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Mixed Media: Book reviews

Radicalized: New Jihadists and the Threat to the West

by Peter R Neumann (IB Tauris, ISBN 9781784536732)

It has long been acknowledged that the Western powers’ response to Islamist terror – that of ‘decapitation’, exemplified by the killing of Osama bin Laden – was fundamentally misconceived and counter-productive. It has led to a new wave of jihadist strategies, ranging from the establishment of the ISIS ‘caliphate’ in parts of Syria and Iraq, to ‘lone wolf’ terror attacks on European cities.

In his well-researched and thoughtful book, based on extensive interviews with participants, security expert Peter Neumann puts our present situation into an historical context. Building on the work of his mentor, the historian David Rapoport, Neumann characterizes this crisis as the ‘fifth wave’. He posits four previous waves: Anarchist ‘propaganda of the deed’ in the late-19th century; the struggle against colonialism in the first half of the 20th century; the leftwing terror of groups such as Baader-Meinhof and Red Army Faction; and religious terror, ranging from bombing of abortion clinics in the US to death squads in Algeria.

This is a grab-bag approach to history which I do not necessarily agree with or accept. However, the author’s case, that the military and political responses to outbreaks of jihadist terror have simultaneously decentralized and exacerbated the threat, is persuasive. His conclusion is sane and unarguable: that the solution to this crisis lies neither in bombing and drone attacks, nor the imposition of ‘strongmen’ leaders; but in addressing the economic and social marginalization of Muslim communities both in their home countries and – crucially – across Europe.

★★★ PW


Position Doubtful

by Kim Mahood (Scribe Publications, ISBN 9781925228946)

Artist and writer Kim Mahood grew up in the Tanami desert in northwestern Australia where, during her childhood, her father managed a remote cattle station. For many years she has made return trips to this harsh but beautiful landscape to document the changes in the terrain and the people who live there. The cattle station is gone, victim of fickle climate conditions and the vagaries of poor management. The land has been given back to its indigenous owners and the arrival of a mining concern brings the prospect of wealth but also of community disruption.

In a series of essays which cover the period from 1996 to 2014, Mahood records her experiences as an artist and an individual as she attempts to reconnect with the land and its people. As she says, ‘the gap between the urban, Eurocentric, heavily populated, southeast corner of the continent and the remote, predominantly Aboriginal, barely sustainable, thinly populated pocket of desert, is the space in which my writing and my art practice are made.’

Utilizing installations and site-specific works as well as painting, Mahood becomes involved in community mapmaking projects that underscore not only the population’s bond with the land but also the fragility of that link.

Kim Mahood writes with insight and without condescension of the indigenous community’s struggle to maintain traditions and cohesion in the face of marginal existence, poverty, health problems and rampant alcoholism. Her book, despite containing a great deal of death and desolation, is a ringing affirmation of life in all its messy, muddled, half-resolved possibilities.

★★★★ PW


Under the Almond Tree

by Laura McVeigh (Two Roads Books, ISBN 9781473640832)

Fleeing war in Afghanistan in the 1990s, 15-year-old Samar finds herself on the Trans-Siberian Express facing an uncertain future but hoping to seek refuge with her aunt, who lives in Moscow. As she undertakes this physical journey across the vast, empty Russian landscape, she also undertakes a psychological journey, gradually peeling back the layers of her memories and deconstructing a reality she has created for herself in order to survive.

What remains when Samar finishes writing down her story in an abandoned notebook is a traumatic, terrible truth – for the reader as much as for Samar herself – but also an awakening and a remarkable sense of hope despite the odds. As much as a story of courage and the capacity to carry on in the face of unimaginable hardship (characteristics which author Laura McVeigh, who was previously director of PEN International, says she recognized in the many refugees and displaced families with whom she worked), this is a study in the extraordinary ability of the human mind to protect itself from trauma until it is ready and able to address it.

A warm, wonderful debut novel that will stay with you even after the journey has ended.

★★★★ JL

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Swallowing Mercury

by Wioletta Greg, translated by Eliza Marciniak (Portobello Books, ISBN 9781846276071)

Growing up in a close-knit agricultural community in southern Poland in the 1980s, Wiola’s understanding of the world is limited to her immediate environs, against a backdrop of an influential Catholic Church and the machinations of local government. Occasionally, such as when Pope John Paul II is due to visit or when she hears that martial law has been imposed, she gets a wider glimpse of her country and its place in the socialist world but, for the main, her formative years are measured in beautifully crafted vignettes that reveal similar concerns to those of tweens and teens everywhere.

Though those of us who grew up in the same decade can readily recognize some of her experiences, others reflect a scarcity long gone in the West. When she starts her period, for example, Wiola is given rags and cotton wool – no sanitary towels available for her – and in 1989 her school sets up a Student Society for the Construction of Central Heating.

From the frightening to the farcical, Wioletta Greg describes growing up in the final decade of the Polish People’s Republic with a humour and matter-of-factness that belie a harsh reality. The Polish title of the novel, Guguły, translates as ‘Unripe Fruit’ – an apt description not just for the narrator, but for the country itself at the time.

★★★ JL


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