What’s going on in Pakistan?

A trip through the dark corridors and political galleries suggests that what we are witnessing in Pakistan today – street demos in Lahore and Islamabad, attempts to seize the prime minister’s house, a token occupation of the state television building – is little more than a crude struggle for power between the incumbents (the two stooges otherwise known as the Sharif brothers) and a segment of the opposition led by Imran Khan and the forces unleashed by the Canadian-based ‘moderate’ Islamist cleric Tahirul Qadri, who controls a large network of madrassahs that were supported by the Sharifs and many others. Mohammad Sarwar, for instance, the governor of Punjab (a millionaire chum of Blair and Brown and former New Labour MP from Glasgow), joined Qadri’s procession, presumably to demonstrate his faith. More »

The World According to Gnarr

Lady Gaga once said that ‘more mayors in the world should be like Jón Gnarr.’ In June, Gnarr left office after serving a full four-year term as mayor of Reykjavík. His memoir, Gnarr! How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World, will be published in Britain this week. More »

‘Syria Speaks’

9780863567872A few days before Isis fighters captured the Iraqi city of Mosul, Saqi Books released an anthology called Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, a thoughtful collection of work by Syrian writers, activists, visual artists and anonymous collectives who were at the vanguard of the uprising against Bashar al-Assad in March 2011. More »

At the Fringe

Whenever I go to the Edinburgh Fringe, I wish it was 1966 so I could watch the premiere of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I’ve been going for over a decade, and although there have been some good shows, I haven’t yet seen anything that made anyone instantly famous. This year I watched a less renowned Stoppard play, The Real Inspector Hound, a farce revolving around a dead body under a sofa. When he started writing it in 1960, Stoppard didn’t know whose body it was; coming back to it in 1967, he made his main characters, Moon and Birdboot, theatre critics and immediately resolved the problem. In the production by the English College in Prague, Birdboot, a reviewer with ‘some small name for the making of reputations’, tries to kiss Moon (played by a woman); otherwise there are no surprises. More »

At the Polling Station

I was sitting behind my folding table in the polling station – usually a bingo hall – when I saw the elderly couple come into the sport club’s lobby, hesitate and walk through the wrong door into the bar. I hurried across to help them.

‘Excuse me, are you looking to vote?’

‘No, no. I have a vote but I’m not going to use it this time because I don’t agree with these police whatsits. Thanks though.’

‘They just out for a pint?’ the presiding officer asked when I got back.

‘Yes.’

‘Can’t blame them.’ More »

Tightening Up the First Amendment

A few weeks ago, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign rescinded its offer of tenure to a professor of English then working at Virginia Tech. Steven Salaita was offered a post as professor of American Indian studies, subject to the formality of confirmation by the university’s board of trustees. Before the board met, the university’s chancellor, Phyllis Wise, wrote to Salaita revoking the appointment: the board was, she said, unlikely to approve tenure, so the proposal to appoint would not be put to them. Since then, a large number of academics have signed petitions condemning UIUC’s decision and undertaking to boycott the university. More »

Isis raises the stakes

The killing of James Foley by Isis caused an upsurge of international revulsion and condemnation with harsh words from the US defence secretary and others. But the Obama administration is trying hard not to be sucked into a war that could be more serious than the US invasion and occupation of Iraq between 2003 and 2011. What Isis showed by Foley’s very public murder is that it will always raise the stakes in any confrontation with the US and anybody else. It trumped America’s reassuring portrayal of the recapture of Mosul Dam by the Kurds aided by US air strikes as a sign that Isis could be defeated. More »

Sabotage

The trio known as the National Socialist Underground (NSU) are thought to be responsible for ten murders, two bomb attacks and a number of bank raids. The Thuringia legislature has just published the findings of a committee that examined the reasons for the many failures in the official search for the NSU, from the time they went underground in 1998 until their last bank raid in Eisenach in November 2011. More »

Turkey’s New Left

Selahattin Demirtaş, one of the leaders of Turkey’s left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP), is tall, self-confident, strong and soft-spoken. When he ran for president earlier this month, some of his supporters tried to convince undecided friends to vote for him by asking them to choose the ‘most handsome candidate on the ballot paper’. A friend’s grandmother said Demirtaş may be handsome but she would ‘never vote for a Kurd’. He came in third, with just under 10 per cent of the vote (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won with 52 per cent). More »

Healthy Words

In 1902 Lu Xun translated Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon into Chinese from the Japanese edition. Science fiction, he wrote in the preface, was ‘as rare as unicorn horns, which shows in a way the intellectual poverty of our time’. Not any more. The Three-Body Trilogy by Liu Cixin has sold 500,000 copies in China since the first volume was published in 2006 (it will come out in English in the autumn). Liu, an engineer, is one of the so-called ‘three generals’ of contemporary Chinese science fiction, along with Wang Jinkang and Han Song. More »

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