Monday, May 26, 2008

'about larkin' on penelope scott stokes

The new issue of About Larkin, the magazine of the Larkin Society, has as its seven-page cover story the first part of an article about Penelope Scott Stokes, Philip Larkin's early muse.

page 1:
The georgiasam blog has an entry, with some reader comments, on the story.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

hugh miles plays winning cards in cairo

While working in Cairo as a freelance journalist, the British writer Hugh Miles (pictured below) fell for an Egyptian woman doctor he met at the leaving party of a mutual American lawyer friend. The party was held at a Thai restaurant in a five-star hotel. “There, at the back of the restaurant, silhouetted against a tank of slowly circulating black koi carp, was a group of extraordinarily beautiful Egyptian girls.

“With her coal-black hair and coppery skin, Roda reminded me of a Nefertiti statue I had seen in the Egyptian Museum when I had first come to Cairo as a teenager. Her beauty and grace stunned me: I did not know that such an exquisite combination of looks and intelligence could exist in a single woman, except perhaps the odd gorgeous physicist in a James Bond movie.”

Miles took Roda’s telephone number, but had no time to see her again before he returned to London. Back in England he could not get the doctor out of his mind. “Where could I find a girl like that in London? I asked myself.” The handful of single girls he knew in London were “highly-paid professionals, too focused on their ball-breaking careers to hang out with out-of-work writers like me, or suffered from untreatable personality disorders.”

He found himself sending Roda a text message: “Bck in Ldn. Cnt stop thinking abt u.” She phoned him back, and he decided on the spot to return to Cairo.

Miles’s book “Playing Cards in Cairo: Mint Tea, Tarneeb and Tales of the City”, published recently by Abacus, is the story of his adventures after he returned to Cairo. In particular it tells of his courting of a woman from a culture very different from his own. He had no blueprint for the relationship: none of his Western friends had dated an Egyptian girl.
The card game tarneeb, a type of bridge popular in the Middle East, provided an opportunity for Hugh to get to know Roda through spending long hours socializing in her home with her and her sisters and their female friends. Roda’s family apartment was in Muwazafeen, a relatively affluent middle class area of Cairo. Her mother was dead, her father was working in Kuwait, and she and her sisters lived with no male guardian, unlike most of their female contemporaries. Their girl friends constantly fabricated stories on where they were and who they were with so as to placate their brothers and fathers. They were adept at living double lives.

Over the card table Miles heard about the lives of Roda’s sisters and friends and gained insights into Egyptian society. Men generally come out badly in his book. “We played cards all summer long. Through long hot nights, over cigarettes and endless cups of syrupy tea, I listened to tale after tale of bullying husbands, overprotective brothers and a litany of sexual harassment by strangers.”

One of Roda’s sisters, Nadia, is a doctor married to a gynecologist from upper Egypt, and the prejudice against upper Egyptians expressed by the women is disconcerting. Nadia tells Miles her husband is from Qena, and asks him: “Do you know Qena? It is in upper Egypt and its men are famous for being stupid and macho.” Nadia’s husband regularly beats her, but she has a small daughter and finds the prospect of divorce difficult to contemplate.

The only Egyptian man Miles seems to have spent much time with is Dwayne (not his original name), a relative of one of the girls and a heavy user of hashish whose civil servant father has a second job trafficking women into the Gulf. Dwayne matures after he goes to work for a telecoms company in Iraq.

Miles played his cards right on the personal level, and eventually he and Dina al-Shafie, the psychiatrist on whom the Roda of his book is based, got engaged and married and are now expecting their first child. One of the book’s final chapters describes Hugh’s visit to Al Azhar to convert to Islam, and his adoption of the name Sami Hussein.

Hugh Miles is the son of Oliver Miles, a retired British diplomat who served as ambassador to Libya in the 1980s and as ambassador to Greece. Hugh was born in Saudi Arabia in 1977, and studied Arabic at Oxford University and English Literature at Trinity College, Dublin. He first went to Cairo at the age of 17 to work as an au pair for a wealthy family. His first book, the award-winning “Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World”, was published in 2005.

In “Playing Cards in Cairo” Miles puts the stories of his card-playing female friends into the wider context of Egyptian society. He examines issues such as the pressures on women to have plastic surgery, honor killings, veiling, violence against women, the unofficial temporary form of marriage known as urfi, and the search for “good husband material”.

The statistics he cites are daunting. At present, some 700,000 graduates a year chase 200,000 jobs. By 2025 the population of Egypt will be 90 million and the country will have to find 450,000 new jobs a year to keep pace with the number of young people entering work.

For single women there is the pressure to find a husband before it is too late. And for young men, high unemployment and economic pressures make it difficult to get married. Roda’s friend Yosra is 33 and knows the clock is “winding down on her marriage prospects.” Her state of mind is not helped by her being hooked on prescription drugs supplied by friends working in pharmacies. After various efforts to get engaged fail, despite her sessions with a mystic healer to try and help her love life, Yosra departs for the hope of better prospects in Dubai.

Miles is observant and inquisitive, and relates with relish a succession of tragi-comic scenes involving the women in his tarneeb-playing circle. Doubtless some Egyptians will resent his negative portrayal of their society, and especially its male component, and one can ask how fair his account is and whether it is over-sensationalized. Although Miles describes the group of women he meets as highly educated, Roda comes across in his narrative as standing above the others in her intelligence, independence and strength of character. Otherwise, the women seem over-preoccupied with superficial concerns and show scant interest in politics and the wider world. There is little evidence in the book of the progressive and enlightened elements in Egyptian society, male or female.

Miles is fascinated by Cairo, but writes that it has become “a cruel and neglectful mother, as if the grinding poverty and the weight of millions of people and cars had worn down her benevolence and her will to go on.” He thinks that “everyone clings to memories of better times, the days before Cairo became a monster to her people and a slave to foreign powers. They remember their beloved city when she was great: when Cairo was the cradle of Arab nationalism and Egyptians were the proud leaders of the Arab world.”

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, 14 April 2008

Monday, May 19, 2008

lady evelyn cobbold's 'pilgrimage to mecca' republished

In 1934 the London publisher John Murray issued “Pilgrimage to Mecca”, an account by Anglo-Scottish convert to Islam Lady Evelyn Cobbold of the Hajj she had undertaken the previous year, at the age of 65. Lady Evelyn was the first British-born Muslim woman on record as having made the pilgrimage.

“Pilgrimage to Mecca” takes the form of a diary, and the writing is fresh, immediate, and rich in description. As a woman, Evelyn was able to give a rare depiction of female life in Mecca and Medina. At the same time the book contains substantial digressions on the history and merits of Islam. The foreword was contributed by Sheikh Hafiz Wahba, the Saudi Arabian Minister in London.

Lady Evelyn’s pilgrimage attracted much media attention, and her book was widely reviewed. The Manchester Guardian newspaper said: “If she may be thought to be a little prejudiced in favour of her adopted faith, we have been accustomed to hear in its disfavour so much which is based upon pure ignorance and antipathy that a little over praise, if such it be, comes as a welcome relief.”

It might have been expected that Lady Evelyn would have entered the ranks of those legendary women travelers to the Middle East who are still celebrated today. They include Lady Evelyn’s great-aunt Lady Jane Digby el-Mezrab who married a Syrian sheikh, lived in the desert and was buried in Damascus.

One might also have thought that in the climate of recent years, when ”British Muslim” has become a troubled term and the subject of much debate, there would be renewed interest in this British convert who tried through her travels and writing to increase understanding between two religions and cultures. And yet Lady Evelyn Cobbold and her book seemed to remain largely out of sight.

Now London-based Arabian Publishing has rescued the book from relative obscurity through publication of a handsome new edition which includes a lively and illuminating 80-page introduction, “From Mayfair to Mecca”, by William Facey and Miranda Taylor.

Facey is a museum consultant, writer and publisher specializing in the Arabian Peninsula. Taylor is a freelance writer (under her maiden name Miranda Haines) who first became interested in Lady Evelyn when she was editor of Geographical, the monthly magazine of the Royal Geographical Society. She discovered that Lady Evelyn was her great-great-great-aunt, and since then she has collated archives, photographs and family stories related to her.

The new edition also has detailed notes on Evelyn’s original text by Dr Ahmad S Turkistani, Professor of Islamic Orientation and Mass Media at Al-Imam Muhammad bin Saud University, Riyadh. Dr Turkistani, who was born in the Asir region, has been director of the Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences at Fairfax, Virginia. He has performed the Hajj numerous times and has covered it for local and international media including CNN International TV.

The book includes 30 pages of black and white photographs. There is a picture of the flat slab on the grave of Lady Evelyn, who died in 1963 aged 95, at her Scottish Highlands estate in Wester Ross. On it is inscribed an English translation of verse 35 of the Qu’ranic sura “Light”.

Facey and Taylor give a thorough account of the life of this extraordinary aristocratic Anglo-Scottish Muslim woman, a socialite who combined a love of Islam and the Middle East with a passion for Scotland and outdoor pursuits. She was a gardener and a first-class angler, rifle shot and deerstalker; the first British woman to shoot a 14-point stag.

One section of the introduction, ‘Lady Evelyn as a British Muslim’, places her in the context of the still little-known history of Islam in Britain. She was friends with convert Marmaduke Pickthall, the gifted linguist and writer whose 1930 translation of the Qur’an, “The Meaning of the Glorious Koran”, is still highly regarded. But there was little sign that she was much aware of the public implications of her faith. This was in contrast to Pickthall, and solicitor William Henry Quilliam, known as Abdullah Quilliam, who established a mosque in Liverpool in 1889-91. The Ottoman Sultan proclaimed him Shaikh al-Islam of the United Kingdom in 1894. Evelyn emphasized the private belief side of her religion, which Facey and Taylor see as a very European model of religious faith.

Evelyn was born in 1867 in Edinburgh to the Earl and Countess of Dunmore. Her father, Charles Adolphus Murray, was a renowned Scottish explorer. He traveled to many parts of the world, and Evelyn sometimes accompanied him. With her English mother Gertrude, she shared a spiritual reflectiveness.

Evelyn wrote in “Pilgrimage to Mecca” that she was often asked when and why she became a Muslim, but “I do not know the precise moment when the truth of Islam dawned on me. It seems that I have always been a Muslim.”

Evelyn’s affinity with the Arab world originated in her childhood. Her father often took the family to North Africa, and they had a villa in Cairo. They also spent winter months in a villa outside Algiers. “There I learned to speak Arabic and my delight was to escape my governess and visit the Mosques with my Algerian friends, and unconsciously I was a little Moslem at heart.”

Evelyn married John Dupuis Cobbold in a church in Cairo in 1891, and went with him to live in the manor house of Holywells in Suffolk. In 1911 she travelled with a female companion to what she called the Libyan Desert, actually the Western Desert of Egypt. She recorded her experiences in the first of her three books, “Wayfarers in the Libyan Desert”.

The Cobbolds’ marriage ended in 1922. As part of the generous divorce settlement, her husband bought her a house in Mayfair where she entertained her friends, including a number of Arabs. Among the Saudis she met was Amir Saud bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, and the new edition of her book includes a photograph of him on a visit to England in 1935 or 1936, standing with Hafiz Wahba.

The French couturier Molyneux had his studio at the bottom of Evelyn’s garden and she bought all her clothes from him. Even when travelling in remote parts of Algeria and Morocco, her slender figure would be clad in the fashions of the day.

When she decided to wished to go on the pilgrimage to Makkah she consulted Hafiz Wahba and he wrote to King Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud about the matter, but she left England before receiving an answer and sailed from Suez to Jeddah. Her hosts there were the explorer Harry St John Philby (Hajji Abdullah Philby), who had converted to Islam in 1930, and his wife Dora. Philby also had a house in Mecca given to him by the King.

On the ship from Suez she met Sir Andrew Ryan, Britain’s Minister to Saudi Arabia. Facey and Taylor give examples of his repeated waspishness about her; they think Evelyn suffered from the suspicions of officialdom in the West towards Islam, as shown by Ryan’s attitude and by the Geographical Journal’s scathing review of her book.

Ryan alleged that Evelyn’s book was of very little value, but at least was better written than would have been anticipated. He attributed this to the collaboration of a “distinguished literary personage”. There is evidence that she collaborated with two prominent Muslims in writing her book; she told Pickthall their names but these are now lost.

Evelyn waited two weeks in Jeddah before receiving permission to proceed to Makkah after the King’s son Amir Faisal bin Abd al-Aziz, viceroy of the Hejaz and the future monarch, vetted her together with his assistant in foreign affairs Shaikh Fuad Hamza. Evelyn met Amir Faisal at a tea party, during which his 10-year old son Abdullah “won all our hearts” with his dignity and self-possession.

After permission had been granted, Philby told his mother in a letter that he had arranged for Evelyn to stay with Arab families in Medina and Mecca. “It is obviously better for her not to stay with me at Mecca. It might be misunderstood as she certainly doesn’t look as old as she is! – rather like Gertrude Bell in figure and mannerisms, slim, active, rather snobby and full of quite entertaining chatter.” Philby provided a driver Suleiman and an escort, Mustafa Nadhir, for her travels. They journeyed first to Medina and then returned to Jeddah before leaving for Makkah.

One of the most powerful experiences for Evelyn was the Tawaf circumbulation around the Kaaba in Makkah. “It would require a master pen to describe that scene, poignant in its intensity of that great concourse of humanity of which I was one small unit, completely lost to their surroundings in a fervour of religious enthusiasm. Many of the pilgrims had tears streaming down their cheeks; others raised their faces to the starlit sky that had witnessed this drama so often in the past centuries.”

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 19th May 2008

Monday, May 12, 2008

khalid kishtainy's new novel: 'by the rivers of babylon'

In the opening scene of “By the Rivers of Babylon”, the latest novel by the Iraqi author, satirist and columnist Khalid Kishtainy, the aunts, nieces and cousins of a family are gathered in the central courtyard (haush) of a Baghdad house. The year is 1948. The womenfolk plead with the patriarch of the house, Haj Nufal Abu Mamduh, to show mercy and forgiveness towards his unmarried 17-year-old daughter Samira, who is suspected of having fallen pregnant.

But Haj Nufal refuses to be swayed. He tells his two sons, who are armed with pistols, to take their sister to a doctor to establish whether she is pregnant. “If she has disgraced our name by becoming a plaything for some lecherous young man, she will deserve what she gets.”

The brothers take Samira to Dr Abdul Salam Sassoon, a Jewish gynecologist. They tell him that if their sister is pregnant he must cut her open, remove the fetus and show it to them. After that, “we want you to kill her and dispose of her body in your own professional way...We want no trace left of her real identity. We are a respectable family.” When he turns down their financial inducements, they threaten him with their guns. The sons might claim their family is respectable – but their father has made his money from trading in women in India.

Dr Sassoon vanishes from his home and clinic, returning after a week in a fragile emotional state. A young man, Hassun Abd al-Ali turns up at his clinic and tearfully tells him he was Samira’s lover, but Sassoon claims not to know what happened to her after he confirmed she was pregnant. The distraught Hassun goes on the run, fearing that Samira’s family will try to kill him.

Kishtainy’s novel, published by Quartet Books, traces the subsequent fates of Dr Sassoon and Hassun. Their personal stories are intertwined with the upheavals of the time, especially the creation of Israel in 1948 and the ensuing Arab-Israeli war. Such is Kishtainy’s economy of style that the novel has the feeling of an epic work, moving between Iraq, Iran and Israel and conveying a wealth of insights and incidents, and yet it is relatively short at just over 200 small pages. Kishtainy’s descriptions of places and people are highly evocative, and he has a gift for irony. He gives a rich portrait of life in Iraq, complete with the inventive, often bawdy, vernacular language.

Sassoon is driven to mental breakdown by his trauma over Samira, and spends time confined in mental hospitals. When Israel is established in May 1948 anti-Jewish feeling in Iraq rises, and Sassoon comes under suspicion from fellow patients who think he is an Israeli spy. He and Hassun both eventually end up in Israel, Sassoon as a reluctant migrant and Hassun as a prisoner of war. The novel leaves the reader guessing until its last paragraph.

At the launch of the novel last week at a reception in the Ark Gallery, West London, Kishtainy revealed that the opening chapter is based on a painful incident in his own family’s history. When he was four or five years old, his 15-year-old brother seduced and impregnated a girl. Kishtainy’s mother hid the girl in the family home, but when her husband discovered this he insisted that the girl leave the house at once. The women of the family beseeched him to save the girl’s life and to give them time to spirit her away to safety, but he refused to change his mind.

“I remember my brother leading this wretched girl, all in black, to the door,” Kishtainy said. “The door slammed behind them, a few seconds passed, the house was absolutely silent and then shots were heard from the street.” The girl’s family had killed her. Kishtainy’s brother ran away and for months the family did not know where he was. “The memory remained with me all my life, and eventually I had to download that incident into this novel.”

Some 60 years after this incident occurred, honor killings are still occurring in Iraq (where they are reportedly on the rise) and in other parts of the Middle East. Kishtainy said: “When you read this first chapter don’t think of it as fiction... it is a reality.“

The scandal over the pregnancy forced the Kishtainy family to move to another area of Baghdad. “Our house was adjacent to a cemetery and as a child I used to go there and watch the burials and lamentation, the crying and dramas. These scenes of death influenced my life and my psychology.” The young Kishtainy got to know the gravediggers, and in blackly humorous scenes in the novel Hassun takes refuge in a graveyard and works with the gravediggers, until his father recognizes him at a funeral and has him conscripted into the army.

“By the Rivers of Babylon” was also shaped by Kishtainy’s many encounters and friendships over the years with Iraqi Jews, some of whom were present at the launch. The novel gives a picture of the Iraqi Jewish community in 1940s Iraq, and of its role in professional, political and cultural life, and the pressures it came under as a result of anger over Zionism and events in Palestine.

Kishtainy describes his novel as “a homage to a wonderful community I have always treasured in my life. I wrote many years ago about them, and said I have met so many communities and minorities in the world but I found the Iraqi Jewish community the most lovable of the whole lot.”

Iraqi Jews often encountered problems when they emigrated to Israel and were for example unable to find jobs commensurate with their high level of education and qualifications. Sassoon is homesick for Iraq and tells his wife one of things he most misses is “the sight of storks on minarets.” A turning point comes when he strikes up a friendship with an American Palestinian who was born in the house in which Sassoon and his wife are living.

Kishtainy was born in Baghdad and moved to live in England after graduating from Baghdad University’s Faculty of Law and the Academy of Fine Arts. He has lived in London for many years, and has for the past 18 years been a columnist on Ash-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper. He is the author of many books in Arabic and English. “The New Statesman and the Middle East (Palestine essays)” was published in 1972 by the Palestine Research Center, and “Arab Political Humour” by Quartet in 1986.

It is only in the past decade that Kishtainy has started to write fiction. “Tales from Old Baghdad: Grandmother and I” was published in 1997 by Kegan Paul International. “Tomorrow is Another Day: A Tale of Getting By in Baghdad”, a picaresque novel set in Saddam’s Iraq, was published five years ago by Elliot and Thompson.

“By the Rivers of Babylon” is likely to find an audience not only among fiction readers, but also among historians and other scholars with an interest in Iraq. Kishtainy has a vivid recall of his childhood and youth, and has also carried out many interviews with Israelis of Iraqi origin. His novel provides much intriguing information on Iraqi society and culture.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, 12th May 2008

Monday, May 05, 2008

benjamin gilmour's film 'son of a lion'

Australian filmmaker Benjamin Gilmour had to resort to unusual methods to make his film “Son of a Lion” in one of the most inaccessible and hazardous parts of the world to outsiders: the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. He shot the film in and around the gun-making town of Darra Adam Khel, in a tribal area which is out of bounds to foreigners. In order to avoid drawing attention to himself he became a “guerrilla filmmaker”, growing a beard and dressing in shalwar kameez and Pashtun hat so as to blend in with the locals. He had no wish to attract the attention of Pakistani intelligence agencies, or of militants.

Gilmour shot his film on a small Sony mini-DV camera so as to reduce the chances of being detected. This gives his deeply humane 92-minute first film an intimate, documentary feel. The scenery is stunning in its grandeur, with its sweeping mountains, green valleys and rich red soil. Trucks and buses painted with gaudy patterns ply the roads.

The film roles were played not by professional actors but mostly by family and friends of Gilmour’s executive producer and local “fixer” Hayat Khan Shinwari, a land owner and film buff with a particular liking for spaghetti westerns.

The main storyline tells of the clash between the longing of 11-year-old Niaz to go to school, and the insistence of his father Sher Alam Afridi that he should instead learn how to make guns in his father’s workshop. The film explores Pashtun culture and values, and the pressures the people are under. It had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in February and is to be screened at several other festivals before being released in cinemas and on DVD. The producer is Carolyn Johnson, and the editor Alison McSkimming Croft

Gilmour, who turns 33 this year, worked for a number of years as a paramedic based in Sydney. He became interested in filmmaking when working as a unit nurse on UK film sets (he was a medic to Sharon Stone at one point).

He set his heart on making a film among the Pashtuns after he fell in love with the North West Frontier Province while travelling there with his girlfriend in August 2001. They went to Darra Adam Khel, famed for its manufacture of weapons. The town’s highly skilled craftsmen can make replicas of virtually any gun. The guns are regularly tested by being fired into the air.

Gilmour‘s imagination was captured by “this wild territory of handsome turbaned warriors, mud-walled fortress compounds, stark dangerous mountains, drug smuggling and vendettas.” He found the Pashtuns wonderfully hospitable.

In making “Son of a Lion”, Gilmour wanted to “try to balance out the tainted perception people in the West have of Muslims as a whole after the events of September 11.” He saw making the film as “an excellent way to carry out my goal of opposing the Islamophobia I saw around me. Islamophobia has infected a great many ordinary people around the world who simply do not have any experience of Muslim people beyond the evening news.”

Gilmour adds: “What particularly fascinated me about these rough Pashtun tribesmen was that although they were always heavily armed, they were actually more obsessed with poetry and music than weaponry. Trying to get my head around the way people of other cultures think without judging them has always been a mission of mine, and the Pashtuns seemed my greatest challenge yet.” He has written a 400-page book, “Warrior Poets”, on his journeys to Pakistan and the making of his film. It is to be published by the Murdoch Books imprint Pier 9 in June.

Before going to Pakistan to make his film, Gilmour wrote a script which ran to 110 pages. However, when his fixer and his colleagues read it they laughed at it so Gilmour ditched it and worked on a new script in close collaboration with his contacts. Much of the dialogue in the film was improvised by the actors themselves, and the writing credit on the film is “Benjamin Gilmour in collaboration with the people of Kohat and Darra Adam Khel”.

The part of Niaz is played by Hayat Khan Shinwari’s son, also called Niaz, who has an appealingly soulful face. He is wistful when he hears schoolboys on a bus talking about trigonometry, and complains to his grandmother that every day he sees children going to school while he has to work.

Niaz’s mother died when he was very young, and he sometimes visits her grave for solace. His father, played by Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad, was a fighter with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the Soviets, and he tells his son of the battles he fought against great odds and shows off his battle scars.

Sher Alam has a workshop that makes weapons from small arms to AK47s, and in the opening scene of the film he is giving Niaz a lesson in the countryside on how to fire a Smith and Wesson. “Are you a man or a girl?” he demands of his son. There is considerable emphasis on masculinity in the culture; when Niaz is taunted by the local big bully boy Pite and some other boys, he is teased for his “girly face”.

Niaz’s grandmother is fond of the boy and towards the end of the film plays a crucial part in mediating between father and son. One area of discord is that, to his father’s disapproval, Niaz loves music. At one point he peeks into a male wedding party where a rubab player is performing and a young man dancing.

There is much talk of politics among the men when they meet in the tea shop, barber, and other gathering places. They discuss 9/11, America, the Iraq war, Afghanistan. One discussion is about Osama Bin Laden and whether they would give him up in exchange for bounty, or extend hospitality. There is plenty of humor in the men’s exchanges. Niaz’s father recalls that the only film he has ever seen, back in Afghanistan, was Rambo III starring Sylvester Stallone. (In this 1988 film, Rambo goes to Afghanistan to fight with the mujahedeen against the Soviets.)

NIaz’s father’s brother Baktiyar (played by Baktiyar Ahmed Afridi) lives in the city of Peshawar, and is a relatively wealthy businessman. He tries to persuade Niaz’s father to enroll him in school, but Sher Alam is adamant: “I didn’t study, why should he?” When Niaz visits Peshawar for a dental appointment (an unexpectedly comic scene) his uncle takes him to a school where he has his first experience of being in a classroom. The uncle points out to Niaz’s father that the boy’s late mother had wanted him to be educated.

The tension between Niaz and the bullying Pite threatens to escalate when Sher Alam tells Niaz that he may have to answer Pite with a gun. He then visits Pite’s father to try and head off a confrontation, warning him it is a “clan issue”. However, when Pite is shot by another person Niaz staunches the flow of blood with his cap and helps to save his life.

Sher Alam Miskeen Usrtad gives an affecting performance as Niaz’s father. At first he seems authoritarian and harsh, but gradually he reveals his fears that his son will abandon him as his wife did when she died. When he finally agrees that Niaz should learn to read and write, he says this should be at a “proper” school. He rules out Niaz’s going to a traditional madrasa as he believes “the USA is all over them”, and says “I don’t want them to take you to Cuba and torture you.”

Music has an important part in the film. The Australian musician and composer Amanda Brown has put together a soundtrack that complements the film’s emotional power. There are also some tracks from the CD “From Cabool to California” featuring Professor John Baily on rubab, Ustadh Asif Mahmoud on tabla and John Harrelson on tanbura.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, 5 May 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