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18th Sep

World View published in The Independent 19 September 2014


Peter Popham


Medecins Sans Frontieres, the French-founded aid agency, is back in west Africa where it started its work 43 years ago, when its pioneering doctors and nurses flew out to bring medical assistance to victims of the Biafran war.

Today the emergency is the Ebola plague, and according to Joanne Liu, the organisation’s president, the international response so far has been “lethally inadequate”. With more than 2,600 fatalities, 5,300-plus infected, the mortality rate for those untreated of 90 per cent and the numbers doubling every 24 days, the epidemic is exploding like a bomb “beyond anything we’ve ever seen,” as a spokesman described it to me,  MSF finds itself almost single-handedly tackling the largest epidemic of its kind in history.

I say “almost single-handedly” because the Red Cross is also involved and, as we have seen, President Obama is sending 3,000 US soldiers to the worst-affected areas with their logistical and engineering capabilities. But with the entire health system of Liberia, the worst-affected country, in a state of collapse, this tightly-focused, single-minded agency remains at the sharp end of the response to the crisis, and it is dramatically over-stretched. As things stand, it simply cannot cope.

That’s why it is urgently seeking to recruit medical professionals to bolster its teams in the field. The work is obviously not for everyone. The pay is poor compared to working for the NHS, and after a one-month tour fieldworkers are obliged to take an unpaid 21-day layoff – because the work in the field, as the organisation does nothing to disguise, is testing in the extreme. Doctors and nurses are bottled up in their protective suits and obliged to work in conditions of strict military-style discipline inside the treatment centres, discipline which continues outside working hours with an absolute ban on physical contact of every sort and fanatical attention to cleanliness. “It’s really exhausting to live in conditions like that,” the spokesman said, “which is why we have short rosters so people don’t lose their vigilance. We want people to be sharp and fresh, and we don’t even allow them to volunteer for a second tour until they have been off for at least three weeks.”

MSF’s role in containing the epidemic is vital because the capacity and readiness of other aid agencies to tackle emergencies of this sort has fallen away over the last few years, as they concentrated instead on working with and empowering local organisations rather than being the shock troops of response. That’s why MSF has found itself in the unprecedented position of appealing to the US and other countries to send in military teams trained to deal with nuclear, chemical and biological emergencies, the appeal which Mr Obama has now heeded.

The other reason MSF finds itself so exposed is because the authorities in these states barely functioned, even before the outbreak. “It is difficult for people in the West to imagine the extent of disorganisation in these countries,” Adam Nossiter wrote in the New York Times this week. “There is a near-total absence of effectively functioning institutions of any sort, let alone those devoted to health care.” When Ebola broke out in in Uganda in 2000, the government immediately imposed tough measures to stop it exploding. In Liberia there is no-one to play that role. MSF, the only game in town, is fighting to get ahead of the epidemic curve instead of behind it, where they have been until now. For any nurse or doctor tempted to put their life on the line in the best possible cause, opportunity knocks.


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18th Sep

World View published in The Independent, 11 September 2014

Peter Popham


We have been reduced to a dreadful silence by the doings of Islamic State, so it is a matter of amazement and something approaching joy that young musicians only a few hundred kilometres from the IS heartland have the guts to mercilessly lampoon them.

A group called Al-Rahel Al-Kabir which translates the Great Departed, perhaps a nod to the Grateful Dead, are playing to packed houses in Beirut with their songs in satirical fake praise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – IS’s  ‘caliph’ – and his movement’s works.

“Because there is no duress in religion, we will wipe out apostates,” they sing in devout tones. “Oh master Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, you who rule by God’s rules, you will lead God’s servants to an abyss like no other…Because Islam is merciful we will butcher…I swear to God if I was a cow I would be wearing a bra…”

This week has seen a cascade of condemnations of IS and their works from within the Islamic world, with most recently the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia adding his voice to that of the ambassador to the US of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi academics and many others.

This is all very welcome and not before time, but it’s always hard to know how to evaluate such declarations. Are they having their cojones squeezed by the White House? Are they merely saying what they hope the west wants to hear? Why did they not pipe up before? Few of us have a proper education in Islam, let alone a working knowledge of Arabic, and ignorance abets our suspicions. After all, don’t these muftis and the rest wear the same heavy beards and dingy robes as the executioners of Mosul?  

So the hilarious songs of the Great Departed – much better and more punning in the original, I understand – help to clear the air. Especially because, as one of the band explained to Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper, “Those who consider that Baghdadi represents Islam could be offended, but the song doesn’t criticise Islam, it actually criticises the conception of Islam that Baghdadi and his group has.”

And in fact it is that false conception of Islam, whose roots go back to the 7th century, which is now coming under attack from within the religion.

The word for IS used by its Arab opponents is Daesh, a pejorative acronym which can be translated “medieval barbarism.” And IS was identified by two Saudis writing in the New York Times this week as the latest manifestation of the Kharijites, Islam’s first splinter group, who burst onto the scene when they assassinated the Fourth Caliph.

‘Kharijite’ literally means “those who went out,” and from the beginning they have had very clear characteristics. They looked and spoke in the most pious way imaginable but they were always addicted to killing – not in self-defence, but because they saw the world in black and white. Their religiosity was unrivalled: “you shall consider your own prayers trivial compared to theirs,” one authority explained. “What they say is true – but what they want to do is evil.” And above all, they bring disaster in their wake because of their murderous ways. “Never has a group emerged from our religion causing wanton violence and brought peace,” he said.

The pious-looking butcher who leads IS showed his identity with these people at the group’s foundation in 2011 when he declared, “The Shiites are evil. First we have to kill them. We must cleanse the religion.”

Educated Muslims know all about this ancient rogue phenomenon and the mortal dangers it brings. It’s high time they broadcast it from the rooftops.


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18th Sep

World View published in The Independent 5 September 2014

Peter Popham


There is much that is murky about the serial baby-fathering career of 24-year-old Mitsutoki Shigata. But if his so-far unexplained compulsion helps to shine a light into the world of international surrogate parenting, it will be a good thing.

The son of a Japanese mobile phone tycoon, the lanky young man has been identified as the father of at least 16 children between the ages of six months and one year, including four sets of twins. When the flat he rented in Bangkok was raided by police after a tip-off, Shigeta himself had fled, but nine of his babies were in residence, along with their nine nannies, plus one pregnant surrogate mother. DNA tests subsequently proved him to be the father of all the babies.

What was his game? The original and perhaps obvious conclusion was that he was an aspiring human trafficker, on an industrial scale. But as the police gazed around them, the young man’s Thai lawyer, Ratpratan Tulatorn, turned up to deny any wrong doing. “These are legal babies,” he said later. “There are assets purchased under these babies’ names. There are savings accounts for these babies, and investments. If he were to sell these babies, why would he give them these benefits?”

Mr Tulatorn has said that his client merely wanted a big family. Shigeta’s own explanation to one of the Bangkok fertility clinics he used was weird: the clinic’s founder reported him telling her, “He wanted to win elections, and could use his big family for voting. He said he wanted 10 to 15 babies a year, and that he wanted to continue the baby-making process until he’s dead.”

Whatever the truth about his motivation, his exploits draw attention to the stubborn and ugly fact about surrogate parenting which its advocates and the companies which trade in it prefer to play down or ignore altogether: the commodification of the human child at the heart of the industry. The customers are planning on completing their family by the addition of a little one. But from the industry’s point of view the baby is simply the product, the hired womb that produces it the factory.

That’s why David Farnell and his wife, the Australians at the heart of the earlier Thai surrogate baby scandal, felt entitled to leave behind baby Gammy, the surrogate baby with Down’s Syndrome, and depart with his healthy sister, Pippah. “We were very confused and we said that this is your fault, you must now take some responsibility for this,” he told Australian TV. “No parent wants a son with a disability.” In the same spirit we return damaged goods to the retailer, expecting a full refund.

The industry’s advocates paint a sunny picture of a win-win situation, in which the wealthy western couple, straight or gay, obtain their “right” to a child with their own DNA, the poor Asian surrogate receives a stonking sum of money by local standards, and everyone is satisfied. Forgotten in the calculation is the commodified child, whose questions about his or her origins, if answered honestly, are very likely to lead to severe confusion.

We don’t have to believe that a child is a gift from God to appreciate that the woman who carries him or her for nine months cannot be regarded merely as a suitcase. As Renate Klein, an Australian academic, wrote after the baby Gammy affair broke, “It is accepted without discussion that a ‘gestational surrogate’…will not have a relationship with the developing baby as it is ‘not her child.’ An absurd notion for any woman who has ever been pregnant.”

And if the human suitcases feel reduced to mere utility, what about the babies they nurture and bear? At least 16 small Shigetas in Bangkok can be expected to feel pretty baffled by the brave new world that has called them forth.




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18th Sep



World View, published in The Independent,  21st August 2014




Peter Popham



There have been several Indian pretenders to the Mahatma Gandhi legacy in the 66 years since his assassination, but only one of them truly deserves the title.


She looks nothing like the bony old wizard, but Vandana Shiva, a plump, Brahmin matron of 61, has a lot of Gandhi’s charisma, and approaching his level of global fame. And in one key respect the similarities are acute: against enormous odds, by the power of her oratory, leadership and tireless campaigning, she has for years put a large spoke in the wheel of some of the most powerful organisations in the world.


What Gandhi was to the British Empire, Dr Shiva is to Monsanto, the multinational agribusiness corporation, and its allies, including the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation, the US government, and Bill and Melinda Gates. She has put all these extremely powerful actors on the back foot for a very long time, which is not where they are accustomed to be. As Michael Specter puts it in a hefty profile of her in the current issue of the New Yorker, ( “Owing almost wholly to the efforts of Shiva and other activists, India has not approved a single genetically modified food crop for human consumption.”


The only question that really matters regarding Vandana Shiva and her campaign is whether or not that is a good thing.


The debate over GMOs – Genetically Modified Organisms - in the West tends to revolve around two issues: whether foods engineered in the laboratory are bad for us; and whether they might dangerously contaminate the environment. On the first question, Specter claims that “there has not been a single documented case of any person becoming ill” from eating GM food. Contamination, on the other hand, is a danger that requires careful management.


But from the Indian perspective the most glaring risk is quite different. India’s farmers are among the poorest in the world, and most of the thousands who have committed suicide have done so because they got hopelessly into debt – because of the costs of keeping up with the fertiliser-based Green Revolution that transformed Indian agriculture in the 1960s.


Among the costs that peasant farmers are spared are seeds –they use the ones naturally produced in the plant’s life cycle. But the so-called ‘terminator seeds’ sold by Monsanto have no progeny, by design. Every year the farmer must buy new seeds. In this way he is strapped to the vast locomotive of globalisation. Shiva’s phrase ‘seed slavery’ means nothing to the large-scale farmers of the west for whom such crops were developed. But in India it is a very real fear.


Shiva has brilliantly articulated this fear. But in the process she has got carried away with her own rhetoric, wowing her western audiences with visions of innocent, bio-diverse village India falling prey to evil western capital. In the process she has made herself look ridiculous, claiming that the expense of GM cotton – which unlike GM food crops is widely grown in India – has caused hundreds of thousands of farmer suicides, and that Monsanto is guilty of ‘genocide’.


Like Gandhi, Shiva is in thrall to a romantic vision of village India which bears little relation to the real thing. By stripping down to the dhoti and spinning cotton, Gandhi hoped to banish the modern world and lead India back into a state of innocence which never existed outside his imagination. By demonising technologies which, if adopted with sensitivity and common sense could potentially improve the lives of millions, Shiva is doing her impoverished compatriots no favours. This debate demands less heat and more light.




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19th Aug

published in The Independent, 16 August 2014


by Peter Popham


It was the coming again of Harry Potter fever. Charing Cross bookshop Foyles stayed open all night to celebrate with jazz, the Royal Opera House and the Tate Modern were bathed in images of the cover, bookshops across the country happily anticipated a Rowling-like rush for the tills as the new Haruki Marukami novel, snappily entitled Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, became the book to beat in the pre-Christmas rush, having sold a million in Japan within a week of release.

But the comparisons are misleading: Murakami is nothing like J K Rowling. He may sell like Tom Clancy, yet remains a cult. He is as big as Dan Brown, but fans share their love of him like a happy secret.

At the heart of the new book we find a Murakami hero who is very much like all the ones that came before.

“It was as if he were sleepwalking through life,” he writes in the first chapter, “as if he had already died but not yet noticed it. When the sun rose, so would Tsukuru – he’d brush his teeth, throw on whatever clothes were at hand…He only spoke to people when necessary, and after school he would return to his solitary apartment, sit on the floor, lean back against the wall, and ponder death and the failures of his life…”

The prose is as flat and colourless as the protagonist. Then things happen: terrible things, beautiful things. He is attacked by birds with razor-sharp beaks and his flesh somehow becomes something else. “Tsukuru couldn’t fathom what this substance was. He couldn’t accept or reject it. It merely settled on his body as a shadowy swarm, laying an ample amount of shadowy eggs.” A vivacious, flirtatious woman takes him in hand. A challenge is presented which he forces himself to meet. Yet there is no transformation, no epiphany. Through everything he remains the same, his flat, pedestrian voice and tone of melancholy mystification as distinctive as Kafka’s.


Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949. His father was the son of a Buddhist priest, his mother the daughter of a merchant from Osaka. Both parents taught Japanese literature. He moved to Tokyo to study drama at Waseda, one of Japan’s top universities. But he is on record as saying that he only reads western novels. He rejected his own literary heritage, and Japan’s academic literary establishment, in the form of the veteran novelist Kenzabruo Oe, has repaid the compliment.

As a young man, Murakami’s immersion in popular youth culture was reminiscent of Nick Hornby’s. After university his first job was working in a record shop. With his wife Yoko, whom he had met at Waseda – they are still together but have no children – he  then opened a jazz-cum-coffee bar which they ran together for several years. Then he started writing, eventually doing it full time. “One night,” he explained to an interviewer, “looking down the bar of [my] club, I saw some black American soldiers crying because they missed America so much…I realised that, no matter how much I loved this western culture, it meant more to these soldiers than it ever could for me. That was really why I began to write.”

His novels were successful from the start but it was with the third one, A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), that he found the tone for which he is beloved and familiar: sad, disconnected young mass man, living in a contemporary urban Japan which has nothing Japanese about it, meets bizarre circumstances which suggest weighty, symbolic significance or fanciful absurdity or both. Belying the mournful, pedestrian narrative voice, the results were beguiling and quickly captured readers in their snares.  

The influences were overwhelmingly American: Kurt Vonnegut’s cocktail of science fiction fantasy and drily rendered, prosy reality; the capricious, feather light whimsy of Richard Brautigan; touches of Raymond Carver and the J D Salinger of The Catcher in the Rye, which Murakami has translated.   His breakout book was Norwegian Wood, published in 1987, which sold millions to young Japanese and made him a household name. Averse to most of the paraphernalia of fame, he beat a retreat to the US, writing several more novels while a fellow at American universities including Harvard.  

His absence from Japan reflected the absence of Japan – in any outwardly recognisable form – from his work. This changed abruptly after the twin traumas of the Kobe earthquake and the deadly sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo underground by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. He returned home, and for the first time wrote books concretely related to real events – a non-fiction work consisting of interviews with survivors of the gas attacks, and a book of stories tapping into the collective emotion generated by the earthquake.

But if these works suggested that Murakami was moving into more mainstream ‘social’ fiction, he has since returned to the enigmatic and surreal domains which are his favoured territory. And his fame has continued to multiply, with his three-volume doorstopper 1Q84 (2011) selling out its first Japanese edition in a single day and selling a million within a month.

Murakami’s prodigious productivity, can be at least partly traced to his intensely disciplined and methodical approach: he works every morning, aims to sleep by 9pm every night, and allows few of the fripperies of fame to get in the way of his work. This recalls the equally disciplined approach of the otherwise wildly different Yukio Mishima, who set aside specific days each year to write specific works. He is also a committed runner, having run more than 30 marathons, and has written a book about that passion.

But what is the secret of his worldwide success? His first translator, Alfred Birnbaum, responsible for the English version of A Wild Sheep Chase, says, “Part of his popularity is that his novels are dislocated from Japan in a globalised nowhere. I tend to think of him as an American writer who happens to write in Japanese – sort of a reverse Kazuo Ishiguro. He is a poor man’s Vonnegut, whose dry offhand style and admixture of absurd SF and routine everyday reality he copied so many years ago – albeit without the political depth.”

But others find something hauntingly Japanese in the very absence of any overt Japanese culture in his work – reflecting the fact that in urban Japan, Western culture’s triumph is now complete: the last gasp of resistance to it from the literary world was Yukio Mishima’s grotesque act of seppuku [hara-kiri] in 1970.

Murakami knows Japanese culture is now beyond rescue – but he also knows that something’s gone missing. “Something has vanished in these 25 years,” he said in 1990, “some kind of idealism. It has vanished, and we became rich.” The result is the aching emptiness shared by all his protagonists. As the critic Celeste Loughman puts it, “Neither materialism itself nor the preference for western popular culture is the problem. The problem is that’s all there is.”

Or is that really a problem, or an insight disguised as a problem? The Buddhist tradition to which Murakami is connected via his father describes emptiness, ‘shunyata’ in Sanskrit, as indistinguishable from form. And that is not a source of woe, because the self, too, is an illusion. These are the insights glimmering through Murakami’s texts which explain why they are not terminally depressing but on the contrary exhilarating – and intensely Japanese.


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19th Aug

by Peter Popham


Amidst the general disarray of a hideous August, here is one more reason to hang your head: Navi Pillay is retiring.

Name not mean much? Well it should. South Africa’s first non-white female judge, after becoming the first South African woman of colour to open her own law office, Pillay has been the world’s most powerful and effective champion of human rights for the past six years.

The phrase ‘human rights’ has no meaning for the pseudo-religious mob crucifying and decapitating their way across northern Syria and Iraq. But the fact that elsewhere even tyrants still feel the need to keep torture, unlawful detention and extra-legal killing under wraps is a measure of the extent to which Pillay and her colleagues have kept up the pressure.  

On her watch the UN’s Human Rights Council has found a new sense of purpose. When the civil war in Sri Lanka was brought to a bloody end in May 2009, Amnesty International and others were quick to highlight the dreadful price Tamil civilians had paid for the peace. But the UNHRC merely saw the upside of the war’s end, “welcoming the conclusion of hostilities” and “the liberation…of  tens of thousands of… citizens… as well as the efforts by the Government to ensure the safety and security of all Sri Lankans and to bring permanent peace to the country.” It merely parroted the Colombo government’s line and gave it a pat on the head.

Enter Navi Pillay. Five years on, after bitter, extended and often personal abuse by the Sri Lankan authorities, usually splashed across the front pages of Colombo’s government-controlled dailies, an exceptionally strong UN investigation into alleged abuses during the conflict is getting under way, in defiance of sustained efforts to derail it.

Up to 40,000 Tamil civilians are believed to have been killed as the army set about exterminating the Tigers’ brutal insurgency. And although the rebels’ two political chiefs tried to surrender, diplomats say that Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, brother of the president, ordered them to be killed – as they duly were. The source for that claim was General Sarath Fonseka, the army chief who was himself vindictively court-martialed and jailed after the war’s end.

Close scrutiny of how the war ended is therefore the last thing that Sri Lanka’s ruling Rajapaksa clan wish. One of the ways they tried to discredit Navi Pillay was by trumpeting her own ethnic origins, as the daughter of a South African Tamil bus driver. She responded by calling claims that she was biased and a tool of the rebels “deeply offensive.” She is on record as calling the Tigers “a murderous organisation”, which it surely was, and the government’s repatriation of 300,000 people displaced by war as “impressive”, which is also true.

Sri Lanka has been only one of Navi Pillay’s many battlefields during her six years in office, during which she has briefed the UN Security Council more times than all her predecessors combined.  But it is perhaps the one that has evoked most strongly her courage and determination.  She has also incurred volcanic fury from both sides in the Gaza wars and been described by the Syrian ambassador to the UN as “a lunatic”. The US has never agreed to her requests to look into what she calls “the many issues that trouble us” in that country, in particular drone strikes and targeted killings, while somehow the Chinese could never find a suitable date for her to pay a visit.

She has, in other words, been a world-class troublemaker. Prince Zeid of Jordan, her successor, will find he has very large boots to fill.


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19th Aug

by Peter Popham 

It was a scoop any western journalist would have been proud of: one can easily imagine it running in the New Yorker under Seymour Hersh’s illustrious byline. Four journalists working for Burma’s Unity Journal claimed to have uncovered a secret chemical weapons factory run by former generals, Chinese technicians and government officials.

But instead of winning an award, the four journalists and their boss are now serving ten years in jail with hard labour.

The law under which they were charged, the Burma State Secrets Act, was a colonial measure, enacted by the British in 1923. Their arrest was ordered directly by President Thein Sein – a man eulogised by the outside world as a courageous reformer, the leader who ushered in a new era of freedom and development.

Was the report a sensational discovery, a bold and brilliant job of reporting, or a mere fabrication? We will probably never know: the government said it was ‘baseless’, but failed to follow up by opening the military facility up to other reporters. Instead, in the time-honoured manner of Burmese generals, the hedgehog rolled into a ball. “If media freedom threatens national security,” the President told the Mirror, a state-run daily, “…we will take effective action under existing laws.”

This is all very dispiriting. And it must be especially so for US Secretary of State John Kerry, heading to Naypyidaw, the Burmese capital, for a regional summit this weekend.

Burma was supposed to have changed beyond recognition since Thein Sein, himself a former general, became president in 2011. But in this process of legalised repression and draconian imprisonment, one recognises precisely the regressive, paranoid hand of the generals who held Burma in thrall for 50 years. 

The ASEAN Regional Forum, as the summit is called, is a feather in President Thein Sein’s cap. It was in order to be considered worthy of the honour of hosting such events, and the kudos of welcoming the likes of Mr Kerry, that he went out on a limb, rolling back press censorship, freeing most political prisoners and enacting other important reforms. They had the desired effect: first the EU then the US lifted the sanctions that had frozen trade relations with the West for decades. Mr Obama welcomed his Burmese counterpart to the Oval Office, and for the first overseas outing of his second term headed straight for the one foreign destination that he could claim as an unblemished success story of his first four years.

Unblemished it is no more. The legalised assault on Unity Journal’s brave journalists was just like the bad old days. Courageous journalism suddenly became very much harder to do.

The west’s sanctions were criticised for harming the Burmese poor and crippling development. But there is no doubt that without that lever, the West would have had a much harder job persuading Burma to change.

Now the sanctions are all gone but the job of reform is only half done. And while the Unity Journal’s staff are paying an outrageous price for doing their jobs, the government is digging in its heels and refusing even to consider further, much-needed reforms.

In the past three months, a coalition of opposition forces has been holding rallies to demand radical reform of the constitution, designed to cut back the dominating role of the military – they hold 25 per cent of parliamentary seats, for example – and remove the arbitrary rule that prevents Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president.

A petition demanding these changes has gathered five million signatures. But Thein Sein and his colleagues have shown no interest whatsoever in even discussing them.

President Obama is said to be considering a second visit later in the year to this lonely outpost of presidential achievement. John Kerry should make it amply clear that the visit is not going to happen unless to President Thein Sein pays serious attention to reforming the constitution.



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19th Aug

by Peter Popham


The epitaph, splashed across the front page of a newspaper consisting (as a protest) of only three printed pages, was appropriately self-pitying: “End of the line. After three months of battles, they’ve managed it. They have killed l’Unita.”

So bit the dust a paper which had served for decades as the loyal house organ of the Italian Communist Party, standing by it stolidly through the inconveniences of Hungary and Czechoslavakia, celebrating the false dawn of Euro-communism, till finally orphaned when the party changed its name.  It survived, like other little-read daily titles, because the Italian state has long been in the habit of subsidising loss-making daily papers, and even Berlusconi’s governments were too squeamish to cut them off completely. L’Unita received more than £5 million per year from the state from 2003 to 2009. Even in 2012 it received more than £2 million in public money. It now has debts of more than £20 million.

If L’Unita is really dead – and last-minute rescues are not unknown even for apparently hopeless Italian dailies – its passing will be seen as the end of an era.

The paper was founded by the towering communist intellectual Antonio Gramsci, whose Prison Notebooks became one of the most inspirational of 20th century texts for the left far beyond Italy. Born at a most unpromising juncture, one year after Mussolini came to power, l’Unita survived throughout the Fascist years as an underground paper, then came into its own with the rebirth of Italy after the war as a republic.

The Italian Communist Party became the biggest, most cultured and most robust in western Europe. For decades pressure from the United States ensured that it was penned on the margins of national politics, barred from playing any role in coalition governments, but given the appalling corruption that took hold within both Christian Democrat and Socialist parties, this was arguably a blessing in disguise.

The heirs of Gramsci used their decades in the political wilderness to conquer other citadels of public life, including much of the mass media, the universities and the judiciary. Where they managed to get voted into power, notably in Tuscany, they offered a textbook demonstration of how polite communists can provide socialist government of a high standard without resorting to anything so rough as a revolution.

This strategy of quietly commandeering the heights of the national culture fitted in with Gramsci’s famous theory of hegemony. As he wrote, “The supremacy of a social group manifests itself in two ways: as ‘dominion’ and as ‘intellectual and moral direction.’ Hegemony is achieved by direction, that is by the capacity to develop efficacious solutions to society’s problems and the political capacity to do so.”

This formula was interpreted by Italian communists to mean that they could transform society softly softly, by stealthily blanketing the country and its conversation with their ideas, practices and people – regardless of the harsh realities of capital and ‘dominion’.

And this is where they fell under the fatal delusion of grandeur that brought them to this sad pass, in which the house organ of communist hegemony is on the point of expiring with a Democratic Party government – direct heirs to the Communist Party – in power.   

Italy’s communists and post-communists were so grand, so self-regarding, so immured in their private citadels of status, that they failed to engage in the fierce battles taking place all around them – in particular the battle that brought Berlusconi to power, but also the surge of subversive anger that led to the populist triumph of Beppe Grillo.  They became merely irrelevant. L’Unita, which never forged an independent identity, went the same way.


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19th Aug

by Peter Popham


I imagine mine was just about the last generation of non-Jews to regard a sojourn on an Israeli kibbutz as a cool way to spend some months of what was not yet termed the gap year.

My kibbutz experience fell in 1971, between the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. The beleaguered condition of Israel was brought home to us very soon after arriving when we saw tracer fire rising into the night sky above the Dead Sea, and thousands of Israeli army conscripts hitch-hiking on the roads. The tiny size of the country was another fact quickly digested, one that brought home its extreme vulnerability to attack. The rights and wrongs of the Israel-Palestine conflict were already hotly debated. Gaza was already a hell hole. The West Bank was already occupied. But the Israeli point of view was more compelling back then.

On my kibbutz, Kibbutz  Malkiyya, which sat right on the border fence with Lebanon in northern Galilee, many of the kibbutzniks were central European refugees, several were Holocaust survivors. This was kibbutz communism neat and strong, with no private property, no wages, children brought up in common, clothes issued from a common store. There was righteousness and courage and the pioneering spirit. One evening Fatah guerrillas came over the fence – luckily for us we were all in the air raid shelter that once a week did service as a cinema, happily watching Barbarella – and a number were killed in the ensuing firefight. That brought the vulnerability of the place home to us. The desperation of those whom the kibbutz guards had killed, who had been crazy enough to come over the fence, was very much a secondary matter. Likewise the plight of the impoverished Palestinian farmers down the road was barely mentioned.  The principal fact was that the Jews had finally got their homeland and they were battling to hang on to it, and they deserved the outside world’s support in that.

I reminisced about these kibbutz experiences with Jewish friends in London the other day. The kibbutzim are not what they once were, most having ‘sold out’, as we would have put it in those days. But then nothing is as it was. And seeing both points of view about the Israel-Palestine conflict is no longer sustainable. Too much innocent blood has been spilled in Gaza, this time around like last time. Benjamin Netanyahu makes it all very much worse with his grotesque language about ‘telegenic Palestinian dead’. The disparity of wealth and strength and resources between the two sides, which has always been extreme, is more appalling than ever. The discussion with Jewish friends begins and ends with pleasant memories of Mt Hermon glimpsed above the clouds and the grapefruit groves in the early morning 40 years ago. Try bringing the conversation into the present and it quickly becomes advisable to talk about something else.

But for our children silence is not an option. They haven’t been to Israel, haven’t seen for themselves how tiny and vulnerable it is, that you can travel from north to south in a few hours. Nor have they listened receptively, as we did once upon a time, to the Zionist foundation story. All they see is an extremely prosperous, nuclear-armed settler state, practicing a form of apartheid as bad as or worse than South Africa’s was, enjoying the unstinting support, financial, diplomatic and otherwise, of the west, and wreaking unbelievable misery on its impoverished aborigines. There is nothing more starkly black and white in the world than the way the Gaza conflict has played out in the media during these hellish weeks.

So now Europe is aflame with protests. Dan Bilefsky of the New York Times reports anti-Israel protests erupting in ‘dozens of cities in Europe, as thousands of pro-Palestine protesters have depicted Israel as the aggressor and sought to isolate it internationally’. And increasingly the taboo we were once keenly aware of – that of confusing ‘Israeli’ with ‘Jewish’ and of letting anti-Israel protests leach into attacks, verbal or otherwise, on Jewish targets – is being trampled on.

Part of this is plain ignorance. A great deal of it is down to the rise of neo-Fascism and neo-Nazism across the continent in recent years. Some, I have no doubt, is down to militant Islamists of the ISIS variety for whom Jews are just as legitimate a target – of extermination, if possible – as Shias, Christians, Sufis…And this time around, social media have done their usual catalysing work. On Twitter, the hashtags #Hitlerwasright and #Hitlerdidnothingwrong have been trending. And as a result there are also the warm-hearted young leftists, climbing aboard this terrible bandwagon. Some of their leaders are bright enough to be embarrassed by it. A leader of Germany’s Left Party, describing a protest by the party’s youth group in Essen, reported, “The Essen Synagogue was a proclaimed target of anti-Israeli participants at this demonstration. Bottles and stones were thrown at pro-Israeli demonstrators. I am deeply ashamed.”

As a result of all this, as well as of the heart-rending images of death in Gaza, the virus of anti-Semitism has burst the bounds of the different ghettoes, religious and political, where it has been deliberately cultivated for years, and risks becoming widely received and casually retailed as it has not been since the discovery of the Nazi death camps. How on earth can this return to the evil past be halted?


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19th Aug

by Peter Popham

Nearly three weeks have passed since Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe used his parliamentary majority to force through a ‘reinterpretation’ of the constitution, giving Japan the right to collective self-defence. The furore he provoked continues to rage.

Japan’s post-war constitution, drafted by western lawyers, imposed radical pacifism on the defeated and abject nation. Article 9 reads, “The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” Japanese nationalists have bridled against those ‘humiliating’ terms ever since, but pacifism became intrinsic to the way the nation recovered. And most Japanese have been comfortable with these arrangements, not only because the American umbrella removed the necessity of worrying about self-defence but also because they proved an effective antidote to the war-mongering horrors of Imperial Japan.

These horrors were as extreme for ordinary Japanese as they were for the countries Japan invaded. The Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere was one of the great imperial scams, a pretence of pan-Asian comradeship masking a conviction of racial superiority and a fanatical belief in the divine prerogatives of the Emperor. To ordinary Japanese they brought the imposition of ferocious conformism, commitment to mass suicide in the event of invasion, and the destruction in allied bombing raids of nearly all the nation’s cities. To south-east Asia they brought subjection to an imperial power that made the departed western ones seem benign by comparison. After the brief joy of liberation, Asian countries quickly learned the ugly truth about Japanese domination and never forgot it.

General MacArthur’s pacifist constitution set Japan’s extraordinary energy free. The consequent industrial miracle not only hauled the Japanese economy out of the dirt but was a key factor in the transformation of living standards throughout the region. The Japanese are not great at blowing their own trumpet but that is the simple truth. The ‘co-prosperity’ idea vaunted in the 1930s brought only war, mass death and misery. Returning to the theme in pacifist vein in the 1950s and ‘60s – as the ‘transistor salesman’ so snobbishly scorned by General de Gaulle (referring to then Japanese prime minister Hayato Ikeda) – they came good second time around. The Japanese are no longer loathed in South-East Asia. In fact their often sensitive and scrupulous way of investment contrasts starkly with the heavy-handed and cynical Chinese approach.

The quickest way to destroy all that good work and upturn the collaborative, non-arrogant persona Japan has cultivated in Asia for the past half century would be for the nationalistic instincts of Mr Abe and his supporters to begin to define the way Japan behaves. That is the danger of the present situation, and that is why Abe has encountered such a broad swathe of hostility inside Japan to the way in which he proposes to transform the nation’s character and behaviour.

It’s the way he has done it that causes the greatest indignation. It looks like sleight of hand. Abe, who had a brief, unremarkable spell as premier some years back, came roaring into power in 2012 with bold and novel ideas about curing the Japanese economy of the stagnation that has beset it ever since the late 1980s. It was a complicated recipe but had the merit of never having been tried before, and it has yet to be pronounced a dead loss. But what it did not involve was turning Japan inside out and re-inventing it as a military power ready and able to challenge China for regional hegemony.

Japanese democracy is far from perfect, but the idea of consensus – either within companies or politics – is deeply ingrained. This is why Japan often seems a slow moving sort of place, despite its once-upon-a-time economic dynamism: everybody has to be fully on board with a strategy before a company, or the country at large, is willing to move, whereupon it does so with impressive dispatch.

This is what Mr Abe has trampled on with his ‘reinterpretation’ of the pacifist constitution. As Japanese commentators point out, it’s the wrong way to go about it. Back in 2007, during his first term as premier, Mr Abe proposed a radical revision of the constitution involving a referendum, to be followed, if successful, by parliamentary approval. Finding that too much of a fag, this time he has opted for a quick and dirty approach, achieving similar goals without building the necessary public support.

In the process he has bitten off more than he can chew. As Peter Tasker wrote in the Financial Times this week, Abe’s attempt to galvanise the economy is still under way. It’s a work in progress. It needs solid political capital to make it happen. The hostility to what is seen as his war-mongering could scupper it and send Japan back into its box.

Why should the world’s third largest economy continue to shelter under an American umbrella? Pacifism is not a new theme in Japan: after expelling the Christian missionaries in the 16th century, Japan closed its doors to the world and also gave up the gun, regarded as a barbarous weapon, restoring the samurai sword to its place of honour.

Sakoku, ‘closed-country’, Japan prospered without guns and modern warfare; open, pacifistic post-war Japan has enjoyed a long golden age, despite its economic problems.  The mass of Japanese have no desire to ring down the curtain on that age without a proper debate.


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19th Aug

by Peter Popham


Let no-one accuse Chris Patten of opting for an easy retirement. Fresh from a peculiarly bruising spell with the BBC, “10 times more difficult than I expected” as he confessed, and from which he was only liberated by the need for a heart bypass operation, he has now been recruited to head an 11-person commission – with experts from France, Germany, Mexico, Singapore and the US – to modernise the Vatican’s handling of the media.

Your lordship, good luck with that.

It has long been the custom among the Vaticanisti, the reporters who cover Catholic Central, to describe it as analogous to the work of Kremlinologists before Glasnost, or Pekingologists today. That’s because you can’t get close to the Vatican, and nothing that happens within it is clear.

As the Vatican correspondent of this newspaper 10 years ago, an ex-Anglican employed by an atheistical rag from beyond the Roman pale, it quickly became clear that my chances of getting on first name terms with the Vatican hierarchy were going to be poor. This was confirmed during my first (and only) meeting with the head of the Vatican press office, when it emerged from our chat that while I rode a scooter, he drove a car. “So we’re natural enemies,” he remarked with a chilly smile.

But even Catholic reporters from Catholic media struggled to unearth anything about the Church which you could dignify as a fact. Why was it so difficult? It’s a vast, opaque, multinational, multilingual bureaucracy, dedicated to the propagation of sweetness and light and brotherly love, and where no voice may be raised against another. But they are also human beings, each with his own more or less secret loyalties and ambitions, loves and hatreds, and with a collective horror of bad publicity. The church’s customary way of dealing with priestly paedophilia was to transfer the offender and keep the whole affair secret. That was symptomatic of the culture of the institution as a whole.

This approach, doing everything humanly possible to avoid bad publicity, is why such a terrible stink arises from the Vatican, and why the general public, especially the Italian public, believes it capable of venality of every description, from mass orgies to money laundering for the Mob. In this way the Church has become locked into a vicious cycle whereby it can only emit the most anaemic and unbelievable sort of happy stories about its doings, while the outside world chooses to believe the exact opposite. The only reporters able to break through the omerta of the Vatican are Catholics from specialist publications (often failed priests) who stuck to the beat year after year after year, slowly gaining the friendship and trust of certain relatively outgoing cardinals and the like. But the unwritten precondition for the friendship was that nothing really hostile ever got out. The organisation remained hermetic.

After the death of Pope John Paul II, accredited Vaticanisti like me received formal invitations to view the late pontiff’s laid-out body and attend the funeral. We were referred to on the invitations as ‘dipendenti’ of the Vatican – dependents; not objective observers but forelock-tugging serfs, expected to show our respects and toe the line, or else. There was no compunction about expelling hacks who broke the unwritten rules.

That was my worm’s eye view of reporting the Vatican: the only people one could hope to interview and quote, outside of the usually anodyne press conferences, were Vaticanisti marginally better-connected than oneself. No wonder we paid more attention to the dissidents, the outsiders, the fallen angels with an axe to grind.

But in addition to the dysfunctional, counter-productive, Kremlin-esque approach to news dissemination within the Vatican, Chris Patten and his colleagues will also have to address the Babel of official voices that issues from the place, each with its own clan loyalties, histories and opaque agendas: the Pope’s daily paper, L’Osservatore Romano, “The Roman Observer”, surely the most dignified broadsheet in the world, printed on very large and luxuriously thick paper; Avvenire, “The Future”, the daily of the Italian Bishops; Vatican Radio, the multilingual radio station based on the fringe of Vatican City which was for a long time a lonely liberal beacon (run by Jesuits, from the same order as Pope Francis) within the church; and the Vatican Information Service, the media arm of the Press Office whose boss it was announced himself as my ‘natural enemy’, and which is responsible for the Vatican’s website ( In addition there are the people responsible for the pope’s tweets, his Facebook page (690,442 likes and counting) and much else besides.

As a glance at any of these media will confirm, the Vatican’s media operation is dedicated to churning out propaganda, like the Pravda of old; yet at the core of the propaganda is a claim of commitment to telling the truth – about the universe and everything else, too.

Telling the truth means facing unpleasant facts. By his determined efforts to reform toxic church institutions like the Vatican Bank, Pope Francis has convinced many that he is more serious than any pope for a long time about obliging the church to face the often ugly truth about itself, and to deal with it.

The next challenge is to persuade the Vatican’s vast media operation that their job requires telling the truth, too, even when it makes people squirm. That’s Chris Patten’s latest task. It should keep him busy for a while.


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19th Aug

by Peter Popham


If this is to be China’s century, what will it look like? President Xi Jinping’s first 18 months in office give us a pretty good idea of the way things may go.  

His recent moves leave little doubt that his plans are extremely ambitious. To achieve them he is deploying personal power greater than anyone since Mao Xedong. And while his language is, as one expert puts it, “increasingly grandiose and even messianic”, his diplomatic touch is both subtle and sharp.

This week saw him on a state visit to Seoul. What he and President Park Geun-hye agreed matters less than the fact that, on his first presidential trip to the Korean peninsula, he touched down in Seoul, not Pyongyang.

In so doing he scored three diplomatic bull’s eyes. He infuriated troublesome ally Pyongyang, which showed its feelings with a flurry of rocket and missile launches, he tweaked America’s tail by buddying up to a vital US ally; and he fired a shot across the bows of Japan by reminding everyone how badly Koreans suffered during their 30-plus years under the boot of Japanese imperialism.

Japan is important to Xi Jinping as he steers China – its new Helmsman – towards global domination. Japan offers a sobering warning of how a rising Asian superpower should NOT go about it.

In its rush through South East Asia in 1942, after Pearl Harbour, Japan made a strong pitch about how it was liberating fellow Asians from the western imperialist yoke, bringing them together in a ‘co-prosperity sphere.’

The rhetoric thinly clad imperial Japan’s belief in its manifest Asian destiny, allied to racist contempt for ‘less developed’ Asians. This was little different from the arrogance and prejudice of the white imperialists they supplanted. And because the Japanese promised so much and behaved so badly, the shock of disgust and disillusionment has never fully worn off.

But how is rising China to avoid exciting similar loathing in the region?

Well, it can’t avoid it. The recent violent protests in Vietnam over Chinese manoeuvres in the South China Sea show that. Fear of China is a permanent factor throughout South-East Asia, and is likely to grow in lockstep with growing Chinese power.

President Xi has done nothing to dampen these fears. On the contrary, his assertion of Chinese rights over 90 per cent of the South China Sea – in flat contravention of the rights of the countries abutting it – is deliberately inflammatory. But it’s also quite different from Japan’s rampaging through the region during World War Two.

Japan was the imperial arriviste, the neophyte, aping the rapacious behaviour of the white man. China, like a once punctured but now repaired balloon, is merely swelling to the size and importance it enjoyed before the Opium Wars. Under Deng Xiaoping, China pursued a foreign policy summed up in the catchphrases “hiding one’s capabilities and biding one’s time” and “never claiming leadership.” Deng’s successors followed the same course. But Xi Jinping promises to be far bolder than that. Firmly in control – unlike his predecessors – of the army as well as the party, he says China is “a lion that has woken up.”

The claim refers to Napoleon’s description of China as a sleeping lion. But Xi was quick to bathe that aggressive image in a tranquil light: on a visit to France in March he said, “Today, the lion has woken up, and it is peaceful, pleasant and civilised.” China’s power, in other words, is inevitable, given its size. Get over it.

With his bold naval moves, his regional diplomacy, the huge gas deal he signed with President Putin, and his studied rejection of President Obama’s proposed “G2” summit with the US, President Xi is putting flesh on the bones of what he called, soon after becoming leader, “the China Dream.” As Steve Tsang, China analyst at Nottingham University, put it, “the China Dream is about requesting and requiring the outside world to pay due respect to China under Xi’s leadership.”

This in turn is about making the Chinese feel good about their country, about its size and importance. But if he also wants the Chinese to feel good about him, and about the party he heads, he knows that is not enough.

That’s why the domestic dimension of his leadership is as important as the foreign.

After 60 years of unchallenged power, it’s not surprising that corruption has infected the Chinese Communist Party root and branch. Many Chinese took Xi’s proclaimed intention to banish it, to do battle, as he put it, “with tigers and flies”, with a cynical shrug. How many hundreds of millions of dollars, after all, have Xi’s own relatives made, by fair means and foul?

Recent action against corrupt senior army officers Xu Guangyu and Gu Junshan, following the prosecution of managers of state businesses and the mining tycoon Zhou Yongkan (who was sentenced to death), show two things: one, that Xi has a wider and stronger power base than his predecessors, and does not hesitate to use it; and two, that he understands how resentful ordinary Chinese are at the spectacle of army officers and party apparachiks growing obscenely rich while their own lives remain hard and their standard of living modest.

Social disorder is China’s greatest bugbear – far more feared than rumblings of displeasure from Tokyo or Washington. Can the return of Chinese hegemony abroad coupled with the enforcement of ethics at home keep the peace? That’s Xi’s gamble.


Your Comments
19th Aug



published in The Independent 27 June 2014

by Peter Popham 


The Economist’s Erasmus blogger thinks Pope Francis is a Bolshevik, following an “ultra-radical line: one that consciously or unconsciously follows Vladimir Lenin in his diagnosis of capitalism and imperialism as the main reason why world war broke out a century ago.”

So the pope is too dumb to know where his ideas come from; he may suppose he’s a Christian but it’s just as likely he’s an unconscious Marxist. But that doesn’t mean he is wrong: he “may not be offering all the right answers or getting the diagnosis exactly right, but he is asking the right questions.”

How wonderful to be patronised by the Economist. I expect the pope will have this article framed and hung up by his bed.

More than a year into his papacy, the 77-year-old Argentine continues to stun and surprise and make everyone who tries to tackle him look clumsy, ridiculous, leaden-footed. As Giacomo Galeazzi of Vatican Insider put it, “It’s like watching Maradona play. There’s that beautiful clarity in his game.”

The papacy is the world’s biggest soapbox: everything about the job, from the blazing white costume to the solitary ostentation of the Popemobile, from the architecture of St Peter’s and its piazza to the orchestration of papal voyages, reinforces the message that a pope has no peers, he’s out on his own. They emerge, mysteriously, from the Conclave, picked by the world’s most elite electoral college, and from being just one drab priest or one empurpled bishop among many, one of a throng, they are up in lights. For ever. Until they die.

For the individual concerned, it must be the most incredible test of faith. For one’s whole career one has professed this whole elaborate canon of beliefs. Did you really mean it? How deep does it go? The proof of faith is how completely one is able to enter that role, to immerse oneself in it, to become one with it.

Francis has sailed through that test. John Paul II, an actor in his youth and a strikingly handsome man until his final illness, was immensely charismatic but there always seemed some effort in the performance, a keen awareness of the impression he was making, a degree of actor’s vanity in the applause. Francis by contrast is the ultimate Method pope, never out of character. Recently in Italy a family with a severely handicapped daughter waited by the roadside where the papal convoy was expected with a sign asking for his blessing.  Without hesitation the pope got the driver of his Ford Focus to stop, bounced out and blessed and kissed all and sundry before returning to the car and resuming the journey.

This pope appeals to millions outside the church and outside Christendom because he has so firmly rejected the flummery of the papacy, has taken brave and determined action to uproot corruption inside the Vatican and touches people’s hearts every day, in the way he touched the head of the poor girl by the side of the road. When the pope speaks of ‘the idolatry of money’ Erasmus may reach for his copy of ‘The State and Revolution’ but the rest of us merely look around, and indeed into our own hearts, and say, too true. When we hear about the cruel fanatics who believe God is pleased with the murder of the people they term ‘Infidels’, we thank God, or whoever, for Francis’s clear eyes and his compassionate heart.

Although just about the most celebrated thing he has said was “who am I to judge” God-fearing gays, there is very little likelihood that Francis will champion the sort of reforms that liberal Catholics have longed to see, from married priests to birth control. Yet still they, and we outside the church, are immensely grateful for the blessings he bestows. It’s a mysterious thing.


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19th Aug


by Peter Popham


Sri Lanka has so much going for it. After five years of peace, the vital tourism industry is recovering strongly. The economy grew at 7.6 per cent in the first quarter of 2014, 1.5 per cent better than the previous year. A fine new network of (almost empty) motorways links the major towns. The Jaffna peninsula, mired in war and terror for decades, feels increasingly normal now, and will soon be connected to Colombo by fast and comfortable Chinese-built trains. The government is produced by properly conducted elections. In a world of failed and failing states, this former British colony seems a beacon of hope

So what exactly happened at Aluthgama last Sunday?

Many of the facts are disputed but there is no doubt that at least three Muslims were killed in this coastal town, and that a mob incited by an extremist group called Bodu Bala Sena, or “Buddhist Power Force”, was involved in the killings. There is equally little doubt that Wataraka Vijitha Thero, a Buddhist monk who condemns the Buddhist extremists , was on Wednesday stripped of his robes, slashed with knives and beaten unconscious near Colombo. 

That Buddhist monks should incite their followers to kill, as is alleged, beggars parody.

A climate of fear has long hung over the Sri Lankan media, but that has not deterred mainstream newspapers from all this week repeating claims that the ruling Rajapaksa clan – and in particular Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the defence chief behind the extermination of the Tamil Tigers’ chief Velupillai Prabhakaran and his followers in 2009  – was somehow complicit in the violence.

This makes no sense that an outsider can understand.

Why should they play such a role? It is argued that it was a political tactic, a way of polarising the Buddhist vote behind the Rajapaksa clan’s party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. But elections are not even scheduled. The government’s  present majority is overwhelming. They have the peace dividend on their side, as well as the steaming economic successes mentioned above. With such achievements in their pocket, why resort to dirty tactics of this sort?

Then there is the location of the violence. While the north, turned upside down by civil strife for decades, is today as placid as a millpond, it was the south-west that went up in flames: the corner of the country into which the foreign tourists pour, location of the fancy hotels and resorts. It was in the heart of this region of palm groves, golden beaches and azure seas that the killings and burnings occurred and that was flooded with troops and put under curfew. 

Tourism is the most sensitive of industries, and the region’s hoteliers are terrified that the coming season will be torpedoed by mass cancellations. Why put such an important success in jeopardy?

Finally, there is the matter of timing. This week parliament voted overwhelmingly to bar from the country the United Nations Human Rights Commission team investigating war crimes allegedly committed by government troops in the final battles of the civil war. The government has long maintained that the head of the Commission, Navi Pillay, a South African of Indian Tamil origin, is biased against them. It further maintains, with some justification, that the large, vocal and politically sophisticated Tamil diaspora, which did so much to galvanise international opinion on the Tamils’ side during the civil war, is doing the same again now. But if the ruling clan were indeed somehow involved in this week’s violence, perhaps the outside world is right to consider them pariahs.

I believe that the definitive ending of the civil war, even with the dreadful loss of civilian life that occurred, was an absolute good, and as a result I have some sympathy with the regime’s stubborn dead bat on this matter. For many years, Sri Lanka seemed to be teetering on the brink of becoming a failed state. For much of that time the outside world was almost insanely indulgent towards Prabhakaran’s organisation, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which in its ruthless fanaticism, not to mention its use of suicide as a weapon of war, was an important precursor of Islamist groups like ISIS. Indeed, the insistence of some western countries on treating the LTTE as morally equivalent to Sri Lanka’s elected government betrayed the same kind of fatal myopia we saw recently in their support for the insurgent groups massing against Assad.

Thanks to the clumsy attempts of Britain, France and Norway to bear down on the Lankan regime in the civil war’s terrible last phase, we lost whatever leverage we may once have enjoyed over them. The Chinese rushed into that vacuum, and have gained the most from the development opportunities that flowed from the war’s end.

The Chinese are proud of their tradition of allowing their clients to behave exactly as they please, in contrast to the moralising west. But they are astute enough to know when those clients are courting unnecessary trouble.  If the south-west were to explode again, the economic consequences would be severe.

In the current low season, it is thousands of Chinese visitors – until recently a rare sight here – who are keeping the hotels’ lights on.  If the Rajapaksa government really is involved in instigating fear and loathing between the communities of the south, the Chinese should find a way of pointing out that their citizens are unlikely to keep on coming if the resort towns again go up in flames.    


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19th Aug

published in the Independent on Sunday’s New Review, 15 June 2014


by Peter Popham


As anyone who has worked there knows, Kabul is a tough place, redeemed by the charm of the people and the abundance of cheap taxis. But Trevor Paglen had trouble finding a taxi driver willing and able to take him where he wanted to go: north-east out of the city along an old back road reputed to be so dangerous – even by Afghan standards – that it had seen no regular traffic for more than 30 years.

Finally he succeeded in digging out an old man who had been driving a cab since before the Soviet invasion. “We started driving and we left the city behind and we’re out in the sticks,” he recalled, “and we end up in a traffic jam – not cars but goats. And we wait for the goats to go by and we see the shepherd, this very old man, traditional Afghan clothes, big beard, exactly what you’d picture in your head. But he’s wearing a baseball hat.

“The shepherd finally turns to look at us in the car – and on that baseball cap are the letters KBR. It stands for Kellogg Brown and Root – a company that was a subsidiary of Halliburton which Dick Cheney was on the board of. The local goat herd is wearing a Dick Cheney baseball cap!” It was the final clue he needed that this particular bad road was the right road. There in the distance, behind a high cream wall and coiled razor wire, was what Paglen was looking for: the nondescript structures of what he says he is “99.999 per cent sure” is the place they call the Salt Pit: a never-before-identified-or-photographed secret CIA prison.

Trevor Paglen is an artist of a very particular kind. His principal tool is the camera, and most of his works are photographs, but the reason they are considered to be art – the reason, for example, this bland photo, three feet wide by two feet high, showing the outer wall and the interior roof outline of the Salt Pit, with a dun-coloured Afghan hill behind it, sells for $20,000 – is because of the arduous, painstaking, sometimes dangerous path that culminated in pressing the shutter; and because it reveals something that the most powerful state in history has done everything in its power to keep secret.

Since he was a post-graduate geography student at UCLA ten years ago, Paglen, who was born in 1974, has dedicated himself to a very 21st century challenge: seeing and recording what our political masters do everything in their power to render secret and invisible.

Above our heads more than 200 secret American surveillance satellites constantly orbit the earth: with the help of fanatical amateur astronomers who track their courses, Paglen has photographed them. A secret air force base deep in the desert outside Las Vegas is the control centre for the US’s huge fleet of drones: Paglen has photographed these tiny dots hurtling through the Nevada skies. To carry out the extraordinary rendition programme which was one of President George W. Bush’s answers to the 9/11 attacks, seizing suspects from the streets and spiriting them off to countries relaxed about torture, the CIA created numerous front companies: grinding through flight records and using the methods of a private detective, Paglen identified them, visiting and covertly photographing their offices and managers. The men and women who carried out the rendition programme were equipped with fake identities: Paglen has made a collection of these people’s unconvincing and fluctuating signatures, “people,” as he puts it, “who don’t exist because they’re in the business of disappearing other people.”

It sounds like the work-in-progress of an extraordinarily determined investigative journalist. But while the dogged tracking of a Seymour Hersh will culminate in a 5,000-word piece for the New Yorker, blowing the lid off, say, alleged American plans to seize control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons or the origin of the sarin used in the Syrian civil war, Trevor Paglen is not interested in such narratives. Not that he is disinterested: he describes the extraordinary rendition programme, for example, as “incredibly evil”, and has worked closely with human rights activists. But rather than a charge sheet of the guilty men or calls for government action or popular insurrection, he presents us with a succession of enigmatic images: boring suburban offices, middle-aged men getting into American cars, shimmering lines in the sky, aircraft waiting to take off.

 The new project that brings him to Britain is in line with this, though it is also prettier than most of his work. A photograph more than 60 meters wide which will stretch the entire length of the platform of Gloucester Road underground station – home of the Art on the Underground programme – it shows an idyllic expanse of rolling north York moors. And there, nestling among the folds of the hills are the massed giant golfballs of the vast RAF Flyingdales surveillance station, jointly operated with the US.

Given the existence of bitter and determined enemies, what’s wrong with having secret facilities to keep a close eye on them?

“I think mass surveillance is a bad idea because a surveillance society is one in which people understand that they are constantly monitored,” Paglen says, “and when people understand that they are constantly monitored they are more conformist, they are less willing to take up controversial positions, and that kind of mass conformity is incompatible with democracy.

“The second reason is that mass surveillance creates a dramatic power imbalance between citizens and government. In a democracy the citizens are supposed to have all the power and the government is supposed to be the means by which the citizens exercise that power. But when you have a surveillance state, the state has all the power and citizens have very little. In a democratic society you should have a state with maximum transparency and maximum civil liberties for citizens. But in a surveillance state the exact opposite is true.”

Paglen’s project is political but it is also philosophical: he is trying to show us the world, not as the media present it but as it is. And that is a world in which official secrecy has never been so well-entrenched, ubiquitous, or extravagantly well-funded.

“I’m trying to push perception as far as I can,” he says, “so we can create a vantage point to look back at ourselves with very different kinds of eyes – fresh eyes, if you will.” He is trying to show us, he says, “the historical moment that we are living in.”

The secret world, the shadow of the world as we know it, has of course been with us for as long as human beings have organised themselves in societies. But the attacks on America, cruelly exposing the failings and limitations of the intelligence agencies, produced a bonanza of funding never before seen: the “black budget” of the US Defence Department, for example, has more than tripled since George W. Bush became president, and according to information released by Edward Snowden was $52 billion in 2012. The secret world’s shadow is today far bigger and blacker than ever before – and by definition, we the public, whether in the US or the rest of the world, know next to nothing about it.

“Secrecy,” Paglen says, “is a way of doing things, of trying to organise human activities, and it has political, economic, legal, cultural aspects. It is a way of trying to do things whose goal is invisibility, silence, obscurity.”

So how do we go about trying to see this secret world which, as he says “operates according to a very different logic from a democratic state”? One analogy Paglen uses is with the attempts of scientists to see the dark matter of which most of the universe is composed. By definition it cannot be seen, but its existence can be inferred by the influence it exerts on the visible universe: the way, for example, that in 2012 the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way bent the progress of a huge passing gas cloud out of shape before finally swallowing it.

But Paglen’s task is actually easier than that. “(The secret state) is never completely efficient,” he points out, “because stuff in the world tends to reflect light: it’s visible. You can’t build a secret aircraft in an invisible factory with ghost workers. What I’m trying to do is to get a glimpse into the secret state that surrounds us all the time but that we have not trained ourselves to see very well.” He says he has never been arrested doing his work, and is extremely careful not to break any laws, “though of course I am stopped fairly regularly by police and military personnel. I’m calm, tell them what I’m doing, and we work it out.” 

Paglen’s fascination with this world goes back to his childhood: his father was an air force ophthalmologist and he travelled the world with his family, visiting bases that were often involved in secret missions. As a teenager, he says, “I’d go out drinking with Special Forces guys…they could never say where they were coming from or what they were doing.” Then while he was working on his geography PhD at Berkeley – back in the days before Google Earth – he was studying US prisons. “I wanted to see where these prisons were, what was around them, why they were in the places they were…When I was going through these archives, I would notice places where the images had been taken out. I started to realise they were not there because some of these military installations are not supposed to be out there. I decided it was incredible to have a blank spot on the map in this information age…I wanted to fill them in and it took off from there. Initially I went into UFO and conspiracy theories, but I quickly realised that there was something much more at stake here.

“The War on Terror was getting started and I very early on got the sense that these blank spots on the map were somehow paradigmatic of something that was happening politically.” As the World Trade Center smouldered, Vice-President Dick Cheney announced that the nation would have to engage its “dark side” to find the culprits. “We’ve got to spend time in the shadows,” he said. “It’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.” Paglen had  his cue.

In his quest to unveil a world committed to staying hidden, his most bizarre discovery was that America’s secret soldiers and air men wear distinctive uniform patches like regular, above-ground servicemen, and in many cases the patches give broad hints about their work. In his tireless, methodical fashion, he tracked them down. Later he was amused to discover that “Symbology”, the book in which he collected the images, had become a best-seller among the Special Forces themselves. “Apparently all of them have that book in their office now,” he laughed.

In contrast to the dreary, deadpan world of the secret bases and prisons, here the secret forces let rip. The images on the patches include a wizard shooting lightning bolts from his staff, dragons dropping bombs, and skunks firing laser beams. One of the more sinister has the Latin tag “Oderint Dum Metuant”: “Let them hate as long as they fear.”

There is a frightening jauntiness about the patches, expressing the esprit de corps of a world sure of its hold on the favours of our political masters, confident that those who pick up the huge tab will never know anything about it; equally sure, one might say, that they are doing their patriotic duty.

Something of the same smugness pervades the huge photograph about to be exhibited at Gloucester Road tube station. “It’s a very traditional British landscape image,” Paglen says of it. “I looked at a lot of Constable while I was thinking of how to put the image together. What you have is a classical British landscape, rolling hills and little stone houses…The surveillance base is just another element in the landscape.”




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19th Aug

by Peter Popham


On the morning of 23 December 1915, in the aftermath of another appalling and pointless battle on the Italian front, a tall, shambling, sleepy-eyed soldier took a pencil and scrawled these lines:

One whole night/thrown down nearby/a slaughtered/comrade his mouth/rigid and upturned/to the full moon/his swelling hands/delving into/my silence/I wrote/letters full of love

Never have I held/so hard to life

The man was Giuseppe Ungaretti, and with his blazing grin, his impulsiveness and his habit of flying noisily off the handle, he was to the foreign eye as Italian as his name suggests, as Italian as mozzarella cheese. But in 1915 Italy was a new and artificial nation: the so-called “geographical expression”, composed of half a dozen kingdoms, duchies and Austro-Hungarian provinces, had been bolted forcibly into a unitary state barely 60 years before. And like many other subjects of the new Kingdom of Italy, Ungaretti had no idea who or what he was.

Born in Egypt of migrant parents from Tuscany, moving to Paris for the life of art, he had drifted to Turin to train as a schoolteacher, where he was quickly caught up in the febrile campaign for Italy – a bystander as its Triple Alliance partners, Austria and Germany, dived into the pan-European war – to join the fighting on the other side.

For the pro-war Italians, this was a fight for territory but it was also seen as a golden opportunity to forge the elusive Italian national identity: “In the furnace of war,” Mark Thompson writes in his history of the Italian front, The White War, “Italy’s provincial differences would blend and harden into a national alloy.” And it is that problem of identity that explains why this dreamy and artistically-inclined 27-year-old enlisted as a private and in December 1915 was entrained with the Brescia Brigade of the 19th Infantry and dispatched to the Isonzo River in Italy’s far north-east. “I’m a lost soul,” he confessed to a friend. “Which people do I belong to? Where am I from? I have no place of my own in this world, no neighbours…I talk oddly, I’m a stranger. Everywhere. Am I going to destroy myself in the blaze of my desolation? And what if war ordains me an Italian?”

In a war of contending futilities, Italy’s role was arguably the most futile of the lot. She could have remained neutral and at peace throughout the conflict. She entered it with no casus belli of any sort, as a pure aggressor, betraying her allies in the process, and though the British and French were glad to have a new partner to keep the Austrians busy in the south, privately their contempt knew no bounds. For British prime minister Herbert Asquith, Italy was “greedy and slippery,” “that most voracious, slippery and perfidious Power.” For Winston Churchill she was simply “the harlot of Europe.” But for Private Ungaretti and his comrades, intoxicated by the poetic jingo rhetoric of Gabriele d’Annunzio and fired with the ambition of “redeeming” the Austrian lands with Italian populations, there were no doubts.

They found themselves fighting on a front as wretched, thankless and static as Flanders, and in some respects even worse. Their task was to cross the Isonzo river which meanders southwards to the Adriatic, a few miles into Austrian territory, then storm the Carso, the treeless limestone plateau beyond the river at the top of which were the heavily armed Austrian defenders, with all the advantages of height and preparation. “The Carso,” Thompson writes, “might have been designed as the last place on earth for trench warfare.” Digging trenches was impossible without drills, so the soldiers built low walls of loose stones. Shellfire shattered the stone into shrapnel which killed and maimed for hundreds of yards. “Imagine the flat or gently rolling horizon of Flanders,” Thompson writes, “tilting at 30 or 40 degrees, made of grey limestone that turns blinding white in summer.”

This was the brutal and unforgiving front at which Private Ungaretti spent the war. And it was here that he became a poet – one of Italy’s most revered poets of the 20th century. The D’Annunzio echo, the nationalistic dreams that impelled him to enlist, are nowhere to be found in the verse he wrote at the front. In the blinding light of what came to be called ‘the white war’, those lies were vaporised. Ungaretti looked back at them ruefully:


man of sorrows

an illusion’s enough

to make you brave

But if there is no jingo nonsense in his work, neither is there the disgust with war found in British poems of the war which, in the words of the critic Jon Stallworthy, “move us…to pity and terror; also…to a measure of fury.” Instead, in lines of telegraphic immediacy, shorn of all the ornate locutions of earlier Italian poetry, there is a shocked, often ecstatic discovery of himself, his fellow men on both sides, and the vastness and mystery of the universe.

These are not so much war poems as a soldier’s poems, in which the war’s intensity acts like a rocket under his creative powers. In the process Ungaretti became a kind of secular mystic. Here, amidst of squalor and death, he discovered his essential nature. “Liberty is in us,” he wrote to a friend. “I’ve lain down on muddy stones where mice the size of cats run over me as if I’m one of them, while the lice, charming creatures, tenacious as Germans, chewed on us contentedly. But my imagination had nothing to feed on except contemplation of itself, rejoicing that I’m still myself.”

He later said of his war poetry, “There is no trace [in it] of hatred for the enemy or anyone else. There’s an awareness of the human condition, men’s brotherhood in suffering, the extreme precariousness of their situation.” What he called “the almost savage exaltation” in these poems was powered by “the vital impulse and the appetite to live” in poetry which “burst like starlight from violence.” And that starlight, blazing across a century, is still with us.

The war on the Isonzo front dragged on and on – there were 12 battles in all – but the river which tormented the Italian high command inspired one of Ungaretti’s most famous poems, The Rivers, in which the Isonzo brings him back to life, reviving memories of the other rivers which had succoured him: the Serchio in Tuscany, where his parents originated, the Nile near which he was born, the Seine, where he discovered himself as an artist:

 This morning I lay back/in an urn of water,/and like a relic/took my rest

 The Isonzo’s flow/smoothed me/ like a stone of its own…

 …here I best/recognise myself:/a yielding fibre/of the universe

In the stuttered lines of Brothers, Ungaretti captured the terror and comradeship of the trenches:

What’s your regiment/brothers?

Word trembling/in the night

Leaf barely born

In the tortured air/involuntary revolt/of man facing his own frailty/


But once you got above the smoke, the air cleared and you could see the whole world. Standing in a quiet village, gazing at the vast panorama of mountains, he wrote the seven syllables of ‘Morning’. Japanese in its compression, it is Italy’s best-known modern poem:


I flood myself with the light of the immense



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19th Aug

by Peter Popham


William Klein is starting all over again. The photographer who revolutionised our way of looking at the city 60 years ago with his iconoclastic photo books on New York, his home town, Rome, Moscow and Tokyo, is now 86 and mostly stuck in a wheelchair. But that didn’t stop him jumping at Sony Corporation’s offer to pick up their latest digital camera and start on a new series of city books. The first, on Brooklyn, is on show at London’s Somerset House until 18 May.

“I wanted to do a city,” he told The Independent on Sunday at the show’s launch. “Where would you go? I was toying with the idea of Las Vegas or Hollywood or some other place…I was intrigued by the idea that Brooklyn was becoming a place that everybody in New York between the ages of 20 and 40 wanted to live in for many reasons.

“I grew up in Manhattan, but curiously enough every time I asked a girl where she was from she said Brooklyn! Which meant long subway rides and long walks and also a feeling of superiority because Manhattan was the Big Apple and everything that was happening was in Manhattan. All the time I was growing up, Brooklyn was like the sticks, you looked down on it, it was provincial and nothing was really coming out of it. But some things did come out of Brooklyn: Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Mike Tyson, Murder Incorporated…”

Klein shot the pictures in his first book, Life is Good and Good for You in New York, in 1955. The book was published in Paris, his adoptive home, and it would be 40 years before it appeared in the US. Americans criticised his work for making the city look like a slum. He replied, New York is a slum. But what was really indigestible was his totally new way of shooting.

An aspiring abstract painter and sculptor who studied at the Sorbonne on the GI Bill after demobilisation from the US army after World War Two, he took up the camera knowing little and caring less about how it worked. His black and white pictures of the city’s street life were grainy, strongly contrasted, often blurred, and captured the raucous, jazzy, freeform quality of post-war city life like no-one else’s. In one of them, a ferociously scowling young boy thrusts his toy gun at the lens. A bevy of seriously overweight young women pose in a public bath. Blurred black kids play in a city wasteland. At the time his work appeared flawed, incompetent, slap-dash. But photography would never be the same again.    

So what induced him to go back over the same ground, 60 years on?

“Sony offered me a contract to play around with their material and we worked out a contract where I would do five projects over the next five years. Each city would be something that I would be responsible for, it would be my idea – what’s to complain about?”

It’s not the first time he has worked with a digital camera. He is ambivalent about the experience.

“I found it very easy, extraordinary. The digital camera takes photographs in practically no light: it will dig out the least bit of light available.” An example is the book’s opening spread, which captures the black hulk of Brooklyn Bridge at dawn, a pale sun glinting through the clouds. “I was amazed to see the results of photographs that I wouldn’t take ordinarily. That’s the advantage of digital photography

“But it’s true that it’s too easy compared to film. I regulate the camera on automatic, and the camera just works out all the problems. The disadvantage is it gives you an image without accidents. When you use film you use accidents, but there aren’t any accidents with digital photography. I don’t mind that it’s easy. But I do mind that there is a sort of consensus with the camera and the subject and the light and you look at something and you photograph it and you get what you see.”

Despite his age and the wheelchair, Klein went at Brooklyn with the same freewheeling approach as in his early years. It’s all based on random encounters and following where they lead. Interviewing him is strange because he keeps turning the encounter on its head and asking me the questions: what was I doing in Tokyo when I first discovered his work, have I done much photography, what sports do I like, what’s interesting about cricket? It’s curious to be sitting at the opening of a William Klein show with the great man himself, winner of the Royal Photographic Society’s Centenary Medal in 1999, and answering questions about cricket. But this must be the way he gets his best shots.

In Brooklyn, he writes in the new book, “My assistant and I were watching a mediocre minor league [baseball] game…A man came over to join us. He was a Czech Rabin” – an ultra-orthodox Jew – “a baseball and photography fan…He asked us whether we wanted to see a Hasidic prayer and study session. It was only a block away. We accepted.” The end result is a series showing men in large black hats embracing, laughing, holding hands, dancing, all shot from wheelchair height. Rarely has that closed sect admitted an outside observer so artlessly.  

Laconic, easy-going, in his early years Klein’s unique eye brought him the admiration of Orson Welles and Louis Malle and collaborations with Federico Fellini in Rome and Vogue’s legendary art director Alexander Liberman, with whom he enjoyed a long, improbable run as a fashion photographer.  No-one overawes Klein: of the legendary Vogue editor Anna Wintour he says, “She’s kind of a bitch.” Recently he has shot the right-wing French politician Marine Le Pen – “She’s a blonde, not bad looking” – and got into hot water with approving remarks about the outrageous French comedian Dieudonne [acute accent on final ‘e’.] 

The contract with Sony will keep him in work until he’s 91. What other cities does he fancy shooting. “Kiev!” he suggests. “The Maidan! That champion boxer Klitschko…”




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19th Aug

by Peter Popham

It’s the tragedy of Eastern Europe in a single life – with a redemptive coda thrown in.

Csanad Szegedi is the towering 31-year-old Hungarian whose career as an extremist politician, MEP and deputy leader of the notoriously anti-Semitic Jobbik party, was brought to a crashing halt when it emerged that he was Jewish.

A history graduate from a university in Budapest, Szegedi was politicised as a student when the communists returned to government only ten years after being blown away by the anti-communist tide. Searching for something to believe in, an anchor for his identity, he was a founding member of the radical nationalist party which took a hard line against gypsies and Jews.

Jobbik specialises in garish, violent rhetoric and simple solutions to the nation’s knotty problems. Szegedi was approvingly seen as the “fist” of a party which dreamed of returning to the nationalistic rule of Miklos Horthy who in 1944 actively helped the occupying Nazis send 400,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in a mere eight weeks.  Although Jews were a minuscule minority in post-war Hungary – many of them in hiding following a fresh outburst of public anti-Semitism in 1956 – the community was one of Jobbik’s favourite targets, blamed in Nazi style, for plundering the country and allying with the gypsies to turn “pure” Hungarians into a minority. In a typical outburst, the young firebrand wrote of his critics, “We do not care about this vomit-smelling spluttering…We only care about the fate of our nation and motherland. If, because of this, they cry shame upon us, then they should to it. While they can.” He was a founder of the Hungarian Guard, the black-clad militia that intimidated Roma communities around the country, later banned.

But the Szegedi family nursed a secret about which the young politician knew nothing, though as a child he was given the occasional hint. At home, he later wrote, he was taught “that being Jewish was somehow bad” – yet once when he told an anti-Jewish joke he had learned at school, his mother slapped him. But if he was ever puzzled about why his grandmother kept her arms covered even on the hottest days, he was never curious enough to find out.

Szegedi’s undoing was his precocious political success. He excited envy among some of his rightist comrades, including an acquaintance called Zoltan Ambrus, who had served time in prison for possession of a pistol and explosives. Documents found their way into Ambrus’s hands which showed that Szegedi’s origins were Jewish. He confronted Szegedi, by now one of Jobbik’s three MEPs, who tried to bribe him into silence. Instead Ambrus spilled the beans to the party. The consensus was that he should be thrown out. One colleague said, “The best way would be to shoot you in the head right now.”

Consternation: the young rightist leader was Jewish – founder of a party whose members denied the Holocaust and regarded the extermination camps as a Jewish invention. 

Szegedi learnd that his grandmother, maiden name Magdolna Klein, had been herded into a cattle car in 1944 and sent to Auschwitz where the first German she met was the notorious Dr Josef Mengele – who inadvertently saved her life by sending the healthy 25-year-old to join those assigned work duties, instead of directly to the gas chambers. The following year she was liberated by the Red Army, returned to Hungary and married another Auschwitz survivor, whose wife and two children had been killed.

They resumed the normal life of Hungarian Jews, visiting the synagogue every Friday. But during the uprising against Communist rule in 1956, anti-Semitism burst out again when the Jews were identified with the communist oppressors. The ancient prejudice was back, and Magdolna and her family chose to disappear into the fabric of mainstream Hungarian society, suppressing all signs of difference. Magdolna made sure the Auschwitz prison number tattooed on her wrist was always well covered.

Expelled from the party that had been his life, Szegedi turned to an orthodox Lubavitch rabbi for help. Initially suspicious, Rabbi Koves agreed to meet him. “I met a man who was in freefall,” he said. “He had lost all his friends and all his certainties.” Overcoming the doubts of the Jewish community, the rabbi encouraged Szegedi to reinvent himself as what he was. With the same taste for taking things to extremes that he had shown in his earlier incarnation, he went the whole way, adopting the name Dovid, wearing a kippah and growing a straggly beard, learning Hebrew, visiting Israel, having himself circumcised. He obtained thousands of copies of his book, “I believe in Hungary’s Resurrection,” dumped them in an oil drum and set them on fire.

Eastern Europe’s roller-coaster ride over the past century has left millions with a gaping hole where their identities disappeared. Having been subjects of a multinational empire, citizens of a nation state, victims-cum-collaborators of the Nazis, and Stalin’s foster children, now they are the increasingly puzzled members of a European Union that has failed to live up to its billing.

Jobbik, Szegedi sees now, offered an illusory exit from the problem – into the euphoria of hatred. “The political intention of Jobbi’s leadership is to generate tensions in society,” the reborn Dovid Szegedi says now. “It does not make much sense to debate with them, but the majority of Jobbik’s one million voters are not anti-Semitic or racist – they are simply people in despair.”


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19th Aug


by Peter Popham




The release of Bowe Bergdahl, the only US soldier known to be held by the Taliban, in exchange for senior Taliban figures held at Guantanamo Bay, was originally seen by Washington as a ‘confidence-building measure’, a step towards a comprehensive peace deal which would bring Afghanistan’s elected government and the Taliban cosily together.


But the talks never got started, and this week’s simple prisoner swap reflects the drastically diminishing leverage of the US. As the Taliban like to say, “The US has the watch but we have the time.” Washington apparently saw the Taliban’s secret offer – made last September after 18 months of silence – could be their last opportunity to rescue Bergdahl before the pull-out.


It was in March 2012 that the Taliban slammed the door on the wider deal America dreamed of, in which peace talks would culminate in the Taliban at least implicitly recognising the legitimacy of the Karzai government. America would then have been able to say farewell to Afghanistan in the register of the British leaving the partitioned subcontinent in 1947: with a constitutionally decent deal in place, absolved in advance of blame for the mayhem that would likely follow.


But with the American clock ticking, the Taliban refused to play ball. The prospects of any such deal have been dead now for more than two years.


Instead Afghanistan’s likely future is shaping up very much like its awful recent past. For all President Karzai’s anti-American rhetoric, his regime is very much the creation of the occupying army. How long can it survive once the US armed presence shrinks from 38,000 to 9,800 to nothing in the next two years? Not only the government but the whole expensive apparatus created by the west over the past 12 years risks falling apart in short order.


The worst future for Afghanistan would be a return to the civil wars that erupted after the departure of the Soviets, when rival warlords generously funded by outsiders blew the country to pieces – wars that only ended with the triumph of the Pakistan-backed Taliban.


America believed it had routed the Taliban within a few weeks of the start of the 2001 invasion, but seasoned Afghan observers warned that they mad merely melted away, and together they are a more formidable force than ever. They have threatened to disrupt the run-off presidential election later this month, so expect more brutal news from the country shortly.


In the scale of awfulness, how would a Taliban return to power measure up?


Many would see it as an unmitigated disaster. A return to power by Mullah Omar and his comrades, the people who threw down the welcome mat to Osama bin Laden, would reduce the US’s post 9/11 strategy to a sick joke. For the westerners who have played a part in getting the nation’s girls out of burqas and into school, it would be immensely depressing.


But it would not necessarily be the very worst thing that could befall Afghanistan.


In the mid-1990s the Taliban’s rule was brutal and reductive to the point of parody. The banning of music, kite-flying and smooth chins, the public executions and amputations in the old football ground, the pervasive joylessness – these are the attributes of Taliban rule that stick in the memory.


Yet the Taliban brought Afghanistan closer to peace than at any time before or since. The only period during which it was safe to travel from Kabul to the Khyber Pass, for example, was under Taliban rule.


It will be objected, the Taliban were allies of al-Qaeda. But an army of national liberation – however rude its religious ideas – is different from an international terrorist organisation. The Taliban were never involved in committing terrorist acts outside their country. Only the traditional obligations of Pushtun hospitality masked their native antipathy towards Arabs, including Osama’s gang, seen as arrogant intruders.


If the Taliban succeed in overthrowing the next Afghan government in the next five years – and there is little doubt that they will try – the government they will impose will very probably be joyless, incompetent, oppressive and dogmatically Islamic. It is unlikely to hesitate before abolishing the progressive reforms of the past dozen years. As in the past, their rule will be anathema to the west.


The west will therefore starve it of funds and democratic recognition and treat is as a diplomatic outcast, just as it treated the last Taliban government.


And that would be a pity. What Afghanistan needs more than anything else – even more than an extension of women’s rights – is peace, a government which is not an army of plausible looters and freebooters, which can stand on its own two feet without massive western support and which can persuade the mass of Afghans that it is legitimate.


Are the Taliban capable of such a feat? Have their cultural attitudes evolved over the years of resistance? What of the fabled ‘moderate Taliban’ on whom so many hopes have been placed over the years? In their rustic simplicity, are they still as honest as they were reputed to be? Were they ever?


Whatever the answers to those questions, their ambition remains clear: to rid their country of meddling foreigners and bring peace and unity; to put in place the rudiments of a non-failed state. Such a project should command outside support: it’s what Afghanistan needs more than anything. But from the meddling world, it is very unlikely to get it.




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19th Aug

by Peter Popham


The cold-blooded murder by her family – a female cousin, it is reported, wielded the first brick – of pregnant, 25-year-old Farzana Iqbal, who had made the elementary mistake of marrying a man she was in love with, could not have happened in a more picturesque corner of Pakistan.

Lahore is the queen of the sub-continent’s cities, the capital of the Punjab for nearly 1,000 years and still today the cultural and intellectual heart of the nation. It is a city where every corner of the old centre breathes history, where the successive efforts of Mughal, Sikh and British rulers combined to create a noble metropolis of gardens, schools, palaces and cricket grounds, all linked by the broad boulevard everyone still calls the Mall, though its name on the map is Shahrah-e-Quaid-e-Azam. Close to the heart of it is Lahore High Court, a confection of pointed arches and Islamic minarets in the Mughal-Gothic style, fronting palm trees, a fountain, a spreading lawn. And it was at the entrance to this court, in the cultured, civilised heart of this grand city, that the murder occurred. Police stood by and watched without moving a muscle.

All that culture and civilisation certainly failed Farzana Iqbal. The crude, incomprehensible imperatives of village and tribal law had their way with her before the lawyers in their shabby black jackets could step in. The remit of this grandiose court stopped at its steps.

The ghastly fact is that this murder was nothing out of the ordinary. As The Independent reported on Wednesday, around 1,000 Pakistani women are butchered every year on similar pretexts: because they have, in the grotesque jargon, besmirched their family honour by acting as if they had control of their lives, as if they lived in the modern world. But if we overlooked the previous 999 victims, it is right and proper that we should notice Farzana’s.  The fact that she could be killed with impunity on this spot, sacred to traditions of law and process going back a millennium, says something very important and uncomfortable about Pakistan.

Pakistan has a lively and courageous culture of human rights, embodied in organisations like the Human Rights Commission and the Aurat Foundation, in women like Asma Jahangir and the late Rashid Rehman, gunned down last month in his office for taking on the case of a man accused of blasphemy.

But this culture, like the court system and the body of civil law and the Lahore High Court itself, is the product of an intellectual legacy confined to a tiny privileged minority. That English-speaking, secular, liberal-minded minority was once the power in this land; Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was himself an immaculate representative of it, with his dazzling suits, his chiselled English, his whisky habit. But this minority’s right to hold sway over the 180 million-strong population of Pakistan, consisting overwhelmingly of people with whom they have nothing in common apart from their citizenship, is today being contested as never before.

Yesterday the man they call the Lion of the Punjab, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, called Farzana’s killing “brutal” and “totally unacceptable” and demanded to know why police took no action to stop the murder. “I am directing the chief minister [of the Punjab] to take immediate action and a report must be submitted by this evening to my office,” he said.       

The imperious tone of his statement may be no more than a belated and clumsy attempt to deflect the outrage which Farzana’s killing has excited around the world: after all, two days passed before any official considered it worthy of comment. The killing and the twisted logic used to justify it belong to the world of the illiterate village and the tribal Jirga, a world the likes of Nawaz Sharif only encounters during election campaigns. Yet it is not unreasonable to think that the premier’s reaction was sincere. I myself have seen him togged out in his whites, very ineptly playing cricket only a few hundred yards from Lahore High Court. Farzana’s murder was committed in a place where it might reasonably be assumed that the state’s writ still runs.

But the Pakistani state is no longer one thing: it is divided against itself. On the one hand you have the likes of Nawaz, the steel millionaire, who invited local media into his garishly luxurious villa to celebrate his election victory last year, a moderately modern, secular figure and a good example of the padded, protected ‘creamy layer’ that still runs the show. On the other hand you have phenomena like the Taliban, brought into being by the infinitely creative spooks of ISI to project Pakistani power into the heart of Afghanistan but which has for more than a decade been a dagger turned in on Pakistan itself.

The old order that brought Pakistan into existence, long under siege, is dying a slow and painful death: events like the bombing of Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel and the siege of Red Mosque in the same city have punctuated its fall. This killing on the threshold of Lahore High Court is another grim marker. But what threatens to replace the elite is not a new order but rampant chaos, acting with atavistic fury according to its own lights. It is happening in a society which is notionally Muslim, but Islamic authority seems no more capable of bringing order to this ramshackle revolution than its secular counterparts.


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