Thursday, February 27, 2014

Meet Ukraine's New Bosses (more or less..) the Same as the Old Bosses

The celebrated, if rather pompous, UK professor of history, Timothy Garton Ash, repeated a now sorrily familiar canard on the BBC World Service on Sunday when he said that what had happened in Ukraine is “definitely a revolution”. The next day I read in the International New York Times that the revolution in Ukraine may need to be “better represented” in the about to be formed interim government.

When analysts comment about Yemen it is sometimes said that the Gulf Arab-backed interim deal that changed the president, and consequently the government, did not represent the “revolutionary forces”. That is perhaps a better formulation.

The “revolution” in Ukraine hasn’t really affected the apparatus of the Ukranian state, even if it has weakened the state’s writ. Despite Yanokovich having something akin to a democratic mandate, the revolution obliged him to depart and has aided the chances that his nemesis Tymoshenko, a failed premier, will take over. In the meantime the speaker of the old parliament keeps the presidential chair warm.

The revolution hasn’t affected the structure and membership of the police, intelligence services and the military, but it has succeeded in giving the interior and defence ministers the sack.

The revolution has seen self-appointed groups enforcing popular justice on the streets of Kiev, but is being actively resisted in the east of the country.

Egypt is going through a comparable (non) revolution. In either case was it the popular will or the shadow state that wrought the change? In Ukraine the oligarchs didn’t like the former president’s method of crowd control, in Egypt the military initiated two changes of president in two years and are about to finish the job by once again assuming the country’s political leadership. However perhaps one of several differences is that, while Egypt cannot control the Sinai, it doesn’t any longer fear the loss of part of itself to a powerful neighbour. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

1984 at the Almeida... but where are the proles?

Without poring over every word of George Orwell’s dystopian novel it is hard to be sure of how far the theatrical interpretation of 1984 currently showing at the Almeida in London has gone in updating the message. However the word “prole” has definitely been expunged from the contemporary NewSpeak dictionary used by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan in putting this production together. Orwell, I recall, wasn’t afraid to liberally pepper his text with it, mindful that “The Party” that he was partly satirising would alternately ideologically deify the working class, and exploit them as revolutionary cannon fodder. It was the Soviet Union after all that gave us that wonderful Newspeak neologism “Proletkult”: the term for the state’s promotion of what they imagined to be “true” working class culture.

In one of the most telling moments in the book, Orwell, through his anti-hero Winston Smith, says on hearing a woman sing an old East End pre-revolutionary tune, “if there is any hope, it lies with the proles.” In this attitude Orwell partly betrays the superior attitude of what he famously defined as his lower upper middle class roots. But he was also underlining the disconnect between the particular class in whose name the totalitarianism of the left was enforced, and that class “in and of itself” (as Marx famously prophesied it would one day become).

The Almeida version of 1984 has Smith talking rather more than I recall his original self doing about the common bonds between us all, and the need to end the suffering imposed across a global system. This was a more liberal internationalist message than Orwell was making when he wrote the book in 1948. He was, it is true, warning of the dangers of the illiberal trends with which he was personally familiar in a post-war Britain that was rebuilding the state machine and constructing a new (Soviet) enemy at breakneck speed, and, as this production also underlines, he was warning of our unthinking complicity in the destruction of freedom. However his particular venom in his later years was directed at the central model of the book: the Soviet system and its international fellow travellers, including those in the UK then were very prominent in literary circles, who would merrily trot out the latest Moscow line. This play begins where the book ends, a meeting of a book club set way into the future, who, cleverly, are talking rather more about the fate of Orwell and his warnings than they are the diary of Winston Smith that Orwell actually has them discussing. What use was it if it didn’t change anything, and, anyway, it was the vision of a dying man, they lament.

Women don’t fare too well in this production (contrast the indifferent Julia as played by Hara Yannas at the Almeida with the powerful performance by Suzanna Hamilton in the 1980s film version), but  in practically the final lines of the play, a woman member of the reading group fumbles her way to the opinion that the reason they don’t know when The Party lost power was because …maybe …it hadn’t.

Trite, but that’s the update I guess, and one, whilst not irrelevant to Orwell’s worldview, that is, ironically, a little too devoid of historical context. It was Smith after all who spent his days helping to destroy history to suit The Party. O’Brien, the high party official played by Tim Dutton, in the best scene in the play and of the book, says to a gruesomely tortured Smith (played by Mark Arends) that you think your idea of truth can save the world, but we control what is true because we control the past and, therefore, the future.

There are perhaps parallels to be made with the fast changing received wisdom of the contemporary era. History is not so much made by the victors as systematically disregarded in the pursuit of an understanding forged through the equality of instant exchange on social media. Orwell could not foresee this. For him what was in real life only the nascent technology of the “telescreen” was likely to become an instrument of state control. In a loaded contemporary media spin the play has us watching Winston and Julia in bed – we are all Big Brother. On social media we are the complicit destroyers of history, instantly creating new realities, all of us equally worthy of our say. We are now global citizens, fighting for freedom against the global Big Brother. 

Orwell had a word for that. Doublethink.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Muscat's Matra marina - into and out of the blue

Matra, or Mutra, is a 20 minute drive from the centre of Muscat, Oman. Being there just for an afternoon made me feel like a tourist in the Middle East again for the first time since we spent New Year’s Eve 1999 in Tunis. 

Bright blue sky in early February, like an imagined perfect European summer’s day. I strolled along the corniche, stopping periodically to drink in the view. The best part was climbing up coastal watchtowers, or just gazing, transcendent, into the milky white foam as the waves lapped at the shore. Behind me were the dark hills that dominate Muscat, reminiscent, in part, of the Northern Emirates, which used to be Oman anyway, but I have never seen a coastline like this in the Gulf. I mused on past ship journeys as a luxury cruise liner came into view. 

My first ever ship’s journey was more an open-top ferry, carrying me to the overly promised land. My first entry to the region was through the prism of Israel before I hitched to Syria, or at least, unbeknownst to me at the time, that Israeli occupied strip of Syria otherwise known as the Golan Heights. Bowie and Pat Metheny were performing their then current smash, “This is Not America”, on Israel Army Radio in the first vehicle I got into in Haifa. "Nir?" a woman I got chatting to hoped my name was. Her son’s name apparently. No, sorry, its Nee-illl. Oh, she said, disappointed that I was obviously just another goy boy, washed up on any Mediterranean shore that would serve me cheap booze and free love. I certainly went on to drink the kibbutz’ subsidised booze.

My mind blanked again, I wish it had stayed that way, just gazing at the white Omani foam, as the preoccupations of a research trip ebbed away and I felt able to experience the environment. Not the scribbling down of other people’s wisdom, or the aroma of hotel coffee, or the nervous plotting of taxi journeys, or the haggling over fares, or even, sometimes, the renegotiation of apparently agreed fares. Just experiencing; alone, but for the water and the rocks. 

I didn’t want to walk back along the corniche because I knew that that mean the end of the escape. One crow, then several, perched themselves right next to me as I was looking out to sea. One eyed me cautiously, as I did I it. All I could think of was "The Omen" and other tales of the demon bird’s love of eye balls. Obviously a sought after delicacy in the avian world. I decided to meander a bit further long before turning back to town. What I had presumed from a distance to be stray cats playing ahead of me were in fact stray puppies. I had hoped to get among their "unclean" ambiance but they backed away, resentfully.

Back along the path into town I spotted some more of the dying butterflies I had seen earlier. I strange and depressing sight. I do not know what constitutes a butterfly season in Oman, but this one seemed over a little early to me.

A busy day of meetings today after a night of fitful sleep, partly affected by car park revelers as the nightly disco here goes on to 3am. I asked for a room far away from the disco, so I shouldn’t complain. Maybe I should have been at the disco. I get the feeling it would largely be populated by Asian prostitutes, German tourists and the odd curious local. I have seen this movie before. Tomorrow it’s back to storm-damaged Blighty. A mixed bag to contemplate.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The UAE highway to heaven and to hell

This time round, returning to the UAE, our former home, has been an emotional experience, redolent of both the torpor and the pleasure I felt when living here. My research-related meetings have mostly been very useful; and reacquainting myself with some familiar local faces has been very enjoyable. I have also made one key break with the past: I finally took to the road under my own steam. Viewing a fairly large swathe of the northern Emirates when you are driving is a wholly different experience to that of the usual visitor. Normally I bottle it when it comes to driving anywhere in the Gulf, having become inured but not insensitive to the hair-raising escapades of taxi drivers in this part of the world. Did I want really want these guys up my arse (as it were), lights-a-flashing? What is still heavily frowned upon in the UK is perfectly normal driving practice out here. In the end hiring a car became a test of my mettle.

A planned day in Al-Ain at the UAE University had in any case fallen through as a member of the academic staff there apparently decided that he no longer wished to see me but somehow could not summon up the good grace to tell me. Two emails, an attempted phone call and a text seeking to confirm our provisional arrangement brought exactly zero response. I sincerely hope that the next time he tries to arrange a meeting with someone in Britain that they go out of their way to show him the same level of respect.

However Al-Ain’s loss was eastern Sharjah and Fujeirah’s gain. After a while I entered the appropriately named "Wadi Helo", or rather it would be appropriate if the sign writer thought this place was called “Greetings Gorge”. 

The Arabic actually, more or less, means “beautiful gorge” and beautiful it is. This place is a minor (almost) undiscovered gem on the Sharjah-Kalba road. It did lack the more obvious tourist-friendly feature of a cafĂ©. In fact the only shop in a brand new building designed to house three units did not seem to be used to visitors of any kind. 

Leaving the wadi I drove along incredible twisting roads and, literally, through dark, foreboding, mountains. Going through a tunnel I was reminded both of Dartford and of a transcendent scene from Tarkovsky’s film “Solaris”. From relative darkness and monotony, I emerged into a different world. The damp, shadowy rocks had been turned black by the storm-heavy clouds that in seconds had dominated the horizon.

Soon I was in the emirate of Fujeirah, where one very early summer morning we had once hiked up the mountains. However I had always wanted to know that Fujeirah the city was like. I wasn’t disappointed. It really is as awful as I’d imagined, a bit like the less appealing parts of Sharjah proper. One central drag, and, on either side, one tacky-looking poor apology for a Dubai sky scraper after another. The corniche, while not long, is nice enough. It was there that I encountered two guys from the Damascus suburbs, one of whom had had trained in Fujeirah to be a pilot (civilian), but, as he reminded me, this modest emirate lacks an airline to go with its international airport.

On my way back into Dubai in the rush hour, the absurdly false sense of security I had begun to acquire about driving in the UAE hit me like a sledgehammer. This was the most adult driving experience I had ever had. Overtaken on all sides and having to take serious risks in a relatively small and slow car to get on to exits because people not only don’t let you in, but they accelerate toward you when you’re trying to get into their lane. Part of me really enjoyed the thrill of dodgems for grown ups, part of me assumed that my opting for only third party insurance (let alone no health insurance) had been a definite mistake.           

The next day it was with considerable sadness that I left my friends and their beautiful beach-side villa in Dubai to get on the plane to Doha. Whilst this time not slumming it, as is my usual want, my middling but good value Mercure hotel in Musherib is conveniently located next to an enormous building site (of which there are many in a Qatar fast tracking diversification on the back of gas riches). A room with a view indeed. This was sunset as seen from my balcony on Wednesday evening.

My meetings (the actual purpose of my visit) have been pretty thin here, in part as Qataris seem to have taken an informal (and out of character) vow of silence in the face of increasing intra-Gulf tensions over events in Egypt.

A visit to the branch of Georgetown University in Doha reminded me of a sight I had seen when teaching a few years back in Sharjah (see picture below). It seem as if Israeli penetration of the Gulf states really is as deep as some of their Arab detractors claim.