For the Joy of Reading: The Baghdad Clock

If you were going to pick somewhere to be born in the late 1980s, it is hard to think of somewhere that would have been worse than Baghdad. Except Afghanistan. A child in Baghdad, in 1991, had to endure “Desert Storm”, the First Gulf War. [And let us be honest, the name “Desert Storm” is a misnomer. Iraq is not a desert. It is the valleys of the Euphrates and Tigris. It has been a centre of civilisation for nigh on 4,000 years]. This is the story of two girls growing up, Nadia and the unnamed narrator. It begins when they meet in an air raid shelter, during the first Gulf War. It continues through the sanctions imposed by President Clinton to the attack launched by President George W. Bush. It is the story of the attempt to lead a normal life in the midst of war and the threat of war. It is the story of a neighbourhood around the landmark Baghdad Clock.
It is the story of Nadia and her friends growing up in the midst of war, then devastating sanctions, then war again. Unsurprisingly, people did not want to, could not endure all the dangers and privations that they were subjected to living in the area around the Baghdad Clock. So slowly but surely, families begin to leave fleeing north and west to supposed safety in cities like Mosul and Damascus. Where, of course, they will not be safe for long.
We meet characters like the soothsayer, who can predict what is going to happen to the people around the Baghdad Clock. We meet Biryad, the dog who makes his home in the neighbourhood and who is loved by everyone until they and their families move away, leaving him behind. We meet all the women called Umm (mother), in the Arabic tradition, followed by the name of their eldest child, and all the men similarly called Abu (father). We meet Ahmad and Farooq, the boys that Nadia and her friend fall in love with. With meet Uncle Shawkat and his wife, Baji Nadira. We learn to be happy with them and to cry with them when things go wrong. And how could they not go wrong with Saddam Hussein as President, and President George W. Bush lusting for revenge?
This is the story of a terrible 30 years, and of the people who suffered both war and privation. It is a story that shows the humanity of ordinary Iraqis, and the horror of what has been inflicted on them. It is a story of the triumph of ordinary people and of hope, in the face of adversity. It is uplifting. It is triumphant because people survive.
That is what makes this book a must read.


For the Joy of Reading: The Freedom Papers

I think I may have had a small role in the idea that gave birth to the Freedom Papers. I had a conversation with Nick Barley, the Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, about how 2018 saw two centenaries. First, it is a hundred years ago since women in the UK gained the vote. Secondly, 18th July 2018 was the centenary of the birth of Nelson Mandela, who played a seminal role in the securing of the vote for the overwhelming majority of the people of South Africa. Clearly, the linking factor is the right of people to have a role in the election of their own government. At the beginning of C21st it is generally recognised that this is a fundamental political freedom.
Obviously, the idea grew from there, and I cannot claim any credit for that. More than 50 writers were approached and asked to write an essay on what freedom meant to them. Gutter Magazine, which has played its own seminal role in supporting Scottish writing, was asked to publish these essays as an addendum to its latest edition, Gutter No 18. So it was that an important collection of essays emerged, looking at the meaning of freedom and the very diversity of those meanings, depending on the outlook and experience of the writers concerned.
If I had been asked to participate (which was never going to happen as I have not published any books), I would have begun with freedom from the four horsemen of the Apocalypse – Famine, Pestilence, War and Death. It seems to me that any freedom is dependent upon our ability to feed ourselves, to clothe ourselves, to keep warm with a roof over our heads, and not to be persecuted, driven into exile or killed. I was lucky. I was born into a country that has not been threatened by war in my lifetime. I was told about the sirens going off. I was told about my grandfather’s dog, that heard the planes before the sirens sounded, and got the family down into the shelter. But I have never experienced a threat of that kind (well, not in the UK anyway). I have never been hungry. I have never lived through a plague. I have been kept healthy because here in the UK we have a National Health Service, free at the point of delivery. I have of course experienced the death of other people, but I do not think that we will ever be free of that. Nor can I think of any reason why we would want to be. What we would like to be free of is a premature death. As Martin Luther King said “Longevity is a fine thing”. I think that we would also like to be free of pain. And here again, I have been very lucky because I have not had to endure long term pain.
It would be wrong to say that these themes do not appear in the book, because they do, even if only tangentially in some of the essays. What does come through is, unsurprisingly, the individual concerns of the writers. Hawa J. Golakai argues that “freedom” is a male word. She does not use the word “patriarchy” but clearly has no doubt that women need to be free of it. Juno Dawson argues that Freedom of Speech does not bestow freedom from the consequences of what you have said, and if that means that you are called a bigot for saying something racist, homophobic, transphobic or whatever, then so be it. Michel Faber argues for freedom of movement and is not prepared to stand by while that freedom is taken from the next generation, when he benefitted from it so much. Olga Tokarczuk argues that our right to determine our “self-identification” is our basic freedom. Peter Mackay argues for our right to speak our own languages, even if they are minority ones. So it goes on.
The important thing is that there is not a single essay here that is not worth reading, that does not speak to us in some way about the world we live in – the world of Trump and Putin and Brexit, the world of the Rohingya and the Palestinians and the persecuted. Unsurprisingly, the gay and transgender authors want the freedom to be themselves, without being harassed or persecuted or attacked. I would argue that this is what we all want. We do not want to be forced to stay somewhere where there is no food or no work because we are “other”. We certainly would not wish to be returned to war zones for that reason. David Leddy called his poem “Compassion for Strangers Will save Us All” and he is right.
Alberto Manguel talks about how individual freedom is limited by the freedoms guaranteed by the societies that we live in. This is the African concept of Ubuntu which translates roughly as “I am a person because I live with other people”. That is a significant limitation on individual freedom. For instance, we are not free to murder, steal or commit any other crime, and what constitutes a crime is decided by the society that we live in.
This is a complex book. The ideas are challenging and thought-provoking. It is not a book for people who wish to hide in their ideological bunker. But that is all the more reason why they should read it. It is a book that will make you think and, maybe, change your view of the world

For the Joy of Reading: Kintu

This is the story of a family curse and of its exorcism. That is the only way that I can find of describing this story. It begins with Kamu Kintu being killed in an outbreak of mob violence in one of the shantytowns of Kampala, and that is the hook on which the whole story hangs.
We then go back a few hundred years to the start of the curse. We meet Kintu Kiddo, the Ppookino (Governor) of the province of Buddu in the Kingdom of Buganda. He has to set out on a journey to take part in the accession of the new Kabaka (King) of Buganda, and during the course of this journey he accidentally kills his adoptive son, Kalema. This is the start of the curse. But it is much more complicated than that, and revolves around the expectations that a traditional society has of the Ppookino. He has fallen in love with a twin, but he is also expected to marry her sister because the twins must not be separated. He is also expected to marry the daughters offered to him by what we would call the local nobility and gentry. He does not want to, but he fulfils these expectations. The twin sisters organise his life so that he visits all his other wives on a rota basis. This is a fascinating introduction into the traditional life of the Baganda.
We then return to the 21st Century and we meet the various descendants of Kintu Kiddo, all of them suffering from the curse put on the family by Kalema’s biological father. This is how we are introduced into the various conflicts of modern Uganda. There is the conflict of religion, between Christianity, Islam and traditional beliefs. There is the conflict between the various ethnicities that were forced together by British colonialism to form one nation, or, rather, one state.
[As a citizen of the colonial power, I obviously have to be very careful about imposing European standards on Africa. I can possibly talk more knowledgably than some about Uganda, but I am not even African let alone Ugandan and I have never been there. Caution is an absolute necessity.]
The story then hinges around the various relatives getting together, and the eventual decision to hold an exorcism ceremony according to traditional rites and beliefs in the ancestral home. This leads to a resolution of sorts, but at the expense of revealing things that some of those involved wanted to keep secret. It is not an easy story. Miisi loses his sanity. Paulo discovers things about his parents that he should not know. Muganda almost dies. The history of Uganda since independence is the background of the story – the exile of Kabaka Muteesa II, the rule of Milton Obote and Idi Amin, the murder of Archbishop Luwum, the eventual Tanzanian invasion and the exile of Amin, and the coming to power of Yoweri Museveni (who is never mentioned) form the backdrop to the story of the descendants of Kintu Kiddo. It is not an east story.
It is however one that you should read. It will take you to a country about which most of us know very little. It will give you an insight into the lives of the people in that country, their background and story, how they think. It will help you to understand the world. And it is a very well-written, brilliantly told tale. You would be very foolish not to read it.

For the Joy of Reading: The Shahnameh

The Shahnameh is one of the great epic poems of world literature. It is, as the subtitle of this translation suggests, “The Persian Book of Kings”. It is not, however, a history. It is a series of stories, of mythology, and only approaches accuracy as it reaches its conclusion with the stories of the Sassanid Kings and the destruction of their Empire by the Islamic conquest of the C7th CE. There are some astonishing omissions. The Achaemenid kings, who built the first Persian Empire, do not get a mention. There is no reference to Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius or Xerxes. They are mentioned in the Bible, by the Greek historian Herodotus, but not in the Persian Book of Kings. The only Achaemenid mentioned is Dara (Darius III) because of his defeat and the conquest of his empire by Sikander (Alexander the Great). Less surprisingly, the Seleucids, who were not Persian, do not get a mention, and the Parthians only merit 25 pages of this 886-page abridged version of the epic. The story leaps from Alexander to the Sassanid Kings, proving the link that Sassan was the son of Dara who escaped from Alexander and lived in security. I do not know if the Sassanids ever made such a claim, but they certainly reasserted the Persian identity of their Empire, as opposed to the Hellenistic policies of the Seleucids and the Parthians.
The book is basically split into three parts – the Pre-Alexander kings, the reign of Alexander (Sikander) and the Sassanid Empire. The first part of the book has no historical accuracy whatsoever. But the stories are wonderful. What is not to like about stories such as a King being so evil that snakes grew out of his shoulder-blades (something like a Hindu demon, which is not surprising given the links between the two cultures) or a magic bird rearing a royal child and then rescuing it, as a grown man, from disaster. Or there is the story of Sohrab and Rustam, which is familiar to people of my generation because we had to read the Matthew Arnold heroic poem of that name when we were at school. But this is essentially made up stories probably pieced together from folk tales and with all the elements of such stories. There are children in peril, wicked stepmothers, heroes and villains, dragons and monster – everything that you could want. And these are stories that should be better known in the West if we are ever to understand the Middle East. And anyway, they are just so good, and are only not read because we in the West will have difficulty pronouncing the names (as if that matters).
Then there is the story of Sikander. The real story is there although it is only briefly told. We skip through his victories at Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela (or Arbela, depending on which name is used) and head straight to the mythology. According to Ferdowsi, his mother was a Persian. This just not true. His mother, Olympias, was a Greek, the daughter of the King of Epirus. According to these stories he crossed into India (he did) and into Yemen and Ethiopia (he did not) and visited the court of the Andalusian Queen (he did not as Andalusia as a kingdom did not exist in his lifetime). But the stories are interesting, presenting a barbarian who was keen to acquire knowledge. It is an interesting view of Alexander.
Then we skip to the Sassanids, ignoring the Roman defeat at Carrhae by the Parthian general Surena, which defined the location of the border between the Roman and Parthian empires from the time of Julius Caesar to that of Trajan. I have no idea whether or not these stories about the Sassanids are accurate. Certainly, the Shah, Shapur, did capture and imprison a Roman Emperor (Valerian) but what is meant by the story of Bahram Gur killing a dragon is anyone’s guess. I also doubt that the Persian Shahs married the daughters of Byzantine and Roman Emperors, but I do not know that they did not.
There are two things that are striking about these stories. The first is the wealth and extravagance of the Persian Shahs. There is a constant mention of gold, silver, jewels, brocades, silk, silk carpets and all kinds of wealth, and that wealth being distributed liberally to all and sundry. The second is the presence of Ahriman, the personification of evil, that we know as Satan or the Devil throughout the stories. Ferdowsi makes it clear that the Sassanids in particular were Zoroastrians. This was true of all the Persian Kings, except the Seleucids from historically recorded time onwards, but for Ferdowsi it only becomes significant as the conflict with Christianity and then Islam approaches. The last chapter tells the story of the defeat of Yazdegerd III by the Islamic invasion, and it reads as a tragedy.
There is so much more to say, but if I write any more people will not read this review. So, I would urge you to read these stories to improve your knowledge of the world and also for their sheer enjoyability.

For the Joy of Reading: Devil on the Cross

Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a phenomenal writer.   It is such a great shame that so many people will not even attempt to read him because they cannot pronounce his name.   That is just so foolish.   he is one of the seminal writers currently living, and Devil on the Cross is extraordinary.   It is partly a satire of post-colonial Africa.   It is certainly a denunciation of neocolonialism.   It is devastating in its critique of capitalism as it works in Africa and across the world.   This may be the real reason why people do not want to read Ngugi wa Thiong’o.   They do not want to confront what has been done to Africa, and the racism that is endemic throughout the capitalist world, the so-called First World.   Ngugi wa Thiong’o forces on his readers, not through a tirade, but by carefully presenting his story.

This is the story of Wariinga, a young woman, full of ambition until she meets a rich old man, who seduces her and leaves her pregnant.   She does this with difficulty, but one day is a disaster.   She loses her job because she refuses to become the mistress of another old man and loses her home by an illegal, violent eviction.   So she decides to make her way to Ilmorog, her parents’ home.   On her way to the taxi rank, she receives an invitation from the Devil to a thieves’ convention in her home village.   She gets a matatu (a minibus) to her home, meeting various people who decide collectively that as they are going to Ilmorog, they may as well accept the invitations they have all received to the event.

The thieves at the convention are all stealing from their own people to enrich foreign corporations and are the stewards of capitalist exploitation in Kenya.   Ngugi wa Thiong’o introduces us to the corrupt, the venal, the exploitative, the oppressive and the downright murderous capitalists of modern Kenya.   He shows us, through Wangari, another passenger on the matatu, how the ideals of the Land Freedom Army, who fought for the independence of Kenya, have been betrayed in the post-colonial neocolonial settlement.   He shows how the collaborators with British colonialism came to dominate the government, through control of the structures of government.   He shows through Muturi, a further matatu passenger, how resistance is possible.   To that extent it is a highly political novel.

But it is also a love story.   Wariinga meets Gatuiria, a young man, on the matatu.   Slowly, they fall in love and decide to get married.   Gatuiria encourages Wariinga in her ambition to become a mechanic, in which she succeeds.    Then they go to meet Gatuiria’s parents, and that is the climax of the novel.

One of the things that comes through quite clearly is that Ngugi wa Thiong’o has a very good grasp of the New Testament.   Much of the thieves’ convention narrative is a riff on the parable of the Talents, and it does not make comfortable reading.   That also applies to the Devil’s version of the Beatitudes.   Ngugi wa Thiong’o exposes our shame in using the Bible to dominate.   As Desmond Tutu put it, “when the whites arrived, they had the Bible and we had the land.   Now we have the Bible, and they have the land.”

The final thing to say is that the women characters, especially Wariinga and Wangari, are very strong.   And the ending is a feminist battle-cry.   This is an extraordinary book by a consummate writer.   You would be very foolish to decide not to read it because you cannot pronounce the names.   That would be your parochialism and your loss.

For the Joy of Reading: Mandela: His Essential Life.

This book does exactly what it says on the tin.   It takes the 95 years of Mandela’s life and pares it down to a short, readable biography.   If you want detail, then read Anthony Sampson’s “Mandela” or of course Nelson Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom” and “Dare Not Linger: the Presidential Years”, edited by Mandla Langa.   There is, moreover, no-one better placed than Peter Hain to write what is essentially a brief life.   Peter Hain’s parents, Walter and Adeline, were anti-apartheid activists in South Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, who fled to the UK in 1966, following years of persecution.   Peter, himself, earned the undying hatred of the apartheid regime by organising the opposition to the tour of the UK of the South African rugby team in 1969, and forcing the South African cricket team to cancel its planned visit for 1970.

So the first thing that has to be clear is that this is not a neutral biography.   Peter Hain grew up knowing Nelson Mandela, through his parents, and went on to play a significant role in the international struggle against apartheid.   Nor is this a neutral review.   I have been acquainted with Peter Hain since 1968, and I served as Chairperson of the London Anti-Apartheid Committee during the 1980s.

Having established the credentials of the author (and the reviewer) what is there to say about the book?   Although it is short, it is insightful.   Hain’s description of Mandela’s childhood in the Eastern Cape, it is essential to the understanding of the man.    He was an aristocrat, who became the head of the clan Madiba when his father died..   He was brought up from 9 years old by Jongintaba, his father’s cousin and the Regent of the Thembu Kingdom.   This is often portrayed as an idyllic life, herding cattle, because Mandela had fond memories of it, but it was a life of rural poverty even for those who held important positions in Xhosa society.   It was here, however, that Mandela learned the concepts of duty and service to his people.   It was here that he learned the history and traditions of his people, and underwent circumcision to become a man, in accordance with ritual.

Mandela eventually made his way to Johannesburg, avoiding an arranged marriage.   It was here that he met his friend and mentor, Walter Sisulu, joined the African National Congress and became committed to securing the right of the majority of the South African population to participate in the government of their country.   Throughout the course of the book, Peter Hain guides us through the development of Mandela’s political ideas, succinctly and accurately.   Hain does not gloss over any of the difficulties here.   When Mandela helped to found the ANC Youth League, he was an Africanist.   This was a position that he changed because of his experiences working with Indians, Coloureds and Whites in the struggle against apartheid.   Once he had become committed to building a non-racial South Africa, he did not waver from this position.

Nor does Peter Hain shy away from Mandela’s personal difficulties.   His first wife, Evelyn Mase, was a committed Christian with no interest in politics and, although they had three children, it soon became clear that they were incompatible.   Evelyn left him.   Then he met Nomzano Winnie Madikizela, who was much younger than him, and they got married.   Meanwhile Mandela’s political opposition to apartheid was developing.   He was banned, tried for treason and eventually acquitted.   Then following the Sharpeville Massacre and the banning of the ANC and other organisations, he went on the run, and set up Umkhonto we Sizwe, a military organisation of which he was Commander-in-Chief.   He went abroad for military training, returned to South Africa and was eventually captured.   He was sentenced to five years imprisonment, for incitement to strike and for leaving the country without a passport.   Then the leadership of Umkhonto we Sizwe was captured at Liliesleaf Farm, Rivonia, and Mandela was put on trial alongside them.   Peter Hain guides us through these momentous events and the subsequent Rivonia Trial with great skill, summarising the key moments.   Mandela’s speech from the dock with its ringing declaration of “if needs be, I am prepared to die” reverberated around the whole world.   The judge, Quartus de Wet, did not impose the death penalty.   He sentenced the Rivonia trialists to life imprisonment.

The story now breaks into two segments.   There are the struggles in prison to secure their dignity as individuals.   There was the struggle outside the prison, in which Winnie stepped up to the mark and confronted the power of the apartheid state.   Some of the struggles in prison seem to be quite ordinary.   There was the fight to be allocated long trousers.   African men were given shorts to wear because they were “boys”.   Indians and Coloured were allowed to wear long trousers because they were not black Africans.   Whites did not enter into the equation because they were kept in a separate prison.   There was apartheid even in the gaols.   There were also differences in the food made available, depending on your racial classification.   If this seems petty, it is because the authorities were petty, and these struggles were essentially to secure human dignity.   Peter Hain is very good at explaining these confrontations and Mandela’s relations with the warders, eventually winning them over.

Meanwhile outside the prisons, Winnie faced harassment, banning, detention, humiliation and torture.   She was eventually sent as an internal exile to Brandfort in the Orange Free State where she did not speak the local language (Sesotho).   Everything was done to try to break her.   Peter Hain shows the stresses and strains which she endured, and how the 27 years of separation ruined their marriage.

The struggle against apartheid intensified in both South Africa and internationally.  Inside the country, trade unions, although illegal, were being formed by the black workers and Black Consciousness was making itself felt.   Internationally, led by the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, the campaign for boycott and sanctions was gaining momentum.   And then, the Portuguese Fascist government, following military defeats in Africa, collapsed.   Angola and Mozambique became independent, and the children of South Africa refused to be taught in Afrikaans, leading to the Soweto Uprising of 1976.   Peter Hain is very adroit in explaining the significance of all these events, and how they were game changers.

By the mid-1980s, the apartheid regime, trying to face down growing internal unrest and growing international condemnation, were forced into covert negotiations Mandela.   Peter Hain is adept at explaining the formation of COSATU, the rise of the UDF and the collaboration of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan with the apartheid regime, trying to resist the growing demand for sanctions.

There is one point of accuracy in which I disagree with Peter Hain.   Govan Mbeki, one of the Rivonia Trialists alongside Mandela, was released by PW Botha in 1987, not by FW De Klerk in 1989.   I know this, because on the day of Mbeki’s release I was being greeted by his son, Thabo, at the ANC International Solidarity Conference at Arusha in Tanzania and I congratulated Thabo on the release of his father.   This, however, is a minor error in the narrative.

Peter Hain then takes us through the tumultuous years from the release of Mandela to his inauguration as President.   The defining factor was the need to avoid civil war.   It cam very close.   10,000 people were murdered in those four years.   Agents of the apartheid state tried desperately to stop the process of democratisation.   Peter Hain makes it very clear that it was Mandela’s steely determination that held the line and enabled the process to go forward.

I know that Peter Hain’s brief account of the election is substantially correct because I was there.    We even had a drink together in a hotel bar once the count was over.   Peter Hain’s account of the presidential years is also on target, citing the need for reconciliation as the most pressing.   This however did not mean that the truth was to be ignored which is why Mandela set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission under the chairmanship of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The last two chapters are called “Mandela Magic” and “Legacy Betrayed?”.   The very titles tell us what they are about.   “Mandela Magic” deals with the charm and charisma of the man, which is unquestionable.   He won over all of us who had the privilege of meeting him.   “Legacy Betrayed?” is about Peter Hain’s view of how South Africa has developed under Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, Mandela’s successors as President.   It is not a view with which I would substantially disagree.   It is, however, for you to make up your mind about that.

Peter Hain has written a very brief biography (196 pages) of Nelson Mandela..   It covers all the basics.   It does not avoid any of the difficulties, such as the controversies around the behaviour of Winnie Mandela.   It is a succinct account of a long and complex life.   It is a very good book.


For the Joy of Reading: Black Robe

This is a story about a clash of cultures, about misunderstandings and incomprehension.   It is about French Jesuit missionaries coming into contact with Native Americans along the St. Laurence River in the seventeenth century.   The story is set in the early seventeenth century at the same time as the Three Musketeers.   Father Laforgue and D’Artagnan are contemporaries.   Cardinal Richelieu even makes a fleeting appearance in Black Robe.   But these are separate worlds.

A closer comparison would be to “The Last of the Mohicans” set a century later, and in the British colonies to the south.    But do not expect the noble savage, as envisioned by Rousseau.   Neehatin and Chomina are not Chingachgook and Uncas.   They are not even noble villains like Magua, someone you can hate but respect.   They are foul-mouthed, and can be quite cynical and vicious.

The world views however are quite different, and this is made very clear in the course of the telling of this story.   The Jesuits, obviously, and the French in general have a Christian worldview, a view of salvation gained through the sacrifice of the Cross and the miracle of the Resurrection.   They believe in the Sacraments, and especially that in the Eucharist or Communion the bread and wine is transformed into the body and blood of Christ.   Neehatin, Chomina and the others find this utterly incomprehensible.   For them, the world is sentient, filled with what we would call divinity.   They believe in the power of dreams, and they use dreams to guide the way in which to live their lives.   Basically, they believe that the Jesuits are sorcerers, and they are afraid of their power.

So when Father LaForgue sets off upriver to join a Jesuit settlement, he sets in motion a series of events over which he has no control.   The worst of this, for the Father, is the sexual relationship between his young assistant, Daniel, known as Iwanchou, and Chomina’s daughter, Annuka.   Chomina also does not believe that Iwanchou is a suitable husband for his daughter and does his best to finish the relationship.   This has deadly consequences.

There will be some passages which will shock you.   There is torture, there is murder, there is cannibalism.   This is a culture that is red in tooth and claw.   What hangs over this story, however, is the fear that one culture will destroy the other.   In this world, that makes this an important book to read.