The British brand that conquered the world, but which is almost unknown in the UK

Lipton tea

If you’re a Brit overseas it’s likely that at some point you’ve had a cup of Lipton tea, prominently available everywhere from America to Europe to Asia.

It’s the world’s best-selling tea brand, and you may or may not be surprised to discover that it’s British. So why is it largely invisible at home? It’s entirely adequate, if slightly weak, but attractively packaged, and evidently has no distribution problems.

The story starts in 1871, when local lad Thomas Lipton opened his first grocery in Glasgow after having worked his way around America for the previous five years. A flair for marketing – stocking the world’s largest cheese; a bagpipe and brass band parade to accompany his first tea shipments from the docks – led to his expanding to a chain of 300 shops.

Tea sales doubled between the 1870s and 1880s,  and it was the working class and middle class markets that Lipton courted by undercutting rivals with a good quality product at lower prices, achieved through production and shipping efficiencies. One of these was to buy his own 5,500-acre tea plantation in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, taking advantage of low land values due to a recent coffee blight, and so becoming a producer himself.

Ushering in the 20th century with a revolution nearly as impressive as radio or television, the company claims to have been the first brand to sell tea leaves in teabags, successfully commercialising an American idea.

Big in the USA

Teabags were successful in the United States, but Britain was slower to abandon centuries of teapot tradition. It was only during the 1950s with a post-war, post-rationing explosion in interest in labour-saving products that teabags took off as a modern household convenience.

However, the various mergers that Lipton supermarkets were involved in throughout the 20th century saw their gradual disappearance, and British-Dutch multinational Unilever acquiring the tea business. By the mid-1980s, Lipton shops traded under the name Presto, which were either converted into Safeway stores, originally an American brand, or by 1998 all closed down.

While business abroad boomed, back home there just weren’t the shops to sell the tea, and in the meantime other brands, using staggeringly successful marketing, slowly squeezed out Lipton’s once-strong recognition:

pg-tips

Iced tea cometh

It didn’t help that for more than a century British consumers regarded iced tea with the same suspicion which first greeted teabags. Iced tea emerged in the United States during the 1870s, but became a big success following its introduction to the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis. Surprisingly, it is only in 1964 that Lipton is associated with the product, with the launch of its own powder mix. Iced tea was launched in Europe in 1978, and in 1991 the familiar Lipton bottles appeared in a joint venture with Pepsi, almost assuring market pre-eminence.

You may have been on a blazing hot beach somewhere, yet somehow still yearn for a cup of tea. You discover that none is served nearby, or that it’s a tepid and undrinkable grey fluid. So a bottle of iced tea it is, and even though it may contain a rather limited quantity of extract in comparison to sugar and preservatives, it’s entirely tolerable.

As with so many other US products, iced tea has drifted over the Atlantic into British supermarkets, like Oreo cookies, or Hershey bars, which for most of my life existed only as words uttered by John Malkovich and others in Empire of the Sun.

Once again, British retailers are stocking the Lipton brand, though this time it’s in refrigerators alongside Lilt, Dr Pepper and 7-Up. Boxes of teabags are limited to fleeting, promotional supermarket appearances, but hardly compete with the household names alongside.

Today

Do we drink stronger tea now than we did a century ago? Are international palates so dissimilar to our own? Perhaps. Though when Douglas Adams wrote of something “almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea” in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe he may not have had Lipton in mind, but instead the frustration of being abroad in a hotel during the 1970s, with otherwise excellent catering but for the dishwater served in a cup and saucer at breakfast – which Lipton would claim it is the solution to.

Every year, 100 billion Lipton products are consumed around the world; it’s one of the biggest international drinks brands and almost as ubiquitous as Coca-Cola, Nescafe and the like. This is quite remarkable.

A British tea company has conquered the globe. Just not the small island where it all began.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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William Dalrymple book launch: Return of a King

A British-Indian force attacks Ghazni fort during the First Afghan War in 1839 (Wikipedia)

When NATO forces leave Afghanistan next year, India, Pakistan and even China could make it a theatre for their own proxy wars and interests, bestselling historian William Dalrymple told a London audience, based on researches for his most recent book.

Mr Dalrymple told a packed auditorium of more than 100 people on 26 June that after the Americans leave, Afghanistan with its pro-India President could become an Indo-Pak proxy theatre, with India having development interests and previously arming the Northern Alliance, and Pakistan supporting the Taliban.

“It’s the biggest question for 2014,” he said after discussing Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan and Britain’s catastrophic 19th-century invasion of and retreat from the country and subsequent negotiations with the previous ruler, “when I gave this talk to the White House a month ago, they wanted to know ‘how do you negotiate with them, how can you be sure they will keep their promises?’”

He added that he told his senior US listeners of the effects on the Pakistani populace of drone attacks, as until recently a largely unregulated assassination policy targeted against any large group carrying weapons — which people in the region often did — and that a wedding party of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s extended family had been bombed earlier this year.

The award-winning author of White Mughals and In Xanadu drew several parallels between the modern-day invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the British occupation of the latter in 1839, notably that the ‘dodgy dossier’ of the day — skewed intelligence used as a basis for war — was an accidental sighting of a Cossack cavalry cohort on an unofficial preparatory diplomatic expedition. This whipped into frenzy contemporary hawks, convinced that Russia was an imminent threat to British India, and led to invasion.

“There is a rule in geopolitics that you can create the monster with your own fear,” Mr Dalrymple said, drawing a comparison with the US invasion of Iraq attracting al-Qaeda extremists to the country in great numbers, where they had not been previously.

He told of an enormous caravan of 21,000 troops and 38,000 camp followers — with 3,000 camels bearing the regimental wine cellar — setting off from British India and arriving in Kabul after only a small number of combat fatalities, installing their own candidate Shah Shuja, while existing ruler Dost Mohammad surrendered.

Mission accomplished, the British set up camp in a worryingly exposed area outside the capital, where Mr Dalrymple pointed out that NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the US Embassy are currently based.

He said that, as with the aftermath of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, another conflict drained resources from the occupation – Hong Kong in 1839, Iraq in 2003 – and with terrible consequences. With diminished troops, and little to tax in Afghanistan despite the region’s historical silk route caravan trade, British payoffs to Gilzai tribesmen for keeping open the borders stopped, meaning no communications or supplies could get through. Training an Afghan national army was paid for by taking estates off the Afghan nobility, alienating them.

“The point of empire-building is not to lose vast amounts of money, generating no revenue — Iraq has oil reserves, or you could tax the wealthy farmers of the Punjab. Of course, we now know that there are mineral reserves in Afghanistan,” Mr Dalrymple said.

Worse, British men began consorting with Afghan women.  The trigger came when renowned intelligence agent Sir Alexander Burnes was killed, partly due to a particularly vexatious amorous encounter [since disputed by a more recent biography of the celebrated spy.] Those responsible vanished into a crowd, which became a mob, which became in a few months a full-blown insurgency, outnumbering the British ten to one.

Decimated by Gilzai snipers in the passes, cut off from supplies, and facing nightly temperatures of up to minus 30 degrees, the retreat from Kabul went down as one of Britain’s greatest imperial disasters. Of thousands that set off, barely a handful made it out, the rest dead, captured, abandoned to die in the snow, or sold into slavery in Central Asia.

The British would return with a scorched earth policy, burning down half of Kabul, before, as with US talks with the Taliban today, negotiating former ruler Dost Mohammad’s return to Afghanistan.

Mr Dalrymple said: “Every Afghan knows this history. I think Karzai is a much more remarkable character than he is given credit for, when you hear how he attacks America, it’s because it’s popular with the Afghans, so it’s an impossible game he has to play.”

While tracing the route of the retreat, Mr Dalrymple found himself at a conference of elders, hearing one say ‘we are the roof of the world, here you can see everything, but we don’t have the strength to control our own destiny’ and ‘these are the last days of the Americans. Next it will be China.’

The book is the first to make use of contemporary Afghan sources, including the previously untranslated memoirs of Shah Shuja, letters, and two epics composed at the time, shedding new light on this notorious episode in history.

The event was hosted by the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, which was founded in 1901 and is a charity promoting greater knowledge and understanding of Central Asia and countries from the Middle East to Japan. The society hosts lectures and encourages debate on a wide variety of topics, from literature and the arts, exploration and the environment, to cultural, military and political history and current affairs.

First published in The Times of Central Asia, 28 June, 2013

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Russia and Ukraine: how social media is the new espionage, finance, recruiter, propaganda and weaponry of modern warfare

gregory-asmolov

Both sides in the Russia-Ukraine conflict are using civilian populations as a military resource to fund, hack, spy, spread propaganda and enlist through social networks, a Kensington audience heard.

Gregory Asmolov, a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics, told the Ukrainian Institute on 1 December that online crowdsourcing was not only being used to fundraise, but also for people to provide information about where troops are and where skirmishes take place, to attack opposition propaganda online, as well as hacking the enemy. Supporters can simply allow their computer to be used remotely as part of a ‘botnet’ hacking network, without having to hack, or even knowing how to hack, themselves.

He said: “If you’re a soldier, you’re protected by international law. Online, it’s not always clear if you’re protected by international law or not.”

Propaganda

Mr Asmolov, a former Middle East correspondent for Kommersant newspaper, referred to Ukrainian websites such as i-army, which asks people to become ‘information troops’ by creating social media accounts and posing as residents in the embattled east of the country. The purpose being to comment on news stories through social media and post on websites to attack Russia’s online narratives about the conflict, which aim to show popular support for the annexation of Crimea and involvement in eastern Ukraine and Syria.

A slide showed a quote translated from the website: ‘In one year we created a powerful army that defends us in Donbas area. Now, it’s a time to resist Russian invaders on the information front. Every Ukrainian who has an access to Internet can contribute to the struggle. Every you message is a bullet to the enemy’s mind.’ [sic]

Mr Asmolov also gave the examples of Dokaz, which crowdsources information about Russia’s illegal activities in Ukraine, and The People’s Project, which crowdfunds medical support for soldiers wounded in the conflict, mixed in with news of how Ukrainian infantry are being tortured by Russians and other atrocities.

There are websites for both sides simply asking people to volunteer to go and fight in eastern Ukraine, he said, referring to a Russian one, translated as Volunteer.org, which has seemingly had a few iterations shut down, though perhaps lives on within VK, Russia’s version of Facebook.

“There is crowdfunding from the Russian side and there is crowdfunding from the Ukrainian side,” Mr Asmolov said. “There’s Russian coverage and there’s Ukrainian coverage, and there’s almost no media that covers it in a balanced way.”

Fake news

The US election had highlighted to the world the issue of Facebook spreading fake news stories through algorithms, he said, which had led to people blaming social media; ‘bot’ technology where computer programmes create false social media accounts to spread agenda-driven news stories; as well as journalists, for the election of Donald Trump.

He said: “Russia is the common denominator in all these things, blamed for the election outcome in the US, and for what’s happening in Ukraine.”

Referring to the publishing online of the names of journalists accredited in Donetsk and in Lugansk – areas held by Russia-backed separatist militias – Mr Asmolov said:  “The idea was ‘anyone who has this accreditation is the enemy.’ To what extent should we push this idea that journalists are now the enemy? We should be very careful.”

In describing this engagement with war through social media, he gave the example of immersive theatre, where audience members become active participants in a play, rather than just watching. A chilling example of this immersive, participatory warfare being an Instagram account which crowdsourced votes on whether to execute or release captured ISIS militants.

Mr Asmolov said: “There is no clear boundary between conflict and inter-personal communication. In the past we consumed news from traditional media. Today we consume news and interact with people in the same environment. It’s much more difficult to differentiate between news and social interaction.”

Your daily war

War invading everyday social interaction leads to a digitally-mediated immersion, making conflict a part of everyday life, one of his presentation slides said, with conflict mapping becoming a form of gamification, blurring the line between citizen and combatant and legitimising civilian targets.

Another slide showed a Russian newspaper cartoon, where a man sitting at a computer screen asks: It’s all about war, it’s all about war, where are the cats?

Before taking questions, Mr Asmolov warned: “The major battlefield is the identity – what I think we should do is think about how we can protect ourselves from this kind of engagement in conflict.

“It’s identity theft with a different kind of meaning, by these kinds of politics, and stolen by these kinds of agendas.”

Regulation

On being asked about what could be done to regulate social media and the internet, he said: “Governments enjoy this reality – for them it’s a new tool. We should be wary of opening it up for governments. When governments feel there is a need, they’re really happy about it, and introduce much more regulation.

“We already have too much of it, including here in the UK,” referring to several pieces of recent legislation, “It should come from pressure from the public. Usually, governments take it too far.”

Instead, he proposed a transparency and accountability for the social media algorithms which determine what we see online and what we can buy, perhaps allowing scientists, journalists, and members of the public to conduct an audit.

An audience member asked what Mr Asmolov thought about cats on the internet. He said that there is a book which promotes the theory that online cats drive political engagement and are part of modern communication.

Online hatred

A grey-haired woman said: “I have never heard so many nasty things about the Ukrainian language as in recent months. There is some special hatred among ethnic Russians for the Ukrainian language, and I’ve noticed it’s also present among Belarusians.”

Mr Asmolov went on to say that there are consequences when people engage with warfare in this way, using the same social networks, giving the example of how in Israel, different political ideas about how to deal with conflict, amongst Israelis, has had the same divisive effect online which then severs offline relationships.

He said: “The online battle between Russia and Ukraine takes place between people who know each other, friends who had a good relationship but find themselves on different sides – destroying social ties, to deepen the conflict inside.”

 

 

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By-line in China

A feature I wrote on the cultural history of Georgia and Armenia was published in the international Chinese edition of Travel and Leisure Magazine in June, 2015, through some contacts at the excellent Maximum Exposure Productions.

Nice to be published in the world’s new superpower economy.

travel-and-leisure-magazine-international-china-edition t-and-l-ii

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Russophobia Today, recolonisation, and David Lynch’s Dune: history repeats itself (again) in new Afghanistan spymaster biography

The controversial former British ambassador to Uzbekistan has warned that Russia and the West keep rehearsing the same parts they’ve played for the past 200 years; and that a famous portrait of a legendary British secret agent in Afghanistan isn’t of Alexander Burnes after all.

Craig Murray was speaking at a launch of his new biography of Burnes at the Yunus Emre Turkish Cultural Centre, London, on 26 November. The Victorian explorer, spy and latterly British envoy to Afghanistan, who became embittered when his doubts about the 1839 invasion were suppressed and ignored, was hacked to death by a Kabul crowd in 1841. His name was pronounced locally as Sikunder.

Mr Murray began by raising the spectre of anti-Russian sentiment both in the media and in policymaking, which has haunted so much of politics from the Great Game era of the 18th and 19th centuries, through the Cold War, and up to modern times.

He said: “We are entering a period of more extreme Russophobia in the western media. One of the things that I found frequently in researching and writing this book is how old and how recurrent these themes are in British society.”

In 1834, David Urquhart, First Secretary at the British Embassy in Constantinople, travelled to both Dagestan and Chechnya and founded a committee of mujahideen, which the government then supplied weapons to. One of these smuggled shipments was discovered by the Russians aboard a boat named the Vixen, hidden beneath a cargo of salt.

The Prime Minister at the time, Lord Palmerston, denied all knowledge of the arms, and of any such instruction given to Mr Urquhart. The incident didn’t stop the diplomat being promoted to the post of Consul the following year, however.

Mr Murray said: “This shows that in the past 200 years, very little has changed in global affairs. The fact is that there was never any Russian plan to invade British India. Russia, first of all, wanted to take as much Persian territory as possible, or, secondly, to make Persia a client state.

“There were definitely some Russian diplomats and soldiers who liked the idea that this might cause difficulties in British India. Their thinking was that this might cause Muslim subjects to to rebel, to revolt against British rule, and this is the mirror image of what the British were doing in Dagestan and Chechnya.”

Mr Murray referred to a policy of Lord Auckland, Governor-General of India 1836-1842, of promoting violence between Sikhs and Afghans, to preoccupy Sikh armies from focusing on British interests. Similarly, the Russians would promote conflict between Persia and Afghanistan, to draw forces away from Persia’s border with Russia.

Mr Murray said: “The mirror image policies see each of them doing the same thing, but accusing the other one of being evil and trustworthy. That imperial hypocrisy comes out elsewhere in the book as well, in Alexander Burnes famous mission up the Indus river.”

He described how during the early 1830s, by boat, Burnes had accompanied a gift of horses and a carriage to Maharajah Ranjit Singh, founder of the Sikh empire, ostensibly a gift to the ruler, but in reality a thinly-veiled excuse to ascertain if the territory could resist conquest, and whether or not the river could be navigated to transport troops. The rulers of Sindh were not amused.

Mr Murray said that correspondence amongst the British at the time reveal incredulity at the effrontery of the natives to accuse them of espionage.

Palmerston’s government also heavily edited Burnes’s reports from Kabul, to make them demonstrate to Parliament that there was a case for invading Afghanistan despite the envoy’s thinking being quite different. There were three Parliamentary debates on the falsification of this evidence, before Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister at the time, declassified the documents 20 years after Burnes’s death – taking even longer than Chilcott, Mr Murray added.

He said: “Governments lie to justify wars – the book is of things that happened long ago, but they are still very relevant today.”

Mr Murray said that a difficulty in the eight years he spent researching the biography was that there is no single collection of Burnes’s letters or journals, many of which he suggests were burned by Sir John Kaye in an effort to preserve the notorious womaniser diplomat’s reputation from further scandal. An individual can letter fetch $10,000, according to recent sales in Canada, but with both sellers and purchasers remaining anonymous.

The hunt for original source material took him all over the country, eventually discovering a volume of early, official reports bound in a volume in the Montrose Museum and Art Gallery, in Burnes’s Scottish hometown.

Mr Murray also ventured abroad, including to the Mumbai Asiatic Society, where, stored in a basement he discovered a dusty, forgotten portrait of Burnes, shown on the biography’s front cover.

It is the sister painting, by the same artist, of one held by the Royal Geographical Society; ever the master of disguise, Burnes is without a moustache and out of uniform in this one:

Alexander Burnes Royal Geographical Society sikunder-burnes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is almost certainly pure coincidence, but I couldn’t help noticing a resemblance between the recently-discovered portrait of Burnes and that of the Dr Wellington Yueh character in the 1984 film of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune – another ill-fated spy.

Mr Murray said that he has found correspondence which indicates that the classic portrait of Burnes, which is faithfully reproduced in all histories of the Great Game, on the front cover of modern editions of his famous account Travels Into Bokhara, and all over the internet, turns out not to be of Burnes at all:

not-burnes

A sketch had been made of him in costume, but Mr Murray said that Burnes later wrote to the artist to request the painting be altered, so that it no longer featured the paradoxically celebrated secret agent, and that a subsequent reply confirms that this had been done.

Among several questions, an audience member asked if, in regard to fears of a border-crossing Russia, the people of Estonia and eastern Ukraine might take comfort from the fact that history will, or won’t, repeat itself. Mr Murray replied that the British have, historically, failed to see Russia as an empire, because empires are places to be sailed to overseas, not simply walked to. He said that though the collapse of the Soviet Union had been a decolonisation, some Muslim lands remained Russian colonies.

Another questioner, possibly an Afghan, asked if the world powers of Britain, Russia and America suffered from ‘battered wife syndrome’, in returning to defeat and humiliation in Afghanistan; that they arrive, depart, and ‘when they leave they leave everything to us, that is how we survive.’

Mr Murray replied that there is indeed evidence of a repetition, in that the British empire installed a puppet leader, Shah Shuja, from the same part of the same tribe as Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan who came to power following the 2001 invasion by coalition forces, thus forging the same alliances, and disaffections.

He said: “Politicians and governments are not terribly deep-thinking people, they tend to think in terms of short term advantage.”

As an ambassador, with 20 years of diplomatic service, Mr Murray spoke out about human rights abuses by the Uzbekistan government, which post 9/11 was an ally in the war on terror for Washington and London; he was removed from office.

After the launch, I read in the preface: ‘Burnes and I made opposite decisions in the same dilemma. Burnes is criticised for not sticking to his principles against his government; I am criticised for deserting my government for my principles. You can’t win.’

The launch of Sikunder Burnes: Master of the Great Game was part of the Open Eurasian Literature Festival and Book Forum 

 

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Dagestan, Game of Thrones, and a Gorbachev adviser: a Russian afternoon in London

rossotrudnichestvo

Russia has its own Commonwealth, administered by the Rossotrudnichestvo state agency, with a UK office just off Kensington High Street.

Upstairs to the first floor, through a door and a group are registering with a young woman and a laptop. Through a glass wall is a small room of what looks an empty internet cafe, or rows of call centre workstations. Impressionist paintings on walls; books, brochures, magazines and newspapers, mostly in Russian, on tables.

The main reception hall. Thirty or so people sit in chairs before a lectern while the programme of events making up the Open Eurasian Literature Festival and Book Forum is explained. In a corner, a grand piano gleams in black.

A young man in a deep blue wide-checked suit, Anton, welcomes everyone to Rossotrudnichestvo, presumably where he works, before journalist and author Gulsifat Shahidi stands to introduce Crane, by Dagestan writer Abu Sufyan, and edited by David Parry.

It is a collection of children’s prose poems, fairy tales of animals and the natural world, but, much like Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Books, chilling meanings lurk within. A mare raises a foal alone, and is left abandoned and isolated; a child wanders into the den of a bear.

I have no idea when these stories were first written, in Russian, but the mother and father of the Boston Marathon bombers come to mind while scribbling shorthand notes. Dagestan is a republic in Russia’s Caucasus, next to Chechnya, and its reputation, sadly, is increasingly matching that of its neighbour.

Next: memoirs, of a sort, by one of Mikhail Gorbachev’s former advisers. Georgy Pryakhin‘s collection of stories, Seraglio ’55, is introduced by its editor Laura Hamilton. Very clever: anecdotes of a political, sensitive nature regarding the collapse of the USSR are rendered surreal, and perhaps even sharper, as dreams: soldiers in Grozny; Barbara Bush; even Stalin. Ms Hamilton suggests that with the current vogue for Swedish writers, there should one day be a platform for those from slightly further east.

The indigenous Khanty people of Kushevat, in Yamalo-Nenetskiy Autonomous Okrug, in the Arctic zone of western Siberia, are portrayed in Blue River, by journalist and film-maker Zinaida Longortova. The book is introduced by its editor, freelance journalist Stephen Bland, as a way of documenting the customs, language, culture, and close relationship to the land and its wildlife of the people, through the story of a family rescuing an injured elk calf. It sounds beautiful, and from a remote region about which even the internet struggles to find many photographs of, or English-language information.

A hulking Icelandic wrestler appears before us, and proclaims: “I am a poet in my heart.” This is somewhat unexpected. Sölvi Fannar, actor, athlete, writer, musician and agent of Hafþór Júlíus “Thor” Björnsson, better known as Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane in Game of Thrones, is clearly a man who can recognise toughness. With evident affection, he introduces Natalia Kharlampieva and her book of poems Foremother Asiathe first of any writing in the Yakutian language, also known as Sakha, to be translated into English. Mr Fannar, who visited the Sakha Republic to take part in a global wrestling contest, tells of a Yakutian legend of a Viking ship sailing up the region’s Lena river, and one of the European visitors with a native Turkic woman producing the first Yakut.

The poems she has written can be harsh, we are told by the book’s editor Mr Parry, and Mr Fannar tells that they offer a glimpse of life as a woman, and poet, in the patriarchal society of the Sakha Republic, in Russia’s far east. I begin to wonder what horrors, trials, and scarred recoveries are in the verses of the middle-aged grand dame sat beside the lectern.

One of her poems has been made into a song, and a projector shows a four-minute pop video of fur-clad warrior lads with swords, galloping around on horseback through forests. Stirring stuff, and you can imagine it doing rather well at the Eurovision Song Contest.

Ms Kharlampieva stands to read a poem, in Sakha. Rapid, percussive, melodic detonations, which resemble music, and with a mesmeric effect on the room. Afterwards, she plays the jaw harp, instantly redolent of sweeping plains and mountains, and which sounds similar to this. 

Throughout all of the above, excellent interpreting was provided to the assembled by Daria Antonovich.

Tomorrow promises to be equally interesting: a talk by that British ambassador, who introduced the idea of Uzbekistan’s government boiling its enemies alive to the international consciousness.

All titles are available through Hertfordshire Press, a publishing house that brings the writing of Eurasia to western readers.

 

 

 

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Essential writing from Central Asia: part two

nemat-kelimbetov

Claridge’s, a winter evening. Within, I am directed down a bright, pristine corridor. There are liveried staff everywhere: smiling helpfully, welcoming reverently, enquiring politely what my business is in this establishment. I tell them, and receive a court bow, indicating a room of wood panels and autumnal decor; high-ceiling, low lighting.

Little heaps of little black hardback books on tables; I take one; it brings to mind a gleaming ebony cigarette case from the Jazz Age. I Don’t Want To Lose Hope, by the late Nemat Kelimbetov, was first published in 1981. It is a short novel by the acclaimed translator, philologist, and Turkic specialist, in what I presume to be its first publication in English.

Trays of champagne glasses glide by; canapes glisten. A hush descends. The son of the award-winning writer will say a few words.

Kairat Kelimbetov was better known at the time as Kazakhstan’s Deputy Prime Minister. He says tonight is not so much a launch as an opportunity to introduce us to his father’s novel, and to ask for our thoughts and opinions. He has an immensely genteel delivery and manner; afterwards, I am introduced to him, and cannot remember a word of what was said other than that it was serenely courteous.

The novel opens with an orchard, a garden, and a family. It is the gallery, perfume, wardrobe, and lexicon of memory, magnified to sweeping technicolour, from a narrator confined to his bed due to illness; it is immensely autobiographical.

A marriage in detail: grains of sand become worlds. There is forgiveness, patience, wisdom, love and virtue, written with the profundity of those living their final hours – though it would be decades before his death in 2010. It is a story that finds an absolute clarity of humanity, with every word weighed and balanced, and expertly translated.

In three days I finished it, due less to any brevity than my refusal to do much else at home, on the train, or in a chilly square outside the office.

I Don’t Want To Lose Hope is essential reading, but is sadly unavailable. In another life, it would be proclaimed a masterpiece by America’s most celebrated television presenter, with sales in the millions, and a film in production.

A few weeks later we arrive at Almaty International Airport, in Kazakhstan, after an all-night flight. It is November, and snow will remain underfoot until well into next year. A meeting at the Kazakh Academy of Sport and Tourism; chattering student crowds criss-cross the campus to classes under a sky of greying white.

Professor Kairat Zakiryanov, the academy’s rector, and my employer are engaged in discussion in Russian too swift for me to follow. His office is wide and spacious in burnt ochre, with books, awards and certificates on shelves, walls and tables. An accomplished mathematician and educational scientist, the professor has written a study of language which we are to publish.

Under The Wolf’s Nest: A Turkic Rhapsody makes you ask questions of words. I must declare an interest at this point: several years ago a friend returned from Mongolia and showed me a photo of an eagle used for hunting, named Sargoz because of its yellow-looking eyes. I found this fascinating, because five thousand miles west, in Turkey, sarı and göz mean yellow and eye. How, and why? Nomads of the steppe.

Professor Zakiryanov has discovered that corridor of language, from the edge of Europe through Central Asia and into China, has extended throughout much of the world, drawing on sources from Herodotus through to modern Russian and Kazakh research. He returns to when Russia and Alaska were joined, and great migrations of nomads scattered their words throughout North, Central and South America, as well as Asia, Europe and the Middle East, and in the origins of Islam and Christianity.

My task was to proofread the text, which had been translated excellently by Robin Thomson. I had little to do other than enjoy it; forevermore, I cannot help but hear connections everywhere: reklam is the root word for advertisement in both Slavic and Turkic; many languages say sweet water when the English mean fresh water…

The only publishing house dedicated to bringing the contemporary writing of Central Asia and Eurasia to the West is Hertfordshire Press. The Open Eurasian Literature Festival and Book Forum takes place in venues around the UK, in November 2016.

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Kiev: a stunning city which everyone should visit right now before everyone else does

“Flora, do we call security for the Ukraine flights?”

Not the best start on arriving for check-in at Heathrow. Flora reassures her colleague that the presence of G4S is no longer required for such a destination. Three hours of flight later and continent-sized fields emerge through the clouds, presumably Soviet planning rectangularly triumphant over England’s little patchwork quilts. Yellow-grey trees, familiar from elsewhere.

Hand luggage only, am in a few minutes amid the excitement of Ukrainian motorway etiquette in a taxi, 300 hyrvnia / £8 to the city centre. I gape through the window: a district of vast apartment blocks, assuredly preventing heaven from falling. A bridge over the expansive river Dnieper, and then neoclassical, brutalist, late 20th, and glass-and-steel structures. We arrive.

The first thing my host does is pour shots of Ukrainian cognac – ‘Welcome to Kiev!’ – and refill them. Another taxi, and Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square, otherwise known as Euromaidan. Smaller than in the news clips and Winter on Fire film, built over a shopping mall. Photographs, displays. Riot shields, rusting. Leading to the poster-adorned victory column, a flight of pristine steps, one left unrepaired, smoothed battle-edges.

Independence Square

Independence Square

Up a hill closed to traffic. Shrines to the revolution’s martyrs, piles of construction hard hats – improvised sniper protection – and some makeshift balustrades. The cold and the silence. The setting sun washes all in light from the West.

Construction hard hats used as protective gear during revolution, uphill from Independence Square

Construction hard hats used as protective gear during revolution, uphill from Independence Square

Back downhill to a basement bar over the road. Ukrainian beer drains fast, a splendid porter in particular. Another bar later, we are in a warren-like canteen for soup, mayonnaise-laced salad, dumplings, and an original Ukrainian Chicken Kiev, which is pleasingly different to the world-renowned dish, but am too hammered to remember why.

Next day. A hillside monastery, overlooking the river. Into one of several churches, frescoes of ancient pallor, rescued in mid-hereafter fade. Behind thronged, robed, intonations is the grandeur, the grandeur. Rococo verdure, intricacies in gold, so bright as to need nearly no illumination despite reverential gloom. No one does majesty and spectacle like the Orthodox.

Kiev Pechersk Lavra, monastery

Kiev Pechersk Lavra, monastery

Down a cobbled street to underhill caves, where monks sealed themselves into seclusion. A chopstick candle is purchased, because there is no lighting. Within, footsteps vanish into slow, quiet darkness. A paperback-sized window for bread and water, for decades. Beneath glass, centuries-old shrouds shape a tiny figure, an emerged hand, desiccated to that of a child.

Kiev is revealed from the summit of the monastery’s bell tower. Trees, a park, on the opposite bank of the Dnieper, and an island. I am informed that in the summer this is a conflagration of barbecues, picnics and river dips.

The metro: the deepest in the world, I am told, to which its escalators’ vertigo vistas attest. In recompense for depth, there is breadth, and width, with great halls, corridors, and platforms that even in crowded rush-hour seem still languid, half full. Lighting and decor by Stanley Kubrick, circa the Overlook Hotel. Hulking reliefs of joyous comrades, cameos from Lenin and Stalin, I photograph; they are soon to be removed.

Metro station

Metro station

A Georgian restaurant, the place to dine in Kiev right now, and a shot of clear, strong fluid: a horseradish spirit, piquantly refreshing, washed down with lager. Aubergine salad; decadent khachapuri bread soaked in cheese and sporting a fried egg; enormous Georgian dumplings that threaten to, and succeed in, soiling shirt, sweater, trouser, and face.

Back near Independence Square en route to elsewhere, three girls chatter ahead, returning from their own mini-protest, bearing Ukrainian and European Union flags. The two-year anniversary of the revolution is not far off.

On their way back from Independence Square

On their way back from Independence Square

Past a Soviet-demolished, recently-rebuilt cathedral, and a funicular railway taking us downhill through bleak, leafless trees to the riverfront, apparently a fixture of Kiev tourism. The seat covers by surely the same designer as the Piccadilly line of the London Underground.

St Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery, demolished by the Soviets in the 1930s, rebuilt in 1999

St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, demolished by the Soviets in the 1930s, rebuilt in 1999

Mikhail Bulgakov's house

Mikhail Bulgakov’s house

The house of Mikhail Bulgakov, author of The Master and Margarita, now a museum. My friend, fluent in Russian, asks when the last guided tour is, and is told in Russian that he wouldn’t understand it because he doesn’t speak Russian. We laugh at this delightfully Bulgakovian absurdity, and decide instead to head for the souvenir stalls outside before they close for the day.

Soviet gear abounds, though suspiciously new-looking, along with pottery, paintings, figurines, flags. A bag lady at the bottom of the hill guards a taped-off corner of pavement where she looks after a pack of street dogs – she is a Kiev institution, I am told.

Another basement bar, and 10 drinks for just over £6. This city is comparable with Prague in the mid-1990s: intriguingly different, highly affordable, and, at the moment, barely touched by any deluge of mass tourism. Get here as soon as you can.

http://www.traveltoukraine.org/

Soviet-era magnificence, somewhere near the river

Soviet-era magnificence, somewhere near the river

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Syria: The Raw Material; by TE Lawrence, 12 March, 1917

Lawrence

The following report, by the officer who became known as Lawrence of Arabia, reveals how what is known today as Syria was, and perhaps still is, a collection of very different groups, divided by mountains; trade; politics; religion; and ethnicity, among other issues, with no common or national identity. He reveals that the Yezidis are despised by all; that Syria is not an Arabic word but a Turkish term for the province of Damascus, with the capital instead known as Sham in Arabic; and that residents of cities, towns and villages refer to themselves not as Syrians but as residents of those cities, towns and villages. Fascinating; and chillingly relevant, albeit referring to an Ottoman region that includes modern-day Israel, Jordan, and (perhaps) Lebanon.     

Geographically, Syria is much parcelled out. The first and greatest longitudinal division is made by the mountains, which run like a rugged spine north and south close to the sea, and shut off the peoples of the coast from those of the interior. Those of the coast speak a different Arabic, differently intoned; they live in different houses, eat different food, and gain their living differently. They speak of the ‘interior’ unwillingly, as a wild land full of blood and terror.

The interior is divided again longitudinally. The peasants in the valleys of the Jordan, Litani and Orontes are the most stable, most prosperous yeomen of the country; and beyond them is the strange shifting population of the border lands, wavering eastward or westward with the season, living by their wits only, wasted by droughts and locusts, by Bedouin raids, and if these fail them, by their own incurable blood-feuds.

Each of these main north and south strip-divisions is crossed and walled off into compartments mutually at odds: and it is necessary, if political composition of Syria is to be gauged, to enumerate some of the heads of these.

The boundary between Arab and Turkish speech follows, not inaptly, the coach-road from Alexandretta to Ezaz, and thence the Baghdad railway to Jerablus. On the west it begins among Ansariya, disciples of a strange cult of a principle of fertility, sheer pagan, anti-foreign, distrustful of Mohammedanism, but drawn for the moment to Christianity by the attraction of common persecution; the sect is very vital in itself, and as clannish in feeling and politics as a sect can be. One Nosairi will not betray another, and they will hardly not betray Mohammedan and Christian. Their villages are sown in patches down the main hills from Missis to Tartus and the Tripoli gap, and their sheikhs are Aissa and old Maaruf. They speak Arabic only, and they have lived there since, at least, the beginning of Greek history. They stand aside from politics, and leave the Turkish Government alone in hope of reciprocity.

Mixed among the Ansariya are colonies of Syrian Christians, and south of the Orontes are (or were) solid blocks of Armenians, who spoke Turkish, but would not consort with Turks. Inland, south of Harim, are settlements of Druses (who are Arabs) and Circassians. These have their hand against every man. North-east of them are Kurds, speaking Kurdish and Arabic, settlers of some generations back, who are marrying Arabs and adopting their politics. They hate native Christians most, and next to them Turks and Europeans. Just beyond the Kurds are some Yezidis, Arabic-speaking, but always trying in their worship to placate a spirit of evil, and with a warped admiration for crude bronze birds. Christians, Mohammedans and Jews unite to spit upon the Yezid. After the Yezidis lies Aleppo, a town of a quarter of a million of people, and an epitome of all races and religions. Eastward of Aleppo for sixty miles you pass through settled Arabs, whose colour and manner becomes more and more tribal as you approach the fringe of cultivation, where the semi-nomad ends and the Bedawi begins.

If you take another section across Syria, a degree more to the south, you begin with some colonies of Mohammedan Circassians near the sea. They speak Arabic now and are an ingenious but quarrelsome race, much opposed by their Arab neighbours. Inland of them are districts reserved for Ismailiya. These speak Arabic, and worship among themselves a king Mohammed, who, in the flesh, is the Agha Khan. They believe him to be a great and wonderful sovereign, honouring the English with his protection. They hate Arabs and orthodox Muslimin, and look for the crumbling of the Turk. Meanwhile, they are loathed and trampled on by their neighbours and are driven to conceal their beastly opinions under a veneer of orthodoxy. Everyone knows how thin that is, and they maintain among themselves signs and pass-words by which they know one another. Miserably poor in appearance, they pay the Agha a princely tribute every year. Beyond the Ismailiya is a strange sight, villages of Christian tribal Arabs, some of semi-nomad habits, under their own sheikhs. Very sturdy Christians they are, most unlike their snivelling brethren in the hills. They live as do the Sunnis round them, dress like them, speak like them, and are on the best of terms with them. East of these Christians are semi-nomad Muslim peasants, and east of them again some villages of Ismailiya outcasts, on the extreme edge of cultivation, whither they have retired in search of comparative peace. Beyond them only Bedouins.

Take another section through Syria, a degree lower down, between Tripoli and Beyrout. To begin with, near the coast, are Lebanon Christians, Maronites and Greeks for the most part. It is hard to disentangle the politics of the two churches. Superficially, one should be French and the other Russian, but a part of the Maronites now have been in the United States, and have developed there an Anglo-Saxon vein which is not the less vigorous for being spurious. The Greek church prides itself on being old Syrian, autocthonous, of an intense local patriotism that (with part) would rather fling it into the arms of the Turk than endure irretrievable annexation by a Roman power. The adherents of the two churches are at one in unmeasured slander of Mohammedans and their religion. They salve a consciousness of inbred inferiority by this verbal scorn. Behind and among the Christians live families of Mohammedan Sunnis, Arabic-speaking, identical in race and habit with the Christian, marked off from them by a less mincing dialect, and a distaste for emigration and its results. On the higher slopes of the hills are serried settlements of Metawala, Shia Mohammedans who came from Persia centuries ago. They are dirty, ignorant, surly, and fanatical. They will not eat or drink with an infidel (the Sunni as bad as the Christian), follow their own priests and notables, speak Arabic but disown in every way the people, not their co-sectarians, who live about them. Across the hills are villages of Christians, yeomen, living at peace with their Sunni neighbours, as though they had never heard the grumbles of their fellows in the Lebanon. East of them are semi-nomad Arab peasantry.

Take a section a degree lower down, near Acre. There are first, Sunni Arabs, then Druses, then Metawala to the Jordan valley, near which are many bitterly-suspicious Algerian colonies, mixed in with villages of aboriginal Palestinian Jews. The latter are an interesting race. They speak Arabic and good Hebrew; have developed a standard and style of living suitable to the country, and yet much better than the manner of the Arabs. They cultivate the land, and hide their lights rather under bushels, since their example would be a great one for the foreign (German inspired) colonies of agricultural Jews, who introduce strange manners of cultivation and crops, and European houses (erected out of pious subscriptions), to a country like Palestine, at once too small and too poor to repay efforts on such a scale. The Jewish colonies of North Palestine pay their way perhaps, but give no proportionate return on their capital expenditure. They are, however, honest in their attempts at colonization, and deserve honour, in comparison with the larger settlements of sentimental remittance-men in South Palestine. Locally, they are more than tolerated; one does not find round Galilee the deep-seated antipathy to Jewish colonists and aims that is such an unlovely feature of the Jerusalem area. Across the Eastern plain (Arabs), you come to the Leja, a labyrinth of crackled lava, where all the loose and broken men of Syria have foregathered for unnumbered generations. Their descendants live there in rich lawless villages, secure from the Government and Bedouins, and working out their own internecine feuds at leisure. South of them is the Hauran, peopled by Arabs and Druses. The latter are Arabic-speaking, a heterodox Mohammedan sect, who revere a mad and dead Sultan of Egypt, and hate Maronites with a hatred which, when encouraged by the Ottoman Government and the Sunni fanatics of Damascus, finds expression in great periodic killings. None the less, the Druses are despised by the Mohammedan Arabs, and dislike them in return. They hate the Bedouins, obey their own chiefs, and preserve in their Hauran fastnesses a parade of the chivalrous semi-feudalism in which they lived in the Lebanon, in the days of the great Emirs.

A section a degree lower would begin with German Zionist Jews, Speaking a bastard Hebrew and German Yiddish, more intractable than the Jews of the Roman era, unable to endure near them anyone not of their race, some of them agriculturists, most of them shop-keepers, the most foreign, most uncharitable part of its whole population. Behind these Jews is their enemy, the Palestine peasant, more stupid than the peasant of North Syria, materialist and bankrupt. East of him lies the Jordan valley, inhabited by a charred race of serfs, and beyond it, group upon group of self-respecting tribal or village Christians, who are, after their co-religionists of the Orontes valley, the least timid examples of their faith in the country. Among them, and east of them, are semi-nomad and nomad Arabs of the religion of the desert, living on the fear and bounty of their Christian neighbours. Down this debatable land the Ottoman Government has planted a long line of Circassian immigrants. They hold their ground only by the sword and the favour of the Turks, to whom they are consequently devoted.

These odd races and religions do not complete the tale of the races of Syria. There are still the six great towns, Jerusalem, Beyrout, Damascus, Hama, Horns, and Aleppo to be reckoned apart from the country folk in any accounting of Syria.

Jerusalem is a dirty town which all Semitic religions have made holy. Christians and Mohammedans come there on pilgrimage; Jews look to it for the political future of their race. In it the united forces of the past are so strong that the city fails to have a present: its people, with the rarest exceptions, are characterless as hotel servants, living on the crowd of visitors passing through. Questions of Arabs and their nationality are as far from them as bimetallism from the life of Texas, though familiarity with the differences among Christians in their moment of most fervent expression has led the Mohammedans of Jerusalem to despise (and dislike) foreigners generally.

Beyrout is altogether new. It would be all bastard French in feeling, as in language, but for its Greek harbour and its American college. Public opinion in it is that of the Christian merchants, all fat men, who live by exchange, for Beyrout itself produces nothing. After the merchants its strongest component is the class of returned emigrants, living on their invested savings, in the town of Syria which, to them, most resembles the Washington Avenue where they ‘made good’. Beyrout is the door of Syria, with a Levantine screen through which shop-soiled foreign influences flow into Syria. It is as representative of Syria as Soho of the Home Counties, and yet in Beyrout, from its geographical position, from its schools, from the freedom engendered by intercourse with many foreigners, there was a nucleus of people, Mohammedans, talking and writing and thinking like the doctrinaire cyclopaedists who paved the way for revolution in France, and whose words permeated to parts of the interior where action is in favour. For their sake (many of them are martyrs now, in Arab eyes) and, for the power of its wealth, and for its exceeding loud and ready voice, Beyrout is to be reckoned with.

Damascus, Homs, Hamah, and Aleppo are the four ancient cities in which Syria takes pride. They are stretched like a chain along the fertile valleys of the interior, between the desert and the hills; because of their setting they turn their backs upon the sea and look eastward. They are Arab and know themselves such.

Damascus is the old inevitable head of Syria. It is the seat of lay government and the religious centre, three days only from the Holy City by its railway. Its sheikhs are leaders of opinion, and more ‘Meccan’ than others elsewhere. Its people are fresh and turbulent, always willing to strike, as extreme in their words and acts as in their pleasures. Damascus will move before any part of Syria. The Turks made it their military centre, just as naturally as the Arab Opposition, or Oppenheim and Sheikh Shawish established themselves there. Damascus is a lodestar to which Arabs are naturally drawn, and a city which will not easily be convinced that it is subject to any alien race.

Hamah and Horns are towns which dislike one another. Everyone in them manufactures things – in Horns, generally cotton and wool, in Hamah, silk and brocade. Their industries were prosperous and increasing; their merchants were quick to take advantage of new outlets, or to meet new tastes. North Africa, the Balkans, Syria, Arabia, Mesopotamia used their stuffs. They demonstrated the productive ability of Syria, unguided by foreigners, as Beyrout demonstrated its understanding of commerce. Yet, while the prosperity of Beyrout has made it Levantine, the prosperity of Horns and Hamah has reinforced their localism, made them more entirely native, and more jealously native than any other Syrian towns. It almost seems as though familiarity with plant and power had shown the people there that the manners of their fathers were the best.

Aleppo is the largest city in Syria, but not of it, nor of Turkey, nor of Mesopotamia. Rather it is a point where all the races, creeds and tongues of the Ottoman Empire meet and know one another in a spirit of compromise. The clash of varied characteristics, which makes its streets a kaleidoscope, has imbued in the Aleppine a kind of thoughtfulness, which corrects in him what is wanton in the Damascene. Aleppo has shared in each of the civilizations which turn about it, and the result seems to be a lack of zest in all that its people do. Even so, they surpass the rest of Syria in most things. They fight and trade more, are more fanatical and vicious, and make most beautiful things, but all with a dearth of conviction that renders their great strength barren. It is typical of Aleppo that here, where yet Mohammedan feeling runs high, there is more fellowship between Christian and Mohammedan, Armenian, Arab, Kurd, Turk and Jew, than in, perhaps, any other great city of the Ottoman Empire, and more friendliness, though less licence, is accorded to Europeans on the part of the average Mohammedan. Aleppo would stand aside from political action altogether but for the influence of the great unmixed Arab quarters which lie on its outskirts like overgrown, half-nomad villages. These are, after the Maidan of Damascus, the most national of any parts of towns, and the intensity of their Arab feeling tinges the rest of the citizens with a colour of nationalism, which is by so much less vivid than the unanimous opinion of Damascus.

In the creeds and races above described, and in others not enumerated, lie the raw materials of Syria for a statesman. It will be noted that the distinctions are political or religious; morally the peoples somewhat resemble one another, with a steady gradation from neurotic sensibility, on the coast, to reserve, inland. They are quick-minded, admirers (but not seekers) of truth, self-satisfied, not incapable (as are the Egyptians) of abstract ideas, but unpractical, and so lazy mentally as to be superficial. Their wish is to be left alone to busy themselves with others’ affairs. From childhood they are lawless, obeying their fathers only as long as they fear to be beaten, and their government later for the same reason: yet there are few races with a greater respect than the upland Syrian for customary law. All of them want something new, for with their superficiality and their lawlessness is combined a passion for politics, the science of which it is fatally easy for the Syrian to gain a smattering, and too difficult to gain a mastery. They are all discontented with the government they have, but few of them honestly combine their ideas of what they want. Some (mostly Mohammedans) cry for an Arab kingdom, some (mostly Christians) for a foreign protection of an altruistic thelemic order, conferring privileges without obligation. Others cry for autonomy for Syria.

Autonomy is a comprehensible word, Syria is not, for the words Syria and Syrian are foreign terms. Unless he has learnt English or French, the inhabitant of these parts has no word to describe all his country. Syria in Turkish (the word exists not in Arabic) is the province of Damascus.Sham in Arabic is the town of Damascus. An Aleppine always calls himself an Aleppine, a Beyrouti a Beyrouti, and so down to the smallest villages.

This verbal poverty indicates a political condition. There is no national feeling. Between town and town, village and village, family and family, creed and creed, exist intimate jealousies, sedulously fostered by the Turks to render a spontaneous union impossible. The largest indigenous political entity in settled Syria is only the village under its sheikh, and in patriarchal Syria the tribe under its chief. These leaders are chosen, not formally, but by opinion from the entitled families, and they rule by custom and consent. All the constitution above them is the artificial bureaucracy of the Turk, maintained by force, impossible if it were to be carried out according to its paper scheme, but in practice either fairly good or very bad according to the less or greater frailty of the human instruments through which it works.

Time seems to have proclaimed that autonomous union is beyond the powers of such a people. In history, Syria is always the corridor between sea and desert, joining Africa to Asia, and Arabia to Europe. It has been a prize-ring for the great peoples lying about it, alternately the vassal of Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Arabia or Mesopotamia, and when given a momentary independence by the weakness of its neighbours, it has at once resolved itself fiercely into Northern and Southern, Eastern and Western discordant ‘kingdoms’, with the areas and populations at best of Yorkshire, at worst of Rutland; for if Syria is by nature a vassal country, it is also by habit a country of agitations and rebellions.

The proposals to make Syria an Arab or foreign-protected country are, of course, far from the hearts of the ‘autonomy’ party, but the conviction of their internal divisions, and the evident signs that Syria’s neighbours are not going to be of the weak sort that enable it to snatch a momentary independence, have reconciled these parts to having such proposals constantly on their lips.

By accident and time the Arabic language has gradually permeated the country, until it is now almost the only one in use; but this does not mean that Syria – any more than Egypt – is an Arabian country. On the sea coast there is little, if any, Arabic feeling or tradition: on the desert edge there is much. Indeed, racially, there is perhaps something to be said for the suggestion – thrown in the teeth of geography and economics – of putting the littoral under one government, and the interior under another.

Whatever the limits of future politics, it can hardly be contested that, like a European Government, an Arab Government in Syria, to-day or to-morrow, would be an imposed one, as the former Arab Governments were. The significant thing is to know what local basis, if any, such a Government would have; and one finds that it would be buttressed on two fronts, both contained in the word ‘Arab’, which seems to strike a chord in some of the most unlikely minds. The Mohammedans, whose mother tongue is Arabic, look upon themselves, for that reason, as a chosen people. The patriotism which should have attached itself to soil or race has been warped to fit a language. The heritage of the Koran and the classical poets holds the Arabic-speaking peoples together. The second buttress of an Arab polity is the dim distortion of the old glories and conquests of the Arabian Khalifate, which has persisted in the popular memory through centuries of Turkish misgovernment. The accident that these ideas savour rather of Arabian Nights than of sober history retains the Arabs in the conviction that their past was greater than the present of the Ottoman Turks.

To sum up – a review of the present components of Syria proves it as vividly coloured a racial and religious mosaic to-day as it has notoriously been in the past. Any wide attempt at autonomy would end in a patched and parcelled thing, an imposition on a people whose instincts for ever and ever have been for parochial home-rule. It is equally clear that the seething discontent which Syrians cherish with the present Turkish administration is common enough to render possible a fleeting general movement towards a new factor, if it appeared to offer a chance realization of the ideals of centripetal nationalism preached by the Beyrout and Damascus cyclopaedists of the last two generations. Also, that only by the intrusion of a new factor, founded on some outward power or non-Syrian basis, can the dissident tendencies of the sects and peoples of Syria be reined in sufficiently to prevent destructive anarchy. The more loose, informal, inchoate this new government, the less will be the inevitable disillusionment following on its institution; for the true ideal of Syria, apart from the minute but vociferous Christian element, is not an efficient administration, but the minimum of central power to ensure peace, and permit the unchecked development of customary law. Also, that the only imposed government that will find, in Moslem Syria, any really prepared groundwork or large body of adherents is a Sunni one, speaking Arabic, and pretending to revive the Abbassides or Ayubides

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Season’s greetings from Kosovo

The ambassador opens the front door, so of course my mind goes blank.

Debrett’s said something about a particular use of Your Excellency, but I can’t remember what.

He smiles and shakes my hand, I mumble something and hurry down the hallway. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office would not be impressed.

Rows of chairs face a piano and a window, in a beautiful old Bloomsbury house. A fireplace with the Kosovo and Union Jack flags at either side.

The programme says this is the Festive Season Concert 2015, and we are to hear performances from Bardh Lepaja, a young violinist studying at Whitgift School, in Croydon, and Yilka Istrefi, a London-based pianist.

A gentleman in the seat in front mentions to a woman beside him that the son of either the King or the President of Kosovo attends Whitgift School, and that the headteacher discovered Bardh while on a visit to the new Balkan country, scouting for talent to participate in an international music festival.

Another guest mentions a recent visit to Albania, and an enjoyable trip on a railway – there are plans to reopen a line to Montenegro, it seems.

While studying the programme, the seat next to me is taken. Endri is not from Kosovo, but an Albanian who came to London to study some years ago and now works in the housing department of a local authority.

He explains to me the complicated history of the region, that Alba means sunrise in Italian, while Albania is called Shqiperi by Albanians. I’d heard this before, at an event in 2009 to celebrate a year of Kosovan independence, and mention the editor of an Albanian newspaper who’d invited me back then.

Endri smiles and tells me that he’s sitting a few rows behind us.

Hush descends as the ambassador appears in front of the piano, sporting a splendid turquoise tie. He welcomes those present, promises to not speak for more than 60 minutes, and says that since pop star Rita Ora, who was born in Prishtina, has been made an honorary ambassador by the President, he has little work to do. He seems a jolly fellow, and hopefully likely to forgive a protocol malfunction at the front door.

Bardh Lepaja goes first. Bach, then the deep-rolling drama of Schumann, rounded off with the stunning virtuosity of Zigeunerweisen, by Spanish composer Pablo de Sarasate. It has the rapid-fire pyrotechnics of a heavy metal guitar solo, and I mean that in a good way.

Yilka Istrefi is equally adventurous, opening with Mozart’s Fantasia in C minor, before the insistent, sonorous menace of Florent Shasivari’s The Journey. Next is the angular, brilliantly contemporary-sounding, Arbereshe Bells by Rafet Rudi, a Kosovan composer, if the internet is correct, and all culminating in an indefatigable tsunami of Rachmaninoff.

The chairs are cleared away, and it’s a pleasure to meet up again with my old friend Fatmir Terziu, the newspaper editor.

It’s a small world, even in London.

 

 

 

 

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