Can Europe Make It?

Remembering Tiziano Terzani: ten years on

What would the outstanding, well-travelled, Italian reporter tell us about the state of democracy today?

Alessio Colonnelli
11 November 2014

Tiziano Terzani. FOTO/Mario Maranzara. All rights reserved.

Tiziano Terzani was one of Italy’s finest foreign correspondents. His views on world affairs were unique and often controversial. His intellectual buoyancy brings to mind that of another great press globetrotter, the equally outstanding journalist and author Oriana Fallaci, also very much given to controversy.

Terzani and Fallaci argued publicly about attitude towards Islam. Terzani critisised vehemently Fallaci’s claim that Islam should be opposed at any cost. Both authors were well travelled, spoke foreign languages, had interviewed prominent international politicians and reported from war zones. Their squabble attracted Italy’s attention for days on end – the country was completely bemused and many didn’t really know with whom to agree. They were both from Florence, a city with a longstanding tradition for outspoken politics.

Dante and Machiavelli were soaked in that culture, one that hasn’t died out yet. This is a Florentine peculiar way of doing politics – a mix of outspoken truths, downright lies and sardonic remarks, where fear of consequences is nonchalantly disguised by an overall cheeky attitude. Debating and polemicizing, out loud, wittily and brazenly, in a way that leaves you in stitches while giving you food for thought, lie in its inhabitants’ most inner fibre.

Italy’s PM Matteo Renzi’s is the latest example of it. A Florentine too, he’s not afraid of telling his take on things: Beppe Grillo, Angela Merkel and Susanna Camusso (Italy’s most important trade union figure) – no meek souls – all have had to listen to Renzi’s tough stances. He even brandished a sabre over his head with both arms in his office at Palazzo Chigi just before a crucial interview with Il Sole 24 Ore, Milan’s influential financial daily.

Body language is quite strong here too: the sabre episode was a way of letting the journalists know there was no messing about with him (his aide thought Renzi was nearly going to smash a chandelier). The Economist’s impudent cover from some time ago – Renzi looking like a schoolboy holding an ice-cream – definitely caught the tone of politics à la Florentine: a kind of electric tug-of-war, a quick exchange of give-and-take, tongue-in-cheek harsh criticisms without never resorting to self-assumed silent treatments. No arrogance, but plenty of humour. No understatement: things are said as they are, dressed up in laughter. A way of communicating that is light years away from the “Calm down, dear” kind of remarks.

The ways adopted by Terzani to describe the world were akin to the ones above. He wasn’t a friend of half-truths, though. One could agree or not with what he had to say about America, Russia, the war in Vietnam or September 11, but what one would also get to see was his personal view on matters he researched in person. Independent report was his type of journalism: free and reflective, a kind of news writing that some experts today maintain is dying out, partly because of the quick sound-bites television delivers from any corner of the world at any time of the day. An appetite for stories gathered patiently by a thoughtful professional who carefully listened, meditated and reported on them is apparently petering out. Too slow for broadcasting, perhaps. Not flashy enough despite being newsworthy. An interest for personal stories is vanishing, an interest for the plight of ordinary people who are often cast outside main historical events.

Terzani spoke five languages fluently; he’d learned Chinese at Columbia University, a knowledge base which he consolidated during his many years in Asia. A lingua franca to speak face-to-face with people in the street and top politicians alike. Both his language skills and a gift for writing meant he could report brilliantly on affairs he invariably studied first-hand.

The type of outspoken politics he soaked up in his youth in Tuscany (a child of the Florentine proletariat, who astonishingly managed to obtain a Law degree from one of Italy’s best universities) helped him enormously in delivering outstanding first-hand accounts from the war in Vietnam, post-Pol-Pot’s Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Japan and India – over half his life was spent away from Italy. Terzani started off by writing only for the Hamburg-based quality weekly Der Spiegel. Italian media weren’t interested in him at first. Later on, when his work became acclaimed, then a few Italian publications acknowledged him as a great news reporter and were keen on publishing his stories from Asia.

As a young man he worked and studied in South Africa, the UK and the US. He was subsequently thrown out of China – his reports in German and Italian for Der Spiegel, Corriere della Sera and L’Espresso, to mention but a few, were perceived as unkind towards its Communist government. The forbidden door by Terzani, an account of his intense Chinese experience, was published at the same time in Italy, US and UK back in 1985. The Chinese government used extreme measures when finding an excuse to expel him. The event hurt him brutally – his love for China was deep and badly misunderstood.

Terzani had been one of the few foreign journalists to be allowed to live in and report from China in the early eighties. His press pieces about the consequences of Mao’s Cultural Revolution on ordinary people were legendary, especially in Italy and Germany, the only countries happy to publish his hard-headed, no-nonsense analysis about China’s practices at the time; that is the period leading up to 1989 Tiananmen Square clashes. In La fine è il mio inizio (The end is my beginning) Terzani recounts an episode that occurred to him in Tibet. A Chinese guide at The Potala – the Dalai Lama’s former residence – tells a group of foreign journalists in a derogatory tone that the frescoes just represent mere idols. The Chinese, Terzani says in the book, never knew the names of Tibetan gods.

The End is My Beginning is still a bestseller in Germany and Italy. Terzani was interviewed by his son Folco about world and life matters over the last months before he died of cancer. The book is and will probably remain unpublished in English. Terzani is still practically unknown in English-speaking countries, therefore a book like The End is My Beginning would make no sense, without first publishing his other seminal works on Asian politics, which today’s publishers would in all likelihood find commercially unviable as most topics could be perceived as outdated. Rescuing Terzani’s thoughts for the benefit of the English-language readership at large is a mammoth task.

He had witnessed the war in Vietnam, rejoicing at the victory of the Vietcong, which very likely tarnished for ever any opportunity of showcasing his work in America and possibly in other English-speaking countries. English translations of his works have never been published on the scale they deserve given Terzani’s notoriety, on a par with Ryszard Kapuściński’s. His criticism of English-speaking political establishments, namely the US and UK ones, could have something to do with it.

Once in China, he contributed to making Europe aware of the forceful reshaping of traditional Chinese culture by Mao. Having to leave the country and moving to Japan, he found out he couldn’t but loathe Japan’s robot-obsessed ways generating mechanized behaviour and battery cage-thinking.

What mattered to him more than anything else was real democracy. He wrote about injustice as a way of making us think about what was happening to us in the West. Asia as a metaphor, Asia a springboard for debating. Wars are fought over resources and to protect markets. Wars are not so much political as they are economic. Politics helps rectify the balance, providing everybody gets a say in it. Politics as a legitimate way of expressing one’s mind; a debating ground that must be kept open and accessible to everybody. Politicos don’t always do that: they like wrapping up their statements in convoluted language, a way of putting people off, particularly youngsters, the ones who should engage in politics more than anybody else. Politics as a place for the individual to choose, to let people know about their difficulties, their distress. A rightful way. Perhaps the only one.

Terzani, a law and media expert, knew how powerful technology and rhetoric are. They can free people; or put shackles on them. Words and modern machines are not per se the keys to freedom, as the Arab Spring has shown. They do work, or they seem to at first, and then it turns out they don’t. Not enough, at least. It depends on how they are used and by whom and for how long. It’s difficult mastering them. Steering them. Manipulation is all too easy – Huxley, Orwell and Bradbury told us that time and time again. Now the talented American author Dave Eggers is. Terzani tried too; from a journalistic perspective. Therefore not from the easiest of angles, that is from the thick of a murky yet indispensable industry. Literature can be done by sitting on a dry patch; journalism doesn’t have that advantage, it always sits in the mire. Sometimes near wet moving sands.

With the benefit of hindsight, it would be interesting to know what Terzani would make of the current austerity measures; to know what he’d think of Russell Brand’s proposal of a no-voting tactic that youth should go for. Both Terzani and Brand lived through precariousness. Perhaps WWII aftermath poverty was different from England’s in the eighties. Who knows. Certainly Tuscany and Essex have one thing in common: their people are not afraid of talking straightforwardly, it seems. Ukip is fairly successful in Essex (see recent local elections results). High turnout levels show that political activists managed to channel the locals’ vocal disappointment towards old politics. Political engagement, of whatever colour, is better than political apathy, a strong and clear message by Terzani.

Speaking one’s mind should be regarded as commendable, regardless of one’s own inclinations. You say what you think, and that’s that. You don’t insult your audience’s intelligence. The problem arises when the public discourse is misled by captious reasoning, fuelled by genuine frustration. Some politicians thrive on it. Some media too. The BBC recently refused to invite the UK Greens to televised leader election debates, claiming that the party had not demonstrated any substantial increase in support.

Terzani would have probably argued that a publicly funded broadcaster should have been more careful about such a move: television is a leg-up towards even more popularity. A fine example of how the media can heavy-handedly intervene and warp what civil society is trying to ascertain about itself. Proper journalism, of the kind Terzani produced, here becomes of paramount importance. The German quality weekly Der Spiegel knew how to harness that. Other media couldn’t or didn’t want to. Or they simply weren’t bothered about what Terzani had to say, which is still so important to us. Perhaps even more now than at any other time before.

Ten years have gone by since his death in the summer of 2004. Loads of stuff has happened in the meantime. Terzani would have loved to speak his mind on any number of the issues that have occurred meanwhile. I like to imagine he’d be a massive fan of the Occupy movement. He’d egg on Hong Kong’s youth. Thailand comes to mind as well: he would have travelled back to the country he lived in and loved to bits to join trade union demonstrators as well.

Many people miss Terzani’s perspective on things. Just think of the crowds listening to his live speeches sitting cross-legged at the Mantova Literary Festival (Italy’s rough equivalent of the Hay festival in the UK). His books have sold very well over the past ten years. People of all ages like reading them in the hope of finding guidance and inspirational thoughts – we live through very troubled times, after all. Times where governments bail out banks with public money and then ask the very public to put up with draconian austerity measures to make up for the money lost in propping up banks. Taxing people de facto twice, that is. It should sound like an anathema to the neoliberal establishment. In theory. Logically.

And yet, strangely, logic doesn’t really apply here. Terzani, perhaps, would have pointed out that banks have an ethical dimension to the work they do: to support societies and their enterprises. In other words: support others’ projects and creativity that sustain life, produce work, therefore revenue and thus tax. Taxes that governments very much need for the benefit of society as a whole. It should be easy to attain. And yet in the real world things don’t actually work that way. They follow a logic of their own. Often a short-term one.

We are really all in it together, Terzani would tell banks and governments. Not in a patronizing tone, but rather referring to what he’d learned in Asia from observing Buddhism and Hinduism and particularly during the days he spent at the foot of the Himalayas, wearing nothing but white clothes and a long white beard, knowing nothing could be done any more about his cancer. In 1999 Terzani embraced Hinduism and entered an Indian ashram. There he adopted the name of Anam (the one with no name). This was yet another effort to understand people by living in their world, his characteristic approach to journalism that made him famous. Two years later, at a time when he seemed to have disappeared from all radars and namely after September 11, he travelled to Afghanistan in an attempt to report on the stories that were told to him by people who were being bombed.

Conflict arises when debates are cunningly steered towards separating men from other men. Terzani claimed that the first step in war is to portray the enemy as inhuman. “The enemy is not a person like you [propaganda says]”, he maintained. “Never forget that. That way they want you to believe the enemy has no rights.” The enemy is sometimes – they say – the benefit scrounger. Who has no rights.

Terzani’s lifetime journey was a quest for self-realisation. Not long before his death, surrounded by the majestic silence of the Himalayan outdoors, Terzani came to realise that the essence of everything is to be in harmony with the universe as well as with oneself, he said. “More often than not”, he believed, “you are trapped by your own language. You are imprisoned by concepts, perceptions and prejudices. By letting go of attachments to ideologies, I think I’ve come very close to discovering what my life has been about – searching for the truth.”

Our mind plays a huge role in our lives – trying to protect it from prejudiced public discourses is of paramount importance. In the book of conversations Terzani had with his son – The end is my beginning – the Tuscan thinker says to Folco: “Do you see how the media report on the war in Iraq? Is that objective? No. You won’t find any truths in the facts. Truth always lies on a much deeper level – in history, culture. That’s why I always had books with me on my journeys, written by people who had been there before me.”

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