Unfinished Revolutions

Beneath a preacher Ahura 2011

Unfinished Revolutions – Yemen, Libya and Tunisia after the Arab Spring

Ibrahim Fraihat’s Unfinished Revolutions is ambitious in its scope and intent. Based on hundreds of interviews, it grapples with the fallout of the Arab Spring revolts in Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, and considers how these societies can “transition” towards a peaceful future. As the title suggests, Fraihat sees national reconciliation as the means by which the Arab Spring uprisings can be “finished” – where citizens’ unmet aspirations can be harnessed into more stable forms of governance.

Fraihat recognizes that the Arab Spring revolts were “leaderless, motivated at the grass-roots level, and lacked a theoretical framework to guide their progress”. The one objective opponents could agree on was the removal of their tyrannical dictators. Beyond this singular goal, however, there was little consensus among the many different “revolutionaries” on what they actually wanted from their revolution.

In the past five years, not only have these states been unable to resolve more structural challenges (around their economies, for example), they have also failed to address grievances (such as decades of human rights violations in the form of killings, disappearances, rape and torture) that have plagued their societies for generations. In most cases, the perpetrators of these horrors have not been prosecuted. This absence of justice has, in effect, driven conflict in Libya and Yemen.

Only by engaging the wider population within reconciliation processes, Fraihat argues, will these countries “avoid civil conflict and maintain or regain national unity”. National dialogue, truth-seeking, reparations, accountability and lustration (concerning the former regimes), as well as institutional reform are proposed as the paramount approaches for reconciliation. Civil society organizations, women and tribes, meanwhile, are seen as key agents for such peace-building initiatives.

Fraihat is right to stress the importance of timing, national ownership and regional diplomacy for reconciliation to succeed, as is his assertion of the need for deep institutional reforms. The mundane point that the recommendations that ensue from agreements must be implementable is crucial (and frequently overlooked). He acknowledges that the “transition process that follows regime change is inherently complex”. But at times his prescriptive text skirts over the details, giving little evidence-based analysis on why or when reconciliation should occur. Reconciliation is treated as a panacea for three very different countries. Deeper research would have strengthened his case.

Nevertheless, Unfinished Revolutions is clear and reasoned. As such, it will help those trying to find solutions to the daunting challenges facing Libya, Tunisia and Yemen today.

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Times Literary Supplement

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Transforming the Fisheries

“Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds, / Of field and meadow, large as garden grounds, / In little parcels, little minds to please, / With men and flocks imprisoned, ill at ease”. These dispirited lines were written by the “anti-enclosure” poet John Clare at the turn of the nineteenth century. “The thorns are gone, the woodlark’s song is hush, / Spring more resembles winter now than spring”, he wrote in another verse, ruing the stark “emptying” that enclosure wrought upon the natural world.

Clare is quoted in the conclusion to Patrick Bresnihan’s elegantly written book, Transforming the Fisheries. As an academic text, filled with social research, it seems far removed from the rural poetry of Clare. But despite their different forms and periods, their subject, and lament, is similar. Both champion the richness that they perceive lies in the “commons”.

Today’s seas and oceans, Bresnihan recognizes, are subject to enclosure of a less visible form: through regulatory regimes imposed by governing bodies that seek to manage fish stocks for economic gains. This phenomenon is associated with “biopower” – a Foucaultian term denoting capitalism’s power over the sphere of “reproduction” (i.e. nature) since the eighteenth century. Bresnihan assesses the efforts of Irish government officials, worried about “the crisis of overfishing” and “scarcity”, who seek to protect and improve the industry. He considers policies designed to “rationalise” fisheries towards economic and environmental goals. The LEADER programme, the Maximum Sustainable Yield, individual transferable quotas and community-based resource management initiatives have all been proposed by policymakers to push fishermen towards greater profitability and sustainable, “locally-managed” fish stocks, in line with the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy.

Transforming the Fisheries is partly ethnographic. Bresnihan spends eighteen months living in the fishing community of Castletownbere, Ireland. He helps out on big, commercial fishing trawlers, as well as smaller, inshore boats. In these places, he realizes that fishermen live within a respectful, complex and unpredictable “collectivity” between humans and non-humans. These environments are described as the “more-than-human commons”, where “resources [are] circulated and shared rather than accumulated, owned or controlled”. As such, the everyday activities of fishermen do “not translate easily into the terms of political economy or liberal frameworks of governance”. Instead, Bresnihan sees their behaviour more as “commoning”, denoting the continuous making and remaking of relationships with society and nature. With this notion he challenges certain neoliberal assumptions about human ways of being in the world.

Times Literary Supplement

Yuma

yuma

“It was vital, imperative, natural, instinctive. Perhaps we arrived at a musical universe, or perhaps we created it”, says Ramy Zoghlemi. He grabs his exuberant beard and funnels down it with one hand, while staring at a little espresso coffee cup on the table. Seated alongside is his collaborator, Sabrine Jenhani. Together, they are Tunisia’s folk duo Yuma. 

Yuma’s music is lovely; intimate, melodic, melancholic, powerfully simple. They combine Tunisian dialect with hints of western, almost Celtic melodies. Sabrine‘s voice is fully emotive, forceful yet fragile. Ramy accompanies with deep, breathy vocals, while playing acoustic guitar.

I saw them play the week before at the Rio cinema in downtown Tunis. The place was full, and filled with an excitement that was palpable and contagious. It was thrilling to see people responding to a performance in this way. I found myself wondering why the crowd was so excited.

It takes 3 minutes online to realise that Yuma produce music that is highly accessible to the western ear. As a blend of local dialects and sonorous, expansive melodies, perhaps it was simply the originality of the music, its novelty in this setting, that was so exciting to everyone?

But when we meet, a week later, in a café in the Tunis centre ville, Ramy offers another clue: “Sabrine and I are representing a Tunisian youth that has a great thirst for music, but also for love, hope and grace”. The primary musical vehicle for Tunisian youth culture is hip hop. Also delivered through dialect, it appears to offer mainly anger and swagger for those looking to embody the genre. Yuma offers an alternative. Through Yuma’s music, Tunisians can share in the celebration of their language, idioms and adages, within a genre, folk, that accommodates a wider gamut of emotions. As such, when Ramy says, “we have become spokespersons for a generation” it begins to make sense.  

It has all happened very quickly for Yuma. They formed just over a year ago, in late 2015. Their break came in the summer of 2016, when they played at the Hammamet music festival, seen as Tunisia’s most important music event. The rest is starting to become history. They are working on a second album, called ‘Stardust’. Sabrine, 30, and Ramy, 28, are gaining a national, or even international, following. 

Yuma’s popularity must also be seen in the context of a Tunisian culture that, for all its liberalism vis-a-vis other Maghreb and Arab countries, remains conservative. The duo’s decision to abandon steady jobs to pursue a career in music is unusual. For Sabrine to collaborate with a man, in an industry dominated by men, is also unconventional. For young Tunisians their courage must be inspirational.

“To an extent we have become cultural figures. It wasn’t deliberate. It just happened because of our expressing ourselves. It was through our desire to be personally satisfied” says Sabrine.

And here lies a final insight into the duo’s reception at the Rio cinema. Yuma are pursuing their purpose on their own terms. They do not pursue any overt political agenda, but their freedom of expression is a political act in the context of Tunisian society. Their art is theirs. This exposure is vulnerable, and therefore connecting.

I ask about the sadness I hear in their music. Sabrine responds “C’est moins triste que intimiste [It’s less sad than intimate]”. What matters, she later says, is “to be real”. With the courage of this conviction, in their quiet way, Yuma are making big noises on Tunisia’s cultural scene.  

True Africa

In Tunis Airport

 

The morning light enters this octagonal chamber.

The light is thin, grey, fragile.

It comes and goes.

Now it’s gone.

 

A voice echoes around the chamber.

A Tunisian speaking French.

She’s on the speaker system and it’s hard to hear her words.

The sound echoes around these walls, confusing each other,

confusing the waiting passengers.

 

Outside, the planes are standing like grey, tubular starfish.

Lines are everywhere; straight, angled lines.

Out beyond the chamber, this world we created,

there are no straight lines.

 

A crisis of “Western” reason?

harryeyres

The usual hand-wringing – including the hand-wringing of this blog – about the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump on a ticket with disturbing echoes of the 1920s and 1930s only goes so far. I’ve been thinking in recent days and weeks that we need, or at least I need, to go further into this, to see it as not just a political crisis, a crisis of democracy, but as a philosophical crisis, a crisis of reason.

Let me sketch out roughly what I mean. Both the EU as currently constituted and interpreted and the Democrat programme in the US as exemplified by Hillary Clinton are essentially technocratic, managerial projects with little ethical or transformative substance. True, and this is important to me even if not to some critics of this blog, both enshrine certain principles with regard to lack of discrimination, minority rights, environmental protection, adherence to…

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Hunger Shames

A comparative book review:

THE END OF PLENTY – The race to feed a crowded world, by Joel K. Bourne

THE REPROACH OF HUNGER – Food, justice, and money in the twenty-first century, by David Rieff

Joel K. Bourne considers a world seemingly destined for even more hungry people. The planet’s human population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Food production increases are barely able to match population increases. Food stocks are diminishing. The extraordinary growth of food production brought about by the “Green Revolution” since the 1960s is now levelling out due to soil nutrient depletion, a result of the intensive farming that was deemed necessary to address unprecedented global population growth. The increasing consumption of meat and dairy products, which requires and releases more carbon dioxide to produce, is exacerbating climate change. Climate change is already reducing production for farmers throughout the world.

It makes for scary reading. Bourne is happy to furnish our fears. He writes, “The world’s farmers face a . . . Herculean, task: to double grain, meat, and biofuel production on fewer acres with fewer farmers, less water, higher temperatures and more frequent droughts, floods and heat waves. And they must do it without destroying the forests, oceans, soils, pollinators, or climate on which all life depends. It is the biggest collective hurdle humanity has ever faced”. Later he adds,  “we’re on a roller coaster that has just left the tracks”.

This catastrophic scenario is relieved somewhat by the book’s narrative structure. Bourne eases our worries with stories of ingenious and personable farmers doing their bit to help themselves and, implicitly, humanity.

Bourne has a passion for seeds and soil. He admires people working the land, none more so than the father of the “Green Revolution”, Norman Borlaug. He describes an “iconic” image of Borlaug in a Mexican field in 1964: “His shirtsleeves are rolled high, revealing a brawny, sun-darkened right arm that scribbles in a large notebook . . . his eyes steeled on the wheat field in front of him, judging its height, vigor and yield.” Borlaug is one of many heroic figures in this story. Other hopeful characters include: a maverick American aquaculturist off the coast of Panama, an Ivy League microirrigation engineer launching his start-up in India, and corporate farmers in Ukraine looking to exploit the potential of Europe’s breadbasket.

The End of Plenty is both readable and compelling as a series of largely apolitical tales of farmers’ challenges and triumphs set against the wider environmental context.

Yet The End of Plenty does not go far enough, both in terms of analysis or prescription. As its subtitle states, this book is about “the race to feed a crowded world”. But Bourne sees the problem of hunger narrowly, as largely one of food supply, and suggests answers mainly in agricultural innovation alone.

This tendency to see the solution to global hunger through “innovative” agricultural development is the view of the “mainstream”, as David Rieff makes clear in The Reproach of Hunger: Food, justice, and money in the twenty-first century. The mainstream comprises all the major players apparently aiming to tackle hunger: the United Nations, bilateral aid agencies such as USAID and DFID, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Jeffrey Sachs, the World Bank, international NGOs and even agro-industrial multinationals. Reiff argues that they share a misguided “faith” that hunger can be eradicated – for that is their aim – through “smart aid”, scientific innovation and “best practices” drawn from the private sector.

Rieff correctly asserts that this mainstream development consensus represents an ideology that simplifies the causes of hunger and underestimates the scale of the changes required to tackle it. He argues that “hope has become the default of our age, and realism . . . is now widely considered to be a moral solecism and almost a betrayal of what it should mean to be a compassionate human being.” He laments this status quo, “in which good intentions are too often conflated with good deeds and good deeds with effective ones”. He deplores “an age where it is a fact and not an opinion that inequality is deepening across the world, that power and wealth are more and more concentrated in the hands of the tiny minority of the world’s population, and that politics even in democratic countries is increasingly unresponsive”. He concludes that “all this talk about individuals making a difference [is] at best a consoling farce”.

The Reproach of Hunger is a long, rambling book filled with long, rambling sentences. But Rieff’s insight on the illusory quality of the development consensus is important. As is his assertion that hunger is fundamentally a political problem, not a technical one. But Rieff, like Bourne, fails to offer an alternative. His overriding scepticism precludes it. Disconsolate, he agrees with the philosopher John Gray that the “emancipation of market forces from social and political control” represents the only revolution currently underway.

These books – one fearful, the other despairing – offer divergent visions of the challenges we face in feeding the “bottom billion”. Bourne fears we may not produce enough food considering existing farming methods, population growth and the effects of climate change, while Rieff doubts that “philanthrocapitalism” – the present approach – offers a real solution. Yet they struggle with the same binary: either working with, or against, capitalism. Neither ventures a credible political alternative.

Alternatives do exist, however. As with water, we must defend the aim of “enough food for all” from the vicissitudes of market economics. As a norm and an ideal, ending hunger should be a cross-party political goal. This should be safeguarded legally, by enshrining rights within all state constitutions. Governments that breach their citizens’ “right to food” should be liable.

 

The Times Literary Supplement

 

The Curdled and Uncurdled Latte

harryeyres

The sky which was clear blue an hour ago is now milky. The last couple of days here in London we’ve had bright sun with even a hint of warmth in it, after the long although not very wintry winter, and that lovely fresh smell I associate with early spring, my birthtime. I’m in a cafe with my latte (I refuse to call it a flat white), pondering. I’m pondering especially the remark by my reader Joan-Eric Torrent questioning whether it’s right to enjoy these pleasures of ease and relative affluence while so many are suffering. “That thought curdles my latte,” he wrote. My reply to him was that we have to begin though not end with ourselves and we will not be able to radiate or communicate much well-being or joy if we are too immersed in our own suffering. That was what I learned, with greater or lesser success, from…

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