Category Archives: Books


I’ve been reading Francis Spufford’s book Red Plenty recently—not a history book, not a novel, but something in between. (Much more interesting than most history books, but with more footnotes than most novels that aren’t by David Foster Wallace.) It’s about the Soviet economy in the years around 1960, and it’s a lot more fun than that sounds.

One of the settings for the book is the Siberian science town of Akademgorodok (‘Academytown’), founded outside Novosibirsk in the 1950s by the Soviet Academy of Science. Here it is at the planning stage:

Akademgorodok, opening

The town is outside the city of Novosibirsk, and is formally a part of it. When it was being built, different disciplines squabbled bitterly over who would get which building: ‘Cytology and Genetics itself obtained its premises by seizing, one weekend, a facility promised to the Computer Centre, and the Computer Centre nearly lost its next earmarked site as well, to an opportunistic grab by a group researching transplant surgery.’


And the many advantages that the academics enjoyed meant that their Siberian neighbours weren’t always helpful: ‘Envy of the town’s material privileges was a factor in the unhelpfulness of the city government of Novosibirk [sic] over such issues as the water supply. At one point, the city stole an entire trainload of supplies earmarked for Akademgorodok, and Academician Lavrentiev, the de facto mayor, had to ring Khrushchev personally to get it back.’ (Spufford, notes to p. 151—his main source for all this is Paul Josephson’s New Atlantis Revisited).

The place went into a tailspin after the Soviet period but—as some of the references to the Wikipedia article show—has recently been trying to reinvent itself as a tech hub, a kind of Silicon Forest.

Akademgorodok, 21st centuryIt has something of a web presence, from the unexpected photos of sunbathers and sailing boats on on TripAdvisor that came up when I looked on Google images (they’re on the Ob Sea, a large artificial lake, and resort, next to the town) to the excellent Facebook page that I got these images from. That’s well worth a look, even if like me you speak no Russian. It has lots of archival photos and other resources, including this short cine-film tour, with its er delightful backing music:

And there’s Spufford’s own website for the book, linked at the top of the page, which includes his travel notes from a research trip to Siberia in 2006. If you’re looking for something to keep you busy in reading week, you could do a lot worse than spend a bit of time in high Soviet Siberia.

Click images for source

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Ocelots and peacocks


He had a string of spectacular and often scandalous affairs, and there remains a mythos of Chinese whispers concerning his alleged perversions and fetishes. His paramours included theatrical superstars like the tragedienne Eleonora Duse and the modernist Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein, and numerous adventurous aristocrats including the Marchesa Luisa Casati, who satisfied two of his chief criteria by being very tall and very rich. She had huge green eyes heightened with heavy applications of kohl, favoured exotic accessories such as ocelots and peacocks, and her party guests were attended by black servants dressed in costumes copied from Tiepolo. D’Annunzio was fascinated by bisexuality, and in Paris had a high profile affair with Romaine Brooks, a crop-haired lesbian painter. […]

‘In heaven, dear poet,’ Brooks wrote to him when their affair ended, ‘there will be reserved for you an enormous octopus with a thousand women’s legs (and no head).’ It was an acute hit at d’Annunzio’s compulsive, narcissistic womanising. His love life was as meticulously styled as everything else about him: the poetic billets-doux, the trysts in wisteria-choked pergolas, the love nests hung with damask and strewn with rose petals, the silk kimonos and cups of fragrant Chinese tea, the handkerchiefs drenched in a perfume whose recipe he had copied from a medieval manuscript.

Lover, litératteur, and proto-Fascist martinet: Gabriele d’Annunzio, demonstrating that poets have more fun than historians. (‘In his last years d’Annunzio grew shrunken and bandy-legged, living a frugal and contemplative life interspersed with cocaine-fuelled sex with a tubercular Milanese prostitute chauffeured up from her lodgings above a trattoria on the lakeside.’) From Charles Nicholl’s review of Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s new biography of d’Annunzio, The Pike, in the LRB.

Now I’m off to buy myself an ocelot.

Click image for source


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Gieves and Hawkes strides, cropped

Dear Sir—No doubt you are wondering what has happened to your two suits, I had them well in hand last week and the coats and waistcoats are ready for fitting, but the two pairs of trousers are somewhere in a heap of rubble, the remains of my trousermaker’s workshop. The result of a Hun Souvenir which arrived last Saturday morning. The workman and his helpers escaped by a miracle with not bad injuries but are all in hospital.

Part of my trouble is that there is not enough material now available for another pair of trousers for either of the suits. There is just a chance that the trousers may be saved. I hope also that you will be indulgent for the delay, your obedient servant, William Briston Dodson.

Edmund Knox, editor of Punch and a pretty snappy dresser, gets a letter from his tailor, October 1940. ‘The suits, with two pairs of trousers each, were ready by November.’

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Knox Brothers (paperback edition, London, 2002), p. 245
Click image for source

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Bloodless archivists of a real gone time

RAF_roundelIn the latest LRB, Ian Penman has a review of Richard Weight’s Mod: a very British style. It’s a critical review (as sharp in places as a mod’s pressed creases), but it’s also a smart essay on music, clothes, and style more generally in modern British culture, then and now. It’s not behind the paywall, and it also gives us the useful neologism ‘tellyology’: ‘shaping history with both eyes on a potential TV series’.

A representative extract:

Early Mods could ‘pass’ between work and play without changing their suits, which is perhaps one of the reasons they were never sent up in the culture at large. Think back to 1960s and 1970s low comedy: no TV sketch show or sitcom or kitschy horror film was complete without its parade of subcult Aunt Sallies – hippies, ton-up boys, skinheads, punks. Rockers had shivs, skinheads had bovver boots, hippies might dose you – what was a Mod going to do? Make you listen to Otis Redding? Force you to buy a decent pair of trousers? Mods posed a far less obvious threat. They flew the Union Jack, after all, and most of them had jobs; they were clean, well turned-out and had nice haircuts. In 1964 there was a brief spasm of tabloid outrage over some rather tame skirmishes between Mods and Rockers, mostly conducted in bracing seaside ozone. Talk of scooter-borne ‘vermin’ aside, the real fear may have had less to do with physical aggro and more to do with the difficulty of slotting Mod into any obvious class or subcult genealogy. (Even the word ‘subculture’ suggests soil, shadow, dirt; airless oubliettes; greasy rungs leading down into a Harry Lime exile.)

Class plays through this story in sighing counterpoint, but Weight has the pop sociological equivalent of a tin ear. He relies entirely on secondary research, on other people’s now exaggerated accounts of already faded memories, and has zero feeling for real lives, real voices, real flight and fall. There is a dusty old pub-table anecdote about some Mod who would only have bunk-up sex if there was a trouser press to hand for his strides – which is presumably meant as a dig at Mod’s twisted priorities. (Full disclosure: no trouser press, but I do own two pairs of antique shoe trees.) Another way to see this tale: having saved for months to afford a gorgeous suit, and probably unable to afford a replacement any time soon, you’re going to make damned sure it lasts. Maybe this guy was on a 48-hour weekender and didn’t want to roll into work on Monday morning looking like an undignified mess?

Ray Davies, naturally, makes an appearance. Here’s one of the songs Penman writes about:

Click image for source. To understand Penman’s point about the bastardization of mod, consider the results of this google image search for mod hairstyles

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The smell of fresh paint

Marjah Square, Damascus, Library of Congress digital reproduction The queen, it is said, thinks the whole world smells of fresh paint. She’s not the only member of royalty to face this misconception. According to a marvellous book I’m reviewing at the moment, Kaiser Wilhelm II and his wife Augusta experienced the same thing when they travelled to Damascus:

The potential of the town planning committee was clearly seen during the visit by the German imperial couple in 1898, when all the main bazaars and streets were renovated by the city council. Sarkîs wrote in 1898 that more than 5,000 façades and shops had been newly whitewashed or repainted and a total length of 10 to 12 miles of road had been repaired.

A job like this required serious organization (and expenditure)—it demonstrates the rapid development of Damascus city council’s capacity and ambitions in the late nineteenth century, when Damascus was an important provincial capital of the Ottoman empire. It was around the same time that a new city centre took full form, outside the walls of the old city, to the west of the citadel: Marjah Square, pictured above, site of the governor’s residence, a new barracks, and the hub of the tram network. The picture’s from a bit later, though, some time between 1920 and 1933: the book, Stefan Weber’s Damascus: Ottoman modernity and urban transformation, 1808–1908, is packed with gorgeous illustrations, but many of them are from private collections, including a lovely one of soldiers on parade in another square during the imperial couple’s stay (Fig. 92, p. I.138). I got this one from the Library of Congress—click the image for the source.

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More beer

Waguih Ghali

When I wrote a post about Waguih Ghali’s novel Beer in the snooker club not long ago, I didn’t realize that the author’s diaries and an unpublished manuscript had recently been digitized and made available by Cornell University library. (The same friend who lent me the book wrote to tell me.) These digitized versions were made from photocopies held by Deborah Starr, a literature professor at Cornell. She had made the copies in 1999, from the originals held by Diane Athill, the publisher and memoirist whose flat Ghali was living in when he took the overdose of sleeping pills that killed him. At some point after 1999, though, the originals were lost, leaving the photocopies as (probably) the only extant copy. With Athill’s permission, these copies were digitized last year.

A novelist’s diaries are most obviously interesting to scholars of literature, and Ghali’s place in the canon seems increasingly assured, with his one slender completed novel still in print fifty years after its publication. But there’d be plenty of interesting stuff here for a historian, too, interested in Ghali’s experiences of a precarious life in exile: working for the British army in the West Germany of the Wirtschaftswunder; attending the trial of SS officers in Düsseldorf (there can’t have been many Egyptians there); trying to complete a second novel on the fringes of literary London; and travelling to Israel immediately after the 1967 war. This, as Ahdaf Soueif pointed out in 1986, was a monumental act of bridge-burning, ensuring that Ghali could never return to Egypt:

Visiting Israel – indeed entering an Israeli embassy anywhere in the world – was treasonous according to Egyptian wartime law, and punishable by death. It was also an act that would have gone completely against popular feeling in a country suffering the aftermath of a terrible defeat. It is the one thing which has stayed in the minds of the very few people who remember him today in Cairo.

(Even fewer people will remember Ghali in Cairo now, over 25 years after Soueif wrote that, but perhaps more know about his book, which was written in English: according to this article it has a small cult following, and there’s a recent translation into Arabic.)

Anyone want to do a dissertation on all this? Email me.

Click image for source

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Here’s another post about a book that’s not a history book, but that historians might be interested in: Andrew Miller’s novel Pure, published in 2011 to considerable acclaim and the Costa book prize. (Beware: this post contains spoilers.)

Andrew Miller Pure coverPure is set in Paris in the 1780s, a few years before the Revolution, where the young engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte comes from the provinces in search of advancement and is charged with the nauseating task of clearing out the ancient cemetery of les Innocents, burying-ground for the city since medieval times, recently closed but still stinking the place out: “Some days I believe I can smell it from here”, the minister tells him, in an office at Versailles, twelve miles away. Soon Baratte is lodging with the Monnards, a family whose dwelling overlooks the cemetery; they carry the reek of the place on their breath, and the food they eat tastes off even though it’s not.

The novel follows Baratte as he prepares the ground, literally, for his task, identifying and staking out the overgrown common pits with the assistance of the sexton and his granddaughter, hiring workers from his former job in the mines at Valenciennes (along with a fellow-engineer and friend, Lecœur, as a supervisor), laying in supplies and negotiating his tricky position in a neighbourhood which, however little it likes having platoons of corpses burst through its cellar walls after heavy rain, is suspicious of outsiders and superstitious about the stinking boneyard at its heart. Baratte also makes friends with Armand de Saint-Méard, the organist at the decaying church of les Innocents, a one-time foundling child who is an avowed member of the ‘party of the future’. Armand takes Baratte to the Palais-Royal, pleasure centre of Europe, and gets him pissed; he also gets him fitted out in a pistachio-green silk suit at Charvet the tailor’s, daringly moderne, to contrast with the respectable, provincial brown suit he had been given by his dead father in Bellême. In line with his philosophical disposition but against his better judgment, Baratte tentatively and briefly joins Armand in his anti-royal activities, under the nickname Bêche or ‘Spade’—a pseudonym all too easy to match to his job, especially when someone paints grafitti on the cemetery wall warning ‘FAT KING SLUT QUEEN BEWARE! BÊCHE IS DIGGING A HOLE BIG ENOUGH TO BURY ALL VERSAILLES!’

Anyone wanting to get a sense of what Paris felt—and smelt—like on the cusp of the Revolution could do a lot worse than read Pure: its crisp present-tense narrative carries you easily down the rue aux Fers, along endless corridors at Versailles, or down with the redeployed miners to the bottom of a common grave pit seventeen metres deep, its sides supported by wooden box-cribs—the miners happy to build them because Baratte pays them a wage, whereas in the mines they would never take the time to shore up their tunnels because they were only paid for the coal they brought up. The interweaving of historical fact and literary fiction is smooth, and fun. Two physicians of enquiring mind join the excavations: their names are Guillotin and Thouret, both real people. You don’t need me to tell you what Guillotin’s contribution to the revolution was (here he’s a genial, kindly character); his colleague may be less familiar, but the real Auguste Thouret had a brother who made a distinctive contribution to the revolution—and to the shape of modern France—before he himself went to the guillotine. The sense of France’s class, regional, and capital/provincial distinctions is sure-footed, and the personal and precarious connections Baratte must rely on in his slow climb out of provincial obscurity are delicately and unobtrusively etched out, and we can easily extrapolate from what we know of his trajectory to see what this new and rational kind of man will become. Baratte must prove that he is, as the minister puts it at the outset, ‘a man unafraid of a little unpleasantness’; by the second half of the book, even the minister’s grim-faced bagman, Lafosse (‘the pit’ or ‘the grave’, a gag that’s a little too obvious), starts to recognize that Baratte could handle a lot of unpleasantness. Mocked by a man on the street, Baratte responds with unexpected swiftness and violence. ‘In the time to come’, the narrator tells us, ‘the man will say he saw bloody murder in those grey eyes, will insist on it and be listened to.’ Before his task is done, Baratte has had to bury a couple of fresh corpses as well as exhuming thousands of old ones. He’s ditched his pistachio silk suit, too, for a sober black, ‘like a Geneva parson’.

Les Saints Innocents around 1550, Hoffbauer

The problems with the book, notwithstanding the praise showered on it by the critics, aren’t historical: they’re literary. Even when it isn’t explicit, the foreshadowing of the coming upheaval is heavy-handed. The main plot has a rationalist clearing out the stink of old corruption (to borrow a term from a different ancien régime), and finding that superstition and irrationality may be more powerful forces than reason—may do his job for him faster and more thoroughly, but are impossible to control. As workers knock holes in the roof of the cavernous old church, shafts of daylight penetrate into the grand interior, to reveal that it is dirty and moth-eaten. ‘How filthy eveything below now appears! How much the place depended on its darkness!’. This is hardly subtle. ‘Beams are rotten to the heart!’, the mason Sagnac yells down, ‘Another twenty years it would have come down on its own!’ There’s an even stagier, more unlikely episode in the coda, when Baratte returns to Versailles with his carefully edited report on the completed task, a year older, considerably wiser, and altogether scarier in his own right. Getting lost on the way out precisely as he did on his first visit, he comes upon a garden where servants are attempting to shift ‘something grey and vast and lonely’, the corpse of an alcoholic elephant.

Beyond this clumsy symbolism, you can’t help but notice that several of the characters aren’t really characters. The depiction of an unbridgeable distinction between a labouring collective of workmen and their lonely, educated superior is surely accurate, but it’s undermined by Miller’s halfhearted attempts to give a couple of the miners individual voices: Jan Block, survivor of an early injury, and above all the supposedly mysterious—but actually just vacant—‘miner with the violet eyes’ who steps forward from the plot equivalent of nowhere to be their decisive leader at the crisis point. Nor did literature need another male novelist to write about a beautiful prostitute whose human dignity is intact despite her trade, and who proves herself more humane than the ‘respectable’ folk who surround (and fuck) her: here the character of Héloïse, who becomes Baratte’s partner, and who isn’t saved from cliché by the fact that she reads books and has a bit of explanatory family background.

The parts of the plot that rest on what these characters do, therefore, don’t work. We can believe that the miners working to demolish the church might decide to torch the place after one of them is killed in an accident, but not that a mysterious miner with violet eyes and a missing half-finger would make them do it. Ziguette, the voluptuous daughter of Baratte’s landlord, gets a couple of pages of the narrator’s attention near the start of the novel, but not nearly enough to explain why, midway through, she should go mad upon learning that the true purpose of Baratte’s work at les Innocents is to expunge it—let alone attempt to stave his head in with his own brass engineer’s ruler as he sleeps, nearly killing him. (She’s naked when she does this, so Miller can describe ‘the tight blond curls over her sex’.) I don’t mind characters behaving in ways that don’t make sense to me, but I do prefer it when I can see why they’re behaving in a way that makes sense to them. Women aren’t very well served generally: Armand’s common-law wife Lisa Saget does some cooking, but the main reason we know she’s a competent and likable person is because that’s what Baratte thinks of her, not because the narrator provides us with any free-standing evidence from her point of view.

Then there’s the sexton’s fourteen-year-old granddaughter, Jeanne: when she first appears, and has the role of showing the young engineer—and us—round the graveyard, she’s a proper character, with thoughts and a perspective of her own. But she thins out drastically in the rest of the book, when her other main plot function is to be raped, battered, and impregnated by the disappointed utopian, Lecœur. Then again, the only reason the miner Jan Block gets a name, and a life-threatening injury early on in the show, is so he can recuperate in the sexton’s house, allowing him to fall in love with Jeanne and take care of her after the attack—so all’s well that ends well, or at least it is for the now bovine Jeanne. (‘She has visibly thickened about the waist; her breasts are swelling. She looks younger. Young, shy, dreamy. Not unhappy.’) Less so for the plot of the novel, which falls apart towards the end. Miller seems to get bored of the patient reconstruction of a painstaking and stomach-turning task, and whips things on to a hasty and unconvincing climax.

Un gros livre est un grand malheur, the saying goes in French: a thick book is a great misfortune. That usually holds true for history books, but with novels you can argue it both ways. This one is too short. In the first half of the book, the pace is slow—the miners don’t arrive to start digging until a hundred and twenty pages in—but the narrative is lightfooted. When it abandons this steady work and starts hurrying things along, the novel becomes less convincing and less original. If it had held its nerve, it would have been two or three times longer, and much better.

Update: I deliberately didn’t check FFFH (or any other sites) for reviews of Pure before I wrote this, but it turns out FFFH does indeed have a rather good article on the novel, by Clare Crowston of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She takes a contrasting view, finding the novel good as fiction and more problematic as history. Read her piece here.

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The politics of expertise

The Politics of Expertise cover

Colleagues in the department of history at Birmingham have published a new book this week. Matthew Hilton and Nicholas Crowson, working with Birmingham city councillor James McKay and Jean-François Mouhot, a researcher at Georgetown University, have published The Politics of Expertise with Oxford University Press: you can read about it here and buy it here. It offers a new interpretation of politics in contemporary Britain, through an examination of non-governmental organisations. Here’s what it’s all about:

Over the twentieth century, increasingly affluent and educated citizens have turned away from the traditional forms of mass politics: joining political parties, membership of trade unions, even voting in elections themselves. But these trends should not be seen as decline – rather, they show how the political system has changed. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Greenpeace, Shelter, and Oxfam have marketed themselves to citizens as an alternative way of pursuing politics.

Using specific case studies of three sectors—homelessness, environment, and international aid and development—The Politics of Expertise demonstrates how politics and political activism have changed over the last half century. NGOs have contributed enormously to a professionalisation and a privatization of politics, emerging as a new form of expert knowledge and political participation. They have been led by a new breed of non-party politician, working in collaboration and in competition with government. Skilful navigators of the modern technocratic state, they have brought expertise to expertise and, in so doing, have changed the nature of grassroots activism. As affluent citizens have felt marginalised by the increasingly complex nature of many policy solutions, they have made the rational calculation to support NGOs, the professionalism and resources of which make them better able to tackle complex problems.

In this sense, politics itself has been privatized. Yet support, rather than participation, is the more appropriate way to describe the relationship of the public to NGOs. As voter turnout has declined, membership and trust in NGOs has increased. But NGOs are very different types of organisations from the classic democratic institutions of political parties and the labour movement. They maintain different and varied relationships with the publics they seek to represent. Attracting mass support has provided them with the resources and the legitimacy to speak to power on a bewildering range of issues, yet perhaps the ultimate victors in this new form of politics are the NGOs themselves.

Update: You can read a review of A Historical Guide to NGOs in Britain: Charities, Civil Society and the Voluntary Sector since 1945, the companion volume to The Politics of Expertise, here, along with a response from the authors.

For more information please contact Jenni Ameghino at the University of Birmingham press office:
t: +44 (0) 121 415 8134
m: +44 (0) 7768 924156

Professor Matthew Hilton is available for interview. Please contact the press office to arrange.

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Snakes and ladders

Lamia Ziadé’s graphic memoir of a childhood in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, Bye Bye Babylon, came out in French in 2010, and in English translation the following year. I picked up a copy a while back, but I’ve only just had time to read it. I’m glad I did.

Link to Lamia Ziadé's website

The book isn’t a comic-book narrative (unlike Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, for example): it’s an album, almost, of drawings of things, people, and scenes, interspersed with short passages of text. This outlines the situation in Beirut and in Ziadé’s family while the images, snapshot by snapshot, build up a picture of a glossy, cheesy consumerist paradise collapsing into a vicious—but still cheesy—civil war. In the first few pages Bazooka bubble gum, Planter’s peanuts, Kellogg’s Smacks and Libby’s ketchup give way to Slavias and AK47s, Makarov and Tokarev pistols, G3s, FALs, and M16s, machine pistols, sniper rifles, and eventually RPGs and tanks. Later there’ll be pools of blood to echo the bright red pool of ketchup, but the most recurrent visual motif is smoke, rising from burning buildings, burning cars, piles of burning tyres, or from cigarette after cigarette. The first of many dark, billowing plumes of smoke in the book pours up from a fire beneath a billboard advertising Kent cigarettes, and elsewhere in the book we’ll see a gold Cartier lighter (selling for just $2 after rival militias loot the souks), ‘Cannon’ brand matches, cigars, and more packs of Kent. Ziadé’s grandfather smokes as he stands on his balcony after his shop in the souk has been destroyed, and a column of smoke rises from a shelled building over his shoulder; her parents smoke as they listen to news reports on each day’s fighting; her aunt Marcelle smokes as she phones Ziadé’s mother to say that her husband hasn’t come home (he’s been dragged from his car and shot in the head). Presidents Elias Sarkis and Hafiz al-Asad smoke, at the ‘umpteenth Syro-Lebanese summit’.

The cumulative power of the pictures is enormous. They’re bright and simple, like a child’s drawings, a deliberately naïve style that allows Ziadé to cast the same eye on bubblegum and RPGs. To a child’s eye, the symbols of the Phalange or Amal militias are like the logos of Pan Am or Nivea Crème; the Hollywood smiles of Charlie’s Angels are no more or less artificial than the bonhomie of Sadat, Carter and Begin at Camp David. The brands themselves are pulled into the war: as normal life in the city breaks down, Zwan tinned pork or Gandour Lucky 555 biscuits—‘magical food that doesn’t need to be stored in the fridge’—become as important as Valium (‘for those who can’t sleep’) or the Rayovac batteries that keep the small portable Zenith radio going.

“My father will spend fifteen years with a radio stuck to his ear. (The volume on these little radios isn’t very high, and the roar of the shelling is loud…) Even today, twenty years after the end of the war, my father still listens to the news on a radio held to his ear.”

The text is also plain, though as with the pictures the apparent simplicity masks great depths of detailed research, as well as Ziadé’s two decades of adult reflection her own childhood experiences.  Late in the book we see a game of snakes and ladders; the entire country seems to have been playing.

Link to Lamia Ziadé's website

What gives the pictures most force is the wordless juxtaposition of the two worlds. On the one hand, flowers and curtains, statues of the Virgin, tubs of Elizabeth Arden Eight-Hour Cream, and shops full of patisserie or costly fabrics, as well as cinemas that Ziadé knew of but was too young to visit before they were destroyed; on the other, cityscapes riven with shellfire, Maronite Christian gunmen carving crosses between the shoulderblades of their murdered victims, militias of all sides killing their prisoners by dragging them behind cars or dumping mutilated bodies off overpasses. Intabih, says a sign we see blocking streets in a couple of different places, qannâs: ‘Warning, snipers’. Sometimes the two worlds are adjacent but distinct: Ziadé’s first holy communion is on one page, the bullet-riddled Mercedes of Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt (assassinated a few days earlier) on the next. But frequently they force themselves into the same image: ‘Kodak’, says a sign in English and Arabic above a sandbagged position of bazooka-wielding militiamen. Stickers of the Virgin appear twice on the stocks of militiamen’s guns. Hotel after expensive hotel appears with shell-shattered windows and clouds of black smoke obscuring the storey-high letters of its name on the roof. At the heart of the book is a picture of Ziadé’s own terrified nine-year-old face, traumatized by the sound of shells landing or being fired all around her family’s apartment. When the book ends, in 1979, Ziadé is 11. By this time her family have retreated to their house outside the city, where ‘a wide bend in the road above the village offers breathtaking views of Beirut in flames’. This house too would be badly shelled during the war: in 1990, on Ziadé’s 22nd birthday.

I taught a class on the Lebanese civil war a couple of weeks ago, and I wish I’d read this book before it—I wish my class had read it too. It’s a formidable introduction to the first years of the war.

Beirut in 1975 was indeed a powder-keg. Lebanon’s fragile political system, with its institutionalized and gerrymandered sectarianism, would have been unstable even without the presence of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who’d arrived in 1948 and 1967; when the PLO leadership was forced out of Jordan in ‘Black September’ 1970 and began operating from Lebanon instead, attracting Israeli attacks on the entire south of the country, a couple of legs were kicked out from under it. But at the same time the city was full of money: capital flight from nationalizations elsewhere in the region in the 1950s and 60s and the growing wealth of the Gulf monarchies had made Beirut a centre of banking and hedonism. Lamia Ziadé’s family belonged to the rich, westernized elite that benefited from all this, buying their imported brands at Spinney’s supermarket while refugees driven out of the south by Israeli reprisals—the Lebanese rural poor as well as Palestinians from camps near the border—settled in a ‘poverty belt’ around the city. Beirut was the overinflated capital of a small, divided country between bigger, scarier neighbours.

Link to Lamia Ziadé's website

Reading Bye Bye Babylon made me think of Syria today. The historical contexts of Lebanon in the 1970s and Syria in the 2010s are very different: no ‘oil shock’, no superpower rivalry. Fashions are different too: I don’t think the shabiha have medallions and sideburns (though before the war you could spot a low-grade Alawi tough by his white trainers, Con’s brand blue jeans, and—often—sidearm). But there are parallels too.

I lived in Damascus off and on for a year and a half between 2002 and 2007. These were years of economic liberalization, unaccompanied by any loosening of the Baath party’s political grip, and crony capitalism. When I first went to Syria I took traveller’s cheques to a state bank to change into lira; by the last time I was using my British bank card to get money out of cash machines at private banks. Local ripoffs of global brands—Ugarit cola in the blue and red of Pepsi; Demolino bars, a powdery kind of Twix—were giving way to the Real Thing. The children of the well-connected elite despised Adidas trainers because they were made under license in Syria: they preferred genuinely imported brands. During my last visit a Costa Coffee opened round the corner from the French Institute, where I worked. Supermarkets were opening, even a mall down at Kfar Soussa. Syriatel, the mobile phone company belonging to the president’s cousin Rami Makhluf, was all-conquering: two of my friends worked for it. Sinister businessmen like Makhluf were doing astronomically well thanks to regime connections, but in the cities the merchant class also benefitted as the state gave greater leeway to the private sector, and Syria’s borders increasingly opened to trade.

In Damascus and Aleppo, restored Ottoman town-houses were converted into boutique hotels, or busy restaurants for a local clientele in tottery heels—and foreigners, whether Europeans like me or families from the Gulf. The biggest restaurant I’ve ever been in was an open-air place with an artificial waterfall on the road to the airport, that took its name (‘Damascus Gate’) from a fake monumental entrance: a full-size reproduction of an archway at Palmyra. It seated easily a thousand people, many of them khalijis on holiday from Saudi Arabia or Kuwait: the food was both expensive and dreadful, but that evidently wasn’t the point.

Syrians were making money, or some Syrians were, and money was coming in from elsewhere too: from Iraq, for example, as those who had the means escaped the war. Money also arrived from the renewed hydrocarbon boom in the Gulf, both directly and indirectly: foreign capital investment was liberalized, and Gulf investors stung by post-9/11 restrictions in the West put some of their wealth in Syria’s new private banks, just as Saudi families who might previously have holidayed in Europe came to Syria instead. Syrians working in the Gulf sent remittances, too. A lot of this influx of investment made its way into the property market, and the cost of housing rose rapidly: when I came back to Syria in 2006, the rent on the small flat I’d lived in a year earlier had jumped sharply even though the landlord had taken a chunk of the already small and windowless living room to extend his own flat next door. Adding to the pressure on housing at every level—especially in Damascus—was the arrival of large numbers of Iraqi refugees, from the well-to-do to the desperately impoverished.

Meanwhile, if the partial economic liberalization of Syria created some highly visible winners in the cities, it created very many losers, especially towards the end of the decade as the ‘retreat of the state’ from social provision coincided with serious drought and a depopulation of the countryside. Economic growth was respectable in absolute terms but it barely offset population growth, and was anyway grossly inequitable. Syria’s population growth had slowed steadily over the last two decades, but it reached its peak in the 1980s, and those children were reaching adulthood. I remember reading, while living there, that Syria, a country of barely 20 million inhabitants, would need to find jobs for 400,000 young people leaving the education system each year for the following five years. It didn’t.

Link to Lamia Ziadé's website

Lebanon’s civil war was often presented as simply sectarian at the time, and since. Ziadé’s book uses the child’s-eye view to remind us of some of the deeper causes that made sectarianism a profitable form of politics for militias of all sides. Similarly, the war in Syria has become increasingly sectarian; but that doesn’t mean its origins lie in sectarian divisions.

All images are copyright (lo-res, fair use, etc.) and link to Lamia Ziadé’s website, which contains some art that is not suitable for work.
You can buy the book here, here, or elsewhere.

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Ein eisig kalt Büro

But he had never in his life—nor had anyone he knew—worked or slept in a room that was not exceedingly cold.

—Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower. The person described is Fritz von Hardenberg, in a cold room at Tennstedt in Saxony one day in the 1790s. I thought of him as I sat in my exceedingly cold office today, watching thick flurries of wind-blown snow alternate with brilliant sunshine.

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