Journey to the Lands of Cotton: A Brief Manual of Globalisation

About the author
Erik Orsenna is the author of numerous essays and novels, including Grand Amour and L'Exposition Coloniale, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1988. Elected to the Academie franÌ_aise in 1998, he is currently president of the administrative council of the Ecole nationale supÌ©rieure du Paysage. His website is at www.erik-orsenna.com.

In 2003 the German literary magazine Lettre International launched a new literary prize, the "Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage", to recognise and honour a valuable but underrated form. In its first year, the prize was won by the Russian writer Anna Politovskaya for Chechnya: Russia's dishonour. In 2004, the Chinese writers Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao carried the prize for their seminal work, A Survey of Chinese Peasants, and last year it was British journalist Alexandra Fuller's book Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier.

Over the coming weeks, openDemocracy will publish excerpts from the finalists for the 2006 award. The winner will be announced in Berlin on 30 September.

The short list:

  • Erik Orsenna (France): Journey to the Lands of Cotton: A Brief Manual of Globalisation (Fayard, 2006)


To read extracts from last year's list, click here.

* * *

 

Extract from Journey to the Lands of Cotton: A Brief Manual of Globalisation (Fayard, 2006)

Translated from the French by Chris Turner

Cotton is the pig of botany: all of it can be used. So all of it is taken.

First, the most precious part: the fibres. These are the long white strands surrounding the seeds. Machines will separate them from the seeds. Cotton fibres are soft and supple, and yet tough. They are resistant to water and humidity. They are untroubled by our perspiration. They accept without protest being washed a thousand times, ironed a thousand and one. They take dye like nothing else and retain it ... The long list of these qualities has disheartened competing raw materials, both animal and vegetable. Wool and linen are nowhere any longer. Though synthetic fibres dominate the market (60 per cent), cotton is holding its own (40 per cent).

And so cotton clothes the human race.

And it doesn't stop there. It goes into the making of medical compresses, of course, but also specialized papers (including banknotes), photographic film and candlewicks. And, in their constant concern to make themselves useful, its fibres go into the composition of cosmetics (nail varnish, haircare products), toothpastes, ice creams ... And even though the taste of some Bolognese sauces or German sausages might seem strange, how were we to know that they contained cotton?

The seeds are no less generous. Rich in protein, they provide us, without our knowing it, with a large part of our table oil. As the marketing men apparently fear that the 'cotton oil' label will put off the potential buyer, it is dubbed, more vaguely and more generally, 'vegetable oil'.

Animals too are fed on cotton: they eat cake made from the seeds and their husks.

What is left over serves in the manufacture of soaps, fertilizers, explosives (glycerine), fungicides, insecticides and ... synthetic rubber. You have to realize that the petrochemical industry is mad for these vegetable residues: it uses them in that mysterious operation known as refining, which leads to the most improbable substances, including plastics.

For those made anxious by these manoeuvres, let us go back to mother nature, to the quietude of simple things. After the harvest, the stems and branches of the cotton bush will be turned into animal litter. Or, for want of better fuels, the farmers will burn them.

***

This is why so many people are concerned with cotton: some hundreds of millions of men and women on all continents.

And this is why, for years, I had wanted to make this great journey. Something told me that by following the paths of cotton, from farming to the textile industry by way of biochemistry, from Koutiala (Mali) to Datang (China) by way of Lubbock (Texas), Cuiabá (Mato Grosso), Alexandria, Tashkent and the valley of the Vologne (France, Vosges département), I would understand my planet better.

The results of the long investigation have exceeded my expectations.

To understand globalizations - those of the past and the present one - there is nothing like examining a piece of cloth. Doubtless because it is made up solely of threads and bindings, and by the passage to and fro of a shuttle.

Did you know that around 1620, in Mexico City, the capital of New Spain, the tailors were in a state of rare anger? A large Chinese community had just established itself and was already offering low-price clothing that was ruining the competition.

If you want to learn more about softness, I mean about the harsh goings-on behind the scenes of softness, then take to the road and come with me to where the 'wool trees' are. And listen carefully.

I

MALI

A stone's throw from the station, a petite lady, no longer in the first flush of youth, reigns over a great white bunker. Her face is bird-like: pointed, bony, topped by a helmet of grey hair impeccably divided by a parting. She receives you with that sort of automatic kindness shown by the best hostesses, with their genuine concern to give the visitor a warm welcome, whomever he may be. Her guards, many and muscular, have rougher manners.

The lady is called Vicki Huddleston. She is the ambassador of the United States. In a sweet voice she expresses her convictions. And you sense that nothing will ever make her change them.

Her lecture on free-market good sense is faultless.

You have to start out on sound principles, she says. Everyone must do his job. A cotton company is there to produce cotton, profitable cotton, not to teach literacy, maintain roads or open dispensaries.

And a state has other jobs to do than bail out the losses of a company that is too cumbersome and much too badly managed.

So privatization is necessary.

The IMF and the World Bank have been recommending it to Mali for years. They have set funds aside to finance the measure.

But Mali goes on rejecting and rejecting...

Mrs. Huddleston sighs. This slowness, so contrary to the country's interests, seems to offend her personally. 'I've travelled a lot since I got here. I've been touched by the people. I love Mali.'

I speak to her of the farmers' worries. The CMDT brings them so much...

'If the state doesn't take over, we'll put training and health in the hands of NGOs. I have confidence in their efficiency...'

The poor Malians! Do they only have a choice between an outdated collective farm and wildcat privatization with the wounds bound up by charity?

Am I going to seem impolite, and spoil brusquely the affable tone of the interview? I move away from Mali for a moment. I cross the Atlantic. I mention those gigantic subsidies paid by the Washington administration to the American cotton producers. Don't these distort free competition; don't these run counter to the law of the market? In a word, aren't the farmers of Kaniko, who call for an end to these subsidies, more 'free-market' than their counterparts in Texas?

Vicki smiles at me as though I were a retarded child or had had my brain addled by the sun. In the same sweet tone, she advises me not to confuse matters.

'Africa is obsessed with blaming the other continents for its own problems, instead of finding solutions by itself, within itself. As part of your investigations, I presume you're going to go to my country? If you're honest, you'll see a modern agriculture there. Have a good trip.'

***

I first met Amani Toumani Touré in the fine French town of Annecy in Summer 1992. A meeting had been organized by the Club Aspen, chaired by Raymond Barre. Amani had arrived as a hero of democracy.

On 24 March 1991, when he was then a colonel in the parachute regiment, Amani had arrested Moussa Traoré, the man who had tyrannized Mali for more than twenty years.

And on 8 June 1992, uniquely among his African military counterparts, he had kept his promise, handing power back to a civilian, Alpha Oumar Konaré, the democratically elected head of the Republic of Mali.

His later actions could only enhance his legendary status: his numerous goodwill missions on the continent, his constant activity on behalf of sick children... The Malian people have just elected him to the highest office. This time he receives me in his new residence, the presidential palace.

We know that Bamako, in the Bambara language, means 'backwater of the crocodile'. Is it for this reason - cautiously distancing themselves - that wise heads have chosen to establish the main government buildings on a hill. Government Hill dominates the city, then. On the other hill, to the east, they have built the hospital.

The president does not conceal his anxiety from me: 'We used to call our cotton 'white gold'. And we know a thing or two about gold because we mine more than a hundred tonnes of it a year. Cotton was, for a long time, our greatest ally. Have you read this study? In five years, poverty fell by ten per cent in the cotton areas and increased by two per cent elsewhere. Today, the white gold is becoming our curse. Cotton makes up half our export revenues. Almost a third of our population live directly from it: three and a half million men and women! And perhaps another fifteen million among our neighbours! How could we give up cotton? I did, admittedly, agree to guarantee the farmers a higher return than the world commodity price. What else could I do? They were in rebellion! Is that what the World Bank wants? Another zone of instability in the south of our country on the very borders of Ivory Coast, where there's already a constant stream of refugees? How am I supposed to feed them? And my three and a half million, if they haven't anything to eat, they'll come to the towns first. And then on to France, any way they can. They'll be clinging to the undercarriages of the aircraft. Is that what you want?'

In the great interview hall, icy and impersonal, where, apart from a few worthy paintings, everything - the chandeliers, the sofas and the low table - is cream-coloured, Amani Toumani Touré has lost nothing of his fire. On the contrary, you would say the presidency had taken years off him. He speaks simply and clearly, without the rhetorical flourishes scattered about the speeches of other African leaders.

'We are condemned for our deficit. But no one looks at the causes of that deficit. Without the subsidies they get from their state, American farmers would produce dearer cotton than we do. Since independence we've increased our production by a factor of twenty. For forty years we've fought day after day to better ourselves. We've gone all out for competition. Without the slightest chance of winning, because the most powerful player is cheating.'

And what can we do against the currency war between Europe and the USA? By belonging to the franc zone we are bound hand and foot to the euro. As soon as it rises, our cotton is worth less, since it's purchased in dollars. Do you think that's normal? One of the poorest of countries tied to the highest value currency? The higher it climbs, the more we fall. And no one protests. Particularly not the World Bank.'

With a slightly clumsy gesture, he rolls up the sleeves of his embroidered blue bubu in irritation. Decidedly, it does not suit him. It's too big, too pretty, too embroidered. The president straightens up.

'Privatization, all right. It seems we have no choice. But I shan't let the World Bank smash our whole industry by going too fast. We need time. There are moments when I wonder if that isn't their aim - to smash our industry. That would suit our competitors - and you can see which ones I mean. Tell them clearly, since you're going to Washington, that I won't compromise over time.'

There is palpable anxiety in this soldier, who has been through many crises and has never lacked for courage. May God, if he exists, protect the presidents of Mali! Their job isn't easy.

It's time I'm thinking of as I leave the palace, or rather the violent confrontation between different time scales. Globalization isn't just a spatial question. It has triggered the war of clocks.

In preceding centuries, national economies were not in too much of a hurry: they were built up behind the comfortable shelter of very high and very impermeable customs barriers. These were taken down only when they were strong enough to pit themselves against their most redoubtable rivals. Such forms of protection, such 'educative' lenteurs are no longer permitted. Hardly has one begun to sail than one must confront the perils of the high seas.

Is there any sense to this acceleration? Many experts think that in five or, at most, ten years time, countries like China, India and Pakistan will have to reduce their production of cotton. Good land is rare and populations are growing: how can they feed them without developing their food production?

Africa, which has no pressures on land, may then be able to extricate itself from difficulty.

But in five or ten years, what will be left of Mali's cotton?

It seems as though Nicolas Normand, our ambassador, who is with me, has guessed my concerns with the temporal. But, as is his wont, he changes dimension. He's not just a diplomat. He's a scholar fascinated by nature. He points out that, to our left, at the bottom of the marble staircase, where I thought I was merely looking at some sort of palm tree, is a Cycas revoluta, a plant that has survived from the Primary Era, a botanical fossil five hundred million years old. The president's chief of protocol hesitates: should he take his leave of us or attend to the lecture? The driver seems to be used to all this. He admitted to me that the only real difficulty in his work is that when the ambassador shouts out, he has to jam on the brakes, even in the middle of an official procession. This is because some rare bird is flying across the sky - a cream-coloured courser or a Clapperton's francolin...

Just before going back down into Bamako, the ambassador switches science. It seems the sandstone plateau on which we are standing is one of the oldest lands in the world. It dates from two to three billion years ago, before the Primary Era, the Pre-Cambrian. At that period, our planet had only a single continent, Gondwana. We are at the very point that was its centre.

II

UNITED STATES

Is the man we've come to see, Mark Lange, Director General of the National Cotton Council, going to see us? The NCC is the association for all the American professionals in the cotton industry. Marjorie, his assistant is a lofty, icy, heavily powdered black woman. She didn't give us much hope.

'Mr Lange is very busy ... What a pity! Mr Lange was in Washington when you were ... Remind me of your nationality? French? Mr Lange doesn't like untruths ... We'll call you back.'

As I wait for my mobile to ring, I watch the ducks paddling around. These pleasant creatures are the attraction of the Peabody (the local luxury hotel). They live in the fountain in the main hallway opposite the reception desk and waddle around, cackling, among the chuckling clients.

It was in a private room at the Peabody that a number of powerful men in the cotton industry decided on 21 November 1938 that they would create the NCC to defend their interests.

At night, Memphis recovers its bearings with the arrival of the ghosts. The noisiest of them populate Beale Street. During the Civil War, Ulysses Grant, the Northern general, set up his headquarters here. Imitated much later by W. C. Handy, the creator of Saint Louis Blues, and by many of his disciples, including Elvis Presley, from the mid-1950s onwards.

Though quieter, the ghosts that have taken up residence along the river are present nonetheless. You simply have to know where they meet: in one of the most austere buildings, 64 Union Street. You need good eyes and a torch to make out the half-faded copper plaque: COTTON EXCHANGE BUILDING

Ghosts don't come here by chance. Memories have invaded the hallway: dozens of photographs of the old days. The first cotton-picking machines. A steamboat on the river weighed down with bales. Engineers posing in front of the very latest cotton gin. Elvis, Elvis himself, with his sulky smile: he is kissing a child holding out a cotton branch.

An entire display cabinet is devoted to communications. Cotton transactions were effected by telegram, so the number of words had to be kept to a minimum. A certain C. B. Howard jnr. created the first code in 1926. Three years later it was supplanted by a new system invented by Theodore Buenting: by using five letters in all possible combinations, traders could tell each other all they needed to know without losing precious time. Buenting, Howard ... - you feel ashamed at knowing nothing of these heroes of cotton.

The antechamber, all in precious wood and copper, has performed its initiatory role. Now, through double doors, we can enter.

A vast rectangular hall. At one end a desk. At the other a bale: 220 kilos of cotton grey with dust. Five rows of chairs where the sellers and buyers sat. They face telephone cabins surmounted by a mezzanine level with an endless blackboard running along it. Each state has its line:

ALABAMA
ARIZONA
ARKANSAS
CALIFORNIA ...

And from left to right run the different columns: Crop Report, Prospective, Qualities ...

This Exchange has been closed for nearly thirty years. Why, then, do all the squares on the board have figures in them? What chalk can last as long as this?

Mr Stanley will whisper the answer to me as we are leaving. He has the job of designing the future cotton museum and he is worried: will it even see the light of day? The funds, though promised, are taking so long to come through ...

'I followed your eyes. You've guessed it, haven't you? Our old people take it in turns. Every morning one of them calls from New York. You can count on him. No one comes here to do business. But those are the real prices written on the board. Memphis is a loyal town.'

***

The main door is closed. After some minutes of anxious waiting (might Mr Lange have changed his mind about seeing you?), you realize you have to go round the back. Go up to the camera. Smile at it nicely. Orders are given. You are in the holy of holies. A modest entrance-hall. No apparent luxury, but pride all over the walls, dozens of gilded or silvered metal plaques attesting to the fine services rendered by the NCC. Just cross the hallway (the one protected by the closed main door; this one is luxurious: leather armchairs, tropical wood for the low table, portraits of past officials on the walls), and here we are:

... Mark Lange!

The impression is of a chubby child, barely grown to adulthood: average height, rather plump, nice round cheeks; behind large spectacles, the laughing mien of the boy who's top of the class.

A chubby child who calmly, for starters, throws out a figure:

'Thirty billion dollars.'

And then, as though proudly describing his latest toy, explains that this sum represents the turnover of the members of the Council he has the honour of leading.

'We look after the interests of the entire cotton industry, from the planter to the textile distributor by way of the equipment manufacturers, the seed creators, the inventors of insecticides, the spinners, the weavers...'

Marjorie, the over-powdered black assistant drinks in her boss's words without taking her eyes off these French visitors. Clearly, she has no great opinion of them.

How could you not share in this pride? The interests of these diverse bodies are entirely divergent. Only a high-class juggler could keep them together. And only an exceptional illusionist could hide from everyone the fact that the sole beneficiaries of the system are the planters.

Decidedly, the chubby child in the blue shirt is a master.

The machine, invented before his day, but perfected - and how well perfected - by him, combines the physics of fluids with precision watchmaking. Let us summarize and simplify:

American farmers embody some of the founding values of the nation, most particularly manliness and the outdoor life, OK? OK. How can you not love farmers? Every five years framework legislation defines the administration's new agricultural policy (I mean it promises the sector a certain sum in subsidies): this is the Farm Bill. Must they continue to assist this group of people which, though admittedly picturesque and valiant, form only two per cent of the population?

For months, it's war. With party divisions set aside, the congressional representatives from the rural areas are up against the others. The lobbies are a hive of activity. Journalists hold forth on the subject. The resultant of these forces produces a figure. After a few final alarums, peace returns. Birdsong is heard once more on the battle field.

The outcome for the period 2003-2007: ten billion dollars in promises to American farmers.

The NCC could preen itself: it had led the army of agricultural lobbyists.

There remained, for Mark Lange and his friends, the most delicate task of all: how to have the greater part of this manna wind up in the pockets of his cotton planters? To my great regret, I know nothing of the particular ruses employed. I can only admire the results achieved.

The Americans are good sports. A winner, whoever he may be, must be feted. Without resentment or shame. So, once again, in 2003 the NCC received the prize for the USA's best lobbyists.

The effectiveness of Mark Lange has much to do with his watchmaker's qualities. A good lobby boss requires perfect mastery of the political timetable. At Washington, in this strange 'hop' that is American democracy, where, from morning to evening everyone dances with everyone else, the shifting allegiances of the heart have their laws. The Don Juans of the lobbies, at times wheedling and coaxing, at times employing blackmail, know the periods when the resistance of their prey, the politicians, weakens: when a ballot is looming. The chief art of the lobbyist consists, then, in weaving the pattern of their demands into the timetable of elections. A presidential election every four years, legislative elections every two years. As if by chance, one quarter of the most influential personalities in the Congress represent cotton states. And you can already predict a favourable reception for the farmers' demands in the next Farm Bill: its entry into force (2008) coincides with a battle for the presidency.

But the lobbyist's profession is a complicated one. In parallel with these national pulsings, he must concern himself with multilateral chronologies. The World Trade Organization has a rhythm to its activities which today's lobbyist has to cope with, if not indeed take seriously into account.

How, for example, to respond to the WTO's condemnation of the American administration's subsidies to its cotton farmers?

First play for time, then globalize. The two tactics are really one. You have to get the elimination of all subsidies (not just American ones) for all agricultural production (not just cotton production) on to the agenda of the coming sessions of the WTO. A global debate of such scope will inevitably go on forever. And during these long, very long deliberations, Mark Lange's finely-tuned mechanism will continue, without any great disturbance, to distribute its big bucks.

'America shouts about the virtues of the free market everywhere. How can you defend this system which so defies market logic?'

'No one is more of a free-marketeer than I am. A world with no subsidies would be better. That's why we advocate getting rid of all subsidies - visible and invisible - all together and at the same time. We have a list of them. Do you know how much aid the European Union grants its cotton producers? A billion dollars every year - and for just two countries, Spain and Greece! And it's the same with China. Why are we the only ones being criticized?'

'Because you are, by a long way, the biggest seller of cotton on the planet - forty per cent of all exports. Your system is destroying the market!'

Mark Lange smiles without evincing the slightest impatience. He has heard this argument a thousand times and answered it a thousand times. But repeating and repeating again, smiling and smiling again are the two main jobs of the lobbyist. He quotes research. Serious research. Big professors. The best universities. 'You have good universities in France? This research comes to a clear conclusion: the world price doesn't depend on us. Let's be precise: we have a negligible influence, barely quantifiable.'

Later, in the charming motel we are staying in, French Quarters, a staging point much appreciated by clandestine lovers, I shall consult other figures. The subsidies artificially sustain unprofitable production. Without them, American farmers would stop planting cotton. With supply diminishing, prices would pick up: a rise of between five and seventeen per cent according to the experts.

III

BRAZIL

We've been driving for three hours. Will we manage some day to leave São Paulo?

Indeed, can you leave São Paulo?

Perhaps the world's biggest city has invaded the world?

Another hour passes. And here's a half-wooded hill: the buildings only go half way up the slope. And then another, and another. São Paulo must eventually have come to a stop.

But straight after São Paulo the factories begin. Factories everywhere and cubes. Solitary cubes or cubes in piles - doubtless the houses where the humans who work in the factories live.

***

Santista.

It sounds like the name of a religion. An esoteric cult of African origin, like Cuban Santería. Or the nickname of some great artiste, a dancer or singer.

But Santista is a textile company, Brazil's foremost textile company, with a presence in Chile and Argentina too. Five thousand five hundred employees, several research centres, training agreements with universities ... An old lady, born in 1929, but still at the forefront of competitiveness.

I count. In the immense hall - a good two hectares - of the Americana factory, I can see only nine workers occupied from one machine to another. I mention this to the director, who takes my comment for a criticism.

'You're right. We're still far too over-manned in this mill. Come and see Unit 2 right next door. Much, much more modern.

I count once again. Only five workers.

The director grimaces.

'I know,' he says, 'still a few too many to compete with the Chinese.'

What, then, is the secret of these Chinese, the weapon that makes them so strong?

'I've thought about this a long time and I'll give you my answer. The Chinese have invented the ideal worker. In other words, the worker who costs even less than the absence of a worker.'

***

You'd think you were at the bottom of a mine shaft or in catacombs. A great hole lined with gigantic shelves.

Two cages go up and down in the hole without respite. In each cage - you don't see this at first, your eyes have to adjust to the darkness - a man is sitting. And each cage, or each man, has arms, long shafts of flat steel.

The work of these cages consists in taking the roles of cloth that come from the mill from a lorry and stacking them on the shelves from the top of the hole to the bottom. And then in going to fetch them and putting them in the other lorry, the delivery truck.

Eight hours a day in the hole. The only advantage of this job: the drivers in the cages become habituated to the abode of the dead.

***

Six p.m. Night is falling. One by one, workers leave the mill. There are soon thirty of them, then fifty, lined up facing a tall flagpole on a little cement platform. Two girls and a boy arrive. The boy is carrying an iron table of the kind used for family picnics. He carefully unfolds its legs. Girl number one puts a grey box down on it: a ghetto blaster.

Meanwhile, the boy has joined girl number two. They are standing at the foot of the pole, their hands on the halyard. The director has taken his place at the end of the line. With a nod of his head, he starts the ceremony. The cassette in the ghetto blaster has had a long, laborious life and deserves to be pensioned off. It can advance only with a sigh. Among the squeaking noises it's difficult to make out the tune. Fortunately, the workers have begun to sing:

Ouviram do Ipiranga as margens plácidas
De um povo heróico o brado retumbante.
E o sol da Liberdade, em raios fúlgidos,
Brilhou no céu da Pátria nesse instante.

[The Ipiranga's placid banks heard / The resounding cry of a heroic people / And the sun of freedom, in bright rays / Shone at that moment in the homeland's skies]

The anthem so well known to 'sportsmen'. When this refrain rises into the air, football lovers perk up. They know they are going to see the finest of spectacles, since the Brazilian team is playing. The yellow and gold flag, 'Order and Progress', comes down slowly, wrapped around the pole. It seems that a bird has joined the choir. Tirelessly, it produces a continuous, raucous whistle. But, on checking, this is merely the pulley of the halyard creaking.

How good is the Santista team in this fierce competition, this textile World Cup?

What will its chances be against China in the final?

To be honest, with the exception of the two girls, the one with the blaster and the other with the flag, the rest of the choristers are only mouthing the words and you see more tiredness on their faces than exaltation. But they stand to attention and no one sniggers. Each of them knows that a man who is proud of his work puts more into it. Pride is the mother of energy.

Soon, as their measuring instruments become more refined, the financial controllers will know the degree of pride present in the blood of each worker. And woe betide anyone who falls below the level.

The nations one might believe outmoded in our borderless world have some bright days ahead of them: they provide the right soil on which to grow pride.

And a stadium is a cut-down version of the nation.

The next day, 23 May, Brazil, that knight-defender of the market and dispenser of lectures on free trade to the rest of the world (beginning with the USA) decided to raise its customs barriers to dizzying heights. Its textile industry - 'which was afraid of no one, and certainly not China' - was in danger of dying in very short order unless it received protection. In four months, imports of Chinese textile products had increased by a hundred and seventy per cent.

Will these measures be enough? Most Chinese imports to Brazil are either clandestine or under-declared. The difference between the economy and football is the referee. Imagine a match without a referee, played in the dark, with life-and-death stakes. Who would play by the rules?

IV

EGYPT

Mr Amin Abaza is a colossus. Perhaps this is why he has Monsieur Empereur's entire confidence. Perhaps one of his ancestors stood guard over the Pharos of Alexandria? But he is a colossus with exquisite manners. He will spend more than a quarter of an hour excusing himself. For his French (it is perfect). For the wine he has chosen (it is execrable). For the rain falling outside (I reassure him, I'm a Breton. With all that's poured on me over the years, I ought to have dissolved long ago).

The Abaza family is proud of its legend, which begins somewhere in the region of Yemen, in the depths of time (the age when legends are born). Some time in the eighteenth century, for some unknown - doubtless violent - reason, the Abaza family left Arabia felix to settle in the delta where they soon launched themselves into the remunerative profession of protecting pilgrims on their way to Mecca. To complement their resources, they traded and, soon, prospered. The Abaza family had big ideas and took good care of themselves. With meticulous care and steadfastness, they went into genetics. At regular intervals, they brought their strongest males together with the finest available slaves, showing a preference for Caucasians. And that was how, from generation to generation, colossi came into the world, including the - smiling - one now facing me.

To begin with, Amin Abaza avoided cotton like the plague. His father had had his fingers burned with it, a victim of - invariably sudden - reverses in the market. For two whole decades he had debts to repay. Barely had he got himself back on an even keel, when Nasser arrived with his string of socialist measures: the division and, consequently, redistribution of land; an obligation to keep on one's employees, the nationalization of commerce, which became the prerogative of six public-sector companies... The family braced itself and took refuge in the higher reaches of the civil service.

When he had finished his university studies, Amin first chose finance, then property. With success. But how could he resist the call of fibre? As soon as a new law made private trade legal in 1994, our colossus stepped into the breach. Ten years later, his company, the Modern Nile Cotton Company, dominates all its competitors and Amin, its director general, chairs the exporters' association.

Is it the fault of the dinner, unappetizing as predicted, or the poor situation of the Egyptian economy, still largely nationalized? Our friend has lost his good humour. He rails, in turn, against the cotton pickers' lack of care and, more generally, against the laziness of the farmers. Do you see? They don't think two annual harvests are possible!' He bemoans the incompetence of the agronomists responsible for crop rotation. He condemns the lack of vigilance of the quality controllers... All unpardonable weaknesses engendered by collectivism - and so damaging to Egypt. You would think, indeed, that our environs had entered into this same spirit. The Metropole is the spitting image of certain desolate huge hotels on the other side of the Iron Curtain (Czechoslovakia, East Germany) that I've visited in the past when I was investigating European spa towns.

It takes more than this to keep an Abaza downcast for long. Since their Yemen days, his people have faced down many other adversities.

'Sixty centuries of Egypt and only forty years of Socialism...'

His joviality has returned, and his appetite. His Caucasian grandmothers were surely no haters of life.

The future, once again, belongs to him.

Egyptian cotton? Still the best in the world. With this paradox: since the local market buys only bottom-of-the-range textiles, they have to import very bad fibres.

The competition between cotton and food crops? A false problem. A research institute has already found varieties which, growing quickly, occupy the ground only for a short time, barely a third of the year. Leaving quite adequate room for legumes and cereals.

What outlets are there for this marvellous Egyptian cotton? The length of the fibre gives lightness and softness, but also toughness. Egypt produces two-thirds of the fibres of this quality. They are used in everything from luxury fabrics to... parachutes. Such cottons are also used in the manufacture of tyres.

How can production be boosted? They have to reverse the agrarian reform. Farms can be no larger than 25 hectares. How can they modernize in these conditions; how can they improve yields, find a place in what has become a fiercely competitive global market?

'Do you think it's possible to overturn the land redistribution? There would be civil war.'

'The first cause of revolt is our rate of development, which is much too slow. The authorities think they can keep the situation in check by relying on a bloated public sector: three million receiving unconditional support. That bastion won't hold out for long.'

'They say that in 1952, when the colonels (including Nasser) overthrew Farouk, sixty-five families ruled Egypt. You call yourself a free-marketeer. And you want to restore the influence of families? Is there still a place for the family in modern capitalism?'

'In 1994 I bought my first cotton. Who was I to sell it to? I took a plane to Switzerland. A merchant knew the Abazas. It was for that reason - and that reason alone - that he gave me a helping hand.'

The dinner ends with a very bad lukewarm coffee. What matter, since our conversation is all about happiness.

'Ultimately, Mr Abaza, what's the secret of your cotton? Why this unparalleled quality?'

'We have the sun to thank for that. Of all countries, it has chosen Egypt to give the best of itself. Studies have been done on this: during all the weeks that it grows, cotton needs heat, but above all it needs highly stable temperatures. Every year the sun makes that gift to us. Perhaps it even carries on watching over us at night?'

'Why cotton? Why fight so many battles for it, why run so many risks? Don't you miss your old jobs?'

'There's every kind of job in cotton, from agriculture to finance. A good cotton merchant has to know everything all the time about China, America, Australia and Uzbekistan. A good merchant permanently has an ear to what is happening on the planet. And then...'

Mr Abaza gives the impression of wanting to make me forget his strength. He tries to make himself smaller, to smile distantly like an old sage.

'And then cotton loves peace. When cotton is going well, the world is calm and dignified.'

V

UZBEKISTAN

I came back to Muniak city centre by way of the sea bed, walking between the shrubs as though they were seaweed. A dozen or so ships had got trapped when the water receded. They were resting on the sand like big, sad toys. With the help of a metal saw, a man was cutting up the fo'c'sle of one of them, a nice little coaster with a big round chimney. Across its stern, despite the rust, you could still read its glorious name: Karakalpakia.

Muniak was coming to life. You forget what day it is when you're travelling. It was Sunday. Families were coming out of every house. And on foot, in cars or in very old side-cars, they were going west. I hadn't noticed the previous day, but hanging on each of the electricity pylons were prettily illustrated signboards imparting useful maxims or advice to the population:

'If you work, good results will come.'

'If you take exercise, your life will be better.'

'If the child is happy, the mum is happy.'

The last two showed - if proof were needed - the staggering nerve of the authorities:

'2005 will be the year of health.'

'Water is the basis of prosperity.'

The water was precisely what the people were making for. The little lake. All that remains of the Aral Sea, deceased.

It seems that every holiday the whole of Muniak meets up there. The mothers watch the children who watch their fathers fishing. What wisdom or despair gives these peoples of central Asia this ability to draw their happiness from just about anywhere?

Geopolitics

Rumour has it - and will never be contradicted - that one day in 2001 an Indian emissary walked into the office of the Uzbek Trade Minister. He was followed by two assistants carrying suitcases. Once these had been laid down on the precious carpet and the assistants had withdrawn, they say the Indian proposed to the Uzbek that he buy everything, the whole of the harvest.

'My country's textile industry has great needs in terms of cotton.'

And, pointing to the cases, 'We preferred to bring the entire sum with us today, so that there should be no misunderstanding about the sincerity of our intentions.'

Tashkent refrained from acceding to this request. Why tie your hand when almost all the neighbouring countries also have textile industries that are extremely greedy for fibres? Uzbekistan makes the best of its white gold. For its own factories, managed by the Turks, it keeps back only a small proportion of its production (less than twenty per cent). The rest, that is to say, eight hundred thousand metric tons, is shared between India, Pakistan and China.

An Exchange has just opened, doubtless to try to please the international institutions with their fondness for free markets. It seems likely that it will be a long time before more than a negligible proportion of cotton is traded there.

Cotton isn't oil. But it does enable you to be a real player on the international stage.

VI

CHINA

Datang, Zhejiang

The avenues are wide, uncluttered by vehicles and half-shaded by young plane trees; the passers-by smile and seem to be just out strolling; the restaurant kitchens open on to the pavement; a small crowd of adolescents queue in front of the Internet club, waiting for a screen to come free; L'Oréal vaunts the merits of some essential new lotion; a cake shop window has mock-ups of very substantial birthday cakes, the smallest the size of a motorcycle wheel with two mice on it eating corn on the cob (what has that to do with a happy birthday?).

It is, in short, a peaceable place, apparently untormented by the itch to build or any delusions of grandeur.

Thank you, Datang!

The traveller gets back both his breath and his hope. There you are, China is still human. If it still has some lazy corners like this, Europe will perhaps have a chance of surviving.

Instead of savouring longer this hard-won peace and quiet, this traveller suddenly remembers the reason for his presence here.

Where are they?

It was for them that he travelled some ten thousand kilometres and he can't see a trace of them anywhere. He turns again and again, looking in all directions. He panics.

Thinking he looks ill, the baker of giant birthday cakes brings him a chair. People surround him with attention, kindly attention, but in the strangest language that can be. Unable to explain himself, the traveller rolls up a leg of his trousers and reveals the object of his investigation. A burst of hilarity. Long, shrill laughter ensues. The crowd seem very satisfied. Everyone nods. Perfect, perfect, here's a good traveller!

Someone takes me by the arm and leads me out into the street. They take me to a glass advertising hoarding, like the ones Jean-Claude Decaux has spread around our own cities. They point again and again to two ideograms. The foreigner does not understand. Is the foreigner perhaps stupid or what? The atmosphere grows tense. Bo Chen arrives and rescues me. He pulls out the little notebook that never leaves his person and the little pencil that never leaves the little notebook. He excuses himself in advance for the poor quality of his calligraphy:

Back in Paris, François Cheng will do me the honour of re-tracing the two characters.

A character (a) means 'clothing', another one (b) means 'end' or 'extremity'.

For the moment, Bo Chen raises his head:

'What is the clothing of the extremity?'

At last, my face lights up. They applaud. The clothing of the extremity (or the extremity of clothing) can only be the 'sock'. 'Sock': the birthday cake baker, his family and friends all repeat 'sock'.

A finger points, indicating a direction, soon to be followed by ten others advising a different route. The traveller thanks everyone, gets up and leaves. He is not going to have long to wait. Datang doubtless takes the view that the 'ragging' has gone on long enough. Datang is sending out a call to him, a kind of sigh. He walks towards the barely audible, but regularly repeating sound. He leaves the avenue and plunges into an alley. His new baker friends have not followed. They have understood that he has found where he must go.

And this was how I entered the other side of the city: the real Datang. A much lower, more run-down city than the one I had been in. A labyrinth of tiny lanes fringed by small, rather dilapidated sheds and little houses submerged beneath yellow patches of marrow flowers. Outside the front doors dogs stood guard, some growling, others exhausted or disillusioned. Their ears were pointed, like jackals. Beside a pond two little girls were beating some washing, hitting it with great joyous blows, while a woman, not far away, crouching in front of a wok, was lighting the fire. An old, very old, woman was asleep with her mouth open, indifferent to the play of a kitten that was nibbling at her black sandals.

The noise, my noise, had subdivided and multiplied. Listening more closely, now that the din of the street had gone, the sighs alternated with whistling and seemed to be coming from everywhere. A kind of panting had been added to them, a rapid but discreet rattling sound, very gentle and regular, a bit like the beating of a clock, but a clock running fast. An incongruous speed in this poor, but calm world - so calm, almost pastoral.

Amid this host of noises, which one was I to choose?

The jackal dogs seemed amused at my indecision. A delivery tricycle arrived, its hopper full of coal, which it tipped against a wall. At that very moment, from a crack in the earth, a wisp of steam shot up, like the steam and smoke you see on the slopes of volcanoes. I moved toward it, pushed open a door.

There it is, the thing I've come for! The famous sock, of which Datang is the capital. The sock, red in colour, decorated with a gold motif, and several hundred fellows, stretched out on metal forms and hanging from wires against an enormous cylinder that looks for all the world like a boiler.

Ten pairs of eyes examine me. You have to imagine the half-darkness, barely lit by two dusty neon lights. You have to imagine the walls black with soot, boards doing service as tables, and assorted chairs, of plastic or iron, a slate blackboard covered with little lines traced in chalk and dribbling ideograms, and the large (torn) photo of an American basketball player. Eight women in overalls, two very young bare-chested men. Paralysed. They ceased their work instantly when I walked in. Their hands haven't moved since that moment, sunk in a cardboard box or lying on one of these flat forms. Movement is suddenly restored to them. They set to at a frenzied pace.

The company's only office has no window. It is lined with fashion photos. The décor does not seem to cheer up the manager, who is slumbering between two screens: on the one (the television), lovers are quarrelling; across the other (a computer) ideograms are marching. Like his employees, he is wearing only trousers. His wife, sprucely turned-out (the implacable type) in white trousers and a green and red twin-set, summons him sharply to get dressed. He accedes immediately, pulling a Hugo Boss shirt from a drawer. He is able then to stand and receive me officially. A bow, a stream of words and an introduction to two toddlers whose presence I hadn't noticed: they too are watching television, but their set is on the floor. They cannot be more than four years old. Since I refuse a cigarette, he makes me a present of five pairs of Tom and Jerry socks. They call in a neighbour who speaks English. He too is wearing a Hugo Boss shirt. He translates the three main items of information for me: 1. I am in an ironing company; 2. Ironing isn't easy work; 3. But what does that matter, here in Datang we are in the service of socks.

I express my admiration, take my leave and continue my exploration.

The workshops, big and not so big, clean and not so clean, come thick and fast. Each has its own specialism. Some manufacture, fold or package. Others print the labels, in all the world's languages, or affix them. Not forgetting ironing.

To walk in these backstreets, these entrails of Datang is to visit the history of industrialization. A short walk away, just two minutes, and you're in a different century. On the right hand side of the alley it's the nineteenth century. The child workers described by Dickens have grown up a bit, but the environment hasn't changed. The same din, same stench, same hovels for sleeping quarters, same gruel for meals, same fatigue and resignation in the eyes. On the other side of the alleyway you're in the present age. Light, cleanliness, automation ...

Once it's been delivered to Europe who can say which side of the street (that is to say from which century) a pair of socks came from? No form of regulation, particularly of hygiene, seems to unify these worlds. Freedom to the entrepreneurs! Doubtless the authorities like to believe that conditions will improve as the turnover figures grow.

Bo Chen, our interpreter, points out that China (twenty times the size of France) must be seen as a continent rather than a country. And don't you have disparities between Stockholm, for example, and Reggio di Calabria?

There are, like this, several thousand workshops behind the quiet facades of Datang and its broad, indolent avenues. To which we have to add many thousands of others in the twenty or so surrounding villages. All in all, twelve or thirteen thousand family businesses dealing only in socks. They work for as long as there are orders. But since there's never any shortage of orders, they don't stop. Often seven days out of seven. Twelve hours a day. For the same wage: a thousand yuan a month (100 euros), plus board and lodging (in dormitories). A good boss will give you one week's break a year. The chance to go home and see your family at the other end of China.

Conclusions

A Story of Families

You might have thought the family had not withstood the combined attacks of economic rationality, anonymous finance and industrial concentration ... You might have thought it no longer had a place in the modern world.

Wrong.

There is no better space than a family for assembling and training labour; for organizing work, motivating workers (sometimes more harshly than in a factory) and sharing out profits (with no guarantee of fairness, particularly between the generations). No better production unit for escaping the constraints of over-heavy investments of capital and adapting flexibly to the vagaries of the economic cycle.

In Africa, Uzbekistan and the Nile delta, it is the family that sows, grows and, with the aid of the children, harvests the cotton. It is this unpaid labour force that, very often, enables them to stand up to the competition. Even in the United States, the basic unit often remains the farm run by a father and his children. In China, textile mania originated in family workshops that are located - and prosper and expand - alongside big businesses. And if so many young people go to find work in the industries in the coastal regions, they do so to help their families who have stayed in the depths of the countryside. They often send them half of their wages, mitigating to some degree the glaring imbalance of wealth between the two parts of that country-cum-continent.

As for cotton trading, it remains, to a large extent, a family affair thanks to the networks of trust and information that have been built up over donkeys' years from generation to generation. Extended families, families in conflict at times, but families all the same: the Dunavants (USA and Australia), the Louis-Dreyfus family (France and Belgium), the Reinharts (Switzerland), the Weill Brothers (USA and UK) and Plexus (run by two brothers) ...

In the field of agriculture, as elsewhere, multinational firms try to lay down the law. But here, more than elsewhere, families fight back. On this struggle depends what remains of humanity on our planet.

A Story in which Time plays the Lead

Time never lets go of us. It was here before us and it will outlive us; it is our obligatory partner. On our relations with it, trusting or conflictual, attentive or negligent, the quality of our lives is going to depend.

This truth, obvious in the case of individuals, applies also to societies. This is one of the first lessons taught on the cotton road.

For most African cotton planters, space has expanded. Radio or television bring news each day to the village from all across the planet. But, for them, time remains a circle. It revolves on itself. The rainy season follows the dry season and the years succeed each other. They will fear catastrophes (climatic disasters or the effects of war). They will hope for some betterment (financial or technical). The idea of progress - that is to say, the joyous sacrificing of the present to the future - barely plays any role here.

Curiously, in spite of their machines and their opulence, the big farmers of high Texas seemed to me very similar in their relationship to time. Not much spirit of conquest, very little appetite for the future. They rake in the subsidies and brace themselves for some blows, rounding their backs - as round as the 'eternal return of the same'. Round as the ostrich which, so as not to see the enemy, buries its head in the sand.

Brazil is another mental universe, where the only god is called Future (its first name often being Money: for the traveller who is no linguist, the two names seem interchangeable there). You can understand why this country should be the paradise of enterprise. In this particular mythology, the past is of no significance; and the future, in which some find a striking resemblance to that formidable river fish the piranha, is so voracious that, not content with dominating the present, the better to swallow it up, it could well end up devouring itself. So, Amazonia is shamelessly eaten up, the world's primary reservoir of trees or, in other words, of time. And genetics, the primary store of identities, is, in the same way, recklessly tampered with.

In China, the passion for the future isn't that of the nouveau riche. If they want money and power so much, it's because they've known those things once already. War isn't the same when you're battling to recover something. The Greeks weren't bustling around randomly beneath the ramparts of Troy. They came to fetch someone they knew, a certain Helen. In itself, the presence of a great past confers more profound tranquillity on conquest. I mean, more force.

This leading role of time is something the lovers of the market wish to deny. Throughout the whole of history, national economies have been protected in their early years by customs barriers. This was the role of so-called 'infant industry' protectionism. They were left to face competition only when they had reached adulthood. That is to say, once they had acquired strength. This respite is forbidden to them today. Globalization, which obliterates space, wants also to kill time. Perhaps the increase in the price of energy, by making us pay properly for transport once again, will restore reality to space and resuscitate time.