Philip Hensher: Showing Syria our fragile side is our strength

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is right to try a variety of rapprochements between us and the Middle East, and to the political we might add cultural approaches. You never know; that might do the trick where hard diplomacy is always going to fail.

I had the luck to go to Syria last week to see the Victoria and Albert Museum's loan exhibition of 200 of its best ceramics to a temporary exhibition in that famous and spectacular building, the Khan As'ad Pasha. It seemed like an interesting thing to do, and it was.

I don't believe a major Western museum has ever sent an exhibition to Syria before – they've certainly never had any great cause to build temporary exhibition spaces of the sort many Western institutions have. It may, however, be on the rise. The Tate not only borrowed some of the treasures in its recent "Orientalism" show from Middle Eastern collections, but sent it, with apparently great success, to Istanbul and Sharjah. A number of gulf states, including not just Sharjah, but Abu Dhabi and Qatar, where a spectacular museum by I M Pei has recently been cutting a swathe through Western sales rooms, are actively seeking to join the international cultural network.

There was a lovely symbolism and gesture of trust to the loan of such delicate objects as ceramics to a region still associated in some people's mind with the promise of violence. Actually, ceramics made perfect sense – the Khan As'ad Pasha can't be temperature controlled, and unglazed ceramics are unaffected by wide variations in temperature and humidity. Paper or textiles would have been different.

A certain amount of seeming guff was spoken in the course of the events about the role of culture as bringing people together – in my view, culture is usually quicker to divide people than anything else. But for the moment, the old cliché seemed to have some truth in it. The immense compliment, masterminded on the Syrian side by the doyenne of Damascus's restoration, May Mamarbashi, drew local grandees in numbers. At their head was Asma Akhras, the Acton-born wife of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. She wore killer Louboutin heels and took an evident, immense interest. Britain could not supply anyone grander than Sir Tim Sainsbury and an ex-foreign office minister, Baroness Symonds, who embarrassingly didn't seem sure how Damascus is pronounced. But Syrians are a well-mannered people, and public delight and curiosity were evident from beginning to end. It will do us a lot of good.

David Miliband was in Damascus the week before, no doubt telling Damascus what it must or may not do with regard to its near neighbours. Cultural exchanges, however, do a great deal more to make people feel valued; they show we are interested in their lives.

There is talk about an exhibition of Syrian culture from beginning to end, to take place in London. If so – and it will be a nightmare to put together – it will be the second step in an important programme.

The V&A, by its spectacular renovation of its Islamic galleries, showed how they value that part of their work; the sending of so valuable a collection to Damascus is a further gesture. Showcasing Syrian treasures in the heart of London will go much further than stern statements of conventional diplomacy.

I urge readers to take a short trip to this most lovable of Middle Eastern cities. This ceramics exhibition is as good an excuse as any.

This constitutional outrage boils down to one man's failure

I worked as a clerk in the House of Commons many years ago. And though we used to mock and roll our eyes at the Speaker's latest absurdity, we all knew there was a basic level of competence and decency in the holder of the office. Not any more, apparently. The policeman who said "there is a procedure to follow and we followed it" for raiding the parliamentary offices of opposition spokesmen was lying, unless he was talking about procedures established by Robert Mugabe.

Of course, civil servants who leak private information should be arrested. But a Shadow minister has to be protected by the Speaker and by a sense of parliamentary dignity, if not, as it happens, by parliamentary privilege. The fact that the Speaker, Michael Martin, indubitably gave permission for the police to raid a Member's office – they can't, I believe, get in otherwise – is an absolute disgrace. No one can think that Damian Green committed any crime, even the utterly factitious and invented common-law offence of "aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office".

Who is there, if not the Speaker, to protect the essential constitutional role of MPs? Mr Martin has been a disaster and, as he must be responsible for permitting this outrage, he must resign.

A mouse that squeaked, the mouse that roared

Two murine anniversaries fell this week. Mickey Mouse, that loathsome beast, was 80, having failed to give anyone pleasure for a good 79 of those years. More to the point, the humble computer mouse had its 40th. "Mouse" was a holding name until something better came along; but researchers at Stanford University in California never did think of anything for something which, at first, was just a wooden block on wheels.

It is an invention which has permanently shifted our way of thinking. As it roams over a screen of icons, or drifts at our hand's command through a page of text, we have the choice of left clicking, and opening a door, or right clicking onto a menu. It doesn't go along set paths and the map on the top of your desk is weirdly more virtual than the one on screen. Its creator was a genius; it is impossible to imagine life or, indeed, human thought before it. It sets you free into a realm of dawdling and musing. Happy birthday, little one.

Comments