As Thomas Friedman once aptly commented, commenting on the Middle East tends to be an intellectual desert, in which ‘charlatans and ideologues, hucksters and holymen, regularly opine and divine, unencumbered by facts, history or statistics’. So it is with considerable relief that I can recommend as my Book of 2009 Avi Shlaim’s Israel and Palestine (Verso, London, 2009), a brilliant exposition of the last 40 years of the Middle East tragedy that mixes academic rigour with literary fluency. An Iraqi-born Jew, Dr Shlaim is a Professor of International Relations at Oxford University and the author of a number of books on the Middle East, including a biography of the late King Hussein of Jordan. His new book is in fact a collection of essays, articles and book reviews written over a number of years, but it has been woven more or less seemlessly together and is full of insight as well as compassion. The writer belongs to the small but important revisionist school of Israeli history, which rejects much of the Zionist narrative, while accepting the right of the modern state of Israel to exist, in security. There is a wealth of telling detail — not least direct quotations from various Israeli Prime Ministers — and by the end of the book, one is not surprised that Dr Shlaim is horrified by the disproportionality of the Israel Defence Force’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (‘an eye for an eyelash’), which, he writes, ‘makes it difficult to resist the conclusion that it has become a rogue state with an “utterly unscrupulous set of leaders”… Israel’s real aim is not peaceful coexistence with its Palestinian neighybours but military domination.’ If you only have time to read one book on the modern Middle East, I recommend that you read this one.
Archive for December, 2009
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 31st December, 2009
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 30th December, 2009
I had intended to reach Ipoh today, but as the minivan I got from Hat Yai terminated in Penang, I decided to terminate there as well and so I will be ending the year in George Town. It’s 40 years since I was last on the island, though as I recall I didn’t linger even an hour in the capital then but instead headed straight for the beach (as one does at that age). Anyway, I’m glad to have the chance to make up for that now. Of course, there have been a lot of changes over four decades. Many new high-rise buildings have sprung up, for a start, and a long bridge now links the island to mainland Malaysia — which means far more cars than there were before. The character has changed somewhat too, as Penang was a free port way back then, whereas now it is more a centre for tourism, both domestic and foreign. There is still a lot to see, though. In fact, it is one of the jewels of South East Asia for anyone interested in history. It was made a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in July last year. There is an extraordinary blend of Chinese, Malay and Indian culture, as well as some splendid colonial buildings from the British times. The seafront Eastern and Oriental Hotel — a bankrupt ruin when I was last here — has been beautifully restored to resemble its glory days when it was run by the Armenian Sarkies brothers as one of the great hotels of the world, much loved by Somerset Maugham, among others. Tomorrow, I’ll be off to see where the ‘father’ of modern China, Sun Yat Sen, was based in 1910 and where the German author Hermann Hesse visited just a few months later.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Eastern and Oriental Hotel, George Town, Hat Yai, Hermann Hesse, Ipoh, Malaysia, Penang, Sarkies brothers, Somerset Maugham, Sun Yat Sen, UNESCO, World Heritage Site | 1 Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 29th December, 2009
London Mayor Boris Johnson has blown a giant raspberry at the campaign for one-hour bus tickets, spearheaded by the LibDem GLA transport chair, Caroline Pidgeon — which only goes to show how far out of touch he is with the lives of ordinary Londoners, including those based in the suburbs. Under the scheme, bus passengers would have ben able to change buses within a one hour period without having to buy another ticket. It’s a system that works brilliantly in a number of continental cities and it makes a lot of sense, particularly for young mums with kids or shopping who do not have a single direct bus route to where they need to be. Caroline Pidgeon’s campaign — which I was happy to support publicly when it was launched a few months ago — won the backing of members of all the main political groups within the Greater London Asembly. But the Mayor has still dismised it out of hand. The problem is that the Mayor seems to think — rather like Mrs Thatcher — that anyone who needs to take public transport is somehow one of life’s failures. The reality is that most Londoners do rely on public transport and Boris should be encouraging more people to use it with incentive schemes such as the one hoour bus ticket, rather than perpetuating a system whereby it is sometimes cheaper to take the car (for those who have one).
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 27th December, 2009
Shameless governments have a habit of doing nasty things over Christmas, when they hope most of the world’s journalists aren’t looking — or are on holiday. Think the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Israel’s Operation Cast Lead and now China’s disgraceful sentencing of the dissident writer Liu Xiaobo to 11 years in prison for his political and human rights activities. Perhaps best known abroad as the founder of Charter 08, the Chinese group calling for constitutional reform, Mr Liu has been a sturdy champion of fundamental rights since he took part in the quashed 1989 pro-democracy movement. His jailing, for an unusually long time, is a moral outrage which should be protested most strongly by all decent politicians and NGOs around the world. The writers’ organisation PEN, to which I belong, has taken up his case, but there needs to be a concert of protests, as well as the granting of appropriate awards and prizes to Liu Xiaobo to show the Chinese Communists that to most right-thinking people in the world, he is a brave hero, not a subversive. I shall be writing to the Chinese Ambassador in London about the case and urge others to do likewise. So far, the official Chinese response to protests has been to accuse those making them of ‘gross interference in China’s internal affairs’, but Beijing does not seem to realise the implications of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which it is a signatory, or that the nations of the world have a duty, as well as a right, to stand up and shout when a country persecutes those who exercise their freedom of expressio9n.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Charter 08, China, Chinese dissident, Freedom of Expression, International PEN, Liu Xiaobo, Operation Cast Lead, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Universal Declaration of Human Rights | 2 Comments »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 26th December, 2009
Tomorrow human rights activists around the world will be commemorating — but certainly not celebrating — the first anniversary of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead against the population of Gaza. As was made clear in the report by Judge Richard Goldstone and his UN team, there is sufficient evidence to warrant investigations into both the Israeli Defense Force and Hamas on charges of war crimes. Several senior Israeli politicians amd military leaders are theoretically at risk of being arrested when they traval abroad, though many Western governments have reassured them that they will in fact be safe from prosecution. Just as Israel has consistently violated the Geneva Conventions and other instruments of international law — not least by the construction of illegal settlements in the West Bank and the systematic judaisation of East Jerusalem — without any effective international sanction. The British government has been shameful in its relative silence, mouthing token protests at settlement activity, for example, without doing anything pratical to bring Israel to heel — including putting pressure on Washington. Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu got a noticeably warm welcome from Gordon Brown when he visited 10 Downing Street a while back.
There is only one mainstream British political party, the Liberal Democrats (and only one party leader, Nick Clegg). that can hold its head up high on the Palestinian issue, not only for endorsing the Goldstone Report but also for reminding the British electorate of the ongoing suffering in Gaza as well as in the Occupied Territories. The LibDems have rightly condemned Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli communities and other forms of terror activity. But that does not justify the treatment the Palestinian civilian population is still receiving at the hands of the Israeli Defense Force and some militant Jewish settlers. The most urgent priority now is for Israel to lift the blockade on Gaza, so people there can regain some sort of normality in their lives. Nick Clegg made a clear and brave statement about that in an article in The Guardian earlier this week. So, tomorrow mourn for the victims of the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, on both sides of the divide. And stand up for the right of the Palestinians to be treated as dignified human beings.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Arab=Israeli conflict, Binyamin Netanyahu, East Jerusalem, Gaza, Geneva Conventions, Goldstone Report, Gordon Brown, Hamas, Israel, Israeli Defense Force, ldfp, Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, Operation Cast Lead, Palestine, Palestinians, Richard Goldstone, The Guardian, West Bank | 3 Comments »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 25th December, 2009
The East London Advertiser is runing an online poll, asking Tower Hamlets residents whether they favour moving to a system of local government in which there is a powerful, directly-elected Mayor (as is the case in neighbouring Hackney and Newham). Next spring, local voters will be able to take part in a real referendum about whether they support that option or prefer a model in which there is a stronger leader at the head of the Council cabinet. Neither system is ideal, in my opinion; it was far more democratic when individual councillors had more power. And in the case of Tower Hamlets, even more so when there were devolved neighbourhood committees, under the old Liberal administration. Respect (which favours the Mayor option) has prompted the referendum through a petition. Among local Liberal Democrats, opinions are divided, which is why they have organised a public debate on the issue, to be chaired by national party President, Baroness (Ros) Scott, provisionally scheduled for 26 January. Watch this space. One thing is true, namely that the Mayor system can throw up some surprises (which is maybe what Respect is hoping). And the LibDems have notched up notable succeses in mayoral contests in Watford and Bedford.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 23rd December, 2009
Jolly seasonal posters have started appearing on hoardings around Barking in East London, showing British National Party leader Nick Griffin toasting everyone with a glass of wine and wishing them a Merry Christmas from himself and the BNP. If anyone had any doubts that the party was going to fight the parliamentary seat seriously at the forthcoming general election, such doubts must now be dispelled. The BNP has already caused outrage by associating itself with Winston Churchill (a politician who fought against fascism all his life) and the Battle of Britain. Now the wretched racist crew is trying to co-opt Christmas — the celebration of the birth of a prophet who preached love and tolerance, the very opposite of many BNP messages. It’s enough to make one puke. Doubtless this latest BNP manoeuvre will be condemned by Church leaders; it certainly should be. And it should galvanize other political parties to redouble their efforts to show the Barking electorate that Nick Griffin and his mates in no way represent the Best of British.
(photo: Helen Duffett)
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 22nd December, 2009
Every evening in Bangkok, as I walk from Sathorn to Silom to have dinner, I pass a sacred tree, which juts out into the pavement, the base of its trunk painted white. Ranged around it are scores of votive offerings, most of them tiny model elephants. They’ve been there as long as I can remember and they are never moved, though sometimes they get dusted with white or red powder. It would be unthinkable for anyone to steal one, even though they just sit there, day and night. Looking at them this evening, I was reminded of the time, years ago, when I sailed to Abu Simbel on the first cruise boat to operate on Lake Nasser. I stayed overnight on the vessel and went for a late night walk round the little settlement that serves the temple. The day trippers had long since flown back to Luxor or Cairo, but thousands of statuettes and other souvenirs were still laid out on tables near the site, not guarded by anybody. The following morning, when I asked some of the vendors whether they weren’t woried that someone would steal something during the night, they looked at me as if I was mad.
In the one case, it is religion that preserves the votive elephants in Thailand; it would be a form of sacrilege to remove them. But in the other case, it is a matter of honesty — and community spirit — albeit rooted in a moral principle backed up by the force of Koranic scripture. Moral strictures can be very strong, which is why, I suppose, so many people (including me) were scandalised when robbers pinched the iconic ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign from the entrance to Auschwitz concetraion camp. Mercifully it was quickly retrieved, though cut up into three sections. But when it comes to burglaries in a country like England — whether from houses or gardens or cars — often the stolen goods are not retrieved and one wonders about the mentality and morality of the people who thieve. I have lost count of the number of times our window boxes — full of plants — have been nicked from the living room window-ledge during the night and have ceased wondering what happens to them. Petty theft is so common — and considered so trivial, including by the police — that it is shrugged off as part of modern society. But this is not just a matter of material losses, either great or small. Theft is a violation of people, often unknown, individually or collectively — which is why most religions speak out so strongly against it. And it is one reason why ‘modern societies’ like Britain need to to regain their moral compass.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 21st December, 2009
The art of letter-writing is dying, indeed in most parts of society it is moribund. Modern technolgy has its advantages of course; I couldn’t manage my freelance writing and lecturing life in so many parts of the world without the Internet and emails. But I lament the increasing superficiality of human communication and dread to think what future writers and historians will make of our age without the richness of material provided by letters (one of the major reasons why I have tended to concentrate on the late 19th and early 20th centuries for my research and books).
I have been once more reminded of this while reading Robin Hope’s recent, privately-published collection of wartime letters between his parents, Michael to Christine to Michael, which is not only a beautifully produced book (designed by Patrick Eley) but also a gem of a period piece in which two contrasting but complementary characters reveal themselves and sustain each other across their separation. The book is also very funny in parts. I loved the vignette of an infant Antonia Pakenham (now Lady Antonia Fraser) going into a bathroom where an adult male house-guest was having a bath, as recounted by Christine: ‘Suddenly Antonia burst in, rushed over to the bath & gazed down at Freddie’s penis, saying “Please may I have a look at it? Mummy says it’s all right!”‘ Text messages couldn’t summon up such images and although the powers that be in Britain and the rest of the EU are insisting that communications companies retain everyone’s emails for some years, I fear these will be of minimum use to historians and biographers, and of even less interest to readers.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 20th December, 2009
The Thai Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, has been busy this week at the climate conference in Copenhagen and like many leaders of developing countries, he has expressed disappointment at the low-level outcome. But not all his criticism or advice has been targetted at the United States and other industrialised nations, or even China. He has stressed that the 10-nation Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) really needs to press ahead with regional integration more decisively if South East Asia is not only going to protect the environment but also cope adequately with the challenges of the post-economic crisis world. Of course, the task is made more complicated by the fact that ASEAN, unlike the European Union, has no economic or political homogeneity, grouping everything from mature democracies to a military dictatorship, an absolute monarchy and Communist states. Nonetheless, in an increasingly regionalised world, South East Asia needs to get its act together if it is to prosper and compete, something the Oxford-educated Thai Prime Minister clearly understands.