Friday, 28 December 2012

Palestine through the perceptive eyes of novelist Selma Dabbagh

Out of It
By Selma Dabbagh
Pubs. Bloomsbury  Pbck £7.99  (2012)

Palestine from a Palestinian persepective does not receive the coverage it deseerves. This novel goes some way in addressing that deficit. It is one of those rare birds: a good political novel. First published in 2011, now, gratifyingly published in paperback, it is Dabbagh’s debut novel and what a debut it is. In the affluent north and west the mainstream canon consists largely of novels about existential problems, individualised dilemmas and psychological analyses; politics are either non-existent or play a small, subsidiary role. Dabbagh puts politics firmly centre stage. But, she is no primitive propagandist or evangelist, and is able to see both the Israeli oppressors and the popular movements of her own people through un-tinted spectacles.  She gives us a moving portrait of a family torn apart by the post-war developments that have taken place in Palestine. The fate and fortunes of the members of this family reflect the political developments that impinge daily and determine the trajectory of the people’s lives. It is a Palestinian family torn asunder by the post war developments that have shattered Palestine and imposed the state of Israel on a country where its historical inhabitants – the Palestinian Arabs - considered it their home. She cleverly and subtly interweaves this historical process into the fabric of the family, their friends and relatives. Through the individual fates of each family member we are helped to comprehend the way the struggle for one’s rights against an intransigent and brutal enemy so often also distorts and maims the protagonists themselves, and how a once united struggle became fragmented, pitting Palestinian against Palestinian. With the gradual corruption of the PLO leadership and the movement’s loss of momentum and clear leadership after the Intifada, we can comprehend the reasons behind the rise of Hamas. What began as a largely unified and secular struggle became split, first between small, ultra-left guerrilla groups and the mainstream PLO and then later, after their extinction, between a fundamentalist, religious rebellion in Gaza against the rump of the old PLO.
Iman, a young woman with a twin brother, Rashid, is the central figure of the novel and we hear much of the story through her telling. After experiencing the viciousness of Israeil attacks on Gaza and losing several friends to Israeli guns and bombs, she and her brother Rashid soon find themselves in temporary exile in London. Their father, previously a committed member of the PLO leadership, now lives in one of the Gulf states in relatively comfortable exile, alienated from his people’s struggle.
Dabbagh vividly portrays the pain and destructive influence of exile - the feelings of rootlessness, anger and frustration. While Palestinians are being massacred by superior Israeli missiles and air raids, in London, travelling on the Tube or on the busses, she and her brother are obliged to overhear the small talk of their fellow passengers whose problems revolve around where to go abroad on holiday, their marital tiffs or which furnishings to choose for their homes; in their minds Palestine and the suffering of its people simply doesn’t exist.
Dabbagh’s language is sculpted and sharp, at times poetic, always laconic and often with a light touch of irony. Her descriptions of London, through the eyes of a foreigner, a temporary visitor, go deeper beneath the patina and surface glitter than an ordinary tourist would; her viewpoint is coloured by her people’s history, British colonialism and world domination – here vision is politically tinted.
She watches TV avidly to soak up all and every bit of news from the Middle East, but is disgusted by the Orwellian double-speak of the ‘embedded’ reporters: talking of Israeli ‘surgical strikes’, their ‘tactical incursions’ or understandable ‘responses’ to Hamas provocations.

Out of It is extremely well-written, with a well-developed storyline, believable, three-dimensional characters, and is a gripping read that draws you into the daily trauma that passes as normality for most Palestinians.

Assange on the web - new book

Cypherpunks – freedom and the future of the internet
By Julian Assange with Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Müller-Maguhn and Jérémie Zimmermann
OR Books
Pbck £11
With the release of the first batch of WikiLeaks secret data in 2006 the online site rapidly gained a reputation for investigative journalism, and for revealing classified data from anonymous sources. WikiLeaks is a non-profit  organisation with the goal of bringing "important news and information to the public,’ and ‘to publish original source material alongside news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth.’ Another of the organisation's goals is to ensure that journalists and whistleblowers are not jailed for emailing sensitive or classified documents. The online ‘drop box’ was designed to ‘provide an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information’ to its journalists.’
In 2010 WikiLeaks collaborated with the Guardian, Der Spiegel and New York Times to release a whole batch of classified US State Department diplomatic cables in redacted format. This created an international éclat and brought down the whole vindictive fury of the US government on Assange’s head as well as severe censure from its allies. As the founder and chief spokesperson of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, overnight was thrust into world-wide prominence. By those on the Left he was revered as a revolutionary icon and by the Right viewed as a heinous criminal who had overstepped the accepted norms of journalism. But many throughout the world considered that what he had done was a genuine contribution to media freedom and openness. WikiLeaks became the winner of the 2008 Economist Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression award and the 2009 Amnesty International human rights reporting award (New Media). However, shortly after all the accolades, Assange the hero became a demonised fugitive.
In August 2010 Assange was invited to Sweden on a speaking tour and apparently had sexually relations with two women who, three days later, accused him of ‘rape and sexual molestation’, leading the Swedish Prosecutor’s Office to issue an arrest warrant for Assange. Whatever the truth about these allegations, Assange saw them as a means of trapping him in Sweden and eventually facilitating his extradition to the US. Unfortunately, whatever the truth of the matter, Assange suddenly became a figure of controversy, not to say one of revulsion, for alleged activities that had nothing to do with his role as the founder and advocate of WikiLeaks. In one sense his enemies had been partially successful: he had not as yet been put on trial in the USA but his name and that of WikiLeaks had been irredemably besmirched.

I am one of those who remains sceptical of the Swedish allegations of sexual transgression, despite the gravity of the accusations, and I certainly remain an admirer of what he has done as a journalist to expose Western government hypocrisy and unnecessary secrecy. I remain convinced that in revealing the contents of diplomatic exchanges and emails, demonstrating the hypocrisy, deviousness and indeed criminality of the US and other governments, he has done us all a vital service.

This latest book, despite accolades from highly respected individuals like John Pilger, Slavoj Zizek, Naomi Wolf and Oliver Stone is often more irritating than illuminating, but it is also certainly a provocative and fascinating read. Written mainly in the form of a dialogue between Assange and his co-authors, Appelbaum, Müller-Maguhn and Zimmermann, it explores the proposition that the internet has become more of a big brother system of surveillance than a great new means of free and democratic communication.

It is written in a loose conversational style with much anorak jargon, rather than attempting to offer a clear distillation of ideas for a wider readership. However, it does provoke reflection.

Like all inventions, the internet is only a tool to be used or misused. With the concentration of all main servers in the USA, it does provide the corporate and political ruling elite enormous access to every user’s profile and personal details. It is a secret service agent’s dream come true. And we, its naïve and unwitting useers provide these governmetn and corporate agencies all the information they want through our facebook, Twitter and Google pages and non-encrypted electronic exchanges.

While his enemies will call Assange simply paranoid (even though he has good reasons to be), he does argue persuasively that we are all too-readily handing over to the powers that be data about ourselves for free. He argues that only be utilising methods like cryptography to encrypt all the information we send out over the internet can we keep government and corporate noses out of our affairs.
Certainly the vitally important questions of who controls the internet and how we can ensure that it remains/becomes a genuine democratic source of inforamtion and exchange are of fundamental importance to freedom and democracy worldwide. Assange’s book is a wake-up call about a possible dystopian future. Jeremiahs, like Assange, are as Pilger says, ‘always met at first with hostility and even mockery, history shows that we disregard such warnings as these at our peril.’ While this book is certainly not the definitive treatise on the role of the internet, it is a stimulating and thought-provoking read.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Reply to William Boyd 'The Price of Betrayal' in Guardian Review 22 December 2012 on the Cambridge spies

What William Boyd, like so many other Western commentators who discuss the Cold War period, fails to comprehend properly is the political climate of the Thirties and how it profoundly affected workers and intellectuals alike in their political outlooks. Fascism, as demonstrated in Spain and Italy and Moseley’s Black Shirts here in the UK, was on a seemingly unstoppable onward march. Many at that time joined the Communist Party or sympathised because they recognised that their own ruling classes were either sympathetic to or incapable of resisting fascism. Only the Communists demonstrated that they were prepared to mount the barricades to stop fascism in its tracks. This is the context in which Philby, Blunt etc. threw in their lot with Communism.
Boyd relishes in calling them all ‘traitors’ to their country and ‘aiding the enemy’. The term is more usually used in times of war for those who pass on secrets to a real enemy. Russia was our ally for the war years and certainly never threatened the West in any way, but was soon cast aside again once nazi Germany was defeated; it never called Britain or the US the ‘enemy’. It was determined to ‘defeat’ capitalism in the economic sphere certainly, but by peaceful struggle. It was we who demonised Russia as ‘the enemy’. Those with short-term memory forget that it was the US General McArthur who, even before the nazis had capitulated, called for the war to be  carried forward into Russia and thus defeat both the nazis and the communists.
It can be convincingly argued that the role Philby, Burgess, McLean et al played in passing on information of (mainly) US military intentions and weapons development played a key role in stabilising the post war world and helped maintain the edgy balance of power.
Boyd also argues that Philby and the other spies ‘had to live in a world where there was no trust’ in order to ‘be successful’. They certainly did not trust the ruling elites in the UK and US – they knew first hand how devious and dangerous they could be – but they did trust their Soviet colleagues who protected them and offered them refuge when they needed it.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Press Ownership

Letter to Guardian 30 November 2012

Harold Evans is bang on target (A clever solution – but why the silence on ownership? - Guardian 30 November). In all the howling and squealing about the need to ‘maintain the freedom of the press’ hardly anyone is addressing this key issue. Freedom only has meaning if equal access and diversity is guaranteed. For Cameron et al to cry wolf about ‘state interference’ and the danger of overthrowing a long and proud tradition of a free press displays a lack of knowledge of history. The press throughout its short history has been censored by the ruling elite with, fines, bans and stamp duties imposed to prevent the publication of popular, usually,working class newspapers. Only since the increasing concentration of ownership in the hands of the wealthy has the state ceased hounding the press. Leveson’s modest suggestion is, in any case, not calling for state regulation, simply giving a putative regulatory body statutory powers; otherwise it would remain a toothless poodle like the present Press Complaints Commission.