Archive for March, 2011


When the Libyan foreign minister, Moussa Koussa, called a ceasefire last Friday, only hours after the UN Security Council voted in favour of establishing a no-fly zone in Libya, it seemed for a brief moment as though Gaddafi’s campaign against his own people had been brought to a halt. This unforeseen move by the Libyan government caused much speculation as to whether this was merely a time-buying bluff, a genuine fear of imminent attack, or evidence of internal divisions in the regime. Within hours it became clear that far from observing the ceasefire, Gaddafi’s forces were not merely continuing their assault on the rebels holed up in the western city of Misurata, but were also making a concerted advance on Benghazi. Thus, late Saturday afternoon, on the back of swift preparations, the no-fly zone entered its operational phase and operation Odyssey Dawn, the largest military intervention in the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq almost exactly eight years ago, was underway. Rarely has there been such a swift move from resolution to action.

Resolution #1973 gives wide scope for action against Gaddafi’s forces. After a strongly condemnatory preamble, paragraph 4, concerning the protection of civilians, “Authorizes Member States… to take all necessary measures (my italics) … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack…while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” With its expressed desire to protect civilians “in places exposed to shelling”, the resolution, in effect, has authorised attacks not merely against Gaddafi’s air force and air defences, but also against ground forces. Malcolm Shaw, professor of international law at the University of Leicester, said the resolution gave “the broadest powers for intervention” since the UN resolution in the wake of the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Whilst the US was for a long time keen to avoid intervention, Britain and France have been forthright in calling for action. More cynical observers have questioned the motivation behind British and French determination to intervene, whilst others have argued it is as much an effort to make up for their reluctance and blundering at the start of the “Arab Spring.” The French initially offered riot police to the now-overthrown Tunisian regime. David Cameron was heavily criticised for attending an arms trade fair in Abu Dhabi, and stung by accusations that his response to the evacuation of British nationals from Libya was too slow.

The strong nature of the resolution is in part due to a very recent hardening of American lines on this matter. The U.S. Secretary of State called the decision by the Arab League to call for a no-fly zone a “game changer.” More recently, the United States has further clarified their demands from the Libyan government and armed forces, with President Obama stating that Colonel Gaddafi must not only observe a ceasefire and stop his troops from advancing further, but also restore water, electricity and gas supplies to the rebel cities of Misurata and Ajdabiyah, restore communications, and allow the passage of humanitarian aid. Terms which Obama emphasised were “not negotiable.”

Colonel Gaddafi’s bellicose rhetoric suggests he is unlikely to comply with these requests. “If the world is crazy, we will be crazy too,” he said, threatening attacks across the Mediterranean. “Libya is not yours…The security council resolution is invalid,” he wrote in an open letter to David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Ban Ki-Moon. “You will regret it if you dare to intervene in our country.” Despite his earlier railing against Al Qaeda, Gaddafi has begun to play the Islamic card, calling the intervening powers “Crusaders.” It appears that no one, either in or out of the Arab world, is buying it.

Whilst the resolution does not call for the removal of Gaddafi, there is broad agreement inside and outside of the coalition that his removal from power is essential to achieve a conclusion to the Libyan crisis. And whilst the resolution explicitly omits the use of an “occupation force”, many commentators have noted that even this wording is ambiguous and that it might not rule out ground attacks by special forces. What has been described as a “multi-phase operation” will likely continue until compliance is achieved or another solution is found.

Despite hopes across the board for a swift conclusion, the outcome of this operation is still very uncertain. Will the air campaign be sufficient to sway those forces loyal to Gaddafi either to flee or switch sides? Will revolt come from inside the regime? Will the people return to the streets? Even if a ceasefire were to be observed, it is unlikely that either Gaddafi or the rebel council would accept any power-sharing arrangements. Gaddafi has promised “a long war with no limits,” whether or not he can sustain it remains to be seen.

Despite all appearances, and despite Libya’s tribal nature, this “civil war” lacks the ferocity of hatred seen in previous conflicts such as those in the Balkans. The people are essentially all Sunni Muslims and the state has maintained a strong national identity for more than 70 years. We can only hope that if a prolonged conflict ensues it will not create deep and irreparable divisions in Libyan society.

It is often said of a film that the landscape is the real star. In Libya, the landscape has done and will continue to prove pivotal. With the vast bulk of the country’s population living in cities stretched along the Mediterranean seaboard, linked by long, open highways, the terrain of northern Libya has until now played into Gaddafi’s hands. Unlike the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan, the flat, dry desert and scrub does not lend itself to guerrilla warfare and the absence of any rebel air-cover has made it easy for Gaddafi to move up tanks and artillery and to transport men. Outnumbered and subject to far superior firepower, the rebels could only retreat to their towns where their inability to control the hinterland made them vulnerable to siege tactics, such as cutting off supplies of water and electricity.

The lethal air power and missile assault brought to bear by the coalition forces has made Gaddafi’s heavy weaponry extremely vulnerable. It is likely for this reason that his tanks tried, unsuccessfully, to push their way into Benghazi, not only in an attempt to capture the town swiftly, but also to make them harder to target for fear of civilian deaths. The NATO intervention in Kosovo, initially conducted against Serbian airpower, was constrained in its ability to operate against ground units, with each target requiring approval by all nineteen member states. No such constraints exist in the Libyan context and, indeed, the first strike of the military intervention was against Gaddafi’s tanks as they encroached on Benghazi. Having failed in his initial assault, in part due to French airstrikes against his armour, Gaddafi’s supply lines are now stretched and subject to air attack.

Given the nature of the terrain, the conflict could well bog down into  stalemate with opposing sides bunkered down in their respective strongholds, unable to move in the open either through fear of air-strikes, or lack of capability. As the conflict centres more around urban areas, accurate intelligence will be essential to avoid civilian deaths and maintain goodwill for the coalition forces. Yet time will ultimately be against Gaddafi, with the long-term prospect of being a pariah state, encased in sanctions and blockaded by air and sea, no doubt playing on the minds both of citizens, soldiers and Libyan government officials. Ideally, the solution will now come from within. Whatever the case, we can only hope that the wounds this war will leave can quickly heal.


This article was first published in New Matilda on March 21, 2011.


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I scabbed a smoke off a Japanese traveller at Charles de Gaulle airport. Lise was standing on the other side of the glass, but I had to wait for my luggage. She looked ecstatic and a little slimmer and seeing her, I felt rested after the flight from Sydney. We motioned and blew kisses through the glass and I sucked my cigarette with the force of an old habit regained after three weeks of parties. Back in Europe, en route to England, I felt like a conquering hero.

After many kisses the first thing I did was have Lise take my photo. Selecting a point in the bright concrete ring that provides, with such airy modernity, access to the gates, I wanted to look like Bono on the cover of All that you can’t leave behind. In the fever of travel and a tad self-conscious, I lingered just long enough for one take; the backdrop, uncannily, in near perfect alignment. The photo done, we moved to the transport and waited in glee for the bus.

I was on the final leg of an extraordinary four months of travel. In August I’d flown to Berlin, then hitched a ride many miles south into France to meet Lise in Strasbourg. From there we’d ventured around Alsace and into Switzerland, crossing into Germany via Freiberg and spending my birthday in Baden Baden. I finally returned to Cambridge via several drunken nights with old friends in Paris. In November I attended a medieval history conference in The Netherlands, then, the morning after returning, flew to Vienna and took a train to meet Lise and her parents in Budapest for a Nato conference. At the end of the month I flew to Northern Italy to see an exhibition of Lombard artefacts in Brescia and travelled on through Verona to Venice. In December, Lise and I flew to New York and then on to Toronto to spend Christmas with her family, returning to a Cambridge covered in snow. We made straight for London and spent a crazy new years high on piles of coke and champagne at Circus Bar in Soho and later at a party at Rolf Harris’ old house. A couple of days after that, I flew out to Australia for three weeks, whilst Lise moved into a friend’s apartment in Paris where she planned to conduct further research. Life had been unbelievably kind to me; to the both of us, in fact.

Lise’s Parisian flat was on Rue des Quatre Vents in the 6th arrondissement. It was a beautiful apartment, not far from the Odeon and within easy walking distance of Notre Dame or the Luxembourg Gardens. It was small, but very tasteful, with polished floorboards and simple, comfortable furniture. It had an aspect of the old and new. It was very quiet, being set back from the road, down a passage protected by old, dark green, wooden doors.

I was exhausted, but far too tired to go straight to sleep. And anyway, it had been a while since we’d seen each other, so the loft bed, up the ladder, was initially put to more energetic use. We hit the streets of Paris and wandered about. I smoked cigarettes and felt strung out, drank coffee and dreamed of being drunk. Paris can make anyone feel cool, unless you’re prone to status anxiety and feel oppressed by how effortlessly cool everyone else is. I was so full of confidence, fun and bravado at the time that I felt especially cool, even more so than the Parisians. Perhaps I genuinely was at that time; it was a rare window in life in which to feel magnificent.

That night we went out for an assiette grec, which was decidedly Turkish. We returned to drink a bottle of wine, and after that I was spent. There was no chance for me to stay awake any longer, and anyway, I’d already made it into the evening; a first step on resetting the circadian clock from the southern hemisphere. We climbed up the loft ladder and, mid conversation, I fell into a deep sleep.

At four o’clock in the morning, I was suddenly very wide, bruisingly awake. I felt a momentary disorientation and initially wondered where I was. Sydney, Cambridge? Ah, Paris. Beside me Lise slept and I had no wish to wake her, so I tried to remain still as possible. I lay in the loft staring at the close ceiling. I smiled, feeling the residual warmth of my close friends who had gone the distance in those last, frantic days. We had squeezed every drop for a final hoorah and, now, feeling fully rested, my emotions were at liberty to indulge in nostalgia.

Perhaps it was the inevitable comedown from the ecstasy I’d taken two nights before, or perhaps it was just the terminal distance, but, very suddenly I felt enormously sad and before I quite knew what was happening I began to cry. A yawning chasm had opened in my heart.

Only now did it dawn on me just how far away I was from Australia. For a year and a quarter I’d been living in England and at times my heart had burned. I had missed my friends and family and I had missed the climate, but most of all I had missed the history I had with people. I was fortunate to have established very deep friendships at Cambridge with people I knew would be my friends for life, yet in Sydney my relationships had an antiquity that lent itself so naturally to nostalgia, and I have always been cripplingly nostalgic.

Lying there in the loft, I realised how long it would be before I was back in Sydney again. A year, perhaps even two years, I couldn’t be sure. Oddly enough, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to be here. I loved Europe, was obsessed with it. The experience of going to Cambridge was the highpoint of my life. The year 2000 was the happiest of my life, and I knew it then and there. And this happiest year had occurred up here, in the northern hemisphere, in England, in Europe. I wanted to be here in Europe and had even begun to wonder if I shouldn’t stay here forever; albeit in the UK. The only problem was, I wanted to be in Australia as well.

I plunged wholly into sadness and reflection. The glint of the ocean, the broad camaraderie, the hugs and the handshakes, the dinners and drinks; cigarettes borrowed while shouting my tales. I confess that life had been working to tickle my ego. I was the centre of attention, I had all the yarns to spin, I had gone away and become somehow exotic. Sydney had been even more fun than I remembered because I was there this time as a tourist, and everyone came out of the woodwork. I revelled in my time and, high on pills, drunk on wine, smoked up to the clouds, I rolled through it all with a robust good humour. And then, I had to leave.

I also remembered the kisses to which I had almost succumbed. An old friend, with the unfortunate name of Beryl, a person I’d kissed before, loomed back into my life from a long obscurity. I watched those lips swell luscious before me, and in the throes of some rare, first-rate ecstasy, we sat close the luxurious staff lounges in an office behind the Martin Place clock-tower, full of desire. It was all born of a longing for everything. I had become so accustomed to things going my way that I could resist nothing, not even things my timidity might once have forsaken. With other friends gathered round, high as kites, we drank all the office beer and shot pool. At 0600 AM, I phoned the city council and spent ten minutes politely complaining to the nice man on the other end that the clock was two minutes slow, and could they please fix it.

In Tokyo, sleeping between flights in an airport hotel, I wrote a letter to Beryl on the hotel paper. At last I found a use for the Emperor’s yen that my old friend Marcus had given me five years before, and which had ridden my hip for so long. The note I posted was slightly dark with the oddness of flying; the introspection, the philosophy and the urgency of travel. I told her how strange it was that I was thinking of where I was leaving and not where I was going. That I should be looking forwards, not backwards, that I felt half in love, but wasn’t sure what the other half was up to. There was no question that I was in love with Lise, so what had I fallen for in Sydney? It was, in truth, the whole package; the city and its lights, the living postcard, the friends and stories, the emotional history, the scents, the water, all gleaming in the midst of a northern winter. Beryl had, rather unexpectedly, come to symbolise it all. She was the muse of Sydney just now, and so my heart went out to her as I felt the desperate loss in leaving.

I soon erupted in weeping. Another year at least would have to pass before I saw those faces again. A whole other year of waiting and missing things. I had already missed two weddings and the birth of my best friend’s daughter. It was as though people had waited for me to leave before taking these important steps. I lay there still, under that close ceiling, and the tears kept coming.

Soon, Lise was awake.

“What is it, Snail, what’s the matter?”

“I don’t know, it just hit me. I feel so far away.”

There was little she could do, though I wanted her there. She held me and I held her. There was nothing else for it but to seek comfort. Truly, I was very happy to be here, which made my sadness seem so oddly out of place; yet it was the consequence of coming out of such a deep immersion. My synapses hadn’t reconnected with Europe. Home had shifted back south in my head and I was severely disoriented.

I sat up as best as I could. I was wide awake and I felt awfully restless. What should I do? It was January in Paris and still dark. The dawn would not come until near eight o’clock. I needed to sit alone for a while; to compose myself with some sobering cold. Not even the central heating could keep the chill from the tiles. I hugged Lise and kissed her.

“I’m OK,” I said. “I’m just sad to leave my family and friends. I’m glad you’re here.”

I climbed down the ladder to go to the lounge. Little did I know that what I was about to do would have such far-reaching consequences.

There, sitting on the table, was Lise’s new laptop. I had gone with her to buy it in Toronto and it was, for the year 2001, a state of the art machine. Whilst in Sydney, my brother had flown down to visit, and during his stay he brought with him a computer game he wished to give me. It was called Baldur’s Gate; an epic-length role-playing game based on the 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules. My brother and I had grown up doing little else but gaming. Strategic board games, role-playing games, tabletop miniatures, naval warfare simulations, you name it. Between us we owned something like 31 different role-playing rules systems and I had even written my own role-playing system, consisting of more than 100 pages of rules, at the age of eleven. My brother owned around 30 Avalon Hill military strategy games; complex and involved board games and now much coveted in the first edition. Yet pride amongst all of these games was taken by Dungeons & Dragons. We had once locked ourselves in my room out of protest for being made to stop playing and go down to dinner. My father thought there was something dangerous in our obsession, whereas he should rather have marvelled at the exponential expansion of our vocabularies in learning these sophisticated rules systems.

Despite not playing the game for many years, I had never lost my love for D & D. The last sessions had been conducted between 1994 and ’95, when I was still an undergraduate and living in Darlington in Sydney. My old friend Cody created an excellent campaign; political intrigues in a small regional capital, replete with wear-rats in the sewers. I was a feisty 17 year-old female ranger by the name of Trissa Slondar, ably assisted by my friends Ventris and Faldor, aka, Mike and Malakai, and a very peculiar NPC wizard who chose to join us here and there. It was always fun. Has there even been a better reason to roll dice?

I reached into my bag and pulled out the discs of Baldur’s Gate. Computer games were still relatively primitive at the turn of the century, yet they had come a very long way from the text-based, 2D graphics and simple engines I had begun with. Baldur’s Gate was a multiple award-winning piece of work, both for its narrative qualities, its neat and functional engine and interface, and its incredibly epic scope. Not only did it boast up to 200 hours of playing time, but it was, within the bounds of commonsense, very replayable on account of the wide variety of characters on offer as potential henchmen.

My brother had raved to me about the game in Sydney, and I had been impressed immediately.

“Bro, it’s totally Dungeons and Dragons rules. It even simulates dice-rolls. It’s a TSR product. It’s the real deal.”

The strength of my nostalgia for the game cannot be taken for granted. It had been the great comfort of my childhood. I had stared every day into those lengthy rule books, reading descriptions of magic spells, ancient items, the lore and legends of different races and professions. The illustrations, the fantastic settings, the at times disturbingly adult nature of the content had awed me. Being thrust daily into dangerous situations, striving either for loot in an ancient temple or some desperate rescue; pitted against an incredible array of foes in deserts, jungles, snowy mountains, in quaint and corrupt medieval fantasy towns, was a rare privilege. To play through a quest could take several days and each had its own narrative, its own settings, its own heroes and villains. Solving all manner of problems, making moral, tactical and strategic choices, conducting interrogations, investigations; the variety and versatility of the role-play seemed boundless. Of course, it was often just good hack and slash dungeon-crawling, but this too had its merits as old-fashioned fun.

“Hey, Lise,” I said, walking back into the bedroom, before she had a chance to fall back to sleep. “Can I install this game on your computer? I’ll delete it later. I just need something to do.”

“Of course, Snail. Go for it.”

“Thanks a million.”

I ran up the ladder and kissed her sleepy face. Already I felt considerably better. Wasn’t I really happier in Europe anyway? Hadn’t the last year been the best of my life? For someone obsessed with history, there was simply nothing for me in Australia. It was an empty land, full of fat, rich, vapid people growing more conservative by the minute. Did I really want to be there when I could be here in Europe – in Paris, for god’s sake! There was more culture in Paris alone than in the whole of Australia. What had I been thinking? I smiled, trying to shut out my sense of loss by rationalising my good fortune in being where I was. It was working.

I slipped in the first of the six discs and began the installation of the game. I rubbed my hands together in the light of the lamp. I closed the door and put on the kettle, making a cup of tea. I could see nothing outside the frosted window, except a few muted stars. The cars were sparse enough that each had an individual tone. I checked the time. It was only 0430. The world was going to leave me alone for a good while yet. It was exactly how I wanted it.

I put in my headphones and started the game. The title music was slow but insistent, bombastic and dramatic. I watched the opening animation of a man in armour being thrown from the top of a tall tower by some great brute with an evil voice. This brute must, ultimately, be my nemesis. The body struck the ground and the blood flowed between the cobbles, finding its way to the title, written on the medieval pavement. BALDURS GATE. I was excited to say the least, but far more so when I entered the character creation screen. Just as my brother had so enthusiastically assured me, in every way the game seemed true to the rules of Dungeons & Dragons. My troubles were behind me now as I basked in the rich colours of the interface.

When, some three hours later, Lise finally arose and joined me in the lounge room, I was in another state of being altogether. I had rediscovered a happy place to which I thought I could never return. Baldur’s Gate was simply marvellous, it was enthralling, it was like cocaine. It was the computer game for which I had been crying out for many years, it was that good it was better than sex. I didn’t want to stop playing. I couldn’t bring myself to stop playing. I had to request special indulgence from Lise to let me go through until lunchtime. Everything about it tickled my nerdy fancy and my deep nostalgia for the game. The character classes, the potions, the magical items, the simulated dice-rolls, the sense of adventure, the mission, the quest. Sure, it could hardly replicate the freedom of movement within the pen and paper game, especially when it came to dialogue, but everything else was absolutely spot on. When, from a scroll I’d found, I cast my first Stinking Cloud spell for perhaps 12 years, I nearly wept afresh.

Such was my enthusiasm, that I managed to enlist some from Lise. She found the game cute at first, with its entertaining voices, its artwork and themes. In the days ahead, however, when I continued to wake up at four in the morning, and could not be easily pried away from the computer, my obsession with it became a burden to her.

And this obsession did not diminish upon my return to Cambridge. I continued to play the game, completing it, then restarting it and running it through again, and just when I had finally walked away from it, Baldur’s Gate 2 was released with its far greater complexity, detailed character work, lengthy dialogues and more engaging and coherent story. If Baldur’s Gate was cocaine, then the much lauded and still highly regarded Baldur’s Gate 2, was heroin.

There came a time, further down the track, when things between Lise and I became more strained. We were used to spending a lot of time apart, and when she moved back to Cambridge, we didn’t adapt so well to being together all the time. One day she turned to me, teary-eyed, after I had frustrated her once more with my apathy, and said. “It’s all gone wrong.” It was a dark joke we had often made to each other, that there would come a time when it would “all go wrong.” Then, as if to clarify, with, I’m afraid to say, deadly accuracy, she said, “It all went wrong with Baldur’s Gate.”

Though I don’t regret the beauty of those mornings in Paris, the truth is, it did all go wrong with Baldur’s Gate. And later, with others who were yet to come, it went wrong with many other games as well.

ps. Have you ever seen anything so universally well-reviewed in  your life?


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The United Nations Security Council has finally approved a no-fly zone over Libya after a lengthy debate on the subject. The resolution was passed with five abstentions, from Russia, China, Germany, India and Brazil. To those of us calling for such a measure in the past few weeks, this announcement comes as a very welcome show of support for the rebels struggling against Colonel Gaddafi’s regime and renews hope that the rebels will not be defeated in their struggle. It may prove too little too late, and the member states who have agreed to participate in enforcing the No Fly Zone must act immediately to halt the advance of Gaddafi’s forces on Benghazi and to relieve the siege of Misurata.

Resolution 1973 makes a clear and unambiguous condemnation of Gaddafi’s recent actions in its lengthy preamble:

“Condemning the gross and systematic violation of human rights, including arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, torture and summary executions…”

It states that “the widespread and systematic attacks currently taking place in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya against the civilian population may amount to crimes against humanity.”

It makes special note of the prior condemnations of the League of Arab States, the African Union and the Secretary General of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference against Gaddafi’s serious human rights violations. It references the decision by the Council of the League of Arab States to call for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya, and to establish safe areas “in places exposed to shelling,” and deplores Gaddafi’s use of foreign mercenaries. The resolution calls for an immediate ceasefire.

The most strident, and no doubt, ultimately, most contentious passage of the resolution lies in Paragraph 4, regarding the protection of civilians. The resolution “Authorizes Member States that have notified the Secretary-General, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, and acting in cooperation with the Secretary-General, to take all necessary measures (my italics), notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970 (2011), to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory, and requests the Member States concerned to inform the Secretary-General immediately of the measures they take pursuant to the authorization conferred by this paragraph which shall be immediately reported to the Security Council.”

Consider this in combination with the resolution’s expressed desire to establish safe areas protecting civilians “in places exposed to shelling” and there can only be one conclusion. UN Security Council Resolution 1973, in effect, authorises the participating member states to enforce a no-drive zone upon Gaddafi’s military forces. It effectively authorizes attacks not merely against Gaddafi’s air force, but also against any heavy weapons, including tanks, artillery and mobile artillery, which approach within firing distance of rebel-held areas.

The strong nature of the resolution is in part due to a very recent hardening of American lines on this matter. The U.S. Secretary of State called the decision by the Arab League to call for a no-fly zone a “game changer.” On Thursday, in Tunisia, Clinton stated:

“We want to support the opposition who are standing against the dictator. This is a man who has no conscience and will threaten anyone in his way.”

The response of Colonel Gaddafi’s was, to say the least, typical.

“If the world is crazy, we will be crazy too,” he said. “Any foreign military act against Libya will expose all air and maritime traffic in the Mediterranean Sea to danger and civilian and military facilities will become targets of Libya’s counterattack. The Mediterranean basin will face danger not just in the short term, but also in the long term.”

Colonel Gaddafi’s threats are unlikely to do him any favours, and, if anything, will only confirm in the minds of those now pitted against him, that his regime must be shut down.

Meanwhile, in the Twitterverse, the debate continues between those concerned for the consequences of western military intervention and those who feel any measures must now be taken to prevent the defeat of the rebel forces and the capture of Benghazi. The vast majority of tweets, however, express support for the United Nations resolution.

@ShababLibya, a popular voice with over 28000 followers representing the “Libyan Youth Movement”, a loose coalition of people inside and outside of Libya, on hearing of the resolution tweeted: “LONG LIVE FREE LIBYA SOON GOD WILLING”

Other commentators have raised concerns about the spectre of western imperialism and the intentions of France and Italy in the aftermath of the intervention. There are also concerns for further damage to Libya’s infrastructure or threats to civilians from western attacks, yet these are dwarfed by the desire to see action taken against Gaddafi’s forces.

The question now is, how soon can the no-fly zone be implemented and will it actually work? Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, emphasised the need to act as soon as possible. “We want to stop the attacks by the Gaddafi regime against civilian populations. And it’s a question of days or hours because the pressure against Benghazi, especially, is now very tough.” Italy has already opened its air force and naval bases in Sicily for operations against Libya. This is the most likely place from which to enforce the no-fly zone. Bloomberg reports that Egypt has already started to supply small arms to the rebel fighters.

Still, the situation is desperate for the rebels, though the exact nature of the situation, tactically, is difficult to determine. There are rumours of fighting still taking place in Ajdabiya, of skirmishes thirty miles beyond on the road to Benghazi, of a concerted advance against Benghazi by Gaddafi’s forces. There have also been rumours of fresh protests in Zawiya, the western city recently recaptured by Gaddafi’s forces. It is difficult to be certain exactly how quickly Gaddafi can move on Benghazi, with how much force and how effective any assault from his forces might prove to be. On hearing of the resolution he immediately made clear his intention of taking Benghazi within 48 hours. He claimed he would show “no mercy” in assaulting the city. “The matter has been decided … we are coming,” he stated in a radio broadcast on Thursday. Again he resorted to his earlier rhetoric calling the rebels “rats” and “gangsters” and urged Benghazi residents to “go out and cleanse the city of Benghazi.”

“We will track them down,” said Gaddafi, “and search for them, alley by alley, road by road … Massive waves of people will be crawling out to rescue the people of Benghazi, who are calling out for help, asking us to rescue them. We should come to their rescue.”

The residents of Benghazi, along with other rebel-held areas, have not been receptive to Gaddafi’s message. Their celebrations in the wake of the announcement of the United Nations resolution have been ecstatic to say the least. Their morale and likely their determination to repel any attack on their city should improve significantly now they know they will receive assistance, indeed, now that they have already begun to receive assistance.

The no-fly zone must be implemented immediately, and it must be implemented in a most robust manner. To prevent further civilian deaths, it will be necessary to knock out Gaddafi’s hardware, not just stop his planes from flying. The effectiveness of airstrikes has been proven in the past, though they alone have rarely been sufficient. The world has lost its patience with Gaddafi, has expressed the legitimacy of the rebels who seek a democratic process in their country and an end to dictatorship. They must now put their money where their mouth is and make this possible. We can only hope that robust action now will give pause to those units of the Libyan army still fighting for Colonel Gaddafi and encourage their defection. The game has changed again, only now Gaddafi finds himself pitted against forces far superior to his own. Allowing him to win is unthinkable. The world must take, as stated in the resolution, ALL MEASURES NECESSARY.

Here is the full text of the resolution, courtesy of The Guardian:


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There has been much debate about the pros and cons of intervention in Libya, particularly around the question of imposing a no-fly zone. Understandably, it is difficult to achieve consensus on such important decisions and the international community is right to question both the merits and possible dangers of intervention. One thing, however, on which there appears to be a very broad consensus is that Gaddafi must cease military action against his own people and step down. He has been roundly condemned by the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, the Arab League and the Gulf Co-operation council. The rebels are now in a very tenuous position and sure to lose if unassisted. They have admitted they lack the firepower to repel Gaddafi’s assault. So what on earth are we waiting for?

Despite what was taking place in Egypt and Tunisia and across the region, Gaddafi appears to have been caught off guard by the scale of the Libyan uprising and the speed and intensity with which it spread. For a man who has never trusted his own army and neglected it as a consequence, there was a difficult period in which Gaddafi could not take robust action, beyond sicking his security forces on protesters, because he simply did not trust the integrity of his defence force.

This situation has now changed in Gaddafi’s favour. It would appear that those who intended to defect have already done so, and either through fear of reprisal, handouts of stashed petro-dollars, gullibility in the face of propaganda, and even genuine loyalty, likely more tribal than personal, much of the army has decided to stay with Gaddafi.

Now, considerably more confident in the loyalty of his forces, Gaddafi has begun to deploy them in far more robust actions. The rebels have been driven from Ras Lanuf and now Brega, and their situation is worsening rapidly as Gaddafi’s advance gathers momentum. Despite their material, organisational and, likely, morale problems, the Libyan Army is still a far more effective fighting force than the ad-hoc army of the rebels. This advance may slow as they approach the city of Benghazi where rebel defences will be more concentrated, but should Benghazi come under siege, as it no doubt will, there is potential for terrific loss of life.

There is still much uncertainty about the balance of forces and the quality of the Libyan Army’s equipment has come into question. Long years of embargo and, in some cases, deliberate neglect, has ensured that much of the army’s materiel is not serviceable. This has also been compounded by the diversity of equipment deployed by the army; purchased from a variety of different manufacturers and with varying degrees of antiquity, it has been difficult to secure spare parts for repairs or upgrades. Since the lifting of the embargo in 2004, the European Union, spearheaded by Italy, has been Libya’s largest arms exporter, selling an estimated total of more than 800 million Euros worth of contracts. This has mostly consisted of small arms, missiles, electronic equipment, ammunition and fuses and military planes, along with crowd control equipment such as tear gas. Much of the army’s heavier equipment, however, is relatively ancient, consisting of Russian T55s, T62s and the considerably more effective T72s. The army has around one thousand BMP-1, armoured personnel carriers, over two thousand pieces of artillery, including 160 modern VCA Palmaria 155mm mobile howitzers, multiple rocket launchers, heavy and light machine guns, various types of rocket-propelled grenades, surface to air missiles, recoilless rifles, mortars. The air force consists of around 119 Russian MiG 23s, 25-odd MiG 21s and 39 Sukhoi 22 assault planes, 83 helicopters, including 37 Mil Mi-24 Hind assault helicopters.

This is just to name some of the military’s capability, and it must be stressed that this is on paper. No one is certain as to how much of this equipment is genuinely serviceable, just as no one is certain how much equipment has fallen into rebel hands, nor exactly how many of the army’s estimated 45000 soldiers have defected. The east is home to two of Libya’s seven military regions, containing several army bases and four out of the country’s seven air force bases. In a war such as this, heavy weapons will be significant, but perhaps more significant will be smaller-scale anti-personnel weaponry such as mortars, grenades, light and heavy machine guns, and anti-tank weaponry. A tank can be knocked out with a recoilless rifle or a molotov cocktail and they are vulnerable in urban areas, but they are still devastating against infantry and vehicles. If the rebels lack heavy equipment, then their best strategy must be to dig in and fortify the towns and immediate hinterland, not to combat the Libyan army in the field, where they will also suffer for total lack of air cover. The initial enthusiasm with which the rebels rushed west, a gamble they had to take, now seems decidedly naive; they are significantly under-gunned, overstretched and lack coordination. They must concentrate their forces for a concerted defensive effort. Still, all they can hope to do is hold out until help arrives.

The time to act is now. The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) has backed the imposition of a no-fly zone and has declared Gaddafi’s regime illegitimate. Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, has stated he wants a no-fly zone over Libya, and wants the League to take a lead role in its imposition. These are significant developments considering the traditional reluctance of countries in the region to interfere in each other’s internal affairs. It is now not only the West who has condemned Gaddafi, but the Middle East, broadly speaking. NATO has been waiting for regional support before making a stronger case to the UN Security Council, and they now have it. This will perhaps be more difficult still, considering the general unwillingness of China and Russia to sanction intervention. In such a case, is a new resolution really necessary?

Despite the questionable legitimacy of acting outside of United Nations authority, the situation is sufficiently desperate to warrant it. But what sort of action? There is no room for semantic niceties here; the imposition of a no-fly zone in effect constitutes military intervention as it would require action against the Libyan forces, including scrambling to intercept fighters, transport planes and helicopters and targeting anti-aircraft weapons. If a no-fly zone receives approval, why not approve strategic, targeted strikes against Gaddafi’s tanks, artillery, transport vehicles and ammunition depots? Why not commit to equipping and arming the rebels? It brings to mind the famous quote of George Bernard-Shaw: “We have established what you are, madam. We are now merely haggling over the price.” In for a penny, in for a pound.

The real question, of course, is who will take action? NATO? With all the risks of American involvement? If the region supports more robust action, then why not have a regional response? Turkey won’t have a bar of it and no one seems willing to commit to putting troops on the ground, yet the Egyptian army, in spite of its current and not insignificant pre-occupations, could play a very important role here. They have the largest and most sophisticated force in the region, being able to call upon just under a million personnel and almost four thousand tanks, including a thousand M1 Abrams tanks, modified to the most modern M1A2 SEP Standard. This alongside countless other armoured vehicles including tank destroyers, personnel carriers and mobile artillery. The Egyptian air force boasts 220 F16 fighter-bombers amongst a wide array of Russian and French-made aircraft. A quick and ruthless strike against Gaddafi’s military hardware could well be sufficient to encourage his forces to turn against him. A ground incursion would be far more complicated, tactically and politically, but faced by well-trained and far-better equipped Egyptian forces, the wavering Libyan forces might be encouraged to defect. Is it unreasonably romantic, bearing in mind the messes in Iraq and Afghanistan, to suggest that strong action by Egypt might not only succeed, but ultimately bring the two nations closer together, as well as give the Egyptian military a heroic finale as they retire from public life?

Action by Egypt, or anyone, for that matter, would be fraught with dangers. The risks of becoming involved in a situation that could prove very stubborn are many. Apart from the cost and political consequences, invasion by a foreign power could be misconstrued as opportunistic and become a vehicle for regime propaganda. One is minded of the Vietnamese liberation of Cambodia in 1978. Also seeking to remove a repressive regime and, supporting more moderate separatists, the Vietnamese army made short work of Pol Pot’s regime, capturing the capital Phnom Penh in just two weeks. The upshot of this by no means entirely altruistic action, however, was a Vietnamese military presence in Cambodia for the following ten years. No external power would find such a scenario desirable in Libya’s case.

Still, something must be done and the time to act is now. Not “now” tomorrow or “now” next week, but now, today, this very hour. Gaddafi’s forces are encircling Misrata in the west and have driven the rebels from Brega in the east. The rebels are ill-equipped and many do not have any professional combat training. Their equipment is inferior and their ammunition is limited. The only advantage they have is their unquestionable determination and the rightness of their cause. We cannot forget that this began as a peaceful demonstration. It was Gaddafi who used violence, Gaddafi who fired the first shots against his own people. The international community, the Arab League and the GCC have shown rare consensus in condemning Gaddafi’s actions; sanctions have been imposed and the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has initiated an investigation for crimes against humanity. In a world of uncertain truths and morality, largely run by hypocrites, has there been a more clear-cut scenario in recent times, in the time since Kosovo?

A no-fly zone is nowhere near enough. Gaddafi’s successes have not come through air power, but through increasingly relentless ground assault. Indeed, the air force has appeared suspiciously incompetent when it comes to hitting targets, prompting the question that these potentially sympathetic pilots are missing deliberately. Australia’s foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, recently said that we cannot allow another Guernica to take place, referring to the bombing of the town during the Spanish Civil War. In truth, we cannot allow another Spanish Civil War to happen.

What the rebels have begun can neither be undone nor stopped. The scale of the initial unrest, even inside Gaddafi’s loyal strongholds, made it clear how much the Libyan people want a democratic process and an end to dictatorship. How many people will die in the fighting if it is allowed to continue? How many people will be murdered in the aftermath if we allow the rebels to be defeated? And they will be defeated, given time. Unless further major defections take place, Gaddafi’s superior numbers, tanks and artillery will grind the rebel forces down, more quickly than most expect. What, do we imagine, will the aftermath be? A Libya led by a threatened warlord, encased in hard sanctions, reprisals and detentions, the people deeply distrustful of each other; growing bitterness and disorder, a general hardening of lines. Will the EU, America or anyone for that matter, seek to rehabilitate Gaddafi one last time? It is, quite simply, inhumane to take the risk of inaction. The British Foreign Secretary, William Hague said, on BBC Radio: “If Gaddafi went on to… dominate much of the country, well this would be a long nightmare for the Libyan people and this would be a pariah state for some time to come.”

The world must now follow France in recognising the rebel Council in Benghazi as the legitimate government of Libya and act quickly to make them so. The Council too must organise itself more centrally and effectively, mirroring important portfolios. With an eye to the future, the rebels must also guarantee not to undertake reprisals against Gaddafi loyalists if they are ultimately successful. An amnesty for foreign mercenaries will also be necessary to avoid further chaos and bloodshed. It will be difficult, given the strength of feeling, but if they hope to form a new, democratic Libya, they must avoid actions that will entrench divisions. Despite all appearances, and despite Libya’s tribal nature, this “civil war” lacks the ferocity of hatred seen in the Balkans. The Libyan people can be brought together ultimately, provided there is sufficient oversight to ensure fairness and equality of opportunity, and the distribution of wealth and power. If the world does not step in, countless more people will die. It’s an ugly and brutal expression, but what is needed in Libya now is a display of shock and awe to halt Gaddafi’s advance and buy the rebels time. It’s time to go in and go in hard.

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Life is Cheap

This is a very short story, more of an anecdote, which I wrote back in 2005. The events took place in 1997.


Life is Cheap


“Life is cheap over there, son.”

It was my father who spoke, on the eve of his departure for Sarajevo. He had been drinking scotch and was pacing up and down his bedroom, throwing things into a suitcase.

“I’m a bit nervous this time. It’s a long time since I’ve been to a place like this. When I went to Beirut and Afghanistan, I couldn’t wait to get in.”

He stood still and shook his head.

“Mate, there’s people over there who’ll rub you out for nothing.”

His nerves were palpable, but then my father had always been overrun with excess energy. How often had my mother told him to stop tapping his knees up and down under the table?

“You’ve been to worse places,” I offered. “You’ll be alright.”

“Yeah, your dad’s an old pro. I know how to look after myself.”

He took a shirt off the hanger and lay it flat on the bed.

“But you know, mate. In some places, there’s nothing you can do. Life is cheap.”

He was on his way to spend a month in the former Yugoslavia to conduct research for a novel he was writing on a fictional war criminal. I too felt nervous because I knew him well enough to know that he would try to get himself into every dodgy situation available in order to get closer to the real story, wherever it happened to lie.

It was, therefore, with not inconsiderable relief that my mother, brother and I greeted his safe return to Sydney. I was living in Glebe at the time and met my father for dinner at our favourite Thai restaurant in Surry Hills, two nights after his return.

He told me of the frustrations he had encountered in trying to get into Serbia, a move eventually blocked by impenetrable bureaucracy. He told me of being flown from one place to the next by the Luftwaffe, of riding on tractors with peasants and of the heavy, rich, Balkan cuisine he had consumed with such guilty passion, washed down with harsh grappa.

“It’s corrupt as buggery,” he said. “The black market is vast and you can get pretty well anything – guns, grenades, drugs – whatever you want.”

“Didn’t some guy try to sell you a tank once in Beirut?”

“Yeah, an old T-34.”

“Any tanks for sale?”

“No, mate,” he laughed. “But everyone kept telling me to change my deutschmark on the black market, so I did, and fuck me, I got burned.”

“How did that happen?”

“It was in Sarajevo – just a kid on the street, in one of the main squares. This kid must have used the most incredible sleight of hand, because I had my eyes on him like a hawk.”

He took a gulp of his wine, the held his hand in my face.

“He held up a roll, like this, right in front of my face, and counted off the notes before my eyes. I saw every note, mate, and they were all good. Somehow, by some miracle of magician’s dexterity, when I handed him the hundred marks and he handed the roll over, he managed to substitute it for a different roll.”

“What was in it?”

“There was one good note on the top, and the rest was paper.”

“What a pisser.”

“By the time I found out, the kid was long gone. I can’t tell you how angry I was. The little rat, I thought – nobody double crosses Phil Cornford. I went straight back to my hotel room and got a good heavy, woolen sock. Then I walked back to the square, and on the way I got half a brick and put it in the sock. I was determined to break both of his fucking legs if I found him again.”

“Bullshit.” I said, though it was as much a question as an expression of disbelief.

“No mate, I was livid. It didn’t matter that it was only a hundred marks – it was the principle. I hung around that square all afternoon, and I went back again the next day to try to find him. I swear to god I was determined to break both his legs if I found him.”

“But you didn’t find him.”

“No, I didn’t. And then I calmed down a bit and I had to leave Sarajevo. I was amazed at myself, and I still don’t know why it made me so angry. It might have been the tension I felt the whole time I was there. I guess I felt scared – maybe I’m getting less reckless as I get older, I value my life more and I don’t want to die. Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have even noticed if I was afraid.”

The words ‘less reckless’ hung across the table, and I wondered whether he’d noticed the contradiction.

“Mate,” he said, “there’s blokes over there who’ll do you over for nothing.”

Yeah, I thought, picturing him hanging around in the middle of Sarajevo with half a brick in a sock, waiting to break some kid’s legs. Life sure is cheap over there.

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This is an essay written for my Masters in Creative Writing, c. 2005. It is not particularly well researched, but seems relevant and eloquent enough to warrant posting.

Death in Venice

Death in Venice is a brief, yet complex novel which ought really to be called a novella.[1] Within its eighty-odd pages, Thomas Mann combines psychology, myth and eroticism with questions of the nature and role of the artist and the value of art. It is a metaphorical and allegorical novel which deals with themes common to German Romanticism, namely the proximity of love and death. That all this takes place within the context of a simple and linear story about an ageing writer’s homoerotic obsession with a fourteen year-old Polish boy in Venice makes it all the more remarkable.

Two of the major themes I wish to touch on in this discussion are those of Mann’s understanding of and concern with the role of the artist, and the manner in which he has made use of personal experience in his work. I will also examine the way in which this novella developed from its initial conception as a rather different story altogether.

Thomas Mann’s early work focused almost entirely on the problem of art and the role of the artist. Mann was conflicted between immense distrust of art as a “decadent evasion” and the elevation of art as “a source and medium of the interpretative critique of life.”[2] His thinking was to a great degree informed by the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, yet he was certainly not as strictly Nietzschean as many of his contemporaries. In his 1903 work, Tonio Kröger, Mann explored the impact of a devotion to art and a bohemian lifestyle on the ability to live a normal life and retain a normal range of emotions. The character of Tonio Kröger “suffers from the curse of being the ‘Literat’, the writer who stands fastidiously apart from experience precisely because he has seen through it all. His critical, knowing, sceptical stance conflicts with his craving for ordinary, unproblematic living.”[3]

In a sense Mann established a sort of artistic manifesto through the character of Tonio who concludes that his art must be “an art in which formal control does not become bloodless schematism, but is, rather, able to achieve a lyrical – almost ballad-like – intensity and simplicity; an art which combines a precise sense of mood, of place with passages of reflection and discursive discussion; an art which is both affectionate yet critical, both immediate yet detached, sustained by a creative eros that has the capacity for formal control, for argument in and through the aesthetic structure.”[4]

Though Tonio Kröger predates Death in Venice by almost ten years, many of the conclusions reached in its composition inform the structure and purpose of his later work.

In Death in Venice, Mann once again displays his focus on questions about the nature of the artist and his art. After introducing his character of Gustave von Aschenbach and providing the inspiration behind his trip to Venice, Mann seems impatient to unload as much character detail as possible. He outlines Aschenbach’s career as a writer with both overt and covert cynicism which pinpoints the ironies inherent in his gradual transition from energetic bohemian to clockwork establishment figure. This dense and often turgid biography acts as a sort of premise to a novella that in many ways constitutes a narrative critique of art and artists and the nature of beauty, to name two of its principal themes.

Thomas Mann makes this plain early on in the following passage:

The new type of hero favoured by Aschenbach, and recurring many times in his works, had early been analysed by a shrewd critic: ‘The conception of an intellectual and virginal manliness, which clenches its teeth and stands in modest defiance of the swords and spears that pierce its side.’ That was beautiful, it was spirituel, it was exact, despite the suggestion of too great passivity it held. Forbearance in the face of fate, beauty constant under torture, are not merely passive. They are a positive achievement, an explicit triumph; and the figure of Sebastian is the most beautiful symbol, if not of art as a whole, yet certainly of the art we speak of here. Within that world of Aschenbach’s creation were exhibited many phases of this theme: there was the aristocratic self-command that is eaten out within and for as long as it conceals its biologic decline from the eyes of the world… [5]

It is no accident that the first theme here mentioned should conform so closely to the tale that is to follow. Mann had long been intrigued by the concept of an older man who has given himself single-mindedly to high achievements, only to be seized, late in life, by love of an inappropriate object who will prove his downfall.”[6]

Thomas Mann had never shied away from using his characters and the situations into which he placed them as a forum for self-analysis. As far as he was concerned, “the personal was given its highest value when converted to literature.”[7] This was made nowhere more plain than in his brother, Heinrich’s, play about their sister, Carla’s suicide. Thomas Mann championed the play and ensured it got produced and he and his brother caused a scandal when they stood up and applauded vigorously on the opening night.

Mann was later to write:

“The personal element is all. Raw material is only the personal.”[8]

One of the most interesting aspects of Death in Venice is the degree to which it is based on real events. Within the context of this class, we have already to some degree addressed the question of how much of ourselves we might incorporate into our works; what elements of our personal experience might we deploy within the context of a piece of writing and how might we disguise or manipulate these. Death in Venice is an example both of great skill and great good fortune for almost the entire story derives from real events which are described in minute detail with a desire to be faithful to recollection.

In his memoir entitled, Sketch of my Life, Mann wrote that:

Nothing is invented in Death in Venice. The “pilgrim” at the North Cemetery, the dreary Pola boat, the grey-haired rake, the sinister gondolier, Tadzio and his family, the journey interrupted by a mistake about the luggage, the cholera, the upright clerk at the travel bureau, the rascally ballad singer, all that and anything else you like, they were all there. I had only to arrange them when they showed at once and in the oddest way their capacity as elements of composition. Perhaps it has to do with this: that as I worked on the story – as always it was a long-drawn-out job – I had at moments the clearest feelings of transcendence, a sovereign sense of being borne up such as I had never before experienced.[9]

Mann had indeed travelled with his wife and brother to an Adriatic resort, only to find it dull and oppressive, and had then made the decision to move on to Venice. He bought a ticket as described, saw the old fop on the boat as they were setting out and, upon arrival in Venice, he and his family were then transported to the Lido by an unlicensed Gondolier who dropped them off and fled without paying after unloading their luggage.

The Polish family were also present and are rendered as faithfully as possible. The accuracy of Mann’s descriptions were later attested in anecdotes and photographs provided by Count Wladyslaw Moes, upon whom Tadzio was based and who was tracked down by Mann’s daughter, Erica, in the 1960s. He also acknowledged that the tussle on the beach between Tadzio and Jaschiu had taken place in precisely the way described and even claimed to have been aware of a mysterious man who watched him continually during his stay.[10]

Not only did Mann base the context and characters upon what he witnessed and encountered, but the character of Aschenbach was a combination of himself and Gustave Mahler, who was a close personal friend of Mann and who was, at the time of Mann’s holiday in Venice, on his death-bed. During his stay in Venice, Mann read regular newspaper reports concerning Mahler’s declining health and this seems to have inspired him to borrow Mahler’s age and appearance for the character of Aschenbach.[11]

On the other hand, Aschenbach’s habits and profession are of an accurate autobiographical nature; his three hours of writing every morning, his midday nap, his tea-time and afternoon walks which are taken precisely where Mann took his, his devoting his evenings to writing letters, and his special interest in prepubescent boys.[12]

While very little of the context and events of the story might be invented, it certainly did not present itself to Mann as a whole already plotted. The prevailing themes of art and beauty in Death in Venice were originally earmarked for a different sort of story altogether.

What I originally wanted to deal with was not anything homoerotic at all. It was the story – seen grotesquely – of the aged Goethe and that little girl in Marienbad whom he was absolutely determined to marry, with the acquiescence of her social-climbing mother and despite the outraged horror of his own family, with the girl not wanting it at all – this story with its terribly comic, shameful, awesomely ridiculous situations, the embarrassing, touching, and grandiose story is one which I may someday write after all. What was added to the amalgam at the time was a personal, lyrical travel experience that determined me to carry things to an extreme by introducing the motif of “forbidden” love.[13]

Mann’s great achievement with Death in Venice was to find such strong, if simple, narrative strain within an otherwise non-narrative sequence of events from the basis of a desire to examine a theme.

One of the paradoxes of Mann’s style in Death in Venice lies in the fact that despite its thorough realism, which derives to a very great degree from his detailed description of personal experiences, the story allows myth and legend to have a very palpable existence. In every regard, Death in Venice is a “highly stylised composition characterised by a tense equilibrium of realism and idealisation.”[14] Rich in metaphor, myth and psychology; its very title is unequivocal in establishing the teleological nature of the story.

Nowhere is the palpability of mythical elements more strongly realised than in the figure of the stranger, through whose various manifestations Aschenbach is guided inexorably to his fate. The stranger takes the form of the traveller at the cemetery, the goatee’d captain of the ship from Pola, the Gondolier and finally the musician, all of whom share devilish qualities in their appearance or assume a devilish quality through their actions and context.[15]

The stranger at the cemetery first appears “standing in the portico, above the two apocalyptic beasts.”[16] The ship’s captain makes the simple act of purchasing a ticket take on the trappings of a magic show through his flourishes.

He made some scrawls on the paper, strewed bluish sand on it out of a box, thereafter letting the sand run off into an earthen vessel, folded the paper with bony yellow fingers, and wrote on the outside… … His copious gestures and empty phrases gave the odd impression that he feared the traveller might alter his mind.[17]

The process becomes more akin to the signing of a devil’s contract and once again, Aschenbach is being drawn towards his fate. When the Gondolier rows him across to the Lido, it is as though he is being taken across the Styx by Charon in a coffin. Finally he encounters the musician who reeks of death and who further acts to ensure that Aschenbach is not inclined to leave Venice by maintaining the deception regarding the outbreak of cholera.[18]

Metaphor and suggestion are continually present. The graveyard at the very beginning has a chapel in the Byzantine style – uncommon and therefore distinct in Bavaria – and surely acting as a metaphor for Venice, with its Byzantine cathedral in San Marco, thus creating another link between Venice and death.[19]

Aschenbach’s initial vision of faraway places, a vision of a “tropical marshland beneath a reeking sky, steaming, monstrous rank – a kind of primeval wilderness-world of islands, morasses and alluvial channels,” describes both the point of origin of the Cholera, and the unpleasant aspect which Venice assumes.[20] Indeed the cholera is merely the embodiment of a metaphysical process taking place within Aschenbach.

Nothing is coincidental about the writing in this work, just as the chair in the gondola is “coffin black,” just as the foppish man with the dyed moustache and goatee, with the wig and rouge heralds the fate awaiting Aschenbach.

In Death in Venice Mann uses contrast and counterpoint, combining modernity & myth, realism and fantasy to make an otherwise minimalist and linear plot so engaging.[21]

Metaphorically the story is that of the “tragedy of the creative artist whose destiny is to be betrayed by the values he has worshipped, to be summoned and destroyed by the vengeful deities of Eros, Dionysis and Death.” At a realistic level it is more a sombre parable about the physical and moral degradation of an ageing artist who relaxes his discipline.[22]

Death in Venice also functions as a series of philosophical reflections on the nature of beauty. The descriptions of Tadzio are variations on a sort of formulaic theme – that of him being representative of beauty’s very essence. At first Aschenbach’s obsession is portrayed as a realistic, psychological infatuation just as his fantasies are initially sublimated and artistic; likening Tadzio to works of art. As his fantasies become gradually more erotic, however, the language becomes increasingly baroque and mythological. As Aschenbach’s behaviour becomes increasingly inappropriate in his infatuated pursuit, culminating in his cosmetic attempt to look younger, so the language of his infatuation becomes more fantastical and ludicrous. By the end of the story the language has become as decadent and unrestrained as Aschenbach’s behaviour.[23]

It is made clear at the start that Aschenbach is a writer whose style shows “an almost exaggerated sense of beauty, a lofty purity, symmetry and simplicity” and whose work shows a “stamp of the classical.” Apart from allowing Mann more easily to locate the discussion of beauty and art within the context of Platonic philosophy, it has been argued that through allusions to antiquity and its different moral standards, he was attempting to soften the blow of the prevailing theme of homosexuality.[24]

Tadzio, is initially like one of the many youths for whom the Olympian gods “conceived a fondness” being likened to Ganymede, Hyacinthus, and eventually Eros and Hermes. He is paradoxically the inspiration and challenge to the artist’s creative urge and its nemesis. He combines both Apollonian and Dionysian qualities, an inspiration to work and a lure to dissipation, stupor and the final disintegration of the body and mind.[25] In a work that closely explores the spirit and mentality of the artist, Tadzio embodies everything that threatens to undermine discipline and the sacrifices that are required to produce great work.

With the exception of its rather ponderous beginning, Death in Venice is a masterful combination of fantasy and realism within a novella that at times reads like an essay or philosophical tract. It is a very deliberate work by a writer who felt that art ought to have a purpose even if it was to undermine itself by debunking myths about its necessity and usefulness.

What makes Death in Venice so remarkable is that even with all of this contrivance and artifice, it moves forward with such a meticulously sustained level of psychological realism that its mythical and metaphorical trappings seem rather ideally coincidental more so than they do artificially contrived. Mann achieves this through intensive detail derived from recent and fresh personal experiences and through exploration of the extremities of his own psychological predilections. Keeping the degree of autobiographical material in mind, it is tempting to conclude that Mann has achieved a daring and self-effacing exploration of his innermost feelings within the context of a speculative projection of one of his possible futures. On the other hand it could equally be said that Mann merely used elements of himself to give more truth to a scathing caricature of the German literary establishment. Either way, Death in Venice is an imaginative and intense piece of writing which raises important questions about the nature of beauty and the nature of the artist, and whilst it provides no clear answers, it offers very telling insights.


Mann, Thomas, Der Tod in Wenedig, 1912; trans, H. T. Lowe-Porter, Death in Venice, Penguin, 1928.

_____, Pariser Rechenschaft¸Berlin, 1926.

_____, A Sketch of my Life, New York, 1960.

Feuerlicht, Ignace, Thomas Mann, Twayne Publishers, New York, 1968.

Hollingdale,R. J. Thomas Mann; a Critical Study, Rupert Hart-Davis, London, 1971.

Swales, Martin, Thomas Mann: a Study, Heinemann, London, 1980.

Von Gronicka, André, “Myth plus Psychology: a Stylistic Analysis of Death in Venice,” in Henry Hatfield, ed. Thomas Mann: a Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, New Jersey, 1964, pp. 46-61.

Winston, Richard, Thomas Mann. The Making of an Artist 1875-1911, Constable, London, 1982.

[1] Thomas Mann, Der Tod in Wenedig, 1912. I have used the 1928 translation of H. T. Lowe-Porter, reprinted in Death in Venice, Penguin, 1955.

[2] Martin Swales, Thomas Mann: a Study, Heinemann, London, 1980, p. 29.

[3] Swales, Thomas Mann, pp. 29-33.

[4] Swales, Thomas Mann, p. 33.

[5] Mann, Death in Venice, pp. 11-12.

[6] Richard Winston, Thomas Mann. The Making of an Artist 1875-1911, Constable, London, p. 269.

[7] Winston, Thomas Mann, p. 276

[8] Mann, Pariser Rechenschaft¸Berlin, 1926, p. 119; André Von Gronicka, “Myth plus Psychology: a Stylistic Analysis of Death in Venice,” in Henry Hatfield, ed. Thomas Mann: a Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, New Jersey, 1964, pp. 46-61; p. 49.

[9] Thomas Mann, Sketch of my Life, New York, 1960.

[10] Winston, Thomas Mann, pp. 267-70.

[11] Winston, Thomas Mann, pp. 267-8.

[12] Winston, Thomas Mann, pp. 268-9.

[13] Mann, Sketch of my Life; Winston, Thomas Mann, pp. 269-70.

[14] Von Gronicka, “Myth plus Psychology,” pp. 50-3.

[15] Swales, Thomas Mann, pp. 38-39.

[16] Mann, Death in Venice, p. 4.

[17] Mann, Death in Venice, p. 17.

[18] Von Gronicka, “Myth plus Psychology,” pp. 53-5; Ignace Feuerlicht, Thomas Mann, Twayne Publishers, New York, 1968, pp. 121-4.

[19] Mann, Death in Venice, p. 4.

[20] Mann, Death in Venice, pp. 5-6.

[21] Von Gronicka, “Myth plus Psychology,” p. 51.

[22] Swales, Thomas Mann, p. 41.

[23] Von Gronicka, “Myth plus Psychology,” pp. 51-3.

[24] Feuerlicht, Thomas Mann, pp. 118-24.

[25] Von Gronicka, “Myth plus Psychology,” p. 55.

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Writers on Writing

The following is an essay written in 2008 during my Masters in Creative Writing at The University of Technology, Sydney. It marks the opening of a new category, On Writing, which I hope expand in future.

Writers on Writing

Is what writers write about writing merely a reflection of their own approaches and sensibilities? To what degree is a particular style or sensibility dependent upon an author’s circumstance? Can other writers still benefit from what they have to say?

If one conducts a search on the web with the keywords, “writers on writing”, it is immediately apparent that there is a vast and diverse range of information available, ranging from simple practical, methodological advice to more elaborately theoretical, philosophical, and even ideological approaches to composition. Currently top of the list is a database from the New York Times with articles by such figures as Annie Proulx, Saul Bellow, E. L. Doctorow, David Mamet, Barbara Kingsolver, and John Updike, to name a few. Most of the articles are of an anecdotal nature, within which context the authors indicate their preferences, elements of their routines, the ways in which they seek inspiration. Some are more meditative and intellectualising, whilst others are directly prescriptive.

One such article, Elmore Leonard’s famous Ten Rules of Writing, now available in a bloated, illustrated edition, has in itself generated a lot of discussion, most immediately evident on internet forums and bulletin boards.[1] His simple advice on things such as the attribution of lines of dialogue, use of exclamation marks and adverbs, the avoidance of prologues and not commencing a novel with a description of the weather, is generally accepted as sound. Yet, it has the force of a stern caveat capable of leaving less confident writers sufficiently shaken to begin jettisoning their own nascent style and attempting to emulate his. Whether or not this is a positive thing remains to be seen. As many contributors to the internet discussions surrounding Leonard’s ten rules have said, any such rules are by no means hard and fast. One might even go on to say that rules are made to be broken, though it has also been said that it is best to learn them first. Perhaps the real question is, whose rules? Whose advice?

The available online resources pale in comparison to what might be found on the shelves of any good academic library. Here the subject is covered much more comprehensively, through the various vehicles of criticism, theory, and the simple “How-to” texts containing suggested techniques both for writing and how best to negotiate the industry. Historically writers have written both on theory and practice – take for instance Henry James, E. M. Forster and Vladimir Nabokov – though increasingly theory has become the realm not of writers, but of “experts”: critics and academics.[2] Whilst no clear demarcation exists between theoretical and practical approaches, any broad survey of the literature suggests that the bulk of writers on writing tend to focus more upon process and technique than theory and criticism, perhaps through a sort of natural selection.[3]

This is by no means always the case, and it is the purpose of this essay to consider two texts, both by notable authors, Italo Calvino’s chapter on “Lightness” from his posthumously published volume of lectures entitled Six Memos for the Next Millenium, and Milan Kundera’s “Dialogue on the Art of the Novel,” from his 1988 book The Art of the Novel.[4] What makes these two texts most interesting is that they come from authors who might also be described as intellectual heavyweights. In these texts they attempt to explain the theoretical, practical and philosophical principles that underlie their method and technique, and the means by which one determines what is necessary in selecting the tone and the process by which characters reveal themselves.

There is also a convenient link between the two pieces, the idea of “lightness”. Early on in his chapter entitled “Lightness,” Calvino makes mention of Milan Kundera’s novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the first section of which is titled “Lightness and Weight.” He writes:

It is hard for a novelist to give examples of his idea of lightness from everyday life, without making them the unattainable object of an endless quête. This is what Milan Kundera has done with great clarity and immediacy. His novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, is in reality a bitter confirmation of the Ineluctable Weight of Living… For Kundera the weight of living consists chiefly in constriction, in the dense net of public and private constrictions that enfolds us more and more closely. His novel shows us how everything we choose and value in life for its lightness soon reveals its true, unbearable weight.”[5]

In his opening sentence, Calvino makes plain his desire to examine the opposition between light and weight, and to “uphold the values of lightness.”[6] In seeking to arrive at an overall definition of his method, he suggests that it “has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight… sometimes from people , sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.”[7] Kundera too confirms this as one of his underlying principles when, in his “Dialogue on the Art of Composition,” he speaks of the “will to divest”, a process of ridding the novel of “technique”; such as the clutter of unnecessary transitions.[8]

Calvino takes a while to express his definition of lightness, which initially seems diaphanous, as airy and ungraspable as one might expect lightness to be. This is largely because he fails to outline exactly what he means when he speaks of “weight”. Unless we are to assume that he is in complete agreement with his aforementioned summary of Kundera’s definition of the weight of living as a form of constriction, we are left to determine what he means more through the shape of absence, like those ancient Chinese dictionaries that defined things by what they are not, or the people-shaped holes left in the Pompeian ash. In attempting to determine the opposite of what he defines as lightness, one can infer that by “weight” he means the whole gamut of human burdens; misfortune, worry, heartbreak, oppression, catastrophe, and even demons.

So how does Calvino define lightness? He commences with the myth of Perseus and Medusa. Medusa, whose gaze turned people to stone, is hunted by Perseus, who arrives at her lair supported on the winds and clouds. Perseus, aware of the risk of meeting her gaze, cleverly watches her reflection in his bronze shield as he approaches to strike. Calvino states that he is “immediately tempted to see this myth as an allegory on the poet’s relationship to the world, a lesson in the method to follow when writing.”[9] He clarifies this by stating later that “Perseus’ strength always lies in a refusal to look directly, but not in a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live; he carries the reality with him and accepts it as his particular burden.”[10] Perseus treats his burden lightly.

So what does this mean for the writer? If this is a lesson in method, then what is its practical application? How does one take this metaphor of viewing the world indirectly and employ it? Perhaps more importantly, why is he recommending viewing the world in this manner? Calvino himself seems to be grasping for a clearer definition and turns to the modern Italian poet Eugenio Montale, with particular reference to his Piccolo Testamente. According to Calvino, rather than foregrounding catastrophe in his poetry when dealing with weighty subjects, Montale instead professes “faith in the persistence of what is most fated to perish, in the moral values invested in the most tenuous traces.”[11] He writes of the delicate things that are threatened by the weight of events, by approaching catastrophe or apocalypse, rather than the catastrophe or apocalypse itself. The writing thus attains a lightness, a fragility, making its point more effectively without the bludgeon of weightiness one might associate with darker imagery.

Calvino locates the roots of his idea of lightness in an ancient philosophical and scientific view of the world. For the Roman poets, Lucretius and Ovid, lightness was central to their way of looking at the world, derived from the philosophy of Epicurus and Pythagoras.[12] Both of these philosophers accepted the theory of Atomism, first espoused by the pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus (c.460 BC), that all things were composed of thousands of individual atoms whose nature remained unchanged, but whose combinations could produce infinite complexity, (with numerous variations on the same theme). Calvino argues that this facilitated a perception of mutability, of metamorphosis, of the lightness of the component parts of all things.[13]

Many other examples of lightness in the authors cited by Calvino seem to have their roots in a philosophical or scientific understanding of the world. The fourteenth-century Tuscan poet Cavalcanti claimed that he was an Epicurean, though his beliefs are more akin to Averroism, whilst Dante “gives solidity even to the most abstract intellectual speculation.” Boccaccio was a noted Italian humanist who studied classical literature and philosophy and championed obscure forms of ancient poetry. In the dream of Queen Mab in a speech by Mercutio in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, her coach is drawn by “little atomies”; a dream, Calvino notes, which combines Lucretian atomism, Renaissance neoplatonism and Celtic folklore.[14] Calvino also notes Cyrano de Bergerac’s fascination with getting to the moon. Calvino further links atomism with the signs or letters used in writing. Just as words are constructed of particles, so is the world they describe.[15]

One is left wondering whether or not lightness can only be achieved through philosophy or a basic understanding of Atomism and its later theoretical elaborations such as Newtonian physics. Is the capacity for lightness dependent upon a certain intellectual tradition or sensibility? As if to counter this, Calvino writes that “lightness is also something arising from the writing itself, from the poet’s own linguistic power, quite independent of whatever philosophic doctrine the poet claims to be following.”[16]

If the lightness does come from the “writing itself, from the poet’s own linguistic power,” one must also raise the question as to whether this power exists verbally or semantically? In words or meaning? To what degree, for instance, does lightness depend upon the words themselves? Can it survive translation? Is such lightness contained within the lyricism of the language itself, assisted by alliteration and other devices and contrivances, or does what is being signified have a universality, not governed by the signifier? Is this lightness equally accessible in English as it is in Latin or, in the case of Cavalcanti, the Tuscan vernacular?

It seems most likely that Calvino identifies lightness within that which is being signified rather than the words themselves. Perhaps the realm of lightness, wind, clouds, sky, wings, feathers, birds, leaves, flowers, scent, and other such airy things, invoked in any language, is universal, irrespective of the actual words employed. Seeking to achieve lightness, ought not, however, result in frivolity, which Calvino cautions against. He recommends a “lightness of thoughtfulness,” which can “make frivolity seem dull and heavy.”[17] He ssociates lightness with “precision and determination,” as opposed to “vagueness and the haphazard.” He quotes Paul Valery who wrote that “One should be light like a bird and not like a feather.”[18] In other words, light and strong, light and skillful, not merely weightless. We appreciate the lightness of the language, because we know that it has weight to it.[19]

We must bear in mind that original purpose of the lecture series that forms Calvino’s Six Memos was speculate on what might be the direction of literature in the next millennium, now upon us. It would be naïve to assume that what Calvino wrote was designed to be merely prescriptive, but it is worth taking note of his more prescriptive musings.

Describing a scene in the Decameron in which Boccaccio represents the poet Cavalcanti fleeing, with a sprightly leap, the taunts of a group of youths, Calvino writes:

“Were I to choose an auspicious image for the new millennium, I would choose that one: the sudden leap of the poet philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of lightness, and that what many consider to be the vitality of the times – noisy, aggressive, revving and roaring – belongs to the realm of death, like a cemetery for rusty old cars.”[20]

It is a fine image, but it seems to highlight more than ever the degree to which Calvino’s idea of lightness is really just an expression of a particular sensibility. It is a tone and mood that reflects aspects of his own style, and perhaps that of Milan Kundera’s style as well, which, when employed to best effect, is extremely engaging. Yet it is by no means the only method of approaching weighty subjects, as the work of Emile Zola or Alexander Solzhenitsyn will testify.

In his review of Calvino’s Six Memos, Robert Coover wrote:

“It’s an old truth that writers, theorizing on the state of their form, tend to talk mainly about or to themselves.”[21]

This certainly seems to be the case with Calvino, though this by no means invalidates or makes redundant the ideas and themes he expresses. Consider his rhetorical question, “is it legitimate to turn to scientific discourse to find an image of the world that suits my view?” His is a theory to which the evidence has been selected and fitted, and a writer might equally ask if it is legitimate turning to Calvino’s view in the hope of finding an image that best suits them.

Bearing in mind the idea of “sensibility”, we can return to the question of whether a writer’s observations about writing can have a universal application, or whether or not they merely constitute an expression of their own idiosyncratic view of the world and their work.

As was noted above, Italo Calvino celebrated Milan Kundera’s ability to achieve lightness as a means of expressing the weight of living. He attributes it to the “liveliness and mobility” of Kundera’s intelligence, qualities, he suggests, “which belong to a world quite different from the one we live in.”[22] Where then, do these qualities come from? Is Calvino suggesting they are a consequence of Kundera’s Czechoslovakian experience, or that they have their origins in the realm of lightness he describes?

Paul Theroux, reviewing Kundera’s novel, Life is Elsewhere, wrote:

“Kundera’s humor is impossible elsewhere. One can’t imagine his particular situations growing out of anything but a combined anger and fascination with the cut-price Stalinists who have the whip- hand in Prague.”[23]

David Lodge argues that the magical realist elements in Kundera’s work, which might be said to constitute his lightest touches, are the result of “having lived through great historical convulsions and wrenching personal upheavals”, which “cannot be adequately represented in a discourse of undisturbed realism.”[24]

Is Kundera’s lightness something unique, something only possible after enduring a particular level of constrictive oppression? Is his irony and satire something pressed into being by constriction, like a diamond from coal? Can one create this balance of light and weight outside such a context, wherein one has seen both the idiocy, the “kitsch”, the vanity and brutality of oppression, an oppression beyond the weightiness of everyday concerns?

Kundera himself sees it differently, so far as he is willing to admit. In his “Dialogue on the Art of the Novel,” he does not single himself out as someone who occupies unique circumstances, who thus has access to a unique sense of “lightness”, rather he locates his aesthetic in an attempt to render the existential problems of the self.[25] In this light it is perhaps inevitable that Kundera should not attribute his aesthetic to his circumstances, for he argues that history itself ought to be understood primarily as an existential situation.[26] Kundera’s great literary heroes, Witold Gombrowicz and Franz Kafka, did not share his circumstances, and what he claims to admire in them primarily is their attempts to come to grips with existential problems.

So far as Kundera is concerned, historical circumstances are purely incidental and are worth foregrounding when they are relevant to the existential concerns of the characters.[27] With Kafka’s The Trial, for instance, the Joseph K. has no physical or psychological history, we know nothing of his past or his predilections, and the only time we have access to his thoughts is when Kafka reveals his means of grappling with the present. Joseph K.’s dilemma is a essentially an existential one.

Perhaps this existential focus is the key to Kundera’s “lightness”. By focussing on the characters’ existential dilemmas, he avoids the weight of their history and psychology. Perhaps, as readers, we experience the lightness owing to our being more at home with the personal than the political. We can grasp the ironies and complexities of human problems with much greater immediacy than we can those of historical or political circumstances, though, as Kundera himself points out, often history itself is an existential problem and is duly brought to the foreground.

Essentially, Kundera tells us, he is not as interested in history as he is in existence. He sees the principal function of the novel as being to examine the nature of existence, as opposed to reality.

“…existence is not what has occurred, existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything that man can become, everything he’s capable of. Novelists draw up the map of existence by discovering this or that human possibility. But again, to exist means: being in the world. Thus both the character and his world must be understood as possibilities. In Kafka, all that is clear: the Kafkan world does not resemble any known reality, it is an extreme and unrealised possibility of the human world.”[28]

This statement is fundamental to Kundera’s approach to his work. With its authorial intrusions and structural contrivances, one might say the same of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, as Kundera does of Kafka’s work, that it is about human possibility. Whilst Kafka’s work might constitute a significant twist of the kaleidoscope, in the case of Kundera the twist is much more slight. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, we are continually reminded that it is in effect a work of fiction, yet the characters stand out as starkly real because of the skill with which Kundera presents their existential situations. They are a clever and precise musing on the possible, both personal and historical.

The ultimate purpose of Kundera’s existential focus lies in an attempt to define the self. It is here that he locates his aesthetic. In his “Dialogue on the Art of the Novel,” Kundera’s first and recurrent assertion is that “all novels, of every age, deal with the enigma of the self. As soon as you create an imaginary being, a character, you are automatically confronted by the question: What is the self? How can the self be grasped?”[29]

More often than not attempts to come to grips with the nature of the self have been rooted in the psychological; stream of consciousness, interior monologue and so on. Kundera, however, takes pain to locate his work outside the realm of the psychological novel, whilst asserting that he does not wish to deprive his characters of an inner life. Rather than displaying the thoughts and internal processes of his characters, he instead uses frequent authorial intrusions into the text. As he explains in the case of Jaromil from Life is Elsewhere, it is the workings of his own mind that he displays to the reader, as opposed to the mind of Jaromil.[30]

In order to reveal the inner life of his characters, Kundera outlines an existential code for each; a sort of DNA comprised of a number of keywords.[31] As each character has a different code, so what is required for them to reveal themselves will differ. In some instances it might be necessary to explain aspects of their background or appearance, while in other cases characters merely reveal themselves through action, which, being a response to their existential problems, reveals their inner life. Thus, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the upbringing of Teresa, whose fundamental existential problem is being an extension of her mother, is described in detail, whilst we learn next to nothing of Tomas’ past. It is a uniform logic of selective uniformity; a formula requiring the application of different formulas. On the whole, however, Kundera prefers to have his characters reveal themselves through action, even if, or perhaps especially if, the consequences are paradoxical. He quotes Dante’s statement that “In any act, the primary intention of him who acts is to reveal his own image.”[32] Action thus becomes a self-portrait of the actor, often resulting in paradox where the intentions of a character’s actions fail to be realised in the outcomes, or result in entirely unexpected outcomes.[33] The existential problem of the individual remains, for Kundera, of much greater interest than the question of their psychological motives.

There are identifiable similarities between Kundera’s focus on the existential and Calvino’s idea, expressed through the example of Montale, of only foregrounding the fragile things, the things which are threatened.[34] Rather than lengthy descriptions of the history and nature of oppression in Czechoslovakia, Kundera only mentions the context when it directly and with immediacy impacts upon the existential dilemma of his characters. It is a means of achieving lightness through economy, or perhaps a means of achieving economy through lightness. Either way, his novels are ultimately more readable as a consequence of this lightness and economy.

We might return at this point to a reiteration of the definition of lightness as an absence of weight. Both Calvino and Kundera indicate their tendency towards reduction, towards stripping back, or simple omission of what might be conventional but unnecessary. While achieving their goal through slightly different methods, they both indicate a preference for avoiding the expression of misfortune through the heaviness of history, vocabulary, internal dialogues of despair. It seems that they are counselling against employing the weight of circumstances as a bludgeon, that rather one achieves a more poignant result with a lighter touch. Is this because our sentiments are better engaged through beauty, or through delicacy, as opposed to the more openly manipulative register of sorrows? Perhaps we might draw one last comparison and liken it to Ghandi’s advocating non-violent protest, which was, arguably, more admirable and effective than the violent upheavals that so commonly characterise resistance to oppression.

To conclude we must begin by acknowledging the difficulty of determining, in any quantitative or qualitative manner, whether a particular style or sensibility derives from a particular set of circumstances. In the case of Milan Kundera, it could certainly said that some of the paradoxes of his novels might not exist without his experience of life in Czechoslovakia, though his settings do, quite often, bear an uncanny resemblance to what authors such as Kafka imagined – existence under a brutally logical bureaucracy. Whilst there might be logical and cognitive connections between the style and circumstance, to suggest that lightness as a response to heaviness is a facility only properly available to those who have experienced true heaviness would be to deny the flexibility of imagination. Perhaps it is true that Italo Calvino and Milan Kundera derive their capacity for lightness from their experience of heaviness, but that need not make such conditions an exclusive pre-requisite. Heaviness, whilst perhaps better or more quickly understood if experienced directly, can also be imagined.

So far as the corpus of work by writers on writing goes, these are not overly prescriptive texts, though they do at times hold strong opinions. Even were it the case that these authors were expressing a unique sensibility, this would not, by any means, make these texts redundant. What they offer is an alternative point of view, and a number of powerful triggers for consideration of what, why and how to treat certain subjects. As is the case with more directly prescriptive texts, one must be cautious, particularly in the case of new writers, to avoid feeling oppressed by the weight of the opinions put forth. No espousal of style or method, despite the authority of the source, is the final word on the matter.


Calvino, Italo, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, trans. Patrick Creagh, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1988

Coover, Robert, “The Promised Land of Literature”, The New York Times, March 20, 1988.

Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel, Edward Arnold, London, 1949.

Hawthorn, Jeremy, Studying the Novel, 3rd ed. Hodder Arnold, London, 1997

Hodgkins, Jack, A Passion for Narrative: a guide for Writing Fiction, McLelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1993.

James, Henry, The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces, ed. Richard Blackmur, C. Scribners, New York, 1962.

_____, Notes on Novelists, J. M. Dent, London, 1914.

Kundera, Milan, The Art of the Novel, trans. Linda Asher, Faber and Faber, London, 2005.

_____, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, trans. Michael Henry Heim, Faber and Faber, London, 1984.

Leonard, Elmore, “Ten Rules of Writing,” The New York Times, July 16, 2001.

_____, Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing, Harper Collins, New York, 2007.

Lodge, David, The Art of Fiction, Penguin, London, 1992.

Nabokov, Vladimir, Lectures on Literature, Harvest Book, New York, 1982.

Pack, Robert & Parini, Jay (eds), Writers on Writing, Hanover, University Press of New England, 1991.

Theroux, Paul, “Small Novel, Large Stories,” The New York Times, July 28, 1974.

[1] Elmore Leonard, “Ten Rules of Writing,” The New York Times, July 16, 2001; Leonard, Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing, Harper Collins, New York, 2007.

[2] E. M. Forster. Aspects of the Novel, Edward Arnold, London, 1949; Henry James, The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces, ed. Richard Blackmur, C. Scribners, New York, 1962; James, Notes on Novelists, Notes on Novelists, J. M. Dent, London, 1914. Robert Pack & Jay Parini (eds), Writers on Writing, Hanover, University Press of New England, 1991, p. vii.

[3] “The language of criticism has become so technical, even jargon-ridden, that writers of poetry and fiction often can’t or, more usually, won’t stoop to conquer.” Pack & Parini, Writers on Writing, p. vii.

[4] Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, trans. Patrick Creagh, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1988. Before dying suddenly of a stroke in 1985, Calvino had completed five of the six lectures that comprise his Six Memos. These bear the titles of “Lightness,” “Quickness,” “Exactitude,” “Visibility” and “Multiplicity.” Ironically, the final lecture was to be on “Consistency.” Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel, trans. Linda Asher, Faber and Faber, London, 2005.

[5] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 7.

[6] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 3.

[7] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 3. Perhaps an even more succinct way of putting it can be found in the famous quote of Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

[8] Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel, pp. 72-3.

[9] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 4.

[10] Calvino, Six Memos, pp. 4, 5

[11] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 6.

[12] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 10.

[13] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 8.

[14] Calvino, Six Memos, pp 16-18.

[15] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 26.

[16] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 10.

[17] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 10.

[18] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 16.

[19] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 15.

[20] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 12.

[21] Robert Coover, “The Promised Land of Literature”, The New York Times, March 20, 1988.

[22] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 7.

[23] Paul Theroux, “Small Novel, Large Stories,” The New York Times, July 28, 1974.

[24] David Lodge, The Art of Fiction, Penguin, London, 1992, p. 114.

[25] See below, pp. 7-8. Kundera, Art of the Novel, p. 23.

[26] Kundera, Art of the Novel, p. 38.

[27] “The novelist is neither historian nor prophet: he is an explorer of existence.” Kundera, Art of the Novel, p. 44.

[28] Kundera, Art of the Novel, pp. 42-3.

[29] Kundera, Art of the Novel, p. 23.

[30] Kundera, Art of the Novel, p. 30.

[31] Kundera, Art of the Novel, p. 29.

[32] Kundera, Art of the Novel, p. 23.

[33] Kundera, Art of the Novel, p. 24.

[34] See above, p. 3.

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We look at the abolition of slavery in the West as one of our greatest moral achievements. The abhorrence of a system that classified a certain part of humanity as sub-human and subject to the whims of superior races and powers was recognised and legislated against almost two centuries ago. Subsequent battles for the granting of equal rights to coloured people in the United States, citizenship for Australian aborigines in 1967, and the abolition of Apartheid in South Africa in 1994 have been ongoing, if all too long overdue, successes in granting equality to the segregated and oppressed. This equality before the law is now something we not so much as take for granted, but consider absolutely fundamental to a modern, liberal society. Jean Jacques Rousseau, the Enlightenment philosopher, famously said that “Man was born free, yet is everywhere in chains.” And whilst in many places around the world man is still in chains, so to speak, the situation is generally worse for women.

In the West, women’s rights were slow in coming, but advanced rapidly throughout the twentieth century with a rolling introduction of universal adult suffrage across Europe, the United States and many former colonial territories, equal opportunities in education and employment, much greater flexibility in laws governing marriage and divorce, the criminalisation of spousal rape, increased state support for single mothers and, more recently, the introduction of paid maternity leave in many countries. There are still battles being fought over unequal salaries, glass-ceilings, workplace discrimination, trial and punishment of sexual offenders, objectification and chauvinism, yet these remaining battles, many of which are the result of entrenched prejudices in traditionally masculine cliques, which are, if slowly, being eroded, as opposed to laws deliberately limiting a woman’s rights, can be fought now by women empowered with rights, education and employment who are free to vote and air their grievances. Sadly, however, this is rarely the case across the Middle East.

In the Middle East women’s rights are in some cases so limited as to constitute a second-class citizenship that is no less marginalising than slavery. There have certainly been advances in granting freedoms and rights to women in the letter of the law, particularly in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait, but discrimination is so culturally entrenched that custom often overrules this. The situation of women varies dramatically across the region according not only to country, but to class, economic status, tribal and familial ties, marital status, education and political orientation. It is foolhardy to make sweeping generalisations when one considers just how great the contrasts can be. It is also worth considering that western perceptions of Middle Eastern women are deeply flawed, where an obsession with the restrictive dress-codes imposed in many countries leads to the presumption that such women are incapable of outspoken political and social activism or feminism for that matter. This myth has recently been exploded by the thousands of women protesters seen in demonstrations across the Middle East, fully veiled or otherwise. Women across the region have long been involved in labour organisations, union movements, and other types of grass-roots political activism. In some cases they have brought about important victories in securing improvements to their situation. The fact remains, however, that the situation of women right across the Middle East is, broadly speaking, one dogged by discrimination, marginalisation, segregation, and in some cases, outright slavery.

The recent uprisings, rebellions and two successful revolutions that have occurred across the region give new hope for an acceleration of the process of improving women’s rights. It is a tenuous situation, for there is as much to lose as there is to gain. Will the women who have come forward to protest in such great numbers be heard? Will constitutional reforms result in significant changes to their legal, social, economic and political situation? Will they gain or lose rights in the process? It is difficult to be certain, but one thing is clear, they are voicing their concerns on a scale not seen before in the region, empowered by new technologies to organise and share ideas and information. It will be very difficult for anyone to ignore their concerns in future.

So what is the situation of women in the Middle East? As noted above, their circumstances vary just as significantly as their attitude to their circumstances. It is worthwhile taking a look at the current state of affairs.

Egypt, Tunisia and Libya

First, to Egypt and Tunisia, the two countries who so recently deposed their leaders through popular revolution, in favour of a new, democratic constitutional process. In both countries women have a considerable number of freedoms enviable in other parts of the region, particularly in Tunisia. Tunisian women were the first to receive the vote, not long after independence in 1956. In Tunisia, Polygamy is banned and marriage is conditional on the woman’s consent. Women have the right to have abortions and are well educated, with the highest levels of literacy in North Africa. Indeed, women outnumber men as University graduates and have been filling the ranks of the medical and legal professions. They have equal rights to hold office and have impressive levels of representation.

Fatma Bouvet de la Maisonneuve, a Tunisian psychiatrist who lives in Paris states:

“It’s no coincidence that the revolution first started in Tunisia, where we have a high level of education, a sizeable middle class and a greater degree of gender equality,” she said. “We had all the ingredients of democracy but not democracy itself. That just couldn’t last.”

In Egypt, women can drive, go to college and dress in Western clothing, yet they experience discrimination in the workplace, are subject to domestic violence, and have traditionally had next to no say in the leadership of the country. Sexual harassment in Egypt is also rife. Women often avoid public places and crowds as they will almost certainly be subject to groping, propositions, solicitations, or simply cat calls. A survey in 2008 by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights found that 98% of foreign women and 83% of Egyptian women in the country had been sexually harassed.

Doaa Abdelaal, a member of the organisation Women Living Under Muslim Law, suggests a more open society will lead to a significant reduction in sexual harassment.

“In an oppressive society, people oppress each other,” she said. “It’s a justification for everyone to be unjust. Under a more open society these things can be discussed, I think changes will happen.”

Despite marginalisation from politics, women have long been active at a grass-roots level. Many if not most of the strikes in the labour movement have been started by women. Whenever violence erupts, it is often the women who come forward to challenge the police, being beaten no less for their trouble.

In Tahrir Square, there was a new dynamic between men and women. Women fought alongside men in the frontline and, with the absolute need for unity and solidarity, a change of perception appears to have taken place. Women earned a long-overdue respect for their strength and determination. Viewed at last as equal partners in a shared cause, women in Egypt can only hope that the spirit of unity during the days of the revolution can be sustained and bring about both legal and societal change. There is great momentum among women’s movements to step up their campaigns for equality. Young women in their thousands, from all classes of society, have already been stepping forward to take an active part in women’s organisations promoting equality, democracy and non-discrimination. There has been an explosion of activity on the internet, on Facebook and Twitter in particular.

Sadly, however, this has not so far translated into practice. The new constitutional committee in Egypt has NO female members and one wonders whether women’s rights will be adequately enshrined in the new constitution and laws that may emerge. We can at the very least hope that their situation does not go backwards, but one thing is certain – that Egyptian women and their counterparts in Tunisia will not back down from voicing their concerns and raising their issues in the future. They have broken the fear barrier, mobilised en masse, and they will continue to press their case. They must do so, for the sake of Egypt and Tunisia, and also for the sake of the region.

Staying in North Africa, Libya, for all its flaws, imbalances and human rights abuses, has long had a relatively liberal attitude to women’s rights and social position. Partly through revolutionary ideals and a need for labour in a country with a population of only six million, Libya has given women access to many of the same rights and privileges enjoyed by men. Women have had the right to vote and to participate in politics; they can drive, travel freely, work without consent from a male and spend time with whoever they wish. Women have also been encouraged to serve in the armed forces, to the point that all girls in secondary school have been conscripted for military training since 1984.

With Libya currently in the middle of a rebellion that is rapidly turning to civil war, the situation is very uncertain. It seems unlikely that Colonel Gaddafi, who has ruled Libya now since 1969, can retain power for much longer, especially now that the international community has roundly condemned him. Some form of constitutional change is likely in the not-too-distant future, and hopefully this will further empower women with the right to participate in a genuine, open and accountable democratic process. The rebels, who have taken control of the east of the country and large parts of the west have organised themselves into broadly representative collectives calling for a democratic constitution. In a country not known for Islamic conservatism which is very used to women not only dressing in western-style clothing, but being very active and visible in the workplace, one can only hope that things do not change for the worse so far as women’s rights and freedoms are concerned.

Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iran

Saudi Arabia is the most obvious example of the gulf between men and women’s rights in the region. In Saudi Arabia, where the law prohibits women from driving or voting, women’s rights are defined by a strict Sunni interpretation of Sharia known as Salafi or Wahhabi. These laws, being largely unwritten, are essentially discretionary. In practice, however, they mean that women require the permission of a male guardian to seek education or employment, open a bank account, have elective surgery and to marry or divorce. Women are only allowed to travel within registered countries, and, if not accompanied by a male, then with an identity card registered to a male guardian. The peculiarities of the guardianship system mean that, in some circumstances, women may have to get the permission of their sons to remarry. To buy or sell property a woman requires two male witnesses to confirm her identity, and four further witnesses to confirm the integrity of the two male witnesses.

Forced marriage was banned in 2005, however women do not have any practical involvement in arranging their own marriages. Marriage is a contract between husband and father of the bride. Polygamy remains legal and Saudi men may have as many as four wives. The practice is widespread throughout the country. There is no official law setting minimum age for marriage. Religious authorities have allowed girls as young as 9 and boys as young as 15 to marry. In reality, however, there is no official barrier to a father marrying off his daughter at any age so long as sexual intercourse is prevented until puberty. Again, however, there is no real scope for enforcement of such a guideline.

Written law does not specifically criminalise rape or prescribe punishment. The victim is often punished as well, usually for dressing immoderately and being in the company of men in the first place, and there is no law against rape by a spouse. Migrant women, especially domestic workers, are particularly vulnerable; their circumstances are often much like those of slaves, including physical abuse and rape.

In the courts, one man’s testimony is considered the equal of that of two women. Only men over the age of 30 may serve as lawmakers and women are generally excluded from holding high office.

Women are discouraged from using public transport and many of the major bus companies will not allow women passengers. Their only option is to use taxis or private drivers, which, ironically, is technically forbidden as it requires mixing with strange men, but is largely unenforced on account of there being next to no other option. When women are allowed to use trains or buses, they must enter via a separate entrance and sit in a different section. Most buildings throughout the country have separate entrances for men and women, restaurants have separate dining areas.

Consequently, women in Saudi Arabia make up between 5% and 15% of the workforce, whereas female employment averages 40% in other Muslim nations. Literacy is lower amongst women, though those who do make it into the workplace are far more likely to have secondary and tertiary education than men.

Certainly a broad spectrum of Saudi women support traditional gender roles. Surveys repeatedly show this, with widespread concern for the erosion of Islamic society and cultural traditions. One wonders, however, whether these attitudes would prevail if the Saudi education system was not designed to indoctrinate women into conservative Saudi values. Official policy states that: “The purpose of educating a girl is to bring her up in a proper Islamic way so as to perform her duty in life, be an ideal and successful housewife and a good mother, ready to do things which suit her nature such as teaching, nursing and medical treatment.” In school girls are taught that their primary role is to raise children and take care of the household. A woman’s place is at home, whilst a man’s place is in the workforce. The standard of teaching for women is generally lower and less professional.

And what of women who do want more rights and desire to live a more open life? Many find solace in online networking, living more a virtual life than a real life. Online they can express their feelings, protest about their situation and maintain social connections with friends they cannot otherwise see in public. Facebook is the principal vehicle for such social networking, though even this freedom is under threat of being curtailed. In 2007, a young woman was murdered by her father for chatting with a man on Facebook. The conservative response was not to punish the father, but to call for the banning of Facebook! One cleric called it a “door to lust” and cause of “social strife”.

Saudi Arabia has the advantage of being a very wealthy country. Whilst women are segregated, their standard of living is relatively high compared to much of the rest of the region. King Abdullah has made some effort to advance women’s freedoms, opening the first co-educational university in the country and publicly stating that women should have the right to drive, and, ultimately, to vote. Yet squeamishness about the impact of this on conservative Islamic values, the opposition and often violent rhetoric of conservative clergy has retarded this process significantly.

What culture is so weak that it must force people to adhere to its norms for fear of change? Why not merely place a glass case over the country and label it a museum exhibit, or preserve the entire nation in aspic? Culture has always been a dynamic, fluid thing, subject to internal and external influences. It is, in effect, the sum of collective behaviours. If women do wish to maintain the status quo, then they should be allowed to choose to do so, not forced to do so. If they do not wish to do so, then the country must respect that this is the choice of its people, rather than enforce the choice of a small clique who have, very arrogantly, arrogated to themselves responsibility for the opinion of others. Whatever free people choose to do has as much validity as “culture” as what has come before.

Change will come very slowly to Saudi Arabia, whose society is as much a product of traditional Saudi culture as it is of Islam. Saudi Arabia has long been exporting its cultural and religious values, using its money and influence in neighbouring countries. It will likely remain the Alamo of the region, a last hold-out for what is perceived as conservative Islam. One can only hope, for the sake of women across the region, that this process will now switch into reverse. If the ultimate, long-term outcome of the revolutions and uprisings in the region is that the country becomes increasingly surrounded by more open, liberal democracies with vocal female democrats, this may well bring change to the status of women in Saudi Arabia.

The situation in Yemen is still worse, prompting Rachel Cooke of The Observer to ask the question, “Is this the worst place on earth to be a woman?”

In Yemen, sexual segregation is in full force and, as is often the case in Saudi Arabia, the areas reserved for women are of a lower standard than those reserved for men. This situation is greatly exacerbated by Yemen’s dire poverty. In Yemen, women have no citizenship rights, they are largely uneducated, more likely than not to be married before puberty, cannot marry without permission of a male relative, and have a 1 in 39 chance of dying during childbirth. In Yemen, almost all doctors are men, which means women almost invariably go untreated, as showing any part of their body to a man would be considered shameful. With so few midwives, it is understandable why birth-related mortality is so high.

In Yemen women cannot leave the house unaccompanied by a male, or without male permission, and even in the latter case, they are subject to arbitrary arrest simply for being outside the home. Strict dress-codes prevail in this very religious society and whilst most women would choose to cover themselves completely out of respect for tradition, the risks of not doing so are far too great to exercise choice in this matter. Anyone with any sort of uniform, or without, for that matter, can stop a woman and arrest her on suspicion of just about anything, usually some very loose interpretation of adultery, prostitution or indecency, which could be as little as being in the proximity of an unrelated male. In some cases men solicit women, and, when rejected, seek revenge by denouncing the woman as a prostitute to local authorities. Arrested women are regularly beaten in prison until forced to confess to a crime they did not commit. The prisons are full of young women, often with babies, who not only have little idea why they are there, as charges are not often clear, but also have no set trial date.

Yemen ranks 149th out of 177 countries on the Human Development Index. Only a third of the population has access to safe drinking water and most people are poor. Literacy amongst women is a shocking 29%, whilst for men it is more than double at 69% There is one female MP amongst 301 total members. The People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, which was unified with the northern Yemen Arab Republic in 1990 – a bitter process that led to civil war in 1994 – was previously a Marxist state with a comparatively feminist constitution. Those rights have vanished over the last twenty years with the enforcement of Saudi-style Wahhabism. On the plus side, women are allowed to drive – hardly much of a sell, given the rest of the circumstances.

Despite much work being done on the ground by various NGOs and aid agencies, Yemen’s culture of public and private discrimination is so entrenched that one wonders how it could ever shift. Even women who have experienced childhood marriage and been forced to have sex from as young as eleven or twelve, and who have subsequently admitted to the horror they experienced, have said that they would not prevent their daughters marrying early. To those of us used to living in a largely free, equal and liberal society, this is all rather hard to stomach. It takes a certain measure of arrogance and boldness to suggest that these attitudes would change with education, development and an increased freedom of choice backed by legal rights, but surely it is so. To change the culture, you first have to change the law. Culture will always drag its heels, but with legal protection, education, access to information, the vote, property rights and increasingly backed by their own finances, women could ultimately be empowered to challenge mistreatment by men. This is unlikely to happen in a hurry, without a radical shift in the political paradigm, in other words, a revolution. Even then, there is little guarantee women’s rights will improve.

Despite Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s more restrictive laws for women, Iran draws more international ire due to its perceived strategic intentions in the region, it’s nuclear program, the recent lethal post-electoral crackdown on protestors, and its awful practice of stoning women, among other execrable capital and corporal punishments.

The situation of women in Iran has deteriorated significantly since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Female government workers were forced to wear Islamic dress, women were banned from becoming judges, the legal age of marriage was reduced to 13, all aspects of public life were segregated and women were barred from attending regular schools. Exposure of any part of the body except for the hands and face is punishable by up to 70 lashes or 60 days imprisonment.

From the start of the Islamic Revolution women have been active in trying to bring about reform. The election of the reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami in 1997 brought hope for significant change. The eleven women in the 270 seat Majlis tried to bring change to some of the most conservative laws, but during the next parliamentary elections they were all banned from running for office. The small gains they had made were all reversed during the following parliament.

Despite their marginalisation in elementary and secondary education, women in Iran are generally well-educated and the country boasts high literacy rates for the region at 70% for women and 83.5% for men. Many women pursue tertiary education, despite the government’s attempts to restrict their numbers in particular professions, including, surprisingly, gynaecology. Almost 60% of university students in Iran are women.

Whilst all freedom of expression is limited and subject to censorship in Iran, the situation is worse for women. In January 2008, Zanan, the only women’s magazine to be published in Iran was closed down as a “threat to the psychological security of the society”. The magazine had dealt with topics such as domestic abuse, sex, political reform, was critical of the Islamic legal code and had argued that gender equality was Islamic, but that religious literature had been misinterpreted and hi-jacked by misogynists. The One Million Signatures campaign, launched in 2006 to secure an end to legal discrimination against women in matters such as adult legal responsibility (9 years for girls), legal testimony (valued lower than a man’s) and damages payments (half that of men), includes many Iranian and external women’s rights campaigners, including Noble Laureates. During the campaign to collect signatures, women have been attacked and arrested, and four prominent members of the campaign have been jailed for contributing to banned websites.

The current regime remains strongly resistant to accepting women’s request for reform and equality. The protests which erupted over the rigged elections in 2009 made it clear how much discontent there is in Iran over the current political and social situation, particularly among young people. There will be further pressure both inside and outside of the country for reform in the wake of the uprisings across the region. Whether this can translate into regime change or significant reform is uncertain, yet the strength of Iran’s security forces will make any such uprising or revolution extremely difficult. Without major defections by the army, prominent ministers or members of the security forces themselves, there seems little hope of garnering sufficient momentum for internal regime change. Women in Iran will continue to seek reform, as they have for many years, and one can only hope that the increasingly fluid political situation in the region and the increasingly open discussion and process of constitutional reform will have an impact in Iran.

Kuwait, Jordan and Syria

So far as legal, social and political equality is concerned, Kuwait has made the most significant advances in women’s rights in the region. In Kuwait, women can drive, travel and work without male permission. In 2005 they were granted the right to vote and stand for election, and in 2009 they were granted the right to obtain passports without the consent of their father or husband. There are still many issues where women are discriminated against – in the religious family courts the testimony of a woman is worth half that of a man. Inheritance is governed by Islamic law and thus differs for women of Sunni or Shiite extraction. Yet, the fact that women can now take part in the political process and are not restricted from holding high office, places them in an excellent position to challenge these remaining prejudices, should they so wish.

The Kingdom of Jordan has made significant advances in granting greater rights and freedom to women, though there are still many social and legal restrictions in place. Jordan first gave women the right to vote as early as 1974 and to run for election, and women have made significant inroads so far as political representation is concerned, though their numbers are limited by a quota system. In the elections in November 2010, for which the quota was doubled, female representation in parliament leapt from 6 to 13 seats, including one victory outside of those seats allocated by the quota system. Still, however, they make up merely 10.8% of the legislature. The candidates campaigned on a broad range of issues, including ending corruption, creating jobs, increased accountability, economic and political change as well as improving women’s rights and political participation. Their numbers remain small, yet there is now considerable momentum in giving women access to political decision-making in the kingdom and in hearing their concerns and opinions.

There have also been rapid advances in female participation in important professions in Jordan, particularly in the legal profession. In 1996 there was only one female judge in the kingdom, compared to 48 at present. A majority of legal students in the country are now women, almost 60 percent. Women have legal protection from unfair dismissal in the case of pregnancy and are granted ten weeks paid maternity leave. Despite such advances, domestic violence and spousal rape remain widespread. As is the case in Tunisia, Jordan has legislated against honour killings of women, though this practice does still occur on rare occasions. Discrimination is still widespread on a day-to-day basis, but observers have reported a gradual shift in the attitudes towards women, largely due to their increased visibility in positions of authority.

Sadly, however, Syria has made considerably less progress in improving the rights of its people, particularly its women. This is hardly surprising considering that in Syria, Decree 121 bans organisations from working for women’s rights. As is the case right across the region, there are many women activists, but fear of legal persecution makes it difficult for them to organise. Women activists seeking reform have been denounced by clerics as atheists, traitors and blasphemers.

Women in Syria do have access to higher education and enjoy relatively high rates of employment. They make up a low, but regionally significant twelve percent of parliamentary seats and are prominent in the workforce, including constituting roughly 15% of employers.

However, women primarily face discrimination in personal matters, particularly with regard to property, marriage and divorce. There are also some glaringly discriminatory laws regarding criminal punishment for crimes against women. In Syria, if a man rapes a woman, he can avoid punishment by choosing to marry her, irrespective of whether or not she wishes to marry him.

Syria has a dreadful history of honour killings of women. The recent repeal of article 548 on the penal code, which allowed for this practice, is clearly a step forward, though men convicted of such a crime receive far lighter sentences than those convicted of other murders, hardly sending the right signals. Previous estimates suggest between 200 and 300 women were killed each year in this fashion, and legislation has not stopped the practice.

Syria, like many countries in the region, suffers from a general lack of human rights and protections in many spheres of society. There is little freedom of expression and police corruption and abuse are widespread. High levels of youth unemployment and the increasing cost of food make it rife for protest and rebellion, as was the case with Egypt, though this has not yet translated into full-scale popular protest. Whether this happens in the future or not depends on how the government of President Bashar-Al-Assad treads in the near future. Rapid change might fuel protests and add momentum, just as no change or very slow change might also increase frustration.


This discussion was not intended to be comprehensive, nor was it intended to explore in detail the entire region and its many complex problems. Discussion of Iraq, Algeria, Oman, the U.A.E. and Bahrain is notable by its absence. The principal intention here was to highlight broadly the different political, legal, economic and social status of women across the region to show just how much need there is for reform. I am happy to concede that I come at this issue as an outsider, an atheist, a feminist and a westerner, yet most if not all of the problems I have highlighted above are in clear contravention of internationally recognised conventions on human rights. Women in North Africa and the Middle East rarely have the same legal rights and protections enjoyed by men; they are denied equal economic opportunities, full political rights, freedom of expression, the right to choose their own partners, to travel freely, the right to express their chosen sexual orientation, the right to abortion, or the right to marry or divorce, and even, in some extreme cases, the right to drive. They can be corporally or capitally punished for acts as simple as communicating with an unrelated male. These simple everyday acts are designated “crimes” by men or male religious authorities, with little or no hope to prove otherwise or change the law. Where women have greater levels of freedom, they are discriminated against on account of their gender – bullied, sexually harassed, excluded, marginalised and disrespected as disrespectful for having the strength to protest against their oppression.

The international community helped force an end to Apartheid in South Africa on account of its laws segregating “Coloureds” and “Blacks”, yet Saudi women are denied many of the same rights. Why should women, according to their birthplace, have fewer basic rights than women in other countries? This is not a question of culture, it is not a question of tradition, it is, pure and simple, a question of discrimination and, in some cases, enslavement. I refuse to accept any form of discrimination or oppression under the guise of culture and would argue that western society, for all its flaws, is quite purely and simply better. Why? Because to a very great degree it allows freedom of expression, its judicial process seeks to enforce equality before the law, and its institutions are based on secular ideals, not an antiquated patriarchal moral code designed to control women’s bodies, gleaned from so-called holy books.

So, what hope is there for change across North Africa and the Middle East? Any significant change will require a major effort and the breaking of taboos. It will not be easy to achieve and may take a very long time. But when one considers the number of women who have been vocal in the protest movements across the region during the last two months, when one considers the scale of the youth cohort in any regional census, there is plenty of scope for more radical initiatives to be placed on the agenda. Alongside freedom of information, freedom of association and electoral freedom, the freedom of women to go where they please, study what they please, work where and when they please, have abortions if they please, marry and divorce who they please, talk with whom they please, drive if they please, and to have sexual relations with whom they please must also be considered. It took an extraordinarily long time for women to achieve these basic rights in the West, and it will not happen overnight, but with such a large youth population, the so-called Facebook generation, this is the best opportunity yet for a flowering of a broader liberalism in the Middle East. If the states of North Africa and the Middle East hope to realise the full potential of their polity, then they must accept that women be equal partners and players in the process and its continuity.

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Bilby 2.0

I have always had a fondness for soft toys. As a child I had many soft toys and slept with no less than twenty on my bed every night. Mostly I was into tortoises and from the age of four used to carry a very large quilted tortoise around with me everywhere I went. It was at least two and a half feet long and a foot and a half wide, and thus spent much of its time misshapen as I squashed it under my arm. Papa Tort, as he was known, was later joined by the very thoroughly stuffed, bright red Mama Tort, who begat Tootaloo and Uncle Tort and so on… My soft toys were collectively known as The Favourites and, not only were they a great comfort to me as a child, they were also good conversationalists.

The Favourites still reside at the family home, known to us as the Workers’ Socialist Democratic Republic Paradise of # Furber Rd. Sadly, however, they have suffered the rather ignominious fate of being stuffed into garbage bags and buried deep in the cupboard.

My fondness for soft toys remained undiminished into adulthood. All too often I have rescued soft toys from the street and taken them in. One hot night in Alexandria, in the summer of 1992, my friend Simon and I were wandering the streets on some rather intense, highly hallucinatory acid, when we stumbled upon a large hippopotamus abandoned on top of an old oil heater. The poor Hippo had a badly wounded leg and was in dire need of medical attention, so we took him home and got our housemate Zola to bandage him up. We dressed him up in a waistcoat and tie and Hippo soon became our mascot. He lived a royal life in that house and later moved with me to Erskineville and Glebe.

Around the same time as I found Hippo, I also found Bünchen, a small white rabbit discarded from an Easter display at David Jones. I was working in the food-hall at the time and found poor Bünchen lying, dirty and neglected beside one of the bins in the back docks. Little did she know what a glorious future awaited her!

When I left to do my PhD at Cambridge in 1999, Bünchen accompanied me, along with a more recent soft toy acquisition – the indomitable Platypus, known broadly as Platty. Bünchen and Platty made a terrific team and found their way into my now legendary travel bag on many occasions. The two of them travelled to New York, Paris, Strasbourg, Budapest, Istanbul, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Venice, Verona and Rome just to name a few places. I was especially fond of them and often used them as photographic subjects. It was my then girlfriend Liz, a scholar of German history, who gave Bünchen her name – a sort of comedy German diminutive for “Bunny.”

When I lived in Rome in 2003, Platty and Bünchen became quite famous amongst the other inhabitants of the British School. They had their photos taken in a number of archaeological sites and other such desirable locations. They returned to Australia with me in 2003 and then returned with me to England in 2006. Again, during the following two years, they travelled with me to many different places.

One day in 2008, I was coming down the stairs of Kogarah railway station in Sydney when I spotted a soft toy lying on the stairs. The poor fellow had obviously been dropped by some child on the way, but as there were no children about, I figured he might well have lain there for some time. I was uncertain as to what he was, looking rather like a large-eared, pointy-nosed mouse, but I picked him up all the same and took him into my care. I soon discovered from his label not only that he was a bilby, but he was a McDonalds happy meal toy.

Ah, Bilby! I was instantly very fond of him and placed him inside my manbag. He seemed so at home in there that I took him with me everywhere, everyday. When I travelled to Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Macao and Hong Kong in 2009, it was Bilby who accompanied me. Despite the humidity, he thoroughly enjoyed himself and returned safely, a wiser and better travelled Bilby.

When I left for India for two months in March 2010, it was only natural that Bilby accompany me. He found his way once more into the legendary travel bag which has done no less than 50-odd foreign trips since 2000. It was an incredible and at times harrowing trip, but I made a particular point of keeping Bilby safe the whole time. Indeed, I didn’t lose a single thing and was careful with all my possessions, but Bilby earned special “Bilby checks” to make sure I hadn’t forgotten him or that he hadn’t somehow fallen from my bag. He was as important to me as my passport.

When I returned from India, Bilby returned to my manbag. Whilst, like me, he suffered from terrible wanderlust and incurable restlessness, he was good enough to be patient, to a point. Then, sadly, tragedy struck. Early in January of 2011, I was reaching into my manbag to get something and realised I couldn’t feel Bilby in there. I had a closer look, upended the bag and emptied its contents, but there was no Bilby to be seen. I immediately feared the worst and looked everywhere for him. He was nowhere to be found at home, at work, and, well, I could hardly search every bus, train, street and stormwater drain in Sydney for my poor little friend. I soon came to the conclusion that he had most likely fallen out, or, indeed, run away, at some point during New Year’s Eve, when, high as a kite, and cycling around town, I regularly reached into my bag to pull things out.

I was devastated, and when it dawned on me that there was no hope left of him turning up somewhere, I turned my thoughts to replacing him. My first port of call was McDonalds, to see if they had a direct merchandising section on their website, where past Happy Meal toys could be purchased. They did not – at least, not beyond the current and previous offer. I turned to Ebay, finding to my surprise a vast array of Happy Meal toys for sale – almost twelve hundred hits – but not a single Bilby.

It was at this point that my despair reached a new peak, so I returned to McDonalds and wrote the following e-mail to them.

Dear McDonalds,

My query is regarding a happy meal toy, more specifically, the Endangered Species series you had on offer about two years ago. I have recently been devastated by the loss of my Bilby. He and I travelled through the whole of South East Asia and India over the last two years and I was especially fond of him as a good luck charm and photographic subject when nothing else would do. I would dearly like to replace him, despite him not being the original, intrepid and well-travelled Bilby who was so loyal to me through so many difficult situations. Is there anyway I can get hold of a replacement Bilby? I cannot find a direct merchandising website for McDonalds and nor can I find a Bilby amongst the many thousands of McDonalds happy toys being sold on E-Bay. If you could help me in any way, I’d be very grateful.


Dr Benjamin Cornford.

I sent the e-mail with more hope than expectation and when, after a couple of weeks, I hadn’t heard back from them, I was ready to give up and was close to getting over the loss of Bilby. Imagine my surprise when one morning, three weeks after sending the e-mail, just as I was leaving for work, I received a phone call from a girl at McDonalds. “We’ve spoken to our distributors and they’ve managed to find you a bilby,” she said. I was overjoyed and thanked her profusely.

“Just put some money in the Ronald McDonald House charity box next time you’re in McDonalds,” she said, which I did, next time I passed.

Two days later, a brand-new, cherry-ripe Bilby arrived in the post. It was a wonderful moment and I held him close; a powerful symbol of sentiment, loss and recovery. I don’t have much money and there are few possessions I hold dear, but the Favourites have always been special to me. I love them as much as pets.

As I write, Bilby 2.0 sits beside me on my desk. After his arrival, I carried him in my bag for three weeks to make him look a little more travelled, and despite the fact that he is not the original and the best, he looks identical and that’s good enough for me. I never thought I’d say this, but, Thankyou McDonalds. Their customer service dedication deserves high praise, though I’m sure they just thought I was some troubled person with an autistic spectrum disorder.

Long live Bilby! And all the many Favourites, for that matter.

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