Saturday, June 30, 2007

reem kelani and houria niati sing at leighton house

It is difficult to think of a more fitting venue for a festival of Muslim Cultures in London than Leighton House Museum near Holland Park in the west of the city. Leighton House was designed by the architect George Aitchison in the 19th century for one of the greatest-ever British lovers of Arab visual arts - the painter Frederic, Lord Leighton (1839-1896). The building is especially famed for the exquisitely-decorated Arab Hall (pictured) with its domed ceiling, marble-clad walls, mosaic floor, columns, fountain and more than 1,000 decorative tiles, most of them brought from Damascus.

The one-month festival was held at Leighton House throughout June. It started with a full-day conference on the theme Islam Today: Rich Past, Progressive Future. The topics included Islamic Art and Architecture; Science, Philosophy and Architecture in the Islamic Tradition; Educating for Inclusive Citizenship, and Islam Today. Among the speakers were Professor Robert Hillenbrand, Dr Nader El-Bizri, Dr Dina Kiwan and Professor Mona Siddiqui. Another major event during the festival was an afternoon on Iraqi Art Today addressed by two leading Iraqi artists, Baghdad-based Hana Mal Allah and Rashad Salim who lives in London.

For those with an interest in Arab music, the Afternoon of Middle Eastern Music was a particularly memorable part of the festival. The afternoon featured two London-based women singers from different parts of the Arab world. Houria Niati was born in Algeria, while Palestinian Reem Kelani was born in Manchester, England, to a mother from Nazareth and a father from the village of Ya’bad near Jenin, and grew up in Kuwait.

The singers performed in the first floor music room which has a gilt dome over the performance stage. The room is an intimate space that was Leighton’s studio, and where he held his famed musical evenings. The terracotta-colored walls are hung with paintings by Leighton himself and by contemporaries from his artistic circle which included Edward Burne-Jones, John Everett Millais, George Frederick Watts and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. A plaster cast of the Parthenon frieze runs along the upper section of one wall.

In Niati’s recital of Arab-Andalusian songs she was accompanied by the Spanish guitarist Miguel Moreno, who has studied under the legendary flamenco guitarists Geraldo Nunez and Eduardo Rebollar. Niati and Moreno often perform as a duo, under the name Habiboun. After the interval Kelani performed with the talented jazz pianist David Beebee whose inspiration lies in classical music, world music and modern jazz.

When Niati was growing up in Algeria her father was a music lover with a substantial collection of recordings of singers. “They were the top names of that time, but all have now passed away,” Niati said. “The women singers were like my heroines”. Niati trained in Arab-Andalusian singing in Algeria. She then studied art in London, at Croydon College of Art and Design and surprised her fellow students one day by breaking into an acapella (unaccompanied) rendering of a song from her native country.

Niati is now an installation artist, who combines painting, drawing and digital art, and her singing is an integral part of her art installations. She has exhibited her work in the US, Jordan, North Africa, the UAE, the UK and several other West European countries.

Niati’s repertoire is drawn from the compositions of singing, instrumentation and poetry known as nouba. Her music is indebted to the great ninth-century composer Ziryab (Arabic for ‘blackbird’) Ibn Nafi who was born in Iraq but forced into exile in Spain. The accomplished guitar playing of Moreno blended effectively with Niaiti’s sweet, expressive voice in the fusion of Arab-Andalusian and Spanish music. Niati explained to the audience that Arab-Andalusian music travelled to Algeria with the exile of Muslims and Jews who fled southern Spain during the inquisition.

Reem Kelani’s CD “Sprinting Gazelle” was released in early 2006 to much critical acclaim. The CD comprised traditional Palestinian songs and Kelani’s settings of works by Palestinians poets. In her recital she performed compositions from this CD as well as from her second CD which is dedicated to the work of the great Egyptian musician Sheikh Sayed Darwish of Alexandria. He died in 1923 at the age of only 31.

Kelani began her recital in a whirlwind of clapping, yodeling and foot stamping as she performed a wedding song from the city of Acre. The audience was amused by her comment: “The family of the bridge tells the groom’s family that because you accepted our daughter in marriage, we are going to make you ruler of all Arab tribes. Mind you, if you had rejected her we would have made you clean up after our cattle.”

After this boisterous beginning, David Beebee jangled cow bells from the Khorasan region of Iran in the gentle introduction to a Galilean song, a setting by Kelani of a work by the late Palestinian poet and politician Tawfiq Zayyad. The song tells of the singer’s loved ones moving away. “My heart has never stopped shedding tears for them…if you see the cameleer of the caravan stop him to tell my loved ones in their deserted homes that hardship shall never last for ever.” The song was juxtaposed with a contemporary lullaby and with a 19th century lullaby in which Muslim women in Bethlehem ask the Virgin Mary to protect their babies while they are sleeping.

Niati had performed muwashahat from North Africa in her recital, and Kelani’s recital included a muwashaha from Egypt. Kelani observed that Western music abandoned quarter-tones but that they remain in Arab music. In her arrangement for piano of the muwashaha, “I’d like to pay tribute to the meeting point when quarter tones were still not dropped - and hopefully we’ll put the notion of a clash of civilizations into the dustbin, at least for this afternoon.”

Kelani then moved on to a song by Sheikh Sayed Darwish in a 17/8 rhythmic pattern known in Farsi as “khosh rank”, meaning “beautiful color.” The intricate dynamic rhythm carried the listener along with its syncopations and Spanish-type inflections. She also sang the Darwish composition “The Porters’ Anthem”. Darwish studied Italian opera, and also wrote a song for almost every manual profession in Egypt at the time. In his porters’ anthem he incorporates the porters’ cries of “Hela hela” that he would hear in his area of Alexandria.

Kelani’s next number was a love song she described as “’mellow,’ a sanitized way of saying it’s a wrist-slasher”. It was her setting of the qasida “Yafa!” written by Yafa (Jaffa)-born Mahmoud Salim Al-Hout in 1948 when he lost all his manuscripts while fleeing the city. He compares Yafa to a beautiful woman. David Beebee seemed to utilize the entire length of the piano keyboard in his solo introduction to the piece, which was tinged with sorrow and captured the depth and movement of the sea.

Kelani compared the qasida to Niati’s style of singing which is called in Spanish “canta hondo”, meaning “deep singing.” She observed that the Spanish poet and dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca had written much about canta hondo and had paid tribute to the poets of Seville and Granada at a time when there was not much recognition in Spain of the influence of Arab music and Andalusian culture. Kelani said that Lorca had influenced many Palestinian poets after 1948 and that Samih Al-Qassem and Tawfiq Zayyad had dedicated poems to him.

Niati joined Kelani on stage for a rousing rendering of one of Darwish’s most famous songs “Zourouni kull sana marra” or “Visit me once a year”. As an encore Kelani performed Palestinian poet Salma Khadra Jayyusi’s translation into English of Love Poem by Samih Qassim.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette June 25 2007

Saturday, June 23, 2007

gordon brown an enigma on middle east

“Gordon Brown sets out plan for the Middle East”. This was a typical headline in the British media after the Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, who takes over as prime Minister from Tony Blair on 27 June, spoke a few days ago of the importance of tackling poverty in the Palestinian territories and called for “an economic road map”. Brown pointed out that the average annual income per head in Gaza is 800 US dollars while in Israel it is $20,000. He confirmed that he still believes in a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In reality there was nothing new in Brown’s comments, made after Hamas’s seizure of power in Gaza. He has called for a Middle East economic road map before. It is still not known how he will try as Prime Minister to deal with the Middle East crisis, and whether he still stick as closely to US policy as Blair has. Anger within the Labour Party over Blair’s refusal to call for an immediate ceasefire during the Lebanon war last summer, and his perceived consistently pro-Israeli stance while Prime Minister, put pressure on him from within the party to hasten his departure. It was a major reason for his announcement last September that he would leave his position within a year. And it is still not known how Brown will deal with other issues related to the Middle East, particularly any US plan to attack Iran militarily.

Statements made in Iraq by Brown on his recent visit there were a clear indication of his wish to put a distance between him and the Blair era. Whereas Blair continues to defiantly defend all the decisions he took over Iraq, Brown admitted during his recent surprise visit to Baghdad that mistakes had been made and that he would “learn the lessons”.

One of the main reasons for the sharp drop in the public’s trust and confidence in Tony Blair and his government since 2003 has been the exaggerated and faulty intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction that the government presented in its dossier of September 2002. The dossier claimed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that could be deployed within 45 minutes.

During his visit to Iraq Brown said that he has asked the cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, to ensure that in future any intelligence material released to the public is “properly verified and validated”, and that “all security and intelligence analysis is independent of the political process.”

Sources close to Brown said that his visit had confirmed his view that there should not be any hasty changes to the timetable for eventual British withdrawal. However there has been some speeding up, and defence secretary Des Browne told journalists that from next month British troops in Basra will be confined to a single base at the airport. At the same time the British forces will be cut by 500 to 5,000. It is planned that most British troops should have left Iraq within the next 12 months.

The period since 17 May, when it became clear that Gordon Brown would be the sole candidate leader of the Labour Party, and thus Prime Minister, has been a strange time in British politics. There have in effect been two prime ministers. Blair has been on his world farewell tour, trying to polish his political legacy despite the deep stain of Iraq. Meanwhile Gordon Brown has been travelling around Britain carrying out visits in preparation for the day he takes over from Blair.

Brown brings to his new job ten years of experience in government, but he also brings the heavy baggage of the Blair premiership which will be hard to shake off. He faces the challenge of rebuilding confidence in the government and attracting back voters who have deserted Labour, so as to secure for the party its fourth term in office in the general election of 2009 or 2010. He needs to counter the rise of the Conservatives’ leader David Cameron, who is only 40 while Brown is 56.

Although there has been no contest for the Labour leadership, there has been a lively electoral campaign among the six candidates standing for the deputy leadership to replace John Prescott. Prescott is also deputy prime minister, but it will be for Gordon Brown to decide whether the next deputy party leader should also be deputy prime minister.

The six candidates have felt liberated by the imminent departure of Blair to criticise aspects of his premiership. The secretary of state for Northern Ireland and Wales Peter Hain wrote in an article in the New Statesman that whether on Iraq, the reorganisation of the health service, the reform of schools, or civil liberties, “the relationship between Labour and millions of progressive voters has become sour and distrustful.” All six candidates have to varying degrees expressed opinions somewhat to the left of Blair, which has not pleased Blair.

Brown himself remains an enigma. As Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British understanding (CAABU), told Al Hayat: “there is an acute degree of uncertainty even within the ranks of the Labour Party. Although Gordon Brown has been a hugely powerful Chancellor of the Exchequer, with a firm control over British domestic policies for the last ten years, few people are really clear what Gordon Brown the prime Minister will do.”

Doyle adds: “In the foreign affairs field this is even tougher to anticipate. In the carve up of British politics it was Blair who had control over Britain’s international relations and Brown stayed out, hence his low profile on issues such as Iraq and Lebanon. The reality may well be that even Brown is not sure what his foreign policy will be as he, like so many in New Labour, has precious little understanding of international relations albeit outside the economic field.”

Doyle notes that Brown has been busy doing the groundwork for his premiership in the last few years, with his first visit to Africa, Indian Israel and the occupied territories. “Brown may well want to concentrate on domestic issues, conscious of the widespread criticism of Blair’s internationalism and tendency to intervene militarily. However, Iraq and Afghanistan cannot be ignored and there will be acute and sustained pressure on him to steer a different course.”

Nevertheless, one should not expect anything too drastic here. “Brown has a consistent record of interest in US politics and has close relations with the administration. He is thought to be more Euro sceptic than Blair.”

It is expected that in his first 100 days as Prime Minister Brown will announce many new initiatives. He is expected to announce the setting up of a “people’s assembly” to rewrite the constitutional settlement. Brown will also usher in a change in the style of government. There has been much criticism of Blair’s method of government and the way in which he centralised decision making, bypassing the cabinet and parliament. This style of government became known as “sofa” government with important decisions made at informal meetings in Blair’s offices in Downing Street.

One of Brown’s key appointments has been that of former British ambassador to Israel, Simon McDonald, as his chief foreign policy adviser replacing Blair’s adviser Sir Nigel Sheinwald. McDonald (46) was ambassador in Israel from 2003 to 2006 and is currently head of the Iraq desk at the Foreign Officer.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said that political sources in Jerusalem expressed satisfaction with the appointment of McDonald, a “friend to Israel.” It said the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem “regard McDonald with great esteem”. He is considered one of the most influential foreign envoys posted to Israel, and one well-connected to Israeli decision makers and Israeli political sources said: “It is a signal that Britain will continue its positive policy towards Israel.”

Under Blair’s premiership there has been some resentment within the Foreign Office at the way in which its role was to some extent marginalised by the prime minister and his inner circle. It is said that the Foreign Office greeted Brown’s appointment of McDonald with enthusiasm, as an assurance of the pivotal role of the Foreign Office.

The Jewish community has warmly welcomed Brown’s accession to the premiership. He is close to the chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks and wrote the foreword to the paperback edition of Sacks’ book “The Politics of Hope”. Brown said that the book had had a “profound influence” on his thinking. In February Brown appointed the chief rabbi’s 24-year-old daughter Gilda Sacks as a special adviser. The treasury said Gilda Sacks had been appointed because of her experience in strategic development.

In April Brown addressed the annual lunch of the lobby group Labour Friends of Israel, and was also guest of honour at the annual dinner of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Brown often mentions how he got to know about Israel when he was growing up as a boy because his father, who was a minister in the Church of Scotland, visited Israel twice every year. He told the Board of Deputies of British Jews that he remains “a life-long friend and supporter of Israel... Britain will be a true and constant friend – in good times and bad and we will never compromise our relationship to political expediency.”

The question of boycotts against Israel is currently attracting much controversy in Britain. Brown told the Board of Deputies dinner: “I recoil in revulsion at the prospect of boycotts of Israel and the Israeli academic community.”

Brown is very supportive of the Holocaust Education Trust, and at the Trust’s annual dinner last September he was given a special award. In 2006 he announced a £1.5 million grant to enable the Holocaust Educational Trust to take two students from every UK secondary school and further education college to visit Auschwitz concentration camp.

At the Labour Friends of Israel annual lunch Brown announced that UK Treasury and the Pears Foundation will each contribute £250,000 over three years to the Holocaust Educational Trust for teacher training. He said that “any suggestion the Holocaust will be dropped from the curriculum is nonsense.” He insisted there was a strong and forceful commitment from all parties to fight anti-Semitism.

One of Brown’s closest advisers is Sir Ronald Cohen (left), who was born in Egypt to a family of Jews from Aleppo (his mother, Sonia Doueik, was English). Cohen is known as the “father of British venture capital” and has wealth is estimated at around £250 million. In 2004 he was the fourth largest funder of the Labour Party, and in 2005 he started to fund Gordon Brown’s bid to be the next Labour leader. (Sir Ronald’s third wife, Sharon Harel-Cohen, is the daughter of Yossi Harel, the Haganah member who was commander of the Holocaust survivors’ ship Exodus).

Sir Ronald Cohen is founder and chairman of the Portland Trust, a not-for-profit British foundation that aims to promote Palestinian-Israeli peace through economic development. It works with a range of partners including the British government, EU and World Bank. Brown said at the Board of Deputies dinner: “With others, including the Portland Trust, we are ready to underpin a political road map with an economic road map.”
When Gordon Brown was guest speaker at the Muslim News Awards for Excellence dinner in London in March 2005 he praised the “huge contribution” British Muslims make to Britain’s success. He described British Muslims as “our modern heroes; standing for the highest ideals, bearing burdens, and bringing hope to us all in Britain.”

However, since then life for Muslims in Britain has become much more difficult as a result of the suicide bombings in London on 7 July 2005 and the uncovering of various terror plots. Brown has constantly stressed the need for Britishness and shared British values, and he can be expected to support and develop policies designed to try to combat extremism by decreasing segregation and increasing social cohesion.

Brown is planning fresh anti-terror measures, and he is to revive proposals to increase the length of time a terror suspect can be held without charge from 28 to 90 days. He will call for a review of the laws under which evidence obtained by phone tapping cannot be used in court. But Brown also stressed the need for civil liberties to be upheld, and says courts and parliament will have greater oversight over the proposed anti-terror measures.

Susannah Tarbush

Al Hayat (in Arabic translation) June 22 2007

anissa helou brings mezze into the 21st century

The food writer Anissa Helou remembers how, when she was a girl in Beirut, her father would celebrate his arrival back from a long business trip by taking the family in his Buick to the town of Zahleh. There they would cross a bridge to one of the riverside mezze restaurants.

Her father would order as many as 20 different mezzes. He did not order from the menu, but quizzed the waiter about what was in season and particularly fresh that day. “The waiters brought tray after tray of small dishes, all cleverly stacked so that the food stayed intact inside,” Helou writes in the introduction to her latest book “Modern Mezze”, published in London by Quadrille.

She describes the gorgeously garnished dishes: “The raw meats with fresh herbs, the dips with sprinklings of brightly coloured spices or pomegranate seeds, the salads with tiny cubes of shiny red tomatoes, the savoury pastries with bright yellow lemon wedges and so on. The feast was as much for the eye as for the appetite.”

Helou’s abiding interest in the visual impact of dishes is much in evidence in “Modern Mezze” with its sensuous photographs by Vanessa Courtier. The cover illustration shows a seductive-looking Turkish dish of grilled red peppers, glistening with a dressing of vinegar and garlic (unusually, no oil is included in the recipe) and scattered with thyme leaves. The pages of the book are bursting with contrasting colors and textures. Even a simple dish of carrots cooked with green lentils looks enormously appealing mounded in a bowl and topped with Greek yoghurt and garlic, and a sprig of dill.

“Modern Mezze” contains more than 100 recipes from Lebanon, Morocco, Turkey and Greece. Helou defines mezze as “leisurely savoring a tremendous selection of small dishes”. While mezze is part of the culinary tradition of the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, Helou points out that this is not so in Morocco. There, the nearest equivalent is “salades variees”, a variety of salads present on the table throughout a meal. “These salads are a wonderful if unorthodox addition to a mezze spread.”

It would be impracticable for a home cook, given the pressures of time and space, to attempt to recreate the vast array of dishes one finds in a restaurant mezze. In the home-style mezze presented in Helou’s book there are fewer dishes, served in larger quantities. Helou helpfully suggests 12 mezze menus for when mezze is to be the starter course, and 12 more substantial menus in cases when mezze is a meal in itself. In addition to the prepared mezze dishes, there are various musts for the mezze table: bread of one or more types, crudités, olives , pickles, roasted nuts and seeds, to which can be added cheese, labne balls, thinly sliced pasturma (the only cured meat in the Middle East) and, if you are feeling extravagant, dried mullet’s roe (bottarga). Helou says that sea urchins also make a splendid mezze when they are in season.

“Modern Mezze” is both inspiring and practical. There are step-by step photo sequences of some of the more complicated techniques. These include making and stuffing Lebanese kibbe (minced meat and burghul) balls, and filling and folding filo pastry sheets to make spinach triangles or Turkish borek.

The recipes are divided into seven main sections: dips, salads, pastries and mini wraps, pulses and grains, vegetable dishes, fish and shellfish, and chicken wings, kibbe and other meat. Helou draws on her wide experience to give many useful tips. She also gives advice on the purchase of ingredients. For example the burghul bought in Middle Eastern shops is “far superior” to any found in health food shops and supermarkets.

Some of the dishes in “Modern Mezze” are familiar to diners and supermarket shoppers in the West, such as hommus, baba ghannuge, tabbule, stuffed vine leaves and falafel. Helou adds her expertise and special touches to her recipes for these standards. Many other recipes in her book are for unusual mezzes that Helou has found on her travels. One’s interest is piqued by recipes for dishes such as chilli and herb dip, mackerel and hazelnut dip, white tabbule, beetroot salad decorated with tahini sauce, broad bean risotto, sardines chermula from Morocco and Turkish mussel brochettes. There are recipes for two raw kibbe dishes. One is a spicy Turkish version; the other, from southern Lebanon, includes dried rosebuds and grated citrus zest.

Helou has devised some mezzes. One is a Lebanese version of bruschetta, toasted bread served with various toppings. Rather than top the bread the Italian way, she uses typical Lebanese or Turkish sandwich fillings, such as labne with chopped olives and mint, aubergine salad, feta cheese salad or za’tar (thyme and sesame dip).

Another of her suggestions is “za’tar bites” in which za’tar is put atop small circles of puff pastry , instead of the usual bread base. When baked, the circles rise like mini-top hats. The same principle can be used to make spicy lamb bites or aubergine mixture bites. She also describes a Lebanese version of sushi made by cutting up a rolled feta cheese, cucumber and mint wrap.

“Modern Mezze” is the fifth cookery book of the prolific Helou, who is also a radio and TV broadcaster and regularly writes for the Saturday edition of the Financial Times. She arrived on the cookery book scene in 1994 with “Lebanese Cuisine”, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Andre Simon award. This was followed by “Street Cafe Morocco”, “Mediterranean Street Food” and “The Fifth Quarter” (named after the French term for offal). “Modern Mezze” is not her only book to appear this year: “Savory Baking from the Mediterranean: Focaccia, Flatbreads, Rusks, Tarts & Other Breads” will be published in New York in August by William Morrow, a HarperCollins imprint.

Before becoming a food writer, Helou enjoyed a career in the world of art and collecting. Born in Beirut to a Syrian father and Lebanese mother, she moved to London at the age of 21 and became the Middle East representative of the London-based auction house Sotheby’s. She also owned and ran an antique shop in Paris. Between 1978 and 1986 she lived in Kuwait advising collectors, including members of the ruling family, on building their holdings of Islamic and other art. At the same time she assembled her own remarkable collection which went under the hammer at London auction house Christie’s in 1999 when she sold her house in Clapham, South London.

She then bought a two-storey warehouse loft in Shoreditch, an area of East London that buzzes with new art galleries and restaurants. Helou has transformed the loft into a minimalist light and airy space with a state-of-the-art kitchen. Here she set up Anissa’s School, where she gives demonstration classes on Mediterranean cookery.

Helou’s entrepreneurial spirit is opening up new horizons. In December she is to conduct her first culinary tour, taking a group of up to 12 travelers to the Moroccan cities of Marrakesh and Essaouria. Next year, culinary trips are planned to Damascus and Aleppo; Palermo and Siracusa; Istanbul, and Fez. She is also planning Anisssa’s Kitchen, a London delicatessen specializing in the foods of the Eastern Mediterranean, and Anissa’s branded food products.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, June 18 2007

Anissa Helou in her kitchen

Thursday, June 21, 2007

iraq national library director's online diary

While doing some surfing on the damage to Iraq's heritage recently I came across the diary of Saad Eskander, the director of the Iraq National Library and Archive, via the British Library website.
Eskandar's diary is a moving chronicle of how he and his staff are trying to revive and reestablish the library and archive, looted and burned after Saddam's overthrow, admidst horrendous circumstances. Some of his staff, and members of their families, have been killed or injured in the period in which he has been writing the diary from last November and there are constantly attacks around and occasionally even on the National Library and Archive. The diary is a mixture of refined culture and barbaric events. Two days ago there still were no entries for June in his diary which was rather worrying, but today it is there up to last Friday. His wife has just given birth to their second child, a daughter Hanas.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

row over Israeli architects deepens

The world of international architecture is being rocked to its foundations by a fierce row over a campaign which demands Israeli architects end their complicity in creating “facts on the ground” which exclude and oppress Palestinians and wipe out the possibility of a viable future Palestinian state.

The dispute has engulfed some of the leading figures in British and Israeli architecture. In an interview in the latest issue of the British weekly magazine Building Design, Israel’s most prominent architect, Moshe Safdie, accuses British architects of being “hypocritical, self-serving and hateful” for signing a petition organized by the London-based organization Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine (APJP).

The temperature was raised further when it emerged that a lobbying group British Architect Friends of Israel and the Simon Wiesenthal Center have written jointly to the Paris-based International Union of Architects (UIA) - the worldwide umbrella of 102 national organizations and 1.3 million architects - calling on it to suspend the membership of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) unless RIBA dissociates itself from the APJP petition. The letter alleges that with its “anti-Israeli focus” the campaign violates EU clauses and definitions on national discrimination and anti-Semitism.

The petition was signed by RIBA’s current president Jack Pringle as well as by former presidents Sir Richard MacCormack, Paul Hyett and George Ferguson, and president-elect Sunand Prasad. Boston-based Safdie lambasted Pringle for signing the petition and suggested he should either have resigned as RIBA president before doing so, or should have sought a decision from the RIBA Council over whether it supported the petition.

The petition, which was published as a half-page advertisement in the Times newspaper of London, was signed by more than 260 architects, planners and others from around the world, among them some of Britain’s most famous architects and a number of Israeli architects and human rights activists. The petition says that the actions of Israeli architects and planners working in conjunction with Israel’s policies building of illegal settlements on Palestinian territory are “unethical and contravene professional codes of conduct and UIA codes.”

The petition argues that it is time to challenge the Israeli Association of United Architects (IAUA) and the Israeli government to end such projects, and says the IAUA should adhere to UIA codes. It calls on the IAUA “to declare their opposition to the inhuman Occupation, and to end the participation of their members and fellow professionals in creating facts on the ground with a demographic intent that excludes and oppresses Palestinians.” APJP has sent copies of the petition with letters to the presidents of the IAUA and the UIA.

The petition has infuriated the Israeli government and its supporters, and readers of Israeli newspaper and TV websites have posted numerous hostile messages, in some cases accusing British architects and the British in general of anti-Semitism. A typical message said that “Israel-bashing” England is on its way to becoming “the first Islamic state in Western Europe”. One reason for the anger aroused by the APJP petition is that it came around the same time as the University and College Union (UCU) voted at its annual meeting to support moves towards an academic boycott of Israel. The boycott issue is now one of the hottest topics in British-Israeli relations, and in the House of Commons Prime Minister Tony Blair called on the UCU to drop the resolution it had adopted. The APJP petition does not specifically call for a boycott, but it is being drawn into the boycott controversy.

Moshe Safdie claims to advocate a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict and says that “many have objected, as I have, to building in the West Bank. Some have joined groups fighting the construction of the wall, but we are all aware of the complexity of the issues and all of us, collectively, are disappointed and angered by the position of our British colleagues.” Safdie said he was disgusted that British architects, including Will Alsop, Terry Farrell and Richard MacCormac, had singled out Israel when regimes across the world carry out “the most terrible atrocities.”

Jack Pringle robustly rebutted Safdie’s remarks. He told Building Design: “Moshe Safdie is a brilliant architect but it’s not for him to make policy for the RIBA, myself individually or as president.” Pringle “totally accepts” that there are oppressive regimes all over the world, “but to say you can’t criticize one without criticizing them all is extremely naïve”.

In his blog on the RIBA website, Pringle explained that he and his successor, Sunand Prasad, had signed the petition in their own capacities and not as representatives of RIBA, which is a non-political organization. He added that although he is a staunch supporter of a State of Israel, he signed the petition because “I believe, as a citizen and as an engaged observer, that the Israel/Palestinian issue is the most destabilizing and the most important issue in the Middle East and thus in the world today.” Until a lasting and fair peace is established in the region, there can be no prospect of a stable world peace. “To do this both sides must play by the rules with a measure of respect for each other’s rights. These particular petitions relate to Israel’s actions on territory in contravention of many UN resolutions, with the notable involvement of architects and planners.” Pringle also condemned the “many grave, violent and heinous Palestinian misdemeanors in other spheres of the ongoing war, with its attendant terrorism.”

Pringle rejected any charge of anti-Semitism as “very offensive to me and quite absurd as a glance at the petition with its many Jewish co-signatories will show. Indeed, many Jewish agencies support the petition, and its main promoter is Jewish himself.” (The last reference is to the APJP chairman, the architect Abe Hayeem). He was sorry if any RIBA members were offended by his signing the petition, “but I trust they will understand the balance of my opinion – and my right to express it.”

Other signatories to the petition have also publicly defended their stand. The eminent architect, critic and theorist Charles Jencks (pictured below)wrote a letter of protest to Building Design after Michael Peters, who is founder and chairman of the international branding consultancy Identica and has worked extensively with Israeli architects, warned that as a result of the petition “British architects are going to burn their bridges with a number of developers – Israeli, British and European”, Jencks, who has been one of APJP’s most vocal supporters since it was set up in February 2006, described Peters’ warning as being in “the worst tradition of intimidation. Of course, some architects will succumb to such veiled and explicit threats because it sometimes pays to be silent, but the list of signatories – including four RIBA presidents and the next one – shows that, contrary to Peters, many British architects do indeed understand the situation in Israel and that number is growing…One cannot but protest at the destruction of a nation.”
The issuing of the petition coincided with the 40th anniversary of the 1967 war, which has focused world attention on the massive changes that have been wrought by the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. As the APJP petition states, acting against international law Israel continues to build illegal settlements on Palestinian territory, with the help of Israeli architects and planners.

The APJP petition highlights “three typical projects that make Israeli architects, planners and design and construction professionals complicit in social, political and economic oppression, in violation of their professional ethics.” One of the projects is in the village of Silwan near Jerusalem, where 88 Palestinian homes are under threat of demolition as part of a development for ultra-religious Israeli settlers from the El-‘Ad group on illegally annexed Palestinian land. The EU has condemned the development. APJP points out that the Ministry of Housing for the Jerusalem District and Jerusalem Municipality appointed Moshe Safdie’s Jerusalem office to prepare a Master Plan for the southern slopes of the Old City which include the Silwan neighbourhood of Al-Bustan where the 88 threatened houses are located.

The second project is for the conversion of the ruins of the Palestinian village of Lifta , also near Jerusalem, into a development for wealthy American visitors with, APJP says, “the exclusion of the original Palestinian inhabitants, their heritage and memory.” APJP is supporting the campaign to save Lifta which is spearheaded by the Israeli group the Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory (FAST).

The third project is the E1 plan to expand the largest illegal Israeli settlement, Ma’ale Adumim, to link it with metropolitan Jerusalem. This will dissect the northern and southern West Bank, destroying the possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state.

The issuing of the petition raises the question of whether architects should involve themselves in political issues. Former RIBA president Paul Hyett wrote in Building Design that politics has a role to play in architecture. He recalled his past as a member of Architects Against Apartheid, when he played a part in the 1972 decision of RIBA to sever links with the South African Institute of Architects.

On a 2002 visit to South Africa, when he was RIBA president, Hyett apologized to the South African Institute of Architects for any upset caused by the decision to sever links 30 years earlier. However, “many South African architects told me that severance had been a huge boost to morale. They said it had highlighted international support for their own disgust at their government’s actions.”
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette June 11 2007

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

naim attallah's new memoir

In the first three volumes of his memoirs, published since 2004, the London-based Palestinian publisher Naim Attallah recounted his boyhood in Nazareth, his adventures in Britain after arriving there as a student in 1949, and his experiences of the British and Arab business scenes.

Now in the recently-published fourth volume, “Fulfilment & Betrayal 1975-1995”, he tells of his career as a publisher heading the Namara Group with its main publishing wing Quartet Books and its offshoot The Women’s Press. He also funded several magazines including the Literary Review and The Oldie. In parallel to his work in publishing, he was chief executive of the famous Aspreys luxury-goods group of New Bond Street in London. At the same time he was an impresario, producing and financing a series of film and theatre productions, and an entrepreneur in pursuit of new ventures.

Attallah is a man of colossal energy and drive, an eccentric extrovert of considerable charm, but at the same time a sensitive person susceptible to being wounded. At the age of 76 his activity levels remain high and he has been busy promoting his new book, including holding a launch party attended by some of the many women who in their youth worked at Quartet. The press used to refer to the bevy of lovely creatures at Quartet as Attallah’s “harem”. In a ‘Londoner’s Diary’ that he wrote recently for the Evening Standard weekly magazine, Attallah said it was delightful to see at the launch party these women “assembled in one venue, retaining their original sparkle and having with maturity grown more devastatingly attractive than I would have dared to imagine.”

The names of Attallah’s stable of female former employees read like a roll call of British aristocracy. The Quartet alumni include the actress Helena Bonham-Carter, the biographer Rebecca Fraser, the food writer and TV chef Nigella Lawson, and the heiress and socialite Sabrina Guinness.

Attallah describes in his book how he embarked on a successful long-distance wooing of the Syrian writer Rana Kabbani to come and work for him in London after her second attempt at marriage to the Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish broke down and she returned from Paris to Damascus.

Kabbani is one of the numerous former employees of Attallah who have contributed tributes to him that are published in the book. “It is only now, as I write this twenty years later, that I realize Naim Attallah probably saved my life,” she writes. Kabbani gives a vivid picture of life at Quartet in its ramshackle, Dickensian buildings in a broken-down area off Tottenham Court Road. “Everyone working there looked like a character from a novel – lush, mad, exotic and highly-strung, with a hilarious sense of humor.”

Each volume of Attallah’s memoirs has been longer than its predecessor. The first, “The Old Ladies of Nazareth”, was a slender 71 pages, while the fourth volume runs to nearly 800 pages. Attallah is one of the best-connected people in Britain, and the index of names at the back of “Fulfilment & Betrayal” takes up 19 pages and reads like a ‘who’s who’ of British and Arab culture in the last quarter of the 20th century.

Nor is its vast size the only thing that marks a departure from the previous volumes. Up to now Attallah has written about himself in the third person, which has a distancing effect, but in his new book he uses the more spontaneous and direct first person. He claims this is because “the banker completes his transformation into a man in charge of his own destiny.”

The compendious book is structured chronologically, with Attallah telling us in minute detail, year by year, of his publishing and other activities, sprinkled with entertaining anecdotes and descriptions of people. Attallah is disarmingly frank about the lows as well as the highs, and there are full accounts of the many spats and controversies in which he has been embroiled. He reproduces attacks that have been made on him in articles, reviews or letters, as well as the responses he fired off.

One fiasco was his “grandiose vision” of an Arabian Fantasy show at the Royal Albert Hall. It was to have been “an extravaganza featuring Arabian music and dancing, with all the exotic sights and sounds from the Middle East, from harem girls to real camels.” A lead dancer, Ludmilla Nova, was engaged, the hall was hired and a performance date was set for 2 April 1976. But the show was badly choreographed and insufficiently rehearsed, and it turned out to be a shambles. Attallah was too ashamed to emerge from his box at the interval as he saw members of the audience, which included many celebrities, leaving by the score. He writes: “the night was destined to be the most embarrassing of my entire career”, and he quotes from a scathing review in the Guardian.

“Fulfilment & Betrayal” has attracted much interest from reviewers and interviewers, and even those who poke fun at some of the more flamboyant aspects of Attallah’s behavior admit that he has a record of solid achievements and has contributed much to British publishing. The Jewish Chronicle’s reviewer David Herman observed that the history of British publishing is full of colorful characters, many of them Jewish refugees. “However few are a match for Naim Attallah, the Palestinian self-made millionaire, former chief executive of Aspreys and for 30 years the man behind Quartet and The Literary Review.”

Attallah has also proved generous and willing to dig deeply into his own pockets to support publishing and other ventures. The Literary Review accumulated losses of over two million pounds of his money before it was eventually sold, and Attallah is still keeping The Oldie afloat.

One of Attallah’s main objectives in becoming a publisher was to publish books of Middle Eastern interest. He wanted not only to cover the Palestinian conflict and the sufferings of the Palestinian people, but also to promote the Arab culture that had been so long ignored in the West. He was determined to have Arabic literary output translated into English to stand alongside Quartet’s international list, “which was made up of sometimes obscure or newly discovered talent together with established writers.”

Among the books he commissioned was “The Palestinians”, published in 1979, by the broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby with photographs by Donald McCullin. The book gave the Palestinian side of the conflict, which was a breakthrough for those days. As Attallah observes: “There was no shortage of eminent publishers, like George Weidenfeld, to persist in promoting the Israeli side of the picture.” The book caused a stir and was attacked by pro-Zionist sections of the press, but mainstream reviewers thought the true voices of the Palestinians came through in the text.

Several of Attallah’s most fraught times came in relation to the Palestinian issue and he was sometimes accused of being a propagandist for the Palestinians, or of the PLO, and even of being anti-Semitic. In 1983 the writer Roald Dalh wrote a review for the Literary Review of Tony Clifton’s book “God Cried” which is about Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. When Attallah read the review he knew its publication “would send the influential pro-Zionist lobby into a frenzy of rage”. The editor of the Literary Review was also taken aback by the piece, and she and Attallah consulted the lawyer of the firm, who happened to be Jewish. To their “utter surprise” he liked, and approved of, the review and after editing out a few of the more intemperate expressions he urged them to publish it.

“The reaction to the review was far more extreme that we had anticipated,” Attallah recalls and there were calls for a boycott of the magazine. The writer Paul Johnson, known for his Zionist sympathies, wrote in the Spectator that Dahl’s review was, in his view, “the most disgraceful item to have appeared in a respectable British publication for a very long time.”

But Attallah writes that his Palestinian sympathies “have never prevented me from highlighting the plight of any other repressed minority or race, the Jews being no exception.” He includes in the book a list of books published by Quartet that are by Jewish authors or on Jewish topics.

Over the years Attallah was caught up in the intrigue and Asprey family feuding over the luxury-goods group. Asprey was sold in November 1995 to Prince Jefri Bolkiah, the brother of the Sultan of Brunei. Attallah asserts that “the glory days of Asprey sadly came to an end with my departure”, and denies that all its problems were due to his expansionist policies while he was its chief executive.

Attallah concludes his book by writing that after his departure from Asprey he refused to be put out to grass. “I set sail to explore fresh seas and my journeys of discovery were to uplift my spirits and lead me intellectually to more fertile lands.” This next phase of Attallah’s life will be the subject of the next volume of his memoirs.
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 4 June 2007

below: Attallah with his mascot 'Kaiser' in 1984

Sunday, June 03, 2007

architects and planners for justice in palestine (apjp) petition

( photo of Lifta by Hussam Siam)
From the Saudi Debate website, article on the Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine (APJP) petition:
Israel's illegal occupation of the West Bank has not only been carried out using tanks, bulldozers, troops and colonialist settlers; it has also required builders and architects, whose complicity in the occupation has rarely been highlighted but which is essential to the entire, disgraceful project now underway. As the 40th anniversary of the June 1967 war approaches - on 5 June - architects around the world are increasing the pressure on Israel's architects to withdraw their professional services in the designing and building of Israel's illegal expansion into Palestine. As Susannah Tarbush writes, the position of the architects has led to the routine, unsurprising accusations of anti-semitism from the usual quarters; even so, some Jewish and Israeli architects have joined others in being vociferous in their calls for their fellow-professionals to end the role they are playing in changing the ‘facts on the ground' which are steadily obliterating the idea of a viable Palestinian state... article can be seen via