Monday, December 29, 2008


The flu has claimed two weeks of my life. I think I've tended to use the word 'flu' very loosely. I now understand it as an illness in its own right that warrants the grandiloquent four syllabled in-flu-en-za. I have new respect and understanding and loathing for this disease, which killed more people in 1918 than the First World War.

Today was my first excursion into the World, and to cheer myself up I decided to go to the unfailingly uplifting Southbank. I like Southbank a lot. There's something very petulant about the architecture of that stretch of public buildings on the, well, south bank of the river, just north of Waterloo station. I can just picture a bunch of gung-ho postwar labour councillors saying let's be really gutsy and annoying and pour vast amounts of concrete on the riverbank and build really hulking monstrosities in which Everything can be Art. The Hayward Gallery even has a restaurant called Concrete, which features a pink neon light-lined concrete mixer at its entrance. And the semi-subterranean skateboarding arena permanently covered in graffiti seems so purpose-built, so planned, as to suggest a meeting somewhere in pre-Thatcherite Britain featuring earnest councillors allocating money for 'youth culture'.

Today, I went to see the Andy Warhol exhibition Other Voices, Other Rooms, named after a novel written by Truman Capote, who was one of his favourite authors. Predictably, it was weird and brilliant and very colourful. The truth is that I went because I wanted to BUY prints for two empty frames in my bathroom. I feel rather less guilty about the frankly consumerist impulse because I think Warhol would have rather liked this. I wouldn't think this about someone like, say, Rothko, who was so particular about how he was displayed that he is probably turning in his grave on account of the ways in which his images have been manipulated and replicated on all sorts of surfaces and objects. But Warhol is a brand that wants to be everywhere, on everything. I was looking for the prints of Marilyn Monroe and Mao and Jackie Kennedy and flowers, but instead I settled for postcards of Warhol himself. This too he would have liked, because he was obsessed with himself and his image. The publicity material said that Warhol wanted to demystify art so that it looked like anyone could have done it. I think that's a very curious motivation. I can see that there is something wonderful in creating art out of the everyday, the quotidian, the banal. But Warhol was so obsessed with publicity and fame that the last thing he would have wanted was for everyone to be able to do what he did. Actually, his films are so avant garde, so underground, so weird, that there is little danger of this ever happening.

The great thing about Southbank is that you're always spoiled for choice. After Warhol, I just happened to walk by the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the right time to catch the fabulous Puppini Sisters live. If you ever go to the QEH and find that tickets have sold out, stand in the ticket returns queue. You have a very good chance of getting something because 'sold out' almost never means that. The show had the lamest cover act ever. A man stood on the stage playing CDs for an eternity. He drank water from a plastic bottle, sang along occasionally and generally did a terrible job of assuring people that everything was ok. However, the wait was well worth it. The Puppini Sisters do close three-part harmony and excel at making everything, including Crazy in Love, sound like interwar Berlin cabaret. Here's the remix. They have a great band (bass guitar, drummer, double bass) and very good stage chemistry, humour, cheek! The encore was Walk Like an Egyptian.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

a moment of liberation through the fog of flu. i have the opening, the first page. finally, after all these years. the secret of good writing is to say what you *really* think.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Reading Susan Sontag's 'On Regarding the Pain of Others' today, I was reminded of that famous line: to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude. Arundhati Roy criticises the framing of the Mumbai terror attacks as India's 9/11 and insists on including in the picture everything that we love to forget: Hindu terrorism, Indian nationals involved in terror attacks, innocent people accused of terrorism, the Indian army training terrorist proxies in neighbouring states, and those three elephants in the room - Kashmir, Gujarat and Babri Masjid.

November isn't September, 2008 isn't 2001, Pakistan isn't Afghanistan and India isn't America. So perhaps we should reclaim our tragedy and pick through the debris with our own brains and our own broken hearts so that we can arrive at our own conclusions.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

another good israeli film, plus more

Hiam Abbass (The Visitor) is in danger of being typecast. In Etz Limon (The Lemon Tree), she plays another stoic Arab woman. But perhaps it is a sign of our times that all the available roles these days for Arab women of a certain age demand stoicism. At any rate, it is a role she plays exceedingly well, this time as a middle-aged Palestinian widow - Salma Zidane - who has the dubious privilege of being neighbour to the Israeli Defence Minister, a smarmy hypocritical character (who, as things stand, could belong to any of the major three parties). Israel's (yes, that's his name) secret service posse has got it into their heads that Salma's lemon grove, which borders his property, poses a threat to the DM as it could serve as cover for anyone wanting to assassinate him. They decide that the grove needs to be cut down. Salma isn't going to take this lying down. She has inherited the grove from her father and has lovingly tended it over the years, with the help of an old family retainer. With her husband dead and her children away or inattentive, it's all she has. The stage is set for a David and Goliath style confrontation between Salma and Israel, in which she takes him to court - all the way, in fact, to Israel's Supreme court - aided by her feisty, rakish lawyer Ziad.

The metaphors and symbols in the film are hard to miss - a boundary dispute, arguments over security, encroachment, and eventually a monstrous wall that is an ugly blot on everyone's landscape and leaves no one feeling safe. Whatever prior political views you come to this film with, you're likely to sympathise with the stoic (there really is no other word), long-suffering Salma. But what makes Etz Limon work is its interest in complicating simplistic landscapes of good and evil. Salma faces a great deal of resistance from her own community - from people who think there are bigger problems than a lemon grove, and more ominously from community elders who seek to snuff out any signs of romance between herself and Ziad. And Israel's wife, wracked with guilt over their inability to be good neighbours to a seemingly harmless Palestinian woman, thinks that sometimes Israel knows no limits. The clever device of giving her husband the same name as the country, means that it's never very clear to us, the audience, whether her frustrations are personal or political or both. I found myself urging her on, wanting her to push her rebellion further and I wondered at the director's unwillingness to make her do more than she does. But that is, I suspect, what makes the film real. For more on director Eran Riklis and his collaboration with Palestinian co-writer Suha Arraf, and of course Israeli-Arab (or should I be saying Palestinian Israeli?) Hiam Abbass, see here.

Jonathan Freedland offers a depressing overview of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in today's Guardian. Forget about the two state-solution he says, we are beginning to see four states. But when the going gets tough, sometimes it's best to raise the negotiation stakes. If Israelis are becoming increasingly resigned to the status quo and a weak and disunited Palestine can offer nothing that Israel wants, perhaps the only meaningful carrot that can induce Israel to make the necessary hard concessions is the promise of a comprehensive solution to conflict in the region - what David Milliband has been calling a 23-state solution.

In a way, this is similar to what the ICG has been urging the US to do in Iraq. The only way to get Iran and Syria to cooperate in Iraq, it has been saying, is to address the other, non-Iraq related issues that these countries are concerned about, in a manner that goes some way towards recognising their vital interests (something that the US will find difficult and unpalatable). It is a counter-intuitive approach to breaking negotiating deadlock: increase the numbers of actors involved, increase the issues, complicate the agenda - all with a view to striking bargains on a host of other, unrelated issues, that will induce the parties to make the concessions you want on the issues you care about the most.

And since I have gone from Israel to Iraq, I cannot resist linking to Patrick Cockburn's reading of the status of forces agreement in Iraq as a case of unconditional US surrender. I am not so sanguine. The US does non-territorial empire better than anyone else. Sami Ramadani writes that the now (in)famous Iraqi shoe-thrower is a secular, socialist Guevarista who has become a new, non-sectarian symbol of the Iraqi resistance. A text message this morning informed me that while some Iraqis think that he is a hero and should be freed, most think he deserves his jail sentence because he missed.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

this is N16/E8: pictures, words, sound, light

seeing as the united nations is in recess, there has been time for other things. On friday, my first experience of ska, which sounds like caribbean jazz. at barden's boudoir, which continues to surprise and delight with its utterly random and unexpected line-up of little known and unheralded acts. friday segued into some kind of balkan pop/rock, music that could truly have been from anywhere between bulgaria and baghdad and therefore utterly fitting in dalston, seeing as those far-flung locations were united by the turks.

on saturday, tombstone tales and boothill ballads at the funky arcola theatre. best described as 'graveyard cabaret', this turned out to be a terrifically entertaining evening of stories, music, song, dance and interactive brawling that resurrects the tragic, romantic, comic and downright bizarre inhabitants of the cemetery of the 19th century silver mining town of tombstone, arizona. expect to be seduced, executed and made to sing along by this incredibly talented cast of actors. the arcola is a truly yummy asset to this neighbourhood. its exposed brick walls remind me a bit of the almeida in islington, but the almeida has begun to feel big and swish and established in a way that the arcola is decidedly not. here too there is a turkish connection via its founder, mehmet ergen, who started it up in an abandoned shirt factory on the unprepossessing arcola street (just around the corner from golden scissors).

and several days ago, the very much more depressing but nonetheless brilliant waltz with bashir (now no longer) showing at the rio. as an animated film set in the middle east, comparisons with persepolis are inevitable, but the animation in waltz seems to do a great deal more, functioning as a sort of metaphor for the games that memory plays with us, the haziness, unreliability and sometimes wilful amnesia that tends to surround traumatic events such as those that make up the 1982 war between israel and lebanon. perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of the movie is its soundtrack, which often depicts horrific violence to the strains of classical music or army songs with lyrics such as 'today i bombed beirut' sung in the kind of banal, cheerful mode that seems more appropriate to campfires or schoolyards. one connection with persepolis is this role of music, particularly western rock music/metal, serving as a kind of anaesthetic or cocoon in which characters wrap themselves, as if to insulate themselves from the horrors in which they are (sometimes) forced participants. somewhere along the way, the animation morphs into real footage of the events at shabra and shatila. all of the characters in the film, israelis who have served in the IDF, refer to these events as 'the massacres'. somehow, this film feels like a more important and forthright document than the kahan commission report, which held the then israeli defence minister, ariel sharon, personally responsible for permitting the lebanese christian phalangists to murder hundreds, possibly thousands, of palestinian refugees.

Monday, December 01, 2008

I thought it would be a good idea for Indian readers of this blog to get a sense of a typical day in Pakistan, so here goes: 28 dead in sectarian violence in Karachi, security forces battle militants in Bajaur (9 dead), a gunbattle in Bannu between security forces and theTaliban leaves 11 dead, security forces had to intervene in a clash involving rockets and automatic weapons between two groups of the Marri tribe in Kohlu (3 dead), and those are just from the top stories in the Dawn. On a good day.

Clearly this is a government battling multiple forces on multiple fronts that can barely hold itself together. Launching or threatening to launch attacks on Pakistani soil at this time is going to divert the government's attention from the battle in Waziristan against the remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Any attempt to weaken the Pakistani government at this time risks creating a massive black hole of a failed state from the border with India all the way to Iran. Sounds like a jihadi wet dream.

Fortunately, saner voices seem to be prevailing in South Block. The key sentence is:

India’s response, [sources] said, would distinguish between the government of Pakistan, whose President Asif Ali Zardari came on Indian television last night and promised to co-operate, and organisations or agencies alleged to be involved in a terror network.

But here's a snapshot of the internal debate within the Congress (is it my imagination or is only The Telegraph reporting the really important stuff?):

The CWC hawks suggested snapping of diplomatic ties with Pakistan, ending trade, and even calling off the bus service. Some wondered aloud about a military option, provoking an angry response from Pranab.

The foreign minister reminded the gathering about some “basics”, such as that India and Pakistan were nuclear nations and any “adventurism” would draw global attention. The meeting left it to Manmohan to decide on all diplomatic and military options.

CWC members said the party needed to be aggressive since every leader realised how the Congress was losing face and credibility.

Thumbs up to Pranab; thumbs down to the hawks (by all accounts this includes Rahul Gandhi) who clearly simply want to put on an aggressive show for the 'something must be done' brigade, regardless of the consequences for interstate relations and the global struggle against jihadi militancy (my euphemisms for GWOT are becoming increasingly unsatisfactory).

Oh and for every Simi, there's a Sharmila Tagore (watch the whole thing). This whole 'Enough is Enough' campaign is all very well, but the anger needs to be channeled into something productive. Not war-mongering and communal tension.

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