Friday, February 24, 2006

Book Reviews

This Week we reviewed Books from Arab countries and next week will be African. All the books are available in English.

Yassir Arafat, Bassam Abu-Sharif, Beirut: Riad El-Rayyes Books, December 2005. pp482

The author of this biography of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Bassam Abu-Sharif, was for many years one of Arafat's closest advisors, and he is therefore uniquely well-placed to write Arafat'spersonal and political story. Driven from Jerusalem by the Israelis as a child, Abu-Sharif spent most of his life fighting back: dubbed "the face of terror" by the American magazine Time, he was a member of the politburo of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine,in which capacity he allegedly masterminded a series of airplane hijackings, survived a letter bomb from the Israeli secret services,losing several fingers and an eye, and went on to become Yasser Arafat's confidant and spokesman. His books include September Papers (1979), Political Settlement (1980) and, most controversial of all, Best of Enemies(1996), written jointly with Uzi Mahnaimi, a former Israeli spy master,whom Abu-Sharif met in a London restaurant in 1988. This meeting not only produced this book but also led to a collaboration that "helped move the peace negotiations forward and set the stage for the Arafat-Rabin hand shake of 1993," as the publicity for the Best of Enemies claims.

It is therefore interesting to see what Abu-Sharif has to say ten years after the appearance of this much-publicised book and more than ayear after the death of Arafat, especially since many Arabs believe that Arafat was killed by his Israeli partners in the "peace of the brave" that both Arafat and Abu-Sharif believed in. Indeed, the bookends with Abu-Sharif describing Arafat's last days, when, not longbefore he died, he told Abu-Sharif that "we were betrayed by the Americans, but they will regret it one day, as there will be no stability in the region before our people attain liberty and independence." Abu-Sharif says here that at the beginning of October 2004 he noticed a rapid deterioration in Arafat's health, and, though Arafat said he had flu when asked what the matter was, Abu-Sharif says he began to suspect that he was being poisoned. On October 25 he contacted the French consul in Jerusalem to urge his help in transferring Arafat to France, which was done on 29 October. The rest is history.

Ending with Abu-Sharif's final encounter with Arafat in 2004 and beginning with his first meeting with the man in 1973, this book reveals many intimate stories from the life of this most influential and enigmatic of all Arab leaders, weaving personal information about what food or dress Arafat liked and disliked with some of the most momentous political events in the modern history of the Arab world. The book also reveals many hitherto unknown secrets regarding, among other things, pressures exerted on the PLO to change its political programme in 1988, and what happened in the corridors of the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, which itself led to the discussions that issued in the Oslo Accords and the 1993 hand shake on the White House lawn.

Fairuz wa al-Rahabnah: masrah al-gharib wa al-kinz wa al-a'jouba(Fairuz and the Rahbanis: Theatre of Strangeness, Treasure and Wonder),Fawwaz Trabulsi, Beirut: Riad El-Rayyes Books, January 2006. pp240

There are many books in Arabic ó and perhaps other languages as welló on the legendary Lebanese singer Fairuz, who celebrated her 70th birthday a few weeks ago. However, this recent book is unique in that it has been written by a leading Lebanese political activist, Fawwaz Trabulsi, who has written extensively on Arab and Lebanese politics since 1969 when his first book Socialist Lebanon: Socialist Activism and the Contradictions ofthe Lebanese Situation appeared. Trabulsi has also translated many works into Arabic, including books by Antonio Gramsci and Edward Said.

As a result, Trabulsi brings rare insight to his study of Fairouz and the Rahbani Brothers, and one that weaves together politics, artand the wider cultural context. Fairuz wa al-Rahabnah investigates Lebanese reality as this is depicted in the Rahbanis'musicals, which were written for and performed by Fairuz. Casting a fresh look at these striking examples of Arab musical theatre and re-reading what has been written on Fairouz and Rahbanis against the political and cultural background of Lebanon and the Arab world in the second half of the 20th century, Trabulsi finds that though "the Rahbanis have concentrated their efforts on rejuvenating Lebanese patriotism by means of poetry, dialogue, music and scenery, many commentators have tended to ignore the fact that they have also done their utmost to reconcile Lebanese patriotism with wider Pan-Arab belonging."

Trabulsi continues that "suffice it to remember in this context that they visited Cairo in 1955 during the rule of Kamil Shamoun [in Lebanon] and in the same year that the Baghdad Pact was launched. This invitation came from Nasser, who had been so charmed by the voice of Fairuz that he wished she were Egyptian." Nevertheless, despite the reconciliation that the Rahbanis attempted between Lebanese patriotism and Pan-Arabism, Trabulsi comments that their brand of Pan-Arabism was"one that concentrated on the Lebanese-Syrian-Palestinian union, though they were ambivalent on that front too."

This is a remarkable book, and it is one that should be read by anyone interested in the matchless influence of Fairuz and the Rahbanis. This influence Trabulsi attributes to four elements: the superb voice of Fairuz; the musical and poetic ingenuity of Assi andMansour al-Rahbani; the ability of the singer to become a national cultural phenomenon; and the way the art of the Rahbanis has become entrenched in the popular culture of Lebanon.

Al-'irak wa rahan al-mustaqbal (Iraq and the Challenge of the Future), Maitham al-Janabi, Damascus & Baghdad: Al-Madaa Publishing Company, 2006. pp390

Numerous books on Iraq have appeared since the US-led invasion ofthe country in 2003, many of them by Iraqi scholars who lived in exile during the rule of Saddam Hussein. This book, the latest publication ofIraqi political scientist Maitham al-Janabi, examines the origins ofthe Iraqi nightmare past and present. In his view, while the US-led invasion and on-going occupation of Iraq have compounded the country's problems, much of what we are witnessing today in Iraq has its roots in the country's complex history. Indeed, al-Janabi notes that, "when a Sufi was asked 'from whence comes this cry of pain,' he answered 'from everything,' a saying that aptly reflects what remains of Iraq today."

Al-Janabi divides his study into six chapters, the titles of which give the flavour of his analyses: "Iraq and the Problematic of the Nationalist Idea"; "Iraq and the Problematic of the Patriotic Idea","The Legitimate Alternative State"; "Civil Society and the Building of National Reconciliation"; "Philosophy of an Alternative Culture"; "The Philosophy of Education". He believes that there is an inherent paradox in the Iraqi ordeal as this is being witnessed today. "While the totalitarian regimes that have ruled the country have succeeded in alienating Iraqis from their history, crushing any sense of meaning or optimism for the future," he writes, "this in a sense has also opened the way towards a future unfettered by the absurdity of what took placein Iraq during most of the 20th century." In the author's view, Iraq needs a "new construction" and not just reconstruction, the latter implying only restoration. But, al-Janabi argues, there is little intoday's Iraq that is worth restoring.

The challenge for the future, al-Janabi feels, is to build anew,constructing institutions and Iraqi citizens alike from the ground up.This, he admits, will be a difficult task and one that can only be achieved by work on five fronts, simultaneously taking in the eradication of totalitarian residues in state institutions, the deconstruction of extremist mindsets, the promotion of moderate social and political thinking, and the consolidation of a liberal and rational culture through the building of civil society institutions able tocounter traditional modes of thinking. Finally, the fight against social marginalisation in Iraq will require the reintegration of social forces into economic and social production.

Al-izdouaj al-thaqafi wa azmat al-moa'rada al-masriya (Cultural Dualism and the Crisis of the Egyptian Opposition), Ibrahim Mansour,Cairo: Dar Merit, 2006. pp283

Twenty years have elapsed since Ibrahim Mansour, who died in 2003,conducted the interviews published in this book. A leading Egyptian intellectual and a gifted writer of fiction and critic, Mansour commanded the love and the friendship of many generations of Egyptian writers, and the interviews in this book with leading Egyptian writers including Naguib Mahfouz, Youssef Idris, Amal Donqol, Fouad Zakaria and Ahmed Fouad Negm, among others, reveal his rare qualities of depth and intimacy.

In all these interviews with 11 leading Egyptian intellectuals,Mansour was preoccupied by a major hypothesis that he put to the test in his dialogues: namely that a cultural dualism, or "schizophrenia,"as he sometimes described the phenomenon, exists in Egypt whereby the elite, be they political leaders or intellectuals, live in isolation from the masses or from the ordinary man in the street. In testing this point of departure, Mansour engages his interlocutors in heated and spirited discussions that often sound like verbal duels and in which the issues at stake are discussed with vitality and verve.

When Mansour asks Naguib Mahfouz, for example, about the influence of popular Egyptian culture and heritage on his writing, Mahfouz answers that "when I began writing novels I made use of the available techniques employed in writing the novels of the period, those techniques naturally being taken from Western literature [...] True, we read books of Arab heritage, but when we sat down to write we did not want to write like the Thousand and One Nights, as the model we wanted to emulate 50 years ago was a European one."

Mansour asks about the validity of this kind of imitation in hindsight, and whether emulation of this sort is not an error. Mahfouz replies that "it was not an illusion, but I could not say whether it was wrong or right. All I know is that if someone had told me in the past that I wrote like Balzac, then I would have been pleased to no end, as if I had been a student who had succeeded in solving a difficult mathematical problem. Now, however, I am not so sure I would be pleased." Why, asks Mansour, should this be so, to which the novelist replies that this is because "I want to be myself, even if that means I am less of a writer than Balzac."

What is most extraordinary about these interviews from the 1980s is that many of the controversial and problematic issues discussed arestill with us today, and they still do not have the prospect of any satisfactory resolution. Indeed, one of the disturbing conclusions one draws after reading this enjoyable book is that the "cultural schizophrenia" that Mansour identifies and discusses with his interlocutors is one that still besets many Arab intellectuals.

Al-imara fi al-a'sr al-amoyi: al-injaz wa al-ta'oil(Architecture in the Umayyad Period: Achievement and Interpretation),Khalid al-Sultani, Damascus & Baghdad: Al-Madaa Publishing Company,2006. pp389

This book by Khalid al-Sultani of the Danish Royal Academy of Arts deals with a very important juncture in the development of Islamic architecture, the Umayyad period, which the author describes as the founding moment from which much of what we now identify as Islamic architecture developed. "Any analysis of architecture during the Umayyad period," al-Sultani writes, "the most important juncture in the development of Arab-Islamic architecture, must take as its point of departure two major elements: achievement and interpretation. For the primary function of any form of architecture lies in the value of whatit achieved in terms of constructions and buildings and then in how far these achievements lend themselves to a number of interpretations and kinds of explanation."

The Umayyad dynasty was founded in 661 CE following years of political uncertainty,and division of Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims. The political centre of Islam was shifted to the dynasty's capital of Damascus, surviving for around a century before being overthrown in turn by the Abbasids, whose capital was established at Baghdad in 750. However, during the hundred or so years of its existence the Umayyad dynasty was able to use the resources of the new Islamic state to foster the arts and architecture: the Dome ofthe Rock in Jerusalem (691) and the Great Mosque of Damascus (706) are among its most important architectural achievements, it being said that the Caliph Abdel-Malik set aside the tax revenues of Egypt for seven years to pay for the former, while the later was built using revenues drawn over a similar period from Syria.

While Umayyad architecture drew elements from previous architectural traditions, among them Roman and Byzantine, mosque architecture in particular necessitated a new use of space, and gradually anarchitecture that was distinctly Islamic in character emerged.Al-Sultani divides his scholarly study of the dynasty's architectural achievements into five parts, looking at architectural space in the first part, before cataloguing a hundred years of architectural activities and achievements and reviewing the architectural context ofthe period. He also provides a useful survey of the architectural worksof the Umayyad period and a general introduction and conclusion.

In his conclusion, al-Sultani writes that his study has sought "to be a preliminary and modest contribution towards the gigantic effort of re-evaluating the different stages of past Islamic architecture, the study of which to a large degree is limited to historical periods as ifeach period were an 'isolated pocket' containing no traces from the past or influences on the future." In contrast, the wider and more comprehensive treatment of the whole of the Islamic architectural heritage that al-Sultani is proposing, and of which the present volume is designed as a part, would, he says, "afford us a wider scope [in understanding] a continuum that continues to the present day."

Soa'l al-thaqafa: al-thaqafa al-arabiyya fi alim moutahoil (The Question of Culture: Arab Culture in a Changing World) Ali Oumlil,Casablanca: Arab Cultural Centre Publications, 2005. pp159

This book, the latest by the prominent Moroccan intellectual Ali Oumlil, professor at the Mohamed V University, Rabat, is a stimulating study of Arab culture and the wider context within which this culture is practiced. It focuses on issues such as the challenges western information technology imposes on Arab culture, the impact of neo-liberalism on Arab societies, and the pros and cons of the much-discussed "dialogue of cultures". Regarding this last issue in particular, Oumlil argues that for a useful dialogue between Arab-African culture and the West to take place mutual recognition must take place first, something that has not yet happened. Mutual recognition of this sort faces two major obstacles: the first being an Islamic fundamentalism that reduces Arab culture to religion, and then reduces that religion to a fundamentalist creed; the second being western fundamentalism, which perceives modernity as the West's creation and over which the West has a monopoly.

However, besides diagnosing the ills of Arab culture and its interaction with the wider world, Oumlil attempts in the six chapters of his book to answer a number of pertinent questions. He discusses,for example, what the Arabs need to do if they are to produce educational policies able to generate human resources capable of integrating into and competing in today's world. He examines which Arab values are conducive to a modern mindset, and he discusses how the Arabs should inculcate a respect for human dignity and for human rightsin the younger generations.

Finally, Oumlil discusses the impact of Muslim immigration to the West on western societies and especially on Europe. He believes that European Muslims have developed their own identities, and these will allow them to take matters in hand in those areas that concern them.Muslims living in Islamic countries should not interfere in the affairs of Europe's Muslims, or consider them to be "brethren living in alien countries." On the contrary, Oumlil argues, claims of brotherhood should not entail patronizing attitudes: the future of Europe's Muslims is their own business, he writes, and they should be allowed to formulate that future without outside interference.

40 Pyramids of Egypt and Their Neighbours, Photographs by SherifSonbol and text by Peter Snowdon, Cairo: Cyperus Press, 2006. pp96

This beautifully produced book of photographs by the internationally acclaimed photographer Sherif Sonbol and the accompanying text written by Peter Snowdon(Fo is a treasure-trove that would delight all Egyptologyfans. In 40 Pyramids of Egypt and Their Neighbours, Peter Snowdon writes "Egypt is home to more than 100 pyramids, many of which have long since disappeared or collapsed, leaving nothing but a faint impression of their previous existence in the sand. The photographs inthis book are of those pyramids which have weathered the sand storms,looters and the ravages of time and remain yet standing."

Of Sonbol's photography The New York Times wrote "Rare is the photographer who looks at familiar art form and shows it in a newlight. But Sherif Sonbol's stunning and revelatory photographs demonstrate a particularly agile eye, frequently abstracting shapes into dynamic and explosive bursts of colour... Even when Sonbol concentrates on stillness, he exemplifies the adage that a pause is not a pause but 'an act of accomplishment.'"


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