Archive for August 2009
This review was published on the Electronic Intifada.
Randa Jarrar’s “A Map of Home” is a beautifully achieved coming of age novel which follows a clever girl through a war, a domestic battlefield, and repeated forced migrations. For our heroine, these events are aspects of the normal everyday stuff (because everything’s normal when it happens to you), like school, friends, family, and shopping. Despite the geographical and cultural particularities of the story, the themes – of awakening sexually, of learning how to love a parent yet firmly say no, and of struggling for independence and a place in the world – are universal, and the book will appeal to all but the most easily shocked readers.
At the novel’s centre is a family. The father, Waheed, is a Palestinian from Jenin exiled to a string of temporary residences. Resentful of his failure to develop a career as a poet, he projects his ambition onto his daughter, about whom Waheed is convincingly self-conflicted: he wants her to be a famous professor, but doesn’t want her to study away from home.
A slightly different version of this review was written for Prospect Magazine, where it was available free-of-charge for a while, but no longer.
The contemporary religious revival is a complex business. In the same period that Muslim societies, in their weakness, seem to have re-embraced Islam, America, in its strength, has re-embraced Christianity. Western Europe remains avowedly secular. Despite the contradictions within the West, mainstream Orientalism holds that all cultures are developing towards the universal (or, more specifically, globalised) model of secular modernity and the market. The Muslim world experiences backwardness to the extent that it resists secularisation.
“The Crisis of Islamic Civilisation”, a subtle and erudite book by former Iraqi minister Ali A Allawi, challenges this thesis. Surveying the Muslims’ social, economic and moral failures, and the terror espoused by certain Islamist groups, Allawi suggests the problem might not be too much Islam, but too little.
Remember the Islamophobic cartoons published by the neo-con Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten? The controversy rumbled on from 2005 into 2006, and involved angry demonstrations, embassy-burnings (in countries where you can’t look at an embassy without a government permit), deaths, boycotts, and campaigns of support to counteract the boycotts. Although I found the cartoons deeply offensive, and not in the least related to free speech or constructive debate, I was more upset by the responses of some Muslims.
The cartoons were a media provocation, and should have been combatted through intelligent use of the media. The outpouring of Muslim anger at a West which insulted Muslims after slaughtering them was certainly understandable, but was aimed at the wrong target. I lived in Oman at the time, where the state-appointed Mufti as well as editorials in the state-controlled press encouraged people to boycott Danish goods. The supermarkets put up signs announcing that they no longer stocked Danish goods (although an English friend assured me that Danish bacon was still on sale in the foreigners-only pork room of one supermarket). Meanwhile the shelves groaned under American products, and Oman continued to stock British and American military bases. American planes were incinerating Iraqi Muslims in their mosques at the time. The cartoon fuss seemed very much to be an organised distraction from more serious issues.
A British artist (Robin Ade) made these impressive propaganda posters during the Afghan war against the Soviet occupation. They were also printed as postcards. The picture to the right was sent out as a christmas card by Agency Afghan Press in the UK, prompting London’s Evening Standard to wonder, jokingly, if the three figures represented Joseph, Mary and Jesus. The picture to the left was made for Gulbedeen Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami, which then had a London office. The pictures raised no horrified eyebrows in the UK – of course not: the Afghan people and the Thatcher and Reagan administrations were all on the same side, for freedom, against godless Soviet communism interfering with a traditional culture. Today, however, Hekmatyar is fighting the NATO occupation of his country, and were a British artist to dare paint an Afghan mujahid, with Qur’an in one hand and kalashnikov in the other, standing on an American flag, underneath a calligraphed ‘Allahu Akbar’, he would quite probably be charged under anti-terror legislation.
On this night I was the controller for King’s Cabs, whose shopfront office lies on the southern reaches of the Caledonian Road. I was the man who watches the phone line, directs the drivers, greets the punters. I sat under neon. I read a lot of stolen books.
The shift began at ten, in time for a plastic cupful of tea, a roll-up, and some pages of What Is To Be Done? before the pub closing rush, which had always been the only rush of the night. If it was a rush.
First action struck shortly after eleven, when a couple of red-jowled, sweaty-eyed men strolled in, bellies straining against football shirts and tongues wagging in keen debate.
“That black one, fuckin hell!”
“Nah. Sparrow tits? Nah. The fuckin Russki, I tell you.”
I don’t usually subject myself to it, but a few days ago I found myself near a television in the act of broadcasting the BBC news. One of the headline stories, carefully selected for relevance from this world of trouble, concerned a bleach attack on the boyfriend of a married woman. The woman and her boyfriend were both British Muslims, so the newscaster expected the attack to put the focus back on ‘honour crimes in the Muslim community’. I wonder how many ‘native’ white males were glassed or bottled in Britain last Saturday night for looking at somebody’s girlfriend the wrong way. I wonder when the focus will be directed (it can’t be ‘put back’ because it wasn’t there in the first place) on Anglo honour crimes, on show right now in a pub near you.
Next little episode: Jim Fitzpatrick MP, whose east London constituency is a third Muslim, walked out of a constituent’s wedding party when he discovered – to his horror – that men and women were asked to sit in separate areas. Many comment-posters on the ‘liberal’ Guardian supported Fitzpatrick’s action, because gender segregation is not something we do in this country. Absolutely. If it weren’t for the Muslim cultural invasion, proper Brits wouldn’t have picked up the foreign habit of the stag and hen night.
Grampa was an older man than most of them in the castle, already in his thirties, almost too old for war. Nevertheless it was a fresh dawn for him, who was finally finding confidence in himself, liking himself at last. No longer tongue-tied, he was popular with the soldiers. He found he had the gift of getting on with men from all social classes and all parts of the country. And he was able to make himself useful.
They put him in charge of accounts. At the end of each month he handed over the leisure allowance in big notes, money for beer and cigarettes and trips into Glasgow. The men seemed to hold him personally responsible for this snippet of good fortune. Cheers, Arnold, they said one by one, bright eyed, shuffling forward and bouncing out. But this was not his only job. He was also a medical orderly and, with his cool nerves, an attendant at operations. Bloodied, hot, he displayed the type of courage that tougher breeds couldn’t understand. Once he saw a man faint at the sight of a needle who had before that crash-landed, unruffled, a flaming fighter plane on the sea.
He had been considered officer material – he was bright enough for that and more – had been sent on the training course in Wales. But then, rushing across the grey fells, his knee gave in. He only grinned. He was used to such disappointments. He hadn’t gone to sea because he couldn’t distinguish blue from red. He had failed his school exams because of a huge boil exploding on his bottom. He hadn’t gone to art school, where he might have made a career of colour blindness, because his father, despite the art master’s recommendation, thought art school unbecoming. So he had been placed instead in the book trade at the age of 14, more properly the tea-getting, message-bearing trade. (Though after the war he was promoted to a position that fitted his more solid presence). He worked among hard and paper backs. Papery-thin he was himself, and ivory white. His mates called him snowball for the icicle down that clung to his albumen skull. Later on, when I knew him, the hair had gone, but the soft domed head remained, and the blue veins.