What does Mosul and the festival of San Fermin have in common? Humanity.
A photograph I saw recently on Twitter (the featured photo above), of a group of Mosul residents, including children, playing pool in a recently liberated district of Mosul where IS previously forbade pool, filled me with that rarest of elements: hope. Hope that the human spirit cannot be destroyed. Hope that the greatest revolutionary acts are within all our reach. Hope that no matter how much life blitzkriegs our daily existence, we can still fight on.
Think about the importance of that game of pool, perhaps the most important game of pool in history. The city of Mosul was captured by IS some 3 years ago, and from its now-ruined Mosque its self-declared caliph declared the founding of the brutal caliphate. Now three years on, the unimaginable oppression and tragic Russian-doll of crimes, crimes, crimes is over. Simply playing pool is now a revolutionary act. In Mosul IS once put up a slogan: “cigarettes kill, so do we.” This shows what IS, and all similar totalitarian regimes ever, tried to do: to crush the lust for joy, the pleasure instinct, the simple, glorious need to enjoy yourself. Thankfully, they’ve failed. And so long as there are pool tables and children to play them, they will always fail.
And that same spirit, in a much altered, much contorted form, is present in a far more Baroque, grandiose form, during the festival of San Fermin in Pamplona, which is going on right now, as I write. I am not going to go into the moral arguments that bullfighting elicits here. I’ve already done that in other blogs and novels (read some taurine blogs of mine here: https://justinfenech.wordpress.com/2016/08/25/blood-in-the-sand/ ). But I will say this, because I have to:
The running of the bulls originated in a time before mass-tourism, before medicine eliminated polio, before even working-class men and women could afford smartphones, before wars between major European countries came to an end; essentially, they originated in a time of unimaginable hardship for rich and poor alike. And the running of the bulls, though it may seem pointless now, was born of a pragmatic reason: it was the best way for herders and butchers to transport bulls from the fields to the bullring or abattoirs. Probably in the 18th century, thereabouts, people started running with the bulls and eventually the tradition merged itself with the religious celebration of San Fermin, patron saint of Pamplona.
So historically, the running of the bulls, and indeed bullfighting itself, served a congruent function to that pool table in the heart of ruined Mosul. IS-like threats and oppressors were everywhere in Medieval Spain. Not to mention the threat of disease, hunger, war and slavery, you name it. The spectacles of the bullfights – at least – gave long-suffering men and women an outlet, a momentary outburst of rare pleasure. And in that, even the most ardent PETA lovers have to agree, it is noble.
Of course it is a sign of mankind’s progress now that the running of the bulls and bullfighting is no longer needed. Not because we have eliminated suffering. Forget it. But because we’ve become more creative and diverse in our chosen entertainments. People, like the countless homeless Spanish people I saw on the streets of Madrid, or the people being trafficked out of Libya, or the drug-addict, or the man who can’t find work in Europe to feed his family – they still need entertainment, still need their pool game! These days, however, they can get it from a football match, a video-game, a nightclub, a restaurant and so on. Butchering a bull is perhaps not needed. Which is why bullfighting is dying out. It is a victim of humanity’s success.
But I still think it has a role to play in modern society. This blending together of art, culture, sport, life-and-death struggle played out before our eager eyes – it cannot die out with a whimper. It may be hard to watch. But it is a dying breed of spectacle. It dates from a time when the urge, the unconquerable human urge to pleasure, to living, was more important than ethical considerations. Humanity will stop at nothing to extract a few seconds of pleasure in a life so riddled in misery. Be it a pool game or running through ancient, cobbled streets with elegant, muscular bulls chasing you down. San Fermin is a celebration of what sets humanity apart from all other animals: only human beings know they are going to die, only they know they are born to a losing struggle, and as such, only humans can fight back. Not by becoming millionaires or flying to the moon (though that too is noble) but simply by being part of an age-old spectacle, or simply by playing a game of pool!