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Click here to email the reviews editor, Vanessa Baird. book reviews

Hearing birds fly
A nomadic year in Mongolia
by Louisa Waugh
(Abacus, ISBN 0-349-11580-X)

In 1997 Louisa Waugh moved from Ulaanbaatar to teach at a school in the remote mountainous village of Tsengel, near the border with Kazakhstan. Now she has turned her year in Tsengel into a book.

Hearing birds fly Readers may remember her Letters from Mongolia which appeared in the NI during that period. Given the space of a book she is able to convey just how well she got to know the people and the place: her friendships with nomadic Tuvans and Kazakhs; her experience of Mongolian winter, breaking ice and chopping wood; or just coping with fear, loneliness, herding goats and eating horsemeat.

Waugh brings a freshness and an honesty which is both gripping and rare. ‘Words about pleasure – like disco, fruit, wine, comfort, sex – had no context for me here. These days I only seemed to use words from the language of survival: hard, cold, wood, ice, meat, flour.’ But she also delights in the surprises that life brings – the beauty of the melting blue ice in springtime, the silence in which you can hear birds fly, the warmth of people’s friendship and generosity. And she has a wry humour that allows her to step back from her situation and observe it dispassionately.

This account of communal life high in the summer mountains brings home both the harsh reality of day-to-day living and the many moments of togetherness that people – particularly women – share. Hearing Birds Fly is a real treat.

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From White Australia to Woomera
by James Jupp
(Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0 521 53140 3)

From White Australia to Woomera Millions around the globe have seen Australia’s people-caging fences thrown up by a supposedly multicultural society in a supposedly borderless world. This harsh response to asylum seekers has been almost universally condemned.

Australia now acts as police, prison guard, judge, jury, and often deporter, usually for people who may technically be defined as refugees, but who have come from dire situations and who deserve a humanitarian response. The events of the past year have been the most shameful episode in Australian history since the end of the White Australia Policy. Thankfully Jupp offers not only a ‘How come?’ but also a ‘Where to from here?’

There has been growing concern about Australia’s policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers without visas. No other democracy detains all people arriving without documents.

Concern increased after the notorious recently mothballed Woomera Detention Centre was opened in 1999. It rose further with Australia’s heavy-handed intervention on the refugee-carrying Tampa cargo ship in August 2001; this gave a conservative government the opportunity to mine the issue of ‘illegal migration’ for all it could.

The Government knew that no connection between asylum seekers and terrorism had ever been established either in Australia or elsewhere. Public debate in Australia has, however, been corrupted by official evasions, outright lies and even hysteria.

The literature on refugees and asylum seekers is often angry and judgmental. James Jupp writes with passion and force but without the ideologue’s spin. He also writes with thoroughness, accuracy and solid documentation that are rare in this genre. Anyone thinking through the issue of asylum seekers will find this book serves them well.

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War on Iraq – and related themes
In the heat of war and fog of propaganda, good books that provide a context for what’s happening are even more vital. Here are some recent titles we can recommend:

Dreaming War: blood for oil and the Cheney-Bush junta by Gore Vidal Dreaming War: blood for oil and the Cheney-Bush junta by Gore Vidal (Clairview, ISBN 1 902636 41 4) is a series of trenchant, elegant essays that have all the wit, insight and disdain you’d expect from this writer. War Plan Iraq: ten reasons against war in Iraq by Milan Rai (Verso, ISBN 1 85984 501 0) is one the clearest, most persuasive and best-designed books on the theme. The reasons given here ring truer than ever. The excellent The Atlas of War and Peace by Dan Smith (Earthscan, ISBN 1-84407-000-X) provides a global analysis in the form of maps and graphics worth many thousand words. Also taking a visual approach is US strip cartoonist David Rees’ Get your War On (Soft Skull Press, 9-781887128766) with his subtle, acerbic portrayal of American manners and mores since 11 September 2001. Noam Chomsky’s Power and Terror: Post- 9/11 talks and interviews (Open Media Book, Seven Stories Press, ISBN 1 58222 590 0) gives the tireless agitator’s latest thinking on terrorism, US foreign policy and alternatives to militarism. In the same series, and also based on interviews, is Howard Zinn on Terrorism and War (ISBN 1 58322 493 9). In the all-too-topical, Silencing Political Dissent (Open Media Book, Seven Stories Press ISBN 1 58322 494 7), Nancy Chang manages to combine thorough fact-rich research with brevity. Iraq Under Siege edited by Anthony Arnove (Pluto, ISBN 0-7453-2003-3), is a revised and updated version of the informative book reviewed in NI 327. Tariq Ali’s intelligent and provocative Clash of Fundamentalisms is now out in paperback (Verso ISBN 1-85984-457-X). So is the increasingly pertinent Why Do People Hate America? by Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies (Icon, ISBN 1-84046-383-X) – the answers, alas, becoming increasingly obvious by the day. Tinderbox: US Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism by Stephen Zunes (Zed, ISBN 1 84277 259 7) is informative, scholarly and prescient. The Great Terror War by international law expert and human-rights activist Richard Falk (Arris Books ISBN 1-84437-002-X) insists on both realism and hope. Zones of Conflict by Vassilis K Fouskas (Pluto, ISBN 0-7453-2029-5) studies the US interest in controlling gas- and oil-producing zones both in the Middle East and the Balkans. While Before & After: US foreign policy and the War on Terrorism by Phyllis Bennis (Arris Books, ISBN 1-84437-001-1) traces the roots of the US war on terror to long before 11 September 2001.

Finally, there’s Searching for Peace by Johan Galtung, Carl G Jacobsen and Kai Frithjof Brand-Jacobsen (Pluto Press, ISBN 0-7453-1928-9), which provides a hopeful, comprehensive guide to conflict resolution. Not, one suspects, the bedtime reading of Rumsfeld and Co – but, hell, it should be.

For more resources and information see the Iraq section of our website.

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music reviews

by Victor Gama
(Pangeiart PAN 003 CD)

Is it a book? A CD? A philosophy? All these things and, if you want to be really accurate, Odantalan.02 is a history too. But don’t stop reading here: the thing about Odantalan.02 is just how far-reaching this project – which grew out of a residency for the exchange of music and ideas held in Luanda, Angola, last year – really is.

Victor Gama, an Angolan-Portuguese musician now based in Holland, started from one question: when the slave ships took away their dreadful cargo from west and central Africa, what happened to that area’s knowledge and its music? Musicologists have long traced the African roots of modern musics, but Gama and colleagues do far more than describe a diaspora. They bring the diaspora back home. On Odantalan.02, it’s as if a huge family, separated for centuries, is at last reunited.

And that’s very much the atmosphere. Bubbles of activity – simple vocal lines or rhythmic patterns – suddenly explode in riotous, joyous dances. Many of the musicians – from the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa – have also made their own instruments and there are times, as on ‘Lamento’, when a rhythmic metallic rasp can carry a whole track. Other songs are funkier –‘Marimba Pacifico’ exults in its dance grooves. But there are also contemplative, delicate moments in ‘Con Licencia’, an opener which actually requests permission from the spirits for the whole project. A tandem project, Pangeia Instrumentos (released via the Aphex Twin’s experimental label, Rephlex) and the Odantalan.02 book take Gama’s work further, in particular the cosmograms that function as an ancient system of notation. Whichever way you enter the Odantalan world, you will find it rich and hospitable.

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Souad Massi Deb
by Souad Massi
(Wrasse 96 CD)

It’s hard to know whether being dubbed the Arabic Joni Mitchell will help or hinder Souad Massi in her bid to crack Western markets but Deb makes one thing quite clear: there have been few débuts as stylish or beguiling as this young Algerian singer’s.

Come to think of it, there’s nothing to compare it to. A singer-songwriter who cut her teeth at Paris’s Cabaret Sauvage, Massi’s songs – mostly in Arabic, though French and English are scattered throughout – have undeniable presence. Pathos, too. Deb means ‘heartbroken’ and Massi’s themes often centre on loss and the passing of time. But, even though she can manage a magnificent sigh (‘Ech Edani’ – or ‘Shouldn’t Have Fallen In Love With You’ – begins with such a sigh), the pain is always bitter-sweet. ‘Passe Le Temps’ (As Time Goes On) is a fabulously miserable song, very much in the chanson tradition, while there’s something about the flamenco bravado of ‘Le Bien et le Mal’ (Good and Evil) that likes a good fight.

Musically there’s a lot to digest here: African flutes, Spanish guitars and the shimmer of tablas and Balkan violins. Any pitfalls are deftly negotiated with some delicate production from Erwin Autrique, making Deb an album to visit again and again.

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film and video reviews

Drowned Out
directed by Spannerfilms

Drowned Out This quiet, fierce, beautiful film follows the story of the Sonkariya family, who live on the banks of the Narmada River in India under the long shadow of the Sardar Sarovar dam – synonymous with all that is wrong with big development. Luhariya, traditional healer of Jawalsindi village, and Bulgi his wife have sworn to stay there and drown with their children, preferring death to the inadequate resettlement programme or a life in the slums – for them, another kind of death.

The story is slow, like the slow-flowing river water itself. The three years it took to make the film have allowed intimate moments of life in the village, the voices, emotions and fears of those like Bulgi – ‘Of course we feel like crying. Who would feel like laughing?’ – to build gradually into what is, by the end, a towering testimony against the dam-builders.

For the dam, we discover, will not bring the water promised to the drought-prone areas of Gujarat, but will take it to the industrial zones where huge sugar-processing plants are already being built in anticipation.

Drowned Out doesn’t preach, yet it condemns the dam-builders through their own words. In one memorable moment in the film, Gujarat’s minister shows off his opulent home while declaring that the adivasi (indigenous people) should make the ‘small sacrifice’ of giving up their homes with a smile, for the greater common good.

In another memorable moment, the village children sing in chorus to the sacred River Narmada. It is impossible to watch this film without being pierced by their clear, small voices.

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Drowned Out is available on video, for community showings, and is
currently looking for broadcast outlets. www.spannerfilms.net

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