New Internationalist

Reviews

Issue 290

Reviews

The NI Star rating system. Music

After the Fall
by Mary Coughlan
(Big Cat ABB123CD)

Dissected
by Meira Asher
(Crammed Discs Cram 094 CD)

Mary Coughlan On the surface these two albums seem worlds apart. After The Fall is by Mary Coughlan who has been dubbed Ireland’s answer to Janis Joplin. Dissected comes from Meira Asher, an Israeli singer and choreographer whose shaven-head appearance speaks of radical toughness. Coughlan’s is a blues-coloured album of intensely personal songs addressing alcoholism, abuse, illicit love and emotional earthquakes. Asher’s is a fierce, techno-influenced disc, filled with rage and compassion specifically for victims of aids and the intifada, but by extension, all who suffer. These two magnificent and wildly different albums are linked by the strength of vision each singer displays.

Mary Coughlan has got the kind of voice that reaches deep into one’s inner recesses, that’s simultaneously pained and powerful and warm. A former alcoholic and divorced mother, she is for Irish conservatives the very antithesis of respectability. She brings with her the experience necessary to give the blues their flesh, and combines this with an unadorned, from-the-heart style of delivery. Her eighth album, After The Fall, is a collection of 13 songs, most of them written for her. And it’s full of stories: ‘John Fell Off The Work-Around’ poignantly tells the effect of unemployment while ‘Woman Undone’ is a stunningly well-wrought take on the lapsarian fable. Powered along by plucked strings and an airy, expansive feel, it’s both wry and angry. In all, After The Fall is a wonderful album, filled with strength and hope; the kind that shows songwriting at its very best.

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Meira Asher Dissected, Meira Asher’s debut wears its anger more publicly. Whereas Coughlan’s pertains to the personal-political, Asher’s goes for the big stuff. There are whole systems to be targeted and held accountable – as the album’s sleeve photos, replete with military images, indicate. Her lyrics are delivered in a mixture of English, Hebrew and Arabic – for whether she’s singing about the intifada or about feminine sexuality, Asher wants her message widely heard. The message, if one listens closely to the music, is a plea for tolerance and integration. Asher is effective in this aim, both literally and musically.

This disc deserves the wider audience it hopes for, combining a driving force with dextrous and sensual technique. Environmental noises such as breathing and water – even air-raid sirens – create their own rhythms. At times the instruments themselves become almost like parts of a body. Unsurprisingly, Dissected is a difficult record to classify – it’s not in any folk tradition, although Asher uses a multi-ethnic instrumentation and the vocal lines retain cadences of Middle-Eastern song.

This is an album which stands squarely at a set of crossroads – European, Middle Eastern, Indian, African textures and poly-rhythms abound. But there is also a palpable interest in exploring ways in which several systems of sound may meet on creatively profitable terms. It’s a strong, no-holds-barred record and all the better for it.

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Books

In the Hour of Signs
by Jamal Mahjoub
(Heinemann African Writers Series, ISBN 0-435-90922-3)

Searching for Saleem (left), and In the Hour of Signs (right). Searching for Saleem
by Farooka Gauhari
(University of Nebraska Press, ISBN 0-8032-2156-8)

Sudan in the late nineteenth century, controlled by Egypt with a British Governor General, is the setting for this far-ranging and complex novel. It tells the story of a boatbuilder’s son who claimed direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad. This man was Muhammad Ahmad ibn ‘Abd Allah, who took the title of Mahdi, traditionally used by Islamic religious reformers. Gathering a ragged army of believers, the Mahdi declared his mission of holy war and conquest throughout the Islamic world. The British followed with their own ‘holy’ vision of Empire.

In Jamal Mahjoub’s novel, the Mahdi is a soft-spoken, ever-smiling man whose gentle, enigmatic manner persuades his followers that the light of god shines within him. It is this quiet charisma which presides over the ensuing bloodletting. Fictional characters rub shoulders with the main historical players in a tale told with cinematic authenticity, with the colours of events blazing before the reader’s eyes. Tiny details, resonant with poetic just-rightness, peg the vast canvas of events and characters.

We see rather than know Mahjoub’s people, because this is not a novel of introspection but of big themes – such as the blurring of religious ideals and political power. In the Hour of Signs is a brave and moving book, even though Mahjoub doesn’t always succeed in gathering its numerous threads and tends at times to lumber the narrative with battle scenes it could have done without. Eventually what is most rewarding is how it grapples with religious belief and its problems, without a cut-and-dried attitude in sight.

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When her husband disappeared during the 1978 Communist coup in Afghanistan, Farooka Gauhari set off in search of him. Searching for Saleem is the personal account of that two-year search, which in its way also deals with problems thrown up by politics and religion.

As a professor at Kabul University, Farooka Gauhari had watched the student-led Communist movement develop in response to rapid Westernization. She herself had actually favoured this latter style of ‘development’ for her country and her hopes were dashed when President Daoud’s government was overthrown and, in the first week of the coup, 32,000 people were killed. Soviet troops flew in to prop up a succession of brutally repressive regimes and Afghan society disintegrated into civil war.

Made up almost entirely of detailed diary entries, Searching for Saleem is not elegantly written. But the immediacy of Gauhari’s account makes up for such shortcomings. Terrifying scenes are described in simple but emotional prose. And she vividly communicates what it is like to be an unveiled, professional woman in a land struggling with change, and where she often feels out of place when visiting her more traditional Muslim relatives in the countryside. Her feelings of strain and dislocation were also shared by the nation on a cataclysmic scale.

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Film

Get on the Bus
by Spike Lee

Bomgay
by Cjangu Sethna and Riyad Vici Wadia

Most of the mainstream media coverage of the Million Man March in Washington focused on the controversial figure of its organizer Louis Farrakan – well known for his extreme and sexist pronouncements.

Spike Lee’s latest offering, Get on the Bus, takes a rather more insightful look at the diversity and complexity of Black American men’s lives. Rich in dialogue and atmosphere, it follows the story of 15 men as they take the bus from South Central LA to the Million Man March in Washington DC.

The performances are superb, making this one of Lee’s most accomplished films to date. A tapestry of hopes and memories, it’s shot on Super 16, mostly with handheld cameras. And by interspersing grainy black-and-white video shots within the otherwise vividly coloured footage, Lee gives the film an exciting, documentary veracity.

On a shoestring budget, provided by a group of Black men including the actors, this remarkable film was shot in just three weeks. Get on the bus is about more than the Million Man March, it’s a journey through the US – and the issues it raises are pertinent pretty much everywhere.

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You can be sure that Bomgay didn’t get massive funding from outside its community either. It’s a pioneering gay film from India, where sexual acts ‘against the order of nature’ can be punished by life imprisonment (at least in theory). Short and feisty, it packs a bravely raunchy punch, setting six of local poet R Raj Roa’s poems to images.

These tiny vignettes draw in observations about class, alienation, solidarity, cruising, campery, victimization, love, waywardness, as well as Rao’s fascination with all things scatological.

The somewhat clumsy title is a defiant two fingers to the anti-gay communal politicians who take great pride in having changed the name of cosmopolitan Bombay to Marathi-only Mumbai.

It’s invigorating.

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T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
Women of ideas
...being the book that should be on every
school history curriculum.

As a young woman studying physics in the early 1980s I was frequently incensed by the opinions of my male friends who insisted that, by nature, women were not as good at science as men. They considered themselves superior in every way and liked to point out that history supported them. Where, after all, were the talented women scientists, artists, writers, politicians? After listing Marie Curie, Jane Austen and Joan of Arc, I would run out of ammunition and retire.

Had I known of Dale Spender’s Women of ideas: and what men have done to them, I would have been in a much better position to re-educate my student ‘friends’. Not only does she provide dozens of brief biographies of women from Aphra Behn to Margaret Mead, but the book is also a damning critique of the ways in which men have used their power to silence women. Spender argues that because we live in a patriarchal society, men have the power to determine meanings. Men decide what is to be valued, even what is real. An important aspect of patriarchy is that men’s experiences and values should be seen as the only valid frame of reference. Men’s problems become human problems, and the very different concerns of women are either not seen at all or are dismissed as trivial.

Despite the many material difficulties placed in their way, women have been generating knowledge throughout human history. Aphra Behn wrote 13 novels 30 years before Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe – which is cited as the ‘first’ novel – as well as plays, poems and translations. Mary Somerville was a gifted mathematician, despite being denied a formal education. Harriet Martineau wrote on political economy and her books vastly outsold John Stuart Mill. And there are many more. However, because men control knowledge, these women’s ideas have not been passed on, their books have gone out of print and few biographies have been written.

Spender is not the first to have written a history of women of ideas. Margaret Fuller in 1845 and Matilda Joslyn Gage in 1893 wrote carefully researched histories of women and the ways in which men have silenced them. But ironically, despite the authors’ naming of the problem, these works too have been ‘lost’. Far from being a story of progress, of ideas gradually evolving and building on the work of those who have gone before, women’s history is a cycle of interruptions and enforced silences. Every 50 years or so a new generation of women comes along and starts again, often with no knowledge of their foremothers.

Women of ideas

It is inspiring to know that women have questioned and challenged male authority for so long, but it is unforgivable that I was never taught these things at school. Spender’s anger burns through every page and as I read my own anger grows. She argues that this erasure of women and their writings from the historical record is not an accident, but that it is systematic and deliberate. She is concerned to understand how this erasure has been achieved.

Male critics declare that women’s writings are about unimportant subjects, they are written in inappropriate styles, or are illogically presented, subjective, hysterical even. And in any case, the women who wrote them were physically unattractive, embittered spinsters who do not need to be taken seriously. The ideas themselves are seldom addressed at all. Describing the treatment of Margaret Fuller, Spender writes: ‘She is isolated and portrayed as repellent, and her ability and worth is denied; she is pushed to the periphery of serious consideration so that the shift into oblivion is barely perceptible.’ Such methods have been used time and again. The more dangerous the ideas to patriarchal power, the more thoroughly the women are obliterated from record.

Some women have tried to be agreeable, and to behave in a ‘ladylike’ fashion as they seek to persuade men of the justice of their case; whilst others have been thoroughly ‘disagreeable’, attacking male power head-on. Either way, says Spender, the result has been similar in that women’s writings have been belittled and ignored. This being the case, she advocates that women should be as disagreeable as possible, if for no other reason than that it’s more fun!

This is a long book, and it is at times painful to read. But I believe it is important. It should be a recognized text on school history curricula. Children of both sexes need to be taught of the past achievements of women. Although women do now have much in the way of legal equality, attitudes and social arrangements have changed comparatively little. Until every girl is taught the history of her foremothers’ struggles as thoroughly as boys are taught of heroes and wars, of men of science and men of letters, we are vulnerable to another round of silencing.

Elizabeth Sourbut

Women of Ideas by Dale Spender is published by Pandora Press, London, 1988.

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