Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Baghdad’

Letters from Baghdad

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 16th April, 2017

Gertrude Bell 1A century ago, the shape of the modern Middle East was formed out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. The behind-the-scenes power play by Britain and France that resulted in the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement led to the boundaries of their respective zones of influence. But also significant was the work done by the British explorer, archaeologist and spy, Gertrude Bell, who drew the borders of the modern state of Iraq. A contemporary of T. E. Lawrence, with whom she had a friendship spiced by intense personal rivalry, Bell left her mark in more ways than one, including founding the Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad and chivying, not always successfully, the British government to, run its Middle Eastern League of Nations mandates according to her priorities. There have been several books about Gertrude Bell, but none gives such a vivid picture of her as the new documentary film by Sabine Krayenbuhl and Zeva Oelbaum, Letters from Baghdad. Their approach is quite daring, reflecting its subject’s forthright personality, as it largely comprises archive footage that the film-makers found in 25 separate locations, as well as black-and-white photos taken by Bell herself. The streets of Baghdad, Aleppo, Cairo and other places 100 years ago are so successfully brought alive that one is transported back in time, as well as place.

Letters from Baghdad still

The commentary is drawn from the subject’s letters and diaries, supplemented by those of some of the people who encountered her. The actor Tilda Swinton provides Bell’s voice, while other actors impersonate key characters, filmed as if giving live interviews. This is truly history reincarnated before our eyes. The film does not hide the complexities, even difficulties, in Gertrude Bell’s character. She was driven by what she believed to be right, and she could be both churlish and offensive towards those who disagreed with her, or struck her as superficial. She was as brave as any man, and the Arabs treated her respectfully as if she were one, yet she also had a colossal wardrobe of clothes, one reason for T. E. Lawrence’s sneering disapproval. She would not have been an easy woman to have as a friend, but one would have had to admire her energy, even if she herself became increasingly disillusioned with life by the end, dying from an overdose (accidental or otherwise) of sleeping pills. This film does her an immense service, as well as underlining Britain’s role in shaping, for better or for worse, the modern, conflict-riven Middle East. It’s a “must see” for anyone with even the slightest interest in the region, but it should appeal also to anyone who relishes accounts of extraordinary individuals.


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Iraq 10 Years On

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 17th April, 2013

The Cordoba Foundation - Iraq 10 Years : Examining A Decade Of Turbulence Conference-The Commonwealth Club, London, United KingdomThe Cordoba Foundation - Iraq 10 Years : Examining A Decade Of Turbulence Conference-The Commonwealth Club, London, United KingdomThe tenth anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq has provided an occasion for reflection on the pluses and minuses of that operation and its aftermath. Having been in Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG) last month I know that many Kurds there think of the War as a Liberation, and I can understand why, given the dreadful persecution they suffered at the hands of Saddam Hussein and his henchmen; it did indeed constitute genocide. But I am also aware, from my last visit to Baghdad, in December 2012, just how shattered Iraq remains as a state. Sunni have been pitted against Shia (who are now dominant) and fatal bombings in the capital are commonplace. As I said in a speech to the Cordoba Foundation and Al Sharq Forum’s Conference at London’s Commonwealth Club, “Iraq 10 Years On”, the Americans made a terrible mistake in pushing de-Ba’athification so far that they sacked the army and police force, as well as many officials — a mistake they notably did not make in Germany in 1945 after the defeat of the Nazis. Saddam was a monster, of that I have no doubt; his torture centres bore all the hallmarks of a true sadist. But the Bush-Blair invasion did not usher in a period of faultless democracy and peace. I never believed it would. Moreover, as Wadah Khanfar — former head of Al Jazeera — pointed out at the same conference, the Iraq War, together with the new Arab Awakening, and all the baggage of Western interference in the Middle East and the unresolved Palestinian situation, has left a region in turmoil. It is not just Iraq that is dysfunctional but the entire MENA region, and I suspect it will take decades before things settle down. Whether that will be within the same b0undaries as the current countries is by no means sure. After all, most of the countries in the Middle East are artificial constructs, the result of the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Balfour declaration and the British betrayal of Arab nationalists led by the Hashemites. Moreover, given the Syrian civil war and renewed political activity regarding the Kurdish question in Turkey, it is not impossible that some time in the future there will be an independent Kurdish state. The KRG are currently sticking to their line that they will be happy with devo-max in Iraq, but if Iraq effectively ceases to be a coherent country then there will be a big temptation to go it alone, which could have far-reaching regional implications.

Photos by Richard Chambury (richfoto). 1: Daud Abdullah, Rosemary Hollis, JF, Matthew G Banks; 2: JF.

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Meeting Adonis

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 4th February, 2012

‘Everyone is born in a poetic state,’ the Syrian-born writer and artist Adonis declared in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist at the Mosaic Rooms in Kensington this noon. But not everyone is destined to express themselves poetically. The sprightly octogenarian — who is viewed by many as the most significant Arab poet alive today — had humble beginnings in a remote village in the French mandated Syrian territory round Latakia, in which electricity and cars were unknown. But he got a lucky break through his own juvenile audacity. In 1943, after Shukri al-Kuwatli was elected Preaident, the new head of the (still not formally independent) state toured the country, to get to know it better. When the 13-year-old Adonis (original name Ali  Ahmad Said Asbar) heard of the impending visitation, he told his father that he wanted to read a poem he had written to President al-Kuwatli, as he was sure the president would then ask him what he would like in return, the answer to which was: to go to school! And that is exactly what happened, according to his testimony today. He studied and wrote and became politically active, which resulted in his being sent to prison for several months. But in 1956 he went into exile in Beirut, leaving there for Paris in 1980 to escape Lebanon’s Civil War. Exile from the Middle East was probably wise, despite his being born into the Alawite sect of Shia Islam from which the current al-Assad ruling family and cohorts in Syria hail. Adonis himself is a-relgious, though very interested in Sufi mysticism. He argues that the ‘decadence’ of the Arab world began with the fall of Baghdad in 1258 and continues today, though he draws some encouragement from the young activists of the present Arab Aakening, ‘though they have been betrayed by the fundamentalists.’ He is scornful of any country, including Israel, being based on a religious faith.  His years in France have given him a very French understanding of positive intellectualism and the power of profound thought. All great artists are also thinkers, he believes. He himself produces striking collages which combine extracts of handwritten text with fragments of everyday objects.  An exhibition of his work can be seen at the Mosaic Rooms 1100-1800 Monday to Saturday until the end of March and there are a couple more events with the poet himself next week.


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