I loved the novella by Amos Oz called ‘Panther in the Basement’. This film is based on that book and, even though the title is a touch too ‘cute’ for my taste, it is an interesting transposition of the story to film. The wonderful Alfred Molina is terrific as Sergeant Stephen Crabtree, the British soldier posted to Palestine during the British Mandate. He is a man fascinated by this land of the Bible and delighted to meet a young boy who looks able to help him understand the language. They strike up a friendship which is odd since the boy, Proffy to his friends, is brought up to hate the British and declares himself a sworn enemy.
The political is personal, though, and soon Proffy is conflicted by the difference between what he has been told about the British and what he likes about Sergeant Crabtree. The two spend time together, usually at the British mess, and Proffy helps the sergeant with Hebrew while Crabtree teaches Proffy English.
Proffy’s friendship with two friends of the same age as him is based on their sense of fighting back against the British Mandate. They plot ways of attacking the enemy as young boys do, oblivious to the dangers involved. Proffy sees an opportunity to use Crabtree as a source of military information to further their freedom fighting cause but things do not turn out that way and when he is followed by his friends his secret visits to the British mess are misinterpreted.
The resulting interrogation of Proffy by a Jewish group was confusing to me: who were they and on what authority did Proffy’s parents subject their son to such treatment? A sub-plot showing their involvement in the Haganah might explain this. In any case, Proffy is branded a traitor in his community and he questions the nature of friendship; learning too late that Sergeant Stephen Crabtree was more of a friend than he realised at the time. The final scene is worth waiting for since it brings a resolution not found in the book.
On balance, the book is far better than the film, even with the presence of Alfred Molina, but the location filming adds a dimension that I could not see in my mind’s eye when reading. The sense of Jerusalem in the 1940s is brought to life. For this reason, the film is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This novel by Tariq Ali is the first of his ‘Islam Quintet’. I have read several of his non-fiction works and his journalism; I have even heard him speak at a literary festival. This is the first time I have read any of his fiction. I was attracted to it by the subject matter of this first novel.
The story starts in Cordoba where a bonfire of books took place after the reconquest of Spain by the forces of Isabella and Ferdinand. From this we encounter characters of both sides of the religious divide but especially the Banu Hadyl family who are forced, like all Muslims to make a decision about their faith: convert, go into exile or die.
The ending is inevitable, especially to those who know the history, but the sense of loss from a time when different religions co-existed is huge. Instead, we see war and politics carried out as a form of religious devotion or maybe religion is used as the cover for the usual manipulations of states and monarchs.
In general, Tariq Ali’s non-fiction is more cohesive than his fiction but his passion for his subjects is still clear as if his determination to steer us away from a Eurocentric view of the world. In these times of religious intolerance, it is good to be reminded that there was, and is, a better way of living with each other. It is also important to realise that Islam is wider and more complex than it is often portrayed in our media.
‘Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree’ is worth reading. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
In the Calahorra tower at the end of the famous bridge in Cordoba houses a ‘museum’ or audio-visual display telling the history of the city and its place as a centre of learning where three religions existed in harmony and respected each other. The ‘Museum of Three Cultures’ is a fascinating place. Most of the exhibits are reproductions or models but the story of the city’s past is well laid out.
It was here that I saw the reproduction of a painting by Dionisio Baixeras of Abd-ar-Rahman III receiving at his court in Cordoba, the Monk Nicholas, ambassador of the Christian Emperor, Constantine. The coming together of religions, not to convert but to understand each other, was important then and is important now.
Cordoba impressed me because it celebrated its multi- religious heritage. Around the corner from the statue of Jewish scholar Maimonides, was this statue to Muslim scholar Averroes.
Averroes was a Muslim lawyer rather than a Jewish physician but, otherwise, the two men were similar. Averroes was an authority on Aristotle and wrote a significant work called ‘The Incoherence of the Incoherence’. He, too, was exiled from Cordoba when the Berber dynasty took power and his books were burned. He died in Marrakesh in Morocco.
It is heartening that the city of Cordoba pays tribute to significant figures from different religious backgrounds.
I avoid sentimental books and films at all costs and I have to say I thought this film might fall into that category telling, as it does, the story of a young man from difficult circumstances who finds glory in a talent competition. Hany Abu-Assad’s film ‘The Idol’ won me over, though, and at the end, when I saw real news footage that I remember seeing on Channel 4 News in Britain, I knew this was a film for my hinterland.
The film tells the true story of Mohammed Assaf from Gaza whose biggest asset is his singing voice. The first half of the film shows the Muhammed as a boy with his sister and friends. Their dream is to form a band and buy the musical instruments to make this happen. Various schemes go wrong but the determination of the children is clear to see. They find a niche when his voice is in big demand as a wedding singer. But, when his sister Nour becomes ill and needs a new kidney, we see the desperate situation of the population in Gaza. Muhammed is close to his sister and cannot contemplate life without her.
As we move into the second part of the film, Mohammed is now a young man driving a taxi to fund his university studies. His singing has not died away completely but there is less joy in it for him until he meets an old friend who used to have dialysis alongside his sister many years ago. She encourages him to sing for her and something in him awakens. An aborted attempt to sing by internet for a television show reminds us of the policies that keep many Palestinians trapped in Gaza.
The journey to ‘Arab Idol’ where the real Mohammed Assaf made his name begins with a need to get beyond his trapped location. Friends and family help and in a series of incidents which bring him good fortune he finds himself appearing on the programme. This is the only part of the film that seemed too good to be true but, by this stage, I was ready to accept that he needed the breaks.
The film ends with documentary footage from around the world as his story interested foreign news programmes. It is an inspiring story of a boy from Gaza who travels to Egypt to take part in a talent show on television and who wins. Scenes of joy around the Gaza strip and Palestine are shown from news footage; there is no need to recreate this part fo the story.
‘The Idol’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This novel by Saleem Haddad has taken its place in my hinterland. It is a fascinating insight into a young gay man trying to live in an unnamed Arab country without sacrificing his true identity. The country is in the aftermath of an Arab spring like revolution and Rasa, an educated young man, is pleased to be back there after studying in America. Yet, the revolution has not taken hold and the regime is oppressive in many ways.
We follow Rasa across one day as he remembers the events of the night before, carries out his duties as a translator for a western journalist and attends the wedding of the man who happens to be the love of his life. As he negotiates the day, we learn about his past; this includes his parents’ marriage, disrupted by his strong willed grandmother, and his time in America as a student at the time of 11th November 2001.
The day does not start well! The night before, he was seen in bed with Taymour, his lover, by his grandmother. Their secret is out and Rasa is unsure how his grandmother will react. She spied through his keyhole so he is unsure what she actually saw. On top of this it seems that Taymour is determined to get married as his family expect him to, and Rasa has been invited to the wedding.
The book explores themes of culture and identity and the extent to which secrets can destroy families. Rasa felt like an outsider in the USA but he remains on the outside in his own country, marooned partly by sexuality and partly by his politics.
The title for the book comes from the name of the nightclub where Rasa and his friends feel that they can be free of the constraints of their society. ‘Guapa’ by Saleem Haddad is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This book is the third part of the ‘Surya Trilogy’ by Jamila Gavin. Set in India in 1951 the family of Govind and Jhoti and their son and daughter, Marvinder and Jaspal, are reunited following the separations we witnessed in the previous two books. Yet they remain separated from each other since they each try to make a life in a newly independent country. Govind retreats into a traditional role as he tried to reform a family he abandoned when he left for England. Marvinder struggles to accept a dutiful role as daughter but cannot forget the relative freedom she enjoyed in post war London and, in particular, she cannot forget one boy who was so welcoming to her back then.
Jaspal, always the one most affected by the upheaval of partition, finds an identity in his religion. What marked him out as different in London becomes his point of honour to the extent of rejecting his childhood Muslim friend.
In many ways, this book brings the threads of the earlier books together even though it does not resolve all the issues of the characters and we are left unclear about what future there is for the brother and sister in the new India. We have only glimpses of the British characters who played a prominent part in the previous novels but one of the minor characters from the earlier books is instrumental in bringing the trilogy to a close.
‘The Track of the Wind’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?