We are British Jews – BBC 2


Oh, BBC 2! If you want to show a programme about Middle Eastern politics, don’t go calling it “We are British Jews”.  Are there not enough problems over people conflating Anglo-Jewish life and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, without TV documentaries adding to them?  Having said which, have a gold star for, rather than just coming out with a load of clichés about chicken soup and bar mitzvah parties, putting together a group of people with a wide range of attitudes and lifestyles.  There are too many stereotypes and generalisations in this world, and it’s always good to see a TV programme try to dispel some of those.  And have another gold star for filming in Manchester rather than London 🙂 .

There were so many subjects that these two episodes could have covered instead, or at least as well as, the Middle Eastern situation – and didn’t. Had I not read the preview, I’d have been expecting, given the timing of this, less than week before the Jewish New Year, festivals, rituals and food.  Seeing as the previews talked about “challenges”, I was expecting, from the more secular members of the group, some discussion about issues like making partners in mixed-faith relationships feel welcome, and the pros and cons of faith schools.  And, from a historian’s point of view, and seeing as the first episode was filmed here, it might have been nice to’ve had some mention of the important contributions made to Manchester’s history, culture and economy by a very long list of local Jewish people.

OK, this wasn’t a festivals, rituals and food kind of programme. It was about “issues”. And there are a lot of issues facing all religions at the moment, in the UK and elsewhere.  The days when pretty much everyone identified as belonging to one religion or another, and regularly attended religious services, are long gone.  The days when pretty much everyone followed the diktats of the religious authorities are, as the Irish abortion referendum highlighted, thankfully also long gone.  Times have changed, and all religions need to try to adapt to that.

The series on Santiago de Compostela, shown on BBC 2 earlier this year, identified attitudes towards women and attitudes towards LGBT people as two of the main factors putting people off various Christian denominations, and that applies to Judaism too. Hopefully one day we’ll get to a point where all religions recognise everyone as equal, but sadly that seems to be a way off yet.  As with Christianity, there are differences in

attitudes between different denominations. Reform and Liberal Judaism ordain female ministers and allow women to take a full part in services, whereas Orthodox Judaism does not.  Liberal Judaism recognises same sex marriages, whereas Orthodox and Reform Judaism do not.  There’ve also been questions raised about faith schools, especially in the light of some of the stories in the press about unregistered faith schools.  And there’s even been some controversial debate over kosher and halal meat, although more in various Continental countries than in the UK.

But none of that got mentioned. The focus was almost entirely on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Which would have been fine, had the title of the programme reflected that.  But it didn’t.

There was a certain sense of Big Brother about it, in that they’d got a group of people with different views, and were obviously hoping that they’d clash.  And there was a fair bit of yelling and shouting, from a group made up of very different people.  They were missing representation from the really ultra-Orthodox end of the spectrum, which is growing very rapidly at the moment, but ultra-Orthodox Jews do tend to keep themselves to themselves, and often don’t even have televisions, so it wouldn’t have been easy to have someone from that grouping willing to take part in something like this.  And the most religious member of the group sadly had to drop out part-way through, after the sudden death of her sister.  But it was a pretty diverse group.  And things did start off quite promisingly, with people explaining all their different takes on Jewish religion and culture; but then it just went back to talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There was a different angle on things the second day, with a meeting about anti-Semitism, including a discussion with Mancunian Labour MP Dame Louise Ellman (who went to the same school as me, incidentally).

I do appreciate that this wasn’t a specifically local programme, but I know where I am when I’m talking about Manchester … so, a bit of talk about our city. Every December, in Albert Square, in front of the Town Hall, there is a menorah alongside the Christmas markets.  It usually ends up by the Porky Pig stall but, to be fair, I think that’s just unfortunate positioning due to where the pork stall goes, rather than someone’s idea of a bad joke!   Look on Facebook next week and you will see “Happy Rosh Hashanah” messages from both United and City.  I could write a very long list of important local politicians, business people, campaigners, philanthropists, authors, TV and film producers (including Mike Leigh, who’s producing the Peterloo film), TV personalities, musicians and music managers who were/are Jewish.  If also you look at people who didn’t/don’t identify as Jewish, but had/have Jewish connections, “Mr Manchester” himself, the late, great, Tony Wilson, had a Jewish grandfather.  So, for that matter, did David Beckham! We’re not talking about ghettoes, mellahs or shtetls here: we’re talking about a diverse city which generally enjoys very good relations between people of all faiths and none.

However, there has in recent times been a rise in all types of hate crime. Some of this is due to increased levels of reporting of hate crime, but there has undoubtedly been a rise.  It feels as if some people will be nasty about anything and everything, especially on social media where they’ve got a degree of anonymity.  Rival sports teams.  Celebrities’ weight.  More seriously, we’re talking religion-based hate crime, racism, hate crime based on nationality, disability-based hate crime, homophobia, transphobia, and even hate crime based on the way people dress.  Where does all this hatred come from?  It seems to be a worldwide phenomenon: racial tension in Chemnitz – one of Manchester’s twin cities, incidentally – has been making the news this week, and hate crime’s on the rise across the Atlantic as well.  In the UK, it’s been the frightening rise in anti-Semitism making the headlines, largely because of the controversies within the Labour Party.  We’re hardly in Dreyfus territory here, i.e. the entire national political debate being taken over by the issue of anti-Semitism, but I cannot think of another time when the issue has been so much at the forefront of national politics here.

It’s extremely unpleasant, and, much as I wish a way could be found of bringing a quick and decisive end to it, I’m not sure how that’s going to happen – although it would help if everyone would moderate their language, stop hurling insults about and stop talking about Nazis. It was very distressing to hear Louise Ellman talk about the abuse she’s received on-line, and to see pictures of Holocaust-related abusive pictures sent to her.  One woman spoke about having an egg thrown at her.  Another spoke about some very vile verbal abuse she’d received.  They also spoke to the owners of a local kosher restaurant which has been attacked by arsonists – and it’s not the only one.  And the trailer for this series received some very nasty comments on You Tube.

Part of it’s this international conspiracy theory idea. That’s been around for a long time.  It’s been said about Catholics as well, but, in the 19th and 20th centuries, it was mostly about Jews – most famously, the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  You wouldn’t believe that it’d all still be going on in the 21st century, but we’ve now got people claiming that there’s some sort of Jewish conspiracy to overthrow the Labour Party leadership, and that there’s also some sort of international conspiracy involving Donald Trump.  A councillor from Salford came out with some of these comments the other day.  That’s not some anonymous Twitter troll: it’s a person holding public office.  And, as everyone’s well aware, there have been several similar incidents.

The one thing everyone in the group agreed on was that, whilst there has been a rise in hate crime generally, the rise in anti-Semitism is largely about the situation in the Middle East. I suppose that was the justification for making the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the focus of the programme.   I can see that, but I just don’t think it was helpful.

On the one hand, concerns over the situation in the West Bank, the appalling situation in the Gaza Strip, and, more recently, the new Israeli constitution, and the whole issues of lack of self-determination for Palestinians, and the number of Palestinians living as refugees in other countries, many in refugee camps, have spilled over into general anti-Jewish sentiment. On the other hand, criticism of those situations has been interpreted as anti-Jewish sentiment.  So the conflation of issues is coming from both sides, and several members of the group did point that out.

It’s hard to get a handle on all this from a historian’s viewpoint. Just to go back to the Dreyfus Affair, it was that which really kicked off modern Zionism.  I think there’s a common perception that it was the pogroms in the Russian Empire, but it wasn’t.  And, just because I always like to get some local history in J, Manchester, as I’ve said before, has very significant historical ties with Zionism and Israel. The Balfour Declaration was all about Manchester.  The first president of Israel spent around thirty years living in Manchester.   The first president of the Women’s International Zionist Organisation came from Manchester.  Etc etc etc. https://setinthepast.wordpress.com/2017/11/02/the-balfour-declaration-britains-promise-to-the-holy-land-bbc-2/

But this overlap/overspill of issues is difficult to make sense of, because it doesn’t seem to happen over anything else. As one of the group pointed out, no-one’s going to attack British Muslims because of what IS are doing in the Middle East.   No-one’s going to accuse someone who criticises the Polish government of being anti-Catholic, or even anti-Polish.  There are no comparisons.  And there isn’t a historical take on it: the State of Israel has only existed since 1948, and, in the early days, was viewed far more favourably in the West than it is under its present right-wing nationalist government.  The politics of the Middle East are as may be, and a peaceful solution unfortunately seems to be a very long way away; but there is this huge problem with Israeli issues and Jewish issues getting tangled up together, and that’s why I really don’t think it was ideal for BBC 2 to make a programme called “We are British Jews” and then spend most of it talking about the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

The group then went to visit the University of Manchester, and it was sad, in our city, to hear people saying that they felt uncomfortable there, and on many other university campuses in the country, and again this was all over the Israeli-Palestinian situation. A point, which I’ve made on a historians’ forum before and which no-one seems to have the answer to, was made about it being the “touchstone” issue of the day, and a “thing”.  Why does something become a “thing”?  Obviously it is an issue, but why does it attract so much more attention than the persecution of the Rohingya and other minorities in Burma/Myanmar, the barbaric treatment of the Yazidis by IS, the abduction of girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria, the use of child soldiers in the DR Congo, etc etc?  Back in the day, it used to be all about apartheid in South Africa.  Again, that was a huge issue, but why did we focus so much more on that than on any of the other things going on in the ’70s and ’80s?   The Chinese occupation of Tibet used to be a “thing” as well, and now no-one ever even mentions it.  Why does something become the “in” topic of the day?  Is there any logic to it?

We actually did get some focus back on Jewish, rather than Israeli, issues, with a celebration of the festival of Purim. This bit was filmed fairly close to chez moi.  The hotel where they stayed isn’t far away, but is in an area I tend to go through rather than to, whereas this bit was somewhere I go past pretty much every day.  So that was all very local.  But then it was off to Israel, for the second episode.  The first part showed a kibbutz, and explained the history of Zionist settlement, and something about the history of the Israeli state, right up to the immediate present with the introduction of the controversial new constitution.  But then it was right back to the conflict.

Jerusalem, with its unique historical and religious significance, should be one of the most visited cities in the world. It’s tragic that, because of the political situation, it isn’t.  Many other places within Israel and the Occupied Territories should also be high up on the tourist agenda, for historical and religious/cultural reasons or even just as beach resorts. It’s sad that they can’t be.  Fascinating part of the world.  But don’t look for the history of British Jews there, because you won’t find it.  They’d’ve found it in Manchester, or London, Leeds, Liverpool, Glasgow or many other parts of the UK, but BBC 2 weren’t interested in that.  They didn’t even seem very interested in the history and culture of the area: when the group visited Akko, no-one even mentioned that it was the historic Crusader capital of Acre.

Incidentally, I hate to sound like a grumpy old woman, but it’s no wonder that millennials are known as “the snowflake generation”! Going on about whether or not Israel should have an army.  All countries have armies – that’s life.  And fussing about whether or not a plate of hummus was “cultural appropriation”.  Still, at least the hummus debate showed that there is actually more to both Israeli culture and Palestinian culture than the conflict, because nothing else did.  No mention of sport, music, dancing … or even language, which is currently a hot topic after the new constitution removed the status of Arabic as an official language of Israel.   Not only was it a long way from Anglo-Jewish life, which was what the title of the programme said that it was going to be about, but it didn’t really represent either the Israeli people or the Palestinian people that well.

The vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians just want to live in peace and go about their business, just as people everywhere do; but there’s been a certain amount of demonisation of both cultures, in different areas of the press, because of the conflict. It might have been nice had BBC 2 talked about … I was going to say the Eurovision Song Contest, but maybe not!   Football, then.  Football talk’s always good!  Actually, forget that, because there’s currently a row going on over Argentina pulling out of a friendly against Israel.   Oh dear.  But that’s exactly what I mean.  Why does everything have to be about the conflict?  Both the Israelis and the Palestinians have so much more to offer the world.  But their leaders don’t help.  The match was only cancelled after the Israeli government encouraged their FA to move it from Haifa to Jerusalem.  The match was a sell-out and a lot of people would have been eagerly looking forward to seeing Messi & co, and now they won’t get the chance.  Own goal.  But then none of that excuses the threats made to Messi by Palestinian groups: that was awful.  Oh, what a mess.  Sorry, I’ve got way off the point now!

That’s not to say that it wasn’t interesting. The makers of the programme clearly wanted debate, and indeed argument, and they got that all right.  The group met Israelis, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.  It’s a shame that other groups weren’t included too – members of the Israeli Druze community have been speaking out about their distress over the new constitution, and there’s a row going on at the moment over plans to destroy a Bedouin village – but I suppose they could only fit so much into an hour.

BBC 2 had tried very hard to present a balanced view of the situation. The group spent most of their time in the West Bank, and met a number of Israelis and Palestinians, some of whom held quite militant views and some of whom held more conciliatory views.  The one thing that came across at all times was what a human tragedy this is.  People (Israelis and Palestinians) are living in fear of being attacked.  People (mostly Palestinians) are having to go through checkpoints – there’s that great big wall there, in particular – to get from home to work and back again.  People (mostly Palestinians) are having their businesses boarded up or their farmland confiscated.  The extremely controversial term “apartheid” was used, when talking about different communities being subject to different courts.  It was unfortunate that, at that point, several members of the group walked out – although others did point out the necessity of listening to all viewpoints.

The visit to Jerusalem did bring up one of the more general issues, the debate over whether or not women should be able to wear skull caps and prayer shawls when praying at the Western Wall – one member of the group, a female Progressive Jew, did so, and was criticised by some other people there. Can we all get over criticising other people’s choice of clothing, please?!  But that was more the sort of thing I’d originally been expecting.  But then the visit to Jerusalem finished on a very sad note, with the group speaking to an Israeli man whose 14-year-old daughter had been killed by Palestinians, and an Israeli man whose 10-year-old daughter had been killed by Israelis.

This was the last bit, apart from a visit to Masada. Both men spoke of their hopes for peace.  Neither called for revenge.  Just peace.  Everyone was clearly very impressed and moved by their courage.  If only people like them come could and speak at political party conferences, or university demonstrations, instead of having all these ridiculous slanging matches.  If only their own political leaders would listen to them.  If only someone would do something to end this horrendous cycle of violence.  They both said that they believed that peace would come.  Well, let’s hope so.

All in all, a very well-meaning attempt at showing a range of different views on a subject about which feelings tend to run very high – and which, I’ve said, really is a human tragedy. But I don’t think the choice of title was particularly helpful or appropriate.  A lot of what is going on at the moment is because people cannot or will not distinguish between “Jewish” and … well, and what?  People say “between anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist” (leaving aside the fact that “anti-Semitic” isn’t an accurate term and “anti-Jewish” is better), but that isn’t right. Saying or doing anything anti-Semitic is clearly wrong at every possibly level, and should not be permitted in any political party or anywhere else.  What about “anti-Zionist”?  That presumably means questioning the right of the Israeli state to exist – and is inappropriate, given that its existence is recognised by, and indeed was voted on by, the United Nations.  Or “anti-Israeli” – that presumably means taking against over 5 million people, and isn’t acceptable either.  “Critical of the policies of the present Israeli government in relation to the Palestinians” is horribly long-winded, but that’s the one that should be OK.  Criticise any government!

But all these things are getting confused.  And calling a programme “We are British Jews” and then spending 90% of the time talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict just kind of plays right along with that confusion.  All the same, there was a lot of very interesting stuff in it, and it’s good to see such a controversial subject being tackled rather than shied away from.




Templar Silks by Elizabeth Chadwick


I really need to visit Caversham Park, Pembroke Castle and Chepstow Castle, after reading all Elizabeth Chadwick’s wonderful books about William Marshal.  The only one of his homes/bases I’ve been to is Kilkenny Castle, which is a bit mad considering that that’s the furthest away.  Anyway!  This book’s quite different from the others, being about William’s time in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the mid-1180s, and almost entirely imagined.  Although it’s known that he did spend time there, there don’t seem to be any accounts of what he actually did during that time – leaving Elizabeth Chadwick free to weave him into the court intrigues of a troubled and fascinating time.  Although it’s written in the style of a novel, a lot of it is about high politics.  I love that 🙂 .  OK, not everyone does, but I do.  Reading is learning, and all that.

The book actually starts with William on his deathbed in 1217, thinking about the past, and then moves back to 1183.  It does flash forward and then backwards again several times, which is a bit annoying because it interrupts the flow of the book.  I wish she’d just written it as set in the 1180s, but maybe she thought that’d be strange when she’d already taken his story so long past there.  It’s not a huge problem and won’t stop anyone from enjoying the story, though.

William had been in the service of Henry the Young King, eldest surviving son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and they, along with William’s brother Ancel and various other young men, had been on the tourney circuit.  I love the idea of the tourney circuit.   Maybe a bit like today’s tennis and golf tours 🙂 ?  Knights would travel round to wherever a tournament was being held, and, if they were any good, make a living from defeating rivals at jousts and taking home the prize money.  Word must have spread if a big name was taking part, and big crowds must have turned up!  Well, that’s how I imagine it, anyway!

However, Henry, despite being the crowned heir of the King of England, managed to run out of cash, and decided to rob the shrine at Rocadamour, in the Languedoc.  I always feel sorry for Rocamadour, because these days it very much has to play second fiddle to Lourdes as far as French shrines go, even though it’s the one with centuries of history.  It’s surprising that this incident isn’t better known, really.  OK, there wasn’t exactly a medieval equivalent of the Geneva Convention, but the heir to the English throne stealing from a religious shrine must have been pretty shocking.

Shortly afterwards, Henry died of “the bloody flux”.  It was a common cause of death at the time, but obviously it looked like divine retribution for what he and his men had done.  So the story goes, he asked William to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and lay his cloak on Christ’s tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  William, both to carry out his friend’s wishes and to atone for his own part in the attack on Rocamadour, left for Jerusalem in 1183, and didn’t return until either late 1185 or early 1186.

The Latin Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem, set up in 1099, after the First Crusade, was at that time ruled by Baldwin IV, Henry II’s half-cousin on the Angevin side.  Baldwin, who comes across in this book as being brave and able, suffered from leprosy, and was to die, aged only 24, in 1185.  His heir was his young nephew – who became Baldwin V, only to die in 1186.  When William, Ancel and the rest of their gang arrived, in 1883, the kingdom was in turmoil.  Baldwin’s brother-in-law, Guy de Lusignan, stepfather of the heir, was at odds with Baldwin and with pretty much else.  And the Christians’ holdings in the Holy Land were under attack from Saladin.  We associate Saladin so much with Richard the Lionheart (one of the worst kings England ever had, but that’s another story) and the Third Crusade that maybe we sometimes forget just how much military success he achieved before then.  If you look at the history of the 1180s, Aleppo comes under siege, there’s fighting around Mosul, and everyone wants control of Jerusalem.  Plus ca change …

Poor Jerusalem, seemingly forever doomed to be fought over.  There are several comments from characters about how they feel as if things in the Holy Land should be done in a way that’s honest and honourable, and how they’re disappointed to find the same old intrigue and corruption and jostling for power that you get everywhere else, but that’s the way it goes.  A lot of groups of people have dreamt of setting up a New Jerusalem, or some other form of ideal state, whether that’s via religion or communism or anything else, and whether by a change of regime in their home country or by setting up somewhere new.  It always turns out the same way.  Miserable, that, isn’t it?!  But Se A Vida E, that’s the way life is, to quote … er, the Pet Shop Boys, who have nothing to do with the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

I’m sorry that Elizabeth Chadwick didn’t write more about William’s journey to Jerusalem, because she – and this is obviously all her story, because no-one actually knows which route William took, or what happened along the way – mentioned him visiting various holy sites along the way.  We got a bit of time in Rome, and then we got quite a while in Constantinople but, rather than a description of the city and its sights, we got William being kidnapped by someone who wrongly accused him of being a spy.  OK, it was all quite dramatic, but I’d like to’ve heard a bit more about Constantinople –although, only a year after the massacre of Latin Christians in the city, and only 21 years before the Fourth Crusade and the sack of the capital of Eastern Christendom by the crusaders of Western Christendom, it reflected East-West tensions rather well.

We did, however, get a detailed description of their arrival in Jerusalem and their visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and William’s emotions at the fulfilment of his pilgrimage vow.  The power of Jerusalem and all that.  There’s even supposed to be a medical condition associated with it – “Jerusalem Syndrome”, which causes people with no previous history of psychosis or delusions to experience them after visiting the city.  I can’t say that I’ve ever come across it, but, when I was there ten years ago, one woman in the group was so overcome by emotion that she burst into tears.  And, whatever your personal relationship with Christianity or Judaism or Islam, it holds such an important place in the culture of so much of humanity that it should be one of the most visited cities in the world.   Unfortunately, because of the political situation, that isn’t the case.  Maybe one day …

There wasn’t much more about the pilgrimage side of things, though, apart from an interesting account of spending Easter in Jerusalem. On to court politics.   It was quite a contrast to the author’s other William Marshal books, which are largely centred on castles or manor houses in the British Isles, so anyone just hoping for more of that is going to be disappointed … but please enjoy this for what it is, which is a fascinating story of the death throes of the Latin Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem.  Well, technically it lasted until 1291, but really it only lasted until Saladin’s great victory over Guy of Lusignan at the Horns of Hattin in 1187.  The replacement Christian kingdom was based at Acre.  Interesting place – obviously not in the same league as Jerusalem, but worth a visit. Just for the sake of completeness, incidentally, it should be pointed out that the Latin Christians did hold Jerusalem again for a while at various points between 1229 and 1244, under the leadership of Frederick II of Sicily.  (I’m going to Sicily next month, so have been reading up on Frederick!)  And, the throne of Sicily having later passed to the rulers of Aragon, King Felipe of Spain includes “King of Jerusalem” amongst his many titles.  I’m not sure what either the Israelis or the Palestinians make of that.  But, effectively, ongoing Latin Christian rule of Jerusalem ended in 1187.

The book actually misses the really big events, because William had gone home before they happened – he’d left before Hattin, and the famous events of the Third Crusade.  But there was quite a lot going on even so, in terms of court intrigue and in terms of actual fighting.   There was a lot of blood and guts in this, including one scene in which William actually chops someone’s head off.  And some rather detailed descriptions of battle wounds, and a very detailed description of the horrors found in a village destroyed by Saladin’s forces.  All sadly true to life, but not for the squeamish.

Guy of Lusignan, an old enemy of William’s, very much came across as the bad guy in this.  A bit of a 12th century Donald Trump, doing things he thought were a good idea but which actually made everything worse and horrified everyone else, like killing Bedouin tribesmen.  A major part of the storyline was William’s hatred of Guy, and his refusal to support him.

However, a lot of the focus was on a little known character – Paschia de Riveri, mistress of Heraclius, the Patriach of Jerusalem.  And this is going right into the realms of fiction, because the storyline comes to be dominated by a fictitious affair between her and William.  It’s known that William made a secret commitment to join the Templars on his deathbed.  He duly did so, and that’s where the title of the novel comes from.  But no-one knows why.  The story here was that it was closely linked to the need he felt for absolution of his sins after his relationship with Paschia.  I’m not sure how well that argument works, because it was hardly unusual for a couple to have a relationship outside marriage, but the story of the affair does work quite well.  But it’s all fiction – whereas the other William Marshal books by Elizabeth Chadwick have all been grounded in fact.

As ever with her books, there were some wonderfully descriptive passages, evoking a sense of time and place just so well.  OK, maybe some of it lapsed into purple prose, but I rather like purple prose.  And not just of the actual physical places, but of emotions – it’s not always easy to get your head into the medieval sense of religion, but you do get a real sense of it from this book.  And the minor characters, notably William’s brother Ancel and his mistress Asmaria, and William’s friend Aimery, and Paschia’s relations, all played their parts so very well.

It’s a very rich and entertaining and informative book, like all her books are.  I just don’t know if I like the idea that nearly all of it is fictitious, whereas the other books in the William Marshal series have followed, as closely as possible, the real events of the time.  Paschia comes across as a fascinating character with a fascinating history, but almost nothing is known about her: it’s all fictional.  And almost nothing is known about William’s time in the Kingdom of Jerusalem: that’s all fictional.  It doesn’t mean that this isn’t an excellent read, but it does sit oddly with the rest of the series.  But, hey, there’s no law that says that all books in a series have to be similar, and it really is very well-written and very informative.  Well worth a read.

Syria: The World’s War – BBC 2


Thank you to BBC 2 for showing both this and the programme on Burma/Myanmar which was on on Sunday night.  We get 24/7 news coverage these days, but we don’t get that many programmes looking at major current issues over a period of time, rather than just looking at what’s happened that day.  Well, as ever, it’s all going on in the Middle East at the moment – in addition to the wars in Syria and Yemen, neither of them showing much sign of ending, Hezbollah are stirring up trouble in Lebanon, Iran and Israel are at each other’s throats, two million people are displaced in Iraq, and over fifty people have just been killed in clashes on the border between Israel and Gaza.  The war in Yemen is sadly being largely ignored in the West.  That’s not true of the war in Syria, but is it “the world’s war”?

I don’t really know why the BBC chose that title for these two programmes, because there was very little in it about the impact on neighbouring countries, and not as much as I was expecting about outside intervention. Well, there were numerous mentions of Russia – the BBC isn’t very keen on Russia – and several of Iran, and a lot of talk about America, but Turkey, the one country which has actually barged into Syria, was largely ignored.  That was fair enough, because the programme was supposed to be about Syria, but it made the choice of title a bit daft.  More frustratingly, there was very little historical background information in it either.  The argument, insofar as there was one, was that the war was purely about Bashar al-Assad and his regime’s fight for survival.  And that’s a bit too simplistic, really.

OK, this is not the usual sort of civil war.  It isn’t really between ethnic or religious or regional groups, or even ideological groups.  It’s not like the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, or the war in Syria’s neighbour Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s, where you needed to go back through several centuries to understand the differences between the groups involved.  But there are sectarian and ethnic divisions, and a bit more talk about the Alawites, and about the position of the Kurds in Syria, would have been helpful.  We didn’t even really get much about the history of the Ba’ath party and the fact that repression of civil rights in Syria goes back several decades.  It was all very much “in the moment”.  I don’t really think that helped viewers to try to understand what’s going on – and it really isn’t easy to try to understand what’s going on in Syria, with different groups getting stuck in at different points.  Civil wars, or any wars, don’t just start spontaneously, without any roots in what’s happened in the past.

Having said all that, it did an excellent job of covering what has happened since 2011.  Representatives of various different groups were interviewed, and given the opportunity to put their arguments across.  It must have been extremely frustrating for the presenter, Lyse Doucet, when, for example, government representatives insisted that the hospitals they’d bombed weren’t really hospitals, but the BBC allowed them to speak.

And it was horrible – really, really horrible.  Pictures of bodies lying outside prisons, covered in polythene bags, the sort you use to cover clothes being taken for dry cleaning.  And the state of the bodies …  reminiscent of pictures from Nazi concentration camps in terms of how thin they were.  People talking about being tortured, and showing the terrible bruising they’d suffered from being tortured.  Tales of children so traumatised from endless bombing that they didn’t know how to relate to other human beings any more.  Accounts of massacre after massacre.  Families massacred in their own homes.  A man describing how he took photographs of children sleeping … and then realised that they weren’t sleeping, they were dead.  Killed in a gas attack.  Pictures of cities that are now just … well, bomb sites.  Completely devastated.  Ten years ago, Syria was a relatively prosperous country.  Now it’s a ruin.  I went to Egypt in 2007, and the Middle Eastern section of my travel brochure included a tour of Syria.  11 years ago, you could go there on holiday.  Now look at it.

And, if it is “the world’s war”, how has the world let it happen?  How many times do we say “never again”, only for it all to happen all over again somewhere else?  Well, as far as that went, the conclusion seemed to be that the world should just have stayed out of it completely and left Assad to it, because he was going to win anyway and, if he’d won more quickly, fewer lives would have been lost, fewer lives devastated.  And that the best thing the world can do now – other than Russia and Iran, who are backing Assad anyway – is just that, to leave him to it.  And the people interviewed were saying that because they couldn’t see any alternative.  If you remove a regime with nothing to put in its place, things can end up worse than they were to start with.

We know that.  Remove Charles I, and you get a bunch of dictatorial religious fanatics – why Oliver Cromwell is so often voted in the top few places in “greatest English person in history” polls is beyond me completely.  We learnt our lesson there – James II was only booted out once William of Orange had agreed to take his place.  Cromwell’s a fairly mild example.  Remove Louis XVI, and you get the Terror.  Remove the Tsar and Kerensky and you get Lenin and Stalin.

Remove Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, and do you turn Iraq and Libya (I have no idea why I originally put “Lebanon”) into lands of harmony and plenty?  Hardly!  It’s horrific, isn’t it?  Two such evil men.  We rejoiced at their downfall.  Of course we did.  But everyone’s been sharply reminded that power vacuums can be just as dangerous.  It’s not a computer game – topple the bad guy and you’ve won.  Syria hasn’t got a Nelson Mandela or a Vaclav Havel waiting in the wings.  It hasn’t even got someone like Ho Chi Minh, or Francisco Franco.  How many people can even name a Syrian opposition leader?  Can anyone even define what “the Syrian opposition” is?

It’s all academic anyway, because Assad isn’t going anywhere.  The UN Security Council’s paralysed, and, even if it wasn’t, it couldn’t just go around removing countries’ leaders.  The only way would be if a group of powers decided to try to capture him on the grounds that he was wanted for war crimes.  But how would that be done?  Boots on the ground?  More casualties.  No way.  Special forces?  Maybe.  But then what?   It’s not happening.  The best anyone can hope for is that the war will end – which it will, because wars don’t go on for ever – , Assad will implement some sort of reforms, and some sort of rebuilding can take place, and some of the refugees return.  The programme didn’t even get that far.  It didn’t really talk about hope, or peace.  But, if it had done, it could only have been speculation.  It gave us facts.  This is the age of spin.  And, worse, the age of fake news.  No speculation.  No answers, because no-one’s got any.  But a lot of brutal, horrible facts.

It started with peaceful protests.  And spiralled into a war which has now lasted longer than the Second World War did.  What can we do?  Give money to aid agencies?  The programme didn’t offer any answers, because no-one has got any answers.  But it was a very well-presented factual documentary.

Surely everyone watching it could only wish fervently that someone did have some answers.  What a mess.





Flight from Syria: Refugee Stories


BBC 2 are showing a two-part documentary on Syria later this week, and hopefully that’ll give some more historical background to the conflict. In the meantime, this short book (well, collection of articles) is available free for Kindle at the moment, and gives some basic pointers, especially about the complex demographics of the country, how that demographic mix has probably been broken permanently, and how it impacts on the attitudes of other countries.

Most of the books I’ve read about the area have been about either the Crusades or the Ottomans, which are both interesting topics but, even with the Ottoman period, don’t help that much in understanding what’s going on at the moment, which I think everyone needs to try to do. I was mainly looking for some more information about the different ethnic and religious groups within Syria, as background information.  A few other general points from these articles, though.  One important point is that many Syrian families have six or more children, so many of the refugees are children, which, apart from being particularly upsetting, creates additional practical problems in terms of the need for schooling.  Another, as has often been pointed out in the media, is that this is a different sort of refugee crisis to those seen in Africa and elsewhere: most refugees are arriving by car, with a number of possessions, and, whilst there are many people living in refugee camps, the majority of them are living in towns, cities and villages.

Some parts of the book are very critical of other countries, especially the countries closest to Syria, for not having done more to help, but other parts acknowledge that this is an impossible situation for everyone. Lebanon in particular, Jordan and to some extent Turkey all have their own problems, and are not equipped to deal with an influx of refugees on this scale.  It criticises some Western countries, praises others, criticises Russia and makes no mention of the Gulf states.

The demographics, then. Apparently, due to the types of questions asked and not asked during censuses, no-one’s entirely sure of the demographics of pre-war Syria.  In terms of religion, it’s well-known that the majority of the population is Sunni Muslim, and that was about 77% of people, whilst Assad and the most of the others in positions of power are Alawite Muslims, and that group represented about 12% of the population, with 8% being Christian and 3% Druze.  Syria had a sizeable Jewish community at one time, but, due to hostility because of poor relations with Israel, most Syria Jews had emigrated by the mid-1990s.  In terms of ethnolinguistics, about 85% were Arabic speakers, 9% Kurdish speakers … and that presumably left 6% speaking various other languages.

There were, and are, a lot of minority groups. Many of the survivors of the Armenian genocide settled in Syria, especially in Aleppo which had had an Armenian community since the eleventh century, and their descendants have lived there since.  They’re mainly Oriental Orthodox, Their heritage is Western Armenian, from the area of historic Armenia now part of Turkey, so there are cultural differences from the (former Soviet) Republic of Armenia, but many Syrian Armenians have fled there.  And they’re being welcomed there, because they’re generally quite well-to-do and well-educated, and Armenia needs that.  This hasn’t really been reported here. I’ve always been interested in Armenia, so I’d’ve picked up on it if it had.  However (this is according to Wikipedia, which I turned to for further information!), some of the refugees have settled in the disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is causing issues with Azerbaijan.  So Armenia and Azerbaijan are both being affected, and that’s something we’ve heard next to nothing about.  And, with Armenia welcoming Syrian Armenians, it seems unlikely that many of them will return, so that’s going to be a permanent change in the demographic make-up of Syria.

Then there are the Turkmens. They sound as if they should have arrived with Baybars, during the Crusades, but most of them are actually descended from Turks who settled in Syria during Ottoman times.  They’re mainly Sunnis, but some are Alevis – not to be confused with Alawites.  Turkmen refugees have generally headed for Turkey, and so have many Arab and Kurdish refugees.  Turkey, being mainly Sunni, isn’t keen on Assad, but its main concern at the moment is the Kurdish question.

The Kurds have been let down over and over again. That’d be a very long article in itself.  And, whilst the Assad regime claimed to be supported by minorities – one reason why hostility towards groups like Armenians has grown since the war began – it actively discriminated against Kurds, who weren’t even supposed to speak Kurdish or to give their children Kurdish names.  The breakdown in authority has freed Syria’s Kurds from those restrictions – but at what horrendous cost?   Many of them have fled to Turkey or Iraq, both of which are countries with a history of discriminating against Kurds, or worse.  And, of course, Turkey’s attacked Kurdish areas of Syria.  What a mess.

The uprising must have originally given particular hope to the Kurds. It also gave hope to various other sections of the population mentioned in the book – gay people, who hoped that it might bring about the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Syria, and women who disliked feeling obliged to wear a hijab as the Assad regime became more religiously conservative.  It all began in hope.

So did the Kurdish uprising in Iraq, after the Gulf War. Some of the Kurds in Syria were refugees from that conflict.  There’s a lot of talk in the book about “double refugees” – especially Palestinians.  Jordan, which has such a large Palestinian population already and is concerned about its own demographics, has been particularly reluctant to admit Syrian Palestinians – some of whom are actually treble refugees, having come to Syria to escape the civil war in Lebanon in the 1980s. Lebanon, quite understandably so after its own years of civil war, and with its delicate sectarian balance between different Christian and Muslim groups, is even more concerned about the impact of admitting large numbers of mainly Sunni Muslim Syrians and Palestinians – but, even so, has taken in around one million refugees into an existing population of only around four million.

There are smaller groups, too. Assyrians, mainly speaking Aramaic.  Sounds so Biblical.  They’re mainly Christian – some are Oriental Orthodox, others belong to a Nestorian church set up in the 1960s.  Yazidis, whose counterparts in Iraq have been so horrifically persecuted by Islamic State.  Circassians, mainly descended from people who fled to Ottoman Syria during the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the nineteenth century – and many of whom have taken refuge in the Circassian areas (the peaceful ones, not Chechnya or Dagestan) of the Russian Federation.  Greeks, both Muslims and Christians.  Yarmouks, of African descent.

A lot of things in Syria are very badly broken, and this is about people in general, and people as individuals, not about an ethnolinguistic/ethnoreligious mix. But there was that mix, and it’s broken now.  People interviewed in the various articles in the book speak about the days when people had friends and neighbours from different backgrounds – different “millets”, to use the Ottoman term.  It’s reminiscent of comments made by people speaking about their lives in Northern India before the violence that accompanied Partition, or in Bosnia-Herzegovina before the war there in the 1990s.  Wars do end.  The one in Bosnia-Herzegovina did.  The one in Lebanon did.  The one in Syria will, eventually.  But you can never return to the status quo ante.  Do countries ever get over civil wars?  Spain hasn’t, after 80 years.  America certainly hasn’t, after over 150 years.  Are we still dealing with issues from the seventeenth century.  You can certainly argue that we are.

This is a collection of articles, rather than one continuous narrative. Some of the language is very … casual, for lack of a better word.  And it’s very short.  But it does make you think about aspects of the situation in Syria and its neighbours which you might not have thought about before.  Read it – it’s worth it.  And well done to BBC 2 for commissioning the forthcoming documentary, as well.  It’s such a complex situation, with so many different groups involved, and so many other countries affected as well, and it’s difficult to try to get your head round it all.   I could do with some historical novels about Syria, but I’m struggling to find any, other than either those set during ancient times or those about the Crusades and told from a European viewpoint, which aren’t really what I’m after.  I have got a 900 page book on the subject waiting to be read, but I really haven’t got time to tackle it at the moment (and my book mountain already makes Mount Everest look like an anthill) … but this one’s very short, and well worth a read.

Mary Magdalene


The Bible is a unique book which has been hugely influential in world culture; but, unfortunately, some people’s nasty-minded interpretations of it have been responsible for some very damaging attitudes over the centuries. They’ve been used to attack Jewish people (especially at this time of year), LGBT people, black people, mixed race couples and, perhaps above all, women. The negative view of women, in terms of the Bible, is really due to the story of Eve. 50% of the world’s population being viewed as inferior because of a story about a snake and an apple – seriously! However, Eve doesn’t really have that bad an image. Come to that, nor does Cain, even though the story says that he murdered his brother!   People never talk much about Cain. Nope – the two Biblical figures who really, really cop for abuse are Judas and Mary Magdalene. Judas – OK, he’s the bloke who betrayed his mate. But why Mary Magdalene?

Well, it’s the idea of women as either virgins or whores. Mary, the mother of Jesus, has been cast as the Virgin Mother, even though the Bible probably never said that and it’s likely to be due at best to an error in translation and at worst to men wanting to make out that she couldn’t be without sin otherwise. And Mary Magdalene, the woman who’d “had so many men before, in very many ways”. All right, that’s not the Bible, that’s Andrew Lloyd Webber, but the fact that even he goes with the traditional image of Mary Magdalene says a lot. Incidentally, if a bloke had “had so many women before, in very many ways,” people’d be clapping him on the back. What about both David and Solomon? How many wives and girlfriends did they have?!   Yet they’re both big heroes! There’s a meme doing the rounds on Facebook saying that a woman who performed the miracles Jesus is supposed to have performed would probably have been condemned as a witch. It’s not wrong.

OK, back to Mary Magdalene. There’s an awful lot of confusion about her, partly due to the fact that up to a third of women in Judaea and Samaria in New Testament times were called Mary/Miriam/Mariam. There’s Mary Magdalene. There’s Mary of Bethany (sister of Lazarus who was raised from the dead). And there’s an anonymous “sinner” with an alabaster jar. Pope Gregory the Great, in the 6th century AD, decided that they were one and the same person. This idea’s come down the centuries in Catholicism – although it hasn’t in Orthodoxy, and it’s waned in Protestantism. So Mary Magdalene has been labelled a sinner – when the Bible doesn’t say that at all.

And another thing.   The Bible describes the alabaster jar woman, whoever she was, as a sinner. It does not describe her as a prostitute. There are a lot of different types of sins. If a man was described as being a sinner, it would probably be assumed that he was a cheat, or a liar. Maybe even a murderer. But, when it’s a woman, it’s assumed that she’s a prostitute. Well, that says it all, doesn’t it? And, even if she was a prostitute, why does that have to make her a sinner?   Emmerdale have just run a storyline about a woman who was forced into prostitution by financial necessity. And what about all these poor women – and men, for that matter – who are forced into prostitution by human traffickers? People can be very judgemental, and the worst of them are often the people who claim that their views are supported by the Bible. Or, rather, their strange interpretations of the Bible. And Mary Magdalene’s been on the receiving end of this for centuries.

So, who really was Mary Magdalene? Well, we don’t know. Let’s face it, we have no idea if many of the people in the Bible even existed at all. The Bible is a historian’s nightmare!   It contains some of the best-known stories of all time, featuring some of the best-known figures of all time, but we have no idea if most of it really happened or if most of them really existed. But I think most people accept that Jesus was a real person, and that the other people mentioned in the Gospels were real people as well. So,who was Mary Madgalene? Well, thanks to Dan Brown, we all know the version of events in which Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s wife. That story’s been around for centuries – incidentally, I first came across it in Elizabeth Chadwick’s Daughters of the Grail, when I was a teenager, well before The Da Vinci Code – and the Gnostic Gospels do refer to her as the “koinonos” of Jesus – a word that can mean companion, or partner/wife. It’s a fascinating idea. But could it really, however many conspiracy theories you believe in, have been hushed up? And it just relegates her to the status of the main male character’s wife. So it’s just another patriarchal view of things.

I rather like the version of her life presented by Margaret George in Mary, Called Magdalene, in which she’s a wealthy widow, from Magdala (in the Galilee area), who becomes a disciple and apostle of Jesus, like Peter, Andrew, James et al. No need for a woman to be someone’s wife/girlfriend in order to be important. Margaret George tried hard to explain and justify her view, pointing out that a widow would have had more freedom than a single woman, and that someone with money would have been more likely to have had influence.

This film, however, doesn’t really do anything to convince the viewer why or even that its version of events is a realistic suggestion. All right, films don’t really have forewords or afterwords, but … well, you can put notes up on screen!   It just didn’t try very hard with anything. Oh, what a shame!   It’s two weeks before Easter and Passover (even though the weather seems to think it’s Christmas), so it’s a time of year when people might be thinking about Bible stories. And it’s certainly a time when people are thinking about the role of women in society. So I was really up for being hit with what this film was supposed to be (oh dear, that was the most appalling grammar!!), the idea of Mary Magdalene as a leading disciple and apostle, proving that everyone who tries to use the Bible to argue that women are inferior to men is talking rubbish. And it just didn’t happen, because the film just wasn’t very good.

I’m not convinced that whoever wrote the script had even read the relevant bits of the Bible. Honestly, I think they’d got the Resurrection mixed up with Dallas. Mary Magdalene fell asleep thinking that Jesus was dead, and then woke up to find him there, alive and well. OK, he wasn’t in the shower, but there was a definite sense of Bobby Ewing about it, I’m telling you. This was after everyone had walked into Jerusalem. No!! There’s supposed to be a donkey! Lazarus was raised from the dead in Cana. Excuse me? That bit’s supposed to happen in Bethany. The Cana miracle’s the one where the water gets turned into wine. They missed that bit out completely. Boo!! That and the feeding the five thousand (which got missed out as well) are the best miracles in the whole Bible! OK, miss some bits out, but don’t set the bits you do include in the wrong places.

The whole thing was just wrong. People were starving to death because of the Romans. What?? The Romans do get off ridiculously lightly when it comes to interpretations of the New Testament, largely because the people who decided which bits to include were scared of narking the Roman authorities – understandably so – but where do people starving to death (in caves!) come into it?

As for Jesus, he just seemed to be everyone else’s pawn. Joaquin Phoenix is the same age as me, but I still think of him as being about 15 … OK, that’s beside the point, but, in this, he looked far older than he really is, so he looked too old to be Jesus. That didn’t help. But it wouldn’t have mattered if Jesus had come across as being a charismatic leader, drawing people to him. Instead, he was portrayed as a vague hippy-trippy New Age type, whilst Peter, Luke and the others were the ones who were really running the show. The idea seemed to be that they wanted to overthrow the Romans, and were hoping that Jesus, by pulling off a few spectacular miracles, would persuade everyone else to join up with them so that they could overthrow the Romans. What?? It was like … I don’t know, some episode in medieval history with people using a potential puppet king or a pretender to try to gain power.

And it didn’t follow. OK, you can only fit so much in to a couple of hours, but they’d just thrown in odd bits, and not fitted them together. Jesus and co arrived in Jerusalem. On foot, no donkeys. At this point, there had been no suggestion that the authorities were even aware of their existence. Jesus had a go at the moneylenders, but, apart from a few Roman centurions lurking in the background, no-one did anything except start shouting as if they were at a football match. Then it was the Last Supper. Well, a group of people sat on the floor having their tea. Then you saw Judas kiss Jesus on the cheek in what was presumably meant to be the Garden of Gethsemane. Then Judas told Mary Magdalene that he’d turned Jesus in. But it didn’t make sense, because the film hadn’t shown any reason for the authorities to be interested in him, apart from a lot of football chants over the moneylenders. And Judas said he’d done it because Jesus was annoying him by not trying hard enough to win support, and he was hoping it’d give him a kick up the backside. What?? Oh, and the thirty pieces of silver were never even mentioned. Then, in the next scene, Jesus was staggering up the hill with the crucifix and the crown of thorns. No-one washing their hands. No trial. No nothing. And why would there even have been a trial, when all that had happened was a lot of chanting because Jesus had shouted at the moneylenders?

So what did it say about Mary Magdalene, seeing as the film was meant to be about her? Well, it said that she was from Magdala, which was fair enough. And it showed her as a young woman whose father was trying to marry her off to a widower with several kids. She wasn’t keen on the idea. It wasn’t very clear whether this was because of some deep and meaningful desire to do something else with her life or just because she didn’t fancy the widower. So her family claimed that she was possessed by demons and needed to be exorcised. Oh dear. Shouldn’t she have been the one who wanted the demons casting out? And Jesus said that she didn’t have any demons. She then went off with him and the others, and her family weren’t very pleased.

They then went to Cana – without the water being turned into wine. Mary had told Jesus that the women of Magdala were afraid to follow him. There were no other women in the group. Jesus then decided he was going to do a ladies-only sermon, so he went to where the women of Cana were doing the laundry, and delivered a sermon to them all. They were so impressed that they all went off to be baptised. It wasn’t clear what happened to the laundry. Mary and Peter then went off together, and found the aforementioned people starving in the caves. Peter wanted to leave them, and go off and find some people who might help overthrow the Romans, but Mary persuaded him that they needed to stay and help. Then (see, I said it didn’t follow), Mary, the mother of Jesus, turned up, and she and Mary Magdalene had a nice girly chat about how Jesus had been a really sweet little boy who’d got upset when other kids picked on him, and how Mary Magdalene loved him but accepted that it wasn’t going to happen. And then it was on to going into Jerusalem with no donkey and shouting at the moneylenders. It just didn’t flow at all!   If you didn’t know the story, you wouldn’t have had a clue what was going on.

But I think it was meant to be a feminist version of things. I don’t know what happened to the women in Cana – presumably, once they’d been baptised, they went back to finish off their washing – but, when Mary Magdalene went off to report the Bobby Ewing moment to the men, they all got huffy and said that they didn’t understand why Jesus had chosen to make her the number one apostle.

So what happened next?  Well, they all started whingeing. They said that they didn’t get how this could be Kingdom Come, because nothing had happened. The world had not suddenly been put to rights. There was no justice for the poor. Everything was still basically as crap as it had been before. And this, right at the end, was actually the best bit of the film, depressing at it was, because it was just so true. It’s always supposed to get better, isn’t it? Stage a revolution and sweep away the dictators … and what do you get? More dictators, usually. Lose the autocratic tsars, and get Lenin and Stalin instead. Lose the Soviet system, and get Vladimir Putin instead. Lose the French ancien regime, and get the Terror instead. Fight a war to end all wars, and get another one barely twenty years later … and mass poverty in between. Call for an Arab Spring, and end up with wars and refugees all over the Middle East instead: the word “exodus” is being used an awful lot at the moment – and I don’t mean because it’s two weeks before Passover and people are talking about the story of Moses.

How bloody miserable!  But the idea was that things aren’t going to change by some sort of miracle, and we’re going to have to change them ourselves.  That is a pretty radical interpretation of the Easter story.  And not one of the reviews I’ve seen in the press have picked up on this, because they’ve all been entirely focused on whether or not Mary Magdalene was a prostitute!  Well, that says a lot, doesn’t it?

I’m not entirely sure what this film was trying to say.   It was so badly put together that it was very hard to tell. But the way I took the bit at the end was that people need to try to change things.   And that’s relevant anywhere and everywhere.  It’s a very, very good point.

It isn’t a very good film, though.   If you want a good account of the possible life of Mary Magdalene, try the Margaret George book instead.

And, seeing as it is only two weeks until Easter and Passover, if we could perhaps lose the snow, and do spring instead?  You know – lambs, daffodils, all that sort of thing.  Rebirth and renewal.  Ma Nature being lyrical with her yearly miracle.  That would actually be better than water being turned into wine!!   Happy spring festivities!


Nigel Slater’s Middle East – BBC 2


All right, this is a cookery series, not a historical series, but how refreshing to have a series about the Middle East which shows us a side of the region that doesn’t primarily involve war, terrorism or human rights abuses.  How refreshing too that it encompasses different cultures of the Middle East, and just the Arabic-Islamic culture which tends to be what springs to mind when the words “Middle East” are mentioned.   Next week’s episode is about Turkey, the country which makes the best savoury food in the world.  What a terrible shame that recipes weren’t exchanged during the siege of Vienna 🙂 – the combination of Turkish savoury stuff and Austrian sweet stuff would be unbeatable!  The third of the three episodes will be about another non-Arab country, Iran.  And this week’s episode was about Lebanon, the one Arab country of the three, and one which must be one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world, about 54% Muslim (pretty much equally divided between Shias and Sunnis), 41% Christian (mainly Maronite, Greek Orthodox, and Melkite) and 5% Druze.

Anyone who grew up during the 1980s will be accustomed to the use of the word “Beirut” as a synonym for “disaster zone”.  However, as Nigel pointed out very early on in the programme, it was known as “the Paris of the East” in the 1960s.  And how great to hear him talking about “the Levant”, a term that rarely seems to be used these days – with “the Middle East” being used as a generic term for the whole region, and with the sense that it’s set apart from the rest of the world.  The term “the Levant” reflects the fact that Lebanon and its neighbours were historically very much part of the Mediterranean world too.  He also reminded us that Lebanon is far more liberal than most other Arab countries.  OK, there are certainly issues there, but nothing like there are in somewhere like Saudi Arabia.

There were reminders of Lebanon’s troubled recent past, obviously.  It was touching to hear about an ice cream shop in Beirut which had barely closed for a day all through the civil war, and which was still physically scarred by war damage.  It was sad to hear that some of the traditional foraging places for herbs were no longer safe because of the danger of unexploded cluster bombs, although heartening to hear that the herbs were now being cultivated elsewhere.  But how lovely to hear that the same pastries were eaten by Muslims at Eid and by Christians at Easter.

It was interesting too to hear about preserves.  Yes, all right, preserves don’t sound that interesting, but they really are – first of all when they involve the gorgeous fruit that can be seen growing in the Levant, and also when you’re being told about the importance in Lebanon of preserving fruit to be eaten during the harsh winters.  Apparently the Lebanese army opens snowbound roads so that jam can be taken to Beirut!   That’s a true story to make you smile, but it’s also a reminder of just how severe the winters in parts of the Middle East, especially in mountainous areas, can be – and that’s very relevant at the moment, when there’ve been some heartbreaking reports this very week about Syrian refugees freezing alive whilst trying to make their way to Lebanon in blizzard conditions.

The savoury food all looked pretty good too!  And, for those of us who did grow up in the 1980s,  when the name “Lebanon” pretty much translated as “war zone”, how heartening it is just to know that a programme like this can be made.  A thoroughly enjoyable hour’s watching.


The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks


 There was, as we all know 😉 , a secret chord, which David played and it pleased the Lord. OK, that’s not the Bible, it’s Leonard Cohen, but never mind! This is another of those books which is aimed at bringing a Biblical figure, in this case King David, to life, by putting their story into the form of a novel. Unfortunately, this really isn’t a patch on Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent.  It’s not bad, but it’s too short for such an eventful story.  And it doesn’t get close enough to the character, because it’s told from the point of view of someone else – the prophet Nathan.  Apparently, the lyrics to Handel’s Coronation Anthem, the one we all know the music to but not the words 😉 , start with “Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet” … but, presumably because that’s too much of a mouthful, we know it as “Zadok the priest” and poor old Nathan gets forgotten!

He isn’t actually referred to as “Nathan” in this book, but as “Natan”, because the author decided to use a transliteration from Hebrew which she views as correct, but which is rather confusing for the reader. Yes, OK, there are a lot of issues about different translations and transliterations of Biblical Hebrew. Don’t get me started on the issue of Shem and Semitic – most people never realise that the word “Semitic” comes from Shem, son of Noah, because the h got lost somewhere!! Geraldine Brooks decided to restore the missing “h”s, which, OK, there is justification for, but everyone is familiar with the names Saul and Solomon in English, and writing about “Shaul” and “Shlomo” is just confusing. Ditto Moavites rather than Moabites, Batsheva rather than Bathsheba, Yonatan rather than Jonathan, etc  .

OK, enough moaning. The book is quite interesting, because, as the author points out, David’s is the first life story told in full in literature, and there are so many different facets to it. Although the Bible tells us that he’s a great warrior king, if you mention his name then most of us will think of the Michelangelo sculpture of The Boy David and the story of David, as a young shepherd boy, killing Goliath. The phrase “David versus Goliath” is still in very common use.  The book suggests that the tale was probably exaggerated, to make Goliath bigger and David younger, but, hey, that’s how stories go!

Then there’s the question of David’s relationship with Jonathan. Were they lovers or just good friends? I have actually heard this brought up in debates on Sky News, with people using the relationship to try to counter homophobes who try to use the Bible to justify discrimination against gay people. Well, it can be interpreted every which way but Geraldine Brooks goes with the view that they probably were lovers.  I’m inclined to agree.  It’s the same with Achilles and Patroclus.  People in ancient times seem to have been a lot more chilled about bisexuality than some people are today.

And the issue of Bathsheba … was it a consensual affair or did David take advantage of his position as king to force her? The way it’s presented in this book is that he forced her. It’s really not clear in the Bible – although it’s quite clear about how he sent Uriah the Hittite out to be killed.

Those are probably the three David stories that everyone knows. The rest of his story isn’t really as well known as those of Moses, Joseph (thank you, Andrew Lloyd Webber!) and certain other Biblical figures. It was certainly eventful. War, sons murdering sons, brothers raping sisters … there’s certainly plenty to go at in this book, and then of course there are his talents as a poet and a musician, but so much more could have been made of it.  It only really skims the surface.

Did David really exist? Well, no-one really knows, and much of the Bible story is probably legend rather than history, but it does seem likely that there was a king called David, probably around 3,000 years ago. He’s certainly a huge figure in the culture of all three monotheistic religions. And, of course, he’s closely associated with Bethlehem (almost certainly the reason why the nativity story is set in Bethlehem rather than Nazareth) and Jerusalem.  He’s supposed to have captured Jerusalem from the Jebusites and made it his capital.  What he’d say if he knew that people were still fighting over it, one of the most historically and culturally important cities in the world and one which deserves to be treated with considerably more respect than to be used as a political pawn, 3,000 years later, I don’t know.

It’s an interesting subject, but this book really could have been a lot better.  It just doesn’t go deep enough. You’ve got a figure whose name everyone knows but whose story really isn’t well-known at all, and whose story has so many different facets to it, and so much more could have been made of it all.