Friday, October 26, 2007

Go read this.

In 1928, when a 17-year-old Akbar Jehan had left school and was back in Lahore, a senior figure in British Military Intelligence checked in to the Nedous Hotel on the Upper Mall. Colonel T.E. Lawrence, complete with Valentino-style headgear, had just spent a gruelling few weeks in Afghanistan destabilising the radical, modernising and anti-British regime of King Amanullah. Disguised as ‘Karam Shah’, a visiting Arab cleric, he had organised a black propaganda campaign designed to stoke the religious fervour of the more reactionary tribes and thus provoke a civil war. His mission accomplished, he left for Lahore. Akbar Jehan must have met him at her father’s hotel. A flirtation began and got out of control. Her father insisted that they get married immediately; which they did. Three months later, in January 1929, Amanullah was toppled and replaced by a pro-British ruler. On 12 January, Kipling’s old newspaper in Lahore, the imperialist Civil and Military Gazette, published comparative profiles of Lawrence and ‘Karam Shah’ to reinforce the impression that they were two different people. Several weeks later, the Calcutta newspaper Liberty reported that ‘Karam Shah’ was indeed the ‘British spy Lawrence’ and gave a detailed account of his activities in Waziristan on the Afghan frontier. Lawrence was becoming a liability and the authorities told him to return to Britain. ‘Karam Shah’ was never seen again. Nedous insisted on a divorce for his daughter and again Lawrence obliged. Four years later, Sheikh Abdullah and Akbar Jehan were married in Srinagar. The fact of her previous marriage and divorce was never a secret: only the real name of her first husband was hidden. She now threw herself into the struggle for a new Kashmir. She raised money to build schools for poor children and encouraged adult education in a state where the bulk of the population was illiterate. She also, crucially, gave support and advice to her husband, alerting him, for example, to the dangers of succumbing to Nehru’s charm and thus compromising his own standing in Kashmir.

(Bitter Chill of Winter)

The latest issue of The London Review of Books has a review of Tariq Ali's Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope. From there I somehow backtracked to this old article by him on Kashmir, which is full of double take inducing anecdotes as the one above. Pure Ali - extremely witty and very good overall. I stumbled upon it half asleep around 1 AM and midway through was giggling, nodding in agreement, definitely not sleepy and wondering "How have I NOT read this before?". By the way, if you haven't read Tariq Ali you really should. He is all kinds of awesome. Also from the article:

When Nehru and Ghaffar Khan revisited Srinigar as Abdullah’s guests in the summer of 1945 it was evident that divisions between the different nationalists were acute. The Lion of Kashmir had laid on a Mughal-style welcome. The guests were taken downriver on lavishly decorated shikaras (gondolas). Barred from gathering on the four bridges along the route, Abdullah’s local Muslim opponents stood on the embankment, dressed in phirens, long tunics which almost touched the ground. In the summer months it was customary not to wear underclothes. As the boats approached, the male protesters, who had not been allowed to carry banners, faced the guests and lifted their phirens; the women turned their backs and bared their buttocks. Muslims had never protested in this way before, and have not done so since. Ghaffar Khan roared with laughter, but Nehru was not amused.

Also, I know that General Yahya is generally greatly disliked in Pakistan but I did not know that Yahya translated as "Fuck - Fuck" in Lahori Punjabi. Heh. Ok, go read in full dammit!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Movies, nations and uncomfortable past histories (I)

The Battle of Algiers is one of my all time favourite films. It is also one of the all time greatest films made. The last time I saw it was a little more than a year back and as I remember being as riveted as ever, unable to even take my eyes of the screen. The movie takes place during the Algerian War of Independence and the event it so hauntingly recreates is the Battle of Algiers.

A little back ground history. French involvement in Algeria started in the 1830s and France achieved effective control over the area when a French expeditionary force led by General Thomas Robert Bugeaud conquered the native forces of the Arab leader Abd-el-Kader (yes, him of the famous rai song) in 1847. Algeria was declared an integral part of France the very next year and a policy of resettling the Algerian lands with colons (or pieds-noirs) was actively followed. However, nationalist movements and resistance continued and by 1954 the Front de Libération Nationale, the FLN, had emerged as the most organized group with the most popular support.

The war can be divided into two phases: 1954 to 1957/58 and thereafter till independence. The watershed moment was the Battle of Algiers (1956-1958), which took place at a time when the FLN was at its peak. Following the passing of a law in 1956 which suspended most of the guarantees of individual liberties in Algeria the FLN embarked on a path of urban terrorism aiming to attract more attention to the Algerian cause. They averaged close to 800 shootings and bombings per month through the spring of 1957. The job of pacification went to General Jacques Massu and his Tenth Paratroopers' Division, who having served in Indochina understood guerilla warfare and mounted a counter insurgency program. Massu's men made massive arrests, isolated the casbah and practiced torture and eventually succeeded in capturing many FLN leaders, destroying their networks and comprehensively winning the battle.

The movie is excellent in every sense – it famously boasts that there was no documentary footage used, the music is perfect as is the acting, directing and cinematography. I love that Pontecorvo chose local Algerians to play the roles of the FLN members – he spent months scouting for faces that would just fit the role. Brahim Haggiag as Ali La Pointe is so beyond brilliant that his defiant expression is etched in ones memory long after the movie is over. Jean Martin plays Colonel Mathieu (a character based on Massu and other French officers) and is excellent as well. The scene where he makes his appearance, marching his division into the city, ramrod straight, soldier perfect is one of my favourites in the movie. Interestingly Pontecorvo was not happy with the scene while shooting – he felt Martin was not commanding enough. The problem was eventually sorted out by stuffing tissues in the actor’s uniform to broaden up his shoulders and give him an air of authority!

The Battle of Algiers is also an extremely uncomfortable film to watch. One does support the Algerian independence struggle but the methods of the FLN are shocking to say the least and leave one in a sort of moral quandary. On the French side, the torture is abhorrent. And yet one can’t help but be taken in by Mathieu’s charisma. The Battle of Algiers was decisively won by the French – and the penultimate minutes of the movie show this - the bombing of the casbah with a huge number of FLN leaders holed up inside. The last scenes of the movie (if I remember correctly) however show the events of 1961 with Algeria on the cusp on independence, people on the streets cheering. It seems somewhat bizarre in the aftermath of the French victory in the city but it shows how pyrrhic the victory in Algiers was. The French won the battle, as the cliché goes, but lost the war.

After the Battle of Algiers most of the fighting shifted to countryside and the FLN continued to lose power. The French followed a strategy of complete oppression and decimation and that they lost the war despite being militarily much stronger is one of the vagaries of fate but also shows the importance of public opinion and backlash against the policies of torture and the moral dilemma that French citizens eventually found themselves confronted with.

La Trahison (The Betrayal), a movie that I watched recently examines quite excellently the psychological impact of the war on the people involved. The movie is based on a book by Claude Sales recounting his experiences during the war as a lieutenant who has a number of Algerian conscripts under his charge. One of the bizarre aspects of French policy in Algeria was that Algeria was considered an integral part of France (unlike Morocco, Tunisia or Indochine). The large number of pieds-noirs settled in Algeria was one reason the French were so reluctant to leave but the bigger picture was Algeria was simply one part of France just as Provence or Alsace. That it happened to be geographically located in Africa was just an aside. Therefore, a large number of Algerians were conscripted to serve in the French Army to help fight the FLN. This wasn’t a small number by any means; the French managed to recruit many more Muslim Algerians than the FLN. In 1958, around 88,000 Muslims served as French troops. By 1961 this number was 200,000. In contrast the FLN at its peak (1957/58) had 20,000 recruits with another 20,000 – 30,000 auxiliary troops.

La Trahison takes place mostly in the villages with the French trying hard to weed out support for the FLN. It should be noted that the French carried out massive operation in the countryside once the war had shifted there. The population was heavily monitored to watch out for the insurgents. Very detailed and accurate documentations of the population took place. Censuses were conducted and identification cards were issued giving the army the ability to track individuals within the population. Fortified fences were built along the Tunisian and Moroccan borders. In addition mass resettlement of inhabitants in these areas took place to isolate the insurgency from aid and manpower.

In the movie, the Algerian soldiers are of the utmost importance given that they can communicate with the villagers and provide vital translating services. Yet these Algerian soldiers are stuck in the middle of nowhere. The have been told they are French and have to serve in the French Army but they aren’t treated as French by the soldiers from mainland France. The local Algerian populace is hostile, of course, and treats them as cowards. How the soldiers react in such a situation is what the movie examines. Will they, can they stay loyal? In an interview of Sales I was reading this line particularly struck out “Dans cette guerre, tout le monde est trahi : les pieds-noirs, la population algérienne, les soldats...” It’s an apt summation of what you feel when watching the movie.

Overall what is interesting is that the war is being discussed openly in the mainstream in France with more movies being made on the subject, more people talking openly and discussing what happened then. It should be noted that Pontecorvo’s movie was Italian made and banned in France for many years.

Interestingly, earlier today while I was thinking of writing this post this entry on Laila Lalami’s blog directed me to a NYT article on the new National Centre of the History of Immigration in Paris.

“But being a French citizen means you’re not categorized as African French or Southeast Asian French or West Indian French; you’re just plain French. That’s the republican ideal, citizenship bestowing theoretical equality, belying the reality of racism.”

Ironically the French Algerians were in theory as French as anyone else, only in practice it was a different story. It’s same for the immigrants who live in the banlieues. They are supposed to be as French as anyone else but if you know their address, you know they are immigrants. They are still the easiest prey for the right wing jack asses like Jean-Marie Le Pen -I will never forget his comment on Zidane being acceptable because he was the son of a hakri – or idiots who tried to pass a bill praising the ‘benefits’ of colonialism last year.

““The history of immigration is one thing, and the history of slavery and the history of colonization are other things,” Jacques Toubon, the museum’s president, told me, somewhat defensively I thought. France “is very late in confronting the truth about its colonial history,” he said, but the purpose of his museum “is to tell the story of immigration.” That sounded to an American like devising a museum for African-American or American Indian cultures but skipping gingerly over slavery, segregation and Manifest Destiny.”

The French need to come to terms with their own colonial past (not to mention rethink their disastrous integration policies). That people are willing to talk about the past and discuss it critically is a huge positive, but it's also just a start.

*I had also wanted to write about Atom Eyogan’s movie Ararat and Turkey but seeing how ridiculously long this post is I shall perhaps post about that later.
** Most of the background information on Algeria is paraphrased from the introduction of a paper on the Algerian War of Independence I wrote for one of my history courses.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Lord people, I am tired. The workload at office has kept me busy till late at night for the last few days – but that’s all I’ll talk about that. Outside of work, I have Turkish exams in a couple of weeks and sheaves of homework assignments to complete. I have been making compilations of word lists and verb lists on the long train rides home when I am not reading. There’s a lot that I have been reading and watching (I am rediscovering movies!) and I have wanted to write about many of these things but have had no time!

This weekend blogging shall be about some of the movies I have seen recently. La Trahison (The Betrayal), set during the Algerian War of Independence. The Battle of Algiers, which I have not seen in a while but is one of my all time favourite movies. If you haven’t seen Gillo Pontecorvo’s brilliant film please go and rent a copy now. And Atom Eyogan’s Ararat – strangely topical given the recent Genocide bill that is making the rounds in the US Congress. I have also wanted to post excerpts from the wonderful and hunger inducing Taste of Thyme: Culinary Cultures of the Middle East on, amongst other things, why the Turkey is called so and the origins of baklava. All of this if I ever mange to get down to it, of course!

Current read is Mark Mazower’s The Balkans: A Short History. Only half way through but it’s been a good quick read and quite excellent for what is basically a short summary of the history an immensely complicated region. Here an excerpt that helps explain why the area remained hugely heterogeneous:

If the Balkans did not become another Islamic land, one reason was that the sultans had no interest in making this happen. Christians paid higher taxes, and mass conversion would have impoverished the empire…Less material factors also played a part. On the two occasions (in 1517 and again in 1647) when the Porte seriously considered the forces Islamistion of Balkan Christians, there was religious opposition to the idea on Koranic ground. In general there was no Muslim analogue to the widespread Christian impulse to drive out the infidel and heretic. On the contrary Islamic law prescribed the toleration of Christian and Jewish communities of believers. It prohibited Muslims from converting to other religions but did not insist upon conversions in the other direction. Indeed many a convert was obliged to demonstrate the desire to embrace the true faith was not prompted by materialistic or ignoble motives.

To end this largely random post via 3quarksdaily this link to an interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali in Reason magazine. As they point out van Bakel seems to be one of the few people not letting her off the hook all that easily. I find her extremely irritating and offensive and her arguments simplistic, generic and ignorant. (Interestingly, before the Turkish election earlier this year she wrote an article arguing that the US should support a military coup in Turkey to prevent the AKP from coming to power. The mind boggles.) I have to admit I haven’t read her books. Though I think her opinions come across strongly enough in her interviews anyway, I would gather they are more of the same. From the interview:

Reason: Explain to me what you mean when you say we have to stop the burning of our flags and effigies in Muslim countries. Why should we care?
Hirsi Ali: We can make fun of George Bush. He’s our president. We elected him. And the queen of England, they can make fun of her within Britain and so on. But on an international level, this has gone too far. You know, the Russians, they don’t burn American flags. The Chinese don’t burn American flags. Have you noticed that? They don’t defile the symbols of other civilizations. The Japanese don’t do it. That never happens.

Reason: Isn’t that a double standard? You want us to be able to say about Islam whatever we want—and I certainly agree with that. But then you add that people in Muslim countries should under all circumstances respect our symbols, or else.
Hirsi Ali: No, no, no.

Reason: We should be able to piss on a copy of the Koran or lampoon Muhammad, but they shouldn’t be able to burn the queen in effigy. That’s not a double standard?
Hirsi Ali: No, that’s not what I’m saying. In Iran a nongovernmental organization has collected money, up to 150,000 British pounds, to kill Salman Rushdie. That’s a criminal act, but we are silent about that.

Reason: We are?
Hirsi Ali: Yes. What happened? Have you seen any political response to it?
Reason: The fatwa against Rushdie has been the subject of repeated official anger and protests since 1989.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Of strange reality and the Nobel

From the NYT, news that The Kite Runner is being delayed to protect the child actors in the movie version of Khaled Hosseini’s book.

The studio distributing “The Kite Runner” a tale of childhood betrayal, sexual predation and ethnic tension in Afghanistan, is delaying the film’s release to get its three schoolboy stars out of Kabul — perhaps permanently — in response to fears that they could be attacked for their enactment of a culturally inflammatory rape scene.

This is so strange…I really don’t know what to make of it. (Is there anything to make of it?) I read about this a few days back but it really seems to have blown up since. I think more than anything it just offers more proof of how unstable Afghanistan has become.

What struck me most reading the article was this:
Mr. Forster emphasized that casting Afghan boys did not seem risky at the time; local filmmakers even encouraged him, he said: “You really felt it was safe there, a democratic process was happening, and stability, and a new beginning.”

A couple of years back my father had visited Kabul. I still have (for some reason) the pictures from his trip I had downloaded onto my computer. I remember him saying something about the bootlegged Bollywood movies that were available everywhere, about how they wanted to rebuild the country, to start promoting tourism…
This last trip to Delhi, while browsing the bookshelves I came across a book he had gotten back from Kabul. A travel guide to Afghanistan, circa 1971. It almost broke my heart just going through the faded pages of that book. No country deserves this.

In other news, the Nobel prizes will start being announced next week. As usual, confusion reigns over the question of who might win for literature. Odds are here. I will be terribly happy if Adonis wins, but I would think the odds might be slightly slim… (perhaps the fact that Pamuk won last year, makes them worse?). Not surprisingly, however, he is one of the strong contenders amongst those in some know. I’ve wanted to read Amos Oz for a while now - actually, I haven’t read many Israeli authors and Oz, Grossman (who, by the way, delivered this years PEN Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture) and Yehoshua are all on the immediate reading list.
Oh, and I am reading Llosa right now and dear lord, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is one of the funniest books I have read in just the longest, longest while. Truly excellent.