Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Haus Publishing’

My House in Damascus

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 30th April, 2014

My House in DamascusBait BaroudiDiana 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.

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Happy Birthday, Charles Dickens

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 7th February, 2012

The winter chill this evening was positively Dickensian, but there was much warmth, wine and laughter at that Chelsea New Curiosity Shop, the BookHaus, where author Peter Clark launched his latest work Dickens’s London under the benign direction of publisher Barbara Schwepcke. One of her young staff engagingly juggled clementines while reminding us of Dickens’s memoir of the world’s first white-faced clown, Joseph Grimaldi. Clark’s book, a slim volume that comfortably slips into a jacket pocket, takes as its starting point a volume the author found on Dickens Walks in London by a chap in the 1890s, allowing Clark to muse about the places along the walks at the time of Dickens, in the 1890s and now. Dickens was not the most charming of men — he treated his wife pretty abominably — but his power of evocative description was second to none. As a fine journalist and chronicler, he was able to invent unforgetable characters, and attach memorable names to them. I read most of Dickens while I was at school — I wonder how many boys or girls do so today? — though I have never gone back to him. But his bicentenary is bound to create a new burst of appreciation for his novels, as well as a mountain of new biographies (including one by my friend Simon Callow) and studies, of which James Clark’s seems set to be one of the most endearing.


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The Colonel

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 29th November, 2011

For a country that has been run by a puritanical Islamic government for the past 32 years, Iran has an astonishingly rich cultural output in many media, from cinema to poetry. Cemsorship means that some of the more sensitive literary production cannot be published in Tehran, which is why some Iranian writers have chosen to publish or even live abroad. Their work deserves much greater international recognition, so it is to be applauded that International PEN — the organisation that campaigns for imprisoned and persecuted writers — has formally recommended a new English translation of a novel by one of Iran’s most celebrated and controversial writers, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi: The Colonel (Haus Publishing, £9.99). The story oscillates between fact and fiction, reality and illusion, past and present, first and third person narrative, all set against a nightmare backdrop of oppression and powerlessness, to the constant gloomy accompaniment of rain. The main protagaonist or anti-hero is the eponymous colonel, a man destroyed by his failure to live up to his own high standards (epitomised by his alter ego The Colonel, a historical figure, whose picture dominates his living room); the colonel has killed his wife for besmirching the family’s honour with her drunken philandering, and he is unable to save his various children from terrible fates because of their differing political choices. The descriptions of political persecution and torture — both under the Shah’s regime and since the Revolution — are graphic and chilling. A reader unfamiliar with Persian history and literature would be likely to miss many of the references and allusions in the text, were it not for the helpful and unobtrusive footnotes by translator Tom Patterdale, the foreword and a glossary of names. Though the context is specific, many of the novel’s messages are universal — Man’s inhumanity to Man in the pursuit of political or religious purity, the helplessnss of the individual within a totalitarian system, and the powerful emotions within a family riven by ideology or personal betrayal, to mention but a few. The overall effect is numbing yet inspirational, depressing but also enraging the reader. This is not a book that could leave one indifferent.


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Makers of the Modern World

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 10th November, 2008

This lunchtime I was at the Imperial War Museum in London for the launch of a new series of biographies called ‘Makers of the Modern World’ — leading figures from the Paris Peace Conferences of 1919-1923 and those conferences’ aftermath and legacy — being brought out by the independent publishers Haus (who will issue my new book on T.E. Lawrence next year). As Haus’s Director, Barbara Schwepcke, explained, the inspiration for the series came from a picture in the War Museum’s collection showing figures at one of the Paris conferences. The series editor is Alan Sharp, who is also author of one of the volumes, on David Lloyd George: Britain. Others in the series that I will be particularly looking forward to include Jonathan Clements on Wellington Choo: China, my old Bush House colleague Andrew Mango on From the Sultan to Ataturk: Turkey, and Hugh Purcell’s Maharajah of Bikaner: India.


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