Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘book review’ Category

Nicosia beyond Barriers

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 16th August, 2019

Nicosia beyond Barriers.jpgNicosia has a population of little more than 200,000, yet Cyprus’s capital contains more complexities and stressful memories than far larger cities. For three decades, from 1974, the city was physically divided, by the euphemistically-named Green Line, that had literally been drawn with a green pen on a map, though the polarisation of the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot people — with accompanied ethnic cleansing — predated that by several years, latterly becoming almost absolute. Add to the island’s mix the legacy of the Venetians, the Ottomans, Armenians, the colonial British, then the conscript army of the occupying Turks in the North, refugees from Syria and Lebanon, followed by black Africans (without even mentioning post-Soviet Russians) and you have an extraordinary human pot-pourri, not always giving off the sweetest of perfumes. In the 1990s, when the island was still rigidly divided, I used to love slipping with my British passport through the forbidden zone and past the fabled Ledra Palace Hotel — transformed into a barracks for UN troops — hopping between two worlds in a way that was forbidden to most Cypriots, and inevitably reminiscent of earlier shuttling as a journalist between East and West Berlin before the Berlin Wall came down. But this privileged access also left me feeling uneasy sometimes, an unease that intensified when the Republic of Cyprus (i.e. Greek Cypriot) was allowed into the European Union, while the Turkish-occupied north languished in a sort of half-way-house limbo.

Ledra StreetInevitably, foreign visitors tend to gravitate either north to Kyrenia or south to Limassol, to savour the sea, but it is Nicosia, inland, that is the troubling and sometimes troubled heart of Cyprus, even now that many tensions have calmed. And it is Nicosia that is the subject of an ambitious and enchanting new anthology of short stories, poetry, prose poems, memoir, reportage and fantasy: Nicosia beyond Barriers: Voices from a Divided City (Saqi, £12.99), edited by Alev Adil, Aydin Mehmet Ali, Bahriye Kernal and Maria Petrides. The voices are diverse, with women’s being particularly strong, not surprisingly given that the project was the child of the Literary Agency Cyprus, a women-led literary and arts movement based in Nicosia. But the selection encompasses a striking diversity of genres and perspectives. One moment the reader sits with a writer in a cafe near the Green Line in Ledra Street, watching with irony the cats and birds who flit casually from one side to the other; the next one is cruising in the city’s most popular gay pick-up park. Rather than separating the book into sections that group topics or literary forms together, the work of the 50 contributors is all mixed together, so one stumbles from one fascinating line of thought and mode of expression to another, wondering what will come next. What really impressed me, however, is that the whole collection has an under-current of nostalgia and loss, a sadness that is part mourning and part celebration — what the Portuguese call saudade. The whole can be read productively in a few sittings, but I suspect that this is also a book into which many readers will dip on return encounters.

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Wanted Man: Mukhtar Ablyazov

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 4th August, 2019

Mukhtar AblyazovWhen I first went to Kazakhstan in 1994, the fledgling nation was struggling to get on its feet. As the train I was travelling on trundled across the steppe from the then capital of Almaty to the frontier of Uzbekistan, old women wrapped up against the cold stood by the side of the track selling whatever they had managed to get their hands on. With US dollars, a visitor could live like a king for a pittance. But while the bulk of Kazakhstan’s population was having difficulties making ends meet, a smart but not necessarily honest minority were cannily seizing the opportunities offered by the disintegration of the Soviet Union to make fortunes for themselves. One such was Mukhtar Ablyazov, a Kazakh theoretical physics graduate from Moscow’s Engineering Physics Institute. In 1992 he started supplying different areas of the newly independent country with basic commodities such as salt, sugar, tea, chocolate and medicines, establishing a multi-sector private holding company, Astana Holding, He then moved into the energy sector, being appointed head of the state-owned Kazakhstan Electricity Grid Operating Company in 1997. After turning that into a profitable operation, in a rapid rise he was appointed Minister for Energy, Industry and Trade. For a while, at least, he enjoyed the favour of the then all-powerful President, Nursultan Nazarbayev. But that was not to last.

Mukhtar Ablyazov bookFast forward to 2005, by which time Mukhtar Ablyazov was Chairman of BTA Bank, which within three years had become the largest financial institution in the country. Blessed with colossal natural resources, from hydrocarbons to precious metals, Kazakhstan’s economy was starting to take off dramatically and oligarchs with the right connections were making huge fortunes. But all was not well with BTA. Auditors from Pricewaterhouse Coopers discovered a $10 billion shortfall in the bank’s accounts — and Mr Ablyazov was subsequently accused of embezzling a substantial chunk of that. He had meanwhile accumulated an impressive property portfolio on both sides of the Atlantic — including a mansion on Hampstead’s Bishop’s Avenue, “Billionaires Row”, and an estate in Surrey. BTA launched legal proceedings against their former Chairman in the British High Court; the judgment went against Ablyazov, but he managed to slip out of the country — using a false identity and a cheap bus to France, according to Gary Cartwright, a Brussels-based journalist and author of the slim volume Wanted Man: The Story of Mukhtar Ablyazov (Cambridge International Press, £9.95). In France, Ablyazov found himself the subject of an extradition order to Russia and spent some time in a French jail. Yet various human rights organisations as well as several members of the European Parliament campaigned to have that situation reversed on the grounds that he was the victim of political persecution and had a valid claim to asylum. He had indeed set up a putative opposition party and maybe even aspired to replace Nazarbayev one day in a fully democratic Kazakhstan.

BTA BankBut as Cartwright’s book outlines, the Ablyazov affair has murky tendrils that stretch into many countries, tax havens such as Luxembourg and networks of criminals and intelligence agencies. Ablyazov even stands accused of ordering the murder of his predecessor as Chairman of BTA bank, who was “accidentally” shot by a rifle when the car he was travelling in on a hunting expedition went over a bump in the road. The story is indeed worthy of popular fiction or a high-drama film and maybe one day that will happen. In the meantime, Ablyazov is assumed to be lying low in France, playing his guitar and hanging out with a close network of family and friends. Gary Cartwright’s book only skates over the surface of this extremely complex and intriguing affair, and it is very much the case for the prosecution (supported by some documentary evidence). As such, it whets the appetite rather than providing a definitive account. Presumably one day that will be written by someone, but for the present one is left with unsettling insights into the unseemly underbelly of not just Kazakhstan but of so much of the post-Soviet world, as well as elements of the support systems that dodgy oligarchs have been able to rely on across the EU, ranging from lawyers to false NGOs and sometimes gullible politicians. And in a world in which false news and alternative facts increasingly rule it may prove to be the  evil of a task to find out the whole truth.

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GCHQ

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 26th July, 2019

GCHQ. AldrichOn 1 November the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) will be celebrating its centenary. The very fact that it is acknowledging this landmark is a reflection of how things have changed. Much of GCHQ’s work may still be top secret, but in an era of greater transparency, it doesn’t need to pretend it doesn’t exist. Moreover, the distinctive “doughnut” building in Cheltenham that houses most its UK-based staff has become iconic, even if it does not allow in visitors, unlike its US equivalent. Though the doughnut cost a small fortune, it has proved to be too small, thanks to the recent proliferation of hostile actors and threatening activities, from Islamist terrorists to drug cartels and cyber warriors. A cogent exposition of these is one of the most valuable parts of Richard J Aldrich’s updated unofficial history of the organisation, GCHQ (William Collins, £12.99), issued in time for the centenary. In nearly 600 pages, Aldrich (Professor of International Security at Warwick University) provides not just a chronological account of GCHQ’s development and its sometimes fractious relationship with counterparts both in Europe and beyond but also an overview of how dramatically the post-modern world has changed, thanks to technology, not least computers and satellites.

GCHQ doughnutThis would have been unimaginable to most of the people — mainly in the armed forces — who decided after the First World War that it would be useful if Britain had its own unit to develop codes and cyphers as well as to crack those of the enemy. Though the work started relatively modestly, the onset of the Second World War changed all that and Bletchley Park (a mansion astonishingly purchased privately by the man who was determined to see it up and running) became the ultra-secret hub of “sigint” work, home to Alan Turing and other pioneers in the field as well as linguists and code-breakers whose contribution to the war effort was duly acknowledged by Winston Churchill. Peace brought no real let-up to the activity, as the Soviet Union had become the new focus of prime attention and GCHQ became a key partner in Britain’s intelligence community, with outposts in Cyprus and elsewhere.

Subsequently, GCHQ’s reach has gone truly global as well as monitoring groups and persons of interest within the United Kingdom itself. That aspect of surveillance has caused concern among civil libertarians and at times GCHQ’s activities have themselves come under sharp scrutiny from campaigning journalists such as Duncan Campbell. In an age of metadata we are all under various kinds of scrutiny, not just from governments but from giant tech companies as well. This situation raises all sorts of moral questions about the right balance between national security and individual freedoms, and Richard J Aldrich does not shy away from these. But one great value of this book is his fairly dispassionate approach to the subject of GCHQ; he is neither its champion nor its critic, but based on an immense amount of research he has produced a gripping account that leaves one with much food for thought. GCHQ has commissioned its own, official history to mark its centenary, but I doubt whether even in the age of transparency that could be as richly informative as this unofficial one.

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Madam Atatürk

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 6th June, 2019

Madam AtaturkAs father of the modern Turkish nation, Mustafa Kemal posthumously continues to enjoy a super-human status, which in fact he had already acquired during his lifetime. He was a brilliant military commander who played a pivotal role in preventing the further dismemberment of the territory by foreign forces following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and almost single-handedly he shaped his country’s destiny, as a largely secular, Westward-looking land that would be dragged through the process of modernisation. Honoured with the surname Atatürk, Father of the Turks, he obliged his countrymen to take on European-style family names and discouraged the use of Oriental dress. On that latter point he was influenced by someone little acknowledged in the outside world for the significant role she played in Turkey’s evolution, his wife Latife. They were only together for two-and-a-half years, before he dismissed her; though she was devoted to him, she both fascinated and exasperated him. She incurred the wrath of both her husband and his cronies when she tried to curb his drinking and to stop him staying up half the night. Damned by some of her contemporaries after the divorce, Latife was an exceptional force of nature at a time when women were supposed to be obedient and quiet. The daughter of a fabulously wealthy businessman from Smyrna (Izmir), she was educated partly in Europe, was fluent in several languages and intellectually robust. Despite intermittently poor health, she outlived Atatürk by nearly four decades and could doubtless have had a brilliant international career as a speaker and writer had she not been effectively silenced and for a long period forbidden to travel. İpek Çalışlar’s biography Madam Atatürk, now available in a new paperback edition from Saqi Books (£12.99), fills an important lacuna in presenting this remarkable woman in a largely favourable light. As the author laments, some valuable source material remains inaccessible because of the family’s wishes, but she drew heavily on the memoirs of people who knew Latife and her husband intimately, as well as on Western journalists’ accounts of the time. Mustafa Kemal was a notorious womaniser (my own Austro-Hungarian honorary grandmother had to flee Turkey to escape his persistent attentions) and while he largely supported female emancipation he clearly found some of Latife’s admonishments irksome. What is really fascinating about this biography, though, (in spite of sometimes veering perilously towards hagiography) is the vivid image it gives of Izmir in the 1920s and of the hick town of Ankara, which Atatürk had chosen as the infant nation’s new capital. There is a cornucopia of telling detail as well as a different perspective on Mustafa Kemal himself, much of it conveyed between the lines.

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How Not to Go to War

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 13th May, 2019

How Not to Go to WarWith tensions rising in various parts of the world and forceful leaders in power in China, Russia and the US, we are right to be concerned about things boiling over into global conflict (and on more local levels, not least in the Middle East, such conflicts are ongoing). Moreover, with global warming and desertification taking a hold over large areas of our precarious planet, the possibility of water wars and other disputes over resources rises as we head to what otherwise risks becoming auto-destruction. But is war inevitable? Vijay Mehta, veteran peace campaigner and author, argues in his latest book, How Not to Go to War (Catapult, £9.99), that it is not. He makes the valid point — proved by historical evidence — that making war is part of the male psyche (Margaret Thatcher being the exception that proves the rule), so by addressing issues of postmodern masculinity one might be able to challenge conflict as a default option. But new technologies also mean that we really should be terrified at the prospects of any Third World War. The annihilation that would be brought about nuclear weapons in a war has long been known, but nuclear deterrence (MAD — mutually assured destruction) may not necessarily guarantee a no-use situation forever. Safer to get rid of the lot of them, as well as more “moral”. Mehta does of course take moral positions, but the strength of this book is in the practical details, for example how establishing Departments of Peace and Peace Centres worldwide could reduce tensions and pomote understanding. There are extensive appendices describing various countries’ experience in setting these up — they are not theoretical pie in the sky — such as Costa Rica, Ethiopia and Nepal. But the section that struck me most covers the development of miniature drones programmed by AI to target individuals or types of people discriminately. The image of swarms of these insect-like devices coming in through the window is absolutely chilling. No, let’s try and make Peace work instead!

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Iran, Islam and Democracy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 22nd April, 2019

Iran-Islam-and-Democracy--653x1024Contemporary Iran is much maligned and little understood in the West, especially in Washington, where the Trump administration (like several of its predecessors) views Iran as the devil incarnate. Of course, the Islamic Republic returns the compliment by frequently calling the United States the Great Satan. Each country has good reason to object to some aspects of the society and government found in the other. Yet international relations would be much smoother, and the world safer, if both made a greater effort to work out what makes the other tick. Hence the great value of Ali M. Ansari’s monumental Iran, Islam and Democracy (Gingko, £30/$44.95). Through his close examination of the leadership records of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Rouhani in particular, the author presents a penetrating view of the complexities and tensions within Iranian politics, far different from the two-dimensional picture proffered by Donald Trump or Binyamin Netanyahu.

The very name “Islamic Republic” illustrates a contradiction at the heart of the system in Iran. Republics — particularly those influenced by French or indeed American revolutionary thought — are inherently bottom-up societies in the sense that ultimate authority derives from the people. But religious societies in contrast are usually top-down. For much of Iran’s history a patrimonial shah or king was in charge, with a firm hand on the driving wheel, and even after the last shah was overthrown in 1979, a new top-down type of authority was imposed, by the Ayatollah Khomeini and since his death, Ayatollah Khamenei. This new authority has the added status of being in principle God-given and it is significant that the spiritual Leader of Iran takes precedence over the elected President, even when the latter has clearly been the Leader’s intellectual superior (not something one could say about Ahmadinejad).

There is an ongoing dialectic between conservatives and reformists within Iranian society and one of the most stimulating parts of this significant book is an extended examination of the record of and expectations regarding the comparatively “liberal” Mohammad Khatami (previously published as a separate volume, now supplemented with additional and more recent texts). Just as conservatives in the country’s religious hierarchy sometimes exaggerate the “threat” of reformist politicians and intellectuals — periodically leading to the closure of allegedly offensive newspapers and magazines — so the West has often put undue faith in the ability of reformists and in particular the Green Movement to affect rapid change. Things move slowly in Iran, where the ousting of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953 still rankles. But even revolutions evolve with time. And it seems clear that if the outside world wants Iran to become more “normal” in its internal and external behaviour, then engagement rather than confonrtation is likely to produce better results.

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Serendipity and E M Forster

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 10th February, 2019

8D7FA5BF-072B-4D30-AF67-E45E0A170EC8Last week, walking home from the tube in London, I saw that a neighbour (unknown) had left out a dozen books or so on a wall for passers-by to pick up and take away. By chance my eyes fell on an old Penguin edition of E M Forster’s Howards End, which I had never read, despite a great affection for the author and his work. I guess this was because as a young man during my intense fiction-reading days I was attracted to the continental and the exotic, whereas Howards End sounded terribly English. As indeed it is, as I have discovered as I savour it in moments of leisure while I am travelling in Oman. But it is deliciously satirical of the English middle class — especially those who did not have to work for a living — and as Christopher Isherwood once memorably put it, Forster “tea-tables” the emotions and the dramas, with a precise and critical eye for detail. I sometimes hear older people say, “Oh, I wish I had known about such-such-a-book years ago!” But I am glad that I have happened upon Howards End in later life. I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much half a century ago. Moreover, the serendipity of spotting it on the wall in London, picking it up and bringing it with me to Oman somehow enhances the pleasure in reading it. And, yes, when I finish it, I will leave the 1957 paperback on a wall or the seat in a bus shelter to ensure the book’s next chance encounter.

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Trump’s Christmas Carol ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 18th December, 2018

2FAD63ED-0E38-47BA-999D-6189F9410C89Donald Trump is such a preposterous individual that he is actually quite hard to satirise. Satire tends to exaggerate characteristics and exaggerating his is quite a challenge without appearing absurd. However, the pseudonymous author Watt T. Dickens found a nice conceit by recrafting Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol with Ebenezer Trump taking the part of Scrooge (Ebury Press, £7.99). He is visited in turn by Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton (the ghost of Christmas past) and Barack Obama (the ghost of Christmas present) before the deathly ghost of Christmas Future shames him into a modicum of compassion. Barely has his last visitor left, however, before Trump reverts to being the greedy, sexist, racist narcissist that he was at the outset. All his loud-mouthed pussy-grabbing faults are laid bare, and whereas some of the earlier passages are indeed quite funny, by the end one really feels quite sick with the ghastliness of it all. However did that tangerine egomaniac with the impossible hair get into the White House? And how is it only too credible that he might get re-elected in 2020?

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Soldiers of a Different God ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 14th August, 2018

Soldiers of a Different GodWhile considerable attention has been paid by the media to jihadi groups and terrorist attacks of various kinds, the spotlight has not been shone so brightly on the counter-jihad movement. That is the term Brussels-based writer Christopher Othen gives to the motley collection of political activists, commentators and miscellaneous Islamophobes who are the subject of his book, Soldiers of a Different God (Amberley, £18.99). The sub-title on the cover offers the promise that the book will explain how the counter-jihad movement created mayhem, murder and the Trump presidency, but in fact the narrative thread is not as assertive as that. Indeed, at the very end, the author tentatively opines: “Decide whether Islam is an existential threat to Western liberal democracy or a slandered religion of peace that just wants to co-exist. Even Houllebecq the mage on the cover of Charlie Hebdo might find that kind of prediction beyond his powers.”

The French novelist Michel Houllebecq is just one phenomenally successful literary figure whose contribution to the counter-jihad movement is considered. Far more significant in many ways is Oriana Fallaci, who raised herself from her sickbed to write La Rabbia e l’Orgoglio, which, Othen writes, “spewed rage and venom like an out-of-control firehose.” Othen’s rhetoric is a fiery as that of many of the characters he introduces into the story, from Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders to Milo Yiannopoulos and Nigel Farage, but that does not mean he shares their views. Steve Bannon, formerly Donald Trump’s right-hand man, and for a while a key figure in alt-right Breitbart News, comes across as a particularly hiss-worthy pantomime villain. Othen was a journalist before turning to writing books, and much of this volume is written in colourful journalese, which suggests the volume is geared towards a younger readership, yet there are pages of copious notes at the end, giving it an apparent badge of academic respectability. I liked the way that he managed to include most of the right-wing nutters on both sides of the Atlantic that one has learned to hate, while not glossing over the terrorism, rape, human rights abuses and other causes of their ire, so the book does serve as a useful source for easy reference. But I do wish he had taken a clearer authorial stance. Serves me right for taking at face-value what was on the cover.

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Cambodia Once Again Will Stun the World ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 6th August, 2018

COUTEL-Temoigner, entre acte et paroleThe title of Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s new book (Cambodia Once Again Will Stun the World, Balland, €15) reflects the boundless optimism that the man himself displays, despite the many hard knocks he has received over the years and his involuntary status of political exile. I guess the allusion in the title is to the golden era of Angkor, where, at the start of the 12th century, an estimated one million people lived around the temple complex, which would make it the largest conurbation of its time. But for most people, of course, Cambodia entered their consciousness when the genocidal crimes of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979) came to light. Though a sizable majority of the population today are too young to have any direct experience of the horrors of the concentration camps and killing fields, the trauma endures, barely alleviated by the kleptocratic nature of the regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen. The PM, his family and cronies have amassed great fortunes over recent decades while most Cambodians suffer a standard of living that is among the lowest in South East Asia, and much of the country’s environment has been ravaged.

Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party won 90% of the seats in last month’s general election, which was widely denounced by foreign governments as a sham. Sam Rainsy’s National Rescue Party was excluded, having been forcibly “dissolved” by the authorities last year, though he pursues his political agenda in exile through the newly-created Cambodia National Rescue Movement. This book, in a series of sometimes sketchy, very short passages, gives some pointers to the sort of society he would like to see in a putative Cambodian renaissance, based on the rule of law, an end to corruption and full civil rights. As a devout Buddhist, he is forgiving towards his political enemies, even if they do not return the courtesy, and he is prepared to work with any outside country, including China, to build the nation he envisages. This is not entirely pie-in-the-sky, as Sam Rainsy in the 1990s was Minister of Finance in the government of Norodom Ranariddh (which was overthrown in a coup in 1997) and he has excellent international contacts, not least through the Liberal International. But for the time being, he is an outcast, admired (often in secret) by millions of his compatriots, denounced by Hun Sen, and sadly unlikely to be able to flesh out the bones of his vision for a new Cambodia any time soon.

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