Theresa May has the unenviable task of trying to make irreconcilables add up when it comes to implementing the Conservatives’ rash promise to reduce net immigration to the UK to “tens of thousands”. But her latest idea of making international students leave the country after they graduate is wrong on do many levels. International students make a huge contribution to the UK economy, both with their fees and living costs, and those who then use their enhanced skills to stay on and work give added value. As far as I can see, May’s plan to force them to leave and then apply for a new visa back home is yet another short-sighted Tory attempt to appeal to UKIP voters. The problem is that it risks killing the goose that lays the golden egg. Britain has become a less welcoming place to foreign talent, including students, with the Conservatives in power, despite the strong efforts by LibDems such as Vince Cable to state the opposite case. Education is a global market and if international students decide the UK is now a less attractive option, they will go elsewhere and we in Britain will be all the poorer for it.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 21st December, 2014
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 19th December, 2014
French Guiana was long notorious as a penal colony, among whose renowned detainees were Dreyfus and Papillon. Thousands of less famous prisoners died in the territory’s camps, both on the mainland and on Devil’s Island. But in recent times, La Guyane (to give it it’s French name) has been better known as the launching pad for the European space programme. Yesterday afternoon, when I looked up from the book I was reading by the side of the sea in the capital, Cayenne, I saw a rocket shoot up into the sky from the base at Kourou. Cayenne itself is steamingly charming, compact and filled with attractive wooden houses painted in pastel shades. More than half of the small but youthful population are immigrants, from Brazil, Surinam, Haiti and China, among others. There’s still a French military presence — not least to try to curb illegal gold prospecting — but the overall atmosphere is pretty sleepy even in Cayenne. There are some hotels and restaurants, but unlike the nearby Caribbean Islands, French Guiana has not been highly developed for tourism, wherein lies much of its appeal. And although it is hot and humid, a strong sea breeze along the coast means that there are plenty of spots to sit and read or write or just think, far from the madding crowd.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 17th December, 2014
Like many people I was caught unawares by the announcement today that the United States and Cuba are planning to normalise relations after half a century of the grotesque US trade and travel embargo. Apparently Pope Francis has been key to this rapprochement and several series of secret bilateral talks have been held, courtesy of the Vatican. These developments, providing they lead to fruition, should stimulate a rise in the standard of living of many Cubans, as well as giving a boost to tourism and trade. I hope this doesn’t lead to Cuba becoming just like Southern Florida; there is so much of value in Cuban society and culture, even if the Communist system has curtailed the development of free enterprise and civil liberties. I went to Cuba seven times in the 1990s, culminating in making a radio documentary for the BBC World Srrvice, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. So I saw it at the very worst period when subsidised oil from the former Soviet Union dried up and people were on a subsistence diet through to the blossoming of tourism from Europe and Canada. Most of the friends I met on the island were desperate to leave, but I hope that the US-Cuba diplomatic thaw will lead to liberalisation in Cuba and the prospect of a future in which young Cubans can see themselves wanting to stay.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 16th December, 2014
When the Pakistani teenager Malala Housafzai became the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate recently her story resonated around the world as a testimony of hope and determination by a very brave girl wise beyond her years. Of course, not everyone is happy with the renown that has been granted her since being shot by a supporter of Pakistan’s Taliban for daring to speak out in favour of education for both girls and boys worldwide. Now based in Birmingham, England, where she had major reconstructive surgery, Malala received thousands of letters and cards after her recovery, from the powerful and famous to ordinary men, women, girls and boys. But the most striking was a letter from a Taliban commander telling her that if she returned to Pakistan, stopped her campaigning, wore a burka and entered a madrasah (Koranic school), he would forgive her! This gem comes right near the end of her compelling autobiography, I Am Malala, (Phoenix, £7.99), written in conjunction with foreign correspondent Christina Lamb. Lamb is to be congratulated for really letting Malala’s authentic voice come through, whether it is piously seeking God’s help in her mission, or fighting with one of her younger brothers, or indulging her girly passion for pink. The attack on Malala, when she was shot in a school bus, was the culmination of a period of increasing conflict with the forces of darkness that took over the Swat valley where she grew up, as well as the indifference and sometimes obstruction of government officials and high military or intelligence officers, some of who were clearly in cahoots with the Taliban. The first part of the book is an excellent first-hand account of what it was like to live in the shadow of fear of the Taliban and as such is an invaluable modern historic resource. But the book is also a song of love for Malala’s father, who from the day of her birth gave her all the devotion and nurturing that many Pashtun fathers would reserve only for sons. There are passages in the book that drive one to tears of despair at the inhuman cruelty of some religious fanatics who justify the most heinous crimes by their warped interpretation of the Koran and a traditional culture of male supremacy. But above all, the book is a triumphant declaration of faith that good and justice can be victorious if people are brave enough to stand up for themselves and for the rights of others, including children.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 14th December, 2014
Earlier this week, I was asked by the Turkish newspaper Daily Zaman for a comment on credible rumours that a host of media professionals in Turkey were about to be arrested. Alas, this prediction has proved to be true and several high-profile journalists and broadcasters have been taken into custody, notably people connected with media linked to the Gulen Movement. This is a disturbing development and gives Turkey the dubious distinction of once more being the country with the most journalists in jail. It is sad (to say the least) that President Erdoğan and the AKP government think it is worthwhile joining the company of Egypt and other repressive regimes in trying to stifle dissent. They just don’t seem to understand that a free media is part and parcel of a healthy democracy and that free expression is a fundamental human right — even if they have signed up to the UN Declaration of Human Rights. So standing up for press freedom is standing up for our own freedom as human beings. Accordingly, just as I have been campaigning for the release of Peter Greste and other Al Jazeera journalists imprisoned on trumped-up charges in Egypt so I shall campaign for the release of those media figures being held in Turkey. I have long considered myself a friend of Turkey and it saddens me beyond words that it is moving backwards on press freedom and in several other ways.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 12th December, 2014
Since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the country has tended to look westwards to Europe. That was certainly the intention of Kemal Ataturk, who believed that Ottoman traditions and Islamic religiosity were impediments to progress. So it was no surprising that Turkey applied to join the European Union; in principle there should not have been any problem, when one considers how far into South Eastern Abd Eastern Europe the Ottomans stretched. Besides, Turkey was an early and valued member of NATO. But the passage to EU membership has not been as smooth. Some current EU member states were worried about Turkey’s relative poverty and large population. The former has been changing fast; the latter continues to increase. But then it became clear that some EU states were reluctant in principle, Germany largely for reasons of labour migration, Austria, more controversially, because Vienna sees the EU as an essentially Christian club. But Turkey continued to adjust its nature to meet EU demands, not just on economic and trade matters but also relating to multi-party democracy, abolition of the death penalty, respect for human rights, etc. So far, so good. But over the past decade, Turks have understandably got fed up of being on the EU’s waiting room and wonder whether it’s all worthwhile. Technically, the government in Ankara still thinks so. But at the same time, under Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly paternalistic rule, Turkey has started to drift away from a European destiny, apparently feeling more comfortable in a Middle Eastern context. Worryingly, the government has been cracking down on expressions of political dissent and press freedom — both essential elements of the European matrix. As a regular visitor to Turkey, I am aware how the atmosphere is changing, and not necessarily for the better. President Erdoğan is increasingly establishing himself as the moral arbiter of the country, and when I was in Istanbul earlier this week I met several people who are nervous about expressing their views. I cannot escape the impression that Turkey is drifting away not just from the EU, but also from European, liberal and secular values. I find that very sad, but only Turks can realistically do anything about it.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 11th December, 2014
Over the last three decades, much of the world, from Brazil to Indonesia, has moved from dictatorship to democracy, but despite the so-called Arab Spring that began with Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia in December 2010, most of the Arab world has remained immune. Several states, such as Syria and Bahrain, are even worse than they were when it comes to the situation of civil society and human rights. Especially tragic is the most populous Arab state of all, Egypt, which was so full of hope during the 2011 Revolution, but where things have returned to their previous brutal state following the coupl against Mohammed Morsi in July last year. As the United States and several other western countries view Egypt as a crucial ally they have been restrained in their criticism of some of the gross outrages that have taken place in Egypt over the past 18 months, so it has been left to NGOs and some of the international media — notably Al Jazeera — to make their concerns known. Prominent among the former has been the International Coalition for Freedoms and Rights (ICFR), which has sent everal missions comprised largely of lawyers to Cairo during 2014. Egypt has similarly been the Central focus of ICFR’s first conference this week in Istanbul, which I have been attending and which will lead to the creation of a lawyers’ task force to monitor situations and to disseminate information, as well as a media group. While so much of the West is concentrating on the War on Terror it probably needs reminding about the values it is meant to stand for, including democracy and the respect for human rights, which are alas so lacking in so many Arab States.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 7th December, 2014
Like millions of people who have read The Yacoubian Building, I am a fan of the writing of the Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany and a few years ago I was pleased to have the chance to talk to him a little when he came to an event put on by English PEN. So last night I was eagerly part of a large audience assembled on the fringes of the Gingko Conference currently taking place in London to hear him being interviewed by fellow author Tarek Osman about political developments in Egypt and the wider Arab world. For several years, Al Aswany wrote a newspaper column (now terminated) which always ended with the words “democracy is the answer”. So I was not the only person surprised by his spirited defence of the ousting of the democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi last year, and his criticism of those who described the army takeover as a coup. It is true that millions of Egyptians had taken to the streets to protest against Morsi’s actions once in power and it was maybe not unpredictable that the Muslim Brotherhood would have a different attitude to democracy from Western liberals. But Al Aswany’s comments last night prompted the French-Algerian journalist Nabila Ramdani, who was in the audience, to launch a virulent attack on him. As a disgruntled English translator of Al Aswany’s work — whose exact grievance was not clear to the rest of us — had also shouted at the novelist before storming out of the auditorium, things were getting distinctly heated. Alaa Al Aswany, who physically resembles a big brown bear, stood his ground but was clearly not happy. And unfortunately therefore not all his answers to questions were as informative as they wold have been in quieter circumstances. The former Labour Foreign Minister, Denis MacShane, for example, asked whether a young Egyptian writer might now be writing a new Yacoubian Building, complete with corruption, sexual scandal and torture, as was the original (and therefore seen as a biting critique of the Mubarak regime), but he did not really get an adequate response. The Gingko Library has published the collected columns of Alaa Al Aswany in a volume Democracy Is the Answer.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 6th December, 2014
“East is East, and West is West, and never shall the twain meet,” Rudyard Kipling notoriously wrote in the Ballad of East and West. I say notoriously, because even if it may not have been Kipling’s true intention, the phrase was adopted by jingoistic Brits in an attempt to justify their separateness from and “superiority” over “coloured” races. How different from the German Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s homage to the Persian poet Hafiz inscribed at the foot of a monument in Weimar:”Know yourself and in that instant/Know the Other and see therefore/Orient and Occident/Cannot be parted for evermore.” It was in the latter spirit that the Gingko Library project was conceived by the Cairo-based publisher Werner Mark Linz, to organise a 10-year programme of dialogue and publications bridging East and West, through history and biography, philosophy and religious studies, literature and literary criticism, conservation and sustainability, art and architecture, music and performance, science and technology, political thought, commerce and economics, and education and social development — including the holding of an annual conference. Linz died without seeing the project come to fruition, but it has been carried forward by his partner, the publisher Barbara Haus Schwepcke, and last night there was a reception at the British Academy on the eve of this weekend’s inaugural conference on “The First World War and Its Aftermath: The Shaping of the Middle East”. The former British Foreign Secretary David Owen, who has been a supporter of the project from the beginning, spoke in tribute at the event. Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, a Co-Convenor of the conference, was also due to be there, but had been summoned to a shura between Sunni and Shia leading figures in Tehran to discuss how to avert further conflict between the two. As Barbara Schwepcke commented in her own remarks, he could hardly have had a better excuse for being absent. In a letter from the Prince, read out by Dr Owen, he lamented the assault on pluralism in the Middle East. The gingko of the project’s name is a tree (also known as the maidenhaiir) whose leaves are divided at the top but united at the bottom. Goethe was fascinated by a specimen that grew in his garden, and wrote, “Is that leaf one and lonely?/In itself in two divided?/Is it two that have decided/To be seen as one leaf only?”
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 4th December, 2014
Jeremy Thorpe, who has died aged 85 after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease, was a politician of great charm and brilliance who was brought down by a persistent streak of recklessness that prevented him achieving his full potential. The scion of a family steeped in Conservatism, he dressed like an Edwardian but identified himself as a radical at a time when the Liberal Party — saved from oblivion by the canny and charismatic Jo Grimond — was distinctly unfashionable. I first met Jeremy when I was Secretary of the Oxford University Liberal Club about 1971 and he came to speak at the Oxford Union, as Liberal Leader. He was funny and gracious, a scintillating speaker and at heart a great showman. Which other party leader in those days would have dreamt of conducting an election tour by hovercraft? But he very nearly destroyed the Party he loved by his feasting with panthers (as Oscar Wilde would have put it), though in Jeremy’s case it was not a young Scottish aristocrat who would prove to be his nemesis, but a stable lad and sometime male model, Norman Scott, who became the target of an extraordinary plot by some of Jeremy’s associates, which famously led to the death of Rinka the dog. It should be stressed that in the subsequent trial Thorpe himself was found not guilty of conspiracy to murder, but the case against him could hardly have been more damaging to his political cause. Yet he rashly thought (wrongly) that the people of North Devon might forgive him and re-elect him. Jeremy was bisexual, but too traditional to admit that publicly, and the lies he told to some of his parliamentary colleagues to cover up his true nature made him persona non grata with some in the Liberal Party and then the Liberal Democrats who never forgave him, though others of us remained faithful friends. His second wife, the concert pianist Marion Stein — who predeceased him — was amazingly resolute in her support for him and it was always a pleasure to visit them at the beautiful house in Orme Square that she had received in settlement from her previous husband, the Earl of Harewood. The last time I saw them together was at Jeremy’s 80th birthday celebrations at the National Liberal Club, when they were both in wheelchairs, and one had to get very close to Jeremy to hear what he was saying. But his brain remained razor sharp till the end.