Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Gilgamesh Publishing’

The Milk of Lions

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 2nd June, 2020

The Milk of LionsOne of my favourite wines is Chateau Musar, a rich, earthy red that has been produced in Lebanon for the past 90 years from grapes grown in the Bekaa Valley. Wine production in that region is far, far older, however. In fact, drinking alcoholic beverages such as wine, beer and aniseed-flavoured araq in the Middle East dates back thousands of years. Joseph El-Asmar’s The Milk of Lions (Gilgamesh, £19.95) provides an informative and entertaining overview of the traditions of alcohol in the region, focussing not only on the types of drink and their manufacture but also the social context and literary celebrations of drinking. Although an architect by profession, Mr El-Asmar has dedicated his mellow years to perfecting the production of araq from grapes from his vineyard in the south of Lebanon. Both the production and consumption of alcoholic drinks are dominated by Christians in the region, especially since the spread of a more conservative, Saudi-backed interpretation of Islam has strengthened the prohibition among Muslims. Actually, as Joseph El-Asmar points out, the Koranic prohibition is specifically against praying when intoxicated, though abstinence is the best way of avoiding that situation.

Omar KhayyamIn both Judaism and Christianity, in contrast, wine has a central function in certain religious ceremonies, as was the case in various pre-Islamic pagan faiths. Far from dulling the brain alcohol can actually heighten spiritual awareness, or so some people believe. Nonetheless, most of this book is about the pleasure of drinking as a social activity (typically accompanied by mezze in Lebanon) and as a means of escapism from the cares of everyday life. In Arabic and Persian literature, drinking is often accompanied by more sensual pleasures, the beauty of the servers as delightful as the beverage. As one might expect, Omar Khayyam and the Sufi poet Ibn al-Farid feature among the writers extolling the virtues of drink’s effect on one’s mood. Less expected, perhaps, is Gibran Khalil Gibran, author of The Prophet. Or the overt hedonism of Iraqi Walibah ibn al-Hubab, who declared bluntly: “What is the use of drinking without debauchery… followed by adultery and sodomy!” There are a number of lines of poetry that one would like to refer to periodically, though the lack of an index makes relocating them less easy. The book also contains a heterodox series of colour illustrations, from the sacred to profane, making it an attractive present to proffer a friend who also shares an affection for the demon drink.

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The Japan Affair

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 18th May, 2020

The Japan AffairIt has often been said that there are certain similarities between Britain and Japan, as island nations off the coast of a major continent, despite the self-evident differences. Relations certainly reached a nadir during the Second World War, but at other times the two countries have felt a degree of affinity, if only in being unlike the brash United States, which was still visibly an occupying force (notably in Okinawa) when I first went to Japan as a teenager in 1969, en route to Vietnam. Japanese prints and other aspects of the country’s aesthetics had a big impact on late 19th century English fashion and classics of English literature, from William Shakespeare to Charlotte Bronte, resonate surprisingly well with the concerns of a Japanese audience. With notable exceptions such as the Orientalist Arthur Waley and the novelist Francis King, surprisingly few British authors have really immersed themselves in Japanese literature or life, however. So a volume of short essays by a British politician that have appeared over the past 30-odd years as a fortnightly guest column in Japan’s English-language paper, the Japan Times, is a welcome novelty.

David HowellDavid Howell’s The Japan Affair (Gilgamesh, £19.95) offers a varied selection of these pieces, from 1985 to 2019. Though several of the early ones are broad-brush op-eds on geopolitics and economics, with intimations of Margaret Thatcher fandom, the style and to a certain degree the content become more personal and, let’s be honest, more interesting as the years go by. The truism that one learns how to write by writing seems borne out here. As David Howell — on several occasions a Conservative UK Government Minister, first in the Commons then later in the Lords — was Chair of the UK Japan 2000 Group between 1987 and 1997, inevitably issues studied by that bilateral forum form part of his text. But he comes to life when addressing more human stories, whether it is in reaction to the terrible Kobe earthquake of 1995 or the Japanese passion for Peter Rabbit and his creator Beatrix Potter’s cottage. There are interesting reflections on the transformation of soccer into a multi-billion dollar global enterprise, as well as musings on the core sociological issue of identity. Lord Howell continues to write his column, which only had a break during his time as a Minister in the 2010-2015 Coalition government. But he is able to use a postscript to this collection of pieces to make an over-arching point that perhaps Japan and the UK should put greater effort into nurturing their relationship, in an unsure world of Trump, Putin and Xi. “In areas of technology, defence, security, culture, research, innovation, the two island states are becoming steadily bound together,” he writes. “A little bit of recognition, a little bit (but not too much) of strategic push at government and ministerial levels, could make this a wonderfully strong platform for both nations in a very dangerous and uncertain world.”

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Under My Wig

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 9th July, 2013

Under My WigPalestinian flagsFew people have the opportunity to be a witness to a great sweep of history, let alone get the chance to be part of it. But Dr Jamal Nasir, who launched his autobiography “Under My Wig” (Gilgamesh. £19.95, with an foreword by myself) at Daunt’s bookshop in Holland Park Avenue this evening has had a truly outstanding life and career.  He grew up in Palestine during the British mandate before studying at the American University of Beirut during the Second World War. He then pursued legal studies in England before being called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1948 and going on to have a distinguished legal practice not only in London and Amman — having acquired Jordanian citizenship after the catastrophe of Palestinian dispossession — but also in Oman, China, Nigeria and elsewhere. He became Legal Advisor to His late Majesty King Hussein, working closely with Britain’s favourite foreign monarch for a quarter of a century. This led to his becoming Minister of Justice in Jordan, reorganising the whole legal system, and for a while he was Acting Foreign Minister. His travels as a Minister or accompanying the King meant that he had first-hand encounters with the good, the bad and the bizarre of the world’s leaders, from Germany’s Willy Brandt to China’s Chairman Mao and Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi. Accounts of such meetings enliven the content of Dr Nasir’s autobiography, as does his intimate insights into the nature and workings of the Jordanian royal family. Dr Nasir is already well-known in the legal profession for important works on the Status of Women in Islam and the Islamic Law of Personal Status, but this new work will introduce him to a wider audience. This evening he gave an impassioned speech about the ongoing injustices against the Palestinians (the subject of an earlier book, “Israeli Occupation and the Law of Belligerency”) and the way that Israel’s rulers act with impunity because of US and other Western support. But he also paid tribute to Jewish figures such as Dr Judah Magnes of the Hebrew University and Dr Avi Shlaim of Oxford who understood the reality of the situation. Even one of the founders of Israel, David Ben Gurion — who the young Jamal Nasir met on the London Underground — once declared, “If I were an Arab leader I would never sign an agreement with Israel. It is normal; we have taken their country.”


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Keep the Flag Flying

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 16th June, 2012

The second half of the 20th century defied expectations that it would not live up to the excitement of the first. True, there was no Third World War, but momentous political and social upheavals kept both journalists and diplomats busy, trying to make sense of the process of decolonisation, the radical and sometimes despotic regimes that came to power in parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia, and the long freeze of the Cold War followed by the sudden thaw of 1989. Among the British diplomats lucky and astute enough to be around at the right time in some of the most interesting places and to make the most of them, from the time he joined the Foreign Office in 1958 to his retirement in 1995 after serving as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, was Alan Munro, whose memoirs have now been published: Keep the Flag Flying (Gilgamesh, £17.95). Sir Alan was one of the Camel Corps, bright young minds that were trained in Arabic at MECAS in Shemlan in the hills behind Beirut and who went on to a career spent largely in Arab lands, in all their diversity, from Algeria and Libya to Lebanon, Kuwait and KSA. There were, of course, times posted back home in London, where his responsibilities grew as he rose higher up the Service. The one extraordinary posting, in a sense, was his time in Brazil, at the height of the military dictatorship. There as elsewhere he found plenty to fertilise his anecdotage. There are lots of good stories, many of them worthy of a Lawrence Durrell comic novel. The truly unsavoury nature of various governments and individuals is hinted at rather than spelt out. And when he gets to Saudi Arabia, his writing becomes a labour of love. He clearly retains huge affection for that strange land and some of its extensive royal family, and to an extent he endorses their paradoxical motto of “Progress without Change”. Some of the British politicians and other visitors whom he had to host get shorter shrift, David Mellor and Mark Thatcher, in particular, being slapped down with a minimum of words. There’s a wonderful story of Sir Alan and John Major (while the latter was PM) having to squeeze together in a lavatory cubicle in order to have a private conversation while visiting the Saudi King. But this is only one of various ludicrous and bizarre situations of the kind that make a diplomat’s life bearable, providing they have the right sense of humour, which the author obviously does. History buffs may be disappointed that there is not more “serious” content — though the account of life in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War definitely counts as that — but this book is essentially an entertainment, perhaps conceived partly for family and friends, but deserving of a much wider readership.


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Tahrir: A Critical Explosion

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 26th January, 2012

What better way to celebrate in London the first anniversary of the 25 January Egyptian Revolutionary movement than to join a stimulating crowd of fellow hacks, human rights activists, Arabists and UK-based Atab intellectuals at the launch of a new book about the extraordinary events in Cairo last year by Abdel Latif El-Manawy, who had the job of overseeing news content at the state broadcaster, the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU), in the ancien régime’s final days? From his privileged insider position he was able –and willing — to tell Hosni Mubarak it was time to go, but that still makes him a controversial figure among many Egyptian revolutionaries who wonder quite how he was able to slide gracefully from the old situation into the new one in which the army has essentially been in charge. Mr El-Manawy last night described what happened at Tahrir Square as a ‘critical explosion’. I picked up my copy of ‘Tahrir: The Last 18 Days of Mubarak’ at the party thrown by Gilgamesh publishers at Daunt Books in Marylebone, so have not yet had the chance to read it. But I shall be fascinated to digest not only Abdel Latif’s El-Manawy’s take on the events between the first mass occupation of Tahrir Square and Mubarak’s stepping down, but also to see how he reconciles what he did at the head of an organisation essentially treading a tightrope between media objectivity and propaganda. In the meantime, I shall reserve judgement. Besides, everyone at the launch was too exhilirated by the events of the past year to carp, despite concerns about how successful Egypt’s revolution will prove to be in te end, and even deeper fears about the prognosis for Syria. But in the cold light of morning, we shall see. I shall review the book in due course.


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