Jonathan Fryer

Archive for December, 2008

An Unholy End to 2008

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 31st December, 2008

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai, and King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain have cancelled all New Year celebrations out of solidarity with the Palestinians currently under Israeli onslaught. Certainly, the carnage in Gaza makes the Holy Land a troubled place this year’s end — as indeed it is also for those Israelis living in fear of rocket fire from Gaza. It is essential that hostilities end on both sides, and it is a scandal that the United States essentially gave Tel Aviv the green light to go in with all guns blazing, as if Palestinian civilian casualties are of no consequence.

King Abdullah of Jordan and Queen Rania (herself of Palestinian origin) have symbolically donated blood to help victims of the bombardment. But the outside world needs to do much more, and fast. Everyone’s New Year Resolution (including that of the Israeli governmnt, Hamas and irregular forces in Gaza) should be ‘Peace in the Holy Land, Now!’

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Islamic New Year

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 30th December, 2008

islamic-new-year     Yesterday was the first day of the Muslim year 1430. It’s unusual for the Islamic (Hijra) and Western calendars almost to coincide in this way, as the the former is about 11 days shorter than the latter. And for many in the Arab world, this had led to hopes of a joyful, extended holiday.  But with Israel launching its ‘all-out war’ against Gaza, people are not in the mood for celebrating. There was a dignified demonstration by several hundred Palestinians and local sympathisers on the Corniche here in Manama yesterday afternoon (Bahrain being one country in the region where political demonstrations are allowed).

Gaza is understandably dominating the summit meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which opened in the Omani capital, Muscat, yesterday. Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, Prime Minister of Qatar — which is the only GCC country which has diplomatic ties to Israel — rang the Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, to inform her that ‘Arabs feel that Israel had no intention of achieving peace’. This bodes ill for 2009.

The global financial crisis is the other big issue for the GCC leaders, but this should not in principle stop them progressing with their plan for a regional single currency (provisionally dubbed the ‘khaleej’, or the gulf), by 2010. This plan is very much based on the EU’s model. But Oman — perhaps inspired by Britain’s example — is going to opt out.

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Bahrain, from Red and White to Black

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 29th December, 2008

ashura-2   When I landed in Bahrain a fortnight ago, Manama was a sea of red and white flags, marking National Day. Most buildings (and many boats!) were flying them and quite a number of the grandest edifices in the capital were illuminated with strings of red and white lights at night.

But last evening, I was taken to the Shia village of  Sanabis, where every house was displaying a black flag and big banners hung over the road, with quotes from the Shia Martyr Hussein. All this is in preparation for Ashura, which marks the day the Prophet’s grandson was killed in the battle of Kerbala in present-day Iraq. I was taken into the new local mosque, with its gorgeous blue tilework, Iranian carpets and chandeliers. It was something of a shock to see giant pictures of the past and present Iranian spiritual leaders, Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei, flanking the minbar (from which the imam preaches). No wonder the Sunni minority in Bahrain (which includes the royal family) are sometimes nervous about the Shias’ sense of belonging.

However, the Shia hospitality last night was superb (the fact that I had been to Karbala probably enhanced my status). Tea was  being served free from tables outside the mosque and food was being prepared in the kitchens. On Ashura day itself, the whole village will be crowded with devotees in a state of spiritual exhaltation.

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Is Israel Seeking Armageddon?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 28th December, 2008

megiddo        The whole Arab world is in mourning, but an angry mourning, after yesterday’s Israeli assault on Gaza. Any hope of progress on the euphemistically-named ‘Middle East peace process’ before the end of the Year (as George W Bush had confidently predicted) is now dashed. It is not just the Palestinians who are outraged. And from the Maghreb to the Arabian Gulf (where I am now), people are echoing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s call for the international community to intervene.

The international community’s record so far has been deplorable, as it has stood idly by while Israel has operated its blockade of the Gaza Strip, driving Gaza’s population to destitution and despair. Even worse, in many ways, is the fact that nearly half a million Israeli settlers have been allowed to move into occupied West Bank territory over the past 40 years, in blatant defiance of international law. Palestinian communities have often found themselves cut off from their land, as the Security Wall has usurped territory and organised things for the convenience of the settlers. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian olive trees have been uprooted and numerous houses have been demolished, often as a form of collective punishment. Rabid Jewish religious fanatics who have set up a bridgehead in Hebron from which some of them attack Arab families, yet they receive the protection of the Israeli army, rather than being evicted and put on trial for their criminal activities.

The Kadima-led government in Israel is obviously wishing to show itself as tough in advance of forthcoming elections. But they will not stop rockets or suicide bombers by killing, impoverishing and humiliating Palestinians. Instead, they are engendering more hatred day by day, seemingly blind to the possibility that they are inviting Armaggedon — despite the fact that there are even road signs to Har-Magedo (Armageddon) to remind people of scriptural predictions.

The solution is obvious: the Israeli government and Hamas must talk, as there can never be a military solution to the Middle East without face-to-face negotiations. This is an unsavoury prospect for most Israelis, but then so was talking to the IRA for most Britons. The alternative is more bloodshed and the increasing likelihood of a new, wider Middle East war. The international community, including the European Union, should put intense pressure on all parties concerned to cease all hostilites, and be prepared to impose sanctions if they are rebuffed.

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Quranic First for Egyptian Woman

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 27th December, 2008

holy-quran   The Egyptian former TV presenter, Kariman Hamza, has had her book ‘The Conspicuous Interpretation of the Quran for Youth and Youngsters’ approved by Sunni Islam’s most influential  seat of learning, Al Azhar University in Cairo — the first time a Quranic interpretation by a woman has received such an endorsement. The move is being greeted by moderate Muslims as a big step forward (and a slap in the face for fundamentlists notably in Pakistan and Afghanistan, who seem intent on downgrading women’s status further, by excluding girls from education).

Ms Hamza commented, ‘I was careful to make my interpretation as simple and clear as possible so that youngsters can understand it.’ Ali Abdul Baqui, Secretary General of the Islamic Research Centre at Al Azhar, justified the breakthrough endorsement by saying ‘in Islam, there is no such thing as male or female interpretations. What matters most is that the interpretation should comply with the texts of the Holy Quran and the codes of the Sharia.’

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In Memoriam Harold Pinter

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 26th December, 2008

harold-pinter     Harold Pinter was famous for more than his silences. He could have won a Nobel Prize for explosive anger — or so his reputation went. I have to confess that I never saw anything but his teddy-bear side (though he would growl at me from beyond the grave for saying so). A few years ago, before he was diagonsed with the cancer that has killed him, he came to lunch at our house with his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser. The fact that I live in London’s East End, where he had grown up, was undoubtedly the main attraction as far as he was concerned, as he wanted to show Antonia some local sights of his childhood (which astonishingly he had not until then done).

As the lunch guests stood around in the front room, supping their pre-lunch drinks, one of the children of another invitee succeeded in tripping and splashing a coke right into Antonia’s eye. There was a horrified hush, a silence worthy of a Pinter play, as everyone waited for Harold to erupt. But he was sweetness itself, attentively helping Antonia dab her eye, while at the same time assuring the child’s horrified parents that nothing was amiss. On his departure, to explore the local cemetery, he wrote in the visitor’s book the simple entry: ‘H.P.’

For several years, he sent me typed copies of his new plays, which seemed to get shorter and shorter. He railed against American imperialism, as I did in a somewhat more diplomatic way. As a firebrand socialist, who detested Tony Blair, he thought I was incurably wishy-washy by being a Liberal Democrat. I was thus never invited to the Notting Hill set political gatherings. That is, the original, leftist Notting Hill set, over which Harold more or less presided, at the Pinter’s splendid house in Campden Hill Square, not the David Cameron/George Osborne Conservative upstart.

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Doha’s Souq Waqif

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 26th December, 2008

souq-waqif-stamp      Too many cities in the Arabian Gulf have swept away their heritage on the principle ‘Out with the old, in with the new!’ As a result,  places like Kuwait City have almost no worthwhile heritage left. But Qatar’s capital, Doha, is an exception. The central Souq Waqif was in a pretty sorry state 20 years ago, but rather than being knocked down, it has been sensitively restored, enlarged and enhanced. The main throughfare has been pedestrianised and is lined with small shops, shisha cafes, Western coffee shops and a whole series of restaurants with tables outside. This attractive scene naturally draws many tourists, but interestingly the majority of people wandering around in the evening, or sitting smoking a water-pipe, are Arabs.

One of the souq’s larger buildings has even been turned into Doha’s first boutique hotel, the newly-opened Hotel Souq Waqif, which has 13 deluxe bedrooms and suites furnished in a mixture of antique and contemporary Oriental styles with notable works of art from India. The hotel has a fine seafood restaurant, too. But anyone fancying a truly Orientalist experience should also check out the Persian restaurant in the souq — a gloriously over-the-top mirrored covered courtyard which features a fountain and pool in which melons and pomegranates float, while cute staff in David Roberts-style 19th century Iranian servants’ clothes dish out authentic Persian cuisine to Arab families seated on the floor in individual alcoves.

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The Museum of Islamic Art

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 25th December, 2008

museum-of-islamic-art    I spent yesterday afternoon at Doha’s brand-new Museum of Islamic Art, which seems destined quickly to be acknowledged as one of the world’s great museums. The building itself — designed by architect I M Pei — is positvely pharaonic in its simple grandeur. The setting is stunning, on an artifical island just off the Qatari capital’s sweeping Corniche. Water is a central feature of the context, the view across the bay from the vast windows of the central atrium is literally breath-taking.

But as befits a museum, it is the contents of the Museum of Islamic Art which really give the place its special value.  Ranging widely from calligraphy to pottery, carpets to paintings, they are drawn from across the Islamic world past and present: the Middle East, North Africa, large swathes of Asia and important European outposts such as Andalucia and Sicily. In stark contrast to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, where thousands of exhibits are crammed together in a chaotic jumble, the Doha galleries have chosen a limited number of examples of the very best, many cabinets displaying just one exquisite piece, perfectly lit.

Anyone who doubts the contribution that Arabs and the wider Muslim community have made to world civilization — one thinks of the notoriously ignorant and bigoted remarks of the independent British MEP Robert Kilroy-Silk — will soon be disabused when marvelling at the wonders from Moghul India, Iran, Turkey, Central Asia and the Arab nations. Interestingly, despite the museum’s name, there are several examples of Christian art too, including, fittingly at Christmas, a magnificent Levantine Madonna and Child.

The Royal Family of Qatar was actively involved in getting this museum built as part of their strategy of turning Qatar into the Gulf’s cultural and intellectual centre. They can be proud of the result. It is a triumph.

(photo courtesy of the Museum of Islamic Culture)

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Gas Exporters Gang Together

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 24th December, 2008

The world’s leading gas producers have formalised a collaborative association, the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF), which will have its headquarters here in Doha. Qatar has the third largest reserves of natural gas after Russia and Iran; together with Algeria and Venezuela, these countries are responsible for two-thirds of the world’s gas supply. It’s a roll-call of states (with the notable exception of Qatar) that sends shivers down the spine of many Western leaders, who are already murmuring their discontent at the emergence of an OPEC-style cartel that could wield enormous power.

Attempts by some GECF members to dismiss the notion of a cartel have been undermined by the Venezuelan Energy Minister, Rafael Ramirez, who declared yesterday at the GCEF charter-signing meeting in Moscow that ‘we see in this forum an opportunity to build a solid organisation, which has in its foundation the same principles that gave birth to OPEC.’

The nature of gas contracts means that the natural gas market is quite different from the oil market. But as Russia has shown vis-a-vis Ukraine, for example, controlling the gas supply can be used as an economic or political weapon. And gas-importing countries will hardly have been reassured by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s comment yesterday that the ‘era of cheap gas’ is over.

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Doha Reaches for the Skies

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 23rd December, 2008

doha-at-night     When I first came to Doha — capital of the Arabian Gulf state of Qatar — about 15 years ago, the city was, quite frankly, a dump. It had just two things going for it: the Corniche that sweeps round the bay, and the iconic pyramid-style Sheraton Hotel located at one end. Those two landmarks — now much spruced up — are still there, but what has changed is that Doha has become the most elegant city in the region. Vast amounts of money from gas and oil and been spent building not only dozens of architecturally notable high-rise towers — carefully grouped in particular areas — but also many beautiful, low-rise state buildings incorporating traditional Arabic design. There are huge lawns and flowers everywhere, and standing prominently on a man-made island just off the Corniche is the magnificent new Museum of Islamic Art, which opened earlier this month and which I will be visiting tomorrow.

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