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Wednesday 19 February 2014

Review: Shereen El Feki, Sex and the Citadel

This is a book of many surprises. Not the least the fact that someone exists to write it. Towards the end of the book, El Feki defines herself as a "liberal Muslim woman" (page 292). She has an Egyptian Muslim father, who she identifies as her "research associate" ( p 334), and a Welsh mother, a convert from Christianity to Islam. Shereen El Feki grew up in Canada.

She writes as an experienced journalist and and her approach in this book is that of a serious journalist - there is an impressive Bibliography. Her stance is firmly sex-positive: "sexual rights can be realized, and exercised, in an Islamic framework ....Religion is not black and white, as conservatives would have us believe; on sex, as with so many matters in life, Islam offers at least fifty shades of grey" (p 293).

That kind of cheeky humour runs through the book as she narrates her travels around the Arab world, but focussing on Egypt, engaging with people, talking with them about their sexual practices, satisfactions and frustrations and then setting the interviews into a broader historical and social context. No one seems unwilling to talk to her - women, men, Imams, doctors, lawyers, police officers, taxi drivers. And she writes about everything you could think to put on a list: heterosexual relations, same sex relations, prostitution, female genital mutilation (though she uses the word "cutting"), sex toys, porn, rape and harassment, HIV, marriage and its alternatives ...

I found one section particularly interesting, where she talks critically about "identity politics" (chapter 6). Some of her interviewees see "Identity Politics" as a Western ideology which has the potential to be divisive and to get in the way of creating a tolerant (liberal) environment in which everyone can get on with their own lives without harassment. It doesn't help, so the line of criticism goes, if groups seem to be arguing for special treatment or privileges or a kind of recognition which goes beyond that involved in giving mutual respect. I felt sympathetic to this position - but simply as someone who is irritated by the endless supply of English newspaper columnists who make their living banging the drum for their favourite group rather than for everyone who is oppressed. 

Interesting, intelligent, funny - a really good book!

Saturday 15 February 2014

Essay: Holocaust Education

Fifty years ago, around the time of my 17th birthday, I travelled to Sweden for a long summer holiday job in the Hotel Siljansborg, Rättvik. I travelled by train and on the way back through Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium sat opposite two midddle-aged women, one dressed as a Nun. The woman who wasn't a Nun started a conversation with me, in English, explaining that her sister spoke only Polish. They were going - or had been - to collect an Award, a Medal conferred on the Nun. Even the Polish  communist government has to recognise that she is a brave woman, said her sister. She was in Auschwitz, she continued and - taking her sister's arm - rolled up her sleeve to show me a number tattooed on her forearm.

My Holocaust education did not  begin in school - we did Tudors and Stuarts [but see Footnote] -  though my private reading as a teenageer included a book of Yevtushenko's poems, published by Penguin, and including his Babi Yar. As a young child, even in primary school, I knew the word "Belsen". (Adults might say that a very thin and ill-looking person was "like someone out of Belsen")

Fast forward thirty years and in the mid 1990s I took my two daughters to Amsterdam and - I think at the instigation of my then partner - we visited the Anne Frank house. It was more interesting than I had imagined likely and quite moving. A couple of years previously I had visited Yad Vashem, about which I had mixed feelings: I disliked the American sponsorship-cum-memorial plaques which I felt out of place - tacky, if you like. I was moved by the black basalt columns which show the death toll of Jews for each European country.

Until now, I had never read Anne Franks' book. It runs to over 300 pages in the expanded 1990s edition but held my interest all the way through. Even though you open the book knowing how things end in August 1944 when the Frank family's hiding place was betrayed, it has a "What Happens Next?" page turning readability. It's well written, the candour is astonishing, and the topics discussed range widely over family relations, life in the Secret Annexe, teenage anguish, world politics, history and literature, Jewishness and religion - though very little, actually, of those last two. Anne Frank's religion is of the most simple and humane kind and commands immediate respect.

If you were a Minister of Education, it would be very tempting to say that this is a book which all teenagers should read. Not because it tells you much about the Holocaust (though there is some of that via radio broadcasts heard and word of mouth picked up) but because it shows you someone who could be your friend in school, socially advantaged though with pretty much the same preoccupations as anyone of your age - but to whose extermination a vast pan-European organisation was dedicated.

The Franks were arrested in August 1944 and in September shipped on the last transport to leave the Netherlands for Auschwitz. None of them were gassed. Anne's mother died in Auschwitz in January 1945 but Anne's father survived there until the camp was liberated by the Russians, after which he was repatriated to the Netherlands.

Anne and her sister Margot were shipped from Auschwitz back to Germany in October 1944, to Bergen-Belsen. Hannah Arendt's book categorises Belsen as a camp for "high value" Jews, who might be traded for goods or money, one step down from Theresienstadt - the show camp (and only camp) which was open to inspections by the International Committee of the Red Cross. But though at the end of 1944, Himmler called a halt to the Final Solution - reckoning that more could be made from using those Jews still alive as hostages - the break-down of the Reich as the war drew to a close meant that Belsen degenerated into a hell of starvation and disease. Both Anne and her sister Margot died of typhus, at the end of February or beginning of March 1945. British troops liberated the camp in April and in my childhood "Belsen" was shorthand in England for all that was inhuman about the Nazis. (I vaguely recall seeing the photographs). I don't think I even knew the names of the death camps in the East - Chelmo, Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka.

Hannah Arendt at one point in her forceful and wide-ranging book estimates that those Jews who went into hiding in Nazi Europe had a 50 - 50 chance of survival. Those who didn't had a less than ten percent chance.

Fifty years after its original publication, it reads well as a stimulus to thinking about many of the complex threads which have to be woven together in any programme of Holocaust education - motivation, levels and degrees of responsibility, appropriate punishment and reparation and much more.

The well-off and relatively well-connected family of Otto Frank nearly made it through the War. The deaths of Edith Frank and her daughters were no longer even policy when they happened, other than insofar as they were part of Hitler's last wish that everyone die together.  

Note: Proofing this Blog before posting it, I did have a flashback to seeing a Holocaust educational film (it must have been Resnais Night and Fog (1955)) but I don't know if this is something I saw as a sixth former at Bromley Grammar School for Boys or watched much later as a school teacher alongside a class of my pupils.

Monday 3 February 2014

Review: Stephen Grosz, The Examined Life

Stephen Grosz begins this book by telling us that for twenty five years he has worked as a psychoanalyst, spending more than 50,000 hours with patients. I calculated:  that's 2000 hours a year which implies 40 hours a week, 50 weeks of the year. He's working too hard.

He has lots of stories to tell and each of the thirty plus short chapters is a well-crafted vignette of encounters with patients, mostly in private practice in London and making use of the traditional Freudian couch. The text is double spaced which means you turn pages quickly and finish in a few hours.

All the stories are readable and some - especially those which deal with serious illness and dying - are moving.

I think that broadly Freudian psychoanalytic theory is the best of the bunch, despite attempts by some of its adherents to make of it a cult (their own) rather than the theoretical basis of a regime of treatment. Many of the criticisms are misguided. In particular, critics fail to realise that all theories are undetermined by data - another theory will always fit the same data - which does not mean that theories are useless or that none are better than others. The weak point in Freudianism is not the theory but whether a curative therapeutic practice can be founded on it - on that, there is reason to doubt.

One of the most challenging stories in the book (pp 158 - 165) concerns a young boy (seen in a public health service context) who eventually puts it to the analyst that his brain doesn't work - not like other people's - and says that it's sad. And all the analyst can do is agree, "Yes, it is really, really sad" (page 165)

For me, the strong point in Freudianism has always been the theory of dreams and the possibility which arises from that of using them diagnostically and therapeutically. So illiterate have we become that some people think that Freud's dream theory is a theory of dream symbols when it starts out, quite explicitly,  to demolish the dream symbol approach and replace it with one which argues that meaning is created in a context - and that the key context for a dream is the events of the recent past (in the strictest theory, the previous day). So you do not look up a Symbol in a Dream Book which tells you what it Stands For - no, you lead your patient back to the recent past and link the Unicorn in the dream to some event,some conversation, some book recently read and work from that link.

As you read Grosz's vignettes, you see him constantly probing for a context not only for dreams but for all symptoms and odd behaviours. Only when you find their context do they begin to yield up their meaning. In particular, he looks for a context where something otherwise bizarre makes sense as a way of achieving satisfaction or avoiding a feared outcome or as indirect acknowledgment of something known but not acknowledged.