Diana Darke is one of those splendid British Arabists, in the tradition of Gertrude Bell, who combines a passion for Syria and the rest of the Middle East with an admirably Anglo-Saxon cool head, which has enabled her to work for many years as a translator, consultant and writer of Bradt travel guides on the region. Unlike Ms Bell, however, she is not al-Khatun, a Lady of the Court, with one dog-like ear and eye open to pick up on anything that could be of use to the powers that be — despite at one stage in her life being a diplomatic wife. Indeed, it is hard to imagine her hand-in-hand with either William Hague or the family and entourage of President Bashar al-Assad, who is hanging on in there in Damascus while his country proceeds fast down the road to perdition. Such was Diana Darke’s enchantment with the old walled city of Damascus that she day-dreamed of owning one of the Ottoman courtyard houses in its heart, and once that idea had been seeded, it germinated and led to her acquiring Bait Baroudi, and then embarking on a painstaking process of restoration, not to make something pristine and thus suitable for a high-end boutique hotel, but rather as a place of beauty that would wear its heritage with subtle pride, with the aid of some fine pieces of antique stone and artefacts picked up on expeditions round the sellers of the banished contents of disintegrating ancestral homes. Having created this oasis of tranquility — sometimes generously lent out to travelling friends — she then thought of writing a book about the house and its project, but events overtook her. From the moment some teenage idealists in the town of Dera’a wrote anti-government slogans on walls in March 2011, unleashing a crackdown, Syria entered the vortex of the most vicious and unpredictable of all the so-called Arab spring revolutions. 140,000+ dead later, not to mention the millions of refugees and internally displaced, the situation seems as intractable as ever. Diana Darke can no longer visit Syria to spend time in her Arab home, but it now houses its own band of around 30 refugees, including some of those people who had worked with her on the house. So the book she originally envisaged became unviable, unpublishable even, in the current gloomy political climate. And so it transmuted into a really very special volume, My House in Damascus (Haus Publishing, £14.99), which weaves an enchanting tapestry not just of Bait Baroudi, but of Damascus and Greater Syria, drawing on the author’s own youthful studies of Arabic at the old MECAS institute at Shemlan in Lebanon, cleverly threading the weft of her personal story through the warp of Arab culture, past and present, skilfully moving back and forth between the years without losing the reader on the way. The result is a gem that will delight those already familiar with Damascus and be a revelation to those who aren’t. But I suspect all will finish reading it with a sense of deep sadness for the way Syria is being torn apart. Diana Darke determinedly hopes that one day, somehow, it will all turn out all right, and that it will be possible to walk across the hills of the Levant, carefree, before returning home to the gentle charm of Bait Baroudi. I wish I could sincerely believe that she is right.
Archive for April, 2014
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 30th April, 2014
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Bashar Al-Assad, Bradt travel guides, Damascus, Diana Darke, Gertrude Bell, Haus Publishing, Lebanon, MECAS, My House in Damascus, Shemlan, Syria, William Hague | 2 Comments »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 26th April, 2014
This afternoon, at the Liberal International Congress in Rotterdam, I successfully moved an amendment on behalf of the UK Liberal Democrats to the Middle East section of the traditional World Today resolution, reviewing topical issues of global concern. Since the text had first been drafted, news came through that Israel was pulling out of talks with the Palestinians because of the new deal between Fatah (the Palestinian Authority) and Gaza’s Hamas, which have agreed to form a joint platform. The British amendment praised John Kerry for working tirelessly to get the peace negotations back on track, but criticised Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for pulling the plug on talks. Moreover, negotiating with a united front of Palestinians is more likely to mean that Hamas will clmp down on Islamic Jihad and other extremist groups, I believe. I argued from the position of a Brit who lived through IRA bombings in Manchester and London and therefore understands that one makes peace not with friends but with enemies. I got quite emotional when recalling the state dinner given earlier this month by Queen Elizabeth to the Irish President, at which former Sinn Fein bogey-man Martin McGuinness was welcomed by the monarch, despite the fact that the IRA blew up her cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, in 1979. I said that I looked forward to the day when Shimon Peres, or whoever succeeeds him as Israeli President, welcomes Palestinian leaders, including current Hamas figures to his residence, because that will mean that peace and security have become a reality. It saddened — but didn”t suprise — me that the Israelis present protested that we cannot expect them to talk to “terrorists”, and a few prominent pro-Israelis — including outgoing Liberal Internatinal President Hans Van Baalen also oppossed the amendment and the idea that talks should resume. Fortunately, the amendment was carried — albeit by not a very large margin. and with many abstentions — which I thought was a very positive result. One thing that particularly saddens me, however, is that so many Israelis — even many Liberals — don”t realise that their narrative of the conflict doesn’t hold water and that not just Europe but increasingly many Americans (including American Jews) are no longer prepared to stand up for Israel, right or wrong.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Binyamin Netanyahu, Fatah, Gaza, Hamas, Hans Van Baalen, IRA, Islamic Jihad, Israel, John Kerry, Liberal International, Lord Louis Mountabatten, Martin McGuinness, Middle East, Palestine, Queen Elizabeth, Rotterdam, Shimon Peres, Sinn Fein | 3 Comments »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 21st April, 2014
At the weekend, the former Labour MP Barbara Roche declared in a newspaper column, “I agree with Nick!”, referring to the two debates the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg held with his UKIP counterpart, Nigel Farage, over IN or OUT re Britain and the EU. Of course, I agree with Nick, too, but in trying to analyse why Mr Farage appeared to most people to have come out better from the confrontations– despite the fact that a narrow majority of Brits are reportedly now in favour of the UK’s membership of the EU — I have come to the conclusion that while Nick nobly stuck to facts, rather than Nigel Farage’s fantasy, facts and figures don’t necessarily win arguments of this sort. Farage came out with some very clear policy recommendations — end labour mobility within the EU, then leave the Union all together — which he put over with passion. I do not question Nick Clegg’s belief in the wisdom of continued British EU membership, or indeed of the need for European states to club together if they are going to compete properly in a highly competitive, multipolar world. But in such debates, perhaps he and other Liberal Democrats should show more passion — as he did when endorsing equal marriage, for example. Even people who are uninterested in politics often respond to passion. And it would be good when one has such a platform to put forward a clear, concrete proposal on how Liberal Democrats want to reform the EU from within. I’ve been trying to use that mixture of policy and passion in the hustings I’ve done so far, and though of course I will probably never win over any UKIP supporters or Tory Europhobes in the audience, I’ve found in general people have reacted well when I have unequivocally stood up for what I believe in, which is that Britain’s future is at the heart of Europe and that the EU must evolve in a way that guarantees peace and prosperity for all.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 20th April, 2014
The dabbawallahs of Mumbai, who deliver tiffin or light lunch to clients in their workplace, usually from their home where the wife has prepared the meal, have a record of many decades of reliability behind them. Indeed, academic studies have been made about the extraordinarily efficient system of various means of transport, but normally involving a train, that collect the meals in layered tins in the morning and then return them empty in the afternoon, and I occasionally include them in a case study in my course at SOAS. But Ritesh Batra’s feature film “The Lunchbox” (which I saw at my local Genesis Cinema in Stepney Green this afternoon) starts with the nice conceit that one delivery of tiffin, made with special care by a wife worried that her husband is no longer interested in her, gets delivered to the wrong person, an insurance claims clerk who is a widower on the verge of retirement. The same mistake happens day after day and the two start sending each other increasingly intimate notes in the tiffin tins, even playing with the idea of eloping together to Bhutan. I shan’t give any more of the plot away, but all the acting is superb, not least Irrfan Khan as the widower, Nimrat Kaur as the beautiful but frustrated wife and Nawazuddin Siddiqui as an irritatingly ingratiating office trainee. There are some lovely little in jokes redolent of Indian society, such as the wife’s auntie living in another flat upstairs who communicates entirely by shouting out of the widow or lowering things in a basket, and there is a delicious bit of role reversal of “Eve teasing”, the all-too-common fate women travelling on crowded trains and buses in India experience of having men press their bodies against them; in this film, it is the man who gets groped on his commute by a fat, toothless old crone. There are none of the song and dance routines that characterise so much of Bollywood; instead, it is a meticulously designed and executed social drama centering on a universal phenomenon: the bitter-sweet sensations of an impossible love.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Bollywood, dabbawallahs, Eve-teasing, Genesis Cinema, India, Irrfan Khan, Mumbai, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Nimrat Kaur, Ritesh Batra, The Lunchbox, tiffin | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 15th April, 2014
To most Liberal Democrats the name Nigel Jones means the former LibDem MP for Cheltenham and latterly Peer. But this lunchtime, thanks to the Kettner lunch club, another Nigel Jones spoke in the David Lloyd George room: the writer, broadcaster and historian Nigel Jones, who came to talk about his latest book: Peace and War – Britain in 1914 (which I hope to review shortly). The setting was appropriate, as Lloyd George figures prominently in the narrative of the run-up to and beginning of the so-called Great War, even though for a long time he thought war was unlikely, unlike some of his colleagues who had a dimmer view of the Kaiser’s intentions. Nigel Jones — who has recently been honing his performing techniques at literary festivals in Oxford and elsewhere — gave such a polished performance that the professor in the audience who asked the first question declared that it was quite the best lunchtime speech he had heard at the Kettner lunch. As someone who has spoken there myself, I am happy to agree. Nigel and I — who, we realised over lunch, had met previously at a Biographers’ Club event years ago — have largely produced works of biography (including literary biography) and history, both being fascinated by the real world, which can itself be subject to endless interpretations. I thoroughly enjoyed his “Through a Glass Darkly: A Life of Patrick Hamilton” some years ago. He tells me that whle living in Vienna he got the idea of writing a life of the painter Lucian Freud, but as with so many who have contemplated this task came up against something of a brick wall. I count myself lucky that in my case the prickly and litigious Freud merely demanded the withdrawal of the first edition of my book on Soho in the Fifties and Sixties because of an incorrect caption. His brother Clement (a one-time Liberal MP) wouldn’t speak to him, but I never got the chance to check the artist out at first hand.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 14th April, 2014
For several years Diplomat Magazine in London has hosted an annual awards ceremony at which members of the diplomatic corps get to laud those of their number deemed worthy of special praise. This year, once more, the event was hosted by the Langham Hotel just opposite BBC Broadcasting House — an elegant establishment that claims to be Europe’s oldest hotel de luxe; it will celebrate its 150th anniversary next year. They certainly looked after us all well tonight, along with other sponsors. Veteran broadcaster Martin Lewis was the Master of Ceremonies. The major Diplomat awards are given out regionally to the Ambassador or High Commissioner who has won admiration or affection. It was fitting that the first award went to the Doyen of the Diplomatic Corps, Khaled Al Duwaisan from Kuwait, who is such a fixture of the diplomatic circuit. He has the reputation of getting to seven different events each evening — as well as hosting dinners at his Embassy several times a month — and really has won a place in the hearts of the political establishment in London, as well as his colleagues. He expressed a wish to retire some years ago, but the Emir has understandably wanted him to remain. Other heads of mission who were honoured tonight included the Ambassadors of Kazakhstan, Finland and El Salvador and the High Commissioners of Singapore and Antigua & Barbuda. I suppose to people not on the diplomatic circuit this must all sound like one long jolly. But as someone who has covered diplomatic and international affairs for over 40 years — as well as serving for a decade as Mauritania’s Honorary Consul in London — I know just how many diplomats work 12-14-hour days, and how they need to be on guard even at social events, as well as networking furiously.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 14th April, 2014
Yesterday afternoon BBC1 hosted a debate between lead candidates in the European elections: Syed Kamall MEP (Conservative), Richard Howitt MEP (Labour), Sarah Ludford MEP (LibDem) and Patrick O’Flynn (UKIP). It was rather odd of UKIP not to field an MEP, but given some of the extraordinary things some of them have come out with, perhaps wise. Andrew Neil moderated the debate with commendable fairness, asking equally penetrating and sometimes uncomfortable questions of each of the four. The tone was at times abrasive, with two or even three speakers shouting over each other, which may not have impressed some TV viewers who are less used to political rough and tumble. Syed Kamall had the difficult task of trying to put forward a coherent Tory policy on Britain’s membership, finally declaring that in any future IN/OUT referendum, he would vote to stay in, providing David Cameron had negotiated sufficient concessions from Brussels, though he couldn’t specify what those concessions might be. Richard Howitt was mild-mannered and in fact very close to the LibDem line on several things, only more sotto voce. Sarah Ludford had the advantage of arguing from a clear, united party position and got in some good points about the benefits of UK membership of the EU and of labour mobility. Patrick O’Flynn not surprisingly found himself being attacked by all the others, but having played the role of UKIP spin-doctor for some time he was no particularly fazed by that and one fears that some of his populist rhetoric will have struck a chord among viewers who are only too happy to view the EU as some giant foreign conspiracy. The Greens will be furious at having been excluded from the debate, and indeed from the opinion polls would appear to be on course to lose both their current MEPs. But opinion polls can be deceptive and I wonder really if any of the four speakers in yesterday’s debate actually converted anyone to their cause. More likely, they will have reinforced people’s exisiting positions.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 12th April, 2014
In this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War many minds have been turning to the issues of war and peace, and when I make speeches at hustings or rallies in the current European election campaign I always make the point that the founding fathers of what is now the European Union wanted to enmesh the economies of France and Germany (in particular) so that war in western Europe would be unthinkable. And so it appears. But it is all too easy for us today to take that for granted. As a child of the 1950s, I was very much aware of the legacy of the Second World War — the bomb sites, the drab unpainted unrestored buildings, the dreary food and the tail-end of rationing — but I was too young to see National Service. So it was perhaps a little perverse of me to go off to war voluntarily at the age of 18 — as a journalist in Vietnam. What I saw there burned into my heart a hatred for war and for all the human emotions connected with it. I attended my first Quaker meeting there, and joined the Society of Friends when I went up to Oxford. And although Reuters sent me off to comfortable Brussels when I joined the news agency after university, the lure of conflict zones was too great, and relaunched as a freelance commentator and broadcaster I covered a whole range of bloody situations, from Israel/Palestine to Central America and Angola. That was not because I revelled in the suffering. Quite the contrary. But I believed passionately that it needed to be reported, so people might learn that humanity should develop ways of resolving differences and rivalries more constructively. I still feel that today, as Vladimir Putin seems intent on infiltrating deeper into eastern Ukraine, alarming not just Kiev but several other of Russia’s neighbours. In the recent Clegg versus Farage EU IN/OUT debates in Britain, Nick Clegg stressed the importance of Britain’s EU membership for jobs — and of course that is true. But I shall also carry on talking about something that is not just related to the economy or livelihoods: the EU — enlarged a decade ago to take in formerly Communist states of central and eastern Europe — is a brilliant example of how to do things differently, about how to live togeter in peace, celebrating diversity. Fall back on nationalism, as Nigel Farage and some of his more unsavoury counterparts on the Continent would like us to do, will only lead to renewed tensions between peoples and, yes, the reappearance of the spectre of war.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Angola, Brussels, Central America, First World War, Israel/Palestine, Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage, Quakers, Religious Society of Friends, Reuters, Russia, Second World War, the European Union, Ukraine, Vietnam War, Vladimir Putin | 1 Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 8th April, 2014
The Global Strategy Forum can hardly have realised just how topical today’s lunchtime event at the National Liberal Club would be by focusing on “Crisis in Ukraine, Crisis in Russian-Western Relations: What Next?”. There was an interesting line-up of speakers, including my old BBC World Service colleague, Oleksiy Solohubenko, a SkyNews reporter and presenter, Andrew Wilson, a former British Ambassador to Moscow, Sir Andrew Wood, and Labour’s last Europe Minister, Chris Bryant MP. Diplomats from both the Russian and Ukrainian embassies also chipped in from the floor, not surprisingly seeing what has been happening recently in Crimea and eastern Ukraine very differently. The West is still protesting about the de facto annexation of Crimea by Russia, though unofficially accepting this as a fait accompli. But the real concern is how much further Russian encroachment could go, in response to the declaration of “independence” by pro-Russian activists in Donetsk, unrest in other parts of Ukraine and indeed in other regions in Russia’s orbit, including Moldova (Transdniester), Belarus and maybe even Kazakhstan. Most speakers on the panel painted Vladimir Putin as the villain, though Chris Bryant told the rather chilling anecdote that a Russian diplomat had told him that Putin is “not yet mad”, the implication being that he could well become so if he sticks around much longer. In the meantime it does seem likely that Putin is now one of the richest men on the planet, if not the richest, though he manages to hide his assets from public view. Sir Andrew Wood made the point that Russia is weakened by the fact that it relies so heavly on hydrocarbons and indeed could at some stage run out of money. So even if Putin and his at the moment largely adoring compatriots may be on a roll at the moment, things may deteriorate for Moscow quite quickly. The panel side-stepped the question put by the Ukrainian diplomat as to whether the EU and US should now impose the third and far more serious range of sanctions it has threatened against Russia. Certainly, the limited sanctions against a small group of named targets have proved little more than a gentle slap on the wrist. But the ball is currently in the court of the Russians and their supporters in eastern Ukraine, and what they do will now determine what happens next.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Andrew Wilson, Belarus, Chris Bryant, Crimea, Donetsk, Global Strategy Forum, Kazakhstan, Moldova, National Liberal Club, Oleksiy Solohubenko, Russia, Sir Andrew Wood, Transdniester, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin | Leave a Comment »