A feast of reading: March books
A Line in the River
by Jamal Mahjoub (Bloomsbury, ISBN 9781408885468)
Novelist Jamal Mahjoub’s parents fled Sudan in 1989, following the coup that brought Omar al-Bashir to power. Living in exile, first in Egypt and then in England, Mahjoub’s father vowed never to return while the hardline Islamist regime retained power and indeed he did not, dying and being buried in London. For the younger Mahjoub, Khartoum, the city in which he spent his childhood, retained an enduring fascination, informing his writing and finally drawing him back to excavate his memories and attempt to understand Sudan’s troubled history and uncertain future.
Following independence from Britain in 1956, Sudan followed a depressingly familiar pattern of civil war, coup and crisis, including the famine in Darfur province that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and drove millions into Khartoum shanty towns. Oil reserves drove conflicts with up to 80 per cent of revenues going on military spending.
Mahjoub focuses on the six years, beginning in 2008, of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, designed to bring to an end the disastrous civil war and which culminated, following a referendum, in the secession of South Sudan. In his attempts to rediscover the city of his memory and explore its fissile present, he paints a rich portrait of Khartoum’s citizens, from the dispossessed poor to the oil-rich elite. Ultimately, though, A Line in the River is much more than a travelogue as the author explores Sudan’s history, religion and culture in what is a subtle exploration of a sense of place and the meaning of belonging.
by Amy Chua (Bloomsbury, ISBN 9781408881576)
Many people can’t understand how Trump found his way into the White House. Amy Chua offers this hypothesis: America’s elite missed ‘the powerful anti-establishment identity forming within the working class’ that drove voters towards someone different.
Chua argues that the US has a poor record of understanding tribal instinct and of extrapolating from it the likely outcomes of its own elections and of its incursions overseas. She considers the US’s dismal interventions in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq; the naivety of politicians who think that removing a tyrant and instituting democratic elections will automatically lead to disparate religious and ethnic groups uniting under a national identity; and the current focus on divisive identity politics. The Right, she says, used to profess ‘group blindness’, arguing that an individual, whatever their background, had the power to make something of themselves; whereas the Left used to adopt identity politics as an inclusionary tactic. Now, ‘we find ourselves in an unprecedented moment of pervasive tribal anxiety’ which is pitting everyone against everyone else.
Political Tribes is a thought-provoking look at group instinct and its impact. Unfortunately, Chua questions neither the validity of our market-driven society nor of US war-mongering. Her message seems to be that a better understanding of tribal instinct would have led to better outcomes in Vietnam and the Middle East – for the US. If her conclusion that ‘what holds the United States together is the American Dream’ is meant as a rallying cry, it is one that left this reader feeling despondent.
Building and Dwelling
by Richard Sennett (Allen Lane, ISBN 9780713998757)
This commanding, sprawling, frustrating book is held together by the title’s dichotomy: building and dwelling, or, as Richard Sennett refers to it more often: ville and cité. Ville refers to the built environment; cité evokes the consciousness of city life. ‘... in New York, traffic jams at the poorly designed tunnels… belong to the ville, whereas the rat race driving many New Yorkers to the tunnels at dawn belongs to the cité’. Building and Dwelling is about how architecture negotiates these two ideas in thought and practice.
Sennett’s style is famously diffuse and meandering, winding like a flâneur between subject and place, with a rapid-fire enlisting of philosophers to help make his case. This sometimes works; it is sometimes trying. He is an advocate for the ‘open city’, a worldview that recognizes the inherent dissonance of cities in urban planning – his prose reflects this lived reality, drawing out an ethical commitment to an ‘indifference towards difference’.
But although this ‘Ethics for the City’ provides the book’s subtitle, I am not entirely sure what it means. One wishes Sennett were more programmatic with his vision. The city has become a neoliberal playground, bullying its working-class and racialized residents. The violent indifference of capital to their lives is surely not another difference for cosmopolitans to tolerate. The social murder at Grenfell Tower, which Sennett unconvincingly analyses as an event that could have been avoided with procedural changes, is a testament to this.
Deport, Deprive, Extradite
Twenty-First Century State Extremism
by Nisha Kapoor (Verso, ISBN 9781786633477)
In this important study of the brutal consequences of the extradition and extraordinary rendition processes, Nisha Kapoor sheds much-needed light on the activities of the security state apparatus and how the ongoing ‘War on Terror’ has vastly expanded the boundaries of what states are able and willing to do to their citizens. Drawing on multiple case histories of Muslim men accused of terrorist offences, both in the UK and the US, she shows how, once they have been ‘rendered to justice’ in the chilling phrase, these individuals are stripped of their human rights, dehumanized and denied even the semblance of due process and presumption of innocence. As Kapoor tells the tales of these men, the repetitive nature of their ordeals bludgeons the reader. Time and again the story is one of lengthy pre-trial incarceration, physical and psychological torture, denial of access to evidence and lawyers, last-minute plea bargains and, finally and inevitably, decades-long sentences.
Nisha Kapoor’s purpose, beyond the hugely valuable one of highlighting the iniquities of individual cases, is to explore how the dehumanizing of this particular cohort – young Muslim men – becomes an enabling mechanism for a more general state brutality. One has only to look at the structurally flawed Prevent strategy or glance at the daily demonization of Muslims, immigrants, refugees, disabled people and benefits claimants on the front pages of the right-wing tabloids to concede she has a valid point.
Written with righteous anger that only occasionally spills over into hyperbole, Deport, Deprive, Extradite is a forensic dissection of the security state and its poisonous effect on the body politic in general.