Mixed media: Book reviews

I Was Told to Come Alone

by Souad Mekhennet (Henry Holt, ISBN 9781627798976)

I Was Told to Come Alone

Souad Mekhennet gives her memoir of a life in journalism the subtitle ‘My journey behind the lines of Jihad’ – and it certainly is quite a journey. Beginning with her childhood in Frankfurt, a daughter of Moroccan guest workers, she gives a vivid account of the obstacles she had to overcome – racism, her position as an outsider in German society, the expectations placed on her as a female and a Muslim – in order to pursue her chosen profession as a political reporter.

Beginning her career as a freelance for various German newspapers, radio and TV stations, she is now a correspondent for the Washington Post, a position that has taken her to some insanely dangerous places where her background has gained her access usually denied to Western journalists. In Afghanistan and Lebanon, Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia, she has interviewed and written about the individuals at the heart of the Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS, always aware that each encounter carried with it the possibility of kidnap and murder.

Souad Mekhennet has said that her touchstone as a journalist is an attempt to seek an answer to the question asked by Maureen Fanning, the American mother of a terrorism victim: ‘why do they hate us so much?’ In her honest dispatches and lucid prose, excoriating equally those who espouse ‘Western values’ while killing by drone, and those who claim to follow Islam by slaughtering the innocent, this brave reporter has done much to foster mutual understanding and promote empathy in a world sorely in need of both qualities.

★★★★ PW


We : Reviving Social Hope

by Ronald Aronson (The University of Chicago Press, ISBN 9780226334660)


In this readable if rather academic attempt to excavate the roots of hope in society, Ronald Aronson is at pains to tease out exactly what we mean when we speak of hope. He carefully delineates hope from what is labelled ‘progress’, a form of social change, he argues, that often brings little in the way of advancement to the majority of those caught up in its wake. Thus, for instance, mechanical looms are progress, mass unemployment ensues, and the term ‘Luddite’ passes down to us as pejorative.

The author draws on an impressive range of sources, from Yevgeny Zamyatin, author of his book’s namesake, to Jean-Paul Sartre and, most persuasively, the writer and activist Rebecca Solnit. Aronson builds his case for an understanding of hope built on solidarity and mass action, citing the grassroots movements of Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Podemos and Occupy as exemplars.

I was particularly impressed by Aronson’s concept of the ‘privatisation of hope’ in which social concern and the common good are subservient to a sense of individual entitlement based on consumerism and an atomized, never-fulfilled selfishness. He has little time for the forces that swept Obama to the presidency, describing the rallying-cry of ‘Yes we can!’ as vacuous and, indeed, it was quickly dropped post-election. He cannot entirely avoid the elephant in the room and, in a postscript, tackles the accession to the presidency of Donald Trump, a snake-oil salesman and the personification of ‘anti-hope’ – leaving this reader at least pretty despondent at the end of a book on hope.

★★★ PW


Trans Like Me

by CN Lester (Virago, ISBN 978 0 349 00860 8)

trans like me

With trans people more visible – in film, music, online – than ever, you might think that transness is having a moment, and that CN Lester’s Trans Like Me is evidence of a tipping point towards acceptance and equality.

Timely, this book most certainly is – though not as proof that trans people have been welcomed into the mainstream. As Lester explains in a thought-provoking account that blends personal experience with wider historical and social insight, the portrayal of trans people in the media is problematic at best and damaging at worst. Progress is not inevitable: in many countries it has stalled, or never started, and trans people everywhere routinely face physical and verbal abuse and the blatant denial of their rights.

Even in more liberal societies, the cis (or non-trans) mainstream does little more than pay lip service to the trans struggle, without challenging society’s unquestioning acceptance of the gender binary. For cis readers sympathetic to and supportive of trans issues, this makes uncomfortable reading, but if Lester’s authentic, honest appraisal of trans’ lives makes us look more closely at our own assumptions and prejudices, then this is all to the good; after all, the book’s subtitle is ‘a journey for all of us’.

Lester isn’t looking for guilt or pity from the reader, however, but for outrage. That this book is necessary in 2017 is itself an outrage. When being trans (or gay or straight, or all or none) is no longer a story, perhaps then we can talk of true acceptance.

★★★★ JL


Haifa Fragments explores complex Palestinian-Israeli life

Haifa Fragments is a novel published by New Internationalist. In this video co-editor Chris Brazier explains how the book navigates difficult and intriguing terrain.

Haifa Fragments is a new novel by Khulud Khamis, published by New Internationalist, that explores the life of a Palestinian citizen of Israel who refuses to be crushed by the feeling that she is an unwelcome guest in the land of her ancestors. Buy Haifa Fragments.

Compassion and conscience


familymwr under a Creative Commons Licence

How are aphorisms different from proverbs or maxims? To my mind an aphorism can be a maxim if it is wise, universal and intended for instruction. Aphorisms try and breathe new life into an old truth. An aphorism is a proverb with a name tag (proverbs tend to be nameless).

Growing up in Cairo, Egypt I was surrounded by a love of language. Wit was sport, and a kind of national pastime, at the time of my youth. Never mind that over 50 percent of the population was actually illiterate; it wasn’t about being book-smart. ‘Knowledge is what’s in your head, not in your notebooks’ an Egyptian saying shrewdly justified (in Arabic, it rhymes, too: el 3elm fil rass mish fil korras).

Which is to say, proverbs served as street poetry as well as philosophy. They were oral tradition and inherited wisdom, rescuing keen psychological insight from the past, and passing it onto future generations, as shortcuts to hard-won experience or observation. Proverbs are like coral reef, that way, fossils of philosophies merging with living truths. Good aphorisms aspire to this, too.

We are responsible for our enemy. Compassion is to consider the role we play in their creation.

Paradox: where truth hides in plain view.

Revolutions are about overthrowing the tyranny of old fears – dictators are merely stubborn symbols of these.

You can't bury pain and not expect it to grow roots.

History teaches us, and world news reports confirm, that not all deaths are equal; there is an exchange rate for human lives, as well.

The right to free speech ends where hate speech begins.

Pity that, in the majority of alien movies, they are here to invade and destroy our planet. Perhaps, when we can conceive of more peaceful, curious, generous strangers, we will be less prone to invade and destroy other countries.

In wars, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is another name for conscience.

These aphorisms come from Yahia's upcoming collection entitled 'Speaking in Sayings'. His first collection of aphorisms, Signposts to Elsewhere (Jane Street Press) was selected as a 2008 ‘Book of the Year’ by The Independent, in the UK.

Bringing the rainforest home

Feral front coverFeral begins with a recollection from Monbiot’s time in an illegal goldmine in Brazil 20 years ago. The glimpse he caught there, of the forest’s ‘trophic diversity’ and of the gangland atmosphere in his camp, clearly made a deep impression. He enjoyed both, whether or not he ‘should have’, and this book is an attempt to bring both of those insights home. To summarize a little unfairly: middle age, washing up and the school run are a drag. Let’s re-introduce wolves.

Dateable pollen from the Clwydian Hills recently provided the essential data from which this book sets out. Namely that the woodland which colonized Britain’s west coast at the end of the last Ice Age was rainforest, which can exist in temperate as well as tropical zones. Steadily cleared during the Neolithic, pockets of it survived as late as the medieval period. One or two of them still do.

The open upland areas we have learned to prize as ‘wilderness’, in other words, are nothing of the kind. They are the scenes of a human-made disaster. They should be ‘rewilded’, or fenced off and allowed to regenerate. In revering these landscapes we are the dupes of a colossal and collective failure of historical imagination. The proposed reintroduction of top predators like wolves will presumably generate most of the fuss around this book, but it really only follows from that earlier premise.

Monbiot is at pains to acknowledge the difficulties with this and all the wrong ways in which it could be (and has been) done. This readiness of his to face opponents’ arguments at their strongest is a likeable trait. He describes and interviews several people who do agree with him, but somewhere near this book’s core, for me, was his interview with Dafydd Morris-Jones, a young hill-farmer for whom ‘rewilding’ is a ‘post-Romantic ideology’. It would make of the Welsh uplands (his family’s home for generations) a visitor-attraction for outsiders, erasing the national, linguistic, religious and economic community to which Morris-Jones belongs. Monbiot claims at one point to be treating Wales as a ‘case study’. Morris-Jones’ response is, essentially, that people don’t live in ‘case studies’.


This interview evidently caused Monbiot much soul-searching. Are the re-wilders not in an uncomfortable lineage, stretching back (at least) to the landlords who cleared the Scottish Highlands after Culloden? Any decision to re-wild, he counters, would be taken, in this instance, not by foreign or aristocratic overlords, but by the Welsh (or whoever) themselves. The economic basis of this kind of farming could also be maintained, in some instances, he argues, by tweaking the subsidy-system, allowing some farms to continue.

So far so sensible, but there’s an omission here that goes to the heart of what is wrong with this book. The national and economic questions have been addressed, but what about Morris-Jones’ linguistic or religious culture? We can maybe forgive Monbiot on the linguistic charge. But in recounting his high octane adventures in Brazil or East Africa, he is powerfully affected by ceremonies which were, for those directly involved, essentially religious. Isn’t there another ‘double-standard’ here?

We deplore deforestation in the Amazon basin, whilst marvelling at the wisdom traditions of its native peoples. Conversely, and perversely, surely, we delight in the ecological wastelands we (Europeans) have created at home, yet either deplore or ignore our own traditions. From the one (dismissive) mention of the Bible here you would never guess that it contains, among other things, some of the greatest nature poetry ever written. T S Eliot and R S Thomas were believers both. Setting tags from them as chapter-headings won’t do the work for you.

My argument here is not with rewilding in itself, but with the relative narrowness of the language Monbiot is using to persuade people. He would argue, I assume, that a fresh awareness of what, say, Wales was like as the ice sheets withdrew, the complexity and beauty of what was lost with those forests, that properly understood this might form the basis of something like a new spiritual vision. That idea contains the seed of something important, but he doesn’t allow it to germinate. His account of the Mesolithic site at Goldcliff, also in Wales (where human footprints are mixed with those of aurochs, wolf, crane, oystercatcher, heron) is one of the book’s best passages. But he launches from it into a purple passage, which he identifies as a ‘genetic memory’ breaking through.

Genetic memories

Heredity was being described as a form of unconscious memory well before genes were ever discovered (see Samuel Butler’s Life and Habit, 1878). But if this form of ‘memory’ is actually, or occasionally, conscious, then why is it so selective? Faced with a farmyard or a flock of sheep, Monbiot does not feel ‘genetic memories’ coming on, though the descendants of those who left their footprints at Goldcliff were rearing sheep within two or three thousand years, the merest ‘twinkling of an eye’ in evolutionary terms. It’ll be memes next.

I would recommend this book, though, not least as an antidote to much of what currently passes for the ‘Europe debate’. Feral is a brave attempt to find and grow here, and in the long term, the kind of environments and wildlife which are mainly available, at the moment, via air travel’s instant gratifications. Rewilding is indeed a ‘work of hope’, and much further advanced on the European continent than it is in Britain, from Romania and Croatia to Spain and Portugal.

As the first continent to lose its megafauna, Europe has perhaps a peculiar duty to examine what went wrong. Its record on attempted reintroductions is also a mixed one. Hermann Göring cleared the Bialowieza Forest in eastern Poland of its human population in order to restore the pristine forest of once upon a time. Monbiot is very thorough on the grim story of how rewilding has, thus far, actually happened. But the longer history of this surely worth exploring.

Britain is unusually reticent about rewilding: that it was the first country to industrialize may well, as Monbiot suggests, help to explain that. But across Europe the advent of science both triggered a massive population explosion and made available the means to destroy the last of these creatures and their habitats. Many thinkers have traced the crisis in modern human consciousness to ‘the Great Unsettling’ of the 16th and 17th centuries. To relocate the critical moment to the Mesolithic, as he sometimes appears to, is to place much of its implications beyond the reach of study. What we do know about the Mesolithic is very tantalizing, I agree. But we don’t know very much.

A more attentive engagement with more recent European culture might help in other ways. Göring’s crimes in Poland are easy to deplore in themselves, but his actions had their roots deep in the intellectual culture of his time. The Nazi Party enjoyed the support of major German thinkers who denied transcendence, vaunting ‘the biological’, ‘the mysterious urgings of the blood, the urgings of heredity and the past for which the body serves as an enigmatic vehicle’ (see Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer Part 3, 4.3, Stanford University Press 1998). The psychoanalyst Carl Jung noticed how many Germans seemed to be dreaming about lions and panthers and other dangerous big cats between the two world wars. The Serbian poet Vasko Popa was struck, during the 1970s, by the way students would ‘shout out’ during readings, demanding the poems he had written about St Sava’s wolves. The English poet Ted Hughes, another curious omission from this book, once asked him what he thought that meant. Popa said he didn’t know, ‘but I fear – very bad things.’ (see ‘Poetry and Violence’ in Ted Hughes’ Winter Pollen, 1995).

The case Monbiot has made for rewilding is a strong one – and I haven’t even mentioned his excellent chapter on the sea, in which he reveals how little our ‘Marine Protected Areas’ really amount to. The terms in which he has chosen to make his case are narrower than they needed to be, that’s all.

Feral by George Monbiot (ISBN 9781846147487) is published in the UK this week.

The politics of humanity and the reality of aid

Former humanitarian chief John Holmes has defended the UN’s highly controversial record during the final stages of the civil war in Sri Lanka.

In his newly published memoirs, The Politics of Humanity, Holmes casts doubt on whether there was ever any real possibility of securing an alternative outcome to the one in which an estimated 40,000 civilians died, many of them anonymously in the carnage of the final days of the 26-year conflict.

The scale of atrocities committed against civilians in Sri Lanka presented the first major test of the so-called ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) doctrine – one which coincided with Holmes’ watch as the UN’s most senior official for humanitarian affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator.

The R2P doctrine emerged out of the pervasive ‘never again’ sentiment that followed the atrocities in Rwanda and Srebrenica when the UN Security Council passed the first resolutions on the protection of civilians in war.

Since then, UN protection roles have proliferated; safeguarding civilians has become central to UN peacekeeping mandates, and in 2005 every single UN member state endorsed a collective responsibility to protect the lives of civilians at risk of atrocities.

John Holmes is interviewed
Talal Al-Haj interviews John Holmes at the U.N in 2009 TA230773651, under a CC License

The challenges that confronted Holmes, and indeed the entire humanitarian community, in fulfilling this responsibility in Sri Lanka, were formidable indeed: an intransigent government hell-bent on final military victory over the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE); deeply hostile territory for aid workers and a fiercely politicized and contested conflict in which both sides breached international humanitarian law and the human rights of civilians.

But Holmes’ account of his part in pulling out the entire international UN aid effort of the conflict zone is likely to do little to appease critics – coming as it did just months before the final offensive on the LTTE-held enclave in northern Sri Lanka between January and May 2009.

Also controversial is Holmes’ defence of his decision to withhold casualty numbers, choosing to remain silent about the scale of civilians in need of protection and the death toll. Not going public with how many civilians were at risk led to bitter recriminations and accusations of a cover up – including from within the UN itself.

In the memoirs, Holmes – a career diplomat of some 30 years’ standing – explains his choice to instead pursue a quiet behind-the-scenes advocacy: ‘My view was that a frank private dialogue was better than a furious public row. I could go out in a blaze of temporary glory of denunciation of the government – but I might well take the humanitarian operation with me.’

Critics are likely to be quick to point out that this is what happened anyway, when most aid organizations followed the UN lead and withdrew; and also that his actions were hardly consistent with the explicitly mandated responsibility of the ERC to advocate for people in need – still less with a responsibility to bear witness or act as moral conscience of the world.

It will also be difficult to reconcile this most controversial chapter of Holmes’ tenure as Emergency Relief Co-ordinator with the findings of a recently leaked UN report which condemned the organization for grave failure in its responsibility to protect ‘hundreds of thousands of civilians’ and for effectively providing a witness-free, ‘open season’ zone where belligerents could – and did – commit atrocities against civilians with impunity.

The Politics of Humanity: The Reality of Relief Aid by John Holmes is published by Head of Zeus. Holmes will be discussing the book with BBC World Affairs correspondent Mike Wooldridge at the Overseas Development Institute on 20 March 2013.