Tuesday, July 25, 2006

three women of herat

In republishing Veronica Doubleday’s book “Three Women of Herat: A Memoir of Life, Love and Friendship in Afghanistan” 18 years after its first publication, the London publisher Tauris Parke Paperbacks has brought to a new readership a classic on Afghan society and culture.

Doubleday writes: “It is my hope that the republication of this book will help to offset the misapprehensions and prejudices about Afghanistan that abound in the popular Western imagination. It is important for people to know about life there during times of normality, before the traumas and upheavals of invasion and war.”

Doubleday got to know the “three women” – Miriam, Mother of Nebi and Shirin – while she was living in the western Afghan city of Herat in the mid-1970s with her ethnomusicologist husband John Baily, who was researching Afghan music. At the beginning of each chapter of her book is one of her charming drawings of Herati people.

The book was first published by Jonathan Cape in 1988, and in a postscript Doubleday describes how in March 1994 she was able to return to Herat for the first time since the 1970s on board a UN plane. She and her husband made a further visit in spring 2004.

In the 1970s Doubleday and her husband spent two separate years in Afghanistan, with a shorter period in between. At the beginning of their second year, 1976, Doubleday decided to withdraw from public life and the world of men, in which she had been accepted an “honorary male visitor”, and to explore the world of women.

By then she could speak their Persian language, and by sharing and performing the women’s music she entered further into their sphere. She adopted the veil, and although she had mixed feelings about this she found it quite liberating in bringing a “welcome privacy”.

Doubleday gives a fascinating, detailed account of domestic life, family structures, relationships, marriage rituals, celebrations and traditional medicine. She builds up memorable portraits of the three women she got to know best.

Miriam was the daughter of a hereditary musician who was the authority on classical music in Herat. Mother of Nebi was a more isolated, troubled character. An accomplished performer of rural songs, she was intelligent and creative and had a reputation as a diviner. But Doubleday found her “chained and smothered by an ignorant, bigoted husband.”

Shirin, the most famous Herati female singer, had an all-woman band, and Doubleday first encountered her performing at a wedding. “She had a rippling, clear, light voice with a sweet sound that suited her own name, which itself means ‘sweet’.” Doubleday took music lessons from Shirin and became a member of her band, adopting the name Farahnaz. Some people were scandalised that Doubleday had joined the band.

To this day Doubleday continues to perform traditional Afghan music with her husband at concerts in Britain and beyond. Through her writing, performances and deep commitment she has made an essential contribution to the knowledge of Afghan culture.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 25 July 2006

furore over brick lane film

A storm of controversy has erupted in Brick Lane, the heart of London’s Bangladeshi community, over plans to film Monica Ali’s 2003 novel “Brick Lane” there. Filming is due to start in a few weeks in the famous street of curry houses, textile shops and other Bangladeshi businesses in London’s East End.

The row over the filming of “Brick Lane” is the latest example of a conflict between the freedom of expression and the sensibilities of a minority. Around 30 activists opposed to the film held a meeting last week and some have warned of possible violence.

“Brick Lane” tell of how a young woman, Nazneen, comes to England from Bangladesh to marry an older man living in the Brick Lane area, and eventually becomes involved with a young Muslim activist in the post 9/11 period.

Abdus Salique, the chairman of the Brick Lane Traders’ Association told BBC TV that he doesn’t think anyone like Nazneem exists in the community. He said Ali “has imagined that character”. Fellow businessman Mahmoud Raud, complained about the “negative portrayal of our community.”

Ali’s critics point out that she does not come from the Brick Lane community she portrays. Most Bangladeshis in Britain come from Sylhet, but Ali’s father was from Dhaka and her mother is English. Ali grew up in the north of England and went to Oxford University. Her critically acclaimed novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

The film’s production company Ruby Films said: “Throughout the production process we’ve maintained constant contact with the community. When there’s a finished product to watch, we’ll be happy to open dialogue with anyone with any concerns.”

By no means all Bangladeshis are against the film. Asians in Media magazine quoted a local resident, Abdul Goffur, as saying the protest was “blown out of proportion. It’s a minority who are trying to make themselves known. But I live in Brick Lane and we’ve got a thousand guys in support of this. This film will be helpful in opening up our community and helping us progress as a community as a whole.”

International PEN, the worldwide association of writers, is so concerned about possible trouble that the deputy president of English PEN and five prominent PEN members wrote to the Guardian newspaper. They called on the police, with the full backing of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to “stand squarely behind the film, its author and the right to free imaginative expression.”

One hopes that any protests will be peaceful. If the film is a success, it could help put Brick Lane further on the map and make it a tourist attraction, just as happened in West London after the release of the film “Notting Hill”.

Susannah Tarbush Saudi Gazette 25 July 2006

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

freemuse report on ME music censorship

Music censorship has become a topic of increasing interest in recent years, thanks partly to the efforts of the Danish charity Freemuse. Founded in 1998, Freemuse is the only global organisation that advocates freedom of expression for musicians and composers.

Freemuse's latest report, "All that is Banned is Desired", highlights some of the main issues of music censorship in the Middle East. The issues range from religious opinions on musical performance to curbs on heavy metal music in certain Arab countries, and the debate over Lebanese music videos featuring scantily clad women. Not all censorship is imposed by censors; self-censorship is widespread.

The report, prepared by British writer and journalist Trevor Mostyn, is based on the two-day conference that Copenhagen-based Freemuse held in Beirut last October in collaboration with the Heinrich Boll Foundation and the Irab-Arabic Association for Music.

In her opening speech to the conference, Freemuse's executive director Marie Korpe explained that the event was a result of, and a continuation of, the 2nd World Conference on Music and Censorship held in Copenhagen in September 2002. At that conference the famous Lebanese musician and composer Marcel Khalife had proposed that Freemuse arrange a similar conference in Lebanon.

Participants in the conference came from 14 countries, and there were testimonies from musicians, concert organisers and media professionals who had been censored in Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain and Morocco.

The conference offered much scope for lively anecdotes and cross-cultural comparisons. For example, the musician and associate professor Mark LeVine said that the young Iraqi firebrand preacher Muqtada al-Sadr fulfils many of the same functions - positive and negative - for his followers as young American rappers like NWA (Niggaz With Attitude) and Public Enemy fulfilled for their fans when they started out.

Mai Ghoussoub, the Lebanese founder of Saqi Books in London pointed out in her keynote speech that although censorship persists, it is becoming "almost impossible in the age of the internet, mass tourism and cheap flights to really suppress a book, a song or an image."

Bahraini singer Khalid Al-Shaikh, who has had some of his songs banned in Bahrain, said the best music is often produced in times of oppression. He noted the irony that although most of the singers and investors in entertainment in the Gulf are Saudi, Saudi Arabia has the strictest censorship.

Iranian singer Mahsa Vahdat described the ways in which since the 1979 Iranian revolution jurists have limited the freedom of music. Women in Iran can play musical instruments, but they may not sing to audiences that include men.

Several films were screened during the conference, including the documentary "The Rock Star and the Mullahs" featuring Pakistani guitarist Salman Ahmad of the Pakistani band Junoon. There was also the Middle East premiere of Syrian filmmaker Mohamad Malas’s film “Passion”, in which a woman is terribly punished for her innocent love of song.

Susannah Tarbush

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

losing arab hearts and minds

Lieutenant Commander Steve Tatham was the British Royal Navy spokesman during the invasion of Iraq. In his book “Losing Arab Hearts and Minds: The Coalition, Al-Jazeera and Muslim Public Opinion” he brings his experiences to bear on the question of how the Coalition handled the Arab media during the Iraq war. The book, published recently in London by Hurst & Company, has just been published in the US by Front Street Press.

Tatham is both a serving officer in the Royal Navy, and a corporate communications specialist. He was awarded an Iraq Campaign Medal in October 2004, but admits he has become “more and more opposed to the events of March and April 2003”.

His book is a lively, thorough and fair-minded account which ranges widely over its central themes. Among those he has interviewed are senior staff of Arab and Western TV channels, scholars, media practitioners and diplomats.

The Arab media were accused of bias (“the new four letter word”) during the Iraq war. But Tatham points out that the US media, particularly the ardently pro-war Fox Television, were hardly unbiased in their reporting.

Tatham asks: “How did the world’s most powerful country, which after the horror of 9/11 had the sympathy of the world, and its small coalition of military partners so convincingly lose the battle for Arab hearts and minds?” He notes that many observers believe that America had lost the battle for Arab hearts long before the Iraq conflict, especially over its policies towards Israel.

However, it was thought before the invasion that the battle for Arab minds might be worth fighting, given that “Saddam was generally seen by the Arab intelligentsia as a despotic and evil dictator. While his removal by force was unpopular, US ideals of democratic change for the region enjoyed some critical support”.

In contrast to the 1991 Gulf war, the Arab world had by 2003 a range of satellite TV channels, notably the pan-Arab Al-Jazeera, Abu Dhabi TV and Al-Arabiya. The US and Britain saw information campaigns and media coverage of their operations as vital in gaining support. But the Coalition’s Arab media campaign failed.

Rather than launch an imaginative and targeted media campaign, the Coalition was mainly concerned with its own domestic market, especially the “hugely patriotic” US market. The few Arab media that did embed with US troops left after a few days, complaining they had been cut out of the briefing process and put in danger.

“Not only were the Arab media hugely under-represented in comparison with their Western colleagues but it is clear that there existed a predisposition to be hostile towards them in general and Al-Jazeera in particular,” Tatham writes. This hostility “seems to have been based on perceived reputation rather than on personal experience.”

James Wilkinson, who was responsible for the overall US media strategy at the Coalition Press Information Centre in CENTCOM’s Qatar headquarters, admitted that the US had “no idea” how to communicate with the Arab world. He declared that Al-Jazeera was “absolutely biased” and broke contact with it after it showed images of dead and captured US troops.

Tatham points to the paradox that while the US at the outset led the effort to engage the Arab media, it appeared to give up as the conflict began and as the war continued. Britain, on the other hand, engaged poorly with the Arab media at the beginning, but as the war went on “many corners of the British government seemed to recognise that Al-Jazeera and other pan-Arab channels needed to be listened to.”

The relationship between the Coalition and the Arab media is as fragile as ever, Tatham says. The BBC and CNN have lost appeal and credibility in the Arab region as a result of the Iraq war. Al-Jazeera is now launching an English service, but Tatham predicts it will face a struggle in getting distribution across the US.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 27 June 2006