New Internationalist

Reviews

Issue 279

Reviews

The NI Star rating system. Books

The UN for Beginners
by Ian Williams
(Writers and Readers, ISBN 0-86316-185-5)

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The three books on review. The three books on review. The three books on review. [image, unknown]

The World in Our Hands
written, illustrated and edited by the Young People of the World
(Tricycle Press, ISBN 1-883672-31-7)

The Right to Hope
edited by Catherine Thick
(Earthscan ISBN 1-85383-309-6)

One thing about Ian Williams is immediately apparent – he’s no UN groupie. His UN for Beginners is sharp, scabrous, witty and critical. He gets off to a no-punches-pulled start with: ‘The UN has the media relations of a 1950s state bureaucracy. It doesn’t like reporters looking into its inner workings, and it threatens dire penalties to staff found leaking information. Time and again, when journalists have exposed scandals in the UN, senior officials have set up an inquiry – into who leaked!’

The fast-paced text, documentary-comic design, imaginatively treated photos and wicked cartoons make this an inspired and incisive rattle through a subject that has every potential for being about as exciting as ditchwater. It’s packed with quotes, anecdotes, insider insights and flashes of humour (‘ethically challenged’ is how Williams describes ex-Secretary General Kurt Waldheim). But Williams is not a hard-bitten cynic through and through. He believes in the idea of the UN – he’s just not starry-eyed about it. And he is capable of delivering bouquets as well as brickbats. Summing up, he says: ‘The UN has survived liars and astrologers as Secretaries General. It’s taken the rap for the dirty deeds that the Super Powers have wished on it. It’s been the scapegoat of nation-states great and small. But if it didn’t exist we’d have to invent something like it. And if it were re-invented it would probably not look too different from now by the time the governments of the world have had their way.’

He wants us, his readers, to take an interest in how our UN representative votes and behaves. ‘Show them they are being watched. Write and shout. If they make deals in smoke-filled rooms, let them know that you’ll roast them afterwards... It’s your United Nations. It says so in the charter. Rescue it from the gray men in gray suits.’ This book certainly provides the stimulus to kick ass where it’s needed.

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The World in Our Hands is a somewhat gentler experience. But it has its sharp edges too. When the kids who put it together got started on this project they discovered that there was already a UN agency for young people – the Youth Unit. The only trouble was it had no youth in it! This book reverses the information flow – it has been written, edited and illustrated by young people aged 12 to 21 from around the world. As its (45!) editors say: ‘Most of the information we get about our world and its Big Issues comes from adults... That’s why we decided that we, the young people, should speak out about our future since we are the ones who’ll actually be living it.’ Colourful and controversial, this book will be useful in classrooms and development education centres.

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An equally interesting, though more high-brow project, is The Right to Hope. Editor Catherine Thick has brought together the work and thoughts of artists, thinkers, leaders, scholars and activists from around the globe who are, each in their own way, dedicated to trying to create a better world. It’s a big visionary project, with written contributions from the likes of Vandana Shiva, Desmond Tutu, Wangari Maathai and Susan George. A book to savour in those quieter, thoughtful moments.

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Music

Night Songs
by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Michael Brook
(Virgin/Real World LC 3098 CD)

Night Songs At first glance, such a pairing may seem unlikely: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Pakistan’s qawwali superstar with Canadian guitarist and electronics wizard, Michael Brook. Qawwali – that is, Islamic Sufi devotional song – is a particular form of music which exists for one purpose only: to engender an ecstatic union with God. Outside collaboration might seem inappropriate. Not so, thankfully. Khan’s belief that many types of music have the capacity to approach ecstasy has allowed his qawwali fruitful contact with other forms. And Khan has established himself as an enthusiastic musical collaborator of truly exciting mettle; his contributions to the soundtrack for the recent movie, Dead Man Walking, are already bringing in a wider audience.

Brook, too, is an expert in his field. Whether he is on his own or part of a collaborative team, his music is always exhilarating, and his clouds of gently treated and electronically warped guitars have graced records by a wide range of artists.

Night Songs is not the first time Khan and Brook have worked together. Six years ago the Canadian produced Khan’s previous Real World album, Mustt Mustt. It was a pleasant enough recording but it was clear that Brook was only just getting to grips with the fluid undulations of Khan’s style. There are no such hitches on Night Songs. This is a strange and wonderful album: eight tracks of luminous textures – half eastern, half western – over which presides Khan’s far-ranging vocals. With Brook providing a backdrop of tremendous airy expanse, Khan takes on the responsibility of generating not just melody, but rhythm also. The instrumentations are suitably diverse: standard tabla, harmonium and guitars being augmented in various places by cello, woodwinds and clubby bass.

There are, amidst passages of astonishing beauty, some scratchy, darker shades which provide contrast. The results range from clipped grooves to passionately intense crescendos. No translations are provided for Khan’s lyrics, but in truth they’re not needed. It’s clear that whatever he’s singing about, they are hymns of praise. So too is Brook’s contribution. There’s always a feeling of mysterious presence in his work.

To pin down Brook and Khan to some clear definition would be to detract from the qualities of their music – dramatic, emotional and transcendent. Night Songs is an album that typifies all that is best and sensitive about cross-cultural collaborations. No individual tradition is lost in the merger; rather facets are enhanced and similarities sought out in a manner which can only enrich the imagination. Marvellous.

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Film

The Most Terrible Time In My Life
directed by Kaizo Hayashi

A man scuttles into a cinema where the Hollywood classic melodrama The Best Years of Our Lives is playing. But he has no intention of going to the film. His custom is with private eye Maiku (Mike) Hamma who runs his business in an office next door to the cinema’s rattling projection booth. A sly homage to the hard-boiled detective genre of Mickey Spillane or Raymond Chandler, this film takes the format and runs with it.

But Hamma is far from the bruised hero of his namesake, Hammer. For starters he’s fresh-faced and young enough to remember playing cops and robbers, while he patrols the mean streets of Yokohama so that he can save up to send his kid sister to college. Plus it’s rather hard to exude cool machismo when said sister is inclined to put him in his place with a playful whack or two. However, Hamma gets himself into a less than playful situation when he takes on the case of finding a Taiwanese waiter’s long-lost brother only to become embroiled in a vicious gang war between Japanese and Chinese clans.

Director Hayashi is very much of the Japanese new wave. Shot in black-and-white and with a nifty beat soundtrack, The Most Terrible Time of My Life could well have been minted in the late 1950s, except that it now comes with the requisite ironical twists on conventions, whether those of the American film noir or home-grown yazuka flic. But it is rather kitsch for kitsch’s sake. At the end of the film there is a colour-saturated trailer for the next Mike Hamma adventure. Two more are promised. One is good enough.

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Reviews by Lizzie Francke, Louise Gray and Vanessa Baird
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird

T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
Surpassing the love of men
...being the book that traces the chequered history of love between women

I was brought up to believe that lesbians were unfortunate creatures, to be pitied rather than reviled. They couldn’t help being the way they were; their behaviour was due to having too many male hormones. This made it very difficult for me to come to terms with my own feelings towards other women. Only when I became able to substitute a political awareness for the idea of hormonal imbalance was I able to relax into my identity. But I still carried with me the anger and confusion of those early lessons about lesbian aberration. Where had such absurd ideas come from?

Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the love of men answered many of my questions. In it she traces a history of romantic friendship and love between women from the Renaissance to the early 1980s – and discovers that relationships between women were accepted, even encouraged, for centuries.

Faderman was surprised by her findings. Her research began as a study of Emily Dickinson’s love letters and poems to Sue Gilbert –documents which were full of passionate pronouncements of love. But there were no traces of guilt or fear of discovery. When she went on to look at correspondence between their women contemporaries, she discovered that almost all of these in nineteenth-century America, Britain, France and Germany had made a passionate commitment to another woman at some time in her life.

Before the early twentieth century, the idea of the lesbian as a particular kind of woman did not exist. There were lesbian sexual acts, which it was assumed decent women would never perform, but no clear-cut identity. Nevertheless, Faderman’s research shows that many women’s most important relationships were with other women, and that many couples dreamed of being able to escape to the country to set up home and live together forever.

It seems that at times when sex-roles were very clearly delineated, and when marriage was more a matter of economics than love, men felt secure enough to indulge women’s relationships with one another. However, if a woman tried to usurp male privileges, that was a different matter. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, numbers of women were executed for wearing male clothing and attempting to pass as men. And although some of these women married other women, the real crime appeared to be the usurping of male privilege, not lesbian sexual activity.

Surpassing the love of men.

It is hard to know whether the relationships which women wrote about so extensively included genital sex. In previous centuries, decent women have been considered asexual, and probably also saw themselves as such. Love was seen as the highest manifestation of spiritual union, while sex was a base animal passion.

Faderman argues that for most modern lesbians, genital sex is not central to their self-definition. Although, in these sexually self-conscious times, sex is a factor to be considered, what is more important is that lesbians give their love, energy and support to other women, that they are ‘woman-centred’. To this extent, modern lesbian-feminists are not very different to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century romantic friends.

As women began to gain economic independence their relationships with each other began to seem threatening to the social order. For the first time the possibility of setting up long-term households together became a reality. In their struggle for rights to education, employment and the vote, it must have seemed natural for women to turn to one another for support, rather than to marry a man who would expect his wife to subordinate her interests to his.

Sexology as a scientific discipline arose at about the same time as feminism. Passionate love between women was explicitly linked to specific sexual practices which were defined as abnormal. The lesbian was created and pathologized at a single stroke. Feminists were accused of being lesbians, and ‘normal’ women were warned against them.

For several decades, it was almost impossible for lesbians to find positive images of their lives. Expressions of love between women, which had been seen as entirely innocent and laudable in previous eras, were suddenly suspect. Women were taught that close friendships were to be viewed with suspicion.

Only with the sexual revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s were lesbians able to reclaim the sexological label, and make it their own. Now the term ‘lesbian’ allows an identity which once again encompasses far more than just a narrow focus on sexual acts.

Since this book came out in 1981, lesbian-feminism has lost some of its support. In the 1990s, the focus has shifted once again towards sexual activity and away from political solidarity. Surpassing the love of men can offer a reminder to modern lesbians – and to heterosexual women – that there is a spectrum of experience which offers a source of strength to all women. Every woman can engage in passionate friendship, and to some extent – in the words of the old 1970s slogan – every woman can be a lesbian.

Elizabeth Sourbut

Surpassing the love of men by Lillian Faderman was published by William Morrow and Company Inc, 1981, in the US and The Women’s Press, 1985 (reprinted 1991) in the UK.

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