Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Saqi’

Pay No Heed to the Rockets

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 23rd April, 2018

Pay No Heed to the RocketsFor such a small territory, Palestine has generated a disproportionate amount of books; I have several shelves-full in my library. But most of those works are about history, war and the search for peace. Literature rarely gets a look in. So Marcello Di Cintio’s journey among Palestinian writers in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, Pay No Heed to the Rockets (Saqi, £8.99, officially published next month) is both refreshing and informative. The writers the Canadian author encounters physically or through texts range from the dead and famous, such as poet Mahmoud Darwish, to brave young literary activists (some feminist, one gay) mainly working in cafés in Ramallah, Gaza City and Haifa. Each has a unique story, all in some way affected by the dispossession and dislocation caused by 1948 and/or 1967, but to very different degrees. Marcello di Cintio says he was prompted to embark on this project — part travelogue, part lyrical tribute to the craft of writing — by a picture of a young girl joyfully retrieving her rather battered books from the rubble of her home after an Israeli attack on Gaza. The author managed to track her down, as well as some of the writers who have been harassed at times by the Palestinian Authority or Hamas. One of the most moving passages in the book recounts a visit he made to a venerable family library in Jerusalem’s Old City which has successfully fought off expropriation by Israel and encroachment by so-called settlers. As usual when Palestine and the Occupation are being examined, there is much to make one angry or depressed, but one of the great strengths of Di Cintio’s book is that he does not become emotionally partisan, nor does he lose his critical faculties while hearing the stories of those he meets along the way. They emerge from the text as recognisable individuals, with their strengths and their foibles, and one gets a clear sense of the environments in which they live and work. All in all, this is one of the best books I have ever read about Palestine and it should prompt people to get to know some of the work by the Palestinian writers themselves.

(Marcello Di Cintio will be visiting the UK 15-20 May)

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Palestine in Black and White

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 15th February, 2018

5B3889E2-D8DB-4D45-B59D-55D7F70692F4Art can be a form of resistance, especially for an occupied people, whether it is in the form of graffiti on walls, paintings or cartoons. So there is little wonder that the 50 years of illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the ongoing blockade of Gaza have been the subject of many works of art as well as biting political cartoons, both inside Palestine as well as in the wider Arab world and beyond. Most Arab newspapers feature black-and-white cartoons attacking dictatorships, corruption, the perceived evils of the United States and the “West”, not least in relation to Israel and Palestine. Many of those cartoons are deliberately simple, to put across a clear message not just to the literate elite but also to the less educated poor and marginalised. But some Arab cartoonists opt for more complex styles and messages. That is the case of Mohammad Sabaaneh, whose work is featured in the book Palestine in Black and White (Saqi, £10.99).

0979AF0C-DD4E-4848-9C7A-7167E1060C21Sabaaneh has achieved widespread recognition, including in Europe and North America, for both the artistic quality and the political poignancy of his drawings. Like many young Palestinian activists, he has spent time in Israeli jails — five months in solitary confinement. Prison is a central theme of the 100 cartoons in the book, both literally and figuratively, the latter reflecting the reality of life for many Palestinians, their movement curtailed by the Wall, security checks and curfews. It is not just the benighted inhabitants of Gaza who feel trapped.  Children grow up in this unnatural and at times frightening environment, and they occur frequently in Sabaaneh’s drawings, sometimes innocently playing, at others menaced by bombs and guns. Sabaaneh uses a variety of styles in his work as a cartoonist. Some are reminiscent of lino-cuts and wood-cuts of the kind favoured by the xilogravura popular artists of north-East Brazil — perfect for featuring stylised images of despair. But other drawings are more reminiscent of very detailed comic strips, with a multitude of characters and the military paraphernalia of occupation. So much is going on in this category of images that one needs to study them carefully for minutes on end. Yet another type is influenced by Modernist artists, not least Picasso; one cartoon, “The First Intifada”, even references Guernica. Some of the cartoons in this collection do have explanatory titles and all are arranged in thematic chapters. But many just speak for themselves, with a powerful voice that deserves to be widely heard.


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Return to the Shadows

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 15th February, 2017

img_1933For those of us who monitor developments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, one of the most fascinating aspects of recent years has been the failure of what one might call mainstream Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood to fully capitalise on the so-called Arab Spring. True, in Egypt the Brotherhood triumphed in the post-Mubarak elections and Mohamed Morsi became President, but both he and the Brotherhood proved unfit for the task, leading to his overthrow (a military coup, but with widespread public support). In Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab awakening, An Nahda did get to have a share of power, but again had largely to withdraw after showing itself not up to the task. And in Libya, the Brotherhood never proved strong enough to be a main contender after Gaddafi’s fall from power. How and why this was the case is the subject of Alison Pargeter’s latest book, Return to the Shadows (Saqi, £16.99), which uses interview material as well as documentary research, meticulously referenced but put over in a style that will appeal to both academics and general readers alike. The author is particularly strong on the rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, sober but incisive in her analysis and criticism, deftly recounting a story that has certain characteristics of a Greek tragedy. The sections on Libya and Tunisia are shorter and less powerful, but nonetheless fascinating. Overall, a significant achievement.

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A Concise History of the Arabs

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 19th July, 2013

A Concise History of the ArabsJohn McHugoHistory was one of my favourite subjects at school and although it ended with “The Causes of the First World War” it gave us boys insights into the story of Europe (including Russia), Imperial China and the Boxer Rebellion, and of course the British Raj in India. But as a I recall no mention was ever made of the Arabs. It was if they were of no importance, or at least peripheral. So it was much later that I discovered the extraordinary contribution the Arab world made to civilization, from Algebra to music therapy. While Europe was in the Dark Ages, Baghdad was a centre of learning that not only preserved much of what the Romans and Ancient Greeks had produced but added to it. And Moorish Andalus and its great cities of Cordoba and Granada were legendary in their degree of artistry, philosophy and tolerance, centuries before the European Enlightenment. So there is every good reason why adults as well as children in the West should learn about the Arabs, though I suspect the motivation these days might be more linked to a desire to understand the social and political turmoil taking place in so much of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the rise of militant Islamism. There have been a few, good single volume histories of the Arabs in English, notably by Albert Hourani and my old friend Peter Mansfield. But both died long before the recent Arab awakening or indeed the rise of petrol and gas states such as Qatar. So the publication of John McHugo’s A Concise History of the Arabs (Saqi, £20) is timely. John and I were at Oxford University’s Oriental Institute together (though I was reading Chinese and Japanese while he did Arabic) and our paths have repeatedly crossed, more recently through the Liberal Democrats, and in particular the Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine (which he chairs). His book has the merit of being both erudite and accessible; his command of the subject is self-evident but he tells a story rather than giving a lecture. Inevitably a sizable proportion of the book relates to Islam; not all Arabs are Muslims, but most are, and the spread of both the Arab people and the Arabic language was intimately linked to Islam and the Qur’an. John is strong in his analysis of the European colonial period, especially in the Levant, its legacy and the later rise of various types of Arab nationalism. Many of the names of Arab political figures of the second half of the 20th century will be familiar to the general reader, as so many of them were around for such a long time. And that, of course, is a major reason why a new, angry, literate and often unemployed younger generation, from Tunisia to Yemen, decided enough was enough. 

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The Arabs and the Holocaust

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 1st July, 2010

This evening I chaired  a book-launch, hosted by the Council for Arab-British Understanding, Arab Media Watch and Independent Jewish Voices, at the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce in Mayfair. In the hotseat was my SOAS colleague Gilbert Achcar, Professor of Development Studies and International Relations, but perhaps better known for his books, including The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder and Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy (with Noam Chomsky). His latest work is the provocatively-titled The Arabs and The Holocaust (Saqi, £25), which is a very thorough, challenging and thought-provoking study of the Arab-Israeli War of Narratives from the birth of Zionism to the present day. The book is remarkably even-handed in the way that it looks both at the Holocaust or Jewish genocide as well as the Naqba or ‘catastrophe’ of the Palestinian expulsions of 1948 and beyond objectively. That very even-handedness, as well as the author’s scrupulous use of a fascinating range of both primary and secondary sources, has won plaudits for the book from many progressive Jewish as well as Arab scholars. Indeed, Brian Krug, Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and founder member of the Jewish Forum for Justice and Human Rights as well as of Independent Jewish Voices — gave a well-prepared and enthusiastic citique of the book as an introduction to Gilbert’s talk. I am pleased to say that the event was heavily over-subscibed and a good number of copies of the book were sold and signed.


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