Jonathan Fryer

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Egypt Sullies Its Own Name

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 29th August, 2015

Al Jazeera threeEarlier today, a court in Egypt sentenced three journalists from Al Jazeera TV to three years in prison on the trumped-up charges of aiding a terrorist organisation (the Muslim Brotherhood) and producing false news in order to defame the name of the country. But it is this verdict which has sullied Egypt’s reputation. It is an egregious assault on the freedom of the press and blatantly political, underlining just how far President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has dragged Egypt back to a pre-2011 Revolution era of military-backed dictatorship and suppression of dissent. One of the three people sentenced today, the Australian Peter Greste (a former colleague of mine at the BBC), was fortunately safely out of the country, having been released after a vigorous international campaign after a first, prolonged trial collapsed. But the verdict could seriously now compromise his work as a foreign correspondent, as any country that has an extradition treaty with Egypt could receive a summons to send him to Cairo.

Abdel Fatah el-SisiHowever the real tragedy is the fate of his two AJ colleagues, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, who had been out on bail but must now return to prison — for the “crime” of simply doing their job. It is a terrible blow to them and their families and should trigger strong renewed international protests, not just from NGOs but also from Western governments, including Britain’s. David Cameron astonishingly invited President Sisi to come on an official visit to London later this year, with the announcement about that being made the day after ousted president Mohamed Morsi was sentenced to death by another court. That invitation should now be withdrawn. By staying silent, Britain would instead be condoning what are clear assaults on human rights, including freedom of expression, which would mean that not only is Egypt’s reputation tarnished but Britain’s too.

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Is Brazil Going to Make It!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 26th August, 2015

imageThere’s a popular saying here in Brazil that Brazil is the country of the future — and always will be. A few years ago I gave a lecture at the Federal University of Ceara arguing that “Brazilianism” — this collective sardonic attitude to the country’s potential — had to be overcome if it was going to make the grade. Since then, Brazil has hosted the World Cup and is preparing for the Olympic Games, both symbolic indications that the country has joined the top rank of countries. Moreover, in an economic forecast circulating on twitter yesterday, Brazil’s economy is set to overtake Britain’s by 2030. Well, so it should, when you consider how big the country is, geographically and in population, as well as how rich it is in resources (including oil). Yet all is not rosy in Brazil’s garden. Corruption is still rampant at every level, which is acting as a serious brake on advancement and the gap between rich and poor continues to be huge. Indeed, the situation of the poorest has got worse, thanks to rising prices and few new employment opportunities.

imageOf course, Brazilians are famous for enjoying life, even if they have little materially, but their patience is running out. Regular demonstrations against President Dilma Rousseff have been taking place around the country, but so too have counter-demonstrations by the left-wing parties that support her. At least there seems no possibility these days of a military coup. When I first came to Brazil, over 30 years ago, the military dictatorship that had taken over in 1964 was still in power and although its excesses were not usually quite as appalling as those of its counterparts in Argentina and Chile nonetheless its human rights record was very poor. These days people are more worried by the high level of violent crime than by what the military might get up to. Despite the problems, however, I believe that Brazil is getting over Brazilianism and even it is developing at a pace that seems pathetic when compared with China or India this particular BRIC is somewhere to watch and to engage with economically and diplomatically, far more so than my home country, Britain, is doing at the moment.

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Adoption: Great, When It Works

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 25th August, 2015

imageAccording to a news item in Family Law News today, an adoption has been revoked after a child applied successfully to return to their biological mother. Things have certainly come on a long way since I was adopted, when even a request for information about my mother (whom my adoptive parents had actually met) was rejected angrily with accusations of being ungrateful. It was not even possible to trace one’s origins oneself until many years later, when David Owen introduced the right for adopted children to obtain their original birth certificate. Although I was by then fully adult, it was nonetheless hugely emotional to discover my original identity as Graeme Leslie Morton, rather than Jonathan Harold Fryer. The journey since then in being united with two half-sisters and discovering more about my background has been exciting but also unsettling. It has certainly reinforced my belief that adoptive parents should always be ready to help the adopted child be comfortable with their origins as well as with their adoptive family. In the old days, too often the process of adoption was all about giving couples who were not able to produce their own children, for whatever reason, the opportunity to acquire one (or more). And in most cases they thereby also won brownie points for taking in a child who would otherwise be stigmatised by illegitimacy, which was a serious issue half a century ago. In other words, the process of adoption was seen by the powers that be as parent-focused, rather than child-focused, as it is today.

imageThere are far stricter conditions these days about who can adopt, which can be frustrating for childless couples but which probably means that fewer unsuitable adoptions take place, which must benefit the children. The news about the possibility of adoption revocation is another welcome advance in the rights of the child, though of course this would only affect a tiny number of cases. Adoption as an institution is great, when it works, and I know many people who grew up in a truly happy adoptive family. But it does not always work, and I know from my own experience how painful it can sometimes be as an adopted child to feel trapped.

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Let Palmyra Inspire Us

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 24th August, 2015

imageimageYesterday news came through from Syria’s Department of Antiquities that ISIS forces had blown up the Temple of Baalshamin, one of the jewels in the crown of Palmyra, the most spectacular of all Syrian pre-Islamic sites. Ever since Islamic State occupied the site and its neighbouring town there had been fears that these iconoclasts would destroy the ruins. Then only a few days ago, ISIS beheaded the octogenarian chief curator of Palmyra, Khaled al-Asaad, in yet another example of their barbarity. The one positive outcome of that despicable act was that it united Syrians — who have been engaged in a bloody civil war for the past four years — in condemnation. An estimated 300,000 Syrians have perished in the conflict so far, but this one death highlighted the grotesque extremes to which the violence has reached when civilization itself is being consigned to oblivion. There is still the danger that ISIS will destroy more historic ruins and artefacts in Palmyra but we should not let such actions lead us to despair but rather to reinforce our determination to protect and preserve our heritage, as well as the lives and well-being of people today, and to show the young zealots who have been blinded by the false testimony of a perversion of Islam the true values of humanity and civilization. Let Palmyra be the symbol of that struggle and an image that inspires hope, not despair.

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A New Era in UK-Iran Relations

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 23rd August, 2015

UK Iran 1The British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond is in Tehran today, reopening the Embassy that has been closed for four years following its invasion by demonstrators. Given the recent progress in international negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions this was an inevitable and welcome step. Though Brtain’s engagement in Iran has not always been positive there are strong reasons for the UK — and indeed the European Union — to have closer working relations with this important Middle Eastern power. Commercial opportunities are obvious, but trade should not be the only focus for attention. If there is going to be a regional settlement of Syria’s ongoing civil war then Iran is going to have to be involved. Similarly, wider regional insecurity as well as the fight against ISIS, require closer contacts with Tehran. In particular, it would be helpful to reduce the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which has been a central cause of the recent events in Yemen.

UK Iran Britain can also usefully use its influence to try to calm Israeli rhetoric against Iran and vice versa; yesterday, in an interview, the former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak confirmed that Israel had considered attacking Iran four times over the past decade. Iranian propaganda against what it refers to as the “Zionist entity” is often poisonous, but Israel would find itself in a less ignominious position if it withdrew from occupied Palestine. There is, however, one other major issue that could be an impediment in the way of much closer British-Iranian relations and that is human rights. The Islamic Republic has a poor record in a number of areas, including the treatment of its Ba’hai minority, Kurds, political dissidents, LGBT population and others. And although the UK Foreign Office recently downgraded its emphasis on a worldwide campaign against the death penalty it should not let this issue drop off the agenda in discussions with Iran.

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I Once Met … Dr Spock

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 22nd August, 2015

Dr SpockFor millions of parents on both sides of the Atlantic Dr Benjamin Spock’s handbook, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, published in 1946, was a kind of Bible. Indeed, for half a century it reportedly sold more copies round the world than any other book except for the actual Bible. Its central message to mothers was deeply reassuring: ‘You know more than you think you do!’ In contrast to previous child care ‘experts’, who argued that children should be taught to eat at scheduled times and be trained through ‘tough love’, Dr Spock encouraged parents to pick up their crying infants and hug them and give them what they wanted.

But parenting had nothing to do with my encounter with Dr Spock, one early summer’s evening in Trinity Term 1970, at the Oxford Union. The hottest political issue of the day was the Vietnam War and Dr Spock was one of its most articulate opponents. Two years earlier, he had been one of four prominent critics of the conflict to be singled out for prosecution by the US Attorney General, Ramsey Clark, on charges of conspiracy to aid draft resisters. So he was greeted as a hero by the predominantly left-wing Oxford University students of the time that balmy evening when he came to speak at the Union.

Dr Spco bookHe looked the antithesis of a radical, so clearly East Coast Ivy League, in his Brooks Brothers suit and elegant shirt with detachable collar. Though almost 67 years old, he was super fit, a testimony to his time as an Olympic sportsman (at the Paris Olympics in 1924 his men’s rowing eight won a gold medal for the United States). As the Union President Stephen Milligan – who was also Chairman of the Oxford University Conservative Association – looked on with furrowed brow, Dr Spock had us undergraduates cheering to the rafters as he blasted US imperialism and decried the suffering of the Vietnamese people.

His speech resonated deeply with me, as the previous year, before going up to Oxford, I had been a cub reporter in Vietnam, freelancing for the Manchester Evening News and the Geographical Magazine, so I had seen the napalming of civilians and the defoliation of that verdant land with my own eyes. I thus had no hesitation in bounding up to Dr Spock like an eager puppy at the end of the meeting to let him know. Instantly we were in deep conversation; he had the skill some politicians have of making one feel singularly important while they are talking to you.

Stephen Milligan, who had been hovering on the side in his white tie and evening dress, then astonished me by asking Dr Spock – by this time joined by his wife, Jane Cheney Spock – if he would forgive him if he disappeared to revise for his Finals. I piped up that I would happily look after the Spocks, enabling Stephen to rush off relieved. Though not expected to get a first by his PPE tutor at Magdalen, he was intensely ambitious. It was such a shame that his later political career, after successfully getting elected as the Conservative MP for Eastleigh, was prematurely cut short when an auto-erotic adventure misfired and he was found dead dressed only in stockings and suspenders, with an electric flex round his neck, a piece of orange in his mouth and a black bin-liner over his head.

Back to the Spocks. There was no question of my taking them to my rooms at St Edmund Hall, as there was no water in my building (mercifully demolished soon after) and in a fit of nostalgia for eastern living on the floor I had removed the legs from all the furniture. But fortunately a friend who was with me, the post-graduate social anthropology student Kaori O’Connor, suggested we all go to her comfortable ground floor room in a house in North Oxford. I suspect Kaori’s exotic beauty – a heady mix of Hawaiian Japanese, Irish and Native American – was a major reason Dr Spock agreed.

Vietnam WarAt Kaori’s lodgings we talked long into the night about Vietnam and about the eating and social habits of the Pacific islanders who were our hostess’s academic speciality. Mrs Spock, who had previously been overshadowed by her husband, now came into her own and I was fascinated to learn that she was herself a prominent civil liberties advocate and academic researcher. In fact, she had done much of the research for and writing of The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, though her husband got all the credit. So I was not especially surprised when I read some years later that they had divorced.

By then Dr Spock’s reputation had taken a hammering. A popular conservative American preacher by the name of Norman Vincent Peale, who was a supporter of the US attempt to thwart the so-called domino effect of Communism spreading through South East Asia, blamed the anti-War movement, hippydom and youth’s desire for instant gratification on the laxity engendered in the generation that had been babies raised along the guidelines set down by Dr Spock. Vice-President Spiro Agnew added his ten cents worth by declaring that Dr Spock was personally responsible for the permissive society.

In 1994, at the age of 91, in a new book called Rebuilding American Family Values, Dr Spock was still trying to refute his critics, maintaining that he had always advised parents to give their children firm, clear leadership and to ask for cooperation and politeness in return. Conservatives hated him for his political activism, not for his child psychology, he argued. However, I fear he did no favour to his reputation when he recommended shortly before his death in 1998, in a new edition of his original book, that children should be fed a purely vegan diet from the age of two. I wonder if I would have had such a positive impression of him if I had been fed on lentils since infancy.

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Why Are the British So Bad at Languages?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 21st August, 2015

EU labguages sokA map of the average number of languages spoken by the inhabitants of 27 EU member states (data for Croatia was not included) depressingly confirms how largely monolingual we Brits are.At 1.6 languages each we are right near the bottom, along with the Republic of Ireland and Portugal. Only Hungary (whose own national tongue is frankly fiendish) scores worse. Given that our foreign-born population usually speaks at least two languages (many of my Asian and African friends in London know three or four) the rate for native-born Anglo Saxons must be far worse. Various lame excuses have been offered in the past, the worst being that the British are somehow congenitally “bad at languages”; Preposterous. Others say that it is because English is both Europe’s and the world’s lingua franca, so it is not necessary for us to learn others. How pathetically short-sighted. No wonder that there are never enough British applicants for jobs at the European Commission and other EU institutions, for example. No, the clear reason for our nation’s monolingualism is sheer laziness mixed with apathy, reinforced by government policy that does not stress foreign language learning. “Why bother?” is a depressingly common attitude among the people of Albion. Yet more of us are travelling abroad than ever before and indeed hundreds of thousands of Brits are choosing to work or live in other countries. Learning another language fluently opens the door not only to more meaningful contact with new people and ideas elsewhere but also to a whole range of culture and leisure activities. Which is why, when I visit school sixth forms, as I do several times a year, my loudest words of advice are: “Learn AT LEAST one other language FLUENTLY!” As Britain struggles to survive as one of the world’s leading economies while new giants continue to rise globally, we are going to need people who have that ability.

leading economnciu

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Turkey to Have a “War” Election?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 19th August, 2015

imageYesterday the Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, resigned his mandate to form a new government having failed to come to any coalition agreement with opposition parties. This morning, President Erdoğan declared that the country is heading rapidly towards new elections; his AKP failed to get an overall majority in elections earlier this year, for the first time in a decade. Calling for a new vote is understandable, maybe even necessary, under the circumstances, but the worrying thing is the context in which any new election will be fought. The country’s armed forces are now engaged more directly in the fight against ISIS, but more importantly the uneasy ceasefire between the Turkish government and the banned Kurdish guerrilla movement the PKK is well and truly over. Turkish planes have bombed PKK forces within Iraqi Kurdistan (causing some civilian collateral damage) and the number of Turkish soldiers and policemen who have been killed by PKK sympathisers inside Turkey has risen sharply.

imageThe reconciliation process between Ankara and Turkey’s sizeable Kurdish minority is firmly on hold. This means that President Erdoğan will be tempted to call an election which the AKP will fight on a war footing, declaring that national security and the very unity of the country are at stake. His aim in doing so will be to get an overwhelming parliamentary majority, which will then enable him to push through his thwarted plans to move Turkey towards an executive presidential system, consolidating his own power. In the meantime, in any such “war” election, the predominantly Kurdish HDP — which broke through the grotesquely high 10% threshold barrier earlier this year, giving it a body of MPs for the first time — is bound to be unfairly stigmatised by the AKP and its compliant media as being allied to terrorism. That would be a serious step backwards for Turkey’s troubled democracy. But whereas a few months ago there was reason to be optimistic about the direction in which Turkey was heading the opposite is true now.

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Pessoa’s Lisbon for Tourists

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 18th August, 2015

imageimageOne if the things I so love about travel is the serendipity of chance encounters with unknown books in other people’s bookshelves, which is how I came across Fernando Pessoa’s Lisbon: What the Tourist Should See (Bilingual edition, Companhia das Lettras, 1992) here in Fortaleza, Brazil. Widely recognised as Portugal’s second most important poet (after Camoes), Pessoa spent his formative years in Durban, South Africa, where his stepfather was Portuguese Consul, and he wrote this little guidebook in English in the 1920s, by which time he was well installed in Lisbon, a city he adored. The manuscript was among the many papers found after his death and published posthumously. Although the book starts off as little more than a catalogue of sights that a casual visitor to Lisbon might see it starts to take on real life when Pessoa lets his romantic imagination roam in the bye ways of history. I particularly savoured glimpses of places now no longer extant, including the metallic covered market in the Praca de Figueira and the open-air public library that operated under the shady branches of a vast cedar tree. Lisbon has long been my favourite European city and this literary curiosity adds another little sparkle to its glory.

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Why Brazilians Are Protesting

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 17th August, 2015

imageimageWhen Brazilians take to the streets in their hundreds of thousands it is usually Carnival time — an explosion of popular music and celebration. But recently the crowds have been turning out for an entirely different reason: calling for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. Yesterday, in the main commercial city São Paulo an estimated 350,000 took part, with smaller demonstrations in other centers including the capital, Brasilia. There was even a modest turnout here in the North-Eastern coastal city of Fortaleza ( where I am spending August). The main trigger for the impeachment calls has been frustration at the corruption by which Brazil is riddled, including within the giant hydrocarbons company Petrobras where Dilma (as she is always referred to) used to work. But there is a wider disenchantment with her and her government because the Brazilian economy has stalled, while unemployment and inflation are both rising. There is very little chance that Dilma will be toppled (she is only one year into her second mandate) and it is doubtful whether anyone else could turn the country round quickly. But in the meantime the demonstrations have a certain therapeutic value as people come together to voice their individual and collective frustrations.

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