Crisis Management
A Review of Rumba Under Fire: The Arts of Survival from West Point to Delhi
edited by Irina Dumitrescu
Cara Strickland

A crisis of sorts has been brewing in the humanities for decades: low enrollment. Indeed, an analysis from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences last year documented that the number of bachelor degrees in humanities disciplines fell to the lowest number since 2003. Part of the decline appears to be because students don’t see a practical application for the knowledge they gain in a humanities class. What does the study of literature, art, languages, or music matter in the face of current events? A new collection of essays, poetry, and interviews, Rumba Under Fire: The Arts of Survival From West Point To Delhi, provides answers to that question.

“The liberal arts—and more broadly, the arts—are at the mercy of political turmoil, economic collapse, and religious persecution, but they also respond to these calamities. If they survive, scholars and artists can continue their work within crisis, perhaps even because of crisis,” writes Irina Dumitrescu, editor and contributor, in the introduction. Dumitrescu goes on to acknowledge great works that have been created during or after imprisonment, including writing by Miguel de Cervantes, Martin Luther King Jr., Antonio Gramsci, and others. Many writers, including Dante, Voltaire, Hemingway, and Orwell, have written in the context of displacement and war. It might be tempting to think that times of crisis provide fertile soil for art, but Dumitrescu cautions against this. “To catalogue such successes in the face of hardship or tragedy is to risk romanticizing catastrophe. The immediacy of the work before us threatens to blot out the suffering experienced by its author, real to them if not to us. This suffering they might well have preferred to avoid, even if it did eventually result in transcendent work.” 

One way of combatting such romanticism is to get up-close and personal with the particularities of crisis. This process begins with Denis Ferhatović’s essay, “What Book Would You Never Burn (For Fuel)?” The title alone caused me to squirm as I sat in my comfortable office, surrounded by bookshelves.

Ferhatović begins by writing about a recent trip to Sarajevo, one in which he notices used book stalls and wonders about the age of the books being sold. “Of course, many of these used books now for sale in the open air of the Bosnian capital came from elsewhere, but some of them, I believe, are real survivors. They must have withstood the long siege and come through to the other side. They hold stories inside their pages in more than one sense, some so painful that you wish you could forget them.” I have never been to Sarajevo, but I have spent countless hours searching for treasures in the form of used books. Suddenly, I can smell the slightly musty pages, right along with Ferhatović.

The books become even more real as I step closer and read their titles. “A curious individual could extrapolate a person’s education, taste, and attachments by reading a list of books in the order in which he or she sacrificed them, from communists at the beginning to Shakespeare at the end.” I begin to compile a list of my own in my head. I have never been in a position to consider the order I would need to sacrifice much of anything, let alone my books. I have certainly never had to balance necessary warmth with reading material.

It is one thing to discuss this topic with friends, and another to hear about it from those who experienced it. Ferhatović quotes Danilo Kiš, a professor and author of the book Garden, Ashes. Kiš writes: “My life depends on words. Spoken and written. On books. Perhaps this is how I survived the Sarajevo winter of 1992/93, that war-ravaged year. I used books as fuel, I burned the written word. Their flame warmed me, but it scorched me, too…I an accomplice of all the book-burning barbarians.” My life also depends on words. They are my livelihood as well as my joy. But I am a California transplant in Washington State. Winter hasn’t been gone long enough for me to have forgotten what her cold fingers feel like. I would have burned my books, too, and I would have been miserable about it as well.

The essay continues with some of Ferhatović’s personal stories: his mother stores his books while he teaches in Turkey, going down to visit them in the basement when she misses him. His significant other sends him books through international mail, and some fail to reach him or are mangled. He concludes the essay this way: “The savage irony of books as fuel in Sarajevo became apparent to me as I was contemplating my own comparatively less traumatizing situation: during war the enemy tries to destroy everything you hold dear, and then there is another horrible twist, in which they force you to participate in erasing traces of yourself, in order to survive.”

While it is painful just to think about burning books, or to have them taken from us, we can survive without them. An interview with Cara De Silva, editor of In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezín, tells the story of a cookbook of sorts. “During the Holocaust many prisoners talked about food a lot,” says De Silva, “not only about starving, which one might expect, but also about particular dishes, about recipes, about where in their hometown they considered the best place to get an ingredient. They did what was sometimes called ‘Cooking with the Mouth.’”

Some prisoners went beyond talking, writing down recipes on scraps of paper they could scrounge up, even though paper and pencils were scarce. The resulting “cookbook,” a collaboration of five bunkmates in Terezín, became In Memory’s Kitchen.

The reason De Silva doesn’t consider this a true cookbook is simply this: because the women were starving, their brains failing to get the nutrients they needed, most of the recipes simply don’t work. The recipes themselves aren’t really the point, of course. The recounting of the recipes was a way to hold out hope for the future, and a way to remember the past, before the Nazis.

Another way to block out an unpleasant present is to dance. Dumitrescu shares the story of a pair of teenage boys, political prisoners in Romania. One teaches the other to tango. “Terpsichore teaches absorption, an attention to physical technique that erases the world outside studio, ballroom, or cell,” she writes. “When dancing, we enter the realm of the physical, an area beyond ideology or even bare thought.” Dumitrescu admits that Gheorghe, the boy who wants to learn to dance the tango to get romantic with girls in his village, is right to think this muse is sexy, but there is more to it than simple adolescent lust. “He dreams of existence beyond space and prisons and politics. He dreams of an eternal and constant beat, felt, as if accidentally, though the back of his hand.”

These Romanian boys danced the tango in prison, obviously without music. It is one thing to get caught up in a melody or beat, yet another to become enraptured with the dance itself. Their music was internal, something that could not be taken away from them, no matter how many times they were searched.

Music, too, can provide some relief in hard times. Judith Verweijen’s essay, “Rumba Under Fire: Music as Morale and Morality in the Frontlines of the Congo,” follows several Congolese soldiers as they make their way through separation from their families, meager food, and the emotional ravages of war. Music is one way that they escape from reality for a short while, even as people die around them.

The stories in this book only begin to scratch the surface of this topic. Still, it is enough to make it clear that art and letters matter, even in the most dire of circumstances. This book is not the end of the conversation, I hope, but an invitation to continue thinking deeply about these topics.

Like many collections of this sort, I did not find every entry equally compelling. I recommend it for the contributions by Ferhatović, De Silva, and Verweijen. There are others, as well, including Susannah Hollister’s essay about using playing cards to count weeks of survival while her partner was deployed, Dumitrescu’s piece on prisoners finding freedom in poetry, instructing and learning from one another, and prayer, which more than made up for any unevenness in the collection.

Our current age suffers thick and constant conflict all over the world. It strikes me as wise to collect methods of coping. Whether we write, read, compose, play, dance, or cook, we are storing up inner resources that will help sustain us in dark times. Our engagement with humanities and the arts needs not expire or diminish. In fact, with use, our connection will only grow stronger and more intricate, impossible to separate from who we are.

As a Christian, I cannot read this book without thinking about another piece of this puzzle: faith. Dance, words, music, even food, are gifts intimately connected with faith, gifts that allow us to move closer to the Divine. I have only to open my Bible to see examples that would fit well into this book. Paul and Silas sing songs of praise in prison (to say nothing of Paul’s prison epistles). The children of Israel are constantly reminded that they must keep the mighty works of God before them so that they don’t forget when things get hard. The parables of Jesus exemplify the transformative power of story.

While no one wishes for hard times, they do come. This book reminds its readers that frequently these times are out of one’s individual control. No amount of care in how we live can protect us from war or an oppressive regime. But even if our books burn and our music is away, even if our prayers must come from memory, all is not yet lost. There is still hope, even under fire.


Cara Strickland is a freelance writer based in Washington State. You can find more of her work at carastrickland.com.

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