killing denouement

from beltane to bin laden, via marx: the evolution of mayday

t: “Mayday” by Erik Ruin

Sometime in late April or early May, sometime in the mid 90s. Blue skies, grass, and swarms of red faced and peeling drunken expats who really should know better—as is standard for the UAE. Yours truly, clutching a ribbon and dancing the maypole at a Great British day celebration. Probably wearing a frothy white confection, definitely gritting my teeth at this colonial imposition that seemed a bit forced even to my very small self. Beatific sun. Passive-aggressive humidity.

Patriotic chest thumping aside, the festivities were loosely modelled after traditional mayday festivities that welcome the advent of spring. The rather phallic maypole dance itself is apparently a pagan throwback to ancient Babylonian sex worship and fertility rites. It’s a loose memory—I otherwise remember only that there were bouncy castles, meat pies and jousting knights on hobbyhorses.

September 11th, 2001, midweek and midafternoon. Sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV in our old flat and watching two towers burn and crumble, again and again. A sense of disbelief and a sinking foreboding for What Would Happen Next. Sadness, as the needless loss of life sunk in, came much later. And the rest, as they say is history: tragedy, farce, hundreds of thousands dead, and so on. It’s one of the few indelibly etched ‘TV events’ I remember, the others being Diana’s death and the invasion of Iraq. Perhaps the last such televised instance, as social media and the Internet made their inroads into the delivery of news.

May 1st, 2011. The morning of May 2nd, actually, with the time differences. Twitter overflowing with the news that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. Switching channels: BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, NDTV and Fox in English, and trying to follow PTV and Dune News (both Pakistani) in Urdu. From NYC and DC came images of jubilant Americans celebrating in a decidedly fratty manner, replete with chants of U-S-A. Presumably, they realised that Osama can’t have been an operational leader for years, and his death was nothing more than a symbolic victory. Then why dance? Why dance at death at all, for that matter.

My former bandmate Sarah Hawas has a similar reaction in a Mondoweiss piece, “In Search of Meaning: Osama bin Laden and the Dancing Americans:”

Osama Bin Laden is symbolic, but in effect what many Americans today seem to celebrate is a vicious cycle of violence, a historic tradition in which real or invented causes are allowed to take precedence over collective human dignity and the value of life.

To dance in celebration today is offensive first and foremost to the victims of the attacks on September 11th. They are palpably alone in singing the Star Spangled Banner and celebrating the murder of Osama Bin Laden, thoroughly alone, because no one in the world cares or even remembers. If these dancing Americans, however, were to transform their fear and fascination with violence into rage and courage to occupy the same streets in protest, against the ruling elite that has profited from the loss and grief of 9/11 and the wars that followed, and the undemocratic corporate interests running their lives, they might find the arms of other ordinary working people from around the world extended in solidarity.

Solidarity? Sounds like mayday— the annual celebration of unions, workers, and more recently, immigrants. In light of Wisconsin and the Arab Spring, I was especially curious to see what this year’s protests would be like. Why did the US choose May 1st, however? Surely Obama didn’t wake up, stretch, and think to himself “the birds are chirping and the mice are warbling; it’s a fine day to kill Osama bin Laden!” (For the record, I love those singing mice). Surely he’s not a closet socialist after all—! And how exactly did we get from Beltane to Bin Laden?

This site provides some clues on the transition. Mayday used to involve wandering into the woods to cut down a growing tree for the maypole, and indulging in all sorts of sexual licentiousness along the way. The Puritans didn’t take kindly to this, and banned it in a 1644 act of Parliament. Charles II reinstated it in 1660, with its more subversive elements downplayed. Finally, the 19th century Victorians laid down their moral spin—emphasising its innocence and turning it into the sort of kitschy Merry Olde England fest that I was subject to. Also lost were its political elements, among them, the temporary setting aside of social hierarchy. The taking of the tree, in particular, highlights medieval rights to wood usage and to the commons.

A particularly well timed victory, at that—planned to coincide with President Bush’s infamous ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech. It’s also the day that the world learnt of Hitler’s suicide.May 1st is however remembered primarily as MayDay—annual celebration of unions, workers, and more recently, immigrants.

Wait, so I would probably have gone on to dissect, or probably coo at Mayday. Fists, hearts and minds; warm solidaristic statements. But then I forgot about this for a month, and it’s nearly June. And, well, I live in Dubai now. This is what Mayday looks like here.

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