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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Language surrounds us, defines who, what and where we are.
Language has developed beyond a mere capacity for communication of information to providing a vast array social and cultural functions. The idea that a certain symbol has a defined meaning enables language to be a written and not solely a verbal communication. Our language has developed so that we quite often don’t mean exactly what we say but use similes, hyperboles and figures of speech to describe what we may mean in a non-literal fashion.

How we would communicate with aliens if we did ever find them has long been a subject of debate, perhaps not as esoteric as might be thought. In the 17th century before the invention of the radio schemes for drawing giant triangles in the Siberian tundra or by setting light to channels dug into the Sahara to create different shapes every night. With the advent of the radio a handful of messages, based on mathematical and scientific symbols have been sent to different star systems over the past 36 years. Although the first one won’t reach it’s destination until 2022 and the last one will arrive in approx 25,000 years.

For any of these communications to be successful there will need to be a basic agreement on what language is. In Embassytown our human protagonists are dealing with a species that have a very different idea about what language is and how it works. They speak with two voices at once and they are only able to communicate with the ambassador ‘twins’ who able to think and talk as one. Any deviation they either can’t hear or sends them crazy. There is also an inability to lie, even to the extent that speaking metaphorically is a near impossibility. So they have to create the metaphor in reality before they can speak it. Having established this strange world and the weird interactions the story leads to the arrival of a new type of ambassador, who both challenge the established order. As the world falls apart and decays the role of language becomes key to the battle for liberation and a new way of speaking.

I was given a short time to review this book but I raced through it voraciously, struck at every turn by the fantastic mastery of language and the inventiveness of new words. At times I was tempted to reach for a dictionary to find out whether the word was truly new or just new to me, the strength of the imagined world seeming totally plausible. As inventive and intriguing as Mieville’s Bas-Lag series, I was hooked to the last sentence.

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Science fiction offers alternative futures and sometimes also explores how the past might have played out if something, trivial or not, was different.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2002 novel, Years of Rice and Salt, takes this onto a large scale, imagining that the plague of medieval Europe wiped out 99 percent of the population instead of 30 percent.

In Lucky Strike the arena is the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, where a different crew goes out to drop the bomb and the man with his finger on the trigger has doubts about the necessity of the mission.

Lucky Strike is an excellent short story that takes you directly into the heart of a world-changing event through some individual characters that would never be counted, whichever history played out.

This novella comes with a short essay deconstructing alternative histories of that day and an interview with Robinson. The essay is interesting but the interview is somewhat disappointing, reading like a standard set of questions from a magazine journalist with little interest in either the politics or the fiction.

The price tag seems a bit steep for this slight book. Instead, why not pick up another Robinson novel and dive into some great science fiction which puts the questions facing humanity in the 21st century under a sharp spotlight? The Mars and Science in the Capital trilogies come highly recommended.

Lucky Strike by Kim Stanley Robinson, PM Press, £8.99

Published in Socialist Review February 2011

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Through his research over the last 30 years, Ilan Pappe’s investigations have challenged the Zionist historiography of the Nakba of 1948 and questioned the mythology surrounding the foundation of the Israeli state.

As a lecturer at Haifa University, Pappe supported a student who researched the fate of villages around Haifa by conducting in-depth interviews with both Jews and Palestinians who had witnessed the occupations during 1948. The student’s thesis was picked up by a journalist and forced a response from the army brigade responsible for the deaths of over 200 villagers. The veterans decided to sue for libel and Pappe encountered the might of a state uniting to cover up uncomfortable truths.

Unable to hold conferences or debates, he attempted to run a home university to educate fellow Israelis. Just as he felt he might be beginning to change perceptions, the 2006 Lebanon conflict occurred and any progress was washed away in a tide of jingoistic rhetoric.

Unable to survive as a critical academic within Israel, Pappe accepted a post at Exeter University and now plays a significant role in arguing for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions.

Pappe has contributed to the overturning of much of the mythology surrounding the beginnings of the state of Israel. This memoir explains why he can no longer carry out this role inside the country itself.

Out of the Frame by Ilan Pappe, published by Pluto Press £14.99

Published in Socialist Review December 2010

 

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First published five years ago this reissue brings together both parts of the story of Satrapi’s childhood and of her return to Iran. Satrapi’s adolescence was in some ways like many other girls growing up in the early 1980s – jumping around her bedroom singing, making friends and lovers, trying to establish who she is. But for Satrapi the question of identity becomes crucial. Sent out of Iran, during the confining years of the Islamic Revolution, she arrives in Germany at the age of 14.

Descended from the last emperor of Iran and born to Marxist radicals, Satrapi draws herself as a lovely, precocious child with a vivid imagination. She talks to god and her grandmother as she tries to figure out what has happened as her world is turned upside down by the Islamic Revolution.

Suddenly thrown into a world of strange customs and laws, Satrapi’s teenage rebellious nature hits out at the authorities around her. Her parents are distressed and decide that her adolescence would be better spent away from the religious strictness.

Ironically, the first place that Satrapi ends up in Germany is a boarding house run by nuns. Moving from place to place she does indeed manage to find drugs, boys and all the fun of being a teenager – but nowhere ever feels like home.

The simplistic black and white style of the graphic novel belies a richness of emotion, creating an absorbing narrative.

Persepolis byMarjane Satrapi, Vintage, £7.99

Published in Socialist Review April 2008

 

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The award winning Bridge of the Golden Horn was published in German in 1998 and fortunately for English readers has recently been translated with a wonderful introduction from John Berger.

Özdamar often uses her own life as a canvas for her narrative and there are many parallels here – arriving in Germany as a young woman in the 1960s from Turkey without a word of German and trudging back between the workers’ hostel and a radio valve factory. Her descriptions of learning German from the sounds of words and reading captions in newspapers have such a sharp authenticity.

Her German writing has been noted for its “Turkish” style in the patterns of thought and speech. It is hard to know how much has survived translation, but there is unfamiliarity to the way the sentences run from one another smoothly and swirl around the scenes and the characters. The feeling of being a young woman surrounded by an unfamiliar world while at the same time discovering her social, political and sexual liberation is captured superbly.

While many of the people populating the novel are described in a nuanced manner, not through physical description but through their peculiar actions or mannerisms, other familiar characters appear. Salvador Allende and Richard Nixon hover in the background, Lenin’s State and Revolution makes its mark and the communist hostel warden introduces Dostoyevsky, Gorky, Jack London, Tolstoy, Joyce, Sartre and a woman, Rosa Luxemburg.

The Vietnam War provides a focus for discovering the vileness of US imperialism as our nameless protagonist takes part in protests in Berlin and Paris. She discovers the political debates taking place in the Workers’ Association and begins to take acting lessons too.

The acting takes us away from Germany on a freedom fling with a drama troupe into Turkish delight and delirium, where the next coup d’état is always just around the corner. Learning the necessity to lie low, the journey is made through Kurdish mountain villages to the Marmarasea.

A deft storyteller, Özdamar immerses you in these tales, reminding you how it feels when everything is new and everything is possible.

Bridge of the Golden Horn by Emine Sevgi Özdamar, Serpent’s Tail, £10.99

Published by Socialist Review November 2007

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When I was 18 I went to Israel and I planted a tree in the Jerusalem “forest”. The tree wasn’t indigenous and the forest was a recent human construction. I have a certificate from the Jewish National Fund (JNF) that states that I helped make Israel green.

The JNF failed to mention that the forest was the site of the Palestinian village of Ayn al-Zaytun, many of whose inhabitants were massacred by Jewish forces in May 1948. Without historians like Ilan Pappe the existence of this village would be confined to those who survived the expulsion.

Israel’s axioms for peace negotiations claim that the present conflict began in 1967, when the West Bank and Gaza Strip were annexed during the Six Day War and that therefore the solution lies in an agreement that determines the future status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Furthermore nothing that happened before 1967 will ever be negotiable. This intends to remove the issue of refugees and the event known as the Nakbah (catastrophe) by Palestinians from any peace negotiations.

In his latest work Pappe takes us step by step through the atrocities of 1947 and 1948. There is also an examination of how this history has been covered up and how ideological motivation of the time continues to drive the Zionist leadership in Israel today to continue the unfinished project of the Nakbah.

Using quotes relating to the ethnic cleansing operations in Yugoslavia in the 1990s the reader is able to draw very direct comparisons to the process that took place in Palestine. A widely accepted definition states that “ethnic cleansing is an effort to render an ethnically mixed country homogenous by expelling a particular group of people and turning them into refugees while demolishing the homes they were driven out from”. Further, it doesn’t matter how the expulsion occurs, whether it is through violence or if people leave because they are worried or frightened and not allowed to come back.

During the 1930s a database was collected of the villages in Palestine including details of topography, quality of land, main sources of income, socio-political composition, and the age of individual men. After riots in the late 1930s, in which Jewish colonial settlers were attacked, lists of individuals involved were added. These village files formed part of the intelligence used during what became known as Plan D (or Dalet).

Plan D was a process of expulsion, extermination, destruction and “de-Arabisation” of Palestine. As Zionist leader Ben Gurion stressed, there was no need to distinguish the guilty, indicated in the village files, from the innocent. The time had come for inflicting collateral damage: “Every attack has to end with occupation, destruction and expulsion.”

By 15 May 1948, the day the state of Israel was declared, half of the Palestinian population had been dispossessed and had fled. And despite truces and ceasefires the operation continued in earnest into 1949 and in one way or another has not stopped since.

The key conclusion drawn in this book is that what happened in 1948 continues to happen today. The project of turning Israel into an exclusive Jewish state is not finished. The building of the wall is the latest attempt to “render an ethnically mixed country homogenous”. Pappe’s book is a vital weapon in exposing the nature of the nakbah and its legacy.

The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Ilan Pappe, Oneworld Publications £16.99 

Published in Socialist Review November 2006

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Papers from the Cario Geniza

There is little argument today against the idea that to be a Palestinian is to be oppressed on a daily basis. This is in sharp contrast with the once popular view on the left that the state of Israel could be seen in a socialist light due to the collectivist kibbutz settlements. There is, however, a profound need for clear theoretical analyses of the current situation and the history that led us to this bloody position.

There can be no even-handed response in a conflict that pits a military state armed to the teeth by the US against stone-throwing Palestinian teenagers. Yet many still try to reconcile justice for the Palestinians with a belief that a Jewish state in Palestine is justifiable.

John Rose has selected ten myths used in defence of Zionism. He explains why and how each is used, and then cites an overwhelming number of sources to prove that they have no authenticity. The book’s bibliography is perhaps the most comprehensive list of resources on the subject, reflecting the author’s lifelong practice of fighting and arguing against Zionism. Following this path leads to only one possible conclusion – that it is Zionism that is the problem, and without its removal there can be no peace in the Middle East, no reconciliation between Jew and Arab.

John Rose also consciously negotiates the possible traps that can accompany an anti-Zionist stand. For example, in arguing that Israel has been a protege of the Great Powers (first Britain and then the US), the idea that there is a Jewish lobby in the US is tackled head-on. Most recently the ‘Jewish lobby’ theory has surfaced in the idea that the Jewish neoconservatives at the heart of the Bush administration dictate policy towards Israel – or in the more extreme conspiracy theory that 9/11 was orchestrated by Jewish fanatics. But Washington’s policy in the Middle East is dictated by US, not Israeli, strategic needs. In fact President Nixon ‘delighted in telling associates and visitors that the “Jewish lobby” had no effect on him’.

There is a spark of hope in the past, in hidden histories. Jews have enjoyed a long history of cohabitation with Christians and Muslims in the Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa. In Israel today over 1 million Jews come from Muslim countries – indeed, Baghdad was considered as a Jewish spiritual centre for many years, before the European Jewish communities reached their numerical height.

Forgotten documents written by Jewish merchants, scholars, craftsmen and others found in an 11th century synagogue in Cairo describe the lives of Jews in the Islamic Arab world. These documents tell us of houses and shops held in partnership by people of different religions. Maimonides, the most famous Jewish philosopher of the Muslim world, noted his legal approval of this situation, advising that the gains made on Fridays go to the Jews, and those on Saturday to the Muslims. The Cairo Geniza has provided a wealth of information about how integrated these lives were.

John Rose has provided the movement with an excellent book to undermine the foundations of the conflict in Palestine.

The Myths of Zionism by  John Rose, Pluto Press £14.99

Published in Socialist Review, November 2004

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