Les Blancs

I have been fascinated by the history of the end of Empire and have read widely around this subject and sought out films that tread the same ground but I haven’t seen many plays where the conflict between colonial powers and the rise of national identity are explored.


I was delighted therefore to see this play by Lorraine Hansberry performed at the National Theatre in London.  Hansberry, most famous for ‘A Raisin the Sun’ has created a play which poses questions about the motivation of its range of characters.  In some way, the old colonial officer with a clear view of his own superiority over the natives, is the easiest one to understand.  More complex are the white immigrants who come to Africa to civilise, preach or just help.  Then again, in a clever use of perspective, we have the African returning from abroad, and an abroad where he has made his home, married and raised a child.  It is Tschembe who provides one pair of eyes through which we see how the country has changed as nationalist movements find their feet and the colonial power reacts with harsh measures.  He is home to attend his father’s funeral but is confronted by issues of identity and loyalty.

Also arriving at this pivotal moment is an American journalist whose liberal views make him a natural ally of the Africans; he is surprised that Tschembe does not welcome this attachment.  The play is the better for not naming this country that is home to Tschembe as well as the group of missionaries and doctors who seek to help.

Most sympathy goes to the old woman, now nearly blind, who has spent a lifetime in Africa.  Her genuine love for the people and place does not protect her or excuse her role as part of the colonial oppression.

‘Les Blancs’ is a thought provoking exploration of the effects of colonialism and the extent to which force is needed if freedom is ever to be gained.  It is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?



The Smartest Kids in the World

Amanda Ripley has written a very interesting book about education.  She poses key BlogSmartestquestions, such as why is the USA (and the UK) so far behind other countries in test scores for average teenagers when so much money is spent on education?  Her pursuit of answers takes her around the world with a particular focus on South Korea, Poland and Finland.

The book works so well because she exemplifies each country through an American student who travels there to go to school.  It makes for an interesting insider view of the practices as well as the values of each country’s education system.  Every school is different, though, and it is hard to generalise about a whole approach to education from one school even though this is what politicians do all the time!  The students, themselves, seem somewhat extraordinary; it takes a huge amount of self- confidence and drive to decide to spend a year at a school at another country.  Yet this in itself is an issue: why doesn’t a system in a highly developed world cater for the most individual or intellectually demanding of students.

Some of the starkest differences are apparent when it comes to self- esteem.  South Koreans would struggle to understand the concept while in Poland test scores and class ranking are used frequently to put people in their place as well as motivate.  Neither is there a system outside the USA that prizes sporting prowess to the point where teachers are employed on their coaching ability; a problem when that teacher has to cope with Maths as well as a sport!

In Britain, of course, the class system is an extra dimension. It doesn’t help that the politicians of our governing party are so keen on private education so that they can keep their children away from the ordinary people.  This doesn’t make for better policy. Neither does the obsession for testing at ridiculously young ages.  There seems to be little appetite in this country for developing thinking children.

I found the American students fascinating, though, and Amanda Ripley has the talent for writing you would expect from an investigative journalist.  Her book is a fascinating read. I imagine that little has changed in the three years since she wrote it.  It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?


This poem by Michael Palmer was published in 2000.  The news coverage of refugees and migrants which is all over the television and in the newspapers at the moment keeps bringing fragments of it back to my mind.

I Do Not

I do not know English.

I do not know English, and therefore I can have nothing to
        say about this latest war, flowering through a night-
        scope in the evening sky.

I do not know English, and therefore, when hungry, can do no
        more than repeatedly point to my mouth.

Yet such a gesture may be taken to mean a number of

I do not know English, and therefore cannot seek the requisite
        permissions, as outlined in the recent protocol.

Such as: May I utter a term of endearment; may I now proceed
        to put my arm or arms around you and apply gentle
        pressure; may I know kiss you directly on the lips; now
        on the left tendon of the neck; now on the nipple of
        each breast? And so on.

Would not in any case be able to decipher her response.

I do not know English. Therefore I have no way of
        communicating that I prefer this painting of nothing to
        that one of something.

No way to speak of my past or my hopes for the future, of my
        glasses mysteriously shattered in Rotterdam, the statue
        of Eros and Psyche in the Summer Garden, the sudden,
        shrill cries in the streets of Sao Paulo, a watch
        abruptly stopping in Paris.

No way to tell the joke about the rabbi and the parrot, the
        bartender and the duck, the Pope and the porte-cochere.

You will understand why you have received no letters from me
and why yours have gone unread.

Those, that is, where you write so precisely of the
        confluence of the visible universe with the invisible,
        and the lens of dark matter.

No way to differentiate the hall of mirrors from the meadow
        of mullein, the beetlebung from the pinkeltink, the
        kettlehole from the ventifact.

Nor can I utter the words science, seance, silence, language
        and languish.

Nor can I tell of the arboreal shadows elongated and shifting
        along the wall as the sun’s angle approaches maximum
        hibernal declination.

Cannot tell of the almond-eyed face that peered from the
        well, the ship of stone whose sail was a tongue.

And I cannot report that this rose has twenty-four petals,
        one slightly cankered.

Cannot tell how I dismantled it myself at this desk.

Cannot ask the name of this rose.

I cannot repeat the words of the Recording Angel or those of
        the Angel of Erasure.

Can speak neither of things abounding nor of things

Still the games continue. A muscular man waves a stick at a
        ball. A woman in white, arms outstretched, carves a true
        circle in space. A village turns to dust in the chalk

Because I do not know English I have variously been called
        Mr. Twisted, The One Undone, The Nonrespondent, The
        Truly Lost Boy, and Laughed-At-By-Horses.

The war is declared ended, almost before it has begun.

They have named it The Ultimate Combat Between Nearness and

I do not know English.

Michael Palmer


The String

This film from 2009 is another that shows cross- cultural love.  Malik has returned to Tunisia from living in France.  He is the son of a Tunisian father and a French mother and he is coming to terms with the death of his father.  He has concealed his sexuality from his mother but this proves more difficult when his attention is drawn to Bilal, the houseboy on his mother’s prestigious estate.


His mother is keen to marry him off to an acceptable and available woman but Bilal’s presence provides Malik with the determination to avoid this trap.  The differences between them provide the drama for the film: he is rich, Bilal is not; he is in the metaphorical closet, Bilal is not; he is from the upper classes, Bilal is not.

The film explores race and class as well as homophobia.  In one scene, they are refused entry to a club, an act that Bilal attributes to class rather than race.  As the film develops we see that Bilal is an artist, or would be if he had the means to support himself through art.  As they grow closer, though, there are other obstacles to face, such as how equal is a relationship when one is from an entitled background and the other is not.  As we see, French is the official language of this North African country and some Arabic speakers look down on those who can only speak French.  Life and love are complicated and this film shows how this can be so.


Bilal is played by Salim Kechiouche, who played a young gay man in ‘Grande Ecole’.  ‘The String’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?


Mixed Kebab

Here is another film about cross cultural love.  This Belgian movie, directed by Guy Lee Thys, was released in 2012.  The story shows the consequences of love for a Belgian man of Turkish heritage.  Ibrahim lives the western lifestyle, prefers to be called Bram, but cannot forget his Turkish identity, especially as the traditions and religion of his community are very important to his parents.

BlogMixedKebabBram meets Kevin, a young man unsure of his sexuality, who helps his mother in her bistro.  She is convinced her son is gay and actively supports the idea of his meeting a man who can make him happy.  When Bram comes on the scene, she is delighted.  Bram, however, keeps his sexual orientation a secret from his family.

Furkan is Bram’s brother.  He suspects his brother’s secret and threatens him to avoid his own issues coming out.  As Bram is due to get married, all family members think that everything will be alright.  A trip to Turkey to meet the bride does not go to plan but mostly because Bram buys a ticket for Kevin so that he can accompany him.


Love is where it falls but some people feel the pull of tradition as well as the need to meet the expectations of others.  This film explores these pressures as well as the tensions that exist in multi-cultural areas.  The pressures on children of immigrants have their own special resonance. ‘Mixed Kebab’ explores these issues while maintaining a love story that does not arrive at a cheap ending.  It is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Grande Ecole

This film is another that examines the search for identity and the consequences of disappointing the expectations of others.  In this case, class, sexuality and cultural differences all play a part.

Paul is the son of wealthy and upper-class parents who gains entry to a prestigious university.  He chooses not to live with his girlfriend but to share with two new people.  This decision, along with the fact that his studies leave him little time, causes his girlfriend some concern.  She suggests that he is actually attracted to one of his roommates, another young man.  He denies this but she sets up a challenge to see who can first sleep with this man.  If she does, he must be committed to her, but if he does, she will leave him to be free.


However, in the most interesting part of the film, Paul meets a young Arab called Mecir who fascinates him and they begin a relationship.  This meeting of cultures and classes causes Paul to examine his upbringing and his world view.

The 2004 French film was directed by Robert Salis.  Gregori Baquet played Paul and Salim Kechiouche played Mecir.  The growing relationship between the two men forms the heart of the film although there is a narrative around it that shows how the wealthier people negotiate the world.  Essentially, though, the story shows that barriers can be broken down when love is the motivation.

‘Grande Ecole’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

The Road to Love

This 2001 film is a moving exploration of what happens when your identity is at odds with your religion, or rather the religion that is dominant in the country of your birth.  In this case, what it means to be gay, a muslim and part of the Arab diaspora in Europe.  It was directed by Remi Lange.

blogRoadLoveKarim is a sociology student living in France. Searching for a subject for his dissertation, he lands on the idea of exploring homosexuality among the Arabic people living in Paris. After an embarrassing incident outside a gay club, he decides a better way of contacting gay men is to advertise for people who are prepared to talk to him while recorded on his video camera.  There are many scenes of the film seen as talking heads through his lens.

The stories are affecting; most often, the young men are in France to avoid the stigma of being gay in an arabic culture.  They may be able to live more openly in a European country but the effect of their upbringing stays with them.   Many tell tales of isolation ‘back home’.  One subject, in particular, fascinates him and Farid becomes a close friend.

As Karim explores this world for his dissertation, he goes through an internal exploration blogTarik el hobof his own identity.  His relationship with his French girlfriend is sweet but fragile, the more so as his research progresses.

The journey he takes with Farid proves significant in Karim’s decision making about his future.


‘The Road to Love’ does not have the best title (it was released as ‘Tarik El Hob’ in the original) but it is a highly affecting film and an important exploration of the search for belonging.  It is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?