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Postcard from Monflanquin – Fruit Trees, Eid and the Black Prince

September 13, 2011

A week in the South of France cures many ills. Warm and balmy – the temperature hovered around the 30C mark – quiet and peaceful. While England froze and drowned, and Bahrain baked, the Départment of Lot and Garonne slept.

Around the little farmhouse we rented for the week, lizards jumped, frogs hopped and black scorpions lurked. Outside our veranda, we were greeted each morning  by roses in late flower, a quince tree loaded with fruit the size of a fist, and an olive tree in its sixth year, yet to fruit. Nearby, apples, pears, peaches, fields full of browning sunflowers and rows of broad beans.

Every night you could gaze at the Milky Way as it can’t be seen in the UK, where there are few areas not tainted by urban light.

The nearest village, Monflanquin, was fortified against the English in the 12th Century – clearly without success, because it boasts a house slept in by Edward the Black Prince, the victor of Crecy and Poitiers, the warrior son of Edward III. Thirty miles to the south sits Saint Sardos,  a tiny village where the first hostilities of the Hundred Years War between England and France broke out. Fifty miles to the South, in 721, the invading army of the Umayyad Emirate of Crodoba was defeated. Eleven years later, a couple of hours to the North, Charles Martel, the grandfather of Charlemagne, stopped the Arab advance into Western Europe at the Battle of Tours.

If I needed any further reminder that peace and tranquillity is not France’s birthright, it came in the form of a Napoleonic musket – complete with bayonet – mounted on a wall in the idyllic country home of a French friend and colleague a few miles from Saint Sardos.

As my friend pointed out, the long history of Anglo-French engagement both as military protagonists and more recently as collaborators continues today. Whatever squabbles exercise the politicians are over the EU economy, the level of military cooperation between the countries is high – as NATO partners in Afghanistan, and, more happily perhaps, as prime movers in the Libyan intervention. Neither country can afford the military of old, nor is there any serious likelihood that any of the Western European nations will be making war on each other in the near future barring a catastrophic collapse in the current political order.

So it makes sense for the two nations to pool resources and work together when needed, even though, as in the case of Libya, both militaries are likely to continue to rely on big brother America in any major engagement for the foreseeable future.

Even in the beautiful heart of France, surrounded by silence occasionally punctuated by the clump of ripe fruit falling from nearby trees, it was hard not to think of war and peace. Not only because of the evidence of previous wars. From time to time a French military jet would streak through the sky on a low flying exercise, shattering the rural quiet.

And as someone who spends much time in the Middle East, I could also not forget that while I was enjoying the late summer sun, millions of Muslims were celebrating Eid-Al-Fitr, the festival that marks the end of Ramadan. Muslims are still dying in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, and not all by the evil hand of the unbeliever. And for all the pious utterings of the imams about peace, reconciliation and personal spirituality, the killing didn’t stop for Eid.

Whether the murderous regimes in Libya and Syria will be replaced by more benign leaders remains to be seen. But whoever ends up running those countries, and whatever becomes of Afghanistan after the promised NATO withdrawal, the political and social aspirations of those who supported the change will not be met by any new regime.

No regime can guarantee freedom of speech if society doesn’t value that freedom. Fathers and brothers will continue to carry out honour killings of their women if society doesn’t condemn the practice. Unless society determines that it is unacceptable, corruption will always find a way. Families will carry on treating their housemaids as slaves. Employers will abuse their vulnerable employees. And the powerful of different religious persuasions will not stop using their power to oppress “the other”.

For all the emphasis on personal struggle, closeness to God and consideration for humanity that is part and parcel of the experience of Ramadan and other festivals of the Abrahamic religions, it seems to me that such festivals come and go with no noticeable contribution to humanity beyond a short period of heightened personal spirituality.

In the first Christmas of World War I, the soldiers facing each other in the trenches may have left their posts to fraternise, but shortly thereafter, they were killing each other again on the orders of their outraged officers.

And I have been through half a century of seasons of goodwill and personal resolutions in times of relative peace without seeing any significant improvement in societies I have lived among because of those good intentions.

Societies change over the long term, and rarely through the acts of governments or the piety of individuals. Sometimes they evolve over long periods of peace, and sometimes as the result of some abrupt and violent catalyst.

The broken walls of Monflanquin that have been witness to much violence in the past are today the setting for easy conversations between visiting Brits and the restaurateurs who welcome their money.

But as France debates the future of the Euro, a reminder that we are in a period no less stable in the long run than in any previous era comes in the form of a credit card receipt that shows the purchase in Euros, and underneath “for your information” the price in French Francs – a currency that has not existed for 10 years. Just in case, perhaps.

If in twenty years’ time the occupants of the ancient cities of Libya, Syria and Afghanistan are sitting in cafes debating the future of their currencies without worrying about roadside bombs and secret police, that will surely be progress. But if they could speak, the city walls would remind them that progress is for now, whilst instability is forever.

The village of Oradour-sur-Glane, a hundred miles north of Monflanquin – where only 67 years ago the German occupiers, as punishment for the abduction of an SS officer, shot 190 men of the village in a barn and then incinerated 247 women and 205 children in the local church – is testament to that instability even in beautiful, peaceful France.

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