Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category
I and Malu Halasa discussing cultural change in the Syrian Revolution at BBC World TV. I’m looking forward to seeing Khaled Khalifa and other Syrian writers and artists in Copenhagen in a couple of days, at the exhibition organised by Malu.
Throughout yesterday messages were sent out from within the Egyptian regime to the effect that Husni Mubarak was about to resign. Millions went onto the night streets to celebrate the victory. Then, incredibly, Mubarak repeated his intention to stay. He lied about his contributions to Egyptian sovereignty and addressed the Egyptians as his children, to screams of derision. Despicable as he is, there was something of the tragic hero about him, tragic in the Greek or Shakespearean sense. The very traits which had thrust him to greatness – stubborness, brutishness, contempt for the people – were condemning him, with every word, to the most ignominious humiliation. He spoke from the gravel of his octogenarian throat, a man of the past adrift in a strange new world.
Tragic or not, it was certainly theatre – directed by the military. Communique Number One had already been delivered. Then this evening Omar Suleiman made a curt admission of defeat, for he too has been deposed (although he announced only Mubarak’s fall). The military’s Supreme Council is in charge.
It’s Damascus: bustling alleyways and courtyards crammed with silence. Sabriya is secretly in love with Adil. Her brother Sami is secretly in love with Nermin. Both loves are chaste and built on idealism, and both are doomed. Adil and Sami join the 1925-27 revolt against the French occupation. Sami is killed by the enemy. Nermine is badgered into marrying a wealthy old man, then ends up eloping with her hairdresser. Sabriya’s fiance Adil is killed, probably by Sabriya’s bullying brother Raghib who doesn’t like the idea of her marrying a baker’s son. Sabriya is left alone to care for her dying mother, then her dying father. Finally she kills herself, leaving her journal for her niece to read, and a message: “Do not let your life be in vain.”
“Sabriya: Damascus Bitter Sweet” (in Arabic, “Dimashq Ya Basmat al-Huzn”, or “Damascus, O Smile of Sadness”) was published in Syria and then transformed into a controversial and wildly popular muselsel, or television series. (If the Egyptians are famous in the Arab world for films, the Syrians do muselselat, particularly period dramas). This elegantly-written, carefully-dramatised period novel is nostalgic but also very current in its concerns.
Ulfat Idilbi explicitly links the struggles for national rights and women’s rights. When Sabriya participates (wearing niqab) in a women’s demonstration against the French, she says: “For the first time I felt I was a human being with an identity and an objective, in defence of which I was ready to die.”
One of the sillier lines deployed to take the wind out of a cultural boycott of apartheid Israel is ‘art is above politics.’ It’s not an argument, just a line. To see how far from an argument it is, just substitute Israel with something we all agree is unacceptable. Would it have been a good idea for an artist to travel to Auschwitz while the chimneys were pumping, not to witness but to entertain the Gestapo? What about singing for Stalin during collectivisation? Or dancing for Pol Pot as he filled Cambodia’s fields with corpses? O, but those were atrocities! They were criminals! Which brings us to the nub of it. Those false liberals and mercenaries who proclaim the nobility of their ‘engagement’ with Zionist colonialism believe that Zionist crimes are ok. The ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the caging of the refugees, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the annexation of the Golan Heights and Jerusalem, the savage, repeated bombardments of Lebanon, the cheerleading for the destruction of Iraq - none of it matters much, because ‘art’ floats high above it.
This was published at the Guardian.
The Arab world is undergoing seismic transformations, groping its way towards new, as yet unknown forms, throwing up works of art as well as bombs in the process. In the face of vast complexity, however, and in a time of war, our media’s first response is to dumb down.
If the news media simplifies, literature, by offering social and psychological context, broadens and diversifies our understanding of the region, and particularly literature written by Arabs. (When Martin Amis or John Updike write about Arabs, they are of course writing about themselves, their own ideas of how Arabs tick.) The reading public seems to know this. Recent years have seen an increasing demand for Arabic writing in English translation, though Europe still translates far more.
So the publication of “Beirut 39” – 39 extracts by Arab writers under 40 – is a timely and worthwhile initiative. The 39 are winners of a contest organised by Banipal magazine and the Hay Festival of Literature, and the book’s name honours UNESCO’s World Book Capital for 2009. “Beirut 39” contains short stories, novel extracts and a few poems, often brimming with exuberant confidence and sparkling with innovation. The quality of translation ranges from acceptable to excellent.
This review essay was published at The Drouth.
A nation is “a group of persons united by a common error about their ancestry and a common dislike of their neighbours.” Karl Deutsch.
“I don’t think books can change the world, but when the world begins to change, it searches for different books.” Shlomo Sand.
Our Assumptions About Israel
Here is what we in the West, to a varying extent, whether we are religious or not, assume about the Jews and Israel:
The Jews of the world, white, black and brown, are the sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Moses, after leading the Jews out of Egyptian enslavement, gave them laws. Emerging from the desert, the Jews conquered the promised land of Canaan, which became Judea and Israel, later the mighty kingdom of David and Solomon. In 70CE the Romans destroyed the temple at Jerusalem and drove the Jews from their land. A surviving Jewish remnant was expelled when Muslim-Arab conquerors colonised the country in the 7th Century. And so the Jews wandered the earth, the very embodiment of homelessness. But throughout their long exile, against all odds, the Jews kept themselves a pure, unmixed race. Finally they returned, after the Holocaust, to Palestine, “a land without a people for a people without a land.”
This story has been told again and again in our culture. Today we find bits of it in Mark Twain and Leon Uris, in Hollywood’s output and in church pulpits, and of course in the mainstream news media. American Christian Zionists – devotees of the Scofield Bible – swear by it, and swear to support Israel with all the power of their voting block until the Risen Christ declares the apocalypse.
Could the root causes of the Arab-Muslim ‘malaise’ be cultural? That’s what journalist Brian Whitaker suggests in his book ‘What’s Really Wrong With the Middle East’. The thesis sounds suspicious, but Whitaker isn’t a cheap Orientalist, and he uses interviews with Arabs as his raw material. The key issues his informants keep pointing to are indeed the issues that, wherever you meet them, young Arabs complain about. These include an undue emphasis on submission and obedience in the education system, at work, and in the home, the social valorisation of conformity, and a corrupt public space.
The personal is the political. The problem in every sphere is one of overbearing authority, and it’s true that this is ultimately family-based, ultimately the result of overly-narrow personal identifications. In fact, I would argue that tribalism, nepotism, sectarianism, even forced marriage and honour killing, are all manifestations of the tyranny of the clan. And the tyranny of the clan is the result of bad governance.
The clan, repeats novelist Rafik Schami, “saved the Arabs from the desert, and at the same time enslaved them.” It saved them by providing economic and social solidarity, a sense of identity, and physical protection. This was necessary because over the years, for most of the time, there has been no safe field of activity other than the clan, no civic life free from the depredations of warlords, sultans and foreign colonialists. Society has had no choice but to turn inward. The traditional Arab town house is an architectural embodiment of the phenomenon. It looks shabby from the outside, just a door in a wall – this to deflect a pillager’s attention. Inside there’s a courtyard with a tree and a pool.
This review was originally published in the indispensable Electronic Intifada.
Edward Said was one of the great public intellectuals of the twentieth century – prolific, polymathic, principled, and always concerned to link theory to practice. Perhaps by virtue of his Palestinian identity, he was never an ivory tower intellectual. He never feared dirtying his hands in the messy, unwritten history of the present moment. Neither was he ever a committed member of a particular camp. Rather he offered a discomfiting, provocative, constantly critical voice. And against the postmodern grain of contemporary academia, his perspective was consistently moral, consistently worried about justice.
Said was primarily a historian of ideas. More precisely, he was interested in ‘discourse’, the stories a society tells itself and by which it (mis)understands itself and others. His landmark book “Orientalism” examined the Western narrative of empire in the Islamic Middle East, as constructed by Flaubert and Renan, Bernard Lewis and CNN. Said’s multi-disciplinary approach, his treatment of poetry, news coverage and colonial administration documents as aspects of one cultural continuum, was hugely influential in academia, helping to spawn a host of ‘postcolonial’ studies. Said’s “Culture and Imperialism” expanded the focus to include Western depictions of India, Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America, and the literary and political ‘replies’ of the colonised.
I’ve never before visited the USA. Like everybody else in the world, I’ve had it come to me. Its approach has been unstoppable, for good and for ill. For good first: the incredible achievement of American prose, which leaves British writing of the last century far behind. I am astounded by Faulkner, Bellow, Updike and Roth (when they’re good), Cheever, Scott Fitzgerald, and now Joshua Ferris. Formulaic Hollywood switches me off, but I can’t get enough Spike Lee or Martin Scorcese. I love Bob Dylan, Public Enemy and Miles Davis, just for starters. Jazz and particularly hip hop are American art forms which have travelled very well indeed. These two came originally from the black poor, and it’s the heterogeneity of America, and the possibility of marginalised genres and people being heard, which is so appealing. America is a continent-sized country of mixed-up Africans, Jews, Italians, Irish, Latinos, French, Wasps, and everyone else. It should be the most globally-minded and tolerant country in the world.
It isn’t of course. A narrow hyper-nationalism, the shaping of public discourse by corporations and lobbies, and a stupifying media and public education system have seen to that. Which brings us to the ill: America’s homogenising rage, which has ravaged first its own main streets (so Naomi Klein says in No Logo) and then the high streets of the world; its humourless TV gum; its advertising culture of false smiles and sugary platitudes; its racism, wars, military bases, aircraft carriers, support for dictators and apartheid regimes. These are the reasons why the US is known in some parts as the Great Satan, standing behind most of the little satans sitting on Asian and African thrones. In Muscat, Damascus, Shiraz and London I’ve met many people who have been made refugees by the USA.
America is the empire, admittedly in decline. In one sense, therefore, I haven’t needed to visit to know it. But last week I visited nevertheless, for a conference at Notre Dame University which I enjoyed very much.
If all goes well I will be at Notre Dame University in the US later this month for a conference on the role of Islam in contemporary European literature. I wrote the piece below for the conference.
Salman Rushdie once commented that ‘Islam’, in contrast to ‘the West’, is not a narrative civilisation. This, in my opinion, is obvious nonsense. Beyond the fact that human beings are narrative animals, whatever civilisation they live in, and that Islamic civilisation cannot be isolated from, for instance, Christian, Hindu or Arab civilisations, the Muslim world has a history of influential narratives which is second to none. These include Sufi tales, chivalric adventures, fantastical travelogues, romances and spiritual biographies written in several major languages.
Although the Arabic novel is generally considered to have developed in the early twentieth century from the experience of industrial urbanisation and the penetration of European genres and philosophies, Ibn Tufail’s 12th Century “Hayy ibn Yaqzan”, an inspiration for Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”, can reasonably stake a claim to being the world’s first novel. The Arabian Nights (via Don Quixote) is surely another source of the European novel tradition. And Islam the religion – as opposed to the even more nebulous ‘civilisation’ – is a text-based faith. The Qur’an is the religion’s only official miracle; the first word revealed to the Prophet was ‘iqra’ – ‘read’. Those who attempt to draw a distinction between literalist scripture and free and playful literature should pay attention to verse 26 of the Qur’an’s second chapter which, immediately after the first description of heaven and hell, proclaims: “Behold, God does not disdain to propound a parable of a gnat, or of something even less than that.” In other words, the Qur’an is a text unashamed to use metaphor, symbol and a whole range of literary devices in order to point to ineffable realities.
Written five years ago, on the wonderful, appalling Bellow.
There are many reasons for loving Saul Bellow’s work, and some reasons not to. I was first directed to Bellow by a friend of mine who is Jewish, the English-speaking grandchild of Russian immigrants, and interested in his heritage. He therefore has one easy point of access to Bellow, whose protagonists are usually first or second generation Jewish immigrants, which I do not. My friend suggested I read “Ravelstein.” Because I trust his literary judgment, I dutifully struggled through. Not a lot happens in this slim volume, but a lot of details, a lot of memories, are accumulated around the eponymous professor, an opinionated neo-conservative flaunting his newly acquired wealth in Paris. There are many references to expensive brand names and other status symbols. Ravelstein receives updates on the 1991 Gulf War from a previous student who is now important at the Pentagon. (I later discovered that Ravelstein is a fictionalized Allen Bloom, one of Mrs Thatcher’s favourite thinkers, and his pentagon protégé is based on Paul Wolfowitz). None of this endeared the character to me. I get emotional about neo-conservatives. I spit when I hear Wolfowitz’s name. Although there is a great deal of irony – and serious comment on social mobility – in the treatment of these arriviste Jews (the transformation of the Turnbull and Asser clothing label into Kisser and Asser is only the most obvious of the gags), all the luxury in the novel irritated me.
Syrian writer Muhammad al-Maghut was born the son of a peasant farmer in the dusty town of Salamiyah in 1934, during the French occupation. As a young man he joined the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, the second biggest mass party in Syria after the Ba’ath. Like the Ba’ath, the secular SSNP appealed to religious minorities – al-Maghut was of Ismaili origin. Unlike the pan-Arabists of the Ba’ath, it envisaged a fertile crescent state including Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait and even Cyprus. Al-Maghut was locked up on several occasions for SSNP membership. During his first imprisonment – in Mezzeh prison in 1955 – he met the influential poet Adonis and started writing poetry himself.
As a poet he deserves to be much more widely known. Along with Adonis and Nizar Qabbani he was a modernist, using free verse instead of the traditional Arabic forms. Like Qabbani he aimed to be accessible to the ordinary people, but his ‘lover narrator’ is perhaps better suited to our twisted times than Qabbani’s. Certain verses sum up the decadent atmosphere very well indeed. The following remind me of those Gulf Arabs and others who profit from the prostitution of refugee women from occupied Iraq:
Lebanon is burning – it leaps, like a wounded horse, at the edge of the desert/ and I am looking for a fat girl/ to rub myself against on the tram/ for a Beduin-looking man to knock down somewhere. My country is on the verge of collapse/ shivering like a naked lioness/ and I am looking for two green eyes/ and a quaint café by the sea/ looking for a desperate village girl to deceive.”
Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.”
It’s difficult to know where to start with this. Perhaps by registering just how insulting it is for the representative of the imperial killing machine – responsible directly and indirectly for millions of deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Somalia – to lecture the dispossessed and massacred Palestinians on their occasional attempts to strike back. We can be sure that the sleeping children Obama is concerned with here are the Israeli children who live on the stolen land of Palestine, not the unsleeping, traumatised children of Gaza, several hundred of whom were burnt and dismembered six months ago. Then it’s worth remarking how the erudition and intelligence shown in Obama’s pre-presidential book ‘Dreams from my Father’ have been immediately crushed on his assumption of the presidency. How otherwise could his historical vision be so partial and simplistic? There was certainly a key non-violent aspect to the struggle for civil rights in the United States, but pretending that violence played no role in the process makes it necessary to ignore the American Civil War (half a million dead), Nat Turner, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and rioting Chicago. Violence, or the threat of violence, was important in South Africa and India too, and certainly in Obama’s ancestral Kenya, and was the dominant anti-imperial strategy in Vietnam and Algeria.
Suheir Hammad is one of the Palfest participants who deserves a post to herself. A Palestinian-American, Suheir was born to refugee parents in Amman. She spent her first years in civil war Beirut before moving to Brooklyn, where drugs and gang wars raged. She is a poet, prosewriter and actress. Her poetry erases any distance between the personal and political, and is humane, passionate and particular. Greatly influenced in its rhythm, diction and pacing by New York hip hop, it fits snugly into the tradition of Palestinian oral delivery exemplified by the late poet Mahmoud Darwish.
Suheir stars in the film Salt of this Sea, but it is surely time someone directed her in a poetry performance DVD. You have to hear her read to really appreciate what she does. A good place to start is the poem First Writing Since, which concerns 9/11.
Please read the captions.
I have just returned from a physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting week in Palestine. I was a participant in Palfest 09, the second Palestine Festival of Literature. It was a great honour to be in the company of writers like Michael Palin and Debborah Moggach, and Claire Messud, MG Vassanji, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Ahdaf Soueif and Jamal Mahjoub, the lawyer for Guantanamo Bay prisoners Ahmad Ghappour, Palestinian poets Suheir Hammad and Nathalie Handal, and all the others. I’ll do a post at some point on everybody there. It was an even greater honour to meet Palestinian academics, students, and people on the streets and in the camps, to witness their incredible resilience and creative intelligence. Something fearless in them slipped into me, and gave me optimism. A people like this can not be kept down indefinitely.