Monday, May 05, 2008

'stop the war' benefit

At a Stop the War Coalition benefit evening held at St James’s Church in Piccadilly, central London, last Thursday a succession of people prominent in Britain’s cultural life took to the platform to express their opposition to war through poetry, music and intimate off-the-cuff addresses.

Stop the War was founded in the days after 9/11 to oppose the “war on terror”. It organized the biggest demonstration ever seen in Britain when more than a million people took the streets of London on February 15 2003 to oppose the imminent war on Iraq. The coalition’s chair Andy Murray (pictured), who compered the benefit evening, argues that the need for Stop the War is as great as ever.

During the evening it was striking how strongly the words of poets from previous conflicts, and particularly the First and Second World Wars, still resonate today, as does the poetry of William Blake. The Stop the War convener Lindsey German read Blake’s poem London, from Songs of Experience, which begins: I wandered through each chartered street,/ Near where the chartered Thames does flow/ A mark in every face I meet,/ Marks of weakness, marks of woe.”

The veteran protest poet Adrian Mitchell read Blake’s poem The Price of Experience. He also gave a passionate rendering of one of his own best-known poems To Whom it May Concern each verse of which ends: “Tell me lies about Vietnam”. More than 40 years the poem still has much relevance: Mitchell substituted Iraq for Vietnam in the final line.

Playwright David Edgar read three poems by Berthold Brecht. The Legend of the Dead Soldier conjures up the macabre image of a dead and buried solider being dug up and returned to fight at the front. A poem written in response to a magazine image runs: “Look at the helmets of the vanquished! Yet/Surely the moment we came undone/ Was not when they were smitten from our heads/ But when we first agreed to put them on.”

The novelist A L Kennedy, who won the Costa book prize in January for her novel “Day” set in the Second World War, read from the work of poet Edmund Blunden who survived two years in the trenches of the First World War.

BBC TV journalist and former MP Martin Bell, wearing his trademark white suit, recited Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth and Siegfried Sassoon’s Everyone Sang. He also read two poems from Epitaphs of War by Rudyard Kipling, written after his son was killed at the front. Epitaph for a Dead Statesman includes the lines: “Now all my lies are proved untrue/ And I must face the men I slew”, and Epitaph for the Soldier: “If any ask why we died/ tell them because our fathers lied”. Actor Roger Lloyd-Pack (Trigger in the BBC sitcom “Only Fools and Horses”, and Owen Newitt in the “Vicar of Dibley”) recited Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting”.

Professor Jacqueline Rose, whose books include “The Question of Zion” and “The Last Resistance”, read three poems by the Israeli anti-war poet Dahlia Ravikovitch: You Can’t Kill a Baby Twice (on the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982 in Beirut), On the Attitude Towards Children in Wartime and Hovering at Low Altitude.

The editor of the medical magazine The Lancet, Dr Richard Horton, read a passage from Virgil’s Aeneid that tells of Aeaneas’ descent to the underworld. In October 2006 the Lancet published research from John Hopkins which suggested 650,000 Iraqis had died since 2003, considerably more than other estimates, and despite efforts to undermine the figures some government advisers concluded that the research on which they were based was sound.

The award-winning actress Janie Dee recounted the experience of being driven in a minicab by an Afghan man, and said: “the worst thing is meeting someone from Afghanistan or Iraq and feeling so embarrassed, because you didn’t want this [war] to happen”. She asked: “What can I do to make a difference?”

Iraqi novelist, columnist and activist Haifa Zangana, who was imprisoned under Saddam Hussein but opposed the invasion of Iraq, read a poem by the Iraqi woman poet Nazek Al-Malaika who revolutionized Arabic poetry and was a pioneer of free verse. The poem, Jamila and Us, was dedicated to the Algerian fighter for independence Jamila Bouhired.

The Muslim columnist for the Independent newspaper Yasmin Alibhai Brown said that some Arab friends had e-mailed her that day of the benefit to say “thank you to those who stand with us still.” She lamented the amount of time that has been wasted in not trying to understand the “storms in the heads” of those who carried out the attacks of 9/11 and those in London on 7/7. “That rage has been seen before” she said, reading two excerpts from her favorite writer James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time”.

Stop the War’s media officer the playwright and creative writing teacher David Wilson, who was director of the Pavarotti Music Center in Mostar, Bosnia, read a piece entitled Shadows set in 1995. It is the story “of a young woman about whom I now nothing except that on that day she was singing and wore a red dress.” It begins with the first-person narrator staying on the Croatian island of Hvar which has one of the oldest theatres in Southeast Europe. Engraved over its door are the words “built in the second year of peace 1612”.

The next day he is to return to Mostar “half a day’s drive away and yet a place as far removed from Hvar as the moon is to the earth. Mostar, an Ottoman jewel with stone houses, torturously-hot, but no sea breeze to move the sweltering air.” Mostar had been defined by its famous 16th century bridge, but this now lies “shattered at the bottom of the fast-flowing Neretva River.” In Mostar the narrator notices a young woman behind him the street singing and wearing a red dress. Then a bomb goes off. “Victims of the Hiroshima bombing left their shadows burned on the ground where they fell. Many years later, the shadow of this girl in the dress burns me still.”

The renowned Iraqi oud player Ahmed Mukhtar (pictured above) said: “My music is describing what I feel about the war.” He played a mixture of his own compositions and traditional Iraqi melodies. The composer and pianist Michael Nyman played a medley of music ending with compositions from the film “The Piano”, his most famous score. A performance by the group Peyoti for President (pictured below) provided an upbeat finale to the evening.

The evening provided an opportunity to hear an excerpt from the controversial opera “Manifest Destiny” with music by Keith Burstein and words by Dic Edwards. The opera, which centers around a female would-be suicide bomber, created a storm when it was performed at the 2005 Edinburgh Festival Fringe not long after the four suicide bombings in London. A review in the Evening Standard, which implied that Burstein glorified terrorism, is the subject of a protracted libel case brought by Burstein. The case is soon to go to the European Court of Human Rights.

In the opera a Palestinian poet Leila, who has been living in London with her Jewish music composer partner Daniel, becomes radicalized and joins a suicide bombing cell. She is betrayed to the Americans by a fellow militant who is in love with her and wants to save her from death, and is incarcerated and tortured in Guantanamo Bay.

In the compelling scene performed at the Stop the War benefit, with Burstein on piano, Leila (sung by Janet Shell, left) remembers her mother’s garden in Palestine while her jailer (Christopher Foster) is moved by her reminiscences and washes her feet while he tries to justify US actions, singing: “We are not here to hurt you/but you leave us no choice.”

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, 28th April 2008

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