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The Al Jazeera producer Rosie Garthwaite draws on her experiences as well as those those of other battle-hardened foreign correspondents for her new book

It is a dusty but relatively cool Saturday afternoon in the Qatari capital of Doha when I meet Rosie Garthwaite at the headquarters of Al Jazeera English. The news studio where she works as an output producer for the Qatari-owned international news network is half empty after a long, feverish Friday. (Friday has become its busiest day since the ‘Arab Revolution’ began earlier this year, because crowds gather to demonstrate after sabbath prayers.) Garthwaite is exhausted. This is her sixth 11-hour day in a row, a day that began in the office at 5am. The stories that she produces can be about any subject, but the mainstay is Africa and the Middle East, and there is no sign that the region is calming down.

Garthwaite, in addition to her day job, has spent the past 18 months putting together her first book, How To Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone. She says she was prompted to do it ‘because so many of my friends spend so much time in dangerous places and they give me tips, or I’d want to give them a tip. And there is no book in the market that collates it all.’
In fact, a competing book by the former peacekeeper James Shepherd-Baron was published last year, and there are various survival handbooks by former SAS soldiers, though these tend to have more information about making fires with sticks than how to behave at checkpoints manned by drug-crazed child soldiers in sub-saharan Africa. For anyone thinking of working in one of the many parts of the world racked by conflict, How To Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone is a genuinely useful handbook, and the only survival manual to be written by a woman. It deals with certain practical concerns that few male security consultants may think of, but which many a female foreign correspondent has had to confront.
Garthwaite could have done with such a manual herself when she began her own career in journalism by simply turning up in Iraq in mid-2003 with a camera and a notebook. She had the good fortune to come out of the experience more or less unscathed. But the danger that covering war presents was underlined by the death in Libya last month of Garthwaite’s friend the photographer Tim Hetherington. ‘He was the best in his field,’ she says. ‘He was amazingly brave. Took us places we had never been before. He was my journalist hero.’
But Garthwaite says she does not believe that a proper war correspondent could have written this book. ‘When I interviewed boys and girls who have spent years in war zones they were all surprised themselves by how much they had to offer. I don’t think they would see a need for it, either; while I’m inexperienced enough to think there is a need for it.’
Garthwaite hopes that her book will be ‘as useful to a businessman in Colombia as to a journalist going to Kabul’, and believes that ‘in an ideal world it would be issued in every journalism school and on hostile environment courses taken by journalists and [people working for] NGOs.’ But the book is also a fascinating anthology of anecdotes by 150 experienced war reporters and aid workers. These anecdotes – including disturbing and revealing tales of close shaves at checkpoints, narrowly averted disasters, and kidnappings that ended in escape or rescue rather than Daniel Pearl horror – are the sorts of story that do not usually make it on to the news but which people who work in conflict zones tell each other over whisky in the quiet early hours.
Garthwaite, 30, grew up in London, went to boarding school (Benenden) at 11 ‘because I’d read too many Famous Five books’ and then to St Hugh’s College, Oxford. There she read ancient and modern history, with Alexander the Great as her special subject. Between school and university she spent a year in the Army. She chose to do a short-service limited commission – a gap-year programme that no longer exists – because ‘I wanted to see the world but I didn’t want first to spend six months in King’s Road working in some hideous pub earning £3.50 an hour.’
Though her father is in the marine insurance business and her mother runs art festivals, both her grandfathers were in the military. Her mother’s father, General Sir Harry Tuzo, was the deputy head of Nato. As a second lieutenant, Garthwaite served in the 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery – ‘It’s as close to the front line as you can be as a girl’ – though the unit was not deployed abroad during her time in it. She was trained as a forward observation officer, but also edited the regimental newsletter.
Did she always want to be a foreign or war correspondent? ‘I wanted to work on the Today programme and I still want to work on the Today programme. I do television only because I think you have to know it all. On the other hand I wanted to be like the people whose books I’d read, people like Jon Swain and Kate Adie. I thought it sounded exciting and I thought I could capitalise on my army experience.’
Garthwaite was only 22 and two months out of Oxford when she went to Iraq. She was a freelancer without organisational backing who had never taken any of the ‘hostile environment’ courses that most news organisations insist their staff take before deployment in conflict areas. Within minutes of her arrival in Baghdad, ‘a white van came screaming up the road, and men in balaclavas shot a man in front of us.’ She was in similar proximity to violence and danger up to and including her very last day, when a car full of Italians in the front of her convoy heading out of the country failed to stop at a coalition checkpoint and was fired on, killing everyone inside. Despite this and other experiences, she says she does not think of herself as having been ‘a real war correspondent’ because the invasion and major combat operations were officially over by the time she arrived and, she adds, ‘because I’ve never been directly shot at’.
Garthwaite originally went to Iraq to join a small start-up English-language newspaper called the Baghdad Bulletin, though she soon started supplying photographs and stories to Reuters and other major outlets. ‘I was naive as a journalist but I probably had more street smarts than some of the others at the Baghdad Bulletin because of the Army.’ Funded by an acquaintance from Oxford, the left-wing Bulletin ran on a shoestring and all its staff were under 26. ‘We were all new to journalism and to the Middle East’, as well as to war zones.
Looking back, Garthwaite says, ‘I wish I’d known Arabic, and I wish I’d known how to prepare properly, the things to bring. I wish I had spoken to more people on the ground before I got there.’ One of the Bulletin’s contributors, Richard Wild, another ex-public school, ex-Oxbridge ex-soldier, was murdered within two weeks of arriving in the country. The Baghdad Bulletin shut down after six months. ‘We had a serious security threat and the embassy strongly suggested that we close,’ Garthwaite explains.
By then Garthwaite, who had gone down to Basra to be its local correspondent, was a much sought-after freelancer contributing to media around the world. For most of her time she was the only resident Western journalist in the southern Iraqi city, and her peculiar circumstances there gave her unique access and understanding of what was going on. When she arrived there from Baghdad by train, ‘there were massive riots going on’. A poor Shia family whom she had befriended on the train said it would be dangerous for her to try to get to the house she had arranged to stay at and took her to their home. She ended up staying with the family for an entire month, sharing one room with six women and one man, enduring the 40C summer heat with electricity for no more than an hour or so a day and no running water.
Her hosts were as fascinated by her as she was by them. Garthwaite laughs as she remembers how, amid the casual nudity of the women’s area, her host’s wife and daughters were shocked by her body hair, their own bodies having been depilated to perfect all-over smoothness: ‘They threaded like crazy – they would do it all the time.’
By the end of the month her phrasebook Arabic was up to GCSE standard and she knew more about what was happening in the streets of Basra than any other foreigner, including the British
military. ‘Several times the soldiers in the garrison would ask me for information about what was going on. I would sometimes call them for a response about a bomb and they would not have heard about it yet.’ It was through this family that Garthwaite broke one of her major scoops, the abuse and murder of an Iraqi civilian called Baha Mousa by British troops – a story she wrote about for Reuters and in The Times.
Garthwaite’s seven-month stay in Basra with all its dangers and privations is worthy of a book itself. She lived a much lonelier and harder life than most Western journalists in Iraq. And even though Garthwaite is modest about her own experience, some of the best stories in the book are hers. One of them tells of the time when she arrived at the UN compound in Baghdad just after it was destroyed by a huge bomb and tried to help a man with a large piece of shrapnel in his side. Because she had rushed out in a short-sleeve T-shirt she was menaced by a crowd that called her a ‘whore’.
At the end of 2003 Garthwaite left Iraq. An old spinal injury had reopened, leaving her in crippling pain. ‘Also I didn’t feel comfortable by myself any more.’ There were men hanging around near her house – ‘the people I lived with warned me not to go outside’ – and she was horrified to find that a hostile and anti-British taxi driver knew where she lived. ‘Two weeks after I left, the house was raided, my housekeeper Abbas was kidnapped and all the money I’d given him was taken away.’
After surgery and recovery, Garthwaite looked for a job. To her surprise her experience in Iraq counted for little. Eventually, in spring 2004 she was hired as an intern by the BBC in its current affairs division and was then promoted to staff researcher. In January 2006, having done some producing at the BBC, she took the chance to join the then nascent Al Jazeera English as a planner and fixer in London. Al Jazeera’s concentration on international news at a time when British and American outlets have cut down on their foreign bureaux was and is a powerful lure. Garthwaite became a full-time producer within a year, and in November 2006 came out to Doha to help with the channel’s launch.
About half the people sitting around her in the newsroom seem to be Westerners, including Nick Toksvig, the brother of Radio 4’s Sandi. The newsreader, David Foster, is English. But then from the very beginning Al Jazeera has been dominated by British journalists. The original Arabic channel set up in 1996 was largely the creation of former BBC staff, and the English-language channel was set up by BBC and ITN veterans given a lavish budget to hire staff from across the English-speaking media world. Among the better known names to join the fledgling network were Sir David Frost and Rageh Omaar. The British flavour at Al Jazeera English is still strong, although, as Garthwaite explains, many of the staff are Arabs who grew up in Britain or the USA or are half American or English. In Al Jazeera’s international atmosphere, she says it is easy for them, like Garthwaite, to feel at home. Although Al Jazeera has long been controversial, for Garthwaite its political perspective ‘wasn’t a major problem’, and she is quick to point out the differences between the English channel and its Arabic sister network.
Even after Garthwaite joined Al Jazeera English she had no plans or desire to move to the Gulf. And when she flew out to help with the launch, she thought it would be for only three weeks. It has now been four and a half years. Living in Doha is not easy. ‘I go to London and there’s all that culture and it is difficult to leave.’ Life here means going
to the same two or three restaurants over and over again, buying overpriced alcohol from the one licensed shop in the country, and ‘making bacon runs’ from non-Muslim countries. Because the majority of the population in Qatar are guest workers, Garthwaite does not even get to practise the Arabic she learnt in Iraq: ‘The languages you hear most are Tagalog, Hindi and Urdu.’
To stave off the tedium of expat life in Doha, and to keep her figure (‘people put on a stone when they come out here’), Garthwaite tries to make the most of the peninsula’s sporting facilities, when the weather allows. Despite her back problems, she waterskis and kayaks on the wide canal near her skyscraper home. She has a trainer, of course, plays tennis, does Pilates and has recently taken up golf. The ‘sport’ of ‘dune bashing’ in SUVs, popular among young Qataris and Western expats, is out of the question because of her back.
Garthwaite is giving away a third of her book’s profits to Médecins sans Frontières – ‘I feel bad enough using all of these other people’s experiences,’ she says. But she is also ‘thinking about writing another book’, planning a documentary for Al Jazeera about the ‘stem cell tourists’ who go to places such as India for experimental medical treatment, and hoping to get back in the field as Al Jazeera’s equivalent of a bureau chief in Africa or South Asia if a position opens up at the right time. The Today programme may have to wait.

How To Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone’ by Rosie Garthwaite (Bloomsbury, £12.99) is available for £11.99 plus £1.25 p&p from Telegraph Books (0844-871 1515;

Exile on Jermyn Street (Standpoint July/Aug 2009)

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Blacklisted by Hollywood, my father Carl Foreman made a new life in Britain. But he never forsook the country of his birth

Funerals feel more natural in the winter. It’s as if death and loss ought to be accompanied by darkness and bad weather. My father’s took place on a perfect summer day in Los Angeles 25 years ago. It was at a time of year and in a city I had long associated with school holidays, beaches and pleasure, though for my filmmaker father LA had long had a very different and often painful significance.

For me, still a schoolboy in that year when he fell ill and died, it all felt quite unreal: the funeral, the film stars and directors who came to it, the returning home to a house that would never be the same. And even though my family had by then lived in California for almost a decade, it somehow felt strange that my father’s ashes were going to remain there, rather than in England. Fortunately, ashes are mobile and a few years later my mother brought them to London. An exile twice over, and the son of refugees from Tsarist Russia, my American father was always concerned with mobility. Moreover, London where he had lived for almost a quarter of a century, had arguably become his real home, even though he only moved there under duress and in his thirties.

My father was Carl Foreman, the screenwriter and producer of films such asHigh Noon — the favourite film of Presidents Eisenhower and Clinton — The Guns of Navarone and The Bridge on the River Kwai. He had been a well-known figure both as a film-maker and as one of the victims of the Hollywood “McCarthyite” blacklist of the late 1940s and ’50s. He reversed the traditional transatlantic trajectory by leaving the US to find freedom and a new life in Europe, though this never changed the meaning of America for him. He always believed that the “red scare” was an unworthy moment that didn’t define America.

Senator Joseph McCarthy himself actually had nothing to do with the Hollywood blacklist. His denunciations and generally spurious lists of potential traitors were limited to government institutions such as the State Department and the US Army. The hysteria that descended on Hollywood was stoked by members of the House of Representatives, specifically the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities (HUAC). Anyone who refused to testify before the Committee was subject to being held in contempt of Congress. Those deemed to be unco-operative witnesses — perhaps because, like my father, they refused to “name names” — were blacklisted by the Hollywood studios. In those days, the studios were a genuine cartel-run mostly by immigrants or sons of immigrants who were desperate to prove themselves good Americans — and if they blacklisted you it really meant that your career was over.

Born in Chicago in 1914, my father had been a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s. Already disillusioned by the Hitler-Stalin pact, he left the party when he joined the US Army in 1941 and severed all ties with it in 1946. By the time he was called before HUAC, during the making of High Noon in 1951, he was a convinced anti-communist. As he told the committee then and me much later, he would have happily denounced anyone he believed to be a genuine saboteur or traitor. However, he felt it was wrong to ruin the careers of friends and acquaintances who had joined civil rights or antilynching organisations that the FBI (run by the sinister J. Edgar Hoover) deemed to be “communist fronts”. When a HUAC official told him that he wouldn’t have to name anyone new to be deemed a co-operative witness, so that he wouldn’t be ruining anyone whose career had not already been wrecked, he still refused to take part even though it was professional suicide. He himself had been named in perjurious testimony by a former party member he had never actually met. When he confronted HUAC’s chief investigator with the fact that the committee’s source had lied, the investigator laughed and said, “Oh, it doesn’t matter. We’ve got some legitimate ones on you now.”Unable to practise his profession, he left the US in 1952 and began a new life and eventually a second film-making career in London. It was very hard at first. For several years, he worked as a script doctor and wrote under pseudonyms. Even British film companies were afraid to employ him under his real name. (When he co-wrote the screenplay for David Lean’s Bridge over the River Kwai, his name was removed from the print. The screenplay won an Oscar, which was awarded to the French author of the original novel, who could barely speak English.)

My father’s first marriage did not survive the move to England, although it took a decade or so before he was divorced. He was apparently a difficult husband, an angry man and something of a rake in those years.

Unable to write, fearful that his professional life was over, he socialised compulsively and gambled regularly with the likes of Otto Preminger and Sam Spiegel at expatriate clubs like Siegi’s and Les Ambassadeurs. “I felt it was important for me to engage in activities that were normal and red-blooded and American,” he once wrote.

The first real friends he made in England were Anthony Havelock Allen, who had produced Brief Encounter and In Which We Serve and was now with the Rank studio, and the director Terence Young, an Arnhem veteran who later made the first Bond films. After my father died, Havelock Allen recalled what seemed even to him a particularly glamorous evening they spent together, a double date at the Café de Paris with Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly. It ended in a row. My father thought that Gardner was one of the most beautiful women in the world, but he wrecked any chance he had with her by attacking bullfighting. Gardner had had a tumultuous affair with Luis Miguel Dominguín, the great Spanish matador. Perhaps there was something of the gypsy about my father, not that he necessarily recognised it in himself. He had dropped out of college, hitchhiked to Hollywood for a year at 19 and then joined a travelling circus. This need to be free marked his personal life and seemed even more urgent in the years when he was trapped in Britain by his lack of a valid passport. When Marlene Dietrich came over to perform at the Café de Paris, my father went backstage to meet her. They ended up spending the night together at the Dorchester and afterwards she said to him, “If I had a man like you, a writer like you, I’d never ask you where you’d been or when you’re coming back. You’d be free.” He never forgot that. He never really settled down until his late forties when he met my mother.

On the other hand, his life settled into some patterns that would continue for at least two decades. He had an office in Jermyn Street, in central London, where he would write and which happened to have a convenient bedroom in the back, where he sometimes stayed at weekends. He would lunch at the same French restaurant across the street almost every day. Every night, he came home to a couple of bone dry martinis, until my mother eventually persuaded him to switch to whisky and finally wine. For most of his adult life he was also a chain smoker, who would keep two cigarettes going at the same time, one for each side of the typewriter. He gave up the habit cold turkey when I was about six.

My father fell in love with my mother Eve on the island of Rhodes when she was part of the Guns of Navarone production team. He was 45 and she was 20. They were married three years later and she was by far the most influential and happiest part of his English experience. “When I met him, he was angry and distant and some said cold, and [after he married Eve] he became open and friendly and happy,” said Eileen Wood, his long-time assistant.

By the end of the 1960s, my father had in a loose sense become part of the British cultural “establishment”. He was President of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, a governor of the British Film Institute and a member of the committee appointed by Jennie Lee, the Minister of Arts, to establish the National Film School. He dined at Downing Street. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, a member of the Garrick Club, and in 1970 was made an Honorary CBE (his friends joked that it stood for “Carl Becomes English”). As well as writing screenplays, he produced British films like Born Free with its cast of lions, The Mouse that Roared, which starred Peter Sellers in three roles, and The Virgin Soldiers, an adaptation of the Leslie Thomas novel.

He only moved us back to America to live after the British film industry was destroyed by the Wilson government’s taxation policies in the mid-1970s. It must have felt like a kind of triumph to be welcomed back by the industry that had rejected him, though by then both he and Los Angeles had changed a great deal, perhaps more than he expected or realised.

It was not long after he moved us to all to Los Angeles that he took my mother, my sister (the historian Amanda Foreman) and me to dinner at a popular Hollywood hangout called Dan Tana’s. As we walked in, I saw John Wayne sitting in one of the booths on the left. The tall, craggy star and my father recognised each other instantly. Wayne waved and my father took us to his table. “Hello Duke,” he said, “I want you to meet my English children.” I shook his enormous hand, thrilled, and then stood there as they chatted, oblivious to the fact that an unlikely reconciliation was taking place that perhaps marked for my father a symbolic ending to his experience of blacklist and exile.

This was the first time they had spoken since a nasty confrontation in Hollywood some 20 years before. I was too star-struck to remember that only five years before I had seen Wayne on television in London, yelling at a beleaguered BBC interviewer about “Carl Foreman and his rotten old High Noon“. Wayne, a crude anti-communist and super-patriot (though unlike my father he avoided military service during the Second World War because of a bad knee), liked publicly to claim credit for driving my father out of the US. Indeed, in a 1971 Playboy interview, Wayne said, “I’ll never regret having helped run Foreman out of the country.” In fact, Wayne had played a relatively minor role in the process that forced my father into exile and therefore brought about the birth of his “English children”.

I think my father had complicated feelings about the way things eventually turned out, including the fact that he had children who did not sound like him. Certainly, he never stopped being angry about what had happened to him and to others. But he also knew that the life he ended up leading was a rather wonderful one, arguably much richer and more interesting personally and creatively than the one he would have led if he had not become a victim of the blacklist.

He felt strangely comfortable in England from the very start. Like so many Hollywood writers of his generation, he was steeped in English literature and history. He told me that when he saw the Houses of Parliament for the first time — and every time afterwards — his heart beat wildly. The London of 1952, despite bomb damage and post-war austerity, was recognisably the London of Joseph Conrad and the Victorian novelists. It was still the capital of an empire, the centre of a coherent culture that foreigners admired for its grace under pressure.

Unlike his children, who grew up on both sides of the Atlantic, he was firm in his sense of nationality. This seems all the more surprising given that he was a second-generation American who grew up speaking Russian and Yiddish at home to his immigrant parents. My father and the children he grew up with — whether they were East European Jews or the Poles, Irish and Italians who lived in adjacent neighbourhoods — burned to be real Americans.

My father’s sense of his Americanness remained unshaken even when his government did something worse than the blacklist. In 1953, the State Department revoked his passport privileges and ordered him to surrender it to the US Embassy. This was intended to force him back to the US, where he would not be able to work at his profession. Without a valid passport he would not be able to renew his visa and stay in the UK.

To his amazement, when he went to the alien registration division of the Home Office, and explained his predicament to a man who looked like George Smiley in the le Carré novels, the civil servant kindly told him that the Home Office would consider his case and in the meantime renewed his visa for another three months. For the next three years (until my father won a lawsuit against the State Department and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles for the return of his passport privileges), the Home Office continued to extend his visa, even though technically he no longer possessed a valid American passport. This was all the more remarkable given that a Conservative government was in office and that Britain was America’s closest ally in the cold war.It would be hard to overstate my father’s gratitude. While he never considered giving up his American citizenship, that gratitude fuelled the affection he felt for Britain and its people and what he saw as their courage and decency. These were qualities he tried to highlight in films like The KeyThe Victors and, of course, Young Winston. The same gratitude made him all the more determined to help foster British film-making talent through institutions like the National Film School and by producing films by young filmmakers.

In many ways, his adoptive country suited him more than his own. He particularly loved its tolerance of eccentricity. America, during his lifetime at least, often seemed to put a premium on conformism, perhaps because it was a society which for decades had been assimilating millions of newcomers.

But he never stopped loving the country of his birth. It was a deep, fierce, painful kind of love, not just because it was maintained in the face of rejection, but because it was love maintained in the fullest possible knowledge of his country’s flaws. On the night of John F. Kennedy’s assassination he and the actor Eli Wallach almost got into a fistfight on live television with the drunk and disrespectful Labour politician George Brown. Though opposed to the Vietnam War and despairing of America’s support for Third World dictatorships in the name of “containing” communism, he detested the anti-American excesses of the anti-war movement. In particular, he loathed Jane Fonda’s visit to North Vietnam to express solidarity with the soldiers who were killing her countrymen.

When I was at school, I came across E.M. Forster’s famous quotation, “If I had to choose between betraying my country or my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” At the time, I thought it was a wonderful, courageous sentiment and I said so to my father. To my shock, he turned on me in something close to fury. Foster’s quip was disgusting, self-indulgent nonsense, he said. Think what it means, he urged me, to betray millions of trusting strangers. A character in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle observes that for an exile, home is where “the bread tastes better, the sky is higher, the air is spicier, voices ring out more clearly, the ground is softer to walk on.” For all the gratitude my father felt for England, my sense is that he felt a constant low-level homesickness. Hence the care packages that came over for nearly 25 years.

Both in Britain and on location, even in places like Morocco or the north of Finland, friends and even friends of friends would arrive bearing a certain kind of hard salami from Chicago, proper American pickles and Lindy’s cheesecake. With his writer friend Herbert Baker, who was back in LA, he would place bets on National Football League games, using a kind of code in telegrams that caused endless confusion and argument.A parade of Hollywood folk coming over for Sunday brunch was also a kind of cultural lifeline to “home”, whether it was Zero Mostel, Martin Ritt, José Ferrer or Joan Crawford (with whom he’d had an affair many years before), who would bring her own flask of Smirnoff vodka because she preferred it to the icy Stolichnaya and Wyborowa we served at home.

He had left an ostensibly egalitarian society for a notoriously caste-ridden one. But as an American and a filmmaker he found himself the carrier of a kind of social passport that gave him the ability to go anywhere and talk to just about anyone. Eventually, he felt that he was intimate enough with the country to be comfortable with Britain or Britons as a subject.

The end result was Young Winston (1972), which may be my personal favourite of all his films (and which sadly is only available in a truncated version). I see it as a kind of Valentine to the Britain that had embraced him — an expression of love and understanding, a hymn to an imperial Britain whose vestiges were deeply unfashionable in 1972 and have now almost completely vanished. Even the villains of the piece — Lords Salisbury and Kitchener — are depicted with affection. It always amazed me that he could have written the wrenching father-son scenes in Young Winston, which, he said, drew on his own experiences with his own unforgiving father. To me, they seemed like blueprints for conversations that he and I had a few years later.

Yet my father never became one of those Americans who “go native” in Europe and become terrible snobs. Certainly, he enjoyed the traditional rituals of British life that then bound Britons to their past. He was immensely proud of his CBE. But he never tried to look or sound or act anything other than American. Even the dark suits he had made in Savile Row were cut in that American style familiar from Cary Grant films.

When we finally returned to America and Hollywood in 1975, I think he missed England and the second life he had built there even more than we did. Hollywood had changed. The studio system was dead. It had been replaced by a version of today’s clustering of global corporate subsidiaries run by men who all too often lacked the old moguls’ redeeming love of movies.

Nevertheless, he tried to Americanise or acculturate his English children, whether it was trips to American football and baseball games, or the .22 rifle I was given on my 13th birthday. He was very proud to introduce me to his friend General Omar Bradley, the D-Day commander, whose autobiography he wanted to make into a movie. (It used to amuse him that former Technical Sergeant Foreman, who had turned down officer training during the war, could find himself dining with the five-star general whom he’d always admired so much).

The general was one of his lifelong heroes. Others included Gary Cooper — who put his own career on the line for him when he was blacklisted, despite being a staunch Republican — and Winston Churchill. It was one of the great delights of his life that Churchill, a huge movie buff and fan of The Guns of Navarone, had asked him to make a film of his autobiography, My Early Life. When my father went to meet Churchill to discuss the project, he felt he should make sure the old man knew why he had come to Britain. “I had some political problems back in the United States,” he started to explain. Churchill chuckled and said, “Dear boy, we know all about you. But we don’t like political blacklists in England. And speaking for myself, I don’t care what a man believes in or believed in when he was a boy. My concern is whether he can do the job.”

Oslo - Signing OFF on Human Rights (Standpoint June 2010)

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The Oslo Freedom Forum is alternative human rights conference that highlights causes too often ignored or forgotten

There are not many occasions in life when you feel honoured to be in the same room as someone. However, it happened to me several times during the three days of the Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF). The first was when Mukhtar Mai arrived. She is the Pakistani woman whose gang rape was ordered by a local council in the Punjab after her brother allegedly dishonoured a neighbouring tribe. Rather than committing suicide afterwards as is customary, she defied threats and won in court. With her compensation she launched a women’s welfare organisation.

Women of valour: Mukhtar Mai and Kasha Jacqueline

Then there was Lubna al-Hussein. She is the Sudanese woman who was arrested and sentenced to 40 lashes for wearing trousers. As she told the forum, about 43,000 women were arrested in 2008 in Khartoum alone for such crimes. Unlike most of them, she had the money and influence to free herself. She chose instead to remain in prison and demand a full trial, knowing that because she was a UN employee, the case would get international attention. She said that what prompted her to choose that path — which has forced her into exile — was the sight of two teenage girls arrested with her. Both were Christians from the south with no family to call for help. “One of them was so frightened when they said she would get lashes that she wet herself.” The case was hugely embarrassing to Sudan’s Islamist government, which eventually freed her.

Less well-known but just as inspiring were two other speakers. A Ugandan activist, Kasha Jacqueline, has been threatened with murder because she is battling a proposed law that would inflict the death penalty on homosexuals and imprisonment on those who fail to report homosexuals to the authorities. “I’m so glad I’m here,” she told me with a smile as we looked around the opening reception in Oslo’s town hall. “I just hope they don’t kill me when I go home.”

That sentiment was echoed by a short but redoubtable woman called Guadalupe Llori. She feared returning to Ecuador even though she is the elected governor of a large province and was a member of the same left-wing alliance as the country’s President, Rafael Correa, a staunch ally of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. Llori had made the mistake of supporting striking oil workers in her province who were protesting against the government’s failure to build promised roads. Correa responded by accusing her of terrorism, sabotage and corruption and sent commandos backed by tanks and helicopters to arrest her. Llori then spent nine months in prison where she was subjected to forced labour and beatings. The country’s human rights sector, much of which has long links to Correa and his party, did nothing to help her. Because Correa is seen as a progressive hero by the Western Left, international organisations largely ignored her.

It is that kind of failure by the older, larger human rights establishment that led to the founding of the OFF two years ago. Essentially, it is an alternative human rights conference, in that it genuinely embodies what such organisations used to be about: it celebrates the fight for freedom of speech, belief and association and unlike some of the more politicised human rights groups, it highlights persecution regardless of the identity or ideology of the perpetrator.

None of this may sound particularly “alternative”. But in recent years some in the “human rights community” have become so exercised about alleged or genuine victims of America, Britain and their allies in the “War on Terror” that they find it hard to become equally excited about Vietnamese Buddhist monks, North Korean concentration camps or Mauritanian slaves. Others have become less focused on supporting dissidents in distant dungeons, and more interested in wider “progressive” issues such as globalisation, economic inequality and environmental degradation.

When Irene Khan, the former secretary-general of Amnesty International, said in 2005 that Guantánamo Bay was “the gulag of our time”, it revealed a sad ignorance of the vast degradation machine that killed many millions of people. It also sent a signal to those in the real gulags of our time — the Laogai system in China and its equivalent in North Korea — that their plight might not be a priority for Amnesty.

OFF aims to restore the balance and highlight causes that are too often ignored or forgotten. And unlike events such as the UN’s notorious “Durban II” conference at which Iran’s President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad railed against the US and Zionism, it provides an intimate space for dissidents and human rights defenders from around the world to meet each other, to talk to internet entrepreneurs, academics, politicians, journalists and to draw inspiration and encouragement.

OFF is the brainchild of Thor Halvorssen, a 34-year-old Venezuelan-Norwegian filmmaker and head of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation (HRF). Halvorssen has been involved in free-speech causes since his days at the University of Pennsylvania, but founded HRF after his mother was shot and wounded by government agents at a peaceful demonstration in Caracas. He hopes that the OFF will become the “Davos of Human Rights”.

Among the two score speakers this year were Garry Kasparov, Rebiya Kadeer, the leader in exile of China’s Uighurs, Mart Laar, who led Estonia’s “Singing Revolution”, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, North Korean defector Kang Chol-hwan, anti-slavery campaigner Benjamin Skinner, Yemeni  journalist and political prisoner Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani and the former Malaysian cabinet minister and now opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim, who was jailed on false charges of corruption and sodomy.

Ibrahim was responsible for some of the event’s better moments of black humor, joking that Malaysia had “freedom of speech but not freedom afterspeech”. He also recalled being beaten by the country’s inspector general of police and admonished the audience: “If you’re going to take power, make sure that your inspector general is not too strong. That way if one day he beats you up it won’t be fatal.”

I had wondered if the event could possibly be as powerful as the first forum last year, when I had witnessed Tibetan monk Palden Gyatso take out his dentures and explain with a gummy smile that during his 30 years of imprisonment by Chinese occupation forces his torturers jammed an electric cattle prod into his mouth again and again until he lost all his teeth.

As it turned out it was almost too overwhelming. There may be a limit to how much suffering — and how much courage — you can hear about first-hand in a short space of time, even when delivered with remarkable calmness and modesty as was mostly the case. Indeed, one of the strange things about a gathering like this is how little anger and how much forgiveness you encounter. That said, there was outrage, especially in the presentation by Sophal Ear, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge killing fields, now a political scientist in California. His quiet fury was directed not so much at the regime that murdered his family and so many of his fellow countrymen but at those including Noam Chomsky who have defended the record of “Democratic Kampuchea” long after the truth was out.

There is also surprising lightness and optimism to be found among these people whose lives — sometimes by choice — are so difficult or perilous. The Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez is essentially confined to her house, has been beaten up in the street and has to upload her postings by texting them to supporters who can get internet access. Yet her videoed message from Havana could hardly have been more cheerful.

Norway has long been friendly to Cuba, and for some Norwegians, watching her and then listening to longtime political prisoner Armando Valladares was not a comfortable experience. Even the representative of Amnesty Norway looked twitchy when Valladares reminded listeners that all dictatorships are bad, whether in Chile or Cuba, and noted that he had been in prison for 18 years before Amnesty even recognised that there were political prisoners in Cuba and adopted his case.

At the first forum last year, a Norwegian author shocked me by asking if it was true that the forum was organised by “American Jews”. The agenda in front of us included speeches by a Turkish Kurd, a dissident from Uzbekistan and Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea. Then I realised that what made her sources suspicious of OFF was that it was not devoted to the usual suspects. As a local journalist explained to me, in Norway talk of human rights violations begins and ends with Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib.

There is also the fact that Norway tends to be nervous and politically correct when it comes even to mentioning human rights violations in the Muslim world or in Islamic communities at home. OFF has no such bashfulness. As the North African human rights activist Nasser Weddady told me: “They are a new scene. They are very young and yet they have a real understanding of the challenges of human rights in the Muslim world. They’re not implicitly saying that Muslims are barbaric and backward and not be held to equal standards. They actually care about these nascent civil societies in places like Yemen, Sudan and Mauritania that no one pays much attention to. And that’s inspiring for people like me.”

Nevertheless, OFF seems to be overcoming the initial suspicion of Norway’s left-oriented government and human rights establishment. This year there were fewer newspaper articles wondering if the presence of Venezuelan opposition figures was proof of CIA sponsorship of the forum. Moreover, the country’s best-known author, Asne Seierstad, introduced some of the speakers, and the City of Oslo, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Amnesty International Norway and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs all lent support to this year’s event.

Between sessions, the speakers and the audience had coffee on the terrace of the Grand Hotel, which Ibsen was said to visit twice a day. It overlooks the Norwegian parliament building and the square in front of it, which on most days hosts a small demonstration. Compared to London’s Parliament Square, there is little traffic and no visible security. The absence of walls, armed police and X-ray machines is startling, as powerful a reminder of how much life has changed in the UK as the sight of the gleaming royal yacht in Oslo’s harbour.

Last year in front of the Parliament there were supporters of the Tamil Tigers, waving banners and shouting. This year, there were Iranian communists, though they were outnumbered by noisy gaggles of Norwegian students in bright red overalls taking part in “Russ“, the country’s traditional two-week celebration of high-school graduation. But all the activity in the square came to a halt when Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev arrived at the Grand Hotel in a flurry of sirens, police motorcycles and black limousines for a meeting with the Norwegian government.

The presence of Medvedev’s security men during the Forum cannot have been pleasant for participants such as Kasparov, Vladimir Bukovsky and the Chechen lawyer Lidia Yusupova. One Russian critic at the conference felt sure that his room had been broken into and searched while Medvedev’s FSB were in town.

I wondered if coming to a conference like this may have made Yusupova — whose former colleague Natalya Estemirova was assassinated last year — and others less vulnerable at home. However, on the second morning of the event Diego Arria, the courtly former Venezuelan ambassador to the UN and key witness in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, discovered that Chávez had sent police to seize his farm.

The grim past and uncertain future of so many of the delegates gave the final event of the conference all the more meaning. It was a speech by Lech Walesa. With characteristic simplicity and good cheer he assured his audience that the impossible really can be achieved, even by an ordinary electrician from Gdansk. As he spoke, I looked at Lubna Hussein, Yusupova and the others and they seemed to be growing in their seats.


Battle at Sea - Diving with Wounded Warriors (Sunday Times Magazine Nov. 13 2011)

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British servicemen seriously wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq are on the mend in a pioneering underwater healing programme in Florida

US Marine Jeremy Stengel and Spencer Slate of Atlantis Divers with a grey nurse shark off Key Largo. Photo by Stephen Frink

Twelve divers are suspended in a semi-circle over pale sand, a few yards from the ribs of a wrecked sailing ship. Six of them are younger than the others. The one next to me is the only diver not wearing a wetsuit. He is a big fellow who looks like an athlete gone to seed. His legs, chest and his left shoulder are webbed with scars. I had seen them before the dive, as we sat on the rocking boat in the early morning sun, but now the refracting underwater light has turned the scar tissue a startling white. All six of the younger men have scarred limbs. One has a prosthetic leg; the diving fin attached to it bends down at an awkward angle.

The man next to me has tattoos where there are no scars, and they too stand out clearly in the water. On his left calf is the “soldier’s cross” — a helmet, rifle and boots — above the legend “Al Anbar 06-07”. Another tattoo makes clear he is a US marine, as is the stocky young man with the prosthetic leg. The man next to him is a British Royal Marine commando. The remaining three are all British soldiers from the Royal Anglians, an infantry regiment that has seen some of the fiercest fighting in Afghanistan.

The four British and two American servicemen are here, off the coast of the Florida Keys, not for adventure training, or on holiday, but as part of a revolutionary recovery programme. Deptherapy’s proponents believe it offers extraordinarily powerful physical and psychological benefits to those who have been injured in combat. For one thing, the weightlessness experienced while scuba diving offers relief from pain. It can also provide amputees and even quadriplegics with a freedom to move that they lack on land. It especially helps the complicated combinations of injuries caused by IEDs.Deptherapy staff also believe that diving with enriched air can speed the healing of internal infection.

They had a parade for us. There was a fly-past by F-16 jets from the local airbase. It was unbelievable

Although deptherapy was developed in Florida and most of its beneficiaries have been American troops, it is the brainchild of a Briton. Born in Edinburgh, Fraser Bathgate, 49, is a pioneer of disabled diving.

He was one of Scotland’s most promising young climbers when he was paralysed below the waist in a fall at the age of 23. Five years later, he became the first wheelchair-bound man ever to qualify as a diving instructor.

The experience freed him of the depression that had stalked him since losing the use of his lower body. Over the last two decades, he has trained hundreds of instructors in the techniques and technology of disabled diving.

His work with veterans began five years ago, initially just with US servicemen. It was only after Bathgate met Royal Marine Lance-Corporal Matt Croucher GC that British troops started to come on the biannual trips to Key Largo.

Croucher, 27, was awarded the George Cross after throwing himself on a Taliban grenade in Afghanistan to save his comrades. He was part of the first deptherapy trip to include Britons, and has come on several since. He helps to raise funds for the flights to Florida. Once there, the men’s lodging, food, dives and activities are paid for by the Key Largo community.

Fraser Bathgate supervising Deptherapy training

I meet the Anglians and the American marines on this trip as they train in a Key Largo pool. Each man has at least one instructor with him in the water, while Bathgate watches from his wheelchair. Most of them are already turning red in the sun. They have been in town for less than a day, but the Anglians are in a state of mild shock. At Miami airport, four uniformed police officers had whisked them through passport control and customs, ahead of startled first-class passengers. They were then taken to meet the local head of Homeland Security and Customs, toasted with Cuban coffees, and given a two-car police escort.

They arrived to a huge barbecue thrown for “wounded warriors” at Rib Daddy’s restaurant in Key Largo. Croucher has experienced this welcome several times, but still marvels at it: “They’re more patriotic for Britain than we are at home!” He laughs. On his first trip “it had been announced on the radio that British soldiers were coming, and they had a parade for us, and people lining the streets for miles, waving Union Jacks. There was a fly-past by F-16 jets from the local airbase. It was unbelievable.”

The diving instructors, all volunteers, are carefully selected. They must be able to deal with the anger-management issues of soldiers with post-traumatic stress, as well as the technical challenges of handicapped diving. Most are ex-servicemen themselves. Bathgate’s deputy, Richard Cullen, 60, who runs the vital pastoral side of the programme, is not a veteran, but he is not exactly a “civvy” either. A burly former officer in the Metropolitan Police, he once led anti-terrorist and riot control units. Here, as one of the highest-qualified diving instructors, he accompanies the soldier with the most serious internal injuries on the dives.

That soldier is Arron Dindyal, 29. He served in the Royal Anglians for seven years, but left the “very supportive” regiment this spring. After being caught in a mortar attack in Iraq in 2005, Dindyal developed ulcerative colitis. This resulted in the loss of his large intestine, half his small intestine and part of his spleen. Some of the missing organs have been replaced with artificial piping, but Dindyal is still in constant pain. He flew to Key Largo for deptherapy last year: “It was the first time I’ve been pain-free in four years,” he says, “but I think I benefited mentally more than physically. It saved my marriage, coming out here. My wife said I was a different person.”

Private Owen Pick, who lost his right leg, is lowered into the water (Stephen Frink)Private Owen Pick, 19, was wounded last year in Afghanistan, and had his right leg amputated last month. His section had been clearing a compound in Helmand province when a mine shattered his leg. His friend Private Kevin Pryke, 25, was on an earlier deployment in Afghanistan in 2007.

During a fierce battle, Pryke, laden with full kit and weapon, carried a wounded comrade on his shoulder some 600 metres. He declined to be considered for a medal as he was “just doing my job”. On another mission, he smashed his knee against a rock while heavily laden. Pryke is waiting to have his entire kneecap replaced, though he is keen to get back to full duty.

Several of the divers use a new motorised propulsion device called a Pegasus Thruster to propel them. Small, lightweight and resembling a coffee grinder, it attaches to the back of an air tank. Jeremy Stengel, the US marine with the prosthetic leg, says that whenever he uses it he “can hear the James Bond theme” in his head.

Stengel admits he was suicidal before his first deptherapy trip two years ago. He had been wounded in an IED explosion in Iraq that killed two other marines. As well as the damage to both of his legs, leading to the amputation of one of them, he suffered a broken back — which had to be rebroken and straightened — and also lost his spleen. For two years he had to use a colostomy bag.

It really has been such a life-altering experience. As soon as I go in the water I become a completely changed guy

“It’s such a great day when you can take a shit like a normal human being,” Stengel says drily, sitting at one of the Key Largo bars. “For me, deptherapy really has been such a complete life-altering experience. Before I got involved I just sat in my room. By the end of the trip I was going out and doing things again. As soon as I go in the water, I become a completely changed guy.” Why is diving so psychologically powerful? Partly it is the yoga-like concentration required, the way you have to focus on and calm your breathing. Drew Richardson, president of Padi (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) the world’s largest scuba organisation, who accompanied the soldiers, believes it is the “immersion in an alien, hostile environment, encounters with undersea life” and “the three-dimensional sensory experience of diving that helps these kids feel human again”.

One of the project’s key backers and patrons is Dr David Williamson, a leading authority on traumatic brain injury, based at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland. Williamson, originally from Scotland, says many aspects of deptherapy work wonders — “from the physics of the diving environment, to the peer support and camaraderie”. He is equally enthusiastic about the way that diving fulfils emotional and psychological needs. “Rehabilitation is about getting back to normal life. These are very active guys; these are warriors and athletes, they are looking for stimulation and challenge.”

But as Fraser Bathgate is quick to point out, the diving “is only half of the programme”. The men’s interaction “with this extraordinary community”, and with each other, plays a considerable part in their recuperation. Key Largo is an unpretentious small town whose patriotism is proclaimed by “Support Our Troops” banners and bumper stickers. On the troops’ second night in town, the six are dinner guests of the local lodge of the Loyal Order of Moose. Over the next few evenings they are hosted by Key Largo’s branches of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).

Everywhere the men go, people come up to thank them. At the VFW bar, Bathgate watches the Anglians mix with locals, some of whom look like extras in a biker film. Though their hosts can be a good four decades older, the conversation flows freely. “For our guys this is such a good thing,” he says.“They are being looked after and they are being thanked. In Britain the closest thing to that was Wootton Bassett. That was fantastic, but by then, of course, it is too late.”

The British soldiers are bemused but happy to be bought drinks. “I’ve never been bought a drink before by a stranger, except at the Royal British Legion,” one tells me. In the evenings, after their barbecues with local organisations, the wounded warriors hit the bars and tell war stories. At one bar there is dancing. Owen Pick, a dance enthusiast, watches the floor. I wonder how his own dancing will be once his leg has been replaced. He is cool about his imminent operation. “It’s the squaddie mentality,” he explains. “You just get on with things.” Like the other Anglians, he would like to get back on the front line.

All of the men joke about their injuries: they threaten to buy Owen a pirate hat to go with his peg leg; they tell Arron he should get body armour to keep his guts in. The gallows humour seems to seal a solidarity in the combined Anglo-American group. Croucher believes the programme restores lost camaraderie: “It gives the guys back something that they’ve been missing since they have been injured.” He also sees how they inspire each other. Many decide afterwards to get involved with counselling other injured men, or, like Kevin Pryke, decide to become diving instructors themselves.

Often there comes a point when a wounded man unburdens himself to another. Bathgate points out that “both the Americans and Brits are more likely to open up to the other than to their fellow countrymen”. It was Matt Croucher who first picked this up. He noticed that a US marine who had lost both legs “spent 90% of the time talking to a British marine”.

Towards the end of the week, the British troops invite the US marines over to Britain for Remembrance Sunday. “I am really happy they are coming,” says Dindyal, “but part of me worries that we’ll be embarrassed, as the reception they’ll get from the locals won’t be anything like the treatment we are getting here.”


Underrated: Theodore Dalrymple (Standpoint Sept. 2011)

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Regular readers of Theodore Dalrymple will not have been surprised by the looting that spread through London and then to other English cities in early August. Indeed, one of the fascinating and appalling aspects of these disturbances, beyond the gleeful contempt for the law shown by the looters, and the complacency of the police who allowed them to rampage, were the familiar explanations offered by the offenders for their behaviour.

In interviews with reporters they sounded exactly like the amoral underclass interlocutors who have peopled Dalrymple’s writing for two decades. In the aftermath, the media was full of anguished discussion about what had brought Britain to this grim pass. Many of the talking-heads seemed shocked to discover that thousands of young people neither respect nor fear the authorities. It baffled them that, despite the material wealth of our society, a disturbing portion of “our” youth are vicious, selfish, greedy and callous to a degree that would shock the genuinely deprived inhabitants of South Asian slums or Mexicanbarrios.

If this bafflement was evidence of a dismaying ignorance and capacity for self-deception on the part of the political and media class, it also revealed the degree to which one of Britain’s most incisive, courageous, knowledgeable and clear-eyed public intellectuals has been ignored by or excluded from the dominant discourse. Theodore Dalrymple is that Cassandra, as well as, arguably, our greatest living essayist.

Dalrymple, whose real name is Anthony Daniels (a byline he has used more often in recent years), is a doctor and psychiatrist who practised for 20 years in a prison and an NHS hospital near Birmingham.

His calm, sardonic voice became well-known thanks to his “If Symptoms Persist” column in the Spectator. He was discovered  in 1983 by the then editor Charles Moore, who says: “Daniels is the only lasting contributor I have everfound from unsolicited manuscripts. His wit and originality were immediately obvious.”

One of the things that make Dalrymple’s dispatches and analyses so powerful is that he could not be further from the stereotype of the “little Englander” conservative. His father, a Communist, grew up in an East End slum; his mother was a German refugee. He brings to his observations a wisdom gained from extensive travel, wide and deep reading, and having worked for long periods in places that most middle-class readers and commentators know only at second-hand.

Indeed the richness of his work proves how right Kipling was when he pondered, “Who knows England who only England knows?” Doctors often make observant writers and Dalrymple has practised medicine in places as exotic as the Gilbert Islands in the Western Pacific. Soon after qualifying as a physician, Dalrymple went out to work in Rhodesia, and spent much of the next decade in Africa. The politically-correct types who have reflexively labelled him a bigot would be shocked by his respect for Africans and unillusioned depiction of the last years of colonial rule. Back in the UK, he chose to work in deprived areas when he could have catered to the afflictions of the affluent. Reporting assignments took him to perilous places like Peru during the worst of the Shining Path uprising where teenaged cadres disembowelled government officials: “As a doctor I am accustomed to unpleasant sights,” he wrote with typical restraint, “but nothing prepared me for what I saw in Ayacucho.”

It is telling that much of Dalrymple’s best writing about England was published first in America, mostly in City Journal, the Manhattan Institute’s quarterly magazine. In a column entitled “Oh To Be In England”, Dalrymple writes much longer essays than he had in the Spectator. They take readers deep into the British underclass.

It is a world of self-pitying but otherwise pitiless prisoners, masochistic nurses defending the partners who beat them, children left adrift by parents and the state, and whole groups whose rights are trampled thanks to a cynical officialdom steeped in political correctness. For years Dalrymple was the only voice to raise the issue of the disappearance from school of thousands of girls from Muslim families once they reach marriageable age — and the subsequent kidnappings, forced marriages and rape to which they are often subjected.

Though Dalrymple had published  books on travel and medicine, his superb, indeed essential, articles on the underside of British life went ignored in the UK. Mainstream publishers, it seemed, were too narrow-minded, conformist or cowardly to deal with such material. It was the US publisher Ivan R. Dee who collected them in Life at the Bottom and Our Culture, What’s Left of It. Dalrymple has now written some 40 books, the latest of which is Litter.

He is understandably loathed by lockstep-liberals and what he calls “the bureaucratic caste”, but those in charge of Britain’s agenda-setting TV and radio programmes would do well to listen to him. Theodore Dalrymple brings to his arguments a combination of philosophical sophistication, genuine humanity and real-world experience that is unique.


Mob Happy - Interview with Edie Falco (Telegraph magazine July 2002)

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Edie Falco was plodding along a well-trodden route to film stardom: drama school and waitressing. Then ‘The Sopranos’ came along, changed her life and made her a must-have for the high priest of Indie movies.

Overnight success took Edie Falco a hard decade and a half. Much of it was spent waiting on tables and looking for decent roles. She had carved herself a small niche in independent films and theatre which just about freed her from waitressing work when The Sopranos came along and changed her life. ‘I’d been living in a fifth-floor walk-up the size of these two tables for about eight years. I didn’t have a kitchen. I had a little hotplate that I plugged in. And I considered myself lucky – it was the West Village, and a tiny, charming place of my own.’

Falco vividly remembers the inauguration of her life as Carmela Soprano, the suburban New Jersey gangster’s wife. ‘It was just a pilot for a television show. We’d all done pilots before. Pilots mean you get a chunk of money and two weeks of work. Most of us had been around long enough to know that nothing ever gets picked up, and if it gets picked up it never gets on the air, and if it gets on the air it’ll never get picked up for a second season. The odds are insurmountable.

‘But I was thrilled to get this job. I paid off my student loan and became solvent for the first time which was a very big deal. But we had no idea what we were in for.’

The Sopranos was commissioned for a series a year later in 1999. (‘When I learnt that the show was picked up, the second call I made – after I phoned my father – was to a real estate agent.’) It rapidly became one of the most highly acclaimed and awarded shows on television, withFalco particularly praised for her portrayal of the feisty, complex Carmela. (The fourth series is now being shot.) The Sopranos represented an important departure from past film treatments of the Mafia, emphasising family life as much as crime. The middle-aged Godfather character, Tony Soprano, starts seeing a shrink after suffering a series of panic attacks. Combining brutal violence with dry humour and wonderful writing, The Sopranos seduces audiences into sympathising with its characters before reminding you of the brutality underlying their lives.

I met Falco after the premiere of her latest film, Sunshine State, in which she plays a sardonic, sharp-witted Florida divorcee who had dreams of showbusiness but instead runs her father’s coffee shop and distracts herself with tequila and inappropriate lovers. Falco has already drawn critical raves for her lead role in the sprawling Florida-set film, written, directed and edited by John Sayles, the great indie author of Matewan and Lone Star. Seeing her in an elegant cream-coloured collarless frock coat and matching trousers, her blonde hair (it’s natural – she’s half Swedish) cut short, I was surprised how much younger and more attractive she looked than almost all of the characters she plays on screen.

We talked at an Italian restaurant, and the unnerving thing about 38-year-old Falco is not that her speech, hair and even nails bear no resemblance to those of a suburban New Jersey gangster’s wife, it’s that she lacks the protective carapace that all movie and TV stars bring to interviews with the press: that combination of glibness and practised friendliness. Somehow, despite the worldwide success of The Sopranos, she remains down-to-earth. You get the feeling that she’s too serious about acting as a vocation (though utterly unpretentious about it) to care about a public image, and still finds the attention she garners odd and confusing.

Which is why she’s pleased with her new hair, cut short for the Sayles film. ‘I have had short hair for a year and it’s interesting how few people recognise me. It’s great. I walk down the street and nobody knows who I am. Just because I’ve had a haircut!’ And it’s true; as I ate and she sipped Diet Coke, no one turned to look at her, not even in that I’ll-pretend-I’m-not-impressed way affected by blasé New Yorkers.

‘I did a phone interview today,’ says Falco when I ask her about the Carmela phenomenon, ‘and the woman said, “You have no idea the influence you’ve had on me and my friends. We all went out and got your haircut.” She said it like I should be excited about it, but that can creep you out a little bit.’ She laughs. ‘I never asked for that kind of power. The fact that it has been bestowed upon me has nothing to do with me. I hope to get to the point where I find it humorous and amusing. But right now it’s information I don’t know what to do with.’ It bothered Falco that when she was in the West End performing in Side Man two years ago there were ‘crowds of Americans screaming, “Carmela we love you!” – after two hours on stage in London! It was a little disheartening. One of those “be careful what you ask for” things.’

She is aware of the way The Sopranos has changed her profile. ‘TV is very big. It has very long arms. Countries I’ve never been to and will never go to have seen me in their living-rooms in bed with my fake husband!’ As for the appeal of the show, ‘I don’t have any objectivity. I’m way too close to it and to all the people involved to understand what’s going on. I’ve often wondered, if I wasn’t in it, what my experience of it would be. Would I watch it? Would I be a fan?’

Falco tries to treat the show just like all the other jobs she has had since coming to New York 15 years ago, hoping to break into the industry. ‘I’ve made a point of just doing my job: showing up and saying the lines. I can’t think in terms of what’s written on the website or how many countries it’s playing in. There’s no room for that in my brain and it would affect my experience of working on the show. I worry it would be overwhelming. Also I’ve seen lots of people I care about – actors, filmmakers – suddenly being recognised for what they do and turning into people I no longer like.’

Born in Brooklyn, Falco grew up in the working-class Long Island suburb of Northport. Her father, a jazz drummer and graphic artist, and her mother, an amateur actress, divorced when she was 14. A Long Island girl who made pilgrimages to the city to see the ballet, she began acting at high school, inspired by her mother’s work in community theatre. ‘I was very shy but any chance I got to audition I took. It started when I went with my mum to community theatre plays and it seemed like the most magnificent thing in the world – grown-ups running around with costumes on, acting these things out. They started putting me in her plays and I thought, this is what I want to do.’

She went to SUNY (the State University of New York) in Purchase, an hour north of the city. It’s known for its theatre programme and many alumni with successful careers in the New York indie film scene. (Falco’s contemporaries included Parker Posey, Wesley Snipes and Stanley Tucci.) ‘It’s a dreary place, but it was very inexpensive and the theatre department was extremely competitive.’ But success was slow. ‘I never had a plan. I just wanted to be working.’ Her first movie roles were in films directed by SUNY contemporaries such as Hal Hartley (Trust) and Nick Gomez (The Laws of Gravity). There were also supporting roles in Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction, Woody Allen’s Bullets over Broadway and James Mangold’s Copland.

In the mid-Nineties she landed the role on the US TV series Oz that inspired writer-producer David Chase to hire her for The Sopranos. Meanwhile she played the alcoholic mother in Warren Leight’s Side Man, which took her to London for the first time. By the time she won her first starring role in a movie (Judy Berlin, in 1999), The Sopranos had already made her famous.

‘I just bought a spectacular place in the West Village and I’m never leaving as far as I’m concerned. When you think about living in Manhattan as a kid you picture the movies you’ve seen: where you walk up the steps of the brownstone. Then you’re an adult and you’re living in a tenement on the fifth floor with a hotplate and you realise that’s actually what it means to live in Manhattan. But now I’ve bought a brownstone and I’m walking up the steps, I’ve got the lamppost in front and there are cobblestones in front and trees. . . She seems genuinely amazed. ‘It’s really strange when it all starts to come true, you know. I don’t know what to wish for now.’

She is amused by the irony of her own success; could she give it up? ‘Therein lies my saving grace. I have been impoverished my whole life. I grew up with very little money in my family. I went to the cheapest schools imaginable. I had to hold down jobs in school just to pay for groceries. So if The Sopranos ends and I never work [in TV] again, I’ll continue to do plays. I can live in a teeny little space because it’s what I know. That makes me feel very confident and strong. I don’t need any of this stuff – it’s lovely, but I do not need it to get by.’

Nor does she live a particularly expensive life now. The main difference is taking cabs. ‘I used to rollerblade everywhere. It was how I got around for years. A lot of things have changed; it’s partly getting older. I used to write in a journal every morning for 20 years, starting in 1980. I realise I haven’t even looked at it for six months. It’s a private relationship I no longer need as much.’

But Falco is deeply ritualistic; she goes to the same little coffee shop every morning, and runs along the Hudson river every day at 7am. ‘I’m a little less tyrannical than I used to be. It’s always been about keeping a sense of order in my life because it’s an odd career I’ve chosen and so much about it is beyond my control. So much of my life is in the hands of people I don’t know.’

She found her time in London (in Side Man, then The Vagina Monologues) occasionally hard for those reasons. ‘London is a spectacular city,’ she says wistfully. ‘But because I’m such a homebody I got terrifically homesick. I also have a dog that is the centre of my life. I couldn’t bring her with me for those six months and it was excruciating. Meanwhile I kept walking through Hyde Park, shopping at Selfridges and thinking, I wish I was present enough to be enjoying it. I was also missing my friends and the coffee shop on the corner. I get very attached. I don’t pick up and move around easily.’

Speaking of her particular affection for her dog Marley, a lab-shepherd mix, Falco says, ‘Well, you know, I’m of the age when many women have children and most of my friends do. It’s not feasible for me with the schedule I’m keeping. I think it’s something I’ll eventually do. But I never have any idea what’s going to happen to me next week. So who knows, I may never have a family. I’d have to meet the right man first. I’m not in a relationship now, and that seems an impossible task. And I’m not interested in raising a kid by myself. But in the back of my mind I’m thinking, I’d like that some day.’

She loved working with Sayles and the bumper cast of Sunshine State (Angela Basset, Timothy Hutton, Mary Steenburgen and Jane Alexander). ‘John Sayles hand-wrote a letter to my agent: “Dear Edie, I’m a big fan of yours. Would you consider doing this part in my movie?” Ridiculous! It’s the same as having a brownstone in the West Village. John Sayles writing me a hand-written note asking me to be in his movie.’

The film was shot in Florida. ‘I was living on the beach with my dog for six months. Hangin’ out every night smokin’ cigarettes, drinkin’ wine. It was so much fun. John Sayles just doesn’t take it too seriously. We’d have eight-hour, 10-hour work days. Barbecues, softball, volleyball on the beach. It was all about the social life – they called it Camp Sayles. I’d do it again in a second!’

The work with Sayles calls forth her most idealistic yet self-effacing sense of her profession. But behind her modesty you get a sense of Falco’s quiet determination and confidence. ‘I’m smart. I could have done other things. I could have become a lawyer, I guess. I was lucky enough to know pretty early on that this is what I love. I’m also very pig-headed and I decided this is what I’m going to do, however it comes to be.’ Suddenly Falco sounds a bit like Carmela after all.

  • ‘Sunshine State’ opens on July 26


Review of 'India: A Portrait' by Patrick French (Sunday Telegraph Jan 2011)

Essays/Book Reviews, South Asia Comments Off on Review of ‘India: A Portrait’ by Patrick French (Sunday Telegraph Jan 2011)

It is no small undertaking to attempt a ‘portrait’ of contemporary India in all its dazzling complexity. Still more a book that is simultaneously ‘an intimate biography’ of its vast population. To achieve either of these grand, not easily combined tasks in a single readable volume would require an author to provide representative accounts of the almost infinite variety of peoples who happen to live in the lands inherited or annexed by today’s Indian state.

As if it were not enough that India’s peoples are radically divided by whether they live in mountains, deserts, plains or jungles, cities or villages, and by religion, language, politics, economics, history and caste, this is a society in which different people living in the same geographical spot inhabit different eras. You can stand on a Delhi street corner, choked by dust, pollution and the smoke from innumerable little fires, and beyond the crush of traffic see fearful astonishment in the eyes of ragged men just arrived from villages where agriculture is still in the era of the wooden plough.

If you were looking for an author to take on the challenge of depicting such a fascinating, simultaneously dynamic and static society at such a moment, the name of Patrick French would be near the top of the list. French is the author of a superb biography of the soldier-explorer Francis Younghusband, a less successful history of the Indian independence movement that read as if it were rushed out in time for the 50th anniversary of Partition, a marvellously clear-eyed book on Tibet, and the rightly celebrated and controversial official biography of Sir VS Naipaul.

So it is all the more of a surprise and a disappointment that French’s India: A Portrait should turn out to be a disjointed, incoherently structured, sloppy and unsatisfying book that bears the hallmarks of another rush job.

Some of this may be laid at the door of the publishers. There is little sign that the book has been edited beyond a quick spellcheck. Two thirds of the book is mysteriously and awkwardly in the past tense even though it concerns the present. No one has noticed non-sequitur sentences that belong in other paragraphs and which make no sense where they are. Basic facts of Indian history and life are laboriously spelt out in early chapters while in others the author assumes that readers know the meanings of Hindi words such as sannyasi (someone who has renounced worldly things) and be acquainted with the workings of Indian ‘vote banks’.

The book seems to have been jerry-built around articles that French has written over the years, combined with a dozen or so interviews carried out in 2009. For instance, a quick internet search shows that a moving section about the retarded Kashmiri mental patient who unfairly became known around the world as ‘Islamic rage boy’, turns out to be a version of an article that French wrote for the Daily Mail in 2007. This is hardly a crime, but it is surely better to be open about the book’s real provenance than to assert comprehensiveness and then fall short.

Some parts of the book, not least a powerful section on Dr Ambedkar, the heroic leader of India’s Untouchables, are fascinating but frustratingly undeveloped. In contrast a section recounting the story of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is overlong and also weirdly adulatory. It jars with other parts of the book where French is clearly well aware of the dynasty’s role in keeping India poor and in institutionalising corruption over half a century.

Careless use of language opens French to charges of poor historical judgment: Queen Victoria did not object to the proposed execution of 50,000 Indian mutineers because it was ‘impractical’ but because it was immoral. Nor did the C I A ‘allow’ small arms from the Afghan war against the USSR to go to Kashmir: it had no choice in the matter. He also plays down episodes such as India’s Sri Lanka intervention and the death squad pacification of the Punjab and leaves out altogether the United States’s role in the Sixties of saving India from starvation.

In the closing chapters French seems at last to find his stride. He eviscerates the history books crammed with nationalist distortions that were until recently forced on every state-educated Indian child. With equal bravery he condemns the Nobel Prize-winner Amartya Sen for using ‘the logic of the clever schoolboy’, to play down the importance of Hinduism in Indian culture.

French has a profound understanding of Indian politics, especially the way it has become something of a hereditary business. Moreover, in contrast to many foreign journalists writing about India, he eschews simplistic condemnation of the BJP as a ‘fundamentalist’, even fascist, party.

There is no question as to Patrick French’s brilliance, his capacity for research and his sympathetic imagination. The inadequacies of this book are all the more frustrating because there are so many passages, and whole chapters, that reveal what it could and should have been. India: A Portrait does him a disservice.

Truth and Falsehood in "The Rising" (Daily Mail, Aug. 27 2005)

Film/History Comments Off on Truth and Falsehood in “The Rising” (Daily Mail, Aug. 27 2005)

A Lottery-funded film on the Indian Mutiny shows the rebels as heroes – and (surprise, surprise) the British as sadists. In fact, the mutineers were ruthless butchers…

TO THE steady beat of drums, the captured mutineers were first stripped of their uniforms and then tied to cannons, their bellies pushed hard against the gaping mouths of the big guns. The order to fire was given. With an enormous roar, all the cannons burst into life at once, generating a cloud of black smoke that snaked into the summer sky. When the smoke cleared, there was nothing left of the mutineers’ bodies except their arms, still tied to the cannons, and their blackened heads, which landed with a soft thud on the baking parade ground. It was a terrible way to die and a terrible sight to witness, but the minds of the British soldiers and loyal Indian troops who solemnly attended these executions were still scorched by the even greater horrors they’d encountered in the suppression of the Mutiny that had raged since the previous summer.

Horrors like the old well at Cawnpore (now Kanpur) in north-eastern India, filled with the remains of 200 women and children who had been hacked to pieces in a tiny single-storey house known as the Bibigarh.

It had taken five men, some of them professional butchers, an hour to finish this grisly work on the order of rebel leader Nana Sahib.

Later, when the British recaptured Cawnpore and discovered the well, they forced the mutineers they’d captured to lick the dried blood off the floors and walls of the Bibigarh.

Then they hanged them – a manner of execution that was considered much more degrading than the old Mughal method of being blown apart by a cannon.

Whether it is the women and children dismembered at Cawnpore, or the mutineers executed in the ferocious and often indiscriminate reprisals that followed the uprising, the imagery of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 (in which between 100,000 and 150,000 people died) is still extraordinarily lurid in its bloody horror. Jan Morris, the great popular historian of the British Empire, rightly called it ‘this most horrible of imperial wars’.

The savage mass murder of Europeans by the native soldiers of the Bengal Army was matched by the fury of the British and their Sikh and Ghurka allies after the rebellion was put down.

Their vengeance became known as the Devils’ Wind. Whole villages were burned and their inhabitants hanged.

And when it was all over, relations between the Britons of the Raj and the people of India would never be the same, and the East India Company, the private trading corporation that had governed two-thirds of India for a hundred years, would finally transfer all its powers to the British Crown.

Now a new film made in India, and currently on release in Britain, has ignited controversy once more with its depiction of the Mutiny’s beginnings.

The Rising: The Ballad Of Mangal Pandey, which stars British actor Toby Stephens and Bollywood leading man Aamir Khan, purports to tell the story of Pandey, an Indian soldier in the army of the British Raj, who was one of the first mutineers and whom the film depicts as a heroic socialist revolutionary leader in the mould of Che Guevara.

Nationalist myths are blatantly presented as historical truth, grotesquely misrepresenting the way the East India Company ruled India and the real causes of the Indian Mutiny.

And what makes the anti-British propaganda all the more galling is that the film was partially funded by the UK Film Council with £150,000 from Lottery funds.

The Indian Mutiny started in May 1857 in the town of Meerut, after 85 Indian soldiers or Sepoys in the Bengal Army – one of the East India Company’s three private armies which were under the command of British officers – were arrested for refusing to use the new rifle cartridges they’d been provided with.

They believed the cartridges had been greased with pig or cow fat, and that it was therefore against their religion to touch them.

The Sepoys were sentenced to ten years’ hard labour but were freed from jail by their comrades.

Open revolt followed with the massacre of the Europeans in the town before the mutineers headed to Delhi, where they appealed to Bahadur Shah, heir to the old Mughal Empire and King of Delhi, to become their leader.

The Sepoy garrison in Delhi joined the Mutiny, slaying their European officers and any Christian civilians they could find. Fifty British, Indian Christian and mixed-race prisoners, mostly women and children, were taken to a dungeon in the famous palace known as the Red Fort and cut to pieces in front of Bahadur Shah.

Following the fall of Delhi, most of the Indian regiments of the Bengal Army joined the revolt.

It didn’t help that the myth of British military invincibility had been progressively tarnished in the preceding years, first by the retreat from Kabul in 1842 and then by the news of British disasters in the Crimean War.

The mutiny spread to the garrison towns of Cawnpore and Lucknow, where British soldiers and civilians were besieged by Sepoys.

In Cawnpore, they surrendered after three weeks, only to be massacred. The city was recaptured three weeks later and the butchery of the town’s European women and children in the well uncovered.

In Lucknow, the Europeans took refuge in the official residence and managed to hold out until a relief force arrived in August, which was then itself besieged.

Lord Colin Campbell eventually recaptured the city with a largely Ghurka force in March 1858. Delhi was retaken by the legendary cavalryman John Nicholson, leading a force of fierce Sikhs and Pathan troops from the newly- conquered Punjab, some of whom worshipped him as the demigod ‘Nikal Seyn’.

After the relief of Lucknow, the British slowly retook all the areas of central India they had lost.

To their relief, the Mutiny never spread to the south or to any of the country’s great cities – Madras, Bombay and Calcutta.

Indeed, the great majority of Indians either stood neutral or actively helped the British.

The immediate cause of the Mutiny had been a rumour. This rumour, so powerful and persistent that it may have been deliberately spread, was that the East India Company was forcing Sepoys to use rifle cartridges greased with pig and cow fat.

If this were true, it would have meant that both Muslims and Hindus would be defiled by the ammunition, because to load the new rifles the soldiers had to bite off the tops of the paper cartridges and then pour powder down the gun barrel.

Pork is considered impure by Muslims, while Hindus venerate cows and will not touch beef. But the rumour wasn’t true.

The Company was well aware of Muslim and Hindu sensitivities after commanding Indian soldiers for more than a century and a half, and it made sure that only European troops were issued with cartridges greased in animal fat. The Sepoys were given ones greased with beeswax.

However, the rumour was unstoppable, partly because it reinforced the existing fear that the British were plotting to impose Christianity on India, a fear deepened by the growing number of missionaries arriving there.

But in the new film, the old lie about the cartridges is resuscitated and treated as historical truth.

Indeed, it shows British commanders deliberately forcing thousands of Sepoys to use the cartridges.

It’s a dishonest twisting of history akin to depicting a French victory at Trafalgar.

And that’s just one of the grotesque distortions in this crudely nationalistic epic, crammed with anachronisms – and, incidentally, the most expensive movie ever made in India.

Juvenile anti-British caricatures are par for the course in Indian films and books that deal with the Raj, and many Indians know their own history only in terms of the nationalist myths fabricated by the independence movement of the 1940s.

But The Rising goes further. In its casual rewriting of history, the film belongs to the more reprehensible category of historical reconstruction – similar to Mel Gibson’s movie Patriot in 2000, which had British redcoats behaving like the German SS, herding civilians into a church and setting it on fire.

You would never guess from The Rising that the Mutiny left two thirds of the subcontinent untouched, that two of the East India Company’s three huge armies remained loyal, and that the Mutiny was much closer to an Indian civil war than to a revolution.

Certainly, there is no hint in it that the Sepoys committed terrible atrocities, or that their motives for mutiny were often distinctly unromantic and far from progressive.

For one thing, being high caste Brahmins, many of the Bengal Army Sepoys resented the new British policy of recruiting Sikhs and Pathans from the Punjab.

At the same time, strict British rules governing promotion on grounds of seniority also made it hard for talented Indian officers to rise in the service.

They also feared that their days of (relatively) high wages bolstered by plunder were coming to an end now that almost all the subcontinent was united under British rule.

In the film, Pandey and his comrades are outraged when evil British officers buy Indian slave girls for army brothels and destroy villages for trying to break a British monopoly on opium production.

In truth, slavery had been banned by the British in India. Where it did exist, it was practised only by Indians. As for villages destroyed for the sake of the East India Company’s opium profits, there is no record of such a thing ever taking place.

It was the new large-scale cultivation of tea, not opium, that made fortunes for the Company.

However, a crude Marxism pervades the script. There’s much talk about the way the Indian peasants are oppressed by the East India Company’s monopolies (‘They call it a free market,’ one of the characters says sarcastically).

But the East India Company had actually lost its monopoly on trade from India 25 years before the mutiny.

In fact, one of the underlying reasons for the Mutiny was the way that British reformers had undermined traditionally powerful groups such as Brahmin landowners and zamindar moneylenders in favour of the poor peasants. The high caste Sepoys resented this.

Also – and the film does admit this, in one of its rare moments of honesty – the British had angered conservative Hindu opinion by banning suttee (the practice of forcing widows to die in the funeral fires of their husbands) and female infanticide, and by encouraging widespread Western-style education.

At times, the film’s distortions are almost comical. The Sepoys are portrayed as being appalled at the thought of firing on their fellow countrymen.

In fact, fighting other Indians was all Indian soldiers had done for centuries. And not only did the British retain the loyalty of the vast majority of their Indian armies during 1857-8, they could not have put down the Mutiny without the assistance of thousands of Indian troops. After all, there were only about 45,000 British soldiers in India even after reinforcements arrived in 1858.

As for Mangal Pandey himself, in the film he is shown killing several British officers and leading an armed rebellion. He never, in fact, killed anyone. Nor did he lead a revolt. He was responsible for a one-man mutiny on March 29, 1857, when he shot at his European sergeant major and wounded an English officer before trying and failing to commit suicide. After a court martial by his fellow Indian troops – not by British officers as shown in the film – he was hanged, and his regiment, the 34th Native Infantry, disbanded.

‘Pandey’ became British Army slang first for mutineers and later for Indian soldiers in general Although The Rising claims the Indian Mutiny was the ‘bloodiest rebellion in human history’, this is historical illiteracy. At the very worst, 150,000 people may have died, while the Taiping Rebellion in China in the same period killed almost 20 million.

Some measure of the real arithmetic of the conflict can be gained from the fact that only 2,757 British troops were killed in battle, while 8,000 died from sunstroke and diseases. And this was one war in which British troops did not have superior weapons or tactics to those of their enemy.

The film’s contention that the Mutiny inspired Gandhi’s independence movement is also nonsense: he saw it as violent and reactionary, and was inspired by the peaceful reformers of the period. [Perhaps the creepiest sequence in the film comes at its climax. After Indian peasants enraged at Pandey’s hanging hurl themselves on his executioners, you see them set a Christian church on fire. The whole scene is an invention. And given the recent spate of murders of Christian missionaries and priests by Hindu fanatics in India, and by Muslim fanatics in Pakistan, there’s something troubling and repellent about the filmmakers’ evident approval of the destruction of a Christian house of worship. ‘ ]

For the most part ‘The Rising’ is history as Leftwing Indian nationalists wish it to have been, not as it really was.

As Saul David, the acclaimed author of The Indian Mutiny has pointed out, the film invents a ruthless fantasy-Raj, against which patriotic Indians of all religions, ethnicities and castes unite to fight for freedom, thanks to Mangal Pandey’s supposed vision of a free, democratic India.

The truth is very different, and it is sad that even as India rises to become a modern world power, its filmmakers remain stuck in a post- colonial time warp, depicting their country’s fascinating past in such a crude, dishonest and simplistic way.


The WikiLeaks War on America (Commentary Jan 2011)

Essays/Book Reviews, Media, Military/Defence Comments Off on The WikiLeaks War on America (Commentary Jan 2011)

The indefinable international organization known as WikiLeaks was relatively unknown between its setting up in 2006 and the April 2010 premiere it staged at the National Press Club in Washington of the “Collateral Murder” video—a selection of stolen and decrypted gun-camera footage that purportedly shows the unlawful killing of Iraqi civilians and two Reuters journalists by the crew of a U.S. Army Apache helicopter. Skillfully edited and promoted, and widely accepted by the mainstream media as proof of a U.S. war crime, the video won WikiLeaks fame and praise around the world and made its founder, a 39-year-old Australian named

I saw Assange that same month, a week after the release of the video, when he participated in the Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual conference organized by the Human Rights Foundation. At the conference, he quoted Alexander Solzhenitsyn to the effect that one word of truth can outweigh the world, adding that “one classified video can possibly stop a war, and maybe fifty definitely can.” Assange was one of 30-odd speakers, most of whom were dissidents from countries like North Korea, Sudan, Tibet, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela. One of the primary functions of the Oslo Freedom Forum is to give a platform to activists working in countries that do not get enough attention from organizations like Human Rights Watch. It pays particular attention to victims of Communism and Islamist extremism; this year it gave a platform to, among others, Muhktar Mai, the Pakistani woman whose gang rape was ordered by tribal elders and who challenged the authority of Sharia law and tradition by taking them to court.

Assange began his speech by saying that he had never been in a room “with so many people who adhere to my values.” His organization had been oppressed by their oppressors as well, he intimated: “We are censored in all the rogues’ gallery states, China, Iran and”—here he paused for effect—“Israel. But I don’t want to talk today about that, because censorship in the West is also a problem.”

Assange recalled how after the death of KGB founder Lavrenti Beria, the Kremlin ordered that all copies of the Soviet Encyclopedia have the chapter on him ripped out and replaced with additional pages on the Bering Strait. The remnants of the torn-out pages bore witness to the change. Now, he said, with all information stored centrally on computers, a billionaire could order newspapers to delete pages and no one would ever know that history had been changed. “He who controls the Internet servers controls the intellectual record of mankind,” Assange declared, “and by controlling that, controls our perceptions of who we are, and by controlling that, controls what laws and what regulations we make in society.”

To stand up against the forces of erasure, there is WikiLeaks—to which Assange often referred to as “I.”

Assange then reminded “those of you in the audience familiar with World War II” of “the statement that the Nazis put on the front of concentration camps that ‘work brings freedom’—an idea that Himmler had when he himself was in prison.” After a dramatic pause he continued: “But in my investigations, exposing documents which include many abuses by the United States military, which include main manuals of prison camps like Abu Ghraib, Baghdad, and Guantanamo, I have seen pictures on the front of their camps of their slogans. So guess which camp has ‘honor bound to defend freedom’ on the front of it?”

Assange paused again: “The defense of freedom as a value is on the front of Guantanamo Bay! And I say that, as a perversion of the truth, that that slogan is worse than ‘work brings freedom.’”

Only days after his triumphant revelation of “Collateral Murder,” and only seven months before Assange would release 250,000 secret American diplomatic cables and thereby force American foreign policy into uncharted waters, Assange calmly equated Guantanamo, a prison facility with 600 inmates, to Auschwitz—a Nazi death camp in which over a million people were murdered.


Until that moment, there had been little reason to think of WikiLeaks as an organization with any particular political agenda beyond the global facilitation of whistle-blowing and the promotion of transparency—activities that appeal to many people on both left and right. As late as 2008, WikiLeaks was insisting on its website that it was a “completely neutral” conduit for information and that it would “crowdsource” its analysis in the way that Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia written entirely by unpaid volunteers, allows public contributions to its entries. There was little reason to suspect WikiLeaks of having a special animus against the United States.

In the first three years of its existence, Wikipedia received and published hitherto secret documents concerning a wide variety of entities around the world. These included a confidential investigation by Kroll Associates of official corruption in Kenya, UN documents concerning sexual abuse by the organization’s peacekeepers in the Congo, the tax returns of movie star turned tax refusenik Wesley Snipes, and private e-mails stolen from Sarah Palin and Holocaust denier David Irving. Bigger fish included the communications of a Swiss Bank allegedly engaged in money-laundering and tax evasion, and secret materials from the Church of Scientology. One of the most important WikiLeaks postings was the release of the Climategate e-mails that revealed how British academics at the heart of the global-warming consensus had conspired to withhold awkward statistics.

During those three years, WikiLeaks also published a manual of standard operating procedures of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. This release, which was surely intended to be embarrassing, had nonetheless arguably been to the benefit of the United States military. What it revealed, to anyone with any real understanding of either prisons, interrogation techniques, or the violent behavior of many Gitmo detainees, was just how decent and humane the rules governing the facility really were and are.

But that was before “Collateral Murder.” In 2010, the focus of WikiLeaks turned directly and exclusively to the U.S. government and its conduct since September 11. In the summer, it released the so-called War Logs, nearly half a million internal Defense Department documents concerning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That was followed in November by the publication of the State Department cables. Indeed, so focused was WikiLeaks on these caches that it became all but impossible to access earlier postings on other subjects or submit new ones.

This may well be because “mega-leaks,” as Assange calls them, naturally take precedence over smaller ones. On the other hand, it is possible that America was
Assange’s target all along and that his organization’s earlier, more wide-ranging activities were designed to build its credibility and create a false impression of neutrality and objectivity before it went to war with the United States government. Such a notion probably gives Assange more credit than he deserves, given that without the alleged assistance of a disgruntled Army private in Iraq with shocking access to these documents and the opportunity to copy and share them, WikiLeaks would have remained relatively obscure, posting an Army manual one week and corporate e-mails the next.

However, the closer one examines Assange’s various pronouncements, the more he looks like someone who might engage in dissimulation in order to mask a secret agenda. Though this idea sounds as though it is out of a conspiracy thriller, the circumstantial evidence for it includes the disillusionment and departure of key WikiLeaks team members in September of 2010.

WikiLeaks functions as the Internet equivalent of an old-fashioned spy’s “dead drop”: it is a virtual location where would-be whistle-blowers (or people claiming to be whistle-blowers) from around the world can discreetly send documents knowing that they will then be made accessible to the public. WikiLeaks not only publishes these documents online after establishing their authenticity; it also decrypts them if they are encoded.

Although WikiLeaks itself is too secretive to reveal the numbers or names of its staff, Assange has claimed that he has about 40 core volunteers and another 800 or so associates around the world who maintain the network of computer banks it needs to have a permanent presence on the Internet. It is not clear where all its funding comes from, though donors give it money via a variety of charitable foundations, and according to Wiki-Leaks, donors have included media organizations like the Los Angeles Times and the Hearst Corporation as well as individuals.

Reportedly, the disillusioned WikiLeaks volunteers were disturbed by Assange’s ruthless insistence on publishing the Afghan War Logs without redacting names and other personal details to protect the lives of those mentioned in them, even after five major human rights organizations1 pleaded with him to do so in a joint e-mail. His response to this was to demand that the five organizations assist in the task of redaction. He also said that WikiLeaks would need $700,000 to go through remaining unpublished documents. By that point, 77,000 out of 92,000 documents had already been released, and despite Assange’s initial claim that names of Afghan informants had been redacted, newspapers like the New York Times found that this was often not the case.2 However, when Amnesty International suggested a conference call to discuss collaboration, Assange reportedly rebuffed the offer, saying on Twitter: “I’m very busy and have no time to deal with people who prefer to do nothing but cover their asses.”

Assange would not consider delaying publication, almost as if someone else had assigned a schedule for their release. The same was true of the subsequent, much bigger release of Iraq-war documents in the autumn. It was this decision—along with Assange’s decision to provide early and embargoed access to the documents to certain media outlets, in contravention of the organization’s “let everyone see everything” libertarian doctrine—that prompted a major internal revolt at WikiLeaks.

According to reports in Wired (the publication with the best, most detailed coverage of WikiLeaks), the organization’s German spokesman, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, confronted Assange about his autocratic and secretive behavior, and “Assange responded by accusing Domscheit-Berg of leaking information about discontent within WikiLeaks to a columnist for Newsweek.”

Apparently Assange is not so keen about transparency when it comes to his own organization. There it seems that secrecy is necessary for the greater good. That the irony of this escapes him was apparent in an e-mail exchange with Domscheit-Berg published on

Convinced that Domscheit-Berg is the source of the leak to Newsweek, Assange says: “I am investigation (sic) a serious security breach. Are you refusing to answer?” Domscheit-Berg replies that everyone in the organization is concerned about the news that Assange might be charged with rape in Sweden, Assange’s insistence on claiming that the rape allegations are part of a dirty-tricks campaign against him, and also about another unspecified incident in 2007 (presumably of a sexual nature as well). He also presses Assange about the Iraq documents, at one point exclaiming, “You are not anyone’s king or god.”

Assange replies: “You are suspended for one month, effective immediately. If you wish to appeal, you will be heard on Tuesday.”

Domscheit-Berg resigned, and more departures followed, among them the organization’s top programmer—who was running the effort to redact names. When an Icelandic volunteer challenged Assange about his treatment of Domscheit-Berg, the champion of democracy and transparency and enemy of corporate tyranny and arrogance responded: “I am the heart and soul of this organization, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organizer, financier and all the rest. If you have a problem with me, piss off.”

Assange has a history of alienating actual and potential friends and allies. Without asking for permission, he posted the complete text of Michela Wrong’s prize-winning book, It’s Our Turn to Eat, on WikiLeaks. The book is about the corruption of Kenyan officialdom, and Assange was apparently based in Kenya at the time. When Wrong saw that pirated versions of her copyrighted material were everywhere, she asked Wiki-Leaks to take it down, pointing out “my entire African market is vanishing” and “if people like me can’t make any money from royalties, then publishers are not going to commission people writing about corruption in Africa.” Assange refused and was, in Wrong’s words, “enormously pompous” and “infuriatingly self-righteous.”

Then there were Assange’s encounters with the leftist magazine Mother Jones. In the course of an otherwise positive profile in April 2010, the magazine pointed out that, contrary to WikiLeaks’s claims on its website, neither Noam Chomsky nor a representative of the Dalai Lama was in fact on its advisory board. Indeed, when the magazine contacted Chomsky, he said it was the first he had heard of it. In response, Assange slammed Mother Jones for “right-wing reality-distortion.”


The idea that Assange is engaged in a campaign against the United States is supported by a 2008 leak that had little or no justification on the grounds of transparency in the public interest—of a classified 2004 report that included details of the workings of the U.S. Army’s Warlock system for jamming the homemade bombs called IEDs set off by cell phone or radio transmitter. The report concerned the problematic way the jammers interfered with regular military communications. But its publication ensured that anyone anywhere in the world who wanted to figure out how to defeat the Warlock now had the means to do so.

WikiLeaks’s defenders asserted that by the time the report was released, technology had moved on, and U.S. forces in the field were largely using newer jamming devices. Still, even the anti-censorship campaigner Steven Aftergood (who has become a stern critic of WikiLeaks for engaging in what he calls “information vandalism”) lambasted Assange for publishing a secret that could get people killed. In response, Assange told a journalist at that he had been justified in doing so because “U.S. soldiers are not happy that literally billions have gone on these jammers, with apparently little thought going into how soldiers are going to communicate after they have been turned on.”

Despite his briefly adopting the mantle of a defender of U.S. troops, Assange also said that he had been proud to have published “nearly the entire order of battle” for American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007 and had been furious with the mainstream media for not picking it up, as if the press should also be anxious to give useful information to America’s enemies. And he was delighted when the U.S. Army issued a classified report (put up on WikiLeaks in April 2010) saying that WikiLeaks itself might be a threat to force protection, operational security, information security, and counterintelligence.

Perhaps for Assange, there are no real or relevant terrorist threats. Or at least they pale before the threat to peace and freedom presented by the dastardly U.S. military. It is a cartoon vision of the world in which America’s forces are like the Imperial Stormtroopers in Star Wars. That said, one of the odd things about Assange is that he seems to have no pop-culture interests of the kind common to computer geniuses. Despite his lack of formal education—the subject of a custody dispute, he spent much of his youth on the run inside Australia with his mother—Assange was a juvenile prodigy as a computer hacker under the name Mendax (from Horace’s phrase splendide mendax, meaning “nobly untruthful”). He started one of Australia’s first Internet service providers before he was even out of his teens. Later he studied physics and mathematics at Melbourne and other universities. He came to hold an Olympian view of himself and a rather Olympian perspective on other human beings. In a blog he maintained online in 2006, Assange revealed himself to be so convinced of his own superiority that he sounded like a character in an Edwardian novel. At one point, he called his fellow attendees at a physics conference “sniveling, fearful conformists of woefully, woefully inferior character.”


Assange is so much an auto-didact and self-creation that one hesitates to place him in any particular political school. However, his conviction that the United States, especially its military, is a priori evil is very much in accord with a current on the Australian left associated with John Pilger, a celebrated journalist and filmmaker, and the late Wilfred Burchett, a star journalist and likely KGB agent who championed the cause of North Korea. For Pilger, who writes a column for the New Statesman and produces documentaries that make Michael Moore look like Glenn Beck, all American interventions are imperialistic and carried out at the behest of sinister corporations and plutocrats, and even Communist crimes like those of the Khmer Rouge are really the fault of the United States. This brand of virulent anti-Americanism, common in Australian academic circles, seems to have curdled during the Vietnam War (in which Australian troops fought). But when probing Assange’s writings for his politics, it is also worth noting that Australian leftism has long had a strong anarchist current, awash in nostalgic sympathy for the rebels and bandits who had been transported to the continent when it was a prison colony of the British Empire.

Assange seems to suffer from a more extreme version of a phenomenon common in anti-war circles in Britain and America: the absolute unquestioned certainty that American forces have been and are continuing to be guilty of terrible crimes because of their very nature. It is a form of knowledge that requires no evidence or certainly no confirmation by a court of law. And in Assange’s case, it apparently means that the Americans are now and always have been the bad guys.

Certainly, when Assange told Der Spiegel in the course of an interview about the War Logs that “I enjoy crushing bastards,” the bastards to whom he referred were not the Taliban, which kills women for learning to read; the Sunni insurgents who blow up packed Iraqi marketplaces and mosques; or the Shia militants who do Iran’s murderous dirty work in Iraq and Lebanon.

Assange was also revealing more than mere cold-bloodedness in his responses to criticism for revealing in the War Logs the names of Afghans cited as informants or employees of U.S. troops. First he said that if something happened to them as a result, it was certainly unfortunate, but it was collateral damage from his campaign for truth. But he also told the Times of London that Afghan informers for the coalition had behaved “in a criminal way.” They were, in other words, on the wrong side, mere collaborators who had put themselves in danger of reprisal. It would seem that, in Assange’s worldview, the Taliban is the legitimate government of Afghanistan, resisting imperialist invaders.


Until his arrest in December in London on the rape charges that had so concerned his Wiki-Leaks colleagues, Assanche himself was lving a cloak-and-dagger, semi-fugitive existence, sleeping on floors and communicating only through disposable mobile phones or online. It may therefore be no surprise that WikiLeaks itself functions like a private version of the intelligence organizations he hates and fears. And while he may see himself as a kind of cyber Robin Hood, and enjoyed being called a “James Bond of journalism” in Sweden, he more closely resembles one of those James Bond villains who runs a secret international criminal organization and has the desire if not the power to destroy a sovereign state he considers his enemy.

It is telling that, for all the talk of Assange’s courage in taking on the American goliath, the truth is that his assault on the U.S. government has not put him at great risk. Assange has long liked to talk in what seems like a self-dramatizing way about his persecution by the authorities, complaining of “covert following and hidden photography” by police and intelligence agencies. The truth is that both the Bush and Obama administrations have proved remarkably feckless and feeble in their response to the War Logs and, worse, in the latter’s failure to prevent the publication of the State Department cables it knew was coming. Indeed, the very fact that, despite the revelations before the April 2010 video, Assange remained alive and at liberty to continue and do even greater damage gives the lie to his paranoid fears of ruthless, hyper-powerful Western states capable of wiping out all truth and justice unless their actions are exposed by people like him.

It would be interesting to see if Assange ever dares to take on the Russian FSB, the Chinese government, or even the French security services—all of which would have far fewer scruples about lethally punishing him than the American state he believes is so dangerous.



1The organizations were Amnesty International, the International Crisis Group, the Open Society Initiative, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, and the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict.

2The Taliban subsequently announced it had set up a “commission” to find and punish them.

See also this article in Tehelka



Whether photographing the victims of flood-ravaged Pakistan or Somalis risking their lives to flee their country, Alixandra Fazzina focuses on the human consequences of crisis.

It is the middle of the night and less than 48 hours until her book launch in London, but the photographer Alixandra Fazzina is in a 4 x 4 vehicle, bumping, lurching and sliding along a mud-caked highway in Pakistan’s Sindh province. She is making her way towards yet another village that has been all but destroyed by this summer’s floods.

Fazzina has spent most of the past few weeks on the road – though given the destruction of so many highways and bridges in Pakistan, the phrase does not adequately describe that experience – recording the devastation and its impact on ordinary citizens. Millions have been displaced. Their pathetic encampments line the roads, each patchwork tent representing a family that has lost its home, with all the emotional trauma that that entails.

The week before, while revisiting the Swat valley, which endured Taliban occupation and liberation by Pakistan’s army, only to be savaged by the monsoon floods that began in July, Fazzina and some colleagues nearly died when their vehicle was trapped by rising floodwaters. ‘I saw a man being washed past me in a metre of fast-flowing water,’ Fazzina recalls calmly. ‘We got to a bridge and were stuck for an hour as the water came up. Then the bridge collapsed and we were stuck on the far side. It was dark, there was no electricity, no water, no mobile-phone reception and no road. We ended up staying in a museum in Mingora. We were four days and nights sleeping in the same clothes.’ It took two days of trekking and wading to get to a place where a Pakistani military helicopter could pick them up.

Though her powerful images on these pages give a human face to the numbing statistics of the disaster in Pakistan (as well as to the suffering of women in Afghanistan and the plight of African migrants) you won’t generally find Fazzina photographing a story that is already established on the world’s front pages. She is much more interested in under-reported crises or the lesser-known aspects of conflict. After an early career as a war artist, embedded with the British Army, she decided she wanted to draw attention to the people left behind after the television crews have departed: the victims of war and displacement. She began to use a camera as an instrument for advocacy, composing sombre, moving images, first in the Balkans, then in Africa, where she was based for eight years, and now in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Her work has been published in magazines around the world and has won many prizes. But key for her is the way that her images have helped organisations such as the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to draw attention to suffering that would otherwise go ignored. Much of her work is commissioned by magazines and newspapers but sponsored by NGOs that want to get their message out.

Fazzina’s new book, A Million Shillings: Escape from Somalia, was sponsored by the UNHCR and the intergovernmental body the International Organisation for Migration. The book tells the story of the thousands of people from Somalia and Ethiopia fleeing ongoing violence and the destruction wrought by years of conflict. It is the fruit of almost two years of visits to the lawless edge of the horn of Africa, and to the countries across the Gulf of Aden, such as Yemen and Saudi Arabia, where so many refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia make their way after the dangerous journey across the narrow water.

The book is entitled A Million Shillings because that is the basic fare (about £50) that people pay to get from Mogadishu out to the coast and then across the Gulf of Aden – sometimes called ‘Pirate Alley’. Fazzina rode on the trucks packed with tahrib – the Somali word for emigrants – from brutal smuggler towns such as Boosaaso to lonely, rubbish-strewn beaches where violent gun-toting human traffickers corralled them and waited for the boats to come in. She spent the night out in the open with the shivering, terrified migrants and was there taking pictures when groups of 100 or more were packed on to small unseaworthy craft. And she was there when the people smugglers, high on hashish or khat, or just drunk on power, robbed their charges of their pathetic belongings, or beat, raped and even killed them.

Some of the most moving photographs in the book are those of these desperate, hopeful people with their precious little waterproofed books full of telephone numbers and remote contacts in Sana’a or Saudi, or even London. The most shocking are those of fresh bodies washed up on to the shore – refugees thrown off the boats into unswimmable seas or murdered by the crews.

As Fazzina points out, even those who survive the voyage to Yemen and the relatively friendly refugee camps there face abuse, robbery and rape on their onward journey. Many of the women and youngsters who go to Saudi hoping to find domestic work are sold as slaves, disappearing for ever behind abaya veils and high walls.

There are few places in the world quite as unsafe as Somalia. While there Fazzina had none of the normal media infrastructure – no security guards, no bribed militiamen, no local stringers to protect her from the criminal gangs. The only reason that the smugglers left Fazzina alone was that she had spent so much time and effort winning the trust of the tribal elders and clan leaders in Boosaaso, to whom even the gangs must answer.

Yet Fazzina is not some self-dramatising, grizzled war correspondent. For her, the story is not about how she copes with the dangers of frontline life but about war widows of the North West Frontier, the girls forced into marriage by the Taliban, the expectant mothers who face the world’s highest maternal mortality rates in Afghanistan, and the doomed youths she encountered waiting for boats to take them away from Somalia.

She has told that story so well that on top of previous photographic prizes she has been given the Nansen Refugee Award by the UN. Named after Fridtjof Nansen, the Polar explorer and first League of Nations commissioner for refugees, the forerunner of the UNHCR, the award comes with a $100,000 prize donated by the governments of Norway and Switzerland that recipients are encouraged to give to a cause of their choice – Fazzina hasn’t yet decided where the money will go. No photographer or journalist has ever been made a Nansen laureate before. Eleanor Roosevelt (FDR’s widow and a prominent champion of civil and refugee rights) was the first recipient. Other winners include King Juan Carlos of Spain, Senator Edward Kennedy and Médecins sans Frontières.

The introduction to A Million Shillings was written by the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres. In it, he points out that ‘more than any report my organisation could prepare… it tells the story of the thousands of people who risk their lives to cross the Gulf of Aden in search of safety and a better life. The author has achieved something remarkable – portraits which are intimate without being invasive and deeply sympathetic without being exploitative.’

He could have added that many of her pictures have a strange, ironic beauty. The shots of Somalis wading through crystalline turquoise waters on to a people-smuggler’s boat evoke tourist brochures – though few of these voyagers survived the crossing to Yemen. Then there are the blurry blue-tinged shots of truck stops at dawn or dusk, and the images of mothers cradling sick children with their echoes of Renaissance Madonnas.

Fazzina, 36, was born in east London and still has a house in Bethnal Green. But she spent much of her early life in Holland where her father was working. She studied fine art at Bristol University where she wrote a thesis on the ways that conflict is covered. She hadn’t yet graduated when in 1995 she was appointed an official war artist for the British Army in Bosnia. She decided to stay in Bosnia after graduation, and began to shift away from the pencil to the camera. In 2000 she went to Sierra Leone through her contacts with the Army, and she spent a lot of time travelling in west Africa. Without a hint of boasting she mentions that when she was in Liberia she was taken hostage for four days by Charles Taylor’s militiamen: ‘I was working for the Telegraph, and because the US and UK had put sanctions on Sierra Leone I was a political tool.’

Fazzina had concentrated on Africa for seven years when an assignment took her to Afghanistan in the summer of 2008. Afterwards she decided to base herself in Pakistan. ‘It’s the furthest east I’ve ever worked, though I have lived in a lot of Muslim countries.’ She did not want to be based in Afghanistan, she says, because ‘there are too many foreigners and NGOs’ there. ‘Pakistan has so much daily news going on that sometimes the bigger picture is forgotten. I’m not the photographer who chases after the bombs. I’m more interested in why they happen and what happens to the victims.’

Since winning the Nansen prize, Fazzina is subject to more attention than she is used to. It is not something she is comfortable with. ‘I’ve done a couple of interviews when all people want to ask is where I stayed and what I was wearing, not what I was doing,’ she says with surprise and distaste. ‘I work quietly. My photographs are quiet. I find it awkward when someone makes me the subject.’

She finds it hard enough to balance the human and emotional demands of her work without having to think about the supposed glamour of reporting from conflict areas. ‘The world is not just images to me,’ she says. ‘I’ve been in a lot of horrible situations, and you do have to snap into this mode where you are not looking at it with your eyes, but through your camera. That is how you deal with it, but as I’ve become older I’ve become less like that. I don’t want to look at it through a lens.’

This involvement comes at a cost: ‘I get quite depressed sometimes. Especially recently here in Pakistan. Seeing all the devastation, day in and day out, it does affect you. Driving past miles of tents, and each tent is a family. And in Yemen, on the beaches there… there are only a few pictures of the dead bodies in the book because it would be overkill to have more, but I’ve got hundreds. I’ve seen so many dead bodies. Beaten, drowned and eaten by crabs on the beach. It gave me nightmares.’

Nevertheless Fazzina feels guilty about leaving Pakistan’s flooded zones to launch her book in England, and cannot wait to get back to work. ‘I see myself as a storyteller,’ she says. ‘I like to give people a voice.’

‘A Million Shillings: Escape from Somalia’ is published by Trolley Books, £24.99