New Internationalist 359 August 2003
The Heart of Kashmir
Such are the passions and dangers of the conflict in Kashmir that photography offers one of the few ways to convey something of its terrible, relentless nature without submitting to its partisan demands. This extraordinary, rare collection of images focuses on the Indian side of the border - but it is the story of the people who live there that matters.
Just Like A River
Although this novel by one of Syria's foremost intellectuals was published in Arabic in 1984, this English translation is both welcome and timely. The book follows the lives of a cross-section of Damascus society against a background of escalating tension and the imminent Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
As the narrative flows from character to character, we get to know the family of Chief Sergeant Yunis, a career soldier nearing retirement. His eldest son Muhsin is studying medicine in Russia, his daughter Dallal is at college in Damascus and his two young sons Muhammad and Ali are still at home. Yunis is building a house in his home village and he dreams of peaceful days there tending his vines and surrounded by his family. By the novel's end, his hopes are shattered and, estranged from his offspring, he is an embittered and lonely man.
If Yunis personifies the thwarted aspirations of a traditional generation, then Dallal and her boyfriend Yusuf represent youth struggling against a regimented and stifling society. Their conversations, in which they try - and largely fail - to express their love, vividly illustrate the gap between what is felt and what can be said.
This is a superbly intricate book that touches on large themes - such as the urban-rural divide and the betrayal of ideals - while maintaining a sharp focus on the intimate human scale of events. In just over 100 pages al-Khatib gives us a detailed snapshot of a society at a particular point in time that resonates strongly with our own troubled present.
Homeland: Into a World of Hate
Are you white, male and mad about ZOG? (That's short for the 'Zionist Occupation Government'.) Most of the characters author Nick Ryan meets in his extraordinary six-year tour of the Far Right certainly are.
Homeland: Into a World of Hate is a thorough investigation of extreme organizations around the world, from the Klan and Christian identity movements in the US to the neo-nazis seeking to build a white homeland in Essex, England.
Throughout the book we meet numerous right-wing personalities like the leader of the British National Party (BNP), Nick Griffin, who's keen to rebrand his party as a more respectable political movement which has 'decommissioned the boot'. The BNP recently harvested a few more council seats in northern England in elections amid a charged political atmosphere fuelled by Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and tabloid scaremongering of dark hordes of immigrants coming to invade. This was compounded by post-11 September apocalyptic warnings of more terror to come.
During the six years of Ryan's investigations, numbers supporting right-wing parties and movements in Europe have swelled. Homeland therefore is a timely exposé of a growing force which is not as transient as many might believe.
The core of Ryan's analysis is that much is attributable to white male tribalism combined with the allure of a simple explanation to all the world's problems. Despite some quixotic passages and kludgy prose which sometimes interferes with the subject matter, Homelandis worth a read - not least because the chances are some of these valiant white defenders might one day be coming over to borrow sugar.
We Did Nothing: Why the truth doesn’t always come out when the UN goes in
Once you get past the initial infuriating jigsaw of a beginning, Dutch journalist Polman provides an all too rare on-the-ground account of several UN peacekeeping missions conducted during the 1990s which is full of strong, well-observed and engaging reportage.
In 1994 she hangs out with the troops and the privateers in the sprawling temporary human settlement that is the UN compound in Mogadishu, Somalia after the US pulled its troops out. In Haiti she witnesses the devastating effect of sanctions on the poor while socializing with the rich élite, the American ' invasion' to reinstall an emasculated President Aristide, and visits the US Special Forces commander ruling the countryside with fear.
But the book's pièce de résistance is the story of the seige in Kibeho, Rwanda in 1995: 30 pages of utterly appalling testimony of the revenge killings of thousands of Hutu civilians (Polman reckons 150,000) by troops of the newly installed Tutsi Government. Polman was there to catch the babies thrown over the fence into the UN stronghold in a last-minute bid to save them as the starving masses paraded toward their death.
Polman stops short of drawing any useful conclusions beyond the fact that UN forces are often short on numbers and supplies and always short on the power to intervene - not least because the UN Security Council's agenda is subject to the whims of the national agendas of the five permanent members. But if Polman is short on analysis and context there's no denying the power of her narrative.
When the Algerian singer Abdelli and the Belgian guitarist Thierry van Roy thought about a follow-up to their 1995 album, New Moon, their thoughts were drawn to the idea of borderlands. Accordingly, they packed their bags. Among Brothers belongs to Cape Verde, Burkina Faso and Azerbaijan, to small recording sites in apartments and on hillsides. On one song you can hear the distant bleating of a goat.
Covering these kinds of distances was not in lip-service to some form of exotica. Rather, Among Brothers is built on the notion of shared information, the idea that music traverses continents. The two main musicians travelled with recordings of only Abdelli's vocals and a cursory rhythm track. That way, all contributing musicians - from the drums of Burkina Faso's Farafina to the lilting fado moods of the Cape Verdeans - could work unhindered. Such an ambitious project could have been messy but the result is an immensely clean-cut affair.
Thematically, Abdelli's songs may seem sombre - separation looms large - but this is counterbalanced by a musical tone that suggests the ability to rise above adversity. ' Asiram' (Hope) is carried forward by Abdelli's light vocals and a clatter of accordions, djembe, violins. If the message is one of interdependence and kinship, then it's not to be sniffed at.
Coming from a land where electricity generators routinely pack up before midnight, it's mystifying how Tuva's Yat-Kha - the word means both 'poor relative' and a Tuvan violin - manage to find the energy to rock out. But, led by guitar hero Albert Kuvezin, the quartet have produced an album that fairly gallops across the Steppes.
Combining racing guitar solos with sub-bass overtone vocals, tuva.rock is an album that embraces both past and present. Kuvezin - previously a founder of Hunn-Tuur-Tu, the Tuvan folk band who, alongside singer Sainkho Namchylak, put this former Soviet Asian state on the world's musical map, has found an easy balance between kanzat throat-singing and heavily amplified guitar and drums.
For all its party-time thrash metal tendencies, tuva.rock has moments of numinous delicacy. 'Amdy Baryp', a traditional love song possessed of a poignantly beautiful lyric, stands out as a poised duet between Kuvezin's gruff vocals and the lighter style of Radik Tiuliush. Its mood is something of an exception; 'Come Along' and Voyager' are more typical, jaunty songs, their complex rhythms imitating the beat of horses on the move.
Maybe Yat-Kha's lyrical prowess leaves something to be desired - although it is possible that 'Hey! Nomads!/ Let's be playing rock / Tuva.Rock' sounds better in the native tongue. But Yat-Kha have time - and a serious engagement with the outside world - on their side.
I cried my eyes out through much of this film. It's not that I'm a big softy, but that Whale Rider is so good at showing how a deep abiding love can go hand-in-hand with unyielding harshness.
Keisha Castle-Hughes is superb as 12-year-old Pai, granddaughter of a Maori tribal leader, Koro. Pai has great love and respect for Koro who, in the absence of her father, has brought her up. He has great affection for her - Pai is an outstanding child. Thoughtful, emotionally mature, courageous and resourceful, she is a natural leader of their coastal community.
But Koro is a traditionalist - only a man can lead the tribe. He excludes her from tribal initiations. Worse, he traces their ills in the modern world to Pai's birth - when her mother died in childbirth, her twin brother - Koro's hoped-for future leader - soon afterwards, and her father left for Europe. Koro awaits a new leader, a messiah who will lead their people to a better future.
Writer-director Caro lived with and respects the beliefs of the Maori Ngati Kanohi people. Its elders even vetted her script, based on Witi Ihimaera's novel. Her film works on many levels. It's about love and, like much realist cinema, it's about the clash of tradition and modernity in the form of conflict between generations. But Caro's feminism comes alloyed with conservatism and mysticism. Scion of a 'noble' line, Pai believes she is descended from the tribal founder who rode to Aotearoa on the back of a whale. She is, it seems, the tribal messiah.
Whale Rider is beautifully filmed and performed. It's uplifting and haunting. Shame such a brilliant kid had to be royal.
Die Another Day
The latest James Bond video release sees hardliners stage a coup in North Korea. By laundering UN-embargoed African conflict diamonds, they secretly finance construction of a giant mirror in space that concentrates reflected sunlight into the ultimate death-ray, and plan to use this dastardly weapon to conquer South Korea. Only Bond (Pierce Brosnan) can stop them.
The evil Colonel Moon tries to outwit Bond by using Cuban gene therapy to transform himself into a suave European playboy. Politically, Bond films tend to distill reactionary visions of international politics into the sphere of popular culture: Die Another Day is no exception. Moon justifies his megalomania by simply cackling that 'Japan is a bug waiting to be squashed, and the West will tremble with fear'. No other explanation is offered. Yet North Korean identity was forged through resistance to brutal Japanese colonialism, and hardened by fighting the US to a standstill in 1953 - but not before US carpet-bombing reduced the most industrialized region in the peninsular to penury.
But mere historical details are not allowed to disturb the geopolitical fantasies of the producer: a dangerous world of failed states, populated by international terrorists and hyperbolic fanatics with weapons of mass destruction, that are only kept in check by an alliance of British brains and American brawn. Where have we heard that one before?
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