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Mixed Media: Books

The Caliphate

by Hugh Kennedy (Penguin Pelican, ISBN 9780141981406)

On 10 June 2014, in the Iraqi city of Mosul, leader of so-called Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi officially declared the ‘first’ caliphate in the Muslim world since the dissolving of the last one, with the demise of the Ottoman Empire, in 1924.

But what exactly does the concept of a caliphate mean? And who gets to decide its rules?

In The Caliphate Hugh Kennedy says the term itself means ‘successor to the prophet of God’.

While Islamic State’s narrow fundamentalist use of the term is one that goes back to what is known as the orthodox period of caliphs, the idea itself has a rich and varied tradition. It was once, for example, the most advanced polity in the whole of Western Eurasia.

Since the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 to the present day, the idea of the caliphate has been expounded, developed, adopted, discussed and rejected, in countries stretching as far as Southeast Asia to Portugal.

What this comprehensive historical analysis shows is that, while the idea of a caliphate is today used to promote hatred, violence, brutality and sectarianism across the most unstable region in the Middle East, it can, and has, at certain periods over the past 14 centuries, been used progressively too: in the world of statecraft, government, empire, art, literature, music and culture.

The group that calls itself Islamic State does not have ownership of the idea, partly because it’s one that has never had one single, fixed, permanent meaning but is constantly open to reinterpretation.

★★★ JPO


Red Ellen

The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist

by Laura Beers (Harvard University Press, ISBN 9780674971523)

Though it neatly sums up who this book is about, there are many other descriptions of the formidable Ellen Wilkinson that could have been added to its subtitle: indefatigable union organizer, charismatic member of parliament… not to mention the nicknames she garnered over decades of public service: The Mighty Atom, Elfin Fury, Five Feet of Pugnacity, and, of course, Red Ellen.

In fact, despite the painstaking research of author and academic Laura Beers, Red Ellen’s 450 pages seem barely to scratch the surface of the life of a woman who was, according to the author, ‘the pre-eminent female British politician of her day’. She travelled the world, and met Lenin, Gandhi and Einstein. She reported on the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s and led the workers on the Jarrow Hunger March in 1936.

Throughout her career, she grappled with decisions that pitted her ideals against her pragmatism, winning admirers and enemies. Driven by a deep-held belief in the interconnectedness of the world’s nations and the need for global social justice, Ellen was ahead of her time – and would recognize many of the challenges we face today, including austerity (she fought hard against government budget cuts in the early 1930s).

Before I picked up this book, I had never heard of Ellen Wilkinson. Now I wish I could have met her.

★★★★ JL


Eve out of Her Ruins

by Ananda Devi, translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman (Les Fugitives, ISBN 9781909585232)

First published in French in 2006, Ananda Devi’s powerful novella Eve out of Her Ruins is now available to English-speaking readers thanks to Jeffrey Zuckerman’s translation and a new London-based imprint, Les Fugitives. It tells the story of an unhappy group of adolescents in an impoverished district of the Mauritian capital, Port-Louis. Saadiq, a bookish Rimbaud obsessive and very much the odd one out in a posse of delinquent youths, is besotted with the eponymous Eve. She is locked in a cycle of abuse: promiscuity and prostitution on the streets and domestic violence – at the hands of her father – at home. When Eve’s closest friend, Savita, is brutally murdered in mysterious circumstances, the little gang is subjected to the attentions of a corrupt police force, and the scurrilous gossip of their local community.

Told in a sparse, economical prose with the narrative voice split across several perspectives – rotating between Eve, Saadiq, Savita and the neighbourhood tough, Clélio – Eve out of Her Ruins is a quietly harrowing portrait of the moral toxicity of groupthink, and the insidious banality of gendered violence. Headstrong and unapologetically wilful, Eve’s monologues are a bleak meditation on the contingent nature of personal sovereignty in a social world defined by deeply entrenched power relations: ‘We’re butterflies caught in a net,’ she observes, ‘even at our most exultant, even at our most resistant.’

★★★★ HB


Migrant, refugee, smuggler, saviour

by Peter Tinti and Tuesday Reitano (Hurst, ISBN 9781849046800)

The real villains of the migration crisis are the smugglers, right? They are the ones who cram hapless refugees into unseaworthy boats or airless containers, who extort and exploit, right?

Think again. Or maybe, just think. Which is what Peter Tinti and Tuesday Reitana get us to do with their eye-opening investigation. The authors, who work with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, present a complex and nuanced picture, a spectrum of those involved in the people-smuggling industry, from the trusted ‘family business’ networks, to the less common, but more publicized, evil cartels and criminal gangs.

Through personal stories, they show us refugees who are grateful to their smugglers; a good reputation is good for business. The smuggling industry is meeting a global demand. But, as the writers observe: ‘In a neoliberal world… it is often the criminals who help the most desperate of us.’

There are also truly evil bastards who rape and exploit and torture and kill. And, ironically, in a world full of unintended consequences, it is these violent operators that are benefiting from ‘tougher’ policies. Only they have the finance, logistics and ruthlessness to get around higher barriers and increased ‘criminal justice solutions’ that target smugglers.

The authors are clear that the current international system is broken, and only policies that address the demand for passage from zones of war and poverty into ones that offer greater security offer the slightest hope of success.

Tinti and Reitano also expose the cynical conflation of smuggling (getting people from a to b) with trafficking (slavery) as ‘hoping to operationalize universal disapproval of human trafficking to gain support for policies that are really intended to stem migrant and refugee flows’.

Powerful analysis, groundbreaking research, vividly and journalistically expressed. This is a must-read for policy-makers – and anyone who wants a more truthful approach to a defining story of our age.

★★★★★ VB


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