Review: Tears of the Rajas by Ferdinand Mount – Prospect


Who were the Sabians?

Published in Litro

That is the question posed to Wadjda’s eponymous girl protagonist by a Qur’anic quizmaster on a Playstation game called “The Qur’an Made Easy”. Audiences, like Wadjda, will be flummoxed, although classically schooled viewers may make the mistake earlier orientalists made in conflating the ancient Sabians of Arabia with the ancient Sabines of Italy.

It’s an interesting conflation. Poussin immortalised the Sabines in his painting, The Rape of the Sabine Women. In a curious way, Wadjda, the world’s first Saudi Arabian film, recalls in its tone and composition that renaissance masterpiece: they are both historic artistic documents of the brutalising effect of the laws of the ancients on the lives of women.

Wadjda is a film about the social violence such ancient laws still mete out, including polygamy (Wadjda’s mother battles the prospect of becoming a co-wife) and the enforced enclosure that stems from gender-segregation, the cornerstone of Saudi Arabia’s social architecture (even within their home, Wadjda and her mother dine apart from the patriarch and the menfolk).

Wadjda is a feisty schoolgirl with dreams of a bicycle of her own. To afford one, she flouts the rules to sell homemade jewellery at school. Then the young rebel changes her tune, literally: swapping illegal heavy metal for more sacred orations when, hearing of the generous prize money, she decides to compete in a Qur’an recitation contest. Like many of her compatriots, she realises she can make more money exploiting religious scripture than evading religious stricture. She invests in The Qur’an Made Easy as a learning aide (and finds herself wondering who the Sabians were).

As she eventually learns, the Sabians were a tiny sect of esoteric followers of John the Baptist. The comic esoterism and obscure contemporary irrelevance of this detail is part of Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour’s gentle critique of the uses of Islam in the kingdom, so gentle it is barely noticeable. Rather than moralising, she has artfully wrapped her critique in crowd-pleasing comedy, exposing the immaturity of a martyr’s motives when Wadjda wishes for 72 bicycles in heaven, or probing the precarious honour invested in a girl’s virginity, when Wadjda falls off a bicycle and starts to bleed from her knee as her mother melodramatically prays it’s nothing more grievous.

Wadjda manages to capture something of the sexual curiosity of coming of age in a country where one’s schoolteachers teach that “a woman’s laugh is her nakedness.” Two inseparable schoolfriends are disciplined for drawing football tattoos on each other, their lesbianism hinted at – at least the fear of it – in the school’s subsequent proscription of flowers, love-notes, friendship bracelets. On the cusp of adolescence – part-way through the film she must start donning the full-length abaya – Wadjda is luridly fascinated by male-female relationships, asking her mother whether she still loves her husband, or playfully mocking the rumoured relationship between her hard-nosed headmistress and a certain illicit lover.

Children, with their innate sense of justice, are particularly attuned to such hypocrisies, to which jaded adults have become accustomed. Wadjda struggles with this inconsistency. On the one had she sees an external kingdom where women are veiled, identical, self-expression limited to footwear – Wadjda roams in sneakers and in shopping malls one hears the pointed heels of otherwise abaya-attired women. On the other hand, there is the internal reality of the home or the school, where the headmistress leers over her desk in a blouse with the top-button undone, where Wadjda’s glamorous mother, played by the unofficial Miss Saudi Arabia, Reem Abdullah, sings (with her ‘naked’ voice) to her heart’s content, looking indistinguishable from any Western women Wadjda sees on television.

In one poignantly funny scene in a shopping mall toilet, Wadjda’s mother gets out of her abaya to try on a red dress. The juxtaposition of her alluring couture and her sanitary surroundings sums up the absurd double-reality with which Saudi women must contend. Wadja is a child’s-eye view of Saudi Arabia, which both excuses its simplistic vision and heightens the power of its critique – a critique made all the more impressive for the fact it was shot entirely legally in Saudi Arabia, financed by a Prince of the House of Saud, to boot.

Aside from the film’s quality, that fact – that it is the first and only Saudi film – assures its place in cinematic history. But it is in a fascinating dialogue with it, too. The sucrose Hollywood-ending follows 90 minutes of that quietly moral gaze now so distinctively Iranian. There are clear traces of Offside, Jafar Panahi’s story of female football fans, and The Apple, Samira Makhmalbaf’s tale of two girls who escape their parents’ cellar. To say nothing of the unmistakeable nod to Vittorio de Sica’s neo-realist classic, Bicycle Thieves, also about its protagonist’s search for a bicycle.

In de Sica’s quasi-Marxist vision, the bicycle Antonio Ricci needs to work represents his economic freedom. In keeping with the tradition, Wadjda’s bicycle is just as laden with significance. It is the elusive avatar of a girl’s social freedom, the scarcest resource in resource-rich Saudi Arabia.

Tattoo parlours make their mark on Britain’s high streets

Published in The Financial Times

Deptford High Street in southeast London has all the staple shops of our times: a 99p store, a string of bookmakers . . . and a tattoo parlour.

The parlours have become an increasingly common sight across Britain’s towns and cities. Their number has more than doubled in the past four years – far quicker than the expansion of businesses most associated with the changing high street, such as bookmakers and coffee shops.

In 2009 there were 402 of them across Britain’s 650 largest town centres. Today there are 1,014, according to the Local Data Company.

Marcus Broome, who owns the Kids Love Ink parlour in Deptford, believes there is a simple reason that explains why his business is thriving while general retailers have retrenched: “You can’t get a tattoo delivered.”

Now that the internet accounts for about a fifth of all non-food retail sales, according to the British Retail Consortium, the businesses that have prospered on the high street are those that require customers to be there in person.

There is another big factor in the proliferation of tattoo parlours: high street vacancy rates shot up after 2008 and have remained high ever since. This is because general retailers – under pressure from lower consumer spending during the recession and the shift to online shopping – have either gone out of business or moved elsewhere.

The high vacancy rate has provided smaller businesses with opportunities to get a foothold where they could not before, says Peter Cooper, UK retail portfolio director at Hammerson, a property group.

“There [are] opportunities for companies that couldn’t previously get a look-in: local products, local operators, bespoke smaller stores,” he says.

Alongside tattoo parlours, discount stores and betting and coffee shops have been among those filling the gaps.

The increasing dominance of coffee shops, in particular, shows no sign of slowing. There are now about 16,500 of them in the UK, according to Allegra Strategies, a food and drink consultancy. This figure will hit 20,500 by 2018, they say.

The rise of internet shopping does not necessarily mean high streets will end up as parades of endless betting and coffee shops. Retailers will have a future there, in particular if their bet on click-and-collect, where customers buy online but pick up goods in store, pays off.

“[It’s] not about bricks versus clicks – the most successful retailers combine these elements. Digital technology can reinforce the high street,” says Will Roberts, head of media and campaigns at the British Retail Consortium.

Click and collect has been seized on by some in the industry, particularly groups such as Argos, where it accounts for about a third of sales. In the run-up to Christmas last year, almost two-thirds of online orders at John Lewis were collected in store.

There are also some signs of recovery on the high street. In December, the vacancy rate in Britain’s town centres dropped below 14 per cent for the first time since 2010, as new businesses filled the gaps left by retail, according to the LDC. It currently stands at 13.5 per cent.

But despite the growth in tattoo parlours, the future for this line of high street business looks less steady – the increase in numbers has not been matched by a similar rise in demand, says Marcus Henderson, a former president of the Tattoo and Piercing Industry Union.

This has not put off the hundreds who are attempting to forge a career in body art. Diamond Jacks, a long-established tattoo parlour in Soho, said it receives between 50 and 100 inquiries each week about apprenticeships.

There is a worry in the industry that the recent expansion is unsustainable. “Over the past few years it has never been easier for someone to come into the business,” says Mr Henderson. “There is a feeling that we are reaching a breaking point. People want a slice, but the pie is not getting bigger.”


Geopolitical Gatsbys


Originally published in The Financial Times

The Johnny-come-latelies of geopolitics

Review by Tanjil Rashid

Miriam Cooke’s ‘Tribal Modern’ argues that Gulf states have forged a new strand of modernity

Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf
By Miriam Cooke (University of California Press, £19.95, $29.95)

In Dave Eggers’s novel, A Hologram for the King, an American IT consultant is dispatched to Saudi Arabia. Every day he is driven to a large white tent in the desert to test a holographic tele­conferencing system; it is his job to flog this to King Abdullah, custodian of the holy mosques. Imagine the possibilities – the king could be in Mayfair and Mecca at the same time!

The Arabian Desert has been fertile in inspiring fictional tales of the bizarre encounter between high-technology capitalism and the ancient tribes of the Gulf, from oil economist Abdulrahman Munif’s classic 1984 novel, Cities of Salt, to Black Gold, a 2011 film funded by Qatar and starring Antonio Banderas.

These works express a narrative of a once-wholesome tribal culture mugged by modernity. There is a similar dichotomy at work in Middle East policy circles: to be modern, the Gulf nations must bury their tribal roots under the steel foundations of buildings such as Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest.

But in Tribal Modern, Miriam Cooke takes issue with this view. She believes the nations of the Gulf are forging an entirely new modernity, a “national brand that combines the spectacle of tribal and modern cultures and identities”.

“We must see,” she writes, “how the tribal and the modern, the high-rises and the tribal regalia converge.” Why must we see? In Cooke’s view, policy makers and business people cannot afford not to care about the tribal-modern brand – valued at more than $1.6tn, judging by the gross domestic product of the Gulf Co-operation Council countries.

Topically, Cooke, Duke University’s chair of Arab studies, also alerts us to the similar “resilience of tribal structures and affiliations in Libya” – as its nation-builders are discovering. (Libya’s revolution was, as it happens, partly bankrolled by Qatar.)

The Gulf nations betray a genius for tribal-modern convergence. In one of many astute visual anecdotes, Cooke describes a procession in Doha celebrating Qatar’s successful 2022 football World Cup bid: sport utility vehicles and Lamborghinis alongside dromedaries. Indeed, camel racing perfectly illustrates her case. A local festive custom has evolved into a rationalised industry involving tens of thousands of Somali and Pakistani workers, and even robot jockeys.

Cooke is at her best scrutinising how the Gulf projects this tribal modern brand in its heritage industry, noting how the buildings that house “national museums publicise country brands”. Abu Dhabi’s soars like an Emirati falcon, while Qatar’s unfolds like a desert rose, “a modern caravanserai that morphs modernity at the intersection of desert and sea”.

However, as Cooke notes, they were designed, respectively, by the UK’s Lord Foster and France’s Jean Nouvel. The Museum of Islamic Art in Doha was designed by the Chinese-American architect IM Pei and contains not a single object made in the emirate. The Islamic art market on which the Gulf feasts is largely London-based and almost completely defined by western orientalist scholarship. Even Black Gold, which projected Qatar’s tribal pedigree to global cinema audiences, was in the mould of 1950s Hollywood super-productions, “the copy of the copy without an original”.

The tribal-modern brand’s ironic relationship with historical truth is not lost on Cooke, but its real significance might be. Do the Gulf nations really incarnate a new tribal-modern future? Cooke’s vision is analogous to similar anxieties over the future shape of capitalism in the emerging nations of Asia, where western-style prosperity also rubs shoulders with customs strange to westerners.

In truth, what is most telling about the Gulf is not the region’s “affirmation of tribal identity”, which in Cooke’s account appears at times to be limited to neo-Bedouin poetry contests and other leisure activities.

Rather, it is the fact that, in building their brands, the Gulf nations have sought mainly to buy into the west’s own most prized brands, from the $140m Louvre Abu Dhabi to Doha’s Damien Hirst exhibition; from Ivy League colleges setting up shop on artificial island campuses to the World Cup. Even attempts at forging a nativist, tribal identity are, in their choice of “starchitect” or exhibition collection, mediated by western cultural institutions, and deliberately calculated to garner their acclaim.

Tribal Modern attributes to the Gulf a modernity it has invented. In fact, it has largely aped it. The region is behaving as new money always has: trying to impress old money by building lavish libraries and collecting art, all in the vain hope that these will mask their Gatsby-like insecurities of being upstarts, late to the geopolitical party.

The writer is a freelance journalist

‘The Muslims are Coming!’, by Arun Kundnani


This article was published in The Financial Times

Review by Tanjil Rashid

A critique of the west’s counterterrorism policies overlooks the roots of homegrown radicalism

The Muslims are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror by Arun Kundnani, Verso RRP£14.99 / $26.95

In Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene tells the story of a vacuum cleaner salesman turned British secret agent. His incompetence results in the absurdity of diagrams for cleaner parts being mistaken on high as a blueprint for a Soviet plot, while official money is ploughed into inventing threats to the UK’s own interests.

In The Muslims are Coming!, a critique of counterterrorism policy by Arun Kundnani, the west’s “domestic war on terror” at times resembles a Greene novel populated by a cast of counterterrorism warriors even unlikelier than a hawker of Hoovers in Havana.
Take, for example, Shahed Hussain, an American petrol pump attendant with a trade in fake drivers’ licences, whom the Federal Bureau of Investigation roped into ensnaring Muslims into terror plots against US targets – planned and financed by the US government itself.

As Judge Colleen McMahon stated in 2011 when sentencing one of Mr Hussain’s catches: “Only the government could have made a terrorist out of [James] Cromitie, a man whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope.” It is a pity the judgment is not quoted in full, for it succinctly exemplifies Kundnani’s argument. “[The government] created acts of terrorism out of his fantasies of bravado and bigotry,” she said, “and then made those fantasies come true.”

Kundnani, a fellow of the Soros Foundation, believes the wider war on terror at home to be founded on a fantasy. The west, he says, “is dedicating tens of billions of dollars a year to fighting a domestic threat of terror violence that is largely imagined”.

Based on years of research from Dallas to Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, this book is the most rigorous account yet of this familiar argument, which British film-maker Adam Curtis called the “power of nightmares”. Kundnani shares Curtis’s view, too, that Muslims have replaced communists as the “phantasm” of policy makers and conspiracy theorists, “a conceptual scaffolding inherited from the cold war”. But to imply vast chunks of government policy are built on fables itself rings of conspiracy theory.

In truth, counterterrorism policies targeting Muslims are a legitimate response to homegrown extremism, from the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby to the 366 (by one count) British citizens waging jihad in Syria. Furthermore, the victims of the 2005 London bombings bear witness to the reality of radicalism bred at home.

At best, Kundnani’s argument is compelling in its dissection of governments’ disproportional responses. He estimates the FBI has one counter­terrorism agent per 94 Muslims in the US, which approaches a Stasi-esque ratio of spies to citizens. He shows that authorities keep drawing spurious lists of suspected radicals; one in the UK included almost 300 children under 15.

A commonplace at the core of Kundnani’s critique is that radicalism is mainly the byproduct of western foreign policy. “Religion had nothing to do with this,” according to Kundnani, citing a conspirator in the London bombings. This view is undermined by the existence of two generations of British Muslims predating the war on terror – men who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and in Bosnia in the 1990s. The diminution of religion’s role in stoking radicalism is as inaccurate as UK Labour politicians’ denial that wars in Iraq and Afghanistan acted even as recruiting sergeants.

Kundnani scrutinises responses to terrorism better than outlining its causes. He probes the mutations of liberalism in the face of Islam, resulting in “war on terror liberals” for whom liberalism “became an ideology of total war”, from the UK Labour party’s interventionist foreign policy to Martin Amis’s innumerate paranoia about Muslim birth rates.

Liberals hold up the Enlightenment, conservatives “campaign to defend Judeo-Christian identity” – both banners explicitly excluding Muslims; both groups inclined, Kundnani writes, to see “terrorists motivated by fanaticism inherent to Islam”.

History offers correctives to these narratives, demonstrating varieties of Islam being as rooted in rationalism as the Enlightenment; the Enlightenment being as tied to terror as Islam (the word “terrorism” itself was first used during The Terror of the Enlightenment-inspired French revolution). The Muslims are Coming! lacks optimism but there is every reason to believe “Muslim” might one day be suffixed to “Judeo-Christian” when de­scribing the west’s culture and values.

Note how one prominent French intellectual writes about Europe’s growing population of a certain religious minority: “All of them are born with raging fanaticism in their hearts.” The author of these unenlightened remarks? Voltaire. His subject? The Jews.

The writer is a freelance journalist

Fewer people in France consider extramarital affairs ‘morally unacceptable’ than people in sub-Saharan Africa consider homosexuality ‘morally acceptable’

This article was published in The Telegraph

By Tanjit Rashid

This is just one of many details to be gleaned in the Pew Research Centre’s new Global Views of Morality interactive survey, which shines a light on people’s peccadilloes throughout the globe.

The Pew Research Centre, a Washington-based thinktank known for its worldwide polls, asked people in 40 countries about behaviour they considered morally unacceptable, morally acceptable, or not a moral issue. Their responses to eight themes – extramarital affairs, gambling, homosexuality, abortion, premarital sex, alcohol, divorce and contraception – have now been displayed in a revealing interactive presentation.

The results reveal the gulf in social attitudes between the west and the countries of Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

The Pew Research Centre stated: “African and predominantly Muslim countries tend to find most of these activities morally unacceptable, while in advanced economies, such as those in Western Europe, Japan, and North America, people tend to be more accepting or to not consider these moral issues at all.”

But there were notable divergences within regions. Uganda’s controversial legal reforms penalising homosexuality appears to be rooted in the fact that 93% of Ugandans consider the sexual orientation to be unacceptable. But the Senegalese are markedly more tolerant, as over a quarter of those polled in the west African country did not consider the question morally relevant.

Within Europe, the research confirmed certain national stereotypes. In France, a majority of people did not consider it morally unacceptable for married people to have an affair, attesting to the French penchant for taking mistresses and extramarital lovers. Against 47% of the French who consider such affairs unacceptable, prudish Brits disapproved to the tune of 76%.

Although countries of the ‘global south’ were the most conservative, notable exceptions include the fact that the Muslim nations of Egypt and Jordan have more liberal views on divorce than neighbouring Israel and even the United States, Canada and Britain. Only 6-7% of Egyptians and Jordanians also consider contraception unacceptable, against 17% of Israelis and Poles.

The latter issue has clearly won the moral battle, with a majority of those polled in favour of family planning. Only in Pakistan, Nigeria and Ghana did a majority consider contraception unacceptable.

Michael Lipka, assistant editor at the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, drew attention to the fact that Africans were most opposed to contraception, while being most blighted by HIV/AIDS, a virus spread by unprotected sex.

Swedish city embarks on 6-hour workday experiment

This article was published by The Telegraph

Gothenburg’s public sector employees will have their working hours reduced while being kept on the same pay in effort to create a healthier, happier and cheaper workforce

Swedish city has embarked on an experiment in limiting the workday to six hours in an effort to improve productivity.

A section of employees of the municipality of Gothenburg will now work an hour less a day than the seven hours customary in the Scandinavian social democracy famed for its work-life balance.

The measure is being self-consciously conceived of as an experiment, with a group of municipal employees working fewer hours and a control group working regular hours – all on the same pay. The groups’ performances will then be compared.

It is hoped that the experiment will ultimately save money by making employees more productive in their working hours.

Mats Pilhem, the city’s Left-wing deputy mayor, told The Local Swedenthat he hoped “staff members would take fewer sick days and feel better mentally and physically after working shorter days”.

The measure comes as a new labour agreement in France orders employees to avoid checking their professional emails and phones after work while employers are legally obliged to ensure workers come under no pressure to keep up-to-speed out of working hours.

Anna Coote, Head of Social Policy at the New Economics Foundation, a UK-based think tank, welcomed the proposals.

“Shorter working hours create a more committed and stable workforce,” Ms Coote told The Telegraph. “There are indications you can make savings by reducing working hours,” she added, citing an experiment in Utah where public sector workers were given a three-day weekend.

According to OECD data, there is a correlation between shorter working hours and greater productivity. The Greeks are the hardest working members of the OECD, putting in more than 2,000 hours a year compared with the Germans’ 1,400, but their workers are 70 per cent less productive than their Teutonic counterparts.