Thursday, May 28, 2009

book on ali al-jabri reawakens painful memories

The artist Ali al-Jabri, born in Jerusalem in 1943 to a prominent Aleppine family, was murdered in his apartment in Amman in 2002 in circumstances that are still unclear. In an obituary published in the London-based Independent newspaper, Lucretia Stewart paid tribute to him as one of the leading Arab artists of his generation, whose art master at the English public school Rugby described him as the most artistically gifted boy he had ever taught. Stewart described an enormously charismatic "handsome, tall, blue-eyed olive-skinned effortlessly charming and sophisticated" man who was "open to anyone and everyone and completely without prejudice or preconception". His father's sister Sitt Saadiyeh Tal was the widow of Wasfi Tal, the Jordanian Prime Minister who was assassinated in 1971. She was the founder of the Museum of Popular Culture in Amman and for many people Jabri was "the eye through which they discovered Jordan: his vision, communicated through his work and his life, was equally revealing to both Jordanians and visitors."

Now a book on al-Jabri,
'About This Man Called Ali: The Purple Life of an Arab Artist' by Amal Ghandour, has been published by Eland Books of London. A review by Matthew Mosley was published in the Beirut newspaper The Daily Star last Friday. Mosley considers there are two limitations in Ghandour's account; one is that as al-Jabri was killed only in 2002 it is too early for a summing up of his life and works, the other is that Ghandour is not just an observer but was a close friend of the artist and became a player in the narrative towards the end of his life. Despite these limitations, she paints a "thrilling, infuriating, thought-provoking portrait of a family in decline and a people in chaos." Mosley alludes to al-Jabri's sexuality by reference to T E Lawrence, "Lawrence of Arabia". In a review of 22 April published in Newsweek, veteran journalist Christopher Dickey tackles al-Jabri's sexuality head on. Dickey was at a dinner party with his wife in Jordan in November 2002 at which al Jabri was expected. The artist did not turn up and the next day a friend phoned to say he had been murdered in his apartment, and that the main suspect was his Egyptian male lover who had fled across the border. Dickey highlights the gay aspects of al-Jabri's life; the strapline reads: "Arab gays are under siege in societies that want to pretend they don't exist. But a new biography of an Arab artist offers another view." Through the prism of al-Jabri's life he looks at the intolerance of homosexuality in the Arab world, which has led for example to a spate of killings in Iraq.

The review provoked an outburst from Nadine Toukan, who wrote in the comments section: "Read this essay yesterday and got very angry to tell you the tructh. This thin slither perspective of Ali Jabri is not what his life was about. Yes Ali was gay, but that is not the legacy he left behind." She links to a piece she has
blogged about Ali.

Toukan fisrt met Jabri at the age of 18 when "after a couple glasses of wine, I got into a heated argument over art with a man twice my age with piercing blue eyes and a spirit larger than life. I was stubborn, opinionated and apparently quite blasé that I had pissed off this man who left the party abruptly and in turn that irked the host who showed her annoyance at me and my idiotic teenage behavior.

"A couple years passed and I later met Ali Jabri thru friends. That was the beginning of a friendship with the man who made me fall in love with Jordan and got me to understand our relationship with our environment. For the many years later, we continued to argue about art, culture, politics, life, yelled in rage at each other, got into heated debates over meals here and there, and cultivated a wonderful friendship." Others have contributed comments to Toukan's post.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

cake therapy of the lemon drizzle variety

After conducting some serious Google research yesterday for a recipe for lemon drizzle cake for an impromptu Spring Bank Holiday picnic I eschwed the likes of Nigella and Delia for a recipe on the Anne's Kitchen blog. What won me over was the intense lemoniness of her recipe, adapted from one in an out-of-print book. Whereas Nigella and others use milk or yoghurt as the liquid in the cake mix, Anne's uses lemon juice. Also, she uses two kinds of sugar, caster and granulated. The caster is used in the body of the cake, while the crunchiness of the top is enhanced by using granulated in the syrup and by strewing a mixture of granulated sugar and lemon zest over the surface of the cake before pouring over the syrup. I found the cake was still not cooked with her 25 minutes suggested cooking time, and after another 10 or so minutes it resolutely refused to turn "a lovely gold colour" on top but browned round the edges. The cake was cooked though and was very moreish. The method of pouring syrup over hot cake is reminiscent of some Arab cakes such as basbousa.

Anne's recipe:

Ifeel I should finally share with you all the much loved recipe that I always use and also at the same time write up a recipe from one of my many cookery books! It is really lemony, light and fluffy and will keep around 4 days.
I have made this so many times I have lost count now and after taking it to family a while back I am now blamed for weekend baking duties everytime my cousin comes home with an empty tin from Uni! Sorry Auntie!
This originally appears in Baking: Step by Step, published by Starfire, however this is no longer in print and is republished under another similar guise...we found this out when trying to get another copy for another family member! I have slightly re-written the method as the first 3 times making this recipe from the book I got confused and added things at the wrong time!
Step One:
175g self raising flour
125g butter / hard margarine
175g caster sugar
2 pref unwaxed lemons
2 large free range eggs
Step Two:
2 x 25g granulated sugar
1) Pre-heat oven to 180 deg (160 deg for fan assisted). Beat the butter and caster sugar until fluffy (I use my Kenwood chef as easier)
2) Beat the eggs in a seperate bowl and slowly add, followed by a little of the flour each time until all incorporated
3) Take the first lemon, finely grate the peel (I recommend Microplane) and add to the mix, then juice the lemon and add to the mix, pour into a greased 7 inch square or round tin and smooth over (the original says square but I find it just as good in round tin). Bake for 25 minutes or until a skewer comes away clean, it should be a lovely golden colour
4) Now take 25g of the remaining sugar and place in a small saucepan, grate the rind of the 2nd lemon and reserve, juice the lemon and mix with the sugar and heat until dissolved and starting to go slightly syrupy. Mix the reserved lemon peel with the other 25g of sugar and sprinkle over the cake, prick some holes using a skewer and carefully pour over the syrup - be careful it will be hot! Allow to coool fully and slice as required.

Monday, May 25, 2009

stop the war's 'two plays for gaza' fundraiser

Legendary London theater hosts ‘Two Plays for Gaza’
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 25 May 2009

The Hackney Empire in East London is one of the British capital’s most famous entertainment and music venues. Built in 1901, it has hosted great entertainers from the past such as Charlie Chaplin and Marie Lloyd, as well as leading figures from the contemporary music and comedy scenes.

Last Thursday evening the theatre’s 1,300 seats were packed full for “Two Plays for Gaza”. The event was a fundraiser for both the Stop the War Campaign and for the Gaza Music School, which was destroyed in the Israeli offensive in Gaza at the turn of the year.

The music school is a project of the A. M. Qattan Foundation, and is co-financed by the Swedish International Development Agency. It was originally launched last July to meet a growing demand for music education from children and parents attending the Qattan Center for the Child in Gaza organization.

The school occupied rented space at the Palestinian Red Crescent Society building in the Tel Al-Hawwa neighborhood of Gaza. Classes began in October, and on Dec. 23 the school held its first public concert. Just four days later it was damaged by Israeli bombardments, and when Israel invaded the area in mid-January, the building took a direct hit and the school was completely destroyed.

Thanks to campaigns of support around the world, the Qattan Foundation was able to report that some $69,000 had flowed in and that the school reopened in new premises in mid-April. However, more funds are required to rehabilitate and develop a facility which is not only a cultural asset, but which also brings the therapeutic benefits of music in helping children express themselves and overcome trauma.

The veteran Labor politician and former cabinet minister Tony Benn [pictured] introduced the evening. Israel’s supporters often try to dismiss criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism, but Benn received sustained applause when he declared, “This idea - that in taking the stand we do we are actually anti-Semitic - is an absolute lie.”

The evening revealed the high degree of support for the Palestinians among artists in Britain. In addition to the direct participation of actors, writers, directors and others in staging the event, there were numerous messages of support on the printed program from the likes of comedian and author Alexei Sayle, political satirist Mark Thomas, writer and documentary maker John Pilger, actors Timothy West, Prunella Scales, Terry Jones and Janet Suzman, and novelists A.L. Kennedy and Iain Banks.

The first play staged during the evening was Caryl Churchill’s powerful 10-minute drama “Seven Jewish Children”, which the acclaimed playwright wrote in response to Israel’s onslaught on Gaza.
There was an outcry in some quarters when the play was first staged at the Royal Court Theatre in February and the BBC had refused to broadcast it. According to the Guardian newspaper, BBC Radio 4’s drama commissioning editor Jeremy Howe said in an e-mail that he and Radio 4 controller Mark Damazer thought the play was a “brilliant piece” but that they had decided, after debating long and hard, “we cannot run with it on the grounds of impartiality”.

The second play was “The Trainer”, by David Wilson and Anne Aylor. The focus of the play is the disaster that befell the English composer Keith Burstein over his opera on the war on terror, “Manifest Destiny”.
In 2005, a reviewer of the opera wrote in London’s Evening Standard newspaper that “the idea that there is anything heroic about suicide bombers is, frankly, a grievous insult.” Burstein issued a writ for libel against the newspaper’s publisher, Associated Newspapers, on the grounds that the reviewer had portrayed him as glorifying terrorism, thereby laying him open to prosecution under anti-terror legislation.

A High Court judge granted Burstein the opportunity to take the case to trial by jury, but the Court of Appeal overturned this decision, in favor of Associated Newspapers.
The publisher’s costs of around £70,000 were awarded against Burstein, who was declared bankrupt. Burstein was refused leave to appeal to the House of Lords and the case is currently being taken to the European Court of Human Rights.

“The Trainer” is set in an upmarket gym in the basement of a gentlemen’s club where a young Palestinian woman Taghreed (played by Jana Zeineddine) is a fitness trainer. She trains three middle-aged men, played by Corin Redgrave, Paul Herzberg and Roger Lloyd Pack, who turn out to be Appeal Court judges. Taghreed finds a DVD of “Manifest Destiny” in the gym and plays excerpts on a large screen. She is engaged to a British Jew, Josh (David Mildon), who travels to help Palestinians with their olive harvest in the face of attacks from Israeli settlers. “The Trainer” interweaves Taghreed and Josh’s story with the storyline of “Manifest Destiny”.

Musical extravaganza
The evening featured a strong Palestinian musical element in the form of a performance by the renowned singer and musician Reem Kelani [pictured]. She was accompanied by young violinists Noemi Rubio and Laia Serra whom she described as “my two adopted nieces from Catalonia”.

Kelani delivered her performance with characteristic humor and brio. She began with a lively 19th century Palestinian wedding song, complete with stamping and clapping, which exhibited her impressive vocal range.

Her second number was a meditative, soulful composition for which the keening violins of the Catalan musicians were a perfect accompaniment. The song came from a Palestinian refugee survivor who lives in Syria. “This woman comes from the Khadra family of Safad. There isn’t one Arab left in Safad, but the songs remain. She is a third generation refugee, and in this song she is begging her eyes not to cry,” remarked Kelani.

Her last song was “Zourouni”, by the legendary Egyptian composer Sheikh Sayyid Darwish. She recalled that in one of his most famous songs he had written, “‘Never tell me that you are a Muslim, Christian or Jew: if your homeland unites you, your religion should never ever divide you’. He said this in 1919, and I think we still need to learn it”.

Another vocal performer was the rapper, poet and political activist Lowkey [pictured], born to an Iraqi mother and English father in 1986. He engaged the audience with his rapid-fire rap numbers such as “Long Live Gaza”. “I came back from the West Bank in February and the people there are aware of all the things that the Stop the War Coalition does in this country,” said Lowkey.
“Please continue your support for Stop the War because it is important to let people in Palestine know that we - the British people - have not forgotten them.”

Saturday, May 23, 2009

anissa helou samples palestinian singer reem kelani's home cooking

Today's Financial Times has a delightful article on Palestinian cuisine by cookery writer Anissa Helou, based on her sampling of dishes prepared by the Palestinian singer - and accomplished cook - Reem Kelani at Reem's home near Portobello Road in West London.

Helou writes: I called my Palestinian friend, jazz singer Reem Kelani, to ask if she would show me how to prepare a few typical Palestinian dishes and tell me more about her people’s food. She was delighted, saying that Palestinians do not often have the opportunity to show off their cuisine: “Their cooking remains a closed secret to remind them of their lost homeland.

We settled on a menu that we would prepare and taste together: mussakhan (a chicken, sumac and onion wrap from the West Bank and probably the most famous of all Palestinian dishes), a pumpkin and tahini dip from Jerusalem, and a rose and pine nut punch, which sounded divine. We added a main dish from Nazareth of lamb cooked in a lemony sauce with what sounded like a million garlic cloves, rice vermicelli to serve with the meat, and shatta Ghazzawiyah, a fresh chilli sauce from Gaza to serve with the pumpkin dip. ..

The article is accompanied by this recipe:
Chicken and onion mussakhan wraps
Known as “muhammar” in Galilee and Nazareth, “mussakhan” can be made into wraps, or it can be made into a pizza, with the chicken and onion piled on to a thin dough base and baked. The latter is served as a main dish, while the wraps are served as a starter. This is Reem Kelani’s recipe, and it comes from her sister’s mother-in-law, Izdihar Afyouni. It serves 4-6 people.
Ingredients:500g skinned and boneless chicken breasts; Juice of half a lemon; ½ cup Palestinian extra virgin olive oil, plus extra to brush the wraps; 1 tsp Palestinian mixed spices; Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste; 4 medium onions, finely choppe; d1 tbsp sumac, plus extra for garnish; ¼ cup pine nuts, toasted in a hot oven; 2 large shraak (Palestinian flat bread) or markouk (Lebanese handkerchief bread)

● Cut the chicken into long, thin strips and marinate with the lemon juice, half the olive oil, mixed spices and salt and pepper for at least two hours.
● Put the chicken in a pre-heated saucepan, cover and cook in its own marinade, shaking the pan every now and then for about half an hour. Then add 1 cup boiling water and cook until the water evaporates and the chicken is done.
● Fry the chopped onions in the remaining olive oil until cooked but not coloured – add a little water to let them cook thoroughly without caramelising.
● Add the sumac, toasted pine nuts and salt to taste. Cut the bread into rectangular pieces, making sure it is wide enough to roll over into wraps.
● Spread some of the onion and nuts mixture on each piece of bread, then spread some chicken over the onion, sprinkle a little more sumac and roll into long, cigar-shaped wraps.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

british parliamentarians call for end to gaza blockade

British MPs call for end to blockade of Gaza

A group of MPs has called for an immediate end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza, in a report published today.
A delegation from the Britain-Palestine All Party Parliamentary Group (BPAPPG) visited Israel, Gaza and the West Bank in the immediate aftermath of “Operation Cast Lead”, to assess the deteriorating situation in the Occupied Territories. Their subsequent findings include a call for crossings into and out of Gaza to be opened and for a rigorous international inquiry into allegations of war crimes. The MPs also note international efforts to prevent the supply of arms into Gaza. The MPs call for this to be supplemented by a prohibition on the sale of arms and military equipment to Israel in response to its own record of attacks on Gaza and elsewhere.

Commenting upon its publication, Chair of the BPAPPG, Richard Burden MP said:

‘Our report details the scale of the devastation and the human cost paid by the people of Palestine – both from the recent conflict in Gaza and the ongoing occupation of both Gaza and the West Bank.

‘The images of our visit remain clear in my mind – an entire village raised to the ground and its many residents now living in tents. Of 1.5 million people imprisoned in their own land and reliant on outside aid for essential food, medical supplies and even the cement they need to rebuild their shattered homes. There has to be accountability for what has happened.

‘The military attacks on Gaza may have now ceased but its people’s suffering continues with a crippling blockade that has been going on for over two years. Common humanity demands we do all we can to bring this to an end.

‘Over the years ordinary Israelis have also suffered from this ongoing conflict. We are convinced that the international community must step up its efforts to achieve the lasting and just peace that both Palestinians and Israelis deserve.’

The delegation’s report makes nine recommendations:

1. The opening of all the crossing points in and out of Gaza
2. An independent and impartial inquiry into allegations that war crimes and other offences against humanitarian law were committed by both sides during Israel’s attack on Gaza and the firing of rockets into Israel, and the holding of all relevant parties to account
3. An international embargo on arms supplies to Israel to accompany the action already being taken by the international community to prevent the supply of arms into Gaza
4. Concerted action to bring about a complete settlement freeze, including a halt to the E1 Plan and a halt to the removal of residency rights of Palestinians in East Jerusalem
5. The lifting of the closure regime in the West Bank
6. Conditionality enforced in respect of EU-Israel agreements, with Israel’s trade privileges under those agreements being suspended until it fulfils its own human rights, and other, responsibilities under those agreements
7. Support for the re-forging of internal Palestinian dialogue and reconciliation
8. An inclusive approach to international political engagement with all key stakeholders in the region, to achieve an effective peace process towards a sustainable two-state solution
9. Regular visits to the region for EU and UK politicians to see the situation for themselves and to make appropriate recommendations to their governments.

Over 1,300 Palestinians were killed during Operation Cast Lead, with a further 5,300 injured. Over two hundred schools were damaged or destroyed during the conflict, whilst hospitals and the United Nations’ Gaza City Headquarters were also attacked. The delegation spent three days in the Gaza Strip assessing the damage, meeting with survivors and touring some of the worst affected areas.

The group visited Ashkelon, a town in Southern Israel which has been the victim of rocket attacks. The group also visited the West Bank where they saw evidence of on-going Israeli settlement expansion and the impact of checkpoints and the Separation Wall. The report calls for an end to the growth of settlements and for the international community to pressurise Israel to halt the construction of the barrier.

The delegation of MPs was led by Richard Burden (Labour), Chair of the BPAPPG, and consisted of Ed Davey (Liberal Democrat), Tony Lloyd (Labour), Sarah Teather (Lib Dem), Martin Linton (Labour) and Andy Slaughter (Labour). They visited Ashkelon in southern Israel, Gaza and the West Bank and held a range of meetings with officials, diplomats, organisations and individuals, including Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad; Rafiq Husseini (Chief of Staff to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas); the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA); the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA); Palestinian business people, medical staff, teachers, academics and politicians; and residents of Ashkelon, Gaza and the West Bank.

The visit was coordinated and accompanied by the Council for Arab British Understanding which acts as the secretariat to the BPAPPG, and sponsored by the Welfare Association.

For further information please contact:
Graham Bambrough
Council for Arab British Understanding
0207 832 1322

Duncan Sinclair
Office of Richard Burden MP
0207 219 2318

Monday, May 18, 2009

'kill khaled' tells of mossad's attempt to assassinate mishal, and hamas's rise

English original of article published in Arabic translation in Al-Hayat, May 18 2009

“Kill Khalid: The Failed Mossad Assassination of Khalid Mishal and the Rise of Hamas”
Susannah Tarbush

The Israeli intelligence service Mossad has always been keen to foster a reputation as a ruthlessly efficient information gathering and killing machine, whose agents freely roam the Middle East and wider world targeting Israeli’s enemies with ruthlessness and deadly accuracy.

But alongside Mossad’s successes, its history is also littered with blunders and miscalculations. And one of its biggest blunders of all time was the audacious attempt of September 25 1997 to use poison to assassinate a leading Hamas official, Khalid Mishal, in the Jordanian capital Amman.

The book “Kill Khalid: The Failed Mossad Assassination of Khalid Mishal and the Rise of Hamas” gives a detailed account of the assassination attempt and of the intricate negotiations that led to a deal under which Israel would supply the antidote to the Mossad poison and would release Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

The book was published recently in the US by New Press, in the UK by Quartet – owned by the Palestine-born publisher and entrepreneur Naim Attallah – and in Australia by Allen and Unwin. The author of the book Paul McGeough [pictured below], born in Ireland, is a prizewinning journalist who lives in Sydney and was at one time editor of the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.

While the central event of the book is the assassination attempt, its scope ranges widely in time and it tells the story of Mishal’s political life and of the development of Hamas over the years. The book is topical given the current debate among Western policymakers over the need to engage Hamas if there is to be a resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. There have been signs of a possible cautious shift, under certain conditions, in US policy by the administration of President Barack Obama.

At the same time Binyahim Netanyahu, who was Israeli prime minister at the time of the assassination attempt, is once more in that position, heading a hard-line government. He is again confronting the man he wanted dead 12 years ago, but Hamas and Mishal are now stronger than they were then.

During his research for the book, McGeough conducted interviews with numerous key players and observers of the Middle East crisis in six countries in 2007 and early 2008. His 477-page work is written in a lively, highly readable fashion.

In the assassination plot, which sounds like something from a James Bond film, a team of Mossad agents flew to Amman from different capitals masquerading as tourists. They planned to poison Mishal with a substance that was lethal but relatively slow-acting. Mishal would die over a period of 48 hours while the team of Mossad assassins slipped out of Jordan.

The poison was to be administered by a small “camera” which served as a “gun” with a “bullet” of a clear liquid, the poison levofentanyl - a modified version of the widely-used painkiller fentanyl. The team of agents included a woman doctor carrying the antidote to the poison. This was because the poison was so lethal that Mossad’s planners had demanded that a doctor be present with an antidote in case one of the Mossad team accidentally exposed himself to the poison.

The then head of Mossad Danny Yatom assured Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that nothing could go wrong with the plan. But in fact things went very wrong for Mossad. Although one of the agents succeeded in administering the poison to Mishal’s ear in an Amman street, the agent and an accomplice were chased by one of Mishal’s bodyguards, Mohammad Abu Sayf. Abu Sayf had a bloody fight with the two agents, and was then helped by Saad Na’im Khatib, an officer in Palestine Liberation Army who happened to be passing in a taxi. Abu Sayf and Khatib captured the two Mossad men and handed them over to the Jordanian police. Another four agents in the team fled to the Israeli embassy “which, incredibly for a supposedly friendly foreign mission, was locked down by a menacing cordon of Jordanian troops.”

News of the strange attack on Mishal was first broken to the outside world by the Lebanese journalist Randa Habib, bureau chief in Amman for Agence France Presse. She was telephoned by Mohammad Nazzal, a Hamas press aide, who said that Mishal had been the victim of an assassination attempt by an attacker using “a bizarre instrument”. She then spoke to Mishal himself, who told her of a “whispering” sound in his ear when he was attacked. In the following hours, as the poison started to take effect, Mishal fell into a coma. He would die unless an antidote was administered.

King Hussein was enraged by the assassination attempt on Jordanian soil and warned Netanyahu that if Mishal died, the Mossad men would be hung. Jordan had signed a peace treaty with Israel in October 1994, and King Hussein felt utterly betrayed by the assassination attempt. He had developed relations with Israeli politicians and with the intelligence apparatus, for example hosting Danny Yatom at his summer palace in Aqaba, but Mossad had given the Jordanians no hint as to what it was planning.

The king suspected that the assassination of Mishal had two aims: to make it impossible to rescue the now comatose Oslo peace process, and to destabilise the Hashemite dynasty, perhaps in preparation for a new Palestinian state in Jordan.

A major crisis erupted involving Jordan, Israel, the US and Canada. King Hussein contacted US President Bill Clinton as part of efforts to force Netanyahu to hand over the antidote that would save Mishal’s life. McGeough gives a thorough account of the negotiations, telephone calls and face to face meetings through the long hours that followed. A key Jordanian figure in the unfolding events was Samih Batikhi, the then chief of the General Intelligence Department.

The Canadians for their part were angered over the use of Canadian passports by those involved in the assassination attempt and demanded explanations from Israel. This was not the first time that Mossad agents were discovered to have used Canadian passports during an operation, nor would it be the last.

Israel’s envoy to the EU Efraim Halevy, former deputy director of Mossad, had developed a close personal bond with Hussein over the years and he was recalled from Brussels to help deal with the crisis. Halevy pushed for the release of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, who had been serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison since 1989.

Halevy argued that without Israel making such a weighty gesture, Hussein would be written off as a collaborator with Israel. Netanyahu at first refused, but he came under pressure from the Jordanians, Canadians and Americans to not only hand over the formula of the poison, and the antidote, but also to release Sheikh Yassin “in order to save a peace process he might have preferred to sink”.

According to McGeough, at the time of the attempted assassination, Mishal “had been overlooked by the legion of foreign intelligence agents operation in Amman”. Nor had the US ambassador Wesley Egan previously known who he was. “Who the hell is Khalid Mishal the ambassador asked the CIA Amman station chief Dave Manners after meeting King Hussein to discuss the crisis.

Why did Mossad choose Mishal as its assassination target? He was accused by Israel of orchestrating a new rash of suicide bombings in Israel. “At the Mossad bunker in Tel Aviv he was seen as the first of a dangerous new breed of fundamentalist leaders. He was hard-line, but he did not wear a scraggy beard or wrap himself in robes.” Mishal wore a suit and “he was, by regional standards, coherent in his television appearances. From the Israeli perspective Khalid Mishal was too credible as an emerging leader of Hamas, persuasive even. He had to be taken out.”

McGeough examines the impact of the assassination attempt on Mishal. “Khalid Mishal emerged as a changed man from his brush with death. He saw himself in a very different light, and so did the movement’s members. Overnight he had become a household name – for Palestinians, Israelis and the whole Arab world.” The gross miscalculations by Netanyahu and Yatom had “effectively anointed Mishal the leader of the future.”

One theme running through the book is the rivalry between Mishal and his long-standing rival Mousa Abu Marzook, who is now his deputy in Damascus. Abu Marzook was born in a refugee camp in Gaza and was from an early age a committed Islamist activist and disciple of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. He had played a key role in the US raising funds particularly for the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation.

McGeough differentiates the group around Mishal, known internally as the “Kuwaitis”, from the group around Abu Marzook, who were mostly Gazans. Mishal says that as a young man living in Kuwait he laid in place the infrastructure of Hamas, and this was “done in parallel with the West Bank and Gaza”. After Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2 1990 Mishal, who was on holiday in Amman, returned to Kuwait because he did not want the Iraqis to find Hamas’s headquarters. He destroyed files, and took others to Amman, which quickly became a Hamas hub. McGeough looks at the different versions of the birth of Hamas, and at the way in which Israel encouraged Hamas’s activities in Gaza in its formative years as a counterweight to Fatah.

In a chapter entitled “The bearded engineer in a New York cell”, McGeough tells of how Abu Marzook was arrested at John F Kennedy International Airport in New in July 1995. Israel subsequently sought his extradition, but Abu Marzook was released to King Hussein in Jordan in February 1997. In his absence, Mishal had been elected to lead the political bureau and he did not step aside on Abu Marzook’s return.

The Amman-based journalist Ranya Kadri told McGeough: “The day they tried to kill him was the day Mishal the leader was born. The man who died that day was Abu Marzook. Nobody wanted to talk to Abu Marzook after that – it was Mishal, Mishal, Mishal.”

Mishal was born in the West Bank village of Silwad in 1956. In the June 1967 war Mishal and his family fled to Jordan. His father was at the time working in Kuwait, where he had taken his younger second wife, and Khalid joined him there.

One of those McGeough interviewed for his book was Asad Abdul Rahman, the Palestinian academic and senior PLO figure who was at one time an adviser to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. Abdul Rahman was a professor at Kuwait University when Mishal went there in 1974 to study physics. Mishal joined Abdul Rahman’s class on Palestinian history. He had a woolly beard and Abdul Rahman concluded, correctly, that he was with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Despite their profound political differences, Abdul-Rahman was deeply impressed with Mishal and rated him as his brightest student ever. “There are lots of B-pluses and Bs in social science. He was my only A-student in nineteen years of teaching.”

Many years later, Abdul-Rahman on a visit to Damascus warned Mishal: “You can’t be a Muslim fanatic and, at the same time, be a politician...especially in a modern world with gigantic enemies – the US globally, Israel regionally!” Abdul-Rahman maintained it was time for the Islamists to publicly accept the existence of the state of Israel. “You have to decide, you can’t be half pregnant. Either you want to engage in the peace process or not, and if you don’t, there is a price to pay.”

The final chapter of McGeough’s book describes his meeting and interviews with Mishal himself, in conditions of tight security, at Mishal’s headquarters in Damascus in the two months from September 2 2007.

Since completing his book, McGeough has had a further meeting with Mishal, in mid-March this year. He wrote about this meeting in a New York Times article of April 13 under the headline “Hamas comes out of hiding”. He noted that compared with his first meeting with Mishal 18 months earlier, the mood was much lighter in the Hamas hideout. “Mr Mishal’s calendar is so full that he might soon need a parking lot for the vehicles bringing foreign delegations to visit.” His visit to Mishal in March was “pushed far into the night because Mr Mishal was busy greeting a group of Greek lawmakers, who were then followed by an Italian delegation.” In the preceding days the Hamas leader had met visitors from the British and European parliaments.

When McGeough asked Mishal about policy changes that Hamas might make as a gesture to any new order following the new Obama policy, Mishal argued that the organisation had already shifted on some key points. “Hamas has already changed – we accepted the national accords for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, and we took part in the 2006 Palestinian elections.” But when McGeough asked him about rewriting the Hamas charter, which calls for the destruction of Israel, he was unbending and said “Not a chance”.

McGeough wrote that “while it is impossible for many in the West to grasp the calculus in the Hamas strategy of war and terror the movement has demonstrated that it is disciplined in holding its fire, as it did in the summer and fall of 2008. Likewise, it has proved itself capable of negotiating with Israel – albeit through third parties.”

the iranian band 'font' win bbc newsnight's 'immigrant song contest'

above: Font in action

From a Tehran jail to victory in the BBC's 'Immigrant Song Contest'

In August 2007, the members of the Iranian indie-rock band Font were thrown into jail for 21 days after police swooped on an underground concert at which they were performing in Karaj, near Tehran.

Now, in a dramatic turnaround in their fortunes, Font have won Britain’s first-ever Immigrant Song Contest. The contest, held over four evenings last week, was organized and televised by the BBC 2 TV channel’s daily current affairs program Newsnight. Font’s five members [pictured] entered the contest while living in London on six-month artists’ visas. They are enduring cramped conditions residing in one room as they pursue their musical dreams in the country that gave rise to some of their favorite groups, including Radiohead and Pink Floyd.

The Immigrant Song Contest was timed to coincide with the build-up to last Saturday’s final of the 54th annual Eurovision Song Contest in Moscow. As presenter Tim Samuels explained, it aimed to “put a human face” to some of the millions of immigrants who come to Britain.

The contest featured bands from six countries – Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and Poland. Each band was given a classic Eurovision Song Contest entry to perform. Font were asked to cover “Congratulations”, which Cliff Richard performed in the 1968 Eurovision, and they gave a punk rock style interpretation, a world away from Cliff’s version.

The contest had three judges: singer Sandie Shaw, who in 1967 was the first-ever British winner of Eurovision, with “Puppet on a String”; Conservative MP and former Shadow Home Secretary David Davis, and former immigration officer Steve Bateman - who is now a musician.

Each evening from Monday to Wednesday last week, Newsnight featured performances by two of the six competing bands. On Thursday the judges considered the entries, and announced their decision. Sandie Shaw said they had chosen Font as the winner for both musical and political reasons, picking “the people we thought really need someone on their side.”

The contest highlighted the immigrant musicians’ backstories as much as it did their music. Somali rapper Dhalad [left] said that had he not fled the Somali civil war for Britain, “I would either be dead by now, or I would have killed many people and become one of the warlords.” Dhalad performed the song “Save Your Kisses for Me”, with which Brotherhood of Man won Eurovision in 1976. This was a far cry from his usual repertoire of Somali and Yemeni -influenced fusion music. Sandie Shaw told him: “I really liked what you did; I thought you brought something really special to the table. “

The Afghan singer and musician Hashmat Ehsanmand [pictured below] arrived in Britain in 1995 during a time of fierce mujahedin fighting. From London he has built up a career performing at Afghan weddings, concerts and other events. He said that many artists and singers had been killed over the years in Afghanistan, and described how “well known faces vanished all of a sudden without anyone having any news of them”. He said that through watching news on TV people in Britain tend to see only the bad side of Afghanistan, and “I’d like them to experience Afghan music and the nice side of Afghanistan too.”

Hashmat was given the challenge of interpreting “Boom Bang-a-Bang”, the song which made Scottish singer Lulu one of four joint winners of Eurovision in 1969. Playing keyboard, and accompanied by a tabla player, he gave the song a charmingly romantic rendering with oriental vocal inflections.
Singer-songwriter Ya Freddy Wanga escaped the conflicts of the Democratic Republic of Congo to come to Britain. He put a Congolese spin on his performance of Sandie Shaw’s “Puppet on a String”, complete with girls gyrating in the background. Sandie commented generously, “I thought it was really good, much better than my version.”

The Zimbabwean group Mann Friday left the restrictions of Zimbabwe to try to establish themselves in London, and they have built up a considerable reputation. The band was unable to fly back from an engagement in South Africa to London for the Immigrant Song Contest because lead singer Rob Burrell had perforated a lung while singing. Instead, Burrell and bass player Ryan Koriya performed via satellite link their version of Abba’s “Waterloo”, which won Eurovision in 1974. Their movingly simple and soulful interpretation revealed a new dimension of the original song.

Steve Bateman commented: “Musically I was absolutely knocked out by your performance: you’re a world class band, and you are absolutely stunning.”David Davis added: “I really feel for you guys as you come from a country that has been turned from paradise to a hell on earth.”

Members of the Polish heavy metal band Why Not Here originally came to Britain for the economic opportunities, and their day jobs include fitting kitchens. They now feel culturally embedded in Britain. One of the band members said: ”When you are going to Poland for a vacation you can see sad people and here you can see happy people.”

Why Not Here’s entry was Bucks Fizz’s “Making Your Mind Up”, which won Eurovision in 1981. Steve Bateman praised their treatment of the song as “great fun” but added: “If you want to make it, then obviously you’ve got a lot of work to do because there are a lot of great bands over here.”

Alongside the judges’ deliberations, Newsnight held a studio discussion on immigration. It featured the former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sir Andrew Green, who chairs the Migration Watch think-tank, and the Bangladesh-born novelist Tahmima Anam [pictured].

Sir Andrew agreed that the stories of the migrant musicians were quite remarkable, but added “You will not get the kind of welcome that these people deserve, especially refugees but other migrants as well, unless people are at ease with the numbers.” He said that the government’s own figures suggest there will be another seven million in the next 20 years. “This is having a huge impact on our whole society,” he added.

But Tahmima Anam was more upbeat, and found it striking that the immigrant bands not only performed the Eurovision songs “very earnestly and with enthusiasm”, but that they also “expressed a kind of optimism about Britain that I really haven’t heard anywhere else.”
She asked why - in the absence of reliable numbers on immigration - there is a preying on people’s anxieties. “Why can’t we talk about the great contribution that migrants have made to this society over many generations?”
Susannah Tarbush

Friday, May 15, 2009

zaytoun cic wins the £5,000 arab-british culture & society award

Zaytoun CIC (Community Interest Company) - the British importer of Palestinian olive oil , olives and other olive-related and agricultural products - has won the 2009 Arab-British Culture and Society award, the Arab-British Centre (ABC) in London has announced. This is pleasing in several ways, given the importance of the olive in Palestinian agriculture and the economy generally (including soap manufacture) and its cultural and symbolic significance in numerous literary and artistic works. Mahmoud Darwish's famous defiant poem 'Identity Card' includes the line: "and to me the most delicious food is olive oil & thyme". The encouragement of olive harvesting and olive oil production in the face of the Israeli destruction of olive tress and harrasment by soldiers and settlers is an important act of solidarity with the Palestinians.

The annual Arab-British Culture and Society award, worth £5000, is made to "an individual or organisation which in the opinion of the judges has made an outstanding contribution to the British public's knowledge and understanding of the life, society and culture of the Arab people". In addition to the prize money, the Arab-British Centre offers opportunities and support to promote the winner's work. A statement from the ABC says the judges unanimously chose Zaytoun CIC for the inspirational way it has marketed Palestinian olive oil and olives in the UK. "Through the background briefings, informative promotions and exchange visits it has organised, it has very effectively raised awareness in the UK of the life, problems and potential of Palestinian farmers. Its success in gaining Fairtrade certification - a first for a Palestinian product and a world first for olive oil - has created new opportunities for extending the British public's knowledge of an important aspect of the life of Arab people." The award will be presented at a ceremony to be held in late May.

Zaytoun CIC was one of eleven candidates shortlisted for the award (which is awfully long for a shortlist!) The ABC says the judges were impressed with the high quality and range of the nominations received and specially commended the following candidates for their notable contributions:

IB Tauris: Publisher of a large and varied list of academic books on the Arab and Islamic worlds.
Professor Tim Niblock: Writer on the Arab world, and teacher of generations of UK and foreign students specialising in the region.He is Professor of Arab Gulf Studies at the University of Exeter, and the author of numerous books.
Raja Shehadeh: Palestinian lawyer and author of engaging and accessible books on life in the West Bank.His widely-reviewed Palestinian Walks was winner of the 2008 Orwell Prize for political writing.

The winner was chosen by a group of distinguished Arab and British panellists with an expert appreciation of the culture of both the Arab World and the United Kingdom. The judges were:
· Sir Marrack Goulding (Chairman), a former British diplomat, Under-Secretary-General in the United Nations and Warden of St Antony's College, Oxford.
· Dr Shelagh Weir (Acting Chair), Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and authority on Palestinian and Yemeni culture.
· His Excellency Khalid Al Duwaisan, Kuwaiti Ambassador to the UK since 1993 and Dean of the Diplomatic Corps since 2003.
· André Gaspard, co-founder of Al-Saqi Bookshop and Saqi Publishers, and winner of the inaugural Arab-British Culture and Society Award in 2008.
· Robert Irwin, Middle East Editor of the Times Literary Supplement.
· Dr Ghada Karmi, Research Fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, Exeter University.
· Margaret Obank, co-founder and publisher of Banipal magazine, Banipal Books and Banipal Trust for Arab Literature.

The other shortlisted candidates were:

Ahdaf Soueif: Egyptian short story writer, novelist and political and cultural commentator, and author of The Map of Love, shortlisted for the 1999 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.
Al Zaytouna Dabke Group: UK-based Palestinian Dabke dance group.
The Arab: English-language online magazine on Middle Eastern political, social, cultural and business-related affairs. Arab Media Watch: Media watchdog working towards objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. ArtRole: Contemporary arts organisation working to build mutual understanding through international cultural exchanges. Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival: Annual Arab arts and culture festival which works to raise awareness and promote an understanding and appreciation for Arab heritage. Peter Mortimer: Poet and playwright, commissioned to write Riot! based on the little-known Yemeni seamen's riot in South Shields in 1930, and author of Cool For Qat - A Yemeni Journey.

The Arab-British Centre was registered as a charity in 1989 with the object of advancing the education of the public by providing and maintaining a centre for the dissemination of information regarding the culture, art, science, religion, economy and contemporary history of the Arab world. The Centre, at 1 Gough Square, just north of Fleet Street, provides facilities for a number of organisations actively involved in British-Arab relations: The Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding, OffScreen Education Programme, Friends of Birzeit University and Banipal. It has a library, gallery of contemporary Arab art and well-equipped meeting room available to other organisations with similar objectives. The Centre also promotes cultural events in partnership with other charities/organisations working in the same field as well as organising its own programme highlighting aspects of contemporary Arab culture.

Monday, May 11, 2009

monica ali's 'in the kitchen'

Monica Ali turns up the heat in the multicultural kitchen
by Susannah Tarbush, Saudi Gazette May 11 2009

The British-Bangladeshi writer Monica Ali has had a lot to live up to since publication of her astonishingly successful debut novel “Brick Lane” in 2003. Ali received a reputed 200,000 pound deal from publisher Doubleday for the novel, and she was chosen by Granta magazine as one of the 20 Best Young British Novelists even before the book had appeared in print."

Brick Lane” made the shortlist of Britain’s most important literary prize, the Man Booker, and it has been translated into some 30 languages and made into an award-winning film. “Brick Lane” is set between Bangladesh and the East End of London and depicts the personal growth of its central character, Nazneen, against a backdrop of migration, racism and the growth of Islamic radicalism. Ali might have been expected to have continued to write within this fictional territory of East encountering West. But her second novel, “Alentejo Blue” (2006), was set among the local and British inhabitants of a small town in Portugal. In contrast to her first novel, it received generally lukewarm reviews.

With her third novel “In the Kitchen”, published recently in the UK by Doubleday, Ali returns to London and themes of multiculturalism and displacement. Her central character Gabriel Lightfoot, originally from the North of England, is the executive chef of the once-grand Imperial Hotel near Piccadilly. He compares his “brigade” of kitchen workers to a UN task force: “Every corner of the earth was represented here. Hispanic, Asian, African, Baltic and most places in between.”

Through the eyes and thoughts of Gabe, Ali explores not only London’s hidden world of poorly paid foreign workers and human trafficking, but also the changes taking place in northern England. South Asian immigrants settled in northern cities several decades ago to work in the textile mills. Now the textile industry has declined, and there is tension between the indigenous and immigrant communities.

Ali herself grew up in the northern English former textile mill town of Bolton. She was born in Dhaka in 1967, to a Bangladeshi father and English mother, but when she was three the family left for England. Ali studied philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) at Oxford University, and she now lives in London with her husband and two children.

In Ali’s new novel, 42-year-old Gabe has been running the Imperial’s kitchens for five months. But unknown to his employers, he is planning to set up his own restaurant with two backers, a Labour government minister and a businessman. On the personal front, Gabe is more than three years into a relationship with Charlie, a red-headed nightclub singer with green eyes. She is 38, her biological clock is ticking, and marriage and children seem to be the next step.

Gabe’s map for the future is shaken by the death of Yuri, a Ukrainian kitchen porter whose naked body is found lying in a pool of blood in the basement of the hotel, where it is discovered he had been secretly living. One of the girls working in the kitchen, Lena, has gone missing. Gabe’s world is further rocked by learning in a phone call from his sister that his elderly father, Ted, is dying of cancer. He visits his father and sister in his home town of Blantwistle, where the last textile mill is closing. Memories of his boyhood constantly intrude in the daytime, while at night he is assailed by nightmares of Yuri’s dead body.

Another element in Gabe’s escalating disquiet is his sister’s disclosure that their late mother had suffered from bipolar disorder and had often run off with other men, always returning to the long-suffering Ted. Gabe begins to fear for his own sanity.

When Lena turns up at the hotel basement while Gabe happens to be there, he impulsively invites her to stay at his flat as she has nowhere else to go. Lena had been staying in the basement with Yuri, taking refuge from a man who prostituted and beat her and took her passport after she was trafficked to London. Behind Charlie’s back, Gabe enters up an obsessive relationship with this strange, skinny Belarus girl.

Drawn into the milieu of migrants, Gabe starts for the first time to listen to the often harrowing stories of his kitchen staff. A Liberian, Benny, tells him, “Every refugee knows how to tell his story. For him, you understand, his story is a treasured possession.” [picture of Monica Ali, credit John Foley]

At the same time Gabe becomes aware of a seedy mystery surrounding the activities of the smarmy, and suspiciously wealthy, restaurant manager Gleeson and the grill chef Ivan. He also wants to uncover the reason for the violent antagonism between Ivan and his Moldovan colleague, Victor.

With his mental state deteriorating, Gabe embarks on an odyssey through the underworld of migrant workers. He goes at one point to the fields of East Anglia and works alongside vulnerable immigrants who are are mercilessly exploited by their gangmaster. Monica Ali’s novel numbers a demanding 430 pages. She has assembled the ingredients for an important epic for our times, and there is much to savor in her writing. She has sharp, descriptive powers and an eye for comedy that brings much warmth to her writing. “In the Kitchen” sheds light on the many facets of contemporary Britain. And yet, frustratingly, it is not as satisfying as one would have hoped.

Ali has been almost too ambitious in scope. Juggling such a large cast of characters and nationalities, while handling numerous themes and storylines, requires enormous skill. Ali’s narrative is at times over-diffused, and her writing tends to lapse into flatness.

On the last page of the book, Ali names 20 books and studies – on everything from cookery and the textile industry to sociology, human trafficking and psychology – that she consulted while researching her novel. In addition, Ali has spoken of visiting hotel kitchens and northern former mill towns to carry out research. In her writing it is as if she has been reluctant to let go of some of the fruits of her research, and overlong chunks of information sometimes impede the narrative flow. Certain longer passages of dialogue, which are designed to convey information, come across as unconvincing.

Despite its flaws, “In the Kitchen” is well worth reading. And just as “Brick Lane” was successfully adapted for the cinema, it is not difficult to imagine Ali’s third novel forming the basis of a film or TV drama.

Ali is currently helping publicize the novel through talks and other events in British towns and cities. At the forthcoming Guardian Hay Festival of Literature, Europe’s largest literary festival, she will be in dialogue with the journalist and author Sarfraz Manzoor. A sign of her popularity is that tickets for the event, to be held on May 30, have already sold out and a second one has been arranged for the following day.

simon callow's review of michael kustow's memoir

The Guardian's Saturday Review has a wonderful review by actor Simon Callow of the writer, and theatre and TV producer, Michael Kustow's memoir 'In Search of Jerusalem', published in the UK by Oberon Books. Callow writes: "Kustow is one of the great articulators of his generation, instantly eloquent, with an astonishingly well-stocked brain and an uncommon power of empathy and penetration, which enable him to respond to what he encounters with a capacious judiciousness."

Callow describes Kustow's passage through a dark period of self-examination which prefigured struggles with cancer and heart disease. Kustow was "'growing weary of all the things I knew ... restless with well-worn words and in general discontented with the familiar.'

"Some of this is precipitated by the death of his mother, the splendid Sadie, and his consequent immersion in the world of religious rituals and family dramas, not least his brothers' and sister's resentment of his very public stand against Israel's military activities. He wrestles with the whole question of his Jewishness - what does it mean to him, to what extent is Jewishness central to his identity, how properly Jewish is Israel's behaviour? Who is he, he wants to know, and the unsettling spectre of inauthenticity increasingly torments him. From childhood, he has struggled with the question: at home, at school, at Oxford, in the kibbutz. For a while he thinks perhaps he should be French. He goes to Lyons and enlists in Roger Planchon's Théâtre Nationale Populaire, but fails to get into the Three Musketeers company for the part of the only Englishman in the show.

"So when, after Sadie's death, his friend and father figure Peter Brook suggests to him that he go to India, it is partly in the hope of another self-reinvention, but also out of the nagging conviction that something is missing in his life..."

Kustow contributed a chapter to the book 'A Time to Speak Out' prepared by Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) and published by Verso late last year. In that essay he praised the vigorous “alternative” tradition in which the best in Jewish culture has been produced by “Bad Boys and Bad Girls” (such as Harold Pinter, Hannah Arendt, Arthur Miller and Rosa Luxemburg) and not by unthinking solidarity with “the community”. Referring to the IJV statement of principles, Kustow said: “I do my best to keep company with the agitators and affronters, which is another reason why I signed this statement.”

israel's relentless creation of 'facts on the ground'

A report from Jerusalem by Rory McCarthy, posted on the Guardian website, describes how Israel is 'using tourist sites to assert control over East Jerusalem'. "Peace groups say government's secret plans with settler groups could prevent two-state solution":

Israel is quietly extending its control over East Jerusalem in alliance with rightwing Jewish settler groups, by developing parks and tourist sites that would bring a "drastic change of the status quo in the city", according to two Israeli groups. Ir Amin, a group working for a shared Jerusalem, said the purpose of the "confidential" plan was to link up several areas of East Jerusalem surrounding the Old City with the goal of asserting Israeli control and strengthening its claim to Jerusalem as its capital city.
The accounts come ahead of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI, who arrives in Jerusalem tomorrow for a week-long pilgrimage, during which he is likely to hear detailed concerns from Palestinians over their future in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Under an eight-year plan, worth 75m shekels a year (£12m), a series of nine national parks, trails and tourist sites based on apparent Jewish historical spots would be established, most under the control of settler groups working together with the Israeli government. The sites would also create a link to Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The parks would be a "biblical playground" built on public and private land and would be fenced in, the group said...

Peace Now released similar information about the plan, based on a government budget document, saying it feared the proposal was "possibly preventing the ability to reach a two-state solution". ..

The UK-based organisation Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine is closely monitoring Israeli construction (and destruction)-related activities in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and has a continually updated roster of key media reports on the issue.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

of twins and poetry

There's a photo feature on identical twins in the Guardian, with five pairs. Various sets of twins have played a strangely pivotal role in my life at different times, starting from secondary school days and persisting until today. Even my one godchild is a (non-identical) twin, I have always been fascinated by twins; perhaps it comes from having twin half-uncles, Edward and Andrew (above with their half-brother John).

They are poets to boot: here are two poems written for my mother Pen's poetry group in Glastonbury many years ago. Handwriting and illustration by her.

campaigns against visa restrictions on artists

The English PEN World Atlas Blog, reporting the Kiarostami visa affair (see posting below, 6 May), reminds its readers that leading arts figures in Britain earlier this year launched a petition calling on the government to reverse stringent visa controls which are preventing major foreign musicians, artists and actors from visiting Britain. The petition is supported by the Manifesto Club, and can be signed on Manifesto's website. It has so far garnered 5456 signatures including those of actors, festival organisers, academics, visual artists, theatre directors, arts administrators, dancers and musicians from the UK and abroad.

The international organisation Freemuse, which campaigns for the freedom of musical expression, has long campaigned against the impact on musicians of the strict tightening of visa regimes since 9/11. At Womex last October Freemuse issued a White Paper entitled 'Visas: the discordant note'. The paper can be downloaded via the Freemuse website. The Freemuse campaign continues, and Freemuse notes related initiatives in the US, UK and Europe.

Friday, May 08, 2009

jc feature on israeli air force preparations for iran attack

There's a depressing article dated 7 May in the Jewish Chronicle (under "lifestyle" features) on "how Israel's air force is preparing for the ultimate mission", by a gung-ho Anshel Pfeffer who excitedly describes his experience in an F-16 simulator: "from 8,000 feet, the houses of Gaza City seem peaceful, wreathed in low, wispy clouds, coming in from the sparkling blue Mediterranean. I bank right and begin spiralling downwards, aiming for the Hamas headquarters in the centre of town, where I will level out at 2,000 ft for my bombing run."

He ends his feature: "In the background to all this is what the air force commanders euphemistically call 'the special mission', or 'operations in the outer envelope'. No Israeli combat pilot will ever allow himself to be quoted on the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear installations. But almost everything they do is focused on preparing themselves for that day. When they talk about flying against threats, it is the Iranian advanced missile systems they are referring to. And when Erez talks of training sessions when “we just fly over Israel around and around to get used to being many hours in the cockpit”, it is the 2000-mile round trip to the Natanz reactor pilots are preparing for.

"Over the past decade, Israel has purchased a squadron of 25 specially modified F-15Is and four squadrons of 102 F-16Is. All these planes have been fitted with special fuel tanks to carry out long-range strategic precision attacks. No-one has any illusion as to their purpose."

The website has a poll on "are the anti-Zionists really anti-Semites?" Currently 48 per cent agree, 52 per cent disagree, but the number of votes is only 107.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

ua fanthorpe poem 'may 8th: how to recognise it'

Thanks to 'pass on a poem' for choosing this seasonal poem by the poet UA Fanthorpe, who died on 28 April, as its poem of the week.


The tulips have finished their showy conversation.
Night's officers came briefly to report,
And took their heads off.

The limes have a look of someone
Who has been silent for a very long time,
And is about to say a very good thing.

Roses grow taller, leafier,
Duller. They have star parts.
Like great actors, they hang about humbly in the wings.

On the lawn, daisies sustain their candid
Childish shout. Hippy dandelions are stoned
Out of their golden minds. And always

The rub-a-dub-dub recapitulation
Of grass blades growing. The plum tree is resting
Between blossom and fruit. Like a poker-player,

She doesn't show her hand. Daffodils
Are a matter of graceless brown leaves and rubber bands.
Wallflowers have turned bony.

This is not the shining childhood of spring,
But its homely adolescence, angular, hypothetical.
How one regrets the blue fingertips staggering
Up from the still dank earth.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

visa row leads kiarostami to withdraw from london opera directorship

The acclaimed Iranian film director and visual artist Abbas Kiarostami, whose films have won multiple international awards, has pulled out of directing the English National Opera's (ENO) forthcoming production of Mozart's opera 'Cosi fan tutte' in protest at the way he was treated while trying to apply for a British visa the Daily Telegraph reports. The 68-year-old director of such films as 'Ten', 'Where is the Friend's Home' and 'Taste of Cherry', blamed the "unduly time-consuming and complicated" visa application process, which requires all applicants to be fingerprinted. Kiarostami's 'Cosi fan tutte ' was premiered at the Aix festival in France last July, and the ENO director John Berry says that Kiaorstami and his designer and the ENO team have been meeting in Paris over the past six months to further develop the production. Berry said the company is "hugely disappointed" at Kiarostami's withdrawal.

It is not as if Kiarastomi is in any way an unknown quantity to the British authorities. In spring 2005 a major six-week retrospective of his work was held in London. The V&A museum hosted art works, photographs, films and a conference; the programme included an interview of Kiarostami by the celebrated British film director Mike Leigh. At the same time the National Film Theatre screened a season of his films.

Kiarostami has good reason to be sensitive over the issue of visas in the West; in 2002 the US humiliatingly refused him a visa to attend the New York Film Festival and lecture at Harvard and Ohio State universities.
Update: on 7 May the Independent carried further news on the Kiarostami visa issue, and linked it to a wider problem of difficulties faced in getting visas for Britain. "While Mr Kiarostami's case has proved the most high profile, he is just the tip of an iceberg of artists, academics and business people who feel they have been effectively snubbed by British embassies abroad. Many feel frustrated by the new visas which require all entrants to provide fingerprints and travel for interviews with British embassy staff. The Independent has received countless letters from British residents complaining that legitimate attempts to bring colleagues or friends into the UK have been greeted by a tortuous process and often what appears to have been an arbitrary refusal with no redress."

News of Kiarostami's withdrawal from the ENO festival comes during a storm over the publication by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith yesterday of a list of 16 'promoters of hate' banned from entering Britain since October.
Smith said the "name and shame" list was being published because "I think it's important that people understand the sorts of values and sorts of standards that we have here, the fact that it's a privilege to come and the sort of things that mean you won't be welcome in this country." But critics attacked the publication of the list as an assault on free speech. One of the most high profile personalities denied entry to Britain, far-right Islamophobic Dutch MP Geert Wilders, is not even on the list. He was turned back at Heathrow in February after trying to enter Britain for the screening of his film 'Fitna' at the House of Lords.
The Home Office said yesterday he had not been included on the list because " he is a European national and was excluded under different grounds. Geert Wilders was refused admission to the UK on 12th February 2009 on public policy and public security grounds. The decision to refuse admission was taken under the Immigration (European Economic Area) Regulations 2006 as Mr Wilders is an EEA national. He has not been excluded from the UK. Any future proposal by Mr Wilders to visit the UK would be considered on its merits, taking all relevant factors into account. However ... from today we are now able to ban European nationals and their family members if they constitute a threat to public policy or public security."

The American "shock jock" Michael Savage says he is to sue Jacqui Smith for putting his name on the list.
Savage said: "For this lunatic Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary of England, to link me up with skinheads who are killing people in Russia, to put me in league with mass murderers who kill Jews on buses, is defamation.'I thought this was a joke or a mistake. How could they put Michael Savage in the same league with mass murderers when I have never avowed violence? As a result of this, I am going to sue." He added: "I've been on the air 15 years. My views may be inflammatory, but they're not violent in any way.’" Savage's website Home of the Savage Nation is full of denunciations of Smith. Reuters reports: "Savage, who says he has between 8 and 10 million listeners across the United States, urged them to support him by cancelling any travel plans to Britain and by boycotting British-made goods. 'I don't know what they make there any more, but whatever they make, I suggest you don't buy it,' he said."

In a further manifestation of the controlling instincts of New Labour, the Home Office has rolled out plans for chemists, postmasters and post offices to take fingerprints as part of the controversial scheme to introduce ID cards. And Greater Manchester has been chosen as the launch pad for the ID scheme. One of the main concerns over the scheme is that the government has in the past two years frequently been embarrassed by the loss or leaking of supposedly confidential personal details held in various government data bases.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

anissa helou's blog for middle eastern foodies

The Lebanese-Syrian cookery writer (the covers of two of her impressively varied range of cook books are shown here), teacher and culinary tour organiser Anissa Helou has launched Anissa's blog which looks set to be a witty, informative picture-rich must-read for anyone interested in Middle Eastern food. The latest posting features a camel-meat butchery and kebab joint in Damascus complete with pictures of the camel's head swinging from a hook while Anissa gets up close and personal. Anissa writes: "Much later I learned from Ahmed, my wonderful driver in Aleppo, that all good Muslims must eat camel meat at least once a year. Why? Because camels, unlike most animals, are faithful. They don’t allow their camel wives to be seduced by other camels! Didn’t double check on that but I am prepared to believe him." The butcher minced the camel meat rather than, as Anissa expected, threading chunks on skewers. He said this was because kebab in Syria means the meat, however the kebabs are cooked, is minced and added that camel meat is too tough to grill in pieces. Having sampled roast camel one Christmas day in Saudi Arabia at a feast hosted by Saudis in the desert - complete with food tents and carpets on the sand - I can concur that it is considerably chewier than lamb. Anissa's verdict on her camel kebabs: not that much different from lamb. A little drier perhaps, and gamier.

Speaking of camel meat, the Guardian website has a video report on Mike Richardson who "used to serve eggs benedict to celebs at the Wolseley in London. Now, he tells Andy Pietrasik, he's happy flipping camel burgers in his Fes cafe." The video bears the title 'One hump or two?'

Monday, May 04, 2009

indo-arab cultural relations

Book festival turns the spotlight on Indo-Arab cultural relations
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette May 4 2009

Cultural relations between India and the Arab world, which stretch back several millennia, are entering a dynamic new phase thanks partly to an intensive wave of translations of Arabic and Indian books. This was one of the main messages emanating from a seminar on Indo-Arab Cultural Relations held at the recently-held London Book Fair (LBF).

The seminar was organized by the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, whose general secretary, Rashed Saleh Al-Oraimi, also attended the Fair. The Award was launched in 2006 by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH), and it had one of the highest-profile Arab presences at the LBF via its exhibition stand and the seminar.

Ali Rashed Al-Noaimi - a member of the Award’s advisory council and an academic at United Arab Emirates (UAE) University - noted that the subject of the seminar was of particular relevance given that the ‘Market Focus’ of this year’s LBF was India while last year it was the Arab World.>

“We believe there is a strong relation between the Arab world and India back in history, and that relation is built on common interest, especially on the cultural side,” said Al-Noaimi in the seminar’s introductory remarks. He spoke of “a common culture of which both civilizations are proud, and which can be a model to the rest of the world of how different cultures and different civilizations can build a relation based on collaboration and not confrontation.”

The Bahraini scholar and journalist Abdulla Elmadani also attended the seminar and noted in his seminar paper that, in the opinion of some archeologists, Indo-Gulf interactions can be traced to the third millennium BC. The evidence for these early links include the artifacts of embellished pottery and sea shells recovered from the Harappa in North India and those of the Dilmun civilization of Bahrain and the Magan civilization of Oman.

Elmadani has conducted many academic studies on Indian and Asian issues. The board of the Bahrain India Society, launched in December 2008, has granted him honorary membership in recognition of his valuable contribution to the development of greater understanding between the people of the Gulf and of India. In his paper he gave a historical overview of Indian-Gulf cultural interactions and their impact on languages in both areas.

One of the three ancient trade routes between India and Europe passed through the Strait of Hormuz and up the Gulf on to Mesopotamia and Aleppo. “With the advent of Islam and its expansion beyond Arabia, Indo-Gulf contacts deepened, and with the inclusion of parts of India into the Arabic/Islamic Empire, the relationship branched out into fields other than commerce,” notes Elmadani. “Many scholars identify the medieval period as the golden age of Indo-Arab relations, since it witnessed enormous mutually beneficial exchanges in different fields.”

According to him, in the days of British dominance over the Indian sub-continent and the Gulf, the latter became politically, economically and administratively similar to India, “particularly as the British Indian government decided its fate and all of its affairs from Mumbai.”

“These long, intimate, rewarding, and multi-form historical relations between the two nations and peoples must constitute the basis on which present and future cooperation is planned and built,” Elmadani concluded. He argued that these relations should be used today “in shaping and reinforcing certain, if not all, foreign policy decisions made by either side towards the other as their shared legacies do not include such irritant factors as territorial disputes, ethnic hostilities, or political rivalries.”

Another speaker at the seminar was former Indian diplomat and professor Zikrur Rahman, who was at one time posted to India’s consulate in Jeddah. During a 35-year diplomatic career he held various postings in the Arab world in countries including Syria and Lebanon, and his last appointment was as the Ramallah-based ambassador of India to Palestine.

Rahman is now director of the India Arab Cultural Center at the Jamia Millia Islamia (National Islamic University) in New Delhi, and a professor there. The center is still young; its foundation stone was laid by the then Saudi ambassador to India, Saleh Mohammed Al-Ghamdi in February 2007. However, it has already shown a high level of activity in organizing Arab-related cultural events and in fostering translation projects.
Professor Rahman observed that during the caliphate of Omar, Indian traders were mentioned in Arabic literature. The Umayyad caliph Hisham Bin Abdel Malik initiated the translation of a number of works from Sanskrit to Arabic, which included a major work on astronomy and mathematics - “Brahma Siddhanta” - which was translated under the title “Sindhind”.

In the Abbasid period the translation of books from Indian languages into Arabic and vice versa flourished. Professor Rahman gave numerous examples of Indian epics, stories and works on science and art that were translated to Arabic at this time.

After the Abbasid period, literary interactions declined. But the cultural renaissance known as An-Nahda in Egypt in the late 19th and early 20th century led to a renewed encouragement of translation of Arabic works into Indian languages and of Indian books into Arabic. Works by personalities such as Rabindranath Tagore and Allama Muhammad Iqbal were translated into Arabic by scholars from Egypt, Syria and the Gulf. “This continued until, say, the 1950s. After the 1950s, suddenly the interaction stopped,” remarked professor Rahman.

Professor Rahman added that the past 50 years has seen an “unfortunate” gap in literary interactions which the India Arab Cultural Center is now trying to help fill. “There are so many Arab writers whose writings are not available in Indian languages,” he said. “We need translations in Hindi and in Urdu which can go to millions and millions of people.”

His center has been collaborating with Kalima, the major project for translation into Arabic which, like the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, is an initiative of the ADACH. “We identified a large number of books by modern Indian writers to be translated into Arabic,” he indicated. The books include “The Argumentative Indian” by the Nobel prize winning Indian economist Amartya Sen; “The Shade of Swords: Jiihad and the Conflict between Islam and Christianity” by M. J. Akbar; “Moderate or Militant: Images of India’s Muslims” by Mushirul Hasan; “Being Indian” by Parvan K. Varma, and “Nehru: The Invention of India” by Shashi Tharoor.

Qalam, another ADACH project, is helping translate Arabic works into Hindi and Urdu. “We selected six books of Arab women writers, and these are now being translated,” added Rahman.

Professor Rahman also sees a need to focus on Arabic manuscripts. “You will be surprised to know that before I came here I went to a library in India where there were 30,000 Arabic manuscripts which are totally unpublished and unedited,” he remarked. “According to a rough estimate there are three million Arabic manuscripts in Indian libraries.”