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.
Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 17th December, 2014
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 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 Tuesday, 2nd December, 2014
I used to see Maggi Hambling quite often with our mutual friend George Melly when he was such a fixture of Soho and London’s bohemia, so it was good to catch up with her again at the private view of her Walls of Water monotypes at Marlborough Fine Art in Albermarle Street this evening. I can never visit Albermarle Sreet without remembering that it was there that the seeds of Oscar Wilde’s downfall were sown, at the now defunct Albermarle Club, when the Marquess of Queensberry left a card for Oscar at the porter’s lodge, accusing him of posing as a somdomite (sic). Maggi of course made a wonderful reclining statue of Wilde, which is located near Charing Cross Station, and in which his spirit is reclining half out of his coffin, a cigarette nonchalently held aloft — though philistines kept nicking the statue’s cigarette, so it is no longer replaced. Maggi Hambling, like David Hockney, is a great believer in the freedom to smoke, so I was not at all surprised when she lit up in Marlborough Fine Art tonight, doubtless to the dismay of the gallery. The large selection of black and white monotypes on show are in parallel to a larger-scale exhibition on currently at the National Gallery, again all about water. This has been a leitmotif of Maggi’s work recently, as if the crashing waves along the Suffolk coast that is so dear to her have some mystical power communicating not just the force of nature but also an interface between life and death, maybe sometimes even summoning memories of Maggi’s departed muse, Henrietta Moraes.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 29th November, 2014
When I was a small boy I often used to go to the cinema in Monton near Eccles, which had a sixpenny Saturday afternoon matinée. And it was there that for the one and only time in my life I sat through a film twice: 101 Dalmatians. I don’t suppose there are many cinemas left in the country where one could just stay put to see a film a second time, but had I been a child today and were it possible, I would have stayed on for a second showing of Paddington, Paul King’s affectionate take on the Paddington Bear stories, which I saw at my local Genesis Cinema in Stepney Green this evening. I have never read the books, and I know the author was a little taken aback by some of the liberties the film takes with his characters, but the overall result is a triumph. It could all have been mawkishly saccharine — particularly in the run-up to Christmas — but from the black and white prologue onward, giving a very camp and tongue-in-cheek impression of the Explorer Mongomery Clyde engaging with the bears in Deepest Peru, the film is a riot of fun action, sharp characterisation and a mixture of gags aimed at an adult audience as well as at kids. There’s even a referential bow to 101 Dalmatians, in that the malignant taxidermist Millicent (played by Nicole Kidman in a blonde wig) is a mirror image of Cruella de Ville. Half the members of the Garrick Club, from Hugh Bonneville (as Mr Brown) to Michael Gambon (the voice of Uncle Pastuzo), seem to have been involved in the film’s making. Indeed, Paddington revels in its Britishness, at times nostalgic, but never reactionary or UKIPpy. Rather, like the calypso that ends the film, it is a celebration of multicultural London, a city that might seem cold and wet at first but which usually in the end opens its heart to someone whoever they are and wherever they come from.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 27th November, 2014
When one thinks of UNESCO World Heritage sites I suppose ancient wonders such as the Pyramids at Giza or Stonehenge come to mind, so for many people it will come as a surprise to know that Germany boasts no fewer than 39 of them, ranging from the old city of Bamberg to the broads of the Wadden Sea. Some locations, such as Trier, are home to an astonishing variety of architectural periods of styles from the Roman era onward, while others, such as the palaces and other grand buildings round Potsdam form more of a unity. The German travel board, Germany Travel, offers a good brief introduction to each of the UNESCO gems on its website, as well as suggesting itineraries off the beaten track. But people in London can get an excellent preview over the next couple of weeks at an exhibition of beautiful photographs of Germany’s UNESCO world heritage sites by Hans-Joachim Aubert, at Europe House, the European Commission and European Parliament offices in Smith Square, Westminster. This exhibition has been travelling the world and could hardly be a better showcase of what the EU’s most populous nation has to offer and is itself a fine example of location photography at its very best.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 25th November, 2014
I was pleased last night to return from the ALDE Congress in Lisbon in time to attend the launch of Gerald MacLean’s new book, Abdullah Gul and the Making of the New Turkey*, at the Turkish Embassy. A particular draw was the subject himself, who was in London on what he said was his first foreign trip since ending his term as Turkey’s President. Gerald said in his own remarks that the volume is not hagiography, though there was a degree of cooperation with Mr Gul, his wife, friends and family. I shall reserve judgement until I am able to read it. Also present last night was Jack Straw, who said that he and his wife had forged a close friendship with the Guls while he was Foreign Secretary. Mr Straw lamented the fact that Turkey had effectively been kept out of EU membership by the strong opposition from states such as Austria, though many of us who follow Turkish affairs closely feel that in fact Ankara has recently been drifting further away from rather than nearer that objective. Mr Gul himself was in nostalgic mood, recalling his own university studies in Britain (at Exeter University). As he has been Foreign Minister, Prime Minister and President of Turkey I guess the next stage would be some international role. He could of course write his memoirs, but he might feel Gerald MacLean has stolen his thunder on that.
* OneWorld, £35
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 22nd November, 2014
The congress of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) this week brought 600 delegates to Lisbon to discuss Reclaiming Liberalism. Though it was the first such gathering since May’s European elections, not too much time was spent looking backwards but rather forwards, as to how we can hone our message on the basis of our liberal principles in a context of growing illiberalism and nationalism. Liberals in some countries — notably Britain and Germany — fared really badly in May, whereas in other areas — such as the Benelux and the Baltic — there was a strong advance. It was good to welcome several new parties into the liberal family. Fringe events are getting much more numerous and valuable than used to be the case, and I especially valued the session on the EU digital single market. An election was held for two new vice-presidents on the Bureau, the victorious candidates being Angelika Mlinar from Austria and Hans van Baalen from the Netherlands. As usual, the Brits had the largest delegation, but as the number of delegate places reflects the vote a party gets in national general elections, we have to brace ourselves for a reduction after next May. Meanwhile, I was pleased to learn that I have ben re-elected by the Liberal Democrats to serve on the ALDE governing Council for the next two years, as well as on the party’s International Relations Committee. I also got elected to the LibDems’ Federal Executive (the first time I’ve stood) and know that we will have quite a tough period to face as a party in the run-up to May and beyond.
[photo: Hans van Baalen and Angelika Mlinar]