Varda Burstyn is a distinguished environmental writer and her début novel – an accomplished eco-thriller – confirms her as an author who knows her subject inside out. Water Inc concerns a consortium of American billionaires who recognize the impending water crisis that their greed has created. These magnates plot, with the collusion of politicians and officials, to pipe water from northern Quebec into the parched and drought-ridden US. They are unconcerned that this massive water-grab will have disastrous ecological consequences for the flora, fauna and peoples of Quebec, and they are prepared to go to any lengths, including murder, to protect the secrecy of their multibillion dollar scheme. Opposing them is a disparate group including a disillusioned executive, Canadian activists for eco-justice, a campaigning journalist and assorted rogue police and computer hackers.
As the seemingly mismatched sides square off in a deadly game of double-bluff, Burstyn expertly reveals the way global corporations hide their crimes with unaccountable subsidiaries, interlocking shell companies and labyrinthine accounting trails. These tactics are matched by countervailing webs of solidarity and cross-border co-operation developed by activists, in an attempt to curb corporate environmental larceny.
Perhaps Burstyn has relied rather heavily on the serendipitous collaboration of whistle-blowers, radical activists and law-enforcement agents. Nevertheless, she marshals both her huge cast of characters and her arguments as to the importance of ‘water wars’ with skill and integrity. She is surely right in her conclusion that with water, as with the Earth’s other precious resources, ‘the choice between greed and humanity will decide the fate of millions of people for decades to come.’
War in the Land of Egypt
Written in 1975 and banned in the author’s country of birth, War in the Land of Egypt is the first of Yusuf al-Qa’id’s 11 novels to be translated into English. The action takes place during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, as the son of a village chief is called up to join the army. With the help of a local fixer, the chief bribes a night-guard to send his own son instead. This boy, Masri or ‘Egyptian’, is the only character named and yet he is the only one without a voice as he is not allowed to tell us directly of his life. Instead his tale is told by others – a series of six narrators, each of whom reveal only the part of the story they are familiar with, and who are, to varying degrees, unreliable witnesses.
We are led inexorably to a tragic yet farcical conclusion as the narrative swaps from the arrogant and self-serving chief via the fixer and the impoverished night-guard, to Masri’s friend on the frontline and eventually to the army officer and the investigator appointed to sort out the tangle of identities. Yusuf al-Qa’id handles the unfolding complexities of the story beautifully and War in the Land of Egypt is a deft and effective satire on official corruption, bumbling bureaucracy and the vast and iniquitous inequalities of wealth and power endemic in Egyptian society. It is also a heartfelt song of praise to the Egyptian countryside and to the indomitable spirit and courage of its exploited and oppressed inhabitants.
Book of Memory: A Rastafari Testimony
Outside Jamaica, Rastafarianism is commonly associated with Bob Marley and reggae music; for adventurous tourists it may conjure images of dreadlocked beachbums lounging under palm trees.
But behind the cliché of a jolly dread smoking a big spliff are tales of hardship and injustice, particularly for those who came to the faith before Marley made it world-famous. Based on the life of Prince Elijah Williams, who became a Rasta in the early 1950s, Book of Memory is a fascinating attempt to delve behind such myths. A woodcarver and drummer, Williams recounted his testimony and observations over a 10-year period to Michael Kuelker, a US human-rights activist.
With poetic clarity, Williams makes clear that to be a Rasta in the 1950s and 1960s meant being beaten or jailed for no reason. Rasta children were barred from attending schools and adults had their dreadlocks and beards forcibly shaved off by the police. Some were even killed.
Today, in spite of the Bob Marley legacy, being a Rasta and proclaiming an African identity still draws public ridicule within Jamaica. And with Williams’ wooden-shack home about to be flattened to make way for a tourist road, he has some sharp observations to make about the bankrupt state of his country that has sold its soul to the IMF, foreign business and exploitative tourism.
As one man’s testimony unfolds, a picture emerges of the rampant poverty, deep-set Eurocentric prejudices and widespread power imbalances that have blighted post-independence Jamaica. Engaging and thought-provoking.
Delightful though the Buena Vista Social Club still is, even this group of peerless – and elderly – musicians cannot continue to shoulder the responsibility for Cuba’s prodigious music. Step forward, then, Juan de Marcos, composer, bandleader and force behind the Social Club. With 50 musicians and DM Ahora! – Cuba’s first completely independent record company – de Marcos is picking up where Ibrahim Ferrer and the late Ruben Gonzalez left off.
Step Forward shows that Cuban music is in rude health, from the opening jam, a freestyle affair with the frenetic title ‘188.8.131.52.184.108.40.206.5’, to the closing elegy dedicated to Gonzalez himself. Organized under the banner of the Afro-Cuban All-Stars, the album is as much testimony to what’s gone before as what will be. Strong performances by emerging stars like vibes player Tamara Castaneda, pianist (and Chopin expert) Dave Alfaro and violinist Luis Lang provide ample testimony to the security of Cuba’s musical heritage.
Despite the rich diversity of the All-Stars’ musical experience, Step Forward’s solid Latin flavour will surprise no-one. This is jazz, Cuban style. There are some diverting touches: ‘On the Road Again’, guest starring French tropicalista Bernard Lavilliers, turns into a smooth, lounge number; while the Afro-Cuban religious standard, ‘Addimu a Chango’ conjures up a cloudburst to launch a rolling number that, at one point, offers up a fuzzed-up guitar solo. If these extras make the tracks stand out, it’s only to lead us back to the All-Stars’ rhythm machine. After all, if it’s not broken, why fix it?
If there’s a single instrument that typifies the music of the Middle East, it’s the qanun, in all its shimmering, microtonal glory. For centuries, this plucked zither has been at the heart of the Arabic ensemble, and now it’s the vehicle by which virtuoso player Abdullah Chhadeh makes his début album. Seven Gates is nothing less than an evocation of Chhadeh’s childhood home of Damascus, and its success lies in the combination of Chhadeh’s intensely felt music and its openness to nuances and sounds from farther afield.
This will be no surprise to anyone who has been entranced by Chhadeh’s work with composer Jocelyn Pook or singers Natacha Atlas and Sinead O’Connor. Although classically trained, Chhadeh has long been interested in fusing different traditions, and this is exemplified in the Nara quartet. Bernard O’Neill’s understated bass and Simon Webster’s percussion gives Seven Gates a solid foundation for qanun and accordion – from Bashir Abdul Al and Mazin Abu Sayf – to build upon. The album is organized around seven babs (gates) which function as points for Chhadeh to introduce and reprise his music’s themes. Travelling between the gates there is much movement. ‘Asaf’, the journey between ‘Bab Al Saghir’ and ‘Bab Al Faraj’ seems sedate, until its pace is upped to a destination where space and contemplation rule. Seven Gates’ triumph is in its breadth of imagination and trust in its distinct sound world.
The camera lingers on the back, we see the cleavage between the buttocks, but we don’t know if this is a man or a woman. From another angle, we see the swelling of a breast. The camera jumps to the crook of an arm, the neck, a lifted thigh and cock. This is Stephanie’s body, and Stephanie is a transsexual.
She works as a prostitute, parading nightly for slowly passing cars. Her friend Jamel also pulls tricks, with both men and women. They live and sleep with Mikhail, an illegal Russian immigrant, who washes dishes in a restaurant. And they love each other.
The film will unnerve sexual conservatives, but its point is simple. These people have extraordinary lives – and a very ordinary need for love and reassurance. Mikhail can hardly bear his separation from his family. Stephanie, struggling with parental expectations of her as a son, nurses her sick mother and, like a loving daughter, feeds and washes her. Jamel, the youngest, is caring and reassuring but, estranged from his family, cannot bear to sleep alone.
Wild Side is a milestone in humanist cinema. Shot by Agnès Godard (of Beau Travail fame), its sparse beauty lingers in the mind.
In Your Hands
Anna has just become a prison chaplain and, after years of trying, pregnant. Kate, a former addict, is inside for neglecting her daughter who died of thirst. Anna, young, approachable, caring, wants to help the women in her care – God, she says, understands and forgives everyone.
A spiritual theme may seem surprising since this is a Dogme film, but In Your Hands is true to Dogme’s concern for unvarnished realism, for the here and now. Anna’s setpiece communions in the prison chapel are a farce. And when she learns her baby may have serious mental and physical disabilities, she cannot trust in her God.
Unable to reach out to God or other people, Anna falls into limbo. Kate, who starts to emerge from emotional paralysis, reaches out and is destroyed by her vulnerability. This is a subtle, all-too-believable and poignant film.
© Copyright 2005 New Internationalist
Publications Ltd. All rights reserved.