Welcome to Sarajevo
directed by Michael Winterbottom
For the sheer skill with which it succeeds in recreating the chaos of a city under siege, director Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo deserves full credit. Set in 1992, the year the city came under attack from Bosnian Serb forces, its raw evocation of devastated streets bombarded by mortar, shells and sniper fire carries as much conviction as the news footage it judiciously includes.
Partly based on British television correspondent Michael Nicholson’s book Natasha’s Story, it centres on a journalist’s rescue of a young girl from an orphanage on the frontline, his journalistic detachment having crumbled in the face of carnage. Stephen Dillane plays the journalist, called Michael Henderson in the film, with a grave restraint, his snap decision to smuggle nine-year-old Emira to England coming days after he films an emotional report about the children. When an aid worker (Marisa Tomei) offers to evacuate some of the children to Italy, Emira, who apparently has no family either inside or outside the country, holds Henderson to a vague promise he made earlier. Once settled in England, however, word reaches the family that the little girl’s mother is alive and wanting her back.
It’s an affecting story, well acted by all involved, and Emira Nusevic plays her namesake with an authority beyond her years. Equally important, however, are a series of scenes woven around responses to the fighting by a team of international journalists camped in the main hotel. There’s a smattering of big Hollywood names among them. Alongside Oscar winner Tomei, Natural Born Killers star Woody Harrelson plays a bumptious American reporter whose motives for risking his own life to save a civilian from sniper fire are called into question by colleagues.
But if Winterbottom wants to raise serious points about the media’s role in the events, he poses more questions than he answers. Similarly, while there’s a weightiness about the grainy documentary style and the use of archive footage (most tellingly of politicians mouthing platitudes of alarming complacency), their effectiveness is sadly undermined by over-intrusive music at the most dramatic of moments.
It’s certainly a forthright if not altogether complex condemnation of official Western indifference to the war. But as a British production, co-financed by the American Disney subsidiary Miramax, and the first foreign feature to be made about the conflict, it walks a delicate tightrope and looks set to attract more than its share of flak. Not least perhaps for the way it chooses to focus on observers of the war, rather than on the embattled civilians on the frontlines. Goran Visnjic as the journalists’ driver Risto is highly impressive, but there’s too little known about how others live. What’s more, Emira’s life in England is glossed over and the virtues of middle England society, as opposed to the moot benefits of her own Sarajevan family, stand virtually unchallenged.
For all that, though, this is undoubtedly a powerful film and it confirms Michael Winterbottom as one of Britain’s most accomplished young directors. While it’s not going to provide any deeper insight into the complexities of the war it looks likely to persuade some viewers at least to question their own level of complicity in the events.
The Festival of San Joaquin
by Zee Edgell
(Heinemann Caribbean Writers Series ISBN 0 435 989 480)
Luz Marina, released on probation for killing her violent husband, returns to her home town San Joaquin to put together a semblance of life. Though cleared of murder, she finds – as expected – people have long memories and wagging tongues. More painful still is the fact that her three children are in the custody of her husband’s mother, a woman of formidable wealth and power who had been formerly a kind employer but is now determined to drive Luz Marina from the town.
Set in the Mestizo community of Belize, this novel eventually transforms the soap opera trappings of such social drama into a deeply sympathetic pilgrim’s progress as Luz Marina battles with her feelings of guilt, hatred and confusion. Her path is full of unexpected twists and turns, where kindness is just as easily withdrawn as it is offered. Mirroring the external tides of events are Luz Marina’s internal struggles – for her conscience, to reconcile her love for the man she killed with her hatred of him, to understand the Christian faith she has been brought up in.
Zee Edgell’s style seems at first quite bald and unadorned, but develops its own cadence as the narrative starts to mesh together. This is a warm, satisfying story, a testament to struggle and hope which manages to draw in, quite skilfully and simply, wider themes such as environmental profiteering and the role of the evangelical church as aspects of the community’s life. The inevitability of its unfolding made me want to read it all in one go.
One Thousand Chestnut Trees
by Mira Stout
(HarperCollins, ISBN 0 00 225306)
Memories of my Ghost Brother
by Heinz Insu Fenkl
(Anchor/Transworld, ISBN 1862 3000001)
While the world has rushed to applaud the bloodless handover of Hong Kong to China, the tensions in nearby Korea remain painfully unresolved. These two novels draw attention, in a personal way, to the history of the country still divided by a border more militarized than the Berlin Wall or Beirut’s Green Line ever were.
In One Thousand Chestnut Trees Mira Stout focuses on a family’s experience of Korean history over three generations. With the epic sweep of Dr Zhivago, her chronicle includes the country’s annexation by the Japanese in 1910, and the plunder, enslavement, famine, conflict and suppression of Korean culture that ensued. It also takes us through the division of Korea after the Second World War, which ultimately led to the 1950-53 Korean War, disastrously mismanaged by US General MacArthur, who was proposing to turn it into a nuclear conflict. The book is packed with Korean history, but communicated through an immensely readable personal narrative. It ends with Anna, the Irish-American-Korean great-granddaughter, going back to Seoul to look for her roots in the hectic, industrialized city. Not an easy task.
Colliding values and cultures are also at the core of Heinz Insu Kenkl’s Memories of my Ghost Brother. On the surface it’s an autobiographical novel about growing up with Hershey Bars and hotdogs on an American military base in South Korea. The author’s canny, black-marketeering Korean mother raises him between slabs of GI culture – including his American father’s Calvinism – and the ghosts and goblins of Korean folklore. But the perky child loses his innocence as he becomes aware of the socially and morally devastating effects of war and occupation. Most darkly, he learns that the mother of a childhood playmate had drowned the boy to make it easier for her to ‘catch’ an American husband, the passport to survival in the eyes of many Korean women at that time. He also gradually learns that another child who appears in some family photographs – and of whom he has only shadowy recollections – is in fact his older half-brother, his ‘ghost brother’, who was given up for adoption by his mother for the same reason. It’s a moving, well-crafted book, with enough subtlety to recognize that ‘the path of blame is not an arrow’s flight’.
(Virgin/Real World CDRW66)
There is something so up-tempo about the flicker-fast percussion of Waaberi's music and their propulsive lute melodies that it's a shock to find out what lies behind it all. Hailing from Somalia, Waaberi – which means 'morning' in their native tongue – sing songs that are precisely about that troubled country. There are love songs, folk songs, work songs. And there are, of course, political songs.
These can get one into trouble, as lead singer Maryam Mursal discovered. Banned from performing for two years, she was later thrust into exile. With her five children Mursal trekked through Somalia's civil war and, journeying through Kenya and Ethiopia, finally reached the relative safety of Djibouti. She now lives, exiled, in Denmark. So this recording is a testament to many things, not least the destruction wrought by war.
But the album's title, New Dawn, suggests regrowth. And Mursal, accompanied by Egyptian percussion master Hossam Ramzy and an ensemble who beat a vigorous rhythm on anything that comes to hand – water bottles and tea cups included – has a voice that simply soars through her songs.
She began her career improbably enough singing jazz in Somali clubs and listening to Elvis. Much of it recorded live, Waaberi's is an acoustic set made electric by its atmosphere, the eight-strong band tossing themes and rhythms to one another. And Mursal imbues her delivery with an enormous theatricality, throwing out asides and flourishes to her chorus of singers and musicians.
It's difficult to find useful comparisons to Waaberi's brand of music. Mursal is not alone in being a female musician in an Islamic society, although this marks her with a particular strength.
Nor is the band unique in incorporating a political message; one only has to think of the many examples provided in recent years in South Africa, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.
But what is abundantly present is a suggestion that Waaberi's music looks further than Somalia's boundaries. There are some tantalizing hints: a song like 'Ada Bere Chaelka' ('You Plant the Love') has a strange bluegrass flavour, while the protests of 'Ulimada' ('The Professors') make subtle links to a world beyond, a place where everything is tied to rhythm.
Reviewers: Louise Gray, Dinyar Godrej, Esi Eshun, James Urquhart.
By a process of centuries-long representation ‘the Orient’ has come to embody what the West isn’t. All the cultural values which we pride ourselves upon – progress, rationality, democracy and so forth – are negated or inverted and the resulting anti-West is poured into a stereotyped, if at times rather romantic, vision of the Middle and Far East. The result is a timeless, static and anti-rational other world to our own.
Two decades on from its original publication, Edward Said’s classic exploration of these ‘Orientalist’ representations remains an engrossing read. Said traces the origins of ‘Orientalism’ back to the earliest traumatic encounters between East and West, with the West seeking to control the former by reducing it to familiar terms, reducing Islam to ‘Mohammedanism’ with the Prophet cast as a degenerate version of Christ; reducing the Orient to the level of a plagiaristic culture, incapable of representing itself as anything other than a bad imitation of the West.
The West’s claims to knowledge of the stunted nature of Oriental development are thus seen by Said as having paved the way for its assertion of an imperial right cum duty to impose moral – and of course commercial – ‘regeneration’ upon the East. In the process the direct Western presence in the East helped to reshape its older stereotypes into modern ones. With the advent of secularized Western thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the outdated image of the Muslim enemy was transformed into the modern image of the ‘Oriental’ and subjected to the keen analytical gaze of scholars such as Anquetil-Duperron and Ernest Renan.
Their nineteenth-century studies tracing languages to historical roots and grouping them into families, seemed to give scientific support to the artificial segmentation of humans by culture and ‘race’. For Renan the ‘Semitic’ languages of the East were inherently inferior to the ‘Aryan’ languages, a notion that unfortunately did not die out after his time. As I write I have before me a popular ‘linguistic tree’ from the late 1950s, with English, German and Dutch as the uppermost branches and Arabic, Hebraic and ‘Bantu’ so low that they almost touch the ground.
Meanwhile adventurers like William Lane, Chateaubriand and Richard Burton (no, not the film star) were travelling to the East by way of personal pilgrimage, hoping to find the East of their imaginative youth, of adventure stories and travelogues. But colonization meant that by the end of the nineteenth century the key Orientalists were imperial agents like DG Hogarth, Gertrude Bell and TE Lawrence – that archetypal seeker of personal redemption in the Eastern desert. But in Lawrence’s own account the people who already lived in the area were reduced to the mere instruments of his redemption.
After the First World War growing political unrest on the part of the indigenous populations of the East began to challenge Western imperialism. Orientalists of this era accepted the overall confines of Western domination, but sought to achieve some form of mutual respect between ruler and ruled. Among these late-empire Orientalists was Hamilton Gibb whose Whither Islam? of 1932 rose above racial abstractions only to sink into religious ones. For Gibb, the experience of class conflict, nationalism and the day-to-day business of living under imperial control were all trivial complications introduced by the West. He believed that Islamic orthodoxy was the great explanatory factor behind everything.
Today’s Orientalism has dispensed with the scholarship of its forerunners. Instead we have an Orientalism dominated by state-policy and by ‘strategic’ considerations. The result is an enclosed viewpoint that attempts to explain the Palestinian question by appeal to irrationalist elements of Islam and Arab culture or of ‘the Arab mind-set’, instead of addressing such issues as the West’s continuing military influence in the region.
Said’s work of course has its drawbacks. He tends towards the view that one can only substitute new mythologies for the old ‘Orientalist’ ones. And too many different kinds of views of the East seem to be lumped together under the one all-encompassing category. Karl Marx, for example, may have been too ready to accept some regrettable nonsense about the East, but he sits uneasily alongside Lawrence of Arabia and Hamilton Gibb.
For those interested in such matters, Said tackles his critics in an afterword to the recent 1995 edition of the book. But with or without the reply, Orientalism remains a masterly treatment of the subject – not exactly bedtime reading but well worth it in the end.
Edward W Said’s Orientalism, Western Conceptions of the Orient, is available in a 1995 reprint by Penguin.
Erratum: the title of the NI 295 Classic Review should have been spelt ‘Gâthâsaptasatî’.