I’m posting this list of participants in Israeli war crimes in Gaza 2008-09 principally because the British government wants to dilute universal jurisdiction so as to welcome them, some quite specifically, to these shores. It’s hard to think of anything more sickening or shameful. However, first Gordon Brown’s government and now this curio of a government, ‘Justice’ Minister Ken Clarke specifically, wants to encourage more suspected/seasoned war criminals to visit Britain. Rather than prevent or punish acts as abhorrent as those committed by the state of Israel in Gaza alone, they want to promote, praise and pull in more killers like this not -as I say- to put them on trial and imprison them in perpetuity but to sit down to lunch and revive trade in arms and ‘intelligence’. I guess that this is the paragon of western civility that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis had to die for in an effort to promote “our” values? Yes that is precisely one of the things it is…
I enjoy unlikeliness and it seemed unlikely to me that Candia McWilliam would find herself in Edward Said’s memoir of his early life; Out of Place: A Memoir [Granta 1999]. That she does so in her own memoir [What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness Cape 2010/Vintage 2011] is one of many endearing things about it and its author. Also a high recommendation for Said and his own memoir.
I spent a number of mornings in June this year running past one end of Edward Sa’id Street in Ramallah, actualising the way he and his work feature near the beginning of my adult life and have been returned to repeatedly ever since. I’m posting an old review I did for The Independent of his collection of pieces The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and after [Granta 1999 -out of print/PenguinRandomHouseUS 2001 -linked] [BELOW]. Read almost anything of Said’s [especially on the question of Palestine] and the absence of a voice like his today makes you weep.
Slavoj Zizek London 1998 [photo Mykel Nicolaou]
I first met Slavoj Zizek in Bloomsbury in 1998 to conduct a relaxedly spontaneous, short but full-blooded interview in what I was to discover is the authentic Zizekian mode. I knew his work, had seen him speak, admired his reworking of various Idealists more than the brilliant-but-familiar bug-eyed film theorist and, armed only with a dodgy autobiographical preface, wondered about who he was. I’ve just found the 22,000 word transcript of that first meeting. Afterwards we wandered through Georgian Squares in the University quarter and he graciously accompanied me as far as possible whilst exchanging gossip eagerly, before cutting back to a meeting.
That initial meeting was something of a rehearsal for a plan for me to go to Ljubljana -before easyjet!- to spend a week doing a series of focused interviews. Whilst in that memorably lively city, Zizek would introduce me to key figures from Slovenia’s recent underground; activists, politicos, Laibach, Mladen Dolar and the Lacanian gang, etc. Those sessions produced 14 hours of tape containing dense and agile theorising, but the generous backers of my trip bottled out of publishing the resulting coup [editor had been ‘moved on’, their ‘reliable’ stand-in quoted Bertrand Russell approvingly, as in ‘the only thing I know about Hegel is what Bertrand Russell said…” Weep] -as was always an open possibility. A possibility that had liberated me to do it fully and properly.
Thereafter, there were some telephone conversations and emails and Zizek sent me his “Kosovo 4.99” piece on the double bind of supporting exceptionally belated foreign intervention to stop Serbian fascism’s campaign of ethnic cleansing; Against the Double Blackmail. A phrase from a clarifying phone call I made to him went in to the first substantial piece published on him in a UK journal [below] around publication of The Ticklish Subject and The Zizek Reader in 1999.
The so-called “Kosovo 4.99” text Zizek sent me was then staged as an exhibition of wall-texts [with a pirate radio installation by Gregory Green] at Cubitt Gallery and as an insert in the pages of Third Text magazine. I came across the original email to me with that ‘lost’ interview transcript. At the time I asked Cubitt to remove the note from SZ with thanks to me from their website because I was embarrassed! Somehow, they took the whole text down instead. After all this time, I’m linking to a pdf of it below with no shame at all.
I was wrong to describe it [earlier] as out of print, since it’s available in the US from Lynne Rienner Publishers here. LRP do have a London office too; the two Kanafani books I link to below are available from their UK distributors here. [I’m correcting my original post which criticised the lack of an equivalent British publisher. Does it matter in our cowardly new world? I think it does actually, yes.]
Men in the Sun [Rijal fi-al-shams [1962/3] was one of the first books by a Palestinian writer I read; entry point, beginning. I admired it first time up but wasn’t able to get a real hold on it or place it in a wider [Palestinian] literature.
I expect that this is a common experience in general, although if Mourid Barghouti‘s classic memoir I Saw Ramallah is a similar entry point for many today -as anecdotal experience suggests- the effect will also differ. MB’s book is more self-contained in this sense, its brilliant opening chapter The Bridge carries the voice of these men in the sun [amongst many others and much else] back home. Readers familiar with both will, I hope, forgive the purposive crudity of such an analogy.
I re-read Men in the Sun recently in a slim and very simply produced Heinemann/Three Continents Press edition [it first arrived in English in American University of Cairo Press, AUC, whose excellent back- and ongoing list is emerging through the wonderful Arabia Books in the UK] I was almost shocked by just how good it is; beautifully spare prose, precise and haunting altogether and, so far as I can tell, very well translated by Hilary Kilpatrick.
So why did I have to rely on the British Library to read it? I ask the question still even though my persisting with it did elicit a link to its blameless distributor in London through its entirely admirable publisher based in Boulder, Colorado. I leave it to you to decide or tell me whether it makes any difference…
This is an audio of Richard Hamilton’s talk, currently up on the Serpentine Gallery’s site. I’ve made extensive notes of what is newest in it below, which concentrates on previously unexhibited work towards the end of the talk. Most of the 119 minutes here is RH himself; beginning at 11 mins in and ending at 87 mins after which is a short discussion with Hans-Ulrich Obrist. The audio ends at 109 mins in fact.
Much of what he says about individual pieces through his career he has said before in interviews recently republished in Richard Hamilton October Files 10, for example. However, even if you know those well it’s different, of course, to hear how he talks about the word pop and his emphases, hesitations, digressions in general. Especially interesting is what he has to say about Palestinian dispossession and the work it has generated.
RH starts by saying he wants “to give you some impression of what my work is about” beyond the political works at the Serpentine show. So he begins with the “cool fifties”;
Hers is a lush situation . “So much was happening at that time … I was fascinated in the uncertainty principle for example … influence I felt most was that it was not a good idea to get involved in value judgments …“
Hal Foster is, as ever, good on the transition from “the “tabular” pictures in the late 1950s. This suite of paintings, still too little known, explores the emergent visual idioms of postwar consumer society … in a mode of suave pastiche…
In subsequent work by Hamilton, this satirical edge subsides, yet a political dimension persists. It is often subtle, however, because Hamilton is concerned to capture less the political event than its mediation -how it is produced for us precisely as an image- and it is this mediation that he both elaborates and exposes.” [my emphasis]
It was a bleakly difficult year. The consequences of a series of deaths and accidents were felt thickly while I struggled with the scale and depths of my research on Gujarat, committed to writing a book worthy of a fascinating people/place and my own journeying ‘to the end’. Simultaneously, global indifference to the ongoing dispossession and slaughter of Palestinians combined unique chronicness with acute horror to maddening effect.
What to do, exactly?
Click on cover to ‘see inside’
Ahdaf’s brilliant piece on Palestinian writers, in particular, lit a double pathway. It reminded me why critical journalism can be worthwhile and inspired the discovery of a way to channel outrage into something positive and productive.
Surely part of the reason Britain has supported the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine, part of the reason the British government raced into Afghanistan and Iraq in particular is willful ignorance. Ignorance about the people, their history and a culture only perceived mutely at the end of a gun, as a cross on a screen inside an aerial bomber or a cruise missile launcher.
I decided to discover as much as I could about Arabic and particularly Palestinian writing in English and to champion it in any way I could. In those 6 years there has been some increased attention beyond 2 or 3 best sellers but, just for instance, why is the assassinated Ghassan Kanafani so hard to get hold of in the UK [on this see here]?
More recently, I’ve been learning Arabic and because of the unique way in which it opens up the culture I would advocate a campaign to make a British passport holder fluent in Arabic for every bullet and bomb aimed at an Arabic-speaker in this century, never mind the last.
Take Iraq alone; if for every hundred thousand Iraqis killed by the angels of Democracy, there were an equivalent hundred thousand new Arabic speakers in Britain…
Meanwhile, in her introductory preface to Mezzaterra [dated London June 2004] AS wrote: “Personally, I find the situation so grave that in the last four years I have written hardly anything which does not have direct bearing on it. The common ground, after all, is the only home that I and those whom I love can inhabit.”
Towards the end of the preface she wrote; “The question of Palestine is of paramount importance not just because of humanitarian concerns about the plight of Palestinians. It matters that now, in full view of the world and in utter defiance of the mechanisms the international community has put into place to regulate disputes between nations, a favoured state can commit vast illegal acts of brutality and be allowed to gain by them. If the world allows Israel to steal the West Bank and Jerusalem and to deny the history of the people it dispossessed in 1948 and 1967 then the world will have admitted it is a lawless place and the world will suffer the consequences of this admission.“
This is to put it as gently -with hard earnt civility and width of appeal- as possible. Six years on settlement activity has flourished and is ongoing, Palestinians [and Lebanese] have been massacred, partly with US dollars and British military equipment, part of Palestine remains under total siege, anyone brave or desperate enough to protest or object is bombed to pieces by a state that is a close ally of the US/UK and EU. At the same time Britain’s fantastically profitable supermarkets are full of reliably cheap Israeli produce.
Instead of making any substantive attempt to stay this aberrant hand the British government has sought ways to weaken the application of International jurisdiction as it applies in Britain, so as to encourage links from the perpetrators of what the UN describes as war crimes. When Rudolf Hess fled to Britain from a mortifying regime he was imprisoned for life. Now the British establishment welcomes leaders who are not fleeing but arrive proud and boastful about their very own mortifying regime.
When despair is insistent it must be resisted. Resistance of this and all kinds is the propellant along an inexorable path towards justice; the easily achieved human justice of courts and a more open and potent recognition of truth. The rhetorical arc of Never Again peaked and fell into Yet Again during my own lifetime but that doesn’t reduce the universal import or urgency of achieving substantial justice in this particular instance. Free Palestine any which way but minus the cant.
Here are some links to directly related pieces by AS:
‘Under the Gun A Palestinian Journey’ The Guardian Dec. 2000 here.
Pt 2 ‘Our World is Upside Down’ here.
‘Do Something’ The Guardian Letter to Blair April 2002 here.
‘The Waiting Game’ The Guardian Nov 2003 here.
NB In between came ‘Palestinian Writers’ The Guardian Sept 2004; an abridgement of an excellent essay republished in Mezzaterra on the richness of Palestinian writers and writing. It is not online.
‘The Palestinians say; “This is a war of extermination”‘. The Guardian Jan 2009 here.
PalFest, the Palestinian Festival of Literature 2010, is ongoing here.
Mezzaterra: fragments from the common ground,
by Ahdaf Soueif
A glimpse of hope in a polarised world
By Guy Mannes-Abbott
Tuesday, 9 November 2004
Ahdaf Soueif is best known for The Map of Love, a novel which did much to open up the minds of English-speaking readers to Egyptian modernity. It brilliantly interwove the love affair of an English colonial woman and an Egyptian nationalist in the early 20th century with a burgeoning national “renaissance”, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999.
That book followed an earlier novel and two collections of stories. However, the political writing she began in 2000 with Under the Gun has made her a writer of special importance. Mezzaterra includes “The Waiting Game”, her brave, despairing return to the occupied heart of Palestine, and a recent portrait of Palestinian writers under existential siege.
Mezzaterra‘s second half, literary pieces from two decades in London, is the surprising bonus. It includes reviews of writers from Jean Genet and Amitav Ghosh to Philip Hensher, along with pieces on al-Jazeera, Islamic “queens” and “the veil”: a term without an Arabic equivalent. Each exhibits Soueif’s demanding exactitude, whereby she will apologise for making “small points” before demonstrating their full import. Words, she proves repeatedly, matter.
Soueif is obsessed with language and power, the way words like “freedom” and international laws are abused when applied to Islamic contexts. She dissects sloppy mistranslations of Arabic and ideological clichés about Islam. More subtle difficulties loom when transliterating her own name from the Arabic as Soueif, in contrast to her brother, Ala Swafe. Reviewing William Golding’s An Egyptian Journal, she takes elegant revenge for Ala’s anonymously belittled efforts to coach the author in such subtleties.
The brilliance of this collection lies in Soueif’s linkage of “small” things to universal categories. She praises her friend Edward Said for being “human”, “fair” and “inclusive”, qualities that describe the “mezzaterra” of her title. This common ground, where differences enrich rather than clash, is civilisation. A “with us or against us” world, with its “war on terror” and “peace process”, is the opposite.
Souief is transfixed by the Palestinian uprising. She writes, contra Said, of having always felt “essentially in place: Egyptian, Muslim”*. So, writing about Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians in front of a wilfully diverted world, her combination of centred gravity, minute precision and insistent humanity generates highly clarified truth.
The truth makes for bleak reading, as her nightmares materialise in massive new Israeli settlements. “And yet there is still hope,” she writes, even in ravaged Ramallah where Palestinian writers like Liana Badr and Adania Shibli** shape exquisite stories against chronic injustice. The only real hope is for “a viable Palestine”. Although it may require courage, take these marvellous essays to heart.
* AS does write this here, but I’m aware that she has also described a more complex relationship to this identity during earlier years of living in Britain. In 1999 for example she explained to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown at The Independent that “15 years ago I think I might have said I was both Egyptian and English. Now I long for Egypt. I feel an anxiety that I am not in Egypt more often; that I am in this place but not of it.”
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Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers was published in 1999 in the UK and short-listed for the IMPAC Award (Updated Apr2018) aka the Dublin Lit Award. I see that when David Foster Wallace read his HB copy he noted some of the same words [as news of his papers arriving at the HRC Texas reveal] as I did. Tellurian, for example. I’m posting two images that speak for themselves and a light-weight review I wrote for The New Statesman during a divertingly busy year. Within a few months, the tanks had re-entered occupied territories shattering any last delusions/illusions.
I remain a fierce reader and admirer of Ozick’s work, despite her quixotic blindness towards/repellant views about Palestinian dispossession -which obviously undermines her fondness for exception and the you-can’t-be-entirely-serious rhetoric around “winners”. I was re-reading The Messiah of Stockholm in late December 2008 [trapped again, wrestling with her singular sentences], just before the white phosphorus went in to Gaza’s already besieged schools and, even now, am re-reading the essays collected in The Din in the Head . Fortunately, the cold obscenity of what she wrote in the same year about Rachel Corrie’s Journals (link to myth-busting re RC not CO’s toxic piece) is not included.
Ozick is a curious and extreme instance of a vexatious problem and in posting this I’m forcing myself to come back to it, soon (not yet; Apr 2018!). Nothing I say will reduce the brilliance (in every sense and so its own limit) of this novel and others because writerly singularity outplays historical anomaly however grotesque the views. At least, on the billionth loop around it, that is what I feel, but I know the ice is very thin hereabouts (hmmm and hmmm again and again). Meanwhile, roll on the day that nakba-denial is also a crime and when universal crimes already constituted are actually prosecuted.
Puttermesser Paper, Cynthia Ozick
by Guy Mannes-Abbott
Like an eager parliamentarian, I should confess my ‘interests’ in this new novel of Cynthia Ozick’s. My 7 year old cat is named after Ruth Puttermesser -lawyer, Mayoress and murderee- the heroine of these stories. I’ve also got form, having greeted the publication of her 1993 collection of essays What Henry James Knew with extravagant polemic in these same pages. I was championing her astonishing stylistic precision, singular appetites and general awkward brilliance. I don’t retract a word.
If you don’t know Ozick, you’ll find an infectious deep mining and celebration of writing, ranging from the thunder of James and Bellow to the lightning of Bruno Schultz and JM Coetzee, in her essays. In them she animates the Classics and invests her fascination with mystical Judaism to great effect, just as she does in her short and long fiction. All of this is apparent in The Puttermesser Papers which, if you do know Ozick, you’ll recognise as a cycle of stories from the last 20 years. The Puttermesser Papers earnt substantial praise when it was published in the United States in 1997 and was nominated for the 1999 IMPAC Award. Such recognition came late to Ozick and remains incomplete while novels like The Messiah of Stockholm are still unavailable here.
So, what is it about Ozick? Well, it’s difficult to convey the astonishing fecundity of this novel in summary. There’s just so much in it, for one thing; all condensed into a swiftly flowing stream of exquisitely placed words. But this is not writing for swooners because Ozick means what she writes. She’s serious, high minded and literary in that sense and yet her’s is a gleeful kind of seriousness.
We first meet Ruth Puttermesser as a 46 year old lawyer in the New York Mayor’s office. She’s insistent that her married lover, Morris Rappaport, allows her to finish Plato’s Theaetetus before they have sex. The previous night she’d read him a line of Socrates, defending the enquirer’s mind “for being so eager to know what was happening in the sky that he could not see what lay at his feet.” This is typical of Ozick; to begin a story with a quote like that, but also for the quote to be one expressive of unbounded yearning.
Puttermesser goes on to lose her job unfairly and to conjure a female golem into being who becomes her peculiarly loyal public servant; successfully campaigning for Puttermesser to become Mayor. As Mayor she establishes a paradisal realm in Manhattan for a while until Xanthippe the golem does what golems do and runs amok. So with Puttermesser’s reputation and the city in ruins Xanthippe is dispatched back to the earth from where she came.
We next meet Puttermesser in her mid-50s as she falls in and out of love, through a filter of the life and work of George Eliot which is, I promise, no less vivid for that. Eventually we witness the aged Puttermesser being murdered and then raped, in that order, after which she describes life in paradise -where the quality of timelessness proves bitterly disappointing.
Ozick’s insistent awkwardness is her great attraction for me. She does things writers of fiction are not supposed to do, like giving dismissive summaries of plot which “must be recorded as lightly and swiftly as possible.” She also tells you things in a spirit of enthusiastic sharing, so you end this book knowing all about golems, for instance. There is the Prague golem as a protector of the Jews but also the earlier mystical golem conjured out of nothing but unformed matter. This latter quality of blooming impossibility is also her work’s great strength.
Puttermesser embodies notions of Jewish as well as American redemptiveness and utopianism. Ozick writes, “Puttermesser craved. Her craving was to cleanse the wilderness … of injustice”. She is encouraged in this by Xanthippe’s notes saying things like; “No reality greater than thought.” She is the kind of retired Mayoress whose tea bags come with Nietzschean aphorisms saying “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” Before retiring she’d dreamt about appointing PB Shelley, to honour his principle that “poets are the legislators of mankind.”
These are not exactly belly laughs but there are plenty of smiles in The Puttermesser Papers. However both Ozick and her heroine are yearners for ideas and a better world. Yet if this book is an embodiment of that yearning, it is a kind of visceral, sexy tango of yearning -strange as it sounds. It’s this crazy exuberance along with her singular style that makes me recommend this book to you in the way that I would recommend Kafka or Calvino, Jean Rhys or Virginia Woolf.