David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

The Life of Ashraf Marwan


The case of the Egyptian Ashraf Marwan is truly intriguing, something for Sherlock Holmes, and perhaps even he would not be able to get to the bottom of it. At the end of last month, Marwan was found dead on the pavement below his extremely expensive apartment overlooking Saint James’s Park, a prime spot in the centre of London. He was 62, and the third Egyptian in recent times to have died after falling from a London balcony. Scotland Yard quickly asserted that they were not conducting any criminal investigations, and this death was either an accident or suicide. The drama of the poisoning by radiation of Alexander Litvinenko – with its implications of a revived Cold War – has anyhow driven Marwan’s fate out of sight and out of mind.

Since moving to London in the 1980s, Marwan has been well known in cosmopolitan circles. He was at first a friend of Muhammad Fayed, owner of the famous store Harrods, and a man who believes that the royal family arranged the murder of Princess Diana to prevent her from marrying his son Dodi. For obscure reasons, the two Egyptians fell out.  Marwan in any event was an arms dealer, and as such a self-made billionaire. So there may well have been clients or – conversely – their enemies keen to murder him. Also he was writing his memoirs, and there may have been people wanting to rub him out on that account.

But it is his earlier career in Egypt that has to be examined more closely for lurking perils. He had married Mona, daughter of the Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser. Apparently this all-powerful father-in-law didn’t think much of him. However, under the succeeding president, Anwar Sadat, Marwan’s career took off. He attended secret meetings of Sadat and Brezhnev; he headed the military-industrial complex (from which he was probably able to skim large sums). And seemingly in 1969 he offered his services to the Israelis. Mossad ran him, and is said to have been impressed by the information he supplied, and may have paid him as much as a million dollars. Its head at that time was Zvi Zamir. On the eve of the Yom Kippur war in 1973, Marwan warned of the coming attack across the Suez Canal, though it actually occurred some hours earlier than he said, which may have been a crucial element in a deception plan. Another Israeli general, Eli Zeira, then in the vital position of head of military intelligence, seems to have been so misled by Marwan that he concluded there was no attack in the offing and the Egyptians were bluffing. In the event, the Israeli forces were caught unprepared, and almost overwhelmed. Held responsible for an intelligence failure that endangered the state, Zeira has ever since been a scapegoat. His counter is that Marwan all along was a double agent who had been feeding Mossad with a cunningly calculated mix of information and disinformation.

More or less by hazard, with a dash of inspired guesswork on the part of Israeli journalists, Marwan’s name and his role became public knowledge in about 2004. The very idea that Mossad had Nasser’s son-in-law as an agent was a real sensation. Zamir accused Zeira of leaking the name, and Zeira filed a libel suit against him. Last month, an arbitrator, a retired Justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, rejected this suit and ruled that Zeira had indeed blown Marwan. It is not possible to determine whether in 1973 the Israelis failed to recognise what quality intelligence they had been provided with, or whether they were brilliantly deceived.

Marwan’s funeral in Cairo was virtually a state occasion. His coffin was draped with the national flag and his decorations. The Sheikh of Al-Azhar, a great Sunni dignitary, led the prayers. Gamal Mubarak attended, and his father, President Mubarak, saw fit to make a statement about Marwan, “I do not doubt his loyalty.”  It is not possible to determine whether they were covering up for a traitor, or paying respects to a hero.

Finally, the cause of Marwan’s death will probably never be determined either. Here is a story of our times, a glimpse into the world’s murky under-depths. No doubt we shall also learn one day that either Marwan had never written a word of that planned memoir, or that the manuscript has mysteriously vanished.

Summer in France


I’ve just been in France, in Auvergne, a land which has something immemorial about it, with its long mountainous vistas, castles, and Romanesque churches. The fields were rich with wheat and sunflowers. I went for a special occasion. Longtime friends own the chateau of Parentignat, which has been called the Versailles of Auvergne, and they were giving a party to celebrate that forebears of theirs had built this house in 1707 and descendants of the same family have therefore lived there for three centuries.

The house is in a whitish local stone, an immense block with 15 windows along the principal façade, matching Mansard windows in the roof, cupolas at either end, and an orangery and stables flanking it. You can only gasp at the magnificence. The rear facade has French windows at ground level, giving on to a terrace, ornamental water, and an English park of ancient oaks stretching away into the distance.

At a concert in the orangery, an American pianist originally from Baltimore played Chopin, a piece of calm rhapsody by Mompou, and then jolly twentieth century things like the Charleston rag, and a spirited Portuguese lady sang some fados. Some three hundred guests in black ties sat down to dine in the several state rooms. On the walls are paintings by the great French artists of the 17th century, Rigaud, Largilliere, Lorrain, Desportes – portraits of splendidly arrayed soldiers and cardinals, and of course pink-cheeked wives, and in some cases mistresses, in silks and satins. Afterwards there were fireworks in the park, the illuminations reflected in the ornamental water, and finally a ball. When Parentignat was still relatively new, Lord Chesterfield, that supreme arbiter of elegance, was writing that a Frenchman with a fund of virtue, learning, and good sense is “the perfection of human nature.” We’ll be seeing if Monsieur Sarkozy is capable of living up to such standards.


Now They’ve Gone and Destroyed Aida


Aida is one of Verdi’s greatest operas, a drama of love and honur and patriotism in the grandest 19th -century style. The setting is pharaonic Egypt, say about 1000 BCE. Verdi clearly believed in the universality of human nature from the earliest ages to his day. And on the day that I saw the new production in the Zurich opera house, the newspapers were reporting that the mummy of Queen Hatshepshut had just been identified in a Cairo museum. Time to glory in the spirit of ancient Egypt, then, the civilization that gave us that famous Queen, its hieroglyphics and pyramids and mysterious gods.

The singing was excellent, so was the dancing and the conductor’s tempo. But these welcome features had their limitations. The moment the curtain rose, it became obvious that the producer could not resist demeaning high art through political preaching.  The scene consisted of an art nouveau hall with stained glass and pillars appropriate for a fancy hotel a hundred years ago. Instead of an Egyptian king, a high priest and acolytes in some approximation of what they would really have worn and in a setting suitable for them, the cast was dressed in uniforms styled on the British in Egypt. So the king in gold braided court dress and tarboosh was the image of Valentine Baker Pasha, the British officer who had once commanded the Khedive Ismail’s army. The chorus were either in similar Egypto-British uniforms, or in splendid costumes with silks and bustles, top hats and parasols – no expense spared for these idle rich wintering in Egypt. The producer at one point staged the women in an obvious quotation of J.F.Lewis’s famous Orientalist painting of a harem. (For this scene, I blame Edward Said directly). The captured Ethiopian slaves were delivered in a huge battleship complete with long-range naval guns. Whereupon the crowd of these spectacularly dressed ladies and gentlemen waved Union Jacks, although a few suddenly had French flags and half the chorus now appeared in uniforms such as the spahis wore for Beau Geste. These same soldiers and ornate ladies and gentlemen were very peculiar indeed when they had to sing in temples in worship of Isis and Phtha, as the libretto demands.

What was the producer thinking about ?  The first performance of Aida was in 1871, to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal, a boon to Egypt ever since. The British occupied Egypt only in 1882. Who cares about anachronisms when every detail is a loving travesty? Who cares about historical absurdities? The idea was to turn the drama of ancient Egyptians fighting Ethiopians into yet another onslaught against British and French imperialism.  All those beautiful and thoughtless people celebrating the conquest of natives cannot possibly empathize with Aida’s love story that must have an unhappy ending. A stickler for proper staging of his work, Verdi would have fired the producer the moment he discovered his intentions, and never called on his services again.

Grand opera is fit to be compared to the tradition of Chinese or Indian musical dramas, while at the same time being a specifically Western contribution to civilization, a kind of cultural citadel. Everything else in our culture might be undermined, I used to think, but this citadel was impregnable. I underestimated contemporary opera producers. Exploiting the culture in the name of creativity while actually making sure to hollow it out from within, they reveal that they have no confidence in what they do, and no genuine imagination either.  As Western cultural life goes down, it’s the same in all the arts, of course. Perhaps we have to be grateful that although producers can abuse Verdi’s grandeur, so far nobody has yet devised a way of spoiling his music.

An Alternative Reading of the Muslim World


It can be discouraging to note a huge crowd in Tehran apparently calling for the destruction of the United States and/or Israel, or to observe Hamas men marching and shouting about the murdering they intend to commit. Or else to watch the Pakistani establishment rising up in apparently genuine rage and eagerness to have Salman Rushdie killed because the British have honoured him. And yet all is not always quite what it seems.

Here are possible clues to an alternative reading of reality in the Muslim world. As Hamas took over in Gaza, hundreds of local Palestinians sought refuge in Israel. Among them were Fatah members now being hunted down. A few who had been  wounded were admitted to Israeli hospitals. In Gaza hospitals, they knew, they would be murdered, but in Israel they would be treated. Covering the civil war in Jordan in 1970, I had seen this phenomenon before, when the terrified residents of Baqaa refuge camp outside Amman had set off for Israel, many of them shouting that they were going to Musa (Arabic for Moshe) Dayan. Hundreds of Arafat’s gunmen had also fled to Israel from King Hussein’s army, as now they flee Hamas.

And here is a report from Khalid Abu Toameh, the admirable and courageous Palestinian journalist featured in the last issue of NR writing about Gaza. According to him, thousands of Arab Jerusalemites living outside the city have moved back for fear of being left on the wrong side of the Israeli security fence. So it is Arabs as much as Israelis whom the fence makes more secure. He quotes a businessman who doesn’t like the instability and anarchy: “Life inside Israel is much better than the West Bank.”  Farid Ghadry writes in just the same spirit – he is the head of the Syrian Reform Party, a democratic movement operating out of Washington, and he has been visiting Israel where he addressed a Knesset committee. His enemy, he declares, is his own repressive government “and not the country you have been taught to hate.” adding, “I felt very safe in Israel.”

And finally thousands of refugees from genocide have been fleeing Sudan. Many went to Cairo, where the police have scandalously harassed, beaten and scattered them. A thousand have found safety in Israel. These people, it is clear, are well able to reject a lifetime of hate propaganda, and recognise the reality that Israel will be more humane than any Muslim country.

It isn’t that the man on the street has some character defect, then, which programs him to be a killer. In my view, the huge majority of Muslims know that the United States and Israel could offer them freedom, peace and prosperity, but for the sake of keeping power their own Muslim leaders stand in the way of it, and whip up a hate which the mob doesn’t really feel but to which in these police states it is obliged to pay lip service.

EU Wonderland


Remember the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, that Lewis Carroll gem of absurdity in which assorted odd-balls and talking animals defy logic and sanity?  The European Union offers a regular reprise of that Tea Party, taking what Carroll himself would have caricatured as at least one absurd decision every day. Except that its latest decision is not just absurd, but death-dealing. Hideous civil war is erupting in Gaza and the West Bank as Hamas and Fatah gunmen shoot out which of them is to have power and the spoils that go with it. To date, Norway alone of European powers had given financial support to Hamas – the Norwegian government and many Norwegians have long been willing to do whatever is in their power to disregard all morality in the Middle East. Why this should be the case with Norway escapes rational analysis. But at the very moment when the corpses of unfortunate Palestinians are mounting in number, with one atrocity leading to another, and civil war looking imminent, the EU has decided to give financial support to Hamas. Needless to point out, the people of Europe have no say in the matter, but have been committed to take sides in the civil war whether they like it or not, and so fund certain bloodshed. More than that, they are now committed to the side of Islamist extremism and the Muslim Brotherhood, the side of suicide bombers and perpetual jihad. Why they should be obliged to become accomplices of a group of Islamist terrorists also escapes rational analysis. On reflection, comparison to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party may prove too cosy and domestic a touch. Better is the image of the EU as the Ship of Fools, sailing to certain disaster.    


Fire and Movement


This very day, 40 years ago, I found myself at the foot of the Golan Heights, and very steep and forbidding the terrain looked too. I had come from the Sinai desert and had spent the previous night on a floor in nearby Kibbutz Gadot, where Syrian shelling from the Golan had interrupted sleep. Now leaving my rented car, white and rather too conspicuous, by the side of a dirt lane, I came across a column of half-tracks, whose soldiers happened to be observant Jews, very pale-faced and intense, fully armed but praying. Ahead of us, and already climbing up the Golan, were two civilian engineers unrolling telephone cable as though this was all in a day’s work. Theirs was the bravest action I have ever witnessed.  Suddenly the whole mountain was alive as men began running and shooting. I realized that I was observing what is called Fire and Movement, and in my days in the British army I had practiced this very maneuver.

After a while, shells began dropping close, and I thought that I did not want to lay down my life for the Daily Telegraph. So I took shelter in an Israeli signal truck that seemed tucked safely into a ravine. Inside was a major who had served in the Red Army during the Second World War, and was of course familiar with Russian procedure. Fire orders were being given in the clear by Soviet officers to the artillery on the Golan, and this major was on their wavelength, taking down what they saying and relaying it to the air force. From the coordinates it was possible to work out where the guns were, and within minutes a couple of aircraft would roar overhead to take them out. This artillery was not directed at the oncoming Israelis, as you would have supposed. The guns were shelling villages and kibbutzim miles away in the countryside. I have never heard an explanation for this. My conclusion is that the Soviets realized that they had lost this round of warfare and wanted to create maximum hatred in preparation for the next round.

I hitched a lift on one of the half-tracks. The Syrians had dug in at the top of the Golan in a position with a magnificent field of fire from which the British army – I told myself – could never have been dislodged. They had fought. The trenches were full of their dead, an unforgettable and pitiful scene. And there on the ground I saw a book, it was Père Goriot, Balzac’s great novel in a Russian translation. An educated Soviet officer must have sat reading in these conditions, and left in a hurry.  I couldn’t resist, but took his book.

At the end of the day, I was in Kuneitra, the one and only town on the Golan. Almost all the inhabitants had fled. One old man with a wise and wizened face stood in a street, and he explained to me that as the fighting began that morning the Syrian officers had fled to Damascus, not because they were cowards but to protect their careers in the Ministry of Defense. That was the Baath party for you. In Kuneitra too, I came on a brand new Soviet T-55 tank, abandoned, with its canvas cap still on the gun barrel. I climbed in. The tank was not yet run in, with less than a dozen miles on the clock. And there on a seat was a beautiful scarf, a cotton square with a colorful Paisley pattern, of a kind widely sold in Soviet tourist shops. I added it to the novel. That day I had seen what crime and folly the Soviet Union was capable of, and it seemed only right to pick up these souvenirs.

The Distance From Seven to Ten


Some time ago, the newspapers reported that the tenth Earl of Shaftesbury had gone missing. Good heavens, this was Anthony, known as Atty, and once upon a time I had been to his gigantic stately home, Wimborne Saint Giles, set in an estate of 9,000 acres of prime country in Dorset. His grandmother, the Countess, I remember, pronounced the word “garage” as if it was French, and dropped the final g from participles, saying “goin’ motorin’” in an immeasurably aristocratic manner. The young Atty was vivacious, a fan of classical music, an early ecologist planting whole forests on his land.

His body was found hidden in a valley in the South of France. He had been brutally murdered. And his life story came out. Poor eager music-loving Atty had fallen low into a world of prostitutes, Viagra and priapism, bars and night-clubs, alcoholism, generally dissipating his fortune and ruining his health. He was in the process of divorcing his third wife, one Jamila M’Barak, Tunisian-born and by her own account a high-class hooker. Apparently he intended to marry one Nadia, from Morocco, whom he’d picked up. So the jealous Jamila paid her brother Mohammed some $200,000 — presumably of Atty’s own money — and they murdered him. Easily detected, they express no remorse. A French court has just sentenced the pair to twenty-five years in prison.

Atty’s direct forebear, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, (1801-1885), is one of the most eminent Victorians. An Evangelical Christian, he could write from the heart, “God had called me to labour among the poor.”  In Parliament, he promoted the famous and truly progressive Factory Acts, to prevent exploitation of children. He founded the so-called Ragged Union, to care for and educate homeless children. Florence Nightingale was a friend. He also was one of the first to campaign for the return of Jews to their land.

Atty’s fate is of course a personal tragedy arising from some disintegration of character. Perhaps it isn’t really symbolic. But the difference between the lives of the seventh earl and the tenth seems to signify something important about Britain.

Russian Ways


On November 1 last year, Andrei Lugovoi met Alexander Litvinenko in London. Twenty three days later, Litvinenko died. His organs had ceased to function, but the cause remained obscure. Specialists then determined that he had died from absorbing Polonium 210, which even in a minute dose has the effect of radiation.

Lugovoi, Scotland Yard detectives found, had left a trail of Polonium 210 wherever he had been. He was an ex-KGB officer, well connected, in a position to obtain Polonium 210, which is produced only by the state in Russia. You did not have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that he was the prime suspect. And sure enough, the police today have handed their completed dossier to the Director of Public Prosecutions, and he has decided to issue a warrant for the extradition of Lugovoi. This, he declares, is in the public interest. Within minutes, the Russian authorities announced that there was no legal authority to extradite Russians to stand trial in a foreign court. From their point of view, then, it is quite all right to murder Russians abroad and then to obstruct justice. Nothing new there, of course.

The Russians are harassing the British ambassador in Moscow. Youngsters from a nationalist-fascist movement called Nashi have been mobilised to trail him and shout at him. Vladimir Putin and his men seem to equate power with this sort of intimidation, and considering the rough stuff they are currently dishing out to Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova and others, the British are fairly lucky so far. As a result of the warrant for Lugovoi, however, some British business in Russia is likely to have trouble with the local tax man, and something very nasty and very accidental may well happen to a British journalist or tourist. Nothing new there either, of course.

Under the Power of Beasts


The German Democratic republic, that is to say Communist East Germany of the old days, was a forbidding place. Now and again, I used to go there, mostly to visit the Berliner Ensemble theatre under Helene Weigel, the widow of Brecht and an old harpy too. The menace in the air was palpable. In the street, people would offer to buy the clothes you were wearing, to change money, asking to be smuggled out, and the supposition was always that they worked for the Stasi, the Communist equivalent of the Gestapo. Everyone was afraid all the time, and that was true of Helene Weigel and her company of actors too. They had lived under dictatorship of one kind or another since 1933, and you could not help wanting to shout “Stop!” at history.

The movie The Lives of Others is a fitting memorial to this hateful atmosphere, and a great work of art. The dilemma of East German writers and actors is portrayed exactly as it was. They had to obey the demands the Communist Party made of them. This meant prostitution of their talents, and often of their bodies in the case of women. The majority took the line of least resistance, but a few had the courage to become dissidents, and some committed suicide. Something like a fifth of the population was employed by the Stasi as secret policemen or informants.  The movie also captures the miserable poverty of Communist Berlin. That was almost as lowering to the spirits as the human degradation. At the time, East Germany was said to have a successful economy, the tenth largest in the world. After its collapse, the finance minister Günter Mittag was to tell me that the country had always been virtually bankrupt, and he had never dared reveal his lying about it, especially not to Erich Honecker, the Party boss.

The story-line offers a Stasi operative ordered to spy on a writer and others suspected, quite rightly, of dissidence. In the course of his foul work, this policeman has a change of heart, and does what he can to save his putative victims from prison and ruin. No such Stasi man ever existed, or could have existed, but never mind, the character serves the admirable purpose of dramatising how a totalitarian system traps everyone into life-and-death choices about how to handle the evil it enforces.

Moving the plot is also a minister loosely identifiable as General Erich Mielke, the man in charge of the Stasi, a murderer, bully, rapist, and finally a fool. His office in the Normannenstrasse in Berlin is now preserved for the curious, with its bust of Lenin, its cheap furniture and a mammoth safe for stolen cash or documents. In the building are miles and miles of shelves with Stasi files, and those concerned can consult this X-ray of totalitarianism in action. How come, the dissident writer in the movie has the chance finally to ask, that government came into the hands of such a person?  Here is a movie that for once tells the truth, and does it really well.

Blair Departs


Tony Blair today announced that he would hand his resignation to the Queen on June 27. Several features about this news are typical. First of all, leaks from spin-doctors have been advising for a long time what was coming. No previous British government has ever gone in for such media manipulation. Far from going cleanly, Blair is clinging on for several weeks, during which time he will attend a European conference and may sign there an agreement to a treaty that nobody wants and that will further curtail national independence. What a parting slap in the face that would be. Finally, Blair himself was fighting back tears as he set the date for his departure – tears of self-pity and thwarted ambition. In his abdication speech he thanked the British people for his successes and apologised for “the times I have fallen short.” Charles Dickens alone could do justice to the unctuous sentimentality.

Under John Major, the previous Prime Minister, the government simply fell apart. It has done so again under Blair. Culture, education, health, transport, are at abysmal levels. Crime is such that there is no more room in prisons for the convicted. Through legal and illegal immigration the country has lost control of its borders. Agriculture is shattered. Blair allowed the mass slaughter of livestock, and banned fox hunting, a nasty measure of class war. He tinkered disastrously with the constitution, abolishing the House of Lords, devolving power to Brussels, to Scotland and to Wales. In Northern Ireland, at the expense of the moderates he has installed in power the rival Catholic and Protestant men of violence, which is disgusting in itself but also an invitation to Islamist terrorists. He packed committees and appointments with his cronies, some of whom have been arrested for their financial dealings. “I’m a pretty straight kind of guy,” Blair once crowed, but the sleaze comes perilously close. Yes, Dickens had the measure of artful dodgers like this. With his usual accuracy Anthony Daniels hit upon the perfect phrase – Blair, he said, has “delusions of honesty.”

Yet he got one thing right. He supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and committed British troops to that end. He understood that the United States is the ultimate protector of Europe. It is a horrid irony that his best decision is the cause of his unpopularity and downfall. In his farewell speech he is reduced to apologising about Iraq, “We must see it through. It is a test of will, of belief,” adding, “hand on heart, I did what I thought was right.” Of course this is the issue that has forced him out of power because experience in so many other fields has taught the public to disbelieve and mistrust whatever he says, especially when he turns weepy about his hand being on his heart. That is his legacy.

British Traitors


Five Islamist terrorists have just received sentences of life imprisonment in Britain. There is much to be learnt from the case. All were British, though their origins were in Pakistan — with one exception, an Algerian who had changed his name to Anthony Garcia, presumably hoping to pass himself off as Mediterranean. All had benefited from the British way of life, its toleration and multiculturalism. Reasonably well educated by prevailing standards, reasonably well off and middle class, they could have been expected to lead decent and productive lives. The leader, one Omar Khyam, even had a grandfather who served in the British army in the Second World War. First and foremost, they all are traitors, and the presiding judge did not hesitate to condemn them as such.

Omar Khyam seems to have had the most fertile imagination, proposing blowing up shopping malls and nightclubs, crashing planes in the 9/11 manner, suicide missions, even buying a dirty bomb from the Russian mafia. To some extent, he and his fellows were fantasists, but at the same time prolonged training in al Qaeda camps in Pakistan had given their amateurishness a professional veneer. Operationally, they were in contact with the suicide bombers responsible for the London bombings of July 2005, which killed 52 people and wounded over 700 more. A picture emerges of young Muslims convinced by their preachers to declare war on society, and recruited into a globalized movement that gives them the means to wage that war. The man alleged to have been their controller, for instance, is Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, close to Osama bin Laden, and as it happens lately captured entering Iraq from Iran, and so transferred to Guantanamo. What can this be called except a war waged by an international terror movement?

British intelligence got on to the track of these men more by luck than judgment. An observant lady informed the intelligence services about secretive activities in a lock-up where the terrorists were storing the raw materials for their explosives. In the course of surveillance, the identities of the July 2005 bombers were also revealed a year or so before they committed their crimes, but the intelligence services then did not follow up these particular terrorists, leaving them free to kill. In this battle of wits, some 30 Islamist networks involving 1,600 potential terrorists are currently under surveillance.

Evidently the intelligence services have greater material resources than the Islamists, but they will remain at the mercy of events until they acquire an imagination equal to those they are up against.

Fortuitously, Edward Fitzgerald used the name Omar Khyam as the title for his famous poem, though he spelled it Omar Khayyam. Time was when every British school child knew the lines: “A Book of Verses underneath the Bough, A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou…” Yes, this idyllic picture was a romanticizing of Islam, and the brute reality of today has put paid to it for ever.

Brave and Boorish Boris


Boris Yeltsin for most of his life was a Communist through and through. Like virtually all Soviet  people, he had a miserable youth of hardship and deprivation. No doubt he sincerely believed that he could help the Party and the Party could help him. He was physically strong, energetic, a man with presence. Rising through the ranks, he conveyed the standard Communist message, that everybody had only to work a good deal harder and then everything would become perfect.

Elected to the Central Committee, and then the Politburo, he had his chance to show whether this rather simple view of Communism as hard work could be made to apply. Yeltsin was famous for issuing orders as though they produced results just because he had expressed his wish, and turning up on sites to inspect, and to encourage – which was frightening to those under orders and inspection.

The more active he was, the more he aroused suspicion in the mind of his one superior, Mikhail Gorbachev, the general secretary of the Party. A test of strength developed between the two men. Nothing quite like it had ever been seen in the history of Communism. The stakes were enormous. Gorbachev appeared to win when he fired Yeltsin. Yeltsin used the novelty of elections to fight back. Elected president of Russia, he played the nationalist card, and it proved stronger than Communism. Civil war might well have erupted between die-hard defenders of Communism and Russian nationalists.  Standing on a tank in August 1991, Yeltsin successfully appealed to nationalism. It was a brave moment, and will always mark his place in history. At the same time, he fulfilled his ambition of achieving supreme power. Nobody, certainly not Yeltsin himself, realised that breaking Gorbachev necessarily entailed breaking Communism too. The Party could not survive factionalism, Lenin had always warned, and so it proved.

As president of the Russian Federation, Yeltsin revealed that Communism retained some intellectual or psychological clamp on his thinking. Much as he proclaimed himself a democrat, his grasp of democracy was poor. The transition to the new society proved painful, as people with the skills for it made fortunes from privatising the wreckage of Communism, in effect plundering public wealth. Yeltsin himself was one of them. Like the Communist leaders before him, he thought he could do as he pleased. Nothing in his life was quite so unfitting as the deal he struck with his underling Vladimir Putin, whereby Putin became the next President in return for a guarantee not to prosecute Yeltsin. His country will continue for a long time to pay the price for his egoism, his vanity, and his corruption. In the end, little was left of this one-time hero except his feet of clay.  

A Piece of Picasso


Pablo Picasso, it is generally appreciated outside museum circles, was an old fraud in matters of art, and a monster in all other spheres. Painting was to him primarily successful commerce. He behaved despicably to other people, especially women unfortunate enough to be his lovers. In politics, he was always on the make, backing whatever he thought was the winner. Guernica, his famous picture done during the Spanish civil war, was an exercise in being fashionably on the anti-Nazi side. But when the Germans occupied Paris in 1940, Picasso stayed, and his studio became a resort where German officers were welcome, especially when they bought his pictures. One such was Ernst Jünger, the cold-hearted but brilliant writer then on the German staff, and Picasso one day said to him that the two of them could bring about peace in twenty four hours. Picasso was an outright collaborator, and after the war the Communist Party blackmailed him on that account. The Party threatened to expose him unless he made amends by marching at the head of the mass demonstration in Paris on May 1, 1945. Marching next to him was the singer Maurice Chevalier who similarly needed an alibi for his collaboration with the Germans. “One goes to the Communist Party as one goes to a spring of water,” was how Picasso lied his way out of it at the time.

In 1950 Picasso came to England to attend a World Peace Congress in Sheffield. These Peace Congresses were organised by the Cominform, the Party’s international arm, as part of the program of misinformation and propaganda at the start of the Cold War. In fact this Sheffield Congress was cancelled at the last moment. Picasso stayed in London with Professor J.D. Bernal, got a little drunk and doodled a fresco on the wall. It consists of two heads, with wings but no bodies, hardly more than outline sketches in reddish colour.

Bernal was a scientist, and non-specialists have to take on trust that his work on X-ray crystallography is valuable. He was also the most persistent apologist for Stalin, the Soviet Union and Communism, all performed so blindly and faithfully that it is hard to credit that he possessed either basic intelligence or human feelings. Andrew Brown has lately published a biography of Bernal which is intended to praise, but of course cannot help showing what a debased human being he was. Needless to say, he travelled in luxury in the Soviet Union, he accepted a Stalin Prize, he listened to lies and passed them on as truth. It was the same in Mao’s China where he claimed that the shattered economy was really “extraordinary.” Mass executions did not trouble him.

Bernal’s apartment was demolished, and the Picasso mural chiselled off the wall and presented to the Institute of Contemporary Arts, one of the numerous publicly funded bodies busy presenting art as popular fashion. Now the Wellcome Trust has bought it for half a million dollars, to add to its museum. This trust is one of the richest in the country, devoted primarily to medicine. The Picasso mural will be shown in a new gallery about to open with the purpose of exploring the connection between science and art. The artistic director of the museum burbles about how the mural will “inspire generations in the future.” Actually this is how the lies of two hateful men come to be memorialized, and a false reading of history is passed off on to unsuspecting people.

Arresting Kasparov


Gary Kasparov is one of those brave and honorable men that Russia throws up against the odds in every generation. Aged 44, he is the former world chess champion, and leads a group called United Civil Front, a pretty miniscule part of the already miniscule opposition to President Vladimir Putin. Kasparov and his group wanted to hold a protest demonstration in Moscow. Permission was refused. Some hundreds held the protest just the same, and were met by 9,000 riot police. 9,000! That’s a military operation. As Kasparov later observed, it places Russia somewhere between Belarus and Zimbabwe on the dictatorship scale.

They arrested Kasparov, of course, and about 170 others. After holding Kasparov for ten hours, they fined him a thousand roubles – about $80 – and let him go. The money was a token, they had made their point. Now he has a criminal record, so next time they can imprison him as a regular offender.

Why is Putin drawing a line under Russia’s brief experiment with democracy? Some say that he is taking advance measures to fix the presidential election due next year, either to have an extra unconstitutional term himself, or to fix it for a stooge. Others think that he resents the American projection of power in the world so strongly that he is determined to restore the Cold War, and this can be done only by a Russia with authoritarian powers. It could also be the usual Kremlin fear of plots. Boris Berezovsky, the one-time oligarch who facilitated Putin’s rise to power but broke with him and settled in exile in Britain, just declared that Putin has to be overthrown. In classic Leninist language he said, “We need to use force. There can be no change without force, pressure.” Soon afterwards, he explained that the change he had in mind would be bloodless. Still, this was quite enough for the Kremlin to demand the extradition of Berezovsky and to panic the masters of the pre-emptive cringe in the British Foreign Office. The Russian authorities are busy trying to set him up as the murderer of Alexander Litvinenko with polonium 210 last November. They’d dearly love to send him and Kasparov off in freight cars to faraway Siberia, to join others there who have failed to please Putin. The fate of Kasparov is actually a litmus test for this increasingly odious regime.

Weakness & Humiliation


The release of the 15 British sailors and marines is naturally a relief. They were held for less than two weeks, they were not put on trial, and seemingly subjected only to psychological pressure. But now is the time for recriminations. By means of breaking international law and disregarding civilized behavior, Iran has won a famous victory. It is monstrous that President Ahmadinejad could say at his press conference that freedom for the 15 “is a gift to the British people.” Held through an act of piracy, they were not to be gifted away in a cheap gesture to close down illegal action. John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador at the U.N. draws the alarming conclusion that Iran has conducted “a low-cost way of testing British resolve.” Ahmadinejad can now ratchet up the nuclear program without fear of a strong response.

Britain has indeed suffered a significant defeat. Nobody yet knows what pressures and threats the captives were forced to submit to, and these may well have been cunningly applied to undermine their resolution. But the spectacle of the 15 ritually pleading that they were nicely treated and not harmed has resonated throughout the Muslim world. Prisoners of war are required only to state their military number, name and rank. In public, a British officer instead said ingratiatingly that he understood why Iranians were insulted by apparent intrusion into their waters. Another of the fifteen told Ahmadinejad, “We are very grateful for your forgiveness.” Only two or three among them seem to have kept their dignity, and refrained either from apologizing for themselves or thanking the Iranians for putting them through this ordeal. Immediately confronted with television cameras, their families at home unanimously praised Iran as though they really meant it. Nobody had the resolve even to say that they would reserve comment until the fifteen were home. Such reserve would at least have shown some condemnation of Iranian illegalities. Needless to say, the BBC particularly rejoiced in flourishing the general psychological cravenness and moral collapse.

Behind the scenes, diplomatic letters were exchanged between Prime Minister Blair’s foreign-policy adviser, and Ali Larijani, a hardliner who negotiates the nuclear issue. Whether some kind of deal has been struck remains unknown. There is speculation that Iranian officers held in Iraq may be part of a bargain, and if that proves to be the case, Iran will find confirmation for its view that the balance of power in the world is now in its favor. In the first place, though, Iran evidently let the 15 go because it had milked the hijacking for all its worth, and nothing more was to be gained. The British navy had been exposed as operationally unprofessional. Its ships and helicopters and radars were taken by surprise. In no position to defend themselves, its sailors and marines went meekly into captivity. In its predicament, the British government was helpless, turning for support to the European Union and the United Nations, which both limited themselves to verbiage, watered down at that. The whole West can expect to pay a high cost for such open weakness and humiliation at this juncture of the war on terror.

Shame, Honor, and the British Captives


Exactly who in Iran ordered the hijacking of the 15 British sailors and marines will almost certainly never be known. Nor will the motivation be explained. Perhaps the regime is taking more and more serious steps towards a deliberate showdown with the West, and perhaps a mistake was made. The regime was unable to resist making propaganda out of it, putting Faye Turney, the woman captive and one of the sailors on television, and dictating their letters and speeches, sometimes in an idiom that only a foreigner would consider English.

At any rate, a stage has been reached when Iran expects Britain to apologize for wrongdoing that it did not commit, and Britain expects Iran to apologize for undoubted wrongdoing. Neither party can fulfil these expectations. The confrontation therefore turns from the political sphere to the cultural. Enlarging the issue by taking it to international forums, Britain is pointing out to the world that Iran’s behavior is barbaric and it should be ashamed of itself.  In the scheme of values that pertain in Iran, shame is the unacceptable opposite of honor, and nothing less than a challenge to manhood and a proper life. Whoever accuses another of being shameful is immediately accused in turn of being arrogant.  And so it is now, as the leaders of the Iranian regime speak about Britain’s arrogance, its meddling, and its impotence as a partner of the United States. They stage demonstrators demanding the execution for British “aggressors,” in full awareness that they themselves are the aggressors.

The only ways out of this impasse are the exercise of immense ingenuity to devise a formula that saves the face of all concerned, or unarguable force. Caught in exactly this same predicament over Iran’s nuclear program, the powers are equally uncertain how to play their hand. Shame and honour values are conducive to irrational emotion. The 15 now in prison are likely to have to endure a long and agonizing ordeal.

Iran vs. Britain


The kidnapping of 15 British sailors in the Persian Gulf is a very serious violation of international norms. Those 15 were inspecting an Iraqi ship to see whether she was carrying smuggled oil, which was only too likely – the Iraqi government is losing immense sums of money through such smuggling. British sailors carrying out such a duty are no concern of Iran’s. The ship’s captain and now the British authorities state positively that the sailors were in Iraqi waters.  Even if that proves mistaken and they had strayed into Iranian waters, there was no cause to hijack them – they should have been met, had the situation explained to them, and sent on their way. Instead, the Iranians have charged them with espionage, which carries the death sentence. This is obviously a concoction. What could there be to spy on from two small boats in the middle of those waters?

The Iranian regime wants a test of strength in the belief that it will win it. God is on their side, they like to emphasise, and this means that they love death for his sake, while Westerners love life, lost in decadent dreams of creature comforts. The Iranian regime has gained a great deal out of previous tests of strength of just this kind. It held the American embassy hostages in full view of the world. It sent suicide bombers to kill American marines in Beirut. Only last summer, its agents in Hezbollah crossed into Israel, killed some Israeli soldiers and fled with two hostages who to this day have not been returned, while their captors refuse to give any evidence that the two unfortunates are still alive.

The 15 British sailors are all too likely be maltreated, dressed in Guantanamo orange suits, forced to make confessions, paraded on television, and perhaps put in front of some mullah who will browbeat them in court and even sentence them to death.

The Iranian regime needs the satisfaction of putting the British to shame publicly, and for a long enough period to be seen to be victorious. The hatred is very real, and with it comes fear of being humiliated. The British have caught Iranians covertly aiding terror in Iraq, and providing explosives to kill British troops. The British are also pressing for meaningful sanctions to prevent Iran from going nuclear. A few days ago, an Iranian general crowed that Iran could capture some blond and blue-eyed people, “and feed them to our fighting cocks.”  He probably had those sailors already in his sights as targets. You’re challenging us, the Iranian regime is telling the West, very well, let’s have a test of strength, and then we’ll see who is the stronger.

British Universities Go in for Censorship


These are not good times for British universities. As from next year, it has been announced today, selection of students to be admitted will take into account whether or not their parents attended university. The intention, supported by the government, is to increase the number of students from poor backgrounds. The effect can only be to discriminate against those from educated backgrounds. In its early incarnation, the Soviet Union went in for this sort of social engineering, denying higher education to those defined ideologically as bourgeois. In the end, the damage to the nation became evident, and schools for the elite were opened, which was almost as iniquitous.

Free speech is also under attack. An Oxford professor, David Coleman, a demographer, has done research that suggests that mass immigration brings very little economic benefit to the country, if any. A petition has been got up to have him dismissed as a racist. Academics here and there, with the support of their trade unions, have attempted to boycott Israel and Israeli colleagues, purely on the grounds of who they are and where they come from. The cancellation of a lecture by Matthias Kuntzel at Leeds University is the latest step in making British universities irrelevant.

Kuntzel is a political scientist from Hamburg University, with an additional research fellowship at an institute in Jerusalem. An eminent authority on Iran, he has published a good deal about the messianic fervour of that country’s leadership. In particular, he has shown how Nazi propaganda and subsidies in the Hitler period laid the groundwork for modern Muslim anti-Semitism. And that was to be his subject at Leeds, under the title, “Hitler’s Legacy: Islamic anti-Semitism in the Middle East.”

Ahmed Sawalem, described as president of the university’s Islamic society, wrote to the Vice-Chancellor of Leeds, Professor Michael Arthur, to complain officially that he had searched for Kuntzel’s writings on the internet, “and they are not very pleasant.” Kuntzel was shown this complaint, and one other apparently from a Muslim student, accusing him of doing this “to increase hatred as I clearly regard it as an open racist attack.” The lecture, and subsequent workshops, were duly cancelled on the grounds that the decision to cancel was purely a matter of bureaucracy. As a spokesman put it, the university had to protect the safety of participants in the event and to maintain public order. Which is worse, the cowardice, the mendacity, or the foregone assumption that Muslims were about to resort to violence and the authorities were helpless in the face of it?

Kuntzel had previously delivered this lecture at Yale. His comment was, “Nothing like this has ever happened before – this is censorship,” adding, “This is a very important subject and if you cannot address it on university property, then what is a university for?” We know the answer to that – to keep out the children of the educated, and to give the children of the poor the impression that they are being educated.

Honorable Voices


St. Petersburg, Florida, has just been the host to a summit meeting of secular Muslims. They have put out a final statement of their beliefs and aims, and a resounding document it is too. They have been brought together, they declare, by “a great struggle, not between the West and Islam, but between the free and the unfree.” Right. True. Humanly important. They go on to insist that it is proper to criticise or condemn Islamic practices that violate human reason or rights. Finally they address Muslim believers directly : “there is a noble future for Islam as a personal faith, not a political doctrine.”  They proclaim that they stand as free and equal citizens with Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’is and all non-Muslims. Right again, all of it, and humanly important too.

It is likely that this summit, its fine resolution and indeed its general significance, will not be recognized officially anywhere in the Islamic world. A ghastly combination of one-man rulers, clerics in turbans and secret policemen, will suppress all mention of the summit, not even allowing sarcastic or hostile criticism of it by paid hacks. Absolute power combines with bigotry to keep the teeming millions of Muslims in ignorance.

This will no longer work. The participants at this summit are comparable to the Soviet dissidents who once were also unknown and kept out of sight by the authorities until they were suddenly household names, playing a distinguished part in breaking tyranny. The influence of these free and secular Muslims is similarly spreading unseen but unchecked. In spite of the cruel and backward men who rule their lives, the Muslim masses know that they are oppressed, and they are listening to those who tell them so.

Men and women of high courage and resolution put their names to that resolution. Among them are Ayaan Hirsi Ali who was lately and shamefully driven out of the Netherlands; Nonie Darwish, founder of Arabs for Israel; Wafa Sultan, who scourged Muslim bigotry unanswerably on al-Jazira television; Magdi Allam, who writes in the Italian press; Mithal al-Alusi, the Iraqi legislator who visited Israel and whose two sons were murdered in reprisal; the American Iraqi journalist Nibras Kazimi. Let me further single out the Pakistani Ibn Warraq, author of the fine book Why I am not a Muslim, and  also Amir Taheri, the Iranian exile who is one of the best informed commentators on the Middle East. I am not a prophet, but I forecast with confidence that the day will come when the objectives of this handful will be accepted, and their names will enter the history books with honor.

Too Much of a Gamble


Aspinalls is a well-known gambling club in London’s Mayfair, and it specializes in separating foolish English upper-class chaps from the fortunes, the castles and the Old Masters their fond but equally foolish parents bequeathed them. A Syrian by the name of Fouad al-Zayat is perhaps an unusual punter at such a club, but he can hold his own with the native English when it comes to chucking money away. In March 2000 he lost at roulette and wrote bad checks. Nevertheless the club allowed him to play more, whereupon he lost heavily again and still failed to pay. To obtain their winnings, the club took Fouad al-Zayat to court.

According to court reports, he seems rather larger than life, even genial. His nickname is “the Fat Man,” he lives in Cyprus where he operates a company, and has a private Boeing 747 and of course a Rolls-Royce as well. Apparently it is not unusual for him to tip a waitress $10,000 for bringing him a cup of tea. It came out in court that in the course of some 600 visits to the club over the last twelve years he had bet there about $200 million, losing about a quarter of that sum.

In more than one occasion in the recent past, Zayat escorted Republican Congressman Bob Ney from Ohio to exclusive gambling clubs in London, and gave him chips with which Ney won almost $100,000. Documents from the U.S Justice Department say that Zayat’s company paid for Ney’s “round-trip airfare, luxury accommodation, meal and entertainment.” Why so ? Because, The Observer newspaper reports, “Zayat wanted Ney’s help in getting his company an exemption that would secure a multi-million-dollar deal with the Iranians.”  The source of Zayat’s wealth, that report continues, is “something of a mystery” but he has been “an intermediary in a number of lucrative defence-related deals.” Say no more.

Syria today is a Sovietised slum in which the ruling Assad dynasty and their Baathist hangers-on monopolise such wealth as there is, and everybody else can do nothing to relieve their poverty. Those who know how to skim money off defence-related contracts and multi-million-dollar Iranian deals are helping to perpetuate the misery of these millions of helpless people, as well as making the world yet more unsafe.  The eagerness of clubs like Aspinalls for money from any source, no matter how suspect, to finish in their hands proves that corruption crosses cultures and frontiers with the ease and speed of an infectious disease.


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