggle to communicate even when they speak the same language. But the story takes place in four different countries -- America, Mexico, Morocco and Japan -- with the actors using six different languages -- English, Spanish, Arabic, Berber, Japanese and Sign. Transcending foreign language and cultural barriers in reality is all but impossible. Now that the globe is connected as never before by technology, how can we love the neighbor that might be a terrorist, who has wronged us in some way, who disagrees with our values, and whose speech and face are different from ours?

Pieter Brueghel the Elder's 16th century painting of the Tower of Babel illustrates the story in the book of Genesis that mythologically explains the diversity of speech in the world. The Sumerians build a tower to heaven, perhaps intended as a gateway for the gods to come to earth. These great towers of Babylon, called ziggurats, were said to be among the largest religious structures ever built. The Hebrew author of Genesis sees them as a threat to the one god's sovereignty and considers their construction a form of hubris rather than an invitation. "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves," the Sumerians say in the Genesis account. The Hebrew god, however, is not pleased. "If now, while they are one people, all speaking the same language, they have started to do this, nothing will later stop them from doing whatever they presume to do." To curb their upityness, he says, "let us then go down and there confuse their language, so that one will not understand what another says." He then proceeds to destroy the city and scatter the people. The Hebrew word for this city, Bavel, is related to the verb balal, which means "to confuse or confound."

What can we make of this quaint myth in a world where the diversity of speech, as well as cultural customs, continue to confuse and confound us? In the 21st century, the world, while increasingly homogeneous on some levels, is becoming more and more fragmented. The ruins of Babylon are sixty miles south of Baghdad in a country where Sunnis and Shi'as are slaughtering each other because of a difference in religious identity. Although peaceful at the moment, the Irish divide themselves along sectarian lines. The people of the subcontinent, once united under English rule, now hate one another, Indian and Pakistani. Both Jews and Arabs are Semitic people, but they are fighting to the death in the Middle East over disputed land, their separate religious identities masking any similarities in culture and tradition.

Rodney King, the black man whose beating sparked rebellion in Los Angeles, asked the crucial question: "Why can't we all get along?"

Language, like religious, ethnic and national identities, can divide us. What can pull us together?

The major characters in González Iñárritu's "Babel," as in the previous films of his trilogy -- "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams" (all written by Guillermo Arriaga) -- are victims of a fate over which they have little control. There are tragic accidents in all three films, random violence as difficult to understand as words in a foreign tongue. The other major ingredient in these films is family: the characters are tied together by blood and marriage, and the glue that holds them together is often their children. In "Babel," a couple travels to Morocco to ease the pain of the death of a baby, while their two remaining children are cared for by an undocumented Mexican nanny whose son is about to be married in Tijuana. Across the globe, a Japanese father struggles to understand his rebellious deaf mute daughter who is suffering from the suicide of her mother. The link that brings the narrative together is a gun.

Stories help us make sense of our world. The answer González Iñárritu gives in his films is love. But this love does not change the chaotic, meaningless nature of reality, the random nature of violence, the futility of fate. Rather it enables us to endure it. Without love we are lost; with it we can survive for another day. In "Babel," the nanny is deported, but love of her son sustains her. We see the embrace of the Japanese father and his child, the love of a Berber boy for his brother, the resurrection of a marriage in the aftermath of an accidental shooting. The world remains a dangerous place, but hope can survive through love, on the screen and in reality.

Language and the difficulty of understanding one another was also the theme of Sofia Coppola's wonderful "Lost in Translation" a couple of years ago. And glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, comes up in two recent films. In the scary documentary "Jesus Camp," teens and preteens are whipped into a religious frenzy at a summer camp run by a fundamentalist minister, and they babble nonsense syllables through their tears. Language is twisted by the rituals, dogma and preaching into a black or white, devil or angel world view that will scar these children forever. But this world view is skewered delightfully by Sacha Baron Cohen in the mockumentary "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," when, after learning that Pamela Anderson is not the paragon of virtue he imagined, he stumbles into a real holy roller assembly and begins to babble along with them. The true believers are no less frightening, but at least there is comfort in shared laughter, much like the nervous laughter inspired by ghost stories.

In our own lives, there are misunderstandings and mistranslations. I struggle to understand the reality of my son Luke who is under dual diagnosis treatment in Boston for alcoholism and borderline personality disorder. We watch our words carefully but the love between us calls us to try and try again to bridge the gap and see the world through the other's eyes. I continue to try and make sense of why I stayed in a marriage for nearly twenty-five years when the ending made it obvious how different we were. The only answer I can come up with is continuous compromise inspired by a love that passes all understanding. Now I wonder where that love went.

We frail and fallible human beings can really understand very little in this life. Today our Tower of Babel is the skyscraper of science and technology and it lures us into thinking we know it all. But the terrorists of 9/11 leveled two towers in no time at all using only box cutters, jet airplanes and a fanaticism without limit. The love that arose out of that disaster, love among family and friends searching for the missing, and love and support of the world for our country's tragedy, is the love that will sustain us in troubled times.

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