Saturday, 30 April 2016

Katherine Brooks - Breathtaking Photos Capture Cuba’s Legendary Ballerinas Dancing In The Streets

In Cuba, the ballet is something of a national treasure. The dancers recruited into Alicia Alonso’s storied company Ballet Nacional de Cuba, for example, reportedly make more money than doctors and enjoy a level of fandom reserved only for pop stars in the United States. The Cuban government not onlyfunds ballet training but also subsidizes tickets to ballet performances. Lovers of Cuban dance like to say the adoration and skill is in their DNA.

You can find anyone in the street here in Havana who can dance as well as most professionals,” Cuba’s Ballet Rakatan choreographer Nilda Guerra told The Guardian. And in a country historically associated with machismo, it’s not just women enjoying the allure of ballet. “Before, ballet in Cuba was a marginalized extravagance,” the New York Times wrote in 2005. “Now, men in one of the world’s most macho countries clamor to put on dancing tights.” Cuban-born Royal Ballet dancer Carlos Acosta reiterates the sentiment: “I wanted to play football and I was like this reckless child. But when I saw the professionals of the National Ballet School of Cuba perform for the first time, it changed my life forever.”

Photographer Omar Robles
 has long been entranced by the country’s legacy of dance. He recently traveled to Cuba to explore the men and women who have made ballet such a staple of their lives.  
“Over the past two years I’ve devoted my work almost exclusively to photographing ballet dancers within urban settings,” Robles wrote on his blog. “Cuba has one of the top ranked ballet companies, thus why I dreamt of visiting the island for a long time. Their dancers are just some of the best dancers in the world. Perhaps it is because movement and rhythm runs in their Afro-Caribbean blood, but most likely it is due to the Russian school of training which is part of their heritage.”

The resulting photographs, featured on his Instagram, capture some of Cuba’s best talent jumping, twirling and stretching in the streets, providing a beautiful and even surreal glimpse of just how deeply rooted Cuban ballet is. Below is a brief interview with Robles on how he came to photography and how his trip to Cuba impacted his work.
See photos here:

Lev Manovich - 100 billion rows per second: the culture industry in the early 21st century

After around 2013, we start seeing more discussions of social and political issues around the use of large-scale consumer and social media data and automatic algorithms. These discussions cover data and law, data and privacy, data and labour, etc. The events at the NYC-based Data & Society Institute offer many examples of such discussions. As did the Governing Algorithms conference at NYU in 2013, and the Digital Labor conference at New School for Social Research in 2014. In terms of publications, the academic journal Big Data and Society, from foundation in 2014 onward, is of central significance.

However, I have not yet seen these discussions or publications cover the idea I am proposing here – which is to think of media analytics as the primary determinant of the new condition of the culture industry, marking a new stage inmedia history. The algorithmic analysis of "cultural data" and the customization of cultural products is at work not only in a few visible areas such as Google Search and Facebook news feeds that have already been discussed – it is also at work in all platforms and services where people share, purchase and interact with cultural goods and with each other. When Adorno and Horkheimer were writing Dialectic of Enlightenment, interpersonal interactions were not yet directly part of the culture industry. But in "software culture", they too have become "industrialized"

Lev Manovich - 100 billion rows per second
The companies that sell cultural goods and services online (for example, Amazon, Apple, Spotify, Netflix), organize and make searchable information and knowledge (Google), provide recommendations (Yelp, TripAdvisor), enable social communication and information sharing (Facebook, QQ, WhatsApp, Twitter, etc.) and media sharing (Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, etc.) all rely on computational analysis of massive media data sets and data streams. This includes information about online behaviour (browsing pages, following links, sharing posts and "liking", purchasing,), traces of physical activity (posting on social media networks in a particular place at a particular time), records of interaction (online gameplay) and cultural "content" – songs, images, books, movies, messages, and posts. Similarly, human-computer interaction – for example, using a voice-user interface – also depends on computational analysis of countless hours of, in this case, voice commands.

For example, to make its search service possible, Google continuously analyses the full content and mark-up of billions of web pages. It looks at every page on the web it can reach – the text, layout, fonts used, images and so on, using over 200 signals in total). To be able to recommend music, the streaming services analyse the characteristics of millions of songs. 

For example, Echonest, which powers Spotify, has used its algorithms to analyse 36,774,820 songs by 3,230,888 artists. Spam detection involves analysis of texts of numerous emails. Amazon analyses purchases of millions of people to recommend books. Contextual advertising systems such as AdSense analyse the content of web pages in order to automatically select relevant ads for display on those pages.

Video game companies capture the gaming actions of millions of players to optimize game design. Facebook algorithms analyse all updates by all your friends to automatically select which ones to show in your feed. And it does so for every one of Facebook's 1.5 billion users. According to estimates, in 2014 Facebook was processing 600 terabytes of fresh data per day.

The development of algorithms and software systems that make all this analysis possible is carried out by researchers in a number of academic fields including machine learning, data mining, computer vision, music information retrieval, computational linguistics, natural language processing and other areas of computer science. The newer term "data science" refers to professionals with advanced computer science degrees who know contemporary algorithms and methods for data analysis (described by the overlapping umbrella terms of "data mining", "machine learning" and "AI"), as well as classical statistics. Using current technologies, they can implement the gathering, analysis, reporting and storage of big data. 

To speed up the progress of research, most top companies share many parts of their key code. For example, on 9 November 2015, Google open sourced TensorFlow, the data and media analysis system that powers many of its services. Companies also open sourced their software systems for organizing massive datasets, such as Cassandra and Hive (Facebook).

The practices involved in the massive analysis of content and interaction data across media and culture industries were established between approximately 1995 (early web search engines) and 2010 (when Facebook reached 500 million users). Today they are routinely carried out by every large media company on a daily basis – and increasingly in real-time.

This is the new "big data" stage in the development of modern technological media. It follows on from previous stages such as mass reproduction (1500-), broadcasting (1920-) and the Web (1993-)…
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see also
Paul Mason - Global cybercrime has infected the very soul of capitalism with evil
Paul Mason - The end of capitalism has begun
George Monbiot - Growth: the destructive god that can never be appeased

Maria Stepanova - The haunted house: contemporary Russia between past and past

Twenty-five years after the USSR's collapse, writes Maria Stepanova, history has turned into a kind of minefield, a realm of constant, traumatic revision. As a result, Russia is living in a schizoid present where the urgent need for a new language is far from being met.

 .. last but not least, an unexpectedly judgmental feature, which I regard as extraordinarily important in this context. It is lying. When there are no verified facts and no experts who can assess what is going on, the door opens to negating reality as such. This means that truth and lies, good and evil, black and white no longer seem to exist. They become infinitely interchangeable, blurred in what is essentially an artistic pursuit. 

(NB: The socially complicit disappearance of truth described admirably by Stepanova in this essay is a precise marker of modern nihilism. When reality and objectivity are reduced to aesthetic functions and pure whim, we are at a loss to speak intelligibly about anything significant in the world around us. 'All that is solid melts into air' - DS)

It has often been noted that one of the key invariables of pro-Putin rhetoric and the official media can be summed up by the adage "we are all tarred with the same brush". The point is not to whitewash or justify one's own actions but rather to point out that everyone does the same. "We are no better that the others but we are no worse either."

In this sense the very issue of ethics as such, of the legitimacy of the Russian regime's actions, becomes a moot point. Perceiving reality merely as a fiction enables us to disregard ethical judgement and the existence of truth, and worry only about the momentary impact and immediate persuasiveness of the immediate utterance. Tomorrow's truth easily supplants the truth of today and the truth of the day after tomorrow replaces that of tomorrow. Today we say there are no Russian troops in Crimea and three months later we describe in detail the exact way the military operation was carried out and who exactly was involved in it. And these two statements in their completely primeval innocence co-exist in the same information space, without negating or changing anything.

What matters is that all these truths and untruths use yesterday's language. And that, I would say, is the main problem Russian society faces today on every level. Putin's regime and the opposition both face the same problem, as does – with particular urgency – the intellectual community..

Many observers have been puzzled and fascinated by the strange metamorphoses Russia and the country's social consciousness have undergone over the past fifteen years. What has happened over the past three or four years in particular has been impossible to ignore. These changes have to be viewed within the wider, global context in which they have occurred. However, that doesn't make what is happening in Russia less grotesque nor does it make the regression that has marked every aspect of Russia's cultural and social life – from medicine and education, through human rights to the press that no longer fulfils its role, turning increasingly into a propaganda mouthpiece – any less spectacular. Nevertheless, the global context has to be taken into account.

The debate about the end of history started quite a while ago. There is, however, some difference between "the end of history" as originally understood by Alexander Kojève – who sees the ideal state as a machine that satisfies its citizens in so many different ways as to render history as a movement or progression unnecessary – and the situation we are experiencing at present, when every possible idea concerning the future arouses fear, tension and concern.

It is a rather alarming sign that the culture of modernity in which we live has been marked by a fear and distrust of the future. For one of the fundamental ideas of modernity has been a sustained effort to change our lives, gradually arriving at something "new", in the sense of "better". In fact, for the past two centuries, progress has been a key word. Lately, however, the idea of creating something new not as a tool, but as a point of reference, something that is worth aiming for, has been disappearing from our horizon.

Since sometime in the late 1980s, the history of mankind has for the first time in a long while stopped being understood as a history of progress. Until then the future was seen, metaphorically speaking, in terms of the vision of the Strugatsky brothers, that is, a future in which wonderful, advanced people live in a society that is virtually perfect, solving technical problems and correcting the mistakes of parallel universes. But at some point, around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union and fall of the Berlin Wall, the only imaginable version of the future that remained was a dystopian one, which had to be avoided at all cost. It would be interesting to discover the exact point at which utopian thinking turned dystopian, when history started to accelerate. So what happened in popular culture at this time? 

For a relatively short period, the future was still seen through rose-coloured glasses, as a consumerist paradise in which the idea of progress was linked exclusively to changes in the technical aspects of life, with the future seen as a "technically improved" present. A striking example of this trend in popular culture is the Back to the Future trilogy, which paints an identical picture of the present, the past and the future, except that the future boasts useful inventions such as flying sneakers. From the late 1990s onwards, many Hollywood films presented a dystopian future where only a few survive. It is a future from which one wants to flee.

What is it that terrifies us about the prospect of history, of being caught in history? The twentieth century has demonstrated all too clearly where progress leads. And given that there is no prospect of improvement and that things can only get worse, a standstill or stasis becomes the desired state of affairs. And that makes the current situation seem acceptable.

In this way a substitution takes place by means of signing a covert social contract – we are prepared to consider our imperfect state acceptable as long as things don't get worse. The first example that comes to mind is the covert deal Vladimir Putin made with Russian society in the early noughties. Although the conditions of this deal weren't made explicit until later, they were acknowledged quite early, in 2002 and 2003, that is, at a time when it would have been sensible to protest. Yet mass protests didn't materialize for another decade. In exchange for private freedom society gave the government a virtually unlimited freedom to act. So, in effect, the future was, rather misguidedly, exchanged for the present. This consensus continued until the events of late 2011.

The acceptance of the present, and the fear that what is to come can only be worse still, are quite universal but there is something specific about their Russian manifestation: I would suggest that in addition to the fear of the future, which is quite widespread, Russia is living in a schizoid present… 
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Book review: new biography of Stalin Reviewed by Donald Rayfield

Friday, 29 April 2016

MARGARET OWEN - "To demand peace is not a crime": Turkish academics on trial

Last Friday, April 21st, four Turkish academics, Meral Camci, Kivanc Ersoy, Muzeffer Kaya and Esra Mungan, after five weeks remanded in prison, were brought to the Heavy Penal Court in Istanbul to face charges of making “propaganda for terrorism” and of association with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), labelled as a terrorist organisation by the EU and the US. The indictment accused them under Article 7(2) of Turkey’s anti-terror law and if convicted they could face sentences of up to 7 ½ years in detention.

Although at the end of the day, the prisoners were released, and the Judge adjourned the case to September 27th, confusion reigns among the academics and the lawyers.
This trial attracted, rightly, international attention, as it illustrated how far President Erdogan is prepared to go to prohibit freedom of speech in order to silence any criticism of his policies, even when it is clear that the government’s actions breach both international and European law and its own constitution which guarantees freedom of speech.

To attack Turkey’s eminent scholars in this way has brought protests and support for the academics from people all over Turkey. Thousands filled the square in front of the Court before the hearing carrying banners and calling for the scholars’ release.  Unlike previous trials under the Anti-Terror Act of lawyers, journalists, trade unionists, and Kurdish politicians this one was attended by more than eleven consuls including those from the UK and the US as well as many international observers and human rights bodies. I was there as an observer from the UK.

These four defendants, two women and two men, were selected for arrest and imprisonment simply because they happened to be the ones who publicly read out, on March 1st, in the offices of EGITIM SEM, the Education and Science Workers Union, the press statement affirming their commitment to the January “ACADEMICS FOR PEACE PETITION” to President Erdogan entitled “WE WILL NOT BE A PARTY TO THIS CRIME”.

This petition had been signed by over 1,128 Turkish academics from different universities and disciplines, and now by several hundred Western intellectuals, including such luminaries as Noam Chomsky.  A further 1,000 Turkish academics have since added their names to the petition.

The academics denounced the Turkish government for renewing conflict in the Kurdish South-East and demanded that those responsible for violations of human rights and humanitarian law should be made accountable and punished. They drew attention to the perpetration of collective punishment of civilians trapped in the Kurdish towns and villages under curfew, the killings, destruction of homes and livelihoods, the withholding of food, water, and medicine from people in need, and the displacement of thousands fleeing the violence. They called on all governments across the world to reconsider their relations with Turkey, and they pleaded for the resurrection of the peace talks with the Kurds that Ankara broke off in July, 2015.

Some 50 academics have already been dismissed from their posts and 27 suspended by the disciplinary committees of their universities pending the criminal investigations by the Prosecutor of all the academics who signed the petition.  So there are now over 2,000 Turkish scholars, researcher and university teachers being accused of supporting terrorism.  This attack against freedom of speech and targeting the intellectual heart of Turkish society through the universities is the most vicious illustration of how determined is President Erdogan to allow no criticism of his policies, even when his actions breach all international human rights and legal standards. Also it shows the extremes he will go to in order to silence his critics, including exploiting the already seriously flawed justice system – flawed because it lacks independence – so as to lock up journalists, trade unionists, teachers, writers, Kurdish politicians, co-mayors and now its scholars.

In the packed courtroom the defendants and their lawyers tore to shreds the  allegations in the Prosecutor’s indictment, because they contained not an iota of evidence that any crime had been committed. There was, they argued, no proof that any of them had ever been in communication with the PKK as stated in the indictment, or even knew its present co-chair Bese Hozat, from whom, the Prosecutor alleged, they had received orders to write this petition.

“To demand peace is not a crime” was a constant declaration throughout the hearing. This trial was described by the lawyers as a “legal scandal “.

“We expect you to end this parody of a trial, in which there are so many illegal irregularities. Acquit the defendants and drop this case which is damaging Turkey’s reputation internationally” urged one of the lawyers representing the defendants.  Ceran Uysal, one of the women lawyers, pointed out that anyway no law existed regarding the issuing of press statements and that the AKP was targeting and punishing academics because it feared their influence on intellectual life and on the youth. Meral Camci, the psychology professor, spoke for all her academic colleagues when she said “as scholars we value the truth and critical thinking is central to all our disciplines”.

 Kivanc Ersoy, the mathematician, in rejecting the allegations, declared “as intellectuals we have the responsibility to promote peace. We, the intellectuals, are the conscience of Turkey, just as Jean-Paul Sartre was the conscience of France when he denounced De Gaulle’s policies that caused such suffering in Algeria. We should not be punished for it”. 

Muzeffer Kaya, the historian and social scientist, displaying the hand-cuff scars on his wrist, berated the Prosecutor for the fictions in the indictment that tried to link him and his colleagues with “people we have never met and did not know”. “We are scholars, we have ideals, and we are for justice and truth. We have the right, under Article 25 of the Constitution to express our thoughts, to advance knowledge, and share ideas. These are not crimes. We have broken no law”. He said “ We could not stay silent. Our petition is for peace. We could not let our children pay the price in the future for the government’s mistakes”.

After four hours of speeches by the defendants and their lawyers, in a court crowded with the families of the imprisoned scholars, other Turkish lawyers and international observers, finally, late in the afternoon, there was an extraordinary development. 

Suddenly, unexpectedly, the Prosecutor, most probably realising that he had been utterly defeated, that his indictment was shown to be a construction of fictions, proposed to the Judge that he withdraw the indictment under the Anti-Terror Act and instead charge the defendants under the infamous Penal Code Article 301. This article makes it a crime to “insult Turkishness”. However, in 2008, under pressure from the European Court of Human Rights, changes were made and it is now obligatory  to get the Minister of Justice’s approval to file such a case.  At this point everyone in the public area of the court rose to their feet shouting “ Shame” and “Release them” until the judge ordered us to sit down and be silent.

Making such a bizarre proposal  at this late hour clearly disconcerted the judge and his two assistant judges, who, instead of retiring to their chamber to discuss how to respond, started to use their mobile phones, under the gaze of all of us in the court. Everyone wondered who were they calling?  Were they trying to contact the Minister of Justice, or the President himself? For this hearing was clearly a political trial and required a political solution.

Finally, after a few minutes the verdict came.  The defendants would be released.  The case would resume on September 27th. Since there were no bail conditions, no requirements of giving up their passports, or reporting to the police, these scholars would be free to travel abroad, and, if they have not been suspended, resume their university duties. There was loud jubilation and cheers both inside and outside the court where hundreds were waiting for news.

But now of course there reigns absolute confusion, both among the academics (over 2,000 are still subject to investigation under the Anti Terror Act) and the lawyers. Will the Justice Minister give the necessary approval for the change of indictment? What if he does not? Will the original indictment still stand?  Does the proposal to use Article 301 apply just to these four defendants, or to all the signatories?  What are the rights of the academics who have been sacked or not had their contracts removed?  Meral  Camci and Muzaffer Kaya are among the fifty who have lost their jobs. But Camci bravely responds “The University building may be closed but we can take the university to anywhere” and has invited her students to her home to continue their studies.

Will everyone who signed the Petition have to wait till September to know their fate? Article 301 provides for imprisonment from 6 months to a year, but under Article 7(2) of the Anti-Terror Law imprisonment could last 7 and 1/2 years.

This case has revealed, like never before, the deep flaws in Turkey’s justice system, and how it can be manipulated for political ends. It also exposes dramatically how any criticism of Erdogan and his AKP party is viewed as a crime.  Erdogan has called the academics “traitors”.  He has vowed to “annihilate” the PKK. And the PKK has retaliated by saying that they will resort to force if the violence does not stop, reminding Erdogan that it was the government that broke the peace process last year, not them.

This trial has taken place just when the spotlight is on Turkey and Angela Merkel has promised to “hasten” Turkey’s accession to the EU if Turkey will contain the Syrian refugees and stop them from leaving for Europe.  But this attack on  freedom of speech and on the academics calls into question whether Turkey will ever comply with the Copenhagen Criteria which govern  EU accession and with international and European international human rights and humanitarian law. But does Turkey care? Has it got the EU and the US over a barrel, as it has such a key role to play in the Syrian conflict and in addressing the refugee crisis?

Marion Molteno - The festival that nearly didn’t happen

Easter Sunday in Lahore, Pakistan – families  out for a day in a park … then the world changed.  Yet another set of tragedies, for a society that already has had so many.   People don’t know what to do with their anger. My friends’ FaceBook pages echo their misery. Don’t pray for Lahore, says one, fight against hateful religious ideology.  Someone puts up a photo of a little boy – her child’s son, gone.  Another is visiting the children in hospital, struggling for their lives. She is giving them toys her friends have donated; hugs and smiles in amidst the suffering.  There’s a photo  of young men crowding a hospital entrance, wanting to give blood.

Five weeks earlier I was in Lahore for a literary festival, along with a hundred thousand other people. Now, when we remember it,  it will always be in the shadow of what came after. But I am putting up the reflections I wrote about the festival as a tribute to the remarkable people who created a space for tolerance and debate, and will continue to do so.  I am posting it just as I wrote it before that bomb exploded; including the prophetic words from the poet Faiz with which the blog ends.

I sit on the platform of the Lahore Literary Festival, looking out over the faces in this packed marquee – maybe 700 people? In the UK if 20 people come to hear me talk about my books, that’s a modestly good turn out; I’d be delighted with 40. Here the faces crowd before me, there’s a buzz of animated talk, waiting for things to begin. What will I say, to reward the attention of so many people?

The festival is free – this too is different from any I’ve been part of in the UK. Over the course of a weekend a hundred thousand of Lahore’s people have come to listen to writers and artists, journalists and political figures, older people reminiscing and younger ones arguing. People have had the date in their diaries for months. It’s more than a book festival, it’s a celebration of all that books can open up to us. Debates range from highly charged geo-political issues to novels about personal relationships, from innovation in art to the need to preserve Lahore’s architectural heritage. There are film actors, museum curators, a drama production, an evening of Qav’vali singing – sufi-inspired music, a tradition that goes back 700 years. In the grounds of this hotel that acts as venue bookstalls have been set up, groups of people browse, families sit on the grass, young friends meet. Volunteers from local schools are everywhere in their t-shirts with the festival logo, guiding people, offering help. Speakers have flown in from 40 countries apart from Pakistan, there are 123 altogether who will take part  — And it nearly didn’t happen. Back track —

It’s two days before the festival is due to start, with participants already flying in, and the government of the Punjab tells the organisers to cancel it. Speakers who have not yet arrived must be asked to cancel flights. The official reason? The authorities cannot guarantee security. Well, no one doubts that Pakistan has security issues but it’s hard not to believe there are other agendas here – political differences? personal jealousies? The festival organisers come from influential families and have secured wide sponsorship from businesses, media corporations, some international cultural sources. The arts need patrons – they always have done – and you don’t run a free-to-all festival without someone having to pick up the bill. Many who have helped inspire the festival are active citizens also in other ways that might have got under the skin of the authorities, like protesting the bulldozing of heritage buildings to make way for a new metro line. Is this a ploy to demonstrate who really holds power?

By evening – who knows what negotiations it has taken – a compromise has been reached. The festival organisers are told they can hold a reduced festival: two days instead of three and they will have to find a new venue. This is bizarre – if security cover can be provided for two days, why not three?  And if not in the arts centre where it was planned to happen, why in a new venue, which turns out to be a hotel just across the road? Later Mohammed Hanif, author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes, says, To be a satirist in this country you don’t have to make anything up. You just tell it straight.

I can just about imagine what the organisers are going through. For myself, I am just grateful that I was already here so no one could tell me not to come.


So now – while the festival team work into the small hours adjusting the programme, those of us already here have a couple of days’ unplanned holiday, in an interesting city and in excellent company. I share a breakfast table with Muneeza Shamsie, who has edited collections of Pakistani women’s writing in English, and Claire Armitstead, literary editor of The Guardian in the UK, women whose writing I know but had not thought I would ever meet. There’s nothing we can do to help sort out the problems so we just go with the flow, and this particular flow carries us through a series of delightful encounters. Claire and I happen to be in the foyer when one of the festival organisers comes in, checking lists. She is about to go to the museum where an art historian from India is giving a talk about Pahari miniature paintings – would we like to go? Sure we would! But by the time we get there the talk is over and everyone is having tea and delicious snacks and mingling to chat. 

We mingle too – and I discover that hosting the event is the artist Salima Hashmi, whom I have met some months ago in London. She is the daughter of Faiz, Urdu’s best loved 20th C poet, and I had contacted her because I wanted to use my translation of a poem by Faiz in my novel Uncertain Light. Salima says she is about to take Dr Goswamy, the art historian, to visit a family museum of Faiz’s letters, books, photos – would we like to come? So off we go in her car and spend an absorbing hour wandering through Faiz-ghar (ghar means ‘house’.) The archive of photos give a sense of Faiz’s wide international contacts – he was not just a great poet but a left-wing political activist who travelled, met writers elsewhere, addressed trade union conferences. He was at odds with the Pakistan authorities and spent years in prison, from where some of his most moving poems were written; and later more years in exile. I come away with a complete edition of  his poems and a DVD documentary of his life.

We have been here hardly a day and already we are experiencing that complex mix of characteristics that strike a new-comer— the easy warmth of hospitality, the cultural richness, the background of political tension. There’s singing coming from one room – a tabla player, children learning Hindustani classical music. Faizghar is a cultural project that tries in a small way to uphold the values that Faiz believed in – specifically, they are producing children’s books that teach a respect for human rights and tolerance of diversity. In Pakistan today people have paid with their lives for upholding these simple values. 

Five years ago Salmaan Taseer, governor of Punjab, was murdered for speaking out against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws that have been frequently used to persecute Christians. The story hit the world’s headlines, along with the almost more shocking fact that many feted his murderer as a hero. Now – looking at old family photographs – I discover that Salman Taseer was Salima’s cousin; and the story didn’t stop there. A few months after his murder, his son Shahbaz was kidnapped. As we stand here looking at pictures of them all as children, Shahbaz is still missing. The hostage-taking which is the pivotal event in Uncertain Light might seem to readers elsewhere to be melodramatic. Here it is a constant possibility; in this family, an ongoing reality.


Friday. This should have been the first day of the festival, and the new programme has arrived in my email inbox. Of the planned 99 sessions, 45 are no longer there. Some have been combined, many more have disappeared. The devastating reduction is not just because of losing a day, but because the new venue can’t host as many simultaneous sessions. I scan quickly to see what has become of my sessions. I was originally down to do three – as a novelist, on translations of Ghalib, and chairing a panel on education. Which of these have made it into the new programme? None. A stab of disappointment – to come all this way – but the feeling is momentary.  How gutted the organisers must be feeling at watching their months of preparation unravel. My own loss seems not particularly consequential. At least I am here.

With all their logistical challenges, the organisers are still giving thought to looking after us, and two young women arrive with drivers and cars to take us to see whatever we want of Lahore, and the day proceeds like yesterday, a series of unexpected and delightful encounters. A petite, lively woman in her 80s comes out of the hotel to join us: it’s  Madhur Jaffrey, whom the programme describes as ’The Woman Who Took Curry Global.’ With her is a tall American, her husband. He’s quiet, and I wonder if he is slightly overwhelmed by being with so many chatty women. As we wait to set off I ask about his own line of work. He says, self-deprecating, ‘I guess you could say I spent a lot of my life trying to master the violin.’ I sympathise – I’m a late starter on the violin and it is the most difficult instrument. I discover later that he was in the New York Philharmonic.

Rishm, one of our guides, is co-ordinating volunteers for the festival. In her day-job she is a manager in a group of independent schools, trying to inculcate a love of reading at an early age. It’s the basis of everything in education, she says – and it’s older pupils from her schools who will be volunteers at the festival. With Rishm is her friend Saba, co-opted for the day to help take us around. She is a professor of art in Dubai, back visiting Lahore where she grew up. She points out buildings to us as we pass – there’s the Art College where she studied, one of the few places where they teach the skill of miniature painting – with techniques developed centuries ago to achieve the incredibly fine detail. You start by catching a squirrel, she says, and laying out a few hairs from its tail in length order, to end up with a one-hair fine brush. Now she and Madhur are talking about the merits of different kinds of shawls, and I realise that too is a science in itself. Later when I read Madhur’s memoir of childhood, Climbing the Mango Trees, I will find a vivid description of her mother taking hours to choose a shawl from the array that the shawl-wala had spread out on the verandah of their house in Delhi.

We arrive at the Shahi Qila, a vast 16th C fort-cum-Mughal palace, where we are adopted by a guide. Do we need a guide? Saba and Rishm are doing such an excellent job. But his persistence vanquishes them, so he comes with us and plies us with memorised dates and names of rulers that we can’t take in, while we wander looking at timeless views framed by stone arches. Saba and I look regretfully at the decaying tile-work and murals. There’s no culture of preservation here, she says. I have heard there’s been a wonderful restoration done – with Norwegian funding – on the Shahi Hamam, the 17th C public baths in the old Walled City. We fantasize about what we would do if we were the custodians of this fort-palace, and had some funding.

A call comes on my mobile from Shamain, who has the unenviable job of reorganising the festival programme. They’ve been trying to work out the best slot to put me in. What about one of the panel discussions on fiction – ‘The Passion for Love Literature’ – would that fit my novel? Perfect.


Saturday morning – the logistical miracle has been achieved, the revised programme printed, and people start streaming in. Through the security checks they come, tens of thousands crowding the hotel foyers and grounds. You would hardly know the festival team have had a fraught time and are probably sleep-deprived – they are everywhere, welcoming, making sure everything happens according to the constantly having-to-be-revised plan. Crowds jostle to find a place in the opening session, where the Indian actress, Sharmila Tagore – at 71 looking still serenely beautiful – gives a thoughtful retrospect of her career in film, starting with Satyajit Ray films & becoming Bollywood’s most loved heroine. Then the stimulus multiplies – there are four simultaneous sessions, two in the hotel’s large reception rooms, two in marquees in its grounds. There are full audiences in each, and still the crowds mill about in all the spaces in between. The conversations I overhear among the young are in a lively mixture – English with Urdu words thrown in, Urdu with English words. I have learnt Urdu but have never lived in an Urdu speaking society and it’s pleasurable just moving around the crowds, listening in.

I dip into sessions, greedy to get a taste of it all. There’s an international flavour even among the Pakistani presenters, reflecting the globalised pull of education and professions. Most have had a period living in the US or UK; some are still based there and have come back specifically for this event. There are ten sessions on aspects of Urdu literature but the primary language of the festival is English. Pakistan has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world but all those with positions of influence are fluent in English, and for many it is their effective first language. Probably a high proportion of the people milling about here have had their education through English-medium.

This is a deeply polarised society, not just in life-chances, but in religion, politics, attitudes to those outside one’s own group, to women’s roles. All of these intersect. Few women in the crowds here wear head-scarfs, but without exception the women in the security teams do, staffing the x-ray portals we all have to pass through to get in. There are soldiers with guns in the mini-buses that bring the speakers daily to this hotel, and more standing around the entrance, looking – frankly – bored. There’s the world moving by in the streets outside, cars, motorbikes, three-wheelers, and probably none of the people in them are interested in the issues we’re getting into here. We’re in a bubble of time and space, removed not just from their world but – for these few hours – from our own daily concerns, indulging in the luxury of being able to listen, reflect, enjoy, respond.

In its themes, the festival faces out to the fractured world we all inhabit. There are sessions on feminism, a rightwards lurch in South Asia, the effect of politics on literature, the rich/poor divide. The cross-cultural range presents unexpected treasures. A Chinese Muslim calligrapher, Haji Noor Deen, plies his art in Arabic. The Iranian-Azarbaijani-French photographer, Reza Degati, shares what his observing eye has captured –  as someone tweeted, he ‘finds spirit and humanity in conflict zones around the world.’ Razia Sultanova, an Uzbek ethnomusicologist, is bringing to light women’s traditional songs which they kept going through the Soviet era and which male musicians didn’t know existed. Her writer husband, Hamid Ismailov, talks quietly about the image of railways in his novels, cross-cutting the vast distances of the steppe, and linking stories of Central Asia’s complex range of peoples. His books appear in Russian, English and French but are banned in Uzbekistan. Someone asks why. He says, ’To an authoritarian government even something written with humanity can seem subversive.’

He and I were to have been on a panel called ‘Writing on Exile’ – but that has disappeared. Never mind, we talk about it anyway, and now we have met we will read each other’s books. Several younger writers here have exile experience in their backgrounds. Susan Abulhawa, Palestinian-American author of Mornings in Jenin, had parents exiled by the war of 1967, and a childhood moving between the US, Kuwait and Jordan. The parents of Anita Anand, a British journalist and BBC presenter, were Hindus in what is now the North West Province of Pakistan, and had to leave at the time of Partition in 1947. Her mother was a baby when they arrived in a refugee camp outside Delhi. Zukiswa Wanner’s parents were South African/Zimbawean exiles; she was born in Lusaka, Zambia, the year I left it to come to Britain. 

In a panel on ‘Whose Narrative is it Anyway?’ there’s a question tossing between her and Mohammed Hanif about which was a comedian and which a satirist. ‘I couldn’t be comedic,’  Zukiswa says, ‘I was born under apartheid!’ Later I see her at the bookstall. She has no idea who I am – why would she? Nor had I heard of her until we both landed here, half-way across the world from where we started. I introduce myself – ‘I was also born under apartheid!’ She laughs and immediately sends the ball back – ‘Why aren’t you buying my book?’ So we agree to buy each other’s.

When I can take in no more stimulus, I retreat to the speakers’ quiet zone on a verandah overlooking the pool. Razi Ahmed, founder of the festival, moves among us, checking everything is fine, introducing people to each other. He is the perfect courteous host, and keeps thanking us for being here, which makes me laugh – the privilege is all ours. This is an easy place to start conversations. I watch people discovering each other, groups coalescing. 

We are sharing this experience, but each of us is making of it our own story. I introduce myself to the poet Zehra Nigah. Years ago my Urdu teacher and friend Ralph Russell took me to meet her when she was in London. Now in her seventies, she was one of the first women poets in Urdu to become well known. Radical, feminist, steeped in the classical traditions of Urdu poetry, she yet uses the forms to say things that are new. I remind her that she gave me a signed volume of her poems. My Urdu wasn’t then good enough to be able to read them; I will go back now and see if I can do any better. It’s eight years since Ralph died, and a pleasure for me to be with people who remember him. 

Another is Nuscie Jamil, a member of the festival’s advisory board – she studied with him when she went to SOAS as a mature student. ‘He was a lovely man,’ she says immediately, ‘always interested in everyone.’  Nuscie seems to be the original multi-tasker – feminist, activist, grandmother, runs her own successful business. She starts telling me about an outstanding school for children of the poorest communities, of which she is a trustee; and the moment she hears that I am an educationist she is on the phone to the head teacher, arranging for me to visit after the festival finishes.


Pakistan lies on a geo-political fault-line, with a deadly nexus of issues that link Afghanistan, Pakistan, the USA, fundamentalism, and regional security. Ahmed Rashid, journalist and authority on the politics of Afghanistan and Central Asia, chairs a session entitled ‘Contemporary Great Games’. I have used his books in researching for Uncertain Light, and it is to him I owe the invitation to be here. Looking out for him, I see him taking care of a frail elderly woman. At eighty-nine Nancy Dupree is one of the oldest people here, but intellectually still vigorous, an archaeologist with a passionate involvement in Afghanistan’s history. She is on a panel on how to preserve national heritage in stressed societies. A young Afghan archaeologist on the panel says, ‘Don’t dig any more. Leave it in the ground. That’s the safest place.’

Conflict is written deep in the history of this city. Lahore lies close to the border with India, and during the Partition in 1947 – within living memory of the oldest people here – it was the setting for a tragic history of mass migration and communal killing. Many prefer not to dwell on it, but the festival opens up these painful chapters too. Older people are interviewed, remembering those times. Others critically reexamine the hopes with which Pakistan was founded. One session is devoted to a leading Urdu writer who chronicled the effects of Partition, Intizar Hussain. He was to have taken part in the festival himself, but died just weeks before.

But more significant, the festival celebrates the culture that Pakistan and India share. Several of the high-profile participants are Indians who have achieved eminence in different cultural spheres, and they all get an enthusiastic response – the film actress Sharmila Tagore, the cookery guru Madhur Jaffrey, the eminent lawyer and historian A G Noorani, C M Naim, the Urdu scholar.  An estimated 1000 people come to listen to B N Goswamy as he shares his insights from a lifetime of studying miniature painting. Now in his 80s, he was born in Sargoda, in Pakistan, 100 miles west of Lahore, and a boy at the time of Partition. His wife was born in Lahore itself and this is the first time she has been back. They were invited to the festival by FS Aijazuddin, a fellow art lover and life-long friend from this side of the border.

And poetry – Poetry is the most universally loved art form among Urdu speakers everywhere, and any powerful Urdu poet speaks equally to them all. The depth of this cultural passion is constantly surprising to outsiders – it’s rare to find an Urdu speaker who doesn’t know by heart swathes of poetry. There is such a crowd wanting to hear TV personality Zia Mohyeddin reciting from the great 19th century poet Ghalib that security guards have to handle potentially unruly young men, desperate because they can’t get in. The organisers look worried. Rejoice, I say – in how many countries do young men almost cause a riot because they can’t get to hear a poetry recital?


Day two, Sunday morning – and here I am on the platform in the larger of the two marquees, waiting to begin. Few in this audience will have heard of me. The others on the panel are much better known: Adaf Soueif has come from Egypt – novelist, political commentator, activist. Kamila Shamsie is the one the audience are sure to know about, for she is one of their own – she grew up in Pakistan and now moves between here and the UK. Both Adaf and Kamila are published by Bloomsbury, and it’s Bloomsbury’s editor-in-chief, Alexandra Pringle, who is to interview us. The three of them have worked together for years – it was to be an in-house event, now here I am, an outsider thrust in among them. Muneeza Shamsie, Kamila’s proud mum, comes to the front of the audience to get a photo – it makes us laugh, so that’s how the camera catches us. Good start.

I’ve only once before spoken to a group as large as this. That was at a celebration for Nelson Mandela in London, where I was one of twenty-seven lucky people (representing his twenty-seven years in prison) invited to honour him in a three-minute piece. However different the circumstances, I feel once again the weight of this moment – being given the chance to share thoughts with all these people.

Our session is called ‘The Passion for Love Literature’. It’s obvious why love is so central in fiction, because it is central in life. When it is my turn to speak I find myself saying that though there is a love story in each of my novels, what matters more to me is that they reflect love of all kinds – for parents, children, friends, people who inspire us. Uncertain Light is as much about loss – for when we give ourselves in love we make ourselves vulnerable. Long after we have lost someone close to us, the love still infiltrates our lives in complex ways … Looking out over the faces obscured by light, I am thinking of a woman I met yesterday – young still, but struggling to get past the loss of her husband. Or Saba, our companion walking around the Fort – she is back in Lahore after a whole year; it took that long because her brother was murdered here, for being from a Shia family. Are they perhaps here, knowing I am thinking of them?

Alexandra moves us on to talk about ‘transgressive’ love – a theme in all our novels, she suggests. It’s not a word I have thought to use but I see immediately that she’s right.There’s a built-in tension between the power of individual love and the constraints of society, and the central love story in Uncertain Light raises moral issues that it does not resolve. How to talk about this, here, with this audience? I find a way through the ghazal poetry that runs through the storyThe love poetry everyone here has grown up with reflects a being-in-love that was almost always illicit, and frowned on by society. It is about feelings that won’t be neatly packaged, and there are few happy endings. Lovers can seldom have what they long for. I quote Ghalib –

hazaron khahishen aisi ki har khahish pe dam nikle
bahut nikle mere arman lekin phir bhi kam nikle

Pleasure ripples like warmth across the hundreds of people in the marquee. They could have completed the couplet themselves after the first two words. For the few who don’t know Urdu, I give Ralph’s translation –

Desires in thousands, each so strong it takes away my breath anew
Many longings have been fulfilled; many, but even so, too few.

Everything comes together – Urdu poetry, Uncertain Light, this audience. When the session is over, I go to the bookstall to sign copies. Within a short time it has sold out.


Back now in London, and a month later, I see still pictures of those days in Lahore, of thousands of young people coming to listen, talk, & feel connected to ideas & issues. I am remembering my last day, after the festival was over, an early morning walk through narrow streets of the old walled city, expertly guided by Lucy Peck who has mapped it all. Her session talking about all this was, sadly, one of those cancelled – how lucky for me to have this personal guided tour. In the 17th C Wazir Khan mosque we admire the exquisitely painted walls, stepping carefully past an old man who sleeps on the floor. 

We visit an arts centre that trains people in traditional arts including kaghazi pottery: kaghaz is paper – this pottery is as thin as paper. I buy a bowl, which sits now on my desk, a small portable part of a vivid craft culture. That afternoon I visit the school that Nuscie Jamil insisted that I see. We drive far out to an industrial suburb; the children are from the poorest communities, and are getting an inspiring education. Two of the young teachers are themselves graduates of the school, and their faces shine as they talk about how they love working here.

The big issues of politics and security continue to flare in Pakistan, exposing the polarisation of attitudes. A week after the festival an announcement is made that Salmaan Taseer’s murderer has been hanged. The road from his prison to the capital is thronged with protesters, and he is hailed as a martyr. One week later, Shahbaz Taseer – Salmaan’s kidnapped son – is discovered, and freed. He has been gone five years with no news, now suddenly he is back. Political analysts are busy trying to make sense of it all. I am thinking of that family, trying to recover. Everything connects.

I took a half-empty suitcase to Lahore and have brought it back filled with books by people I have met. Now I will spend the months ahead getting to know them. I find on my shelves the collection of poems that Zehra Nigah gave me over thirty years ago. Opening it springs open a small door of memory – I told her it would be slow work for me reading them, and asked her to recommend one to start with. She suggested Samjhota – ‘Compromise’. It’s about a chaadar - a traditional woman’s blanket-like shawl that can cover her from head to toe:

Warm and soft, this blanket
Of compromise has taken me years to weave
Not a single flower of truth embellishes it
Not a single false stitch betrays it
It will do to cover my body though
And it will bring comfort too,
If not joy, nor sadness to you

The most beautiful book I have brought back is by B N Goswamy, The Spirit of Indian Painting: Close Encounters with 101 Great Works. As I slowly turn the pages I remember the atmosphere of total absorption in the vast audience that listened to him talk. There are few written sources on which he has been able to draw to uncover the background to the paintings; he has done it by close attention to detail, and a kind of studied intuition – that appeals to me. But the diligence is awe-inspiring. In an interview with an Indian newspaper he says he must have scrutinised about 150,000 miniature paintings in his lifetime, and can clearly recall more than a thousand. ‘You need to absorb a painting,’ he said in his talk, ‘the way you absorb a poem,’ and he began quoting poetry. The sounds circled around me. I couldn’t follow the sense; but everyone else seemed to.

After we had both been at Faizghar, Goswamy told me of his youthful passion for Faiz’s poems. Once as a young man he saw on a bookstall a magazine which had printed a new poem by Faiz. He had no money to buy the magazine so he pretended to be browsing until he had memorised the poem, then he put it back. He told me that he knows by heart at least ten of Faiz’s poems. I asked if he would send me a list of them, and within days after getting back he has done so. Three I already know; the others I will get to know. Like the greatest poetry, they are both a reflection on Faiz’s own times, his own spirit, and yet universal. I see in some of them strands of the lives in Uncertain Light:

mujh se pahli si muhabbat, meri mahbub, na mang …

Love, do not ask me for that love again.
Once I thought life, because you lived, a prize -
And time’s pain nothing, you alone were pain;
Your beauty kept earth’s springtimes from decay,
My universe held only your bright eyes -
If I won you, fate would be at my feet.
It was not true, all this, but only wishing:
Our world knows other torments than of love
And other happiness than a fond embrace.
Dark curse of countless ages, savagery.


Thank you to Razi Ahmed, Ahmed Rashid, Salima Hashmi, Nuscie Jamil, moving spirits behind the festival, and members of the team that made it happen against the odds: Rimmel Mohydin, Shamain Haque, Aadil Malik, Rishm Najm. Also to Alexandra Pringle, Adaf Soueif and Kamila Shamsie for our shared session; Raheela Akram of Sanjan Nagar School, Sarah Qureshi of Faizghar; Saba Qizilbash and Lucy Peck for the guided tours; Salman Haidar for a gift of a facsimile of Ghalib’s early ghazals; all the participants for stimulus and company; and B N Goswamy for inspiration. The translation from Zehra Nigah is by Rakhshanda Jalil; the one from Faiz is by Victor Kiernan. The photos were taken by Muneeza Shamsie and Rishm Najm.

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dil ke phaphole jal uthe seene ke daag se
is ghar ko aag lag gayi ghar ke chiraag se