Twisted tales of spinning and blogging

Elephantdentistry’s main themes might seem a strange mix. They include (1) what’s going on with internet and social media industries, politics and practices,  (2) experts, (3) living metaphors and catching them in the wild (fun with language), (4) feminism, (5) music and (6) Mosul. Here I’m getting most of these twisted together so let’s see how that works.

I caught three new living metaphors in the wild when I was in Wales recently, visiting the National Wool Museum. I tried a hands-on exhibit, picking up a handful of wool and following the instructions to pull and twist simultaneously until eventually I’d spun a yarn. Nearby was a painting of wool gatherers, women who would follow the drovers taking sheep to market and dart from hedge to hedge to collect scraps of wool. They would then sell their bags of wool to eke out their desperately poor livings. You could see how the scattering of wool and movement of the gatherers made sense of the metaphor, as it’s not a task that involves following a straight line. You would need to keep constantly turning, moving and switching your focus of attention. Hard work, and once you realise the point of all that apparent distraction it’s obvious that wool gatherers have had a bad press. Raw wool is indeed very woolly: it’s fuzzy, breaks apart easily and has no fixed shape.

The name overstated what the museum really was and did. It’s in an old textile mill, formerly Cambrian Mills, near Newcastle Emlyn not far from the mid-west coast, and most of the exhibits were about the mill itself, its owners, the machinery and the weaving industry, so there was almost nothing on knitting. (I make up for that later.) The mill used to produce blankets, shawls and woven wool cloth used for miners’ shirts and soldiers’ uniforms. Most of the textile exhibits were of shawls and blankets. When they were taken off the looms, large pieces of cloth had to be washed and then stretched out on tenterhooks, on tenters, in tenter fields. There the cloth would be left hanging, waiting until it was ready. We saw a tenter, with hooks, in a park displaying information about the area’s traditional crafts.Tenterhooks2

Before  machinery and mills, spinning used the older technologies of spindles and wheels and was largely women’s work carried out at home as  ‘cottage industry’. It took tedious, long hours to earn much of a living and so telling stories was intricately associated with the work of busy hands that didn’t require much mental engagement. Weaving was another cottage industry.

Now being able to work virtually and from home, according to some optimistic commentators, has brought in satisfying new cottage industries, once again involving women fitting in somewhat creative, but low paid work (even if paid at all) alongside domestic and family commitments. It’s also handy when there’s no other work available.

That’s the positive story being spun. Some experts disagree and have a bleaker but more informed analysis.

When I started researching women’s online practices years ago I remember being struck by the growth of knitblogs – blogs about knitting. It happened long before blogs were as common as they are now, and back then few of those blogs seemed to be commercial. Now I would guess most of them are a means to try and make money, one way or another.

I’ll get on to what Stephanie Taylor has to say about creativity, home working and precarity, but first I’m not dissing woolly creativity although I do still wonder about knitted cupcakes. I know they can be used as pincushions or given away but that doesn’t explain their ubiquity. The museum had a three-tier knitted cake, which is fair enough as they are the Wool Museum, but the cafe also had knitted cupcakes and they apparently sold well. Their very pointlessness seems to be the point – you can neither eat them nor wear them, so knitters can express a creative impulse without anyone giving or taking offence because nobody wants to eat cakes or wear handknits. This, on the other hand, is extraordinary and needs no excuse. It is the giant cardigan on display in Cardigan Castle marking 900 years of the town’s history.  Cardigan4

The cardigan for Cardigan was created by around 200 knitters, including  schoolchildren and other volunteers alongside the two artists behind the project. It’s amazing. My photos can’t give you the sheer scale of it.

Even more impressive and with another woolly play  on words are the wool churches created as part of the Wolly Spires project. These are models of the beautiful Lincolnshire churches built out of the wealth of the medieval wool trade, intricately knitted to represent all the details of their stone decorations and graceful architecture. Community groups worked on these too. It took 8 years for the  teams to knit 6 churches.

They’re currently on display until mid January at the 20-21 Visual Arts Gallery in Scunthorpe so if you’ve ever wanted to visit Scunny, there’s a good reason.

These geographically-based communities of knitters are not anything like the virtual community I came across. I first found knitblogs around 15 years ago when I was researching  internet ‘beginners’ and specifically the various online literacy practices (what they read,  what they wrote and how) that women were developing for themselves. That was a time before the big social media corporations, so for most people there were websites, email and not much else . Internet access was still fairly limited and there was already a significant gender gap in the UK. But I was struck by the fact that a lot of web designers were women. There seemed to be a connection between that and a sudden flourishing of knitblogs, i.e. blogs about knitting. Pixels and stitches made up colour patterns on screen or in wool. Designers needed to understand and create sets of instructions written in a specialised language. Both web design and knitting could involve home-based creativity, whether for pleasure or money. Back then, knitblogs were more about personal creativity and sharing stories about life as well as creations or wips (works in progress). They needed more technical online skills than blogging requires now.  Those very personal blogs still exist, but knitblogs are now mostly about selling patterns or getting income through ads, which brings me back to Stephanie Taylor.

Taylor is one of the authors of an article on gender and creative labour, along with Bridget Conor and Rosalind Gill. Their research into the cultural and creative industries showed  there were vast inequalities and pretty terrible conditions of work, hidden behind myths about the wonders of creativity. Work was often informal and precarious. People, women especially, coped with a ‘bulimic’ pattern of alternatively long hours and super-intense periods of work  or nothing at all coming in. Stephanie Taylor has also analysed a more general phenomenon she calls the ‘new mystique’ of working for oneself, and how it traps women seeking to combine work and childcare into long hours and low pay. She discusses the language used to describe this type of home-based self-employment, including the term ‘cottage industry’ being revived by journalists, and picks up on the parallels between what’s going on in the fields of creative work and what’s happening with the growth of self-employment. They have precariousness, long hours and low pay in common as the price of apparent flexibility. Boundaries between work and home life disappear. We’re back in the world of the poor spinners.

Amidst a burgeoning social media economy, genres of self-enterprise have emerged that enable women to profit from creative activities located within the domestic sphere, including mommy blogging, lifestyle blogging, and craft micro-economies.

That link between working on websites such as blogs and creative crafts reappears in research by Brooke Erin Duffy & Urszula Pruchniewska. Catch Duffy (quoted above) being interviewed here. She has some sharp things to say about women working as social media editors. The title of her new book, out this year, nails the issue: (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love, subtitled Gender, Social Media, and Aspirational Work.

Drawing on interviews and fieldwork, Duffy offers fascinating insights into the work and lives of fashion bloggers, beauty vloggers, and designers. She connects the activities of these women to larger shifts in unpaid and gendered labor…

A tiny handful have lucrative careers but there’s a vast gap between them and the rest who make little or nothing.

Alongside these aspirational bloggers, there’s a secondary industry offering training and support. This blog makes nothing and luckily doesn’t have to try to earn anything, but I’ve participated in three training courses so far to get to know more about the blogging subculture. Most of the other participants were women, and even if they’d been sent by an employer in order to start up and run a company blog, they had ambitions to do with promoting their own creative outputs. The aspirations of some bloggers reminded me of a woman learning to use the internet for the first time in a class I ran in Peckham Library who told me hopefully back in about 2000  ‘You can make money out of this, you know’. I met some realistic and genuinely helpful trainers, but also one who suggested that any blog potentially had a substantial worldwide audience and could bring in regular income through adverts. Content, or a reason to blog apart from providing ad space, was irrelevant. Learn the techniques of the clickbaiters. Ten top tips for rescuing knitting disasters. The seven things you need to know about improving your blog.

Here’s some more from the hardworking knitters of Cardigan, Cardigan2and finally a link to Mosul. The Welsh weavers had their own traditional textile patterns and the mechanical looms in the mill could produce more complex patterns or more cheaply, cloth with a simple stripe. Wool used to be vital to Mosul’s economy, although cotton was more important to the textile industry. According to Sarah Shields, writing about the nineteenth century,

Mosul’s fabrics were mostly cottons woven in traditional patterns to appeal to the regional populations. The coarse cotton calicos (ham, cit) used for garments were bleached or dyed red or blue. One of the city’s specialties was alaca, a striped fabric used for zibun, the robes men wore. Weavers prepared women’s cloaks (izar) in assorted qualities, and special looms were employed for the wool and cotton blend abaya over garments. These textiles, as well as towels and headgear, were exported into the mountains, to Persia, Baghdad, Bitlis, Siirt, and as far away as Trabzon.

Did you know that the English word muslin for a lightly woven delicate cotton fabric derives from ‘Mosul linen’? It was thought to have been invented there first.

 

 

 

Twisted tales of spinning and blogging

The Devil’s Interval and Yair Dalal

I heard that the blues musician Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in return for his guitar-playing genius, that Paganini was the devil’s violinist and the devil himself is a fiddle player. That was reported as fact to a folklore researcher and quoted in his article The Devil and the Fiddle in 1943. He was told:

I grew up in Chicago and Aurora. And one of the earliest things I can remember about my fiddle, that my old uncle told me ‘the Devil was in the fiddle’. He was my guardian and he wouldn’t let me take lessons.

I can play The Devil Among the Tailors on the violin, but I didn’t know about the Devil’s Interval until yesterday’s event with Yair Dalal performing Iraqi Jewish music on violin and oud. He explained that one of the pieces he was about to play featured the Devil’s Interval (Diabolus in Musica), or tritones. Traditionally it is shunned in Western classical music but it features in heavy metal, at least according to an article linking Black Sabbath, medieval theology and the tritone.  Yair told us that it’s used unflinchingly in Iraqi maqam, the traditional musical system which is about much more than Arabic musical scales and is also about form, melody and rhythm – but not harmony which doesn’t feature.

Yair Dalal

I’ve blogged previously about Iraqi Jewish music but yesterday I learned a lot more. Yair was in conversation with Sara Manasseh, who directs the Rivers of Babylon ensemble. I was their violinist for a few years in the band’s early days and it’s great to know they are still going and have recorded many more CDs since. Sara is an ethnomusicologist and her comprehensive book, Shbahoth – Songs of Praise in the Babylonian Jewish Tradition has the words and music for some of the songs Yair performed.

Shbahoth

It also has words and music for the song from the Mosul tradition that I introduced to the band. There’s even a credit to my late father Menashe.

Eliahu Eliahu (2)

Yair played some of his own compositions, traditional works by medieval poets such as Ibn-Gabirol, and twentieth century songs by Saleh Al-Kuwaity. Al-Kuwaity composed around 800 songs but after most of the Jewish community, including the musicians who made up the radio orchestra, left Iraq in the early 1950s their names were removed from their works. That’s now changing and knowledge of Iraq’s popular music history is being revived. Yair explained that most musicians in Iraq had been Jewish, so when the Jews left the musicians felt a heavy responsibility. They stayed in Baghdad until the last possible moment in order to record their music so it wouldn’t be lost.

I can remember going to a talk Sara gave many years ago where she played examples of traditional songs, and someone in the audience rudely asked if the performers had any training. I guess if you’re only used to a few simple genres of Western music and flinch at anything unfamiliar you might assume there was nothing complex, difficult or refined about these strange sounds and that they’re merely uncouth. Luckily audiences have mostly changed from those days. Yair’s training, he told us, when he was a young man living and working in the desert involved overnight five hour journeys each way, and then two solid days of study and rehearsal before going back to his home and work. He did that for years. He is from an Iraqi Jewish family although he was born in a transition camp in northern Israel, and grew up in an area where there were many Iraqi Jewish musicians who were constantly performing, at a time when their music was out of fashion in Isaeli society generally.

The Baghdad Bandstand clips on YouTube are a great way to see and hear some celebrated Iraqi musicians jamming, chatting and explaining what they’re playing – not in English but there are subtitles.  If you’re in London you may also be able to get to Yair Dalal’s masterclass on Monday 11th September at SOAS, or to East meets West A Concert for Peace, on September 27. Or you can listen to a younger generation of musicians reviving the old songs and putting them to new beats.

The rock musician Dudu Tassa is a grandson of the other al-Kuwaity (or al-Kuwaiti) brother. Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis have been touring and recording songs from his relatives’ back catalogue and it seems that through their versions this music, originally from Baghdad, is getting popular back in Iraq once again after a long interval.

 

The Devil’s Interval and Yair Dalal

Statues, memorials and dead poets

I’m dedicating this post and an image that I’ve named The Absurdity of Totalitarian Repression of Art and Thought at the Elephant Dentist to Irina and Anna, who are both dead.  Frank Monaghan’s article on statues and symbolism, When pulling down statues isn’t pulling down history, is worth reading for a serious take. I’d also recommend Anne Applebaum’s on political statues and upheavals in relation to Trump, Lenin, Charlotteville and the Ukraine. It’s headed Ukraine has finally removed all 1,320 Lenin statues. Our turn.

Poetry has its own memorial politics.

AbsurdStatues1

Irina Ratushinskaya died last month. Until recently I’d never read her work. One of her anthologies was named No, I’m not afraid, and it doesn’t deal with the cancer that killed her at 63 but with her experience in a prison camp where she was frozen, starved, beaten and subjected to solitary confinement. The Soviet regime gave her a seven year sentence for ‘agitation’ – basically for the crime of writing poetry. Applebaum named the final chapter in Gulag, her history of the prison camps, The 1980s: Smashing Statues, and quotes Ratushinskaya’s memoirs among her examples. Repression inside the Soviet Union actually became worse in the 1980s under Andropov, but prisoners continued to resist. Ratushinskaya was freed once Gorbachev took over and after an international campaign. Her health had been badly affected but she continued to write, and had twin sons in 1992. Here she is, at a younger age.

Irina Ratushinskaya

The poems she wrote and smuggled out from the KGB prison in Kiev and from a labour camp are memorials to prisoners’ suffering and defiance generally, not only to her own experience. I can only read them in translation so I’m missing the music of the words, but I get her mockery of the torturers, the way she holds out some kind of comfort to all the prisoners alongside her, and turns the smallest glimpses of nature into moments of freedom. In one poem from the KGB prison in Kiev, in freezing conditions  she compares snow to angels absurdly sprinkling white breadcrumbs, ‘enough for all the prisoners in the world’, a fluffy layer like ‘sweet cotton-wool’ or down ‘for all the murdered ones’. Yet the snow also signifies spring. It’s chilling and hopeful all at once.

Anne Applebaum describes how Ukrainians saw the statues of Lenin as symbols of Russian domination (previous posts on this blog explain why Applebaum is such a useful expert) and it seems ironic that Ratushinskaya is now considered a Russian poet. She was born in Odessa, and in her autobiographical writing she refers to her first language as a local version of Ukrainian that was officially unrecognised, and to how impossible it was to accept an identity as a citizen of the Soviet empire. I went to an event recently at the British Library that accompanied the Revolution exhibition (just ended – I didn’t blog about it as there’s far too much to say). It was on ‘modern Russian writers’ but the first point to be made was that writers in Russian are often not Russian. Because of decades of Soviet domination and censorship it’s been hard or impossible for them to write or get published in other Eastern European and Asian languages.

Like an earlier poet Anna Akhmatova  (died 1966), Irina Ratushinskaya wrote a commemoration of Osip Mandelstam who died in prison in 1941.  The younger poet didn’t have access to Akhmatova’s poetry of resistance for years but both writers situated their experience within the wider persecution of artists and the whole country’s tragedy.

Akhmatova_by_Altman

Akhmatova’s first husband Nikolai Gumilev was one of the first poets to be murdered by the regime, shot without trial on Lenin’s orders in 1921. Her son was imprisoned for eighteen years and many of her poems describe the ordeal of prisoners’ relatives, waiting for hours, day after day and year after year, to hear who was still alive and try to deliver parcels. Akhmtova’s work could not be published for decades, but eventually her requiems and memorials were recognised as great testimonies to the endurance and resistance of so many victims. She wrote that once, during the time when she was spending seventeen months standing in line in front of various prisons in Leningrad, she was asked by another woman ‘with blue lips’ , ‘Can you describe this?’ She said she could.

And then something like a fleeting smile passed over what had once been her face.

In Requiem Akhmatova wrote that if there was ever a monument to her, she didn’t want one in her birthplace or the Tsar’s park, but only

here where for three hundred hours I had to wait

And any statue, she insists here, should commemorate the tears of others too as she visualises snow melting into tears flowing from unseeing bronze eyes.

The most ridiculous statue I’ve ever seen is this one, in Cordoba, of Moses Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher and physician. Nobody knows what he looked like (although we do have his autograph) and it is pretty certain he would not have approved. But then Spanish tourism was never his business.

Maimonides01

Personally if I could get any statue torn down it would be the gigantic kitsch one in St Pancras station of two people meeting. I’m not going to show it but for a wonderful, relevant, silly but not ridiculous monument to a poet, this can’t be beat. It’s Betjeman, looking up at the building he helped to preserve, and probably about to miss his train.

betjeman2

 

 

Statues, memorials and dead poets

The shadow works of Raphael and Hella

Apologies, firstly, to any artists reading this who know what I’m talking about more than I do. This August I saw two exhibitions, three days and five hundred years apart, that made me feel I have finally learned something quite profound about visual art. On Tuesday I went to see Breathing Colour at the Design Museum in London, featuring  Hella Jongerius. It got me noticing and thinking in a whole new way. I saw a great Raphael exhibition once (not to be confused with any more recent artistic namesake) so on Friday I went to see Drawings by Raphael at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Colour and Line

You’d think these works by Hella of Holland and Raphael of Urbino might have little in common. One is all about colour and experiments with colour, the other about experiments with line and features only pen and ink,  brown or red chalk or charcoal drawings, but I found them deeply connected. Hella Jongerius creates ‘colour catchers’ , like this:

ColourCatcher2

They are objects with intricate folds made of paper or card, in a single colour, but the shaping, folding and positioning next to other coloured objects gives rise to many subtly different shades. Like this:

ColourCatcher

She calls them her canvases, and explains that while we’ve got used to the ‘flat’ industrial palette of colours, in life colour isn’t like that as it is always being affected by changing light according to the time of day, proximity to other colours (metamerism), by shadows, and by our own vision.  I came out gazing at objects on the street and seeing how everything was, in its own way, full of shadows changing flat colours into rich three dimensional objects. This is surely obvious to any trained artist now, but centuries ago there were plenty of artistic styles that didn’t use shadow. In Peckham Rye Park I noticed the grass wasn’t just green, and the earth wasn’t just brown. They were greens plus light and shadow, or browns plus light and shadow, like this (the industrial palette of pixels of course gives only an approximation).

At the Ashmolean, I found I was looking at the Raphael drawings with shadows in mind – shadows on bodies, and shadows in faces. Here’s one of the earliest works in the show. It’s possibly a self portrait, and possibly from 1500 when he would have been 17.

SelfPortrait2

There’s some shadow, but not a lot. Here’s a much later drawing from his final years, in 1519 or 1520.

RaphaelDrawings

Raphael uses light and shadow as much as Hella Jongerius, and while her work experiments with colour and perception,  Raphael’s explores light and shadow as they reveal human emotion through bodily expression. It was extraordinary going round the exhibition to see how he developed his techniques, repositioning faces and people to get different effects. Each drawing got me looking to see what direction the light was coming from. Like a musician who always knows where the beat is, Raphael always knows where the light is, and he knows how faces and bodies cast their own intimate shadows, like any object with intricate folds. Hella of Holland’s light is northern European, and that’s most obvious in her sequence of textile hangings that take you through from dawn to night. Raphael’s was a stronger Mediterranean light and his scenes usually outdoors. I liked the twisty, wriggly babies too. His sketches for Madonna and Child paintings experiment with positions – babies who look at their mothers and ones who don’t, relaxed babies, escaping babies, babies more interested in other children. One drawing, ‘Charity’, shows three infants grabbing at the same woman. If any of these were life drawings his studio must have been a riot.

Oak gall ink and Mosul

I found a surprising link with Mosul at the Raphael exhibition. The ink he used was made from oak galls. Iron gall ink was in common use throughout Europe for writing and drawing from the 5th to the 20th centuries. Sarah Shield’s study of Mosul’s trade before the creation of Iraq as a nation state, Mosul Before Iraq: Like Bees Making Five-Sided Cells, describes how gall nuts were collected from the mountainous Kurdish regions around the city to supply the tanning industry, because leather working and tanning were Mosul’s most important commercial activities. Oak galls, sometimes called oak apples (formed by parasites on oak trees) were used for dyes and inks.

Oak galls

Most of the leather was used for making shoes. The most traditional and cheapest style was a backless slipper, in red, yellow or black. When I remember my grandmother from Mosul, I can recall her backless black slippers. They stuck in my mind as a child because they were unlike any other shoes I’d seen.

There were between 30 and 40 dye houses in Mosul at the end of the nineteenth century. According to Shields, synthetic chemical dyes were brought to Mosul by German merchants in 1909. My grandfather’s chemist shop must have traded in dyestuffs. At his suggestion my father started to import and export dye from London after WW2 when everything was scarce. Magenta was my favourite word when I was very young as it was so unusual, and I still think it’s an amazing colour. Schooled by Hella Jongerius, who called her book ‘I don’t have a favourite colour‘, I won’t say it’s still my favourite colour though I’ve used it for the heading above.

Both exhibitions are on until September if you get a chance to see them. Highly recommended, and amazingly for London in August, the Design Museum had no queues or crowds.

The shadow works of Raphael and Hella

A Brexit amulet and the Medieval Cairo Genizah

Amulets are still everywhere. You might have noticed them in cabs dangling from rear mirrors, behind the serving counter in a takeaway, and worn as necklaces or rings. They go back thousands of years. I didn’t know what an amulet was until I read Edith Nesbit’s The story of the amulet, and even then I didn’t connect the object in that children’s story – Egyptian, and solid – with a pendant I was given as a child. I lost it long ago (probably stolen in a burglary) but it was a tiny hinged gold box, in the shape of two tablets of stone with Hebrew letters representing the ten commandments. I thought it was a locket and it was always empty. I couldn’t think why it was a box or what anyone would put inside it.

An eye, a blue stone, or a hand (often with an eye or blue stone inside) meant to ward off the Evil Eye are typical amulet symbols.

eye amulethand eye 2hand and eye

But the supreme magical power of an amulet was always meant to come from mystical words, especially the secret names of God, and the names of angels and demons. An amulet could be a scrap of paper or parchment, with charms and spells written around it in an intricate pattern. Amulet writing, like the selling of pardons in medieval Christianity, was once a lucrative trade.

L0043622 Hebrew Manuscript amulet for the protection...from the plague A pendant for carrying round an amulet needed to be hollow, like this:

amulet bottle

My favourite items in an amazing exhibition I went to a couple of weeks ago were the amulets. Discarded History: The Genizah of Medieval Cairo is in Cambridge University Library, free and on until early October. The Genizah was a store of old documents in the attic of the ancient Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo. Ben Ezra was also known as the synagogue of the Palestinians or the synagogue of the Jerusalemites. There was also a separate synagogue in Fustat (now known as Old Cairo) for the Babylonian community. Documents of all kinds, not only religious texts but letters, marriage contracts, lists, legal decisions, medical writings, charitable appeals, accounts, charms and even children’s alphabet books couldn’t be destroyed because they might contain the name of God or other holy words and letters. The store was eventually dispersed and bought up by collectors, so now teams of researchers in several universities are working on conserving, restoring and translating them. Cambridge has around 200,000 documents and they are an immense resource for historians, as they range across many countries and communities and hundreds of years.  Most of the texts on display are around a thousand years old and were written in Judeo-Arabic (Arabic language written in Hebrew letters) or Hebrew. In the middle ages, most of the world’s Jewish population lived in Islamic lands and children learned to write Arabic using Hebrew letters. There are translations of all the documents, and the exhibition guide also notes the languages they are in.

The tiny ‘Scorpion amulets’ in the exhibition, intended to protect their buyers against scorpion bites,  were from Egypt, 11th or 12th century. The curators wonderfully describe the language of these scraps of paper as ‘Hebrew, Aramaic and gibberish’. Carrying an amulet was normal practice even though amulets, and their writers, were condemned by Maimonides who wrote a diatribe against them. (There’s a signed letter from Maimonides in the exhibition.)

Scorpions scare me a lot. My father told me that in his youth in Mosul he had known of a five year old child who died of a scorpion bite. They can be deadly. It strikes me that the danger we face now is totally different, but there are people who say that it can be warded off through the right, powerful words. Yesterday I heard a pro-Brexit economist explaining that the economy was not in any trouble, and that he didn’t expect any damage to the economy as long as people said the right positive things about Brexit. So words are what we need, not actual plans, which is a relief if you read this month’s briefing by three Sussex professors,  A Food Brexit: time to get real. If it wasn’t for the sheer, charming, magical power of positive language we would be heading for trouble.

Inspired by the Scorpion amulets I’ve created a Brexit amulet. It has names of power with a little gibberish thrown in for good measure. If we all wear one of these, nothing could possibly go wrong, could it? That’s pretty much the pro-Brexit economists’ plan actualised: the power of positive words.  Seriously, I recommend reading and sharing the briefing on what might happen to the UK’s food supply in future, given that the government currently has no plan. As the authors put it,

The implications of Brexit for food are potentially enormous. This verdict applies, whether there is a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit. The UK food system, consumer tastes and prices have been thoroughly Europeanised. This will be impossible to cut out or back by March 2019 without enormous consequences. The UK food system faces real challenges on food security.

Scarier than a scorpion.

BrexitmeansBrexitmeans$&%$&it

MaynotMaynot******MaynotMay

F***B££££G$$$F***FoxF***BJMG

הלפהלפהלפהלפהלפהלפהלפהלפהלפ

ואברגציתלואברגציתלואברגציתלואלאו

A Brexit amulet and the Medieval Cairo Genizah

Keeping music alive

I was once told by police to stop playing or next time our instruments would be confiscated. It’s a trivial story in the scheme of things. We were in Amsterdam in around 1980 in a city centre spot where busking wasn’t allowed, so next time we got the train to Gouda and played there instead. There were two of us, calling ourselves Cafe Music, and mostly we busked in York.

Songhoy Boys had experiences a world away from that. The band was formed by musicians from Mali at a time when Islamists were banning music completely and threatening musicians’ livelihoods and even their existence. I went to their fantastic London gig a week ago. The evening started with flying ants, downpours and extra heavy security but the musicians told us what security meant for them these days: they miss a lot of gigs and a lot of flights. They get sent to the back of a long line, or taken into small rooms for questioning, for being African, Black, and (most of them) Muslim. They also told any Malians in the audience that they needed to go back home and help rebuild their country. Here’s the stage at Somerset House, underneath the rainbow flag that was still flying to celebrate Pride week. So much for extremist religious censorship.

Rainbow flag

I wrote about Songhoy Boys briefly in my last post and mentioned a film they appeared in. Here’s a roundup of a few documentary films and a few notable musicians,  on the theme of music and survival. There’s also a book by Andy Morgan, Music, Culture and Conflict in Mali, available from Freemuse. Did you know that March 3rd is Music Freedom Day? That’s one of many things I learned from Freemuse, an organisation set up to defend access to music as a human right around the world.

Films

They Will Have To Kill Us First is about musicians in Mali dealing with, surviving and defying the Islamist attempt to ban music completely. At the end there is a very moving free concert in Timbuktu, staged at a time when the local people were still living in great fear. The filming of the concert is extraordinary. It focuses on the audience arriving nervously and then gradually appearing less afraid, responding to the musicians, dancing and having fun.

The documentary On The Banks of the Tigris follows Majid Shokor’s quest to rediscover the music of his childhood. He had been forced to flee Iraq and had settled in Australia, and was eventually astonished to find out that there were famous Iraqi musicians living there. They were Jews, unlike Majid, and had also been forced into exile. The film follows him as he interviews Iraqi Jewish musicians in Israel and other countries, and also follows his return to Iraq where he investigates how much is known about the origins of music that has been relabelled as ‘traditional’ but was in fact composed by Iraqi Jews. Most musicians in Iraq up until 1950 were Jewish, and much popular Arabic music was composed by some prolific Jewish composers such as al-Kuwaity, but that had to be concealed. On the other side, the musicians in exile felt the loss of their audiences and professions, and struggled to keep and pass on their own musical traditions. There’s a review article here.

Rock in the Red Zone is about young musicians in the border town of Sderot, whose inhabitants were originally refugees from North Africa and the Middle East. Children growing up under constant rocket fire from a few miles away in Gaza were becoming extremely traumatized, and composing and performing became less an escape and more a way for them to to try to deal with their stress, anxieties and emotions. The town’s people as a whole felt forgotten and abandoned. The music studio which nurtured young musicians was in an underground bunker and the film is punctuated by sirens and rocket attacks. The film director’s own story of getting to know local people and eventually marrying one of the musicians gets intertwined along the way, so there’s not as much about the actual music as I’d have liked.

Musicians

They Will Have To Kill Us First - Khaira

Khaira Arby stars with Songhoy Blues in the film and was the force behind the extraordinary free concert in Timbuktu arranged in defiance of the jihadists. She has an amazing voice. Here she is in a clip on YouTube. Enjoy.

Songhoy Blues again

They Will Have To Kill Us First - Songhoy Blues

A big shout out to Hwages

This is the famous hiphoppy video featuring three bowling, skateboarding, Trump-dissing women from Saudi Arabia. A podcast on Freemuse gives some background. There are no live music venues in Saudia Arabia and for women to sing in public is of course forbidden, but there are also 19 million YouTube downloads a day so unofficially music isn’t exactly being excluded from life. Freemuse has a Let Women Sing campaign going.

Yair Dalal

The oud player Yair Dalal will be performing in September as part of the Sephardi Voices season. He appeared in On The Banks of the Tigris and is one of the artists trying to preserve what his website calls the ‘Babylonian musical heritage’ and teaching younger musicians.

Moshe Habusha

Anothe oud player of Iraqi heritage, but this time performing music from the sacred rather than secular repertoire.  I saw him perform live once in Kiryat Ata, northern Israel, in a synagogue built by and for the Jewish community from Mosul. It involved a short and scary road trip as I was driving my father (who was not convinced his daughter could drive anyway) in a hire car on a strange road in the dark with everything – controls, traffic – on the wrong side. I didn’t know the route and was worried there might be nowhere to park. My father told me there will be plenty of space, these are poor people, they don’t have cars. He was right.

When the musicians arrived I recognised the routine the violinist was going through untangling wires to attach a pickup to his instrument, as I was used to dealing with the same mess. There was another familiar routine when the concert began. The women around me in the gallery started throwing down sweets (hard candy type), as happens with Mizrachi barmitzvahs. It’s a tradition the musicians could do without as they were ducking and starting to protest. It was also pretty frustrating trying to listen as another ladies’ gallery tradition, which I’ve always assumed was a reaction to being excluded from the main part of the synagogue and service, is talking amongst yourselves all the way through. Although it was hard to hear properly I did get to buy some bootleg cassettes afterwards, all now unplayable. You can hear bits of tracks from his CDs on Amazon. I think he has a great voice but if you prefer oud instrumental music, there’s some of that too.

Moshe Habusha Yaarat Davash

Linguistic note: the album you can stream is called Yaarat Davash and on the cover the artist’s name is given as Moshe Havusha. That’s the influence of modern Hebrew but that ‘v’ sound was unknown in the Hebrew spoken by Iraqi Jews. Instead the consonantal sound would either be ‘b’ or ‘w’. If you listen to the title track you can hear the musicians actually sing ‘dabash’ and not ‘davash’. Moshe Habusha himself is a lot younger than anyone in the old photo above – I assume it’s of a previous era back in Baghdad.

I feel I’ve now expiated my old sin of carrying around cases with Musician’s Union ‘Keep music live’ stickers on them, when I never joined the union as I didn’t earn much from music. It was a mild act of hypcrisy compared with the crimes of denying to musicians the right to perform and to everyone else their rights to enjoyment and participation.

 

 

Keeping music alive

Mosul, music and citizens in an age of terror

The final liberation of Mosul from IS is being regularly announced now and one of these days it will actually be true.  Three years ago IS used the ancient and highly symbolic al-Nuri mosque to declare its  so-called caliphate. A few days ago they blew up the mosque, before it could be recaptured, and have taken to sending out teenage girls as suicide bombers from their last few hold-outs in the old city. Around a million people from the Mosul area have been forced to flee for their lives. It’s unimaginable. It’s as if a city the size of Birmingham had been occupied by a death cult that destroyed its concert halls and libraries, murdered, raped and tortured entire communities and banned everything human, all artistic endeavours, everything that didn’t conform to their own ultra ‘pure’ version of religious conformity.

I’ve posted about Mosul’s history before in this blog, and here I want to commemorate three things: Mosul’s one time diversity from the days when culturally and religiously plural societies were a normal feature of the entire area, music from Mosul, and ordinary citizens choosing to keep track of events in Mosul and communicate to the rest of the world. Those citizen experts are anything but ordinary.

Joel Wing

You might have caught Joel Wing being interviewed on BBC radio news recently. He is an expert on what’s happening in Iraq but his background is extraordinary. He runs the Musings on Iraq blog and updates it constantly with news about what’s happening in Iraq, currently mostly the battle to retake Mosul. Joel Wing’s blog has become fairly well known and his expertise is trusted by a lot of journalists and analysts.  It turns out he’s a history teacher from Oakland, California who decided back in 2008 that since the US was involved in Iraq people ought to know what was happening, and became an expert through sheer continuous dedication and hard work. He collates news from English and Arabic language sources and presents clear summaries, along with reminders via Twitter of what happened on the same date in past years going back to at least 1991 (the war following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait). His latest post, as I’m writing this, tells us that Iraqi officials are going to announce final victory today over IS in Mosul, but they’ve made similar impatient announcements before and it’s unlikely that IS will be totally defeated today. Plenty of commentators including Wing are pointing out that ridding Mosul of IS presence won’t mean that IS is finished. Controlling cities or large stretches of territory is  only one of their strategies and they’ll continue to spread their ideology, hatred and violence – predominantly towards other Muslims – by other means.

Also today, there are estimates that it will cost a billion dollars to rebuild Mosul but as for repairing the harm done to the people of the city, especially children who have lived through three years of terror, there are no estimates. It will take a long time. UNHCR and UNICEF, Save the Children and no doubt lots of other NGOs are launching appeals.

The Mosul Eye and Mosul music

The Mosul Eye blog is heartbreakingly optimistic. It was set up by an Iraqi historian based in Mosul who has planned reconciliation events, a bring-a-book festival to help restore Mosul’s libraries, and an astonishing violin recital among the ruins to make the point that music can now return to the city in the face of terror. Like the Taliban and the jihadists who took over in Mali, IS banned music and threatened the lives of musicians. The Mosul Eye blogger arranged for a few Mosuli musicians to return and play in one of the ancient Nineveh sites IS tried to destroy. You can hear Ameen Mukdad, the violinist, here with explosions and gunfire in the background.

I played on a track on the Rivers of Babylon Treasures CD, Eliyyahu Eliyahu,  which is in the Mosul tradition of Iraqi Jewish music going back at least eighty years but probably much further. It’s the only existing recording as far as I know. It took me a long while to work out that some of the notes don’t exist in Western musical scales because they’re the notes in between those other notes. I recorded my father singing it when he was in his 80s and that’s when I realised I had transposed some of the tune into a more familiar sounding key in my memory, and had to flatten the notes back to where they should go. I always thought of the song as wistful, and about hoping for a better future when the prophet Elijah eventually shows up.

Next week I’m going to see Songhoy Blues again, a band formed by Malian musicians in exile. They played in London in 2015 alongside the showing of a film, They will have to kill us first,  about musicians daring to return to Timbuktu to give a free concert and inspire local people to hope for a return to normality. Their new album is called Resistance.

Old Mosul communities

This photo is of a Christian monastery near Mosul, St Elijah’s or Mar Elias

(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)

512px-Saint_Elijah's_Monastery_1_Mosul

It was the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq, dating back to around 600 CE. It was destroyed by IS probably in 2014. Mosul used to have the highest proportion of churches of anywhere in Iraq – Catholic, Chaldean, Assyrian, Syrian Orthodox, and probably others I don’t know about. My father remembered going inside churches as a child and seeing what he described as ‘big dolls’ (statues presumably). At one time there were at least twenty churches, not to mention the five synagogues and nearby Yezidi shrines. It’s an understatement to say that communities didn’t always live amicably together in the past but even so, Mosul’s long history is one of many diverse groups living side by side, including many Kurds. From the 1970s the Ba’athists started a Stalinist-style deportation campaign, removing Kurds from northern Iraq and dumping them in southern deserts. It’s estimated that 300,000 may have been killed. This transfer policy also involved settling Ba’athist supporters in the north.

This news story describes Muslims in a liberated area of Mosul helping to rebuild a destroyed Chaldaean church as a gesture of solidarity, but it’s not certain that Christians will feel safe enough to return.  Kurdistan is now seeking a referendum on independence. Relations with the government in Baghdad are pretty tense and although Kurds have taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees, and have lost many of their own fighters. it’s been without much help from Baghdad. There’s an all-party parliamentary group on Kurdistan with a  website here  and there was a Commons debate on Tuesday which discussed the medical and psychological help needed following Mosul’s liberation and what the UK can do –  the proceedings are now available. The Kurdish referendum issue is going to be fraught.

I’ve been recommending experts in this blog (see here and here ) as well as occasionally writing about Mosul. If you’re interested in following news from Iraq, I’d recommend Joel Wing as a real expert, of the responsible citizen type.

[Blog housekeeping note: the menu in the top righthand corner shows up OK on some devices and platforms but not others. If you can’t see a menu of links to previous posts try expanding the set of lines at the top and they should turn into a menu. I’ve been trying to find out how to fix that and make them more visible but it seems a general WordPress design problem.]

 

Mosul, music and citizens in an age of terror