Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Clouds over the Arab Spring


Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Monday 12 September 2011 00:00

This year, Eid, the festival at the end of Ramadan, was celebrated with incomparable ecstasy across many parts of the Middle East.

After an arduous month of fasting, the day is always packed with pleasures but this time, political release and hope was in the joyous mix. I've been in the region researching my next book. From the balcony of my hotel in downtown Cairo, you can see the now-famous Tahrir Square, where the people's revolt against the dictatorial President, Hosni Mubarak, started and ended this year. It was impossible not to be affected by the sight. Here they came, week after week, braved armed assaults by the army and supporters of Mubarak, steadfast and unafraid, calling for freedom and democracy until the regime surrendered to their idealism.

But the precinct, symbol of the uprising, was unnaturally quiet and nervy. Though the streets around it were full of ebullient Egyptians and hooting cars, Tahrir Square was dark, surrounded by soldiers holding huge shields, their faces still as grey sculptures. The Israeli Embassy area also felt markedly edgy. So, it isn't a surprise, really, that on Friday masses came out to demonstrate again and some then tried to destroy that embassy. But it is profoundly depressing – and may stall recent Arab political developments. On my own exultant, instructive journey, I found Israel was sometimes the cul-de-sac, always the excuse, often the boulder, everywhere venom in the bloodstream causing severe paralysis and rashness of mind.

There is no question that grave historical injustices were committed by Britain and the Europeans against the Palestinians. Their land was stolen to create a Jewish state in order to assuage the guilt of the Holocaust. Millions of their dispossessed are forced endlessly to roam the earth or remain in refugee camps from cradle to grave. Those who can't leave lose more rights, more land, all dignity and aspiration. Their plight is worse than that of non-whites under Apartheid because few powerful nations openly supported that regime and its dehumanisation policies. If you can find it, read the beautiful, poignant book, The Palestinians, by Jonathan Dimbleby and photographer Don McCullin. You will then understand why the Palestinians and their many supporters carry on fighting for justice.

But that injustice did not make Arab dictators, nor can it explain why most Arab nations are in a state of political, social and economic collapse. Their citizens were at long last facing up to these endemic problems when they turned on Israel almost as a welcome distraction. Over this past month, I asked Egyptians, Jordanians, Iraqis, Palestinians, Tunisians, Moroccans, Saudis and Gulf Arabs a hypothetical question: if angels swept down and ended the Palestinian conflict, would all their nations flourish thereafter? Not one engaged with the question and instead took off on rhetorical flights about Zionism and the creation of Israel.

Rage against Israel's policies is completely justifiable, but not when expressed in this way and at this crucial time of incredible transformation. The possibility of democracy has freed spirits in every way. In Egypt women now wear headscarves covered in balls, and flowers, feathers and sequins, more colourful than the hats at Ascot. Their clothes cling and invite attention. Muslims walk hand in hand or cuddle on streets; it wouldn't happen in Bradford or Southall. In cafés you hear philosophical and intellectual debates you would not get in our Starbucks. Internet liberationists, wary that their new rights could be repossessed, are becoming astute, informed and strategic, growing a respectable political class in effect. Writers and movie-makers tell me they felt they have emerged from airless, lightless dungeons and feel their creative lines opening up.

Global populations have been inspired by Arab youngsters for the first time in centuries. It's incredible, really – but Israeli-bashing now will kill all that and reassure those who believe Arabs are no good at anything but blaming others.

The strange case of literature's darkest hero

A new American film of Wuthering Heights has cast as Heathcliff not brooding George Clooney nor rough-hewn Russell Crowe, nor any Laurence Olivier lookalike, but James Howson, an actor who is either fully black or mixed race. Emily Brontë aficionados are apoplectic. Blasphemous, they say, unthinkable, just the way many used to when a real black man played Othello instead of a white actor blacked up. England's traditions are apparently being violated. Stuff and nonsense. If they even skim-read the book, they would know Heathcliff was a strange boy, not white but of mysterious background, perhaps gypsy, or the mixed-race son of a foreign sailor and an Englishwoman. The way he is portrayed in part reflects his rejection.

Brontë also attributes his viciousness to his "otherness", and some critics have analysed racist expectations underpinning the character. So the choice is the most authentic yet of any screen version of the novel. Furthermore, there have been men of colour in this country since the 16th century – and some had white lovers, like Cathy. In the 18th century, this liaison would hardly have been surprising. The only shocking thing is that so many Englanders know nothing of their history and that it falls to outsiders to remind them.

Why Lulu is strictly gorgeous for any age

OK, OK, enough already. So four, yes FOUR women over 45 are on Strictly Come Dancing. They will slide, sometimes fall, and look terrific in extravagant ballgowns. And we are meant to be amazed by the spectacle. In the past few years the BBC has been found to be ageist and sexist both in the way it treats staff and the faces it picks to appear on its channels. Arlene Phillips, a judge on Strictly, at least a decade younger than the chairman, was ignominiously replaced by younger flesh. And so now they make amends, upping the grey count each year. Last year, it was Ann Widdecombe; this year the part goes to Edwina Currie. Which shows they still don't get it. What matters is that age shouldn't matter. Pamela Stephenson was damn good last year, NOT FOR HER AGE, but damned good, full stop. And this year my hopes lie with Lulu. I saw her with Jools Holland at the Royal Albert Hall – a fab dancer and singer, stunning to look at, brilliant. And NOT FOR HER AGE.


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