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

Are we nodes or are we noodles?

The new Professor of Internet Studies at the Oxford Internet Institute, Philip Howard, gave his inaugural lecture last week. It’s now available online but to save your time, I watched it and summarised what I thought were the most interesting bits, for the fourth of these posts on fake news (previous posts here, here and here). There was a certain amount of flummery at the start – not the soft pudding type – that you can skip if you decide to watch it.

flummery Flummery pudding, also known as mahalabia

Also of course, some daft clothes. But despite the Oxfordy business the OII is a useful place to know about and has done good research ever since it started. I went to the launch conference back in 2002 when I was researching internet related stuff for a doctorate. I liked their ethnographic style, thought it looked promising then and think it’s delivered since, for instance with regular surveys of British users and non-users of the internet, critical studies of Wikipedia, and a strong focus on ethical issues. The launch was at the Said Business School, the building with the ziggurats near the railway station, as the Institute itself is housed in a small building on St Giles near Balliol with no space for large events.

oii logo

Fifteen years ago at the OII launch the conference ran a session on ‘Participation and Voice’, asking whether the technology would improve or worsen the democratic process. This month Phil Howard asked something similar: Is social media killing our democracy?

He began by arguing that ‘the Internet’ is misnamed as there are now multiple internets. There’s a Snapchatty Yik-yakky one for under-17s that people like him don’t use. Far right conspiracy theorists get together on another one.  China has its own internet, built from the ground up as an instrument for social control and surveillance. Some argue that Russia and Iran have the same thing – a distinct internet. The cultures of use are so different it’s tough for researchers to study them all. The Prof then briefly narrated the development of his research by showcasing some of his publications, as he’d been coached that was the right thing to do in an inaugural lecture.

His first book, New Media Campaigns and the Managed Citizen (2005) was an ethnography of  the Gore and Bush US election campaigns. The people he studied and got to know were the first of a new breed of e-politics consultants.  He discovered that ‘a small group of people – 24 or 25 – make very significant design decisions that have an impact on how all of you experience democracy’. These people formed a small community, socialised together and worked   ‘across the aisles’ for Republicans or Democrats as needed.  At the end of the campaign several of them went off to work in the UK, Canada, Australia and various other countries,  to take the tricks they had developed in public opinion manipulation, funded by big money, to apply them in democracies around the world. His conclusion was that this is how innovation in political manipulation now circulates, i.e. via these kinds of roaming consultants with expertise for hire.

Next up, he turned to investigating the consequences of internet access in 75 mainly Muslim countries in a book that, amazingly, you can download for free . His idea was to see how things worked out in societies where censorship and surveillance are permitted and encouraged as a means of cultural protection; countries that liked to participate in the global economy but in constrained ways. He observed significant changes in gender politics, in where people went to learn about religious texts, and above all young people using information technologies to figure out that they shared grievances. He found a clear arc from the mid-2000s to the ‘Arab Spring’.  So while his first book was about political elites and the manipulation of democracy, the second was about catching the elites off guard.

His work on ‘the internet of things’ , Pax Technica, was more predictive and although the book wasn’t well received he was insistent that it’s necessary to pay attention, look back at what has already happened to online privacy and look forward to guard against what could happen next.  He reckons the privacy fight is already lost as far as the current internet(s) are concerned so we need to think ahead. To quote:

The internet of things is the next internet, the one you will not experience through a browser. It will track you in almost everything you do. For a variety of reasons it will generate almost perfect behavioural data that will be useful to social scientists but also governments and security services. In the next few years we have to wrestle with who gets this data, and why, and when…

By 2020 50 billion wireless sensors will be distributed around the world – there will be many more devices than people, to say nothing of satellites, drones and smartphones that people carry. There will be vast amounts of behavioural data on consumption habits, and in democracies any lobbyists who can will try to play with this data…

The average smartphone has 23 apps. The average app generates one location point per minute – little bits of evidence of where we are in physical space…few organisations have the analytical capacity to play with this data – Facebook does. Few do much with it – advertising firms do. Some apps read each other’s data. It’s fodder for an immense surveillance industry that’s about providing you with better consumer goods, identifying your location in space, providing data brokers [with info on us]…

His new programme of research at the OII is looking at social media, fake news, and computational propaganda, or in other words, algorithms and lies. Here are a couple of tasters. How to identify a bot: there are some giveaways. Bots tend to do negative campaigning. They don’t report positive policy ideas or initiatives.

Anger, moral judgments, pictures of politicians taken at a ridiculous angle ‘saying’ things they probably never said. Bots migrate from another topic to another e.g. latching on to Brexit after years tweeting about something else. A small handful of accounts after working on Brexit then became interested in the US election and were pro-Trump. A small number then became interested in the Italian referendum and the French elections and now back to the UK. Just a s there was a cycle of expertise from human subjects in the US who took the craft of political manipulation across multiple domains, multiple  regime types, there are now users who have humans behind them, social media accounts which have humans behind them, user accounts that craft political messages, moving from target to target, meddling in particular domains, as needed and one of the great research questions that faces us now is who are these people and to some degree how do we inoculate our democracies against their ill effects? 

Howard prefers to call them highly automated accounts because there is always a human behind them. They do not look like this.

computerBot

These automated accounts are not up and running all the time. They get turned off after an election. They have noticeable changes of strategy in response to events, for instance spikes in activity at particular moments to coincide with debates.  Howard thinks all this presents us with real problems and that social media has made democracy weak. ‘It has a compromised immune system. We’ve gone through that learning curve from social media as exciting opportunity for activists to tools for dictators.’ To make matters worse, people are selectively exposing themselves to secondhand sources of information that intensify what they already believe in a process that might be called elective affinity, so any bias doesn’t meet with much challenge.

We need to figure out what the opposite of selective exposure is.  Diversified exposure? We don’t even have a phrase. Randomised encounters? Empathic affinity? Process that allows people to encounter a few new pieces of information, candidates that they haven’t met before or faces they don’t recognise. Whatever those processes are we have to find them and identify them and encourage them.

Before reporting any more of what Howard thinks I should allow for some diversified exposure here and point out that there are other academics who might disagree. Here’s Daniel Kreiss,  who has studied political campaigning, taking a markedly different view. He says basically it’s more important to look at the history of how conservatism has been growing in the US than at social media. As for the UK, other academics agree that ‘whether done by bots or human influencers, that people may be surreptitiously emotionally engaged in online debates is deeply worrying’ and there’s plenty more rather tentative comment here.

Going back to the lecture, Howard ends with proposals for how this abundance of data on all of us might be regulated. He has a list.

  1. Report the ultimate beneficiary. You should have the right to find out who is benefiting from data being collected by an item you buy.
  2. It should be possible to add civic beneficiaries to benefit from the data.
  3. Tithes of data. 10% of the bandwidth, processing power and data should be made available to civil society organisations as a way of restoring some balance. Facebook has a monopoly platform position on public life in most countries. That should stop.
  4. A non profit rule of data mining. The range of variables that are exempt from profit should grow.

It’s not surprising to see Facebook’s data monopoly appearing here. He’s said elsewhere that researchers can only use a small percentatge of Twitter data, because that’s what is made accessible, and can’t properly research Facebook even though that’s where a lot of the political conversation – and manipulation – is happening. Facebook doesn’t share.

The Computational Propaganda project at the OII has just released its first case study series, covering nine countries, available here. It’s been covered in a few news articles (Wired, the BBC, Guardian and so forth). A brief snippet to give you the idea what’s in it:

The team involved 12 researchers across nine countries who, altogether, interviewed 65 experts, analyzed tens of millions posts on seven different social media platforms during scores of elections, political crises, and national security incidents. Each case study analyzes qualitative, quantitative, and computational evidence collected between 2015 and 2017 from Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, Poland, Taiwan, Russia, Ukraine, and the United States.

Computational propaganda is the use of algorithms, automation, and human curation to purposefully distribute misleading information over social media networks.

That’s enough lecturing. I called this post Are you a node or a noodle? for a reason. Clearly, we’re all noodles as we’re all likely to be suckered at some point by fragments of the fakery that’s all over whichever internet we’re using. In one of Howard’s books that I’ve actually read or at least skimmed, he surveys the work of one of my favourite experts Manuel Castells. Castells and the media is really an introductory reader for students who haven’t yet read Castells, which is fair enough as reading Castell’s own work is a real undertaking. (I’m aiming to add him to my experts series on this blog soon.) Howard summarises one of Castell’s key theories about the network society as ‘People may think they are individuals who join, but actually they are nodes in networks‘.

We’re all nodes as well as noodles. My takeaway message is to be careful about what we’re circulating. Every large scale tragedy or atrocity now seems to attract lies, myths and propaganda that get wide circulation through deliberate manipulation but also via unwitting noodle-nodes (us, or some of us). Howard suggests (it is a textbook after all) that readers undertake an exercise in visualising their own digital networks. I’m not going to bother with the exercise but some of the other recommendations were good ones, such as:

  • be aware of your data shadow (yes it is following you)
  • use diverse networks
  • be critical of sources and try to have several
  • be aware of your own position in digital networks
  • remember that people in other cultures have different technology habits, and that networks can perpetuate social inequality
  • understand that you are an information broker for other people.

Thanks Phil. Enjoy your new job.

 

 

Are we nodes or are we noodles?