Sometimes, when I sit down to write this blog, it’s all in my head and I know more or less what I’m going to write. I also know (again, more or less) what pictures I’m going to include (and one of the things about it is that each post must contain some images). However, there are other times when I simply haven’t got a clue and although the blog is not an obsession, I tend to get a little edgy if I haven’t posted within a week. And this is one of those occasions on which when I sat down on Monday, I had no idea whatsoever how it would start, where it would take me, and how I might finish.
And here I am, a couple of days after I started it. It will probably take me another day until I have something I’m sufficiently satisfied with to post but as I look over the first draft, I have surprised myself. Nevertheless, I have to warn you, dear readers (that is, for those of you who bother to read the stuff and don’t go straight to the pictures), this one is considerably longer than usual and—more significantly—around a half of the wordage is not my own—but there’s a perfectly good reason for this.
Moreover, although there are photographs interspersed throughout this post, they bear absolutely no relationship to the text other than that, for the most part, they prove that I am still around. I don’t have any apology or even a reasonable explanation for this lack of coordination other than that I haven’t been to Turkey, Germany or anywhere else over the past week.
Once upon a time, when I was young[er], I used to hear references to “the silly season” and I always thought it referred to those two or three weeks from the end of August to mid-September when the cricket season was ending and the soccer season had just begun. Later on, I learned that in the British Isles and in some other places, the silly season is a period in the summer epitomised by the emergence of frivolous news stories in the media and that is also known in many languages as “cucumber time”.
Well, what I’ve managed to judge as Jewish New Year 5778 rolled into view last week is that the silly season is not just rife at the end of the summer but seems to have extended so that it now covers the whole year. What with Mr. Trump’s tweets being ejaculated at all hours of the day and night whenever he has a thought that he thinks he should share with the world or as his ever fertile mind setting off sparks, with fake news everywhere, and with anybody and everybody posting this, that, and the other, it seems as if frivolousness is now a year-long, ongoing event. Except that some of the frivolous news is not so nutty any more because though it may sound frivolous, it can be damned serious.
Reading, hearing and seeing the ever strident and increasingly inflammatory bombast—both physical and rhetorical—issuing back and forth from Pyongyang, Washington and Tehran, one might well wonder where all this might be leading. I know that history seldom repeats itself exactly but there are parallels nonetheless.
This last week, while I could have chosen to spend the best part of two days yo-yoing up and down in the synagogue, I surprised myself by electing to read two new novels: Three Daughters of Eve by the Turkish writer, Elif Shafak and Munich by the British author, Robert Harris. I did also get out to view the exhibition of pieces by the sculptor Louise Bourgeois at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art although somehow, if you’ve been lucky enough to see her amazing installations such as at the Tate Modern Turbine Hall about a decade and a half ago or outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, a picture of which I took a couple of years ago (above), it was a little disappointing.
Anyway. To the books:
The first of these two great reads, Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve, deals with the life of Nazperi Nalbantoğlu (known as Peri), a young Turkish woman who had spent two years at Oxford at the turn of the millennium before being forced to return home to Istanbul after a scandal involving a university don whose seminar on “Understanding God” she had attended there. Throughout her childhood in Istanbul she had been a witness in and a victim of the conflict between her raki-drinking father who regarded both God and religion as unwanted pests and her superstitious mother, who had been turned on to God by a local imam. One brother had been viciously tortured for his left-wing views while another younger brother is a devout.
Arriving in Oxford, she is befriended by both a non-religious Iranian-born Moslem woman and a religious Egyptian-American, and becomes unwittingly part of an experiment by the professor who is interested in examining what happens to the three young women who together make up, in Shafak’s words, the sinner, the believer and the confused, when they share a house together. On her return to Istanbul, she married Adnan, a self-made property developer 17 years older than her and had a child. However, she remains in limbo, choked by being an educated woman in a highly patriarchal society and scorned by many for having been overexposed to non-Turkish views while in Britain.
In addition to the main characters and the flashing back and forth between the two years she spent at Oxford and an “over-eventful” day in Istanbul a decade and a half later, Shafak adds some spice to what it is like to be an educated woman in contemporary Turkey, a Turkey which has become increasingly dominated by a political party, once described as “moderately Islamist”, and which today has become increasingly so, a country which is ruled by a President once seen as a religious person embodying democratic principles but is now seen for what he is, a person with dictatorial tendencies and aspirations.
There is a two-page section in the book that exemplifies the enigma that is modern Turkey, which takes place at a sumptuous dinner party given by a wealthy acquaintance of her husband whose business ethics are, in understatement, shady. (pp. 131-133)
‘Frankly, I don’t believe in democracy,’ said an architect with a crew cut and perfectly groomed goatee. His firm had made huge profits from construction projects across the city. ‘Take Singapore, success without democracy. China. Same. It’s a fast-moving world. Decisions must be implemented like lightning. Europe wastes time with petty debates while Singapore gallops ahead. Why? Because they are focused. Democracy is a loss of time and money.’
‘Bravo,’ said an interior designer who was the architect’s fiancée and prospective third wife. ‘I always say, in the Muslim world democracy is redundant. Even in the West it’s a headache, let’s admit it, but around here, totally unsuitable!’
The businessman’s wife agreed. ‘Imagine, my son has a master’s degree in business. My husband employs thousands. But in our family, we have only three votes. Our driver’s brother in their village has eight children. I’m not sure if they’ve ever read a book in their life; they’ll have ten votes! In Europe, the public is educated. Democracy cannot harm. The Middle East is a different story! Granting an equal vote to the ignorant is like handing matches to a toddler. The house could burn down!’
Stroking the hair on his chin with the knuckle of his index finger, the architect said, ‘Well, I’m not suggesting we should abandon the ballot box. We couldn’t explain that to the West. A controlled democracy is just fine. A cadre of bureaucrats and technocrats under a smart, strong leader. So long as the person at the top knows what he’s doing, I’m fine with authority. How else will foreign investors come?’
Everyone turned and looked at the only foreigner at the table – an American hedge-fund manager visiting the city. He had been trying to follow the conversation with the help of sporadic translations whispered in his ear. Thrust into the spotlight, he fidgeted uncomfortably in his chair. ‘Nobody wants a destabilized region, for sure. You know what folks in Washington call the Middle East? The Muddle East! Sorry, guys, but it’s a mess.’ Some of the guests laughed, a few grimaced. Mess it was, but it was their mess. They could criticize it to their heart’s content, but not a rich American. Sensing the negative energy, the hedge-fund manager compressed his lips.
‘All the more reason to support my thesis,’ the architect said between mouthfuls of risotto. An apolitical man for many years, and though half Kurdish by blood, lately he displayed chauvinistic tendencies. ‘Well, the entire region is coming to the same realization,’ the bank CEO conceded. ‘After the Arab Spring fiasco, any sane person has to recognize the benefits of strong leadership and stability.’ ‘Democracy is passé! I know it might sound shocking to some, but so be it,’ said the architect, pleased that his views were gaining acceptance. ‘I’m all for benevolent dictatorship.’
‘The problem with democracy is it’s a luxury, like Beluga caviar,’ said a plastic surgeon who owned a clinic in Istanbul but lived in Stockholm. ‘In the Middle East, it’s unaffordable.’
‘Even Europe doesn’t believe in it any more,’ said the journalist, stabbing his fork into a piece of lamb. ‘The EU is in tatters.’
‘They behaved like a pussycat when Russia turned into a tiger in the Ukraine,’ said the architect, now in his pomp. ‘Like it or not, this is the century of tigers. Sure, they won’t love you if you’re a tiger. But they’ll fear you, and that’s what matters.’
‘Personally, I’m glad we weren’t allowed into the EU. Good riddance,’ mused the PR woman. ‘Otherwise we could have been like Greece.’ She gently pulled her earlobe, made a tsk-tsk sound, and knocked on the table twice. ‘The Greeks? They are hankering for the Ottomans to come back, they were happier when we ruled over them …’ remarked the architect with a chuckle, which he cut short when he noticed Peri’s expression. He turned to Adnan, with a wink. ‘I’m afraid your wife doesn’t like my jokes.’ At which Adnan, who had been listening with one hand under his chin, gave a smile – half sombre, half sympathetic.
‘I’m sure that’s not true.’ Peri’s eyes fell on the risotto congealed on her plate. She could have let the comments pass; a bit like other people’s cigar smoke, unwanted but tolerable to an extent. But she had promised herself, years ago, right after she left Oxford, never to be silent again. With a tight nod, she said to her husband, ‘But it is true, I don’t like this kind of talk. Democracy as black caviar, states like tigers …’ As this was the first time she had spoken in a while, all heads turned towards her and she returned their gaze. ‘You see, there’s no such thing as benevolent dictatorship.’ ‘Why not?’ asked the architect. ‘Because there’s no such thing as a small god. Once somebody starts playing God, sooner or later, things will get out of hand.’
Interestingly, Kurds in Iraq’s Kurdish region and disputed territories voted on Monday on the issue of whether or not to urge for independence from Baghdad. Although this was a non-binding vote, it raised tensions and fears for instability in that a “yes” vote would be used by Kurdish leaders to pressure for negotiations with Iraq over statehood. This is seen by Iraq as a threat to the country’s integrity and its President stated that if the referendum went ahead, Kurdistan “might disappear”. However, it was not only Iraq that opposed this vote as it was also opposed by Iran, Syria and Turkey, all of which have sizeable Kurdish minorities.
Ominously, President Erdoğan of Turkey has threatened military intervention in response to the vote, stressing that Kurdish independence was unacceptable to his country, that this was a “matter of survival” and that Turkey would also take political and economic measures against steps toward independence, suggesting that it might halt oil flows arriving through a pipeline from northern Iraq, depriving Iraqi Kurds of revenues. “We have the valve. The moment we shut the valve, that’s the end of it,” he said. (He also has a valve controlling the flow of Syrian refugees into Europe!) Remember, as well, that he is president of a country in which if you were to be as foolhardy as to write “Armenian genocide”, you might find yourself in jail! Iran, not to be left out, called the Kurdish vote “untimely and wrong” and held a military exercise in its northwestern Kurdish region to coincide with the voting.
All of this relates to the Robert Harris novel I finished on Sunday night, which dealt with the four days in September 1938 when the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Neville Chamberlain, made the third of three visits to Germany to meet the German Führer in an attempt to avert Hitler’s plan to invade Czechoslovakia (the blue-eyed boy of Europe, as John Andrews, the person from whom I learned more about human geography than anyone else called it in a political geography course over 50 years ago). This was part of Hitler’s aim to conquer all of Europe under the pretext of liberating the Sudetenland and freeing the German population there from Czechslovak rule.
This is a meticulously researched novel based on a series of well-known factual events intertwined, as usual in Harris’ novels, in a masterly manner with a story of two fictional characters, one English, the other German, who had been friends at the same college in Oxford in the early 1930s but who had had no contact in seven years. Each had subsequently become a civil servant working in their respective country’s Foreign Ministries and their paths crossed once again over those four days in Munich in 1938. It was fascinating to read the novel and then search for the main and secondary characters using search engines in an attempt to extract the facts from the fiction.
Without attempting to reveal the story, the “Munich Agreement” is usually portrayed as an example of what happens when mealy-mouthed democratically elected politicians attempt to appease dictators and totalitarian regimes. However, Harris, who produced a documentary, God Bless You, Mr Chamberlain, for the BBC in 1988 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Munich conference and who, in his own words, “ha[s] maintained a mild … obsession with the subject ever since”, paints Chamberlain in a slightly different light, a little smarter than many people give him credit for in that he [Chamberlain] saw it not simply as appeasement but as giving Britain an additional year to prepare for a war that almost everyone saw as inevitable.
Almost inevitably, too, as I was reading this novel, I was reminded of two essays published by the late British-American writer Christopher Hitchens—a not uncontroversial author in his lifetime—in Slate, one dating from 2005 and the other appearing five years later. The essays (reprinted in Arguably a collection of Hitchens’ writings, dealt with North Korea, the totalitarian state par excellence, and re-reading them five years after I first read them made me think that even the Nazi régime was a kindergarten and the Mafia an infant crèche compared with the gangsters of Pyongyang. The 2005 essay was entitled: Worse Than 1984. North Korea, slave state. The more recent of the two was entitled: A Nation of Racist Dwarfs—Kim Jong-il’s regime is even weirder and more despicable than you thought.
Let me quote you just a few sentences from the two articles and then we can decide which we prefer—the bluster emanating from the cellphone and mouth of the multi-faulted Donald Trump—with all the dangers it carries—and what comes out of North Korea, at least as portrayed by Hitchens. And Hitchens was writing about North Korea under Kim Jong-il (#2 in the dynasty) rather than the pronouncedly more dangerous régime of Kim Jong-un that is in place today.)
Worse Than 1984 (2005)
How extraordinary it is…that it was only last week that an American president officially spoke the obvious truth about North Korea.…Mr. Bush … understated matters when he said that Kim Jong-il’s government runs “concentration camps.” It would be truer to say that the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea… is a concentration camp…a slave state.
… to call a country a slave state is to set another process in motion: that strange business that we might call the working of the American conscience.
It was rhetorically possible, in past epochs of ideological confrontation, for politicians to shout about the “slavery” of Nazism and of communism, and indeed of nations that were themselves “captive.” The element of exaggeration was pardonable, in that both systems used forced labor and also the threat of forced labor to coerce or to terrify others. But not even in the lowest moments of the Third Reich, or of the gulag, or of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward,” was there a time when all the subjects of the system were actually enslaved.
In North Korea, every person is property and is owned by a small and mad family with hereditary power. Every minute of every day, as far as regimentation can assure the fact, is spent in absolute subjection and serfdom. The private life has been entirely abolished. One tries to avoid cliché, and I did my best on a visit to this terrifying country in the year 2000, but George Orwell’s 1984 was published at about the time that Kim Il Sung set up his system, and it really is as if he got hold of an early copy of the novel and used it as a blueprint. (“Hmmm … good book. Let’s see if we can make it work.”)
… North Korea is rather worse than Orwell’s dystopia. … A recent nighttime photograph of the Korean peninsula from outer space shows something that no “free-world” propaganda could invent: a blaze of electric light all over the southern half, stopping exactly at the demilitarized zone and becoming an area of darkness in the north.
… The situation is … worse than indentured servitude. The slave owner historically promises … at least to keep his slaves fed. In North Korea, this compact has been broken. It is a famine state as well as a slave state. … The survivors, especially the children, have been stunted and malformed. Even on a tightly controlled tour of the place … my robotic guides couldn’t prevent me from seeing people drinking from sewers and picking up individual grains of food from barren fields. …
… Kim Jong-il and his fellow slave masters are trying to dictate the pace of events by setting a timetable of nuclearization, based on a crash program wrung from their human property. But why should it be assumed that their failed state and society are permanent? Another timeline, oriented to liberation and regime change, is what the dynasty most fears. It should start to fear it more. Bravo to President Bush, anyway, for his bluntness.
A Nation of Racist Dwarfs (2010)
Visiting North Korea some years ago, I was lucky to have a fairly genial “minder” who … guided me patiently around … explaining things away by means of a sort of denial mechanism and never seeming to lose interest in the gargantuan monuments to the world’s most hysterical and operatic leader-cult. One evening, as we tried to dine on some gristly bits of duck, he mentioned yet another reason why the day should not long be postponed when the whole peninsula was united under the beaming rule of the Dear Leader. The people of South Korea, he pointed out, were becoming mongrelized. They wedded foreigners—even black American soldiers, or so he’d heard to his evident disgust—and were losing their purity and distinction. …
… The whole idea of communism is dead in North Korea, and its most recent “Constitution,” “ratified” last April, has dropped all mention of the word. The analogies to Confucianism are glib, and such parallels with it as can be drawn are intended by the regime only for the consumption of outsiders. [There is] a persuasive case that we should instead regard the Kim Jong-il system as a phenomenon of the very extreme and pathological right. It is based on totalitarian “military first” mobilization, is maintained by slave labor, and instills an ideology of the most unapologetic racism and xenophobia. …
… Even in the days of communism, there were reports from Eastern Bloc and Cuban diplomats about the paranoid character of the system … and … its intense hatred of foreigners. … The United States and its partners make up in aid for the huge shortfall in North Korea’s food production, but there is not a hint of acknowledgement of this by the authorities, who tell their captive subjects that the bags of grain stenciled with the Stars and Stripes are tribute paid by a frightened America to the Dear Leader.
…many of the slogans employed and displayed by the North Korean state are borrowed directly—this really does count as some kind of irony—from the kamikaze ideology of Japanese imperialism. Every child is told every day of the wonderful possibility of death by immolation in the service of the motherland and taught not to fear the idea of war, not even a nuclear one.
The regime cannot rule by terror alone, and … small wonder that each “negotiation” with it is more humiliating than the previous one. … we cannot expect it to bargain away its very raison d’être.…
… Here are the two most shattering facts about North Korea. First, when viewed by satellite photography at night, it is an area of unrelieved darkness. Barely a scintilla of light is visible even in the capital city. Second, a North Korean is on average six inches shorter than a South Korean. You may care to imagine how much surplus value has been wrung out of such a slave, and for how long, in order to feed and sustain the militarized crime family that completely owns both the country and its people.…
… Unlike previous racist dictatorships, the North Korean one has actually succeeded in producing a sort of new species. Starving and stunted dwarves, living in the dark, kept in perpetual ignorance and fear, brainwashed into the hatred of others, regimented and coerced and inculcated with a death cult: This horror show is in our future, and is so ghastly that our own darling leaders dare not face it and can only peep through their fingers at what is coming.
Should you wish to read the whole articles—and they’re short ones— you can do so from the following links:
So I feel that we should bear in mind that when President Trump says that “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself” and that Kim Jong-un could not survive an American attack and that the United States could (would?) totally destroy North Korea if forced to defend itself or its allies and that while the US has “great strength and patience,” its options could soon run out. So we should be aware that he is referring to a leader, the son and grandson of leaders of the same country of the same depraved régime, all of whom hold other nations of the world in the utmost contempt and who care not a whit for the well-being of their own people. And if, as Hitchens quotes, “Every child is told every day of the wonderful possibility of death by immolation in the service of the motherland and taught not to fear the idea of war, not even a nuclear one.” then Trump’s words might be regarded in North Korea as coming from the mouth of God himself — except that neither the North Koreans nor Hitchens himself actually believed that (God, that is) could be possible.
And just for the sake of completion, here are two more totally unrelated images from the past week.
Finally, if this post didn’t contain brevity, here’s some levity. Just to prove that the relationship between Britain and Europe has not always been dominated by Brexit, I offer you a song with music and lyrics by Noel Coward, sung by Dame Felicity Lott with Graham Johnson at piano. Just in case you can’t pick out all the words, I’ve included a link to the lyrics.