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Babylon scattered



Babylon is the Rastafarian word for "the oppressor". Everything smelling of officialdom is Babylon: the police, the government, colonial rule. Babylon is of course the city where Daniel grew up under Nebuchadnezzar, where the Jews lived in exile. It is also the city destroyed in revelations: "And there followed another angel, saying, Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.” (Revelation 14:8)

It is most probable that the Rastafarians used the name Babylon for all that is awful because of its appearance in the more spectacular prophets of doom such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Revelations. However there is an interesting connection with the tower of Babel as mentioned in Genesis 11, the city constructed by Nimrod or just before his reign. (Genesis 10, 10) Babel was a city in the land of Shinar. Whether that was the place where the tower of babel was built, is subject to debate. Babylon’s history as a city goes back to the 2nd millennium, but it reached its zenith as a city under Nebuchadnezzar, when Babylon was the largest city in the world, covering 2,500 acres (1,000 hectares). The Euphrates, which has since shifted its course, flowed through it, the older part of the city was on the east bank. The central feature of the city was Esagila, the great temple of Marduk, with its associated ziggurat (a tower built in several stages) Popularly known as the Tower of Babel, it had a base, 100 yards wide each side, and seven stages, the uppermost was a temple in blue glazed brick, and reached to a height of 300 feet (91 metres).
The myth of the tower of Babel might have been inspired by the ziggurats of Babylonia, in particular the Babylonian tower temple north of the Marduk temple, which in Babylonian was called Bab-ilu ("Gate of God"), Hebrew form is Babel, or Bavel. The similarity in pronunciation of Babel and balal ("to confuse") led to the play on words in Genesis 11:9: "Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth."

The building of the tower was an attempt of man to get closer to God. Here's the whole passage in Genesis 11: 
1 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.
4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
6 And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.
8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.

9 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
And so he scattered the people and created not language, but different languages: a surfeit of language. People could no longer understand each other, and they turned to smaller concerns, they gave up. They scattered and regrouped according to a gravity of mutual understanding, no longer as potent and perhaps bewildered. As such the tower of Babel is the symbol of the collective, of working together. It is built as a defence against scattering, a manifestation of unity; at the same time it is exclusive. It frightens God who, in his fear or irritation at his own flawed creation, a creation full of temptation and ambition, full of movement and rebelling against the eternity he is trying to impose, does just that what the tower was meant to guard against.
The image of Babel is apt as an image of Jamaica. Jamaica is a country of scattered people. Its towers are modest, frequently unfinished. Settlements in Jamaica have a scattered quality. Is this scattering into chaotic formations, shanty towns a reaction against the experience of the collective in Jamaica? Against the experience of regimentation? Is it a manifesto of indiscipline, as the experience of discipline has proved dreadful, time and time again?

Regimentation is visible in the original grid of Kingston, it occurred in the building of slave villages, it occurred again in those post- emancipation villages that were provided for the ex-slaves on peripheral land. The image of scattering is so appropriate for the poor, they scatter on the hill-side and they scatter on the peripheries of the city. Jamaica had been full of regimented orders, time and again, its people scatter.
The action of scattering is a political action, an action to prevent people from being collected and collectivised by the colonial powers and later by the post independent powers. These powers had collected them and regimented them for the purposes of exploitation and manipulation. The least manageable communities are the scattered collections of shacks and houses. Or are they the product of inertia? Garrison communities, such as Tivoli, are still regimented, spatially controlled. They have the look of modern city plans and concentration camps. They are machines for political manipulation.

Among the regimented blocks of Tivoli Garden’s South Africa Flats, Edward Seaga's PA system had a special room, it was set behind bars for everyone to see, but no-one to touch. To prevent anyone touching it, the neatly stacked apparatus was surrounded by an empty space of around 2 m all around. One could argue that the regimentation only served to oppress the people because what is not taken as an opportunity becomes a threat. Order was there and it required someone or everyone to rise to its possibilities. The fact that this order only served a small group, a plutocracy of criminals might be due to the inertia of the others, the minions who make their own exploitation possible by staying weak. Achievement requires order. Only through order and measurement can we achieve, only by collective action can we progress. Collective action requires system and system requires an efficient functionalism. Any end that is held as a promise requires an ordering, a re-ordering of the means. Regimentation or even segregation by itself is no evil; it is the purpose which it serves that can make it so. Tivoli Gardens is the best example a camp with good people serving a dubious purpose.
The image of scattering is of an extraordinary importance in Jamaica, the city (Kingston) lies scattered. It has no formal overarching structure beyond the original grid. Kingston needs to be dubbed, not so much a post-colonial city, but rather a post-Babylonian city, a city where the regimentation has been fragmented, where the growth is a centrifugal scattering. And everywhere small little regimented micro districts and communities have sprung up for all sorts of reasons, mostly to do with planning and politics. And the rules of functional efficiency in the planning of housing estates, justified by the design paradigms of the fifties, sixties and even seventies have served the government well.

And within that order the people themselves have played God to the planners and architects of colonial and modern Jamaica. They have separated themselves from their masters by way of language. Language and dress are effective machines of separation, of rebellion. Much of Patois is a conscious transformation of the English language, to maintain difference with a white supremacy that becomes helpless when it cannot understand. There are many Jamaicans who deliberately roll up one trouser leg, to manifest a refusal to conform to codes that are felt to be imposed. Babylon is regimentation, odious to Rastafarians. And when you see their settlements, with the exception of the Bobo-community, they are scattered, they obey a chaotic rule of placement. One day when the curse of Babel has been lifted, we shall see that we've all been saying the same thing. The tiers of a wedding cake and the representation of the happy couple show a remarkable resemblance to the tower and the whore of Babylon. The higher the cake, i.e. the more expensive it is, the more striking the resemblance. Burn burn burn.




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