Saturday, 12 December 2015

The Road to Wigan Pier, via Aleppo

My latest feature on Syrian refugees for AlJazeera, this time one those who have chosen to come to the UK - even though countries like Germany and Sweden seem much more obvious destinations because of their comparatively generous asylum policies. Only about 5,000 Syrians have been granted asylum in the UK since the war started in 2011. 

Friday, 20 November 2015

Seal-spotting along the Thames

Some things are much better now than they were in the good old days. Like sewage systems, for example. How the Thames was brought back to life after being declared biologically dead in the 1950s (and became a haven for seals, cormorants and even dolphins):

Monday, 19 October 2015

Scientists vs art forgers

"We created a social network – a Facebook of the early 16th Century."

Really enjoyed writing this feature on the latest techniques in the fight against art forgery for the BBC. It's not every day that you get to visit a secret little studio in South London, look at pigments from Pompeii and hear all about social networks in Renaissance Florence.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Middle-class Syrian refugees start back at square one...

My feature for Al Jazeera about Syria's scattered middle class: a banker, a business student and an archaeologist talk about their lives as refugees.

Monday, 21 September 2015

British grassroots efforts to help refugees

Halal pot noodles, waterproofs, organic tomato puree: Londoners join the effort to help refugees on the continent. Recent feature for Al Jazeera. Here's how you can support one of the grassroots organisations - through crowdfunding.

'Where else should I live?' The refugees housed at Dachau

My feature for the Guardian on the refugees housed in the "herb garden" at Dachau, a former Nazi slave-labour plantation in the grounds of the concentration camp. It's one of those stories that will stay with me for a long time. Some of the people I spoke to want the site to be a memorial and exhibition space; others say the space is needed as social housing. But the interview that touched me most was with Ashkan, a young Afghan man who lives at Dachau, and his girlfriend, Dania.

While the German officials around them were trying to find a balance between commemorating past wrongs and addressing present needs, Ashkan and Dania were caught in their own, personal struggle to reconcile the past with the present. A timely reminder that a refugee's journey doesn't end when she steps off the train in Germany.

Monday, 14 September 2015

7 months pregnant... and on the run

Kamal, 2 months old

My piece for AlJazeera on the refugee mothers who risk it all to take their babies to safety:

"It’s better to walk for 15 days than to be killed by a bomb."

I spent a few hours with them last week in Munich. First at the station, then at their emergency shelter, then in a vast, dark industrial park as the group of fourteen adults, two infants and a toddler tried to figure out what to do next. They'd banded together along the route, forming a sort of baby trek as they were the slowest and weakest on the trail. The two young mothers were still breastfeeding their infants, 2 months and 3 months old respectively...

I asked them how they even washed the babies along the way, you can read the reply in the piece.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

The Syrians who've made a new life in the West

"I always say, Germany is my mother and my father. When I came here, Germany gave me food, it gave me somewhere to sleep."

Another story I wrote for the Indie out of Munich - the Syrian refugee who is trying to reunite his family, train by train.

Monday, 7 September 2015

The children who never cry

I'm in Munich to report on the refugee crisis - tens of thousands are pouring into the central station here, Syrian Kurds, Syrian Arabs, Iraqi Kurds, Afghans... fleeing ISIS, Assad, the Taliban...

Five percent of these exhausted new arrivals are babies.

On Saturday night, a refugee baby was born in Munich. The mother went into labour as soon as she arrived at the emergency shelter.

The relief worker who told me this concluded with these haunting words:

"One thing I've noticed about these refugee children: they never cry."

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Stranger (and sadder) than fiction: the Mediterranean crisis

A few weeks ago, I went rock climbing with some friends. One of the people in the group, a woman I hadn't met before, asked me what I did for a living, and I replied that I was a writer. I can usually answer the questions that follow in my sleep: Yes, two novels. No, you probably won't have heard of me...

I don't really like talking about my novels anyway; I guess writers as a whole tend to be introverts, preferring to observe and write about others rather than explaining ourselves. But for some reason, that afternoon I found myself talking about my first novel, 'The Registrar's Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages', which opens with a Kurdish boy's journey from Turkey to Germany via Italy.

I told her something that has been on my mind for a while, but that I haven't talked to anyone about, not even close friends. It's the fact that today's reality so closely mirrors certain scenes in the book, even though the book came out four years ago, and describes events that happened in the 1990s. In all those years, nothing has changed. If anything, things are worse.

In the opening scene of the Registrar, Selim, the Kurdish boy, is on a boat full of other refugees. The boat sinks, and he swims to safety. But Evin, a little girl who was also on the boat, doesn't make it. She drowns, and they bury her on the beach, digging a makeshift grave with her hands.

This week, there has been an outcry over shocking images of a drowned Syrian boy near the Turkish resort of Bodrum. One of the photos shows a Turkish police officer tenderly carrying the boy across the beach, with a terse, clenched expression on his face. He is not looking at the little boy in his arms, as if that's the only way he can hold himself together long enough to complete his task.

Judging from my Facebook feed, this news story has jolted many people into action - I've seen petitions, donations, calls for the UK to accept more refugees. But as terrible as the images are, the crisis is of course not new. The human tragedy in the Mediterranean is not new. Italy's rescue efforts improved the situation for a while, but even then, there were reports of drowned Kurdish, Syrian and other refugees, just not as many as now.

So when I was talking to the woman at the climbing centre, I was telling her that this is so incredibly difficult to accept, the fact that nothing has changed since I wrote the book. It's not as if I was naively expecting that writing about boat people was going to end all the world's wars, fix every rusty boat, give every refugee a home. That would be ridiculously stupid, vain and self-absorbed, even for a writer. But I do think that when someone writes about a terrible thing, and what they write is published, even to modest sales, and is reviewed and so on, they somehow think it will in some way make a tiny difference. Or maybe it's not even that. Maybe it's more abstract, a feeling that once you express something in a book, it is less likely to happen again in real life. There's an element of wishful, or perhaps magical, thinking. Like taking an umbrella with you to lessen the chance of rain.

The novelist David Grossman, for example, wrote 'To the End of the Land', a heartbreaking book about an Israeli woman whose son is in the military, while in real life, Grossman's own son was serving in the military. Grossman has said in interviews that facing up to the worst things that might happen, and then working those fears into a story, gave him the feeling that he was somehow protecting his son. But we all know magical thinking does not work. Tragically, in real life, Grossman's son was killed by an anti-tank missile fired by Hizbollah. The pen is not mightier than the sword. It's not very mighty at all.

I've always argued that the novelist's commitment is to art, to the story and to the reader, not to a cause. Novels written as a manifesto tend to be preachy, unconvincing and tone-deaf. But seeing just how utterly irrelevant my novel about Kurdish refugees was in the greater scheme of things, does make me question its value. Worse, it makes me wonder why we write and read ficton about real-life tragedies at all. For the thrill? As a safe way of sort-of empathising with the world's grief, while doing nothing about it? I haven't answered these questions for myself. Neither have I figured out whether there is some way to lift literature out of this sad insignificance.

For now, I'll do what all those other people on Facebook seem to be doing: sign a petition, make a donation, call for the UK to accept more refugees.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Summer Project: Walking from Germany to Poland

I'm walking from Germany to Poland this summer, retracing the route my mother and grandmother took as refugees when they escaped the Red Army in 1945. It's been an incredible experience so far; Poland is beautiful and people have been so helpful and friendly. You can follow my walk here.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Trauma & Fiction Event at Goldsmiths

Speaking about memory and loss in the divided Germany at Goldsmiths today, in the context of the publicly accessible (formerly top secret) Stasi files. How do historical documents come together to form a collective or private narrative? How much fiction is there in history, and how much history in fiction? Do novelists have a moral obligation to be historically accurate? Come and discuss!

Speaking of the Unspeakable:
Approaching War and Trauma through Fiction
2pm – 3.30pm
Thursday May 14th
144 Richard Hoggart Building, Goldsmiths
Chaired by Dr Rick Crownshaw
Sophie Hardach: The Stasi Files
~ Memory and loss in the divided Germany
Sonia Lambert: Tales of Internment
 ~ “Enemy Aliens” held by the British in 1940
Yoanna Pak: The Dragon King and the Emperor

~A short story set in the Pacific War

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Masterpieces for the blind at Museo del Prado


The Museo del Prado in Madrid has long been one of my favourites - beautiful paintings, and they explain the context and narrative of most paintings in depth instead of the usual 'this is Leda with the swan, oil on canvas.' Now they're going one step further and displaying 3-D (or rather, relief) copies of famous paintings for blind people to touch. One of the visitors said it was like getting back his eyesight - he can now touch the paintings he remembers seeing as a child, before he lost his sight.

In my hometown, one area of the botanical gardens was designed for blind people, with fragrant roses and herbs, a guiding rail and explanations in braille. Apparently Kew Gardens offers walking tours for the blind, but something more permanent and structural would be nice. And perhaps the National Gallery could copy the Prado's idea? I grew up in a town with a high percentage of blind people, and one of my teachers was blind, so I'm always happy to see something that makes the world a better place for them.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

How to parent like a German

"The Jugendweihe: A Pledge to the Great and Noble Cause of Socialism"

A friend pointed out this article in TIME magazine: How to parent like a German. It's by an American mother living in Berlin and reads like a typical global hipster piece. There are plenty of fun observations on free-range parenting and cute German traditions like Zuckertüte (or Schultüte), the giant cardboard cone filled with sweets and stationary that we are given to celebrate our first day at school.
But then there was this passage on the "Jugendweihe", a coming-of-age ritual:

"Jugendweihe happens when a child turns 14. It involves a ... ceremony, party, and gifts, marking the next stage of growing up. With all the negativity heaped on adolescents, there’s something to be said for this way of celebrating young adulthood."

The author doesn't seem to realise that "Jugendweihe", the ceremony she so warmly recommends to Americans, was popularised by the East German regime as an alternative to more traditional religious rites of passage. It was part of the totalitarian effort at what we call Gleichschaltung, bringing everyone into line, making sure there was no allegiance to entities other than the East German regime. It was also part of the broader discrimination against religious folk. Refusing the Jugendweihe could mean hurting your entire family's job prospects and certainly attracted the attention of the secret service, the Stasi. Joachim Gauck, the German president and former pastor who oversaw the opening of the Stasi archive, wrote quite forcefully about this in his memoir. 

It's fine if people feel the ritual is meaningful to them anyway. There's nothing wrong with an American embracing an atheist alternative to communion, confirmation or bar/bat mitzvah. What made me cross was the complete unawareness of the historical context. Sure, there's an argument to be made that some traditions of the Real-Socialist Republic are worth preserving. The concept of Jugendweihe dates back to the 19th century, and while it was used as a political instrument by the East German regime, there must be ways to reinvent it. It's still popular with many East Germans, indeed more popular than the Christian equivalent, confirmation, according to official data. But this author didn't make an argument, she just went for a bright and innocent: 'Jugendweihe! Awesome!'. She refused to engage with the past, either out of ignorance or because it would have spoiled the fluffy optimism of the piece.

I know, I'm probably overreacting. It was a light-hearted and friendly take on some of the more positive aspects of my culture. Yet I do sometimes wonder if Berlin's global hipsters are even aware my country was divided once. Or if they just think the GDR was like one big retro shop with cool vintage fonts and cute orange furniture. 

Sorry, rant over. Next: ironic Stalin moustaches.

Monday, 16 February 2015

A visit to the Buttes Chaumont

I was in Paris this weekend, vising my old neighbourhood, the 19th arrondissement. At its heart lies the Buttes Chaumont park, which I've always seen as a heart-warming symbol of successful multi-culturalism. My first novel was set there, and I've spent many hours sitting on the grass and enjoying the urban soap operas around me. On any given weekend, you'll see hip young Parisians with trilby hats, big Muslim and orthodox Jewish families, little boys with kippas and girls with headscarves, maybe a gay wedding or two, runners, picnickers and Chinese pensioners practicing tai chi. Plus the guy with the Shetland ponies.

When I heard that the Charlie Hebdo attackers had been part of a gang of jihadis known as the "Buttes-Chaumont gang", who met and exercised in the park, I felt a strange sense of territorial outrage. It's irrational - out of all the things the attackers did, where and how they exercised is really the least important aspect. But I couldn't help it, I felt so angry that a small number of violent men hijacked *our* park as their extremist club house. I don't want them to be known as the Buttes-Chaumont group, because it's not their damned park. It's one of the most beautiful green spaces in Paris, a real gem in a very mixed neighbourhood, and 99% of people go there for the tulips and the trees. They're the real Buttes-Chaumont group!

As for Paris, it was as beautiful as always, but I did notice a lot of tension and nervousness that hadn't been there before. Big armed guys in camouflage were guarding all the Jewish schools and cultural centres. It's reassuring that there's extra protection, but also heart-breaking that this should be necessary. The only island of calm was the guy at my local kosher supermarket, right next to the park. When I asked him why he wasn't taking extra security measures, he just smiled and said "God protects us." 

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

"We were simply joyful unbelievers"

Amazing new Charlie Hebdo cover. The headline says, "All is forgiven." I'm not a fan of most of the prophet-cartoons out there - that Danish one with the bomb as a turban, for example, is just nasty. But this one really follows the best tradition of graphic art. It's witty and moving.

And what a powerful message:

“We feel that we have to forgive what happened," said Zineb El Rhazoui, a surviving columnist at Charlie Hebdo, on BBC Radio 4 today. "I think those who have been killed, if they would have been able to have a coffee today with the terrorists and just talk to ask them why have they done this … We feel at the Charlie Hebdo team that we need to forgive."

Luz, the cartoonist who drew the cover, only survived the massacre at Charlie Hebdo because he was running late. There was a fascinating interview with him in Les Inrocks shortly after the attack. He said he wasn't even sure how he could continue drawing. One of the things that weighed on him was the enormous responsibility placed on the team's shoulders after the first cartoon controversy in 2007. He questioned the sudden scrutiny of their cartoons for a deeper symbolism and political meaning, "when on a worldwide scale, we are merely a damn teenage fanzine".

"We were simply joyful unbelievers," he said. "All of those that died were joyful unbelievers. And now, they’re nowhere. Just like everyone else."

It must be unsettling for an irreverent, anti-establishment artist to suddenly find himself turned into a national symbol, a warrior saving the Republic. Luz said his dead friends would have scorned the singing of the national anthem at the rally in their honour. Charlie is not about symbols, he said, but about specific cartoons lampooning specific people and situations. And in that vein, he was going to force himself to publish the next edition, not for some wider cause but for his friends:

"I’m going to think about my dead friends, knowing they didn’t fall for France! Today, it seems that Charlie fell for the freedom of speech. The simple fact is that our friends died. The friends we loved and whose talent we admired so very much."

Friday, 9 January 2015

"Mustapha Baudelaire", or why this is not a clash of civilisations

Mustapha Ourrad

Among the twelve people killed at Charlie Hebdo were two Muslims, copy editor Mustapha Ourrad and policeman Ahmed Merabet.

Zineb El Rhazoui, a French-Moroccan journalist at Charlie Hebdo, writes in this heartfelt piece:

"Mustapha died. He only obtained the French nationality a few weeks ago. With his North African accent, rolling his r's, he was the one who corrected our French. Every Monday, which was deadline day, he would not leave his office except to bend over the shoulder of a journalist and ask in a low voice: "What exactly were you trying to say?"

Mustapha Ourrad left Algeria in 1978. I found some pictures of his home village on an Algerian news site, TSA, along with quotes from old friends that paint a picture of an ambitious young man straining to see the world.

"He was very young and summarised the books of André Gide, Malraux and Baudelaire for us; which is why we nicknamed him Mustapha Baudelaire," his childhood friend Ousmer told TSA.

Mustapha Ourrad's village in Algeria; source: TSA

Already the far-right is trying to use the horrible events of this week to stoke fear of immigrants and warn against the evils of multiculturalism. If anything, the team at Charlie Hebdo was proof that immigration and multiculturalism are good things. Migrants benefit from global opportunities, host countries benefit from a global talent pool. Multiculturalism is not the problem. Murderous lunatics are the problem.

I haven't seen many articles on the religious and cultural diversity at Charlie Hebdo, whereas I've seen plenty of articles on what this all means for relations between French Muslims and non-Muslims. This is a false divide. Journalists like Zineb El Rhazoui and Mustapha Ourrad have/had a Muslim background, but they clearly, obviously have/had more in common with Charb and Tignous than with their attackers. This is so banal it hurts me to write it, and I'm only writing it because of all that ridiculous talk of the "clash of civilisations". There is no clash of civilisations. Liberty, equality, human rights are not Western privileges. Zineb El Rhazoui said she was hired because of her activism in her native Morocco during the Arab Spring. In 2013 she published a comic book called "The Life of Mohammed" together with Charb, one of the cartoonists. And guess which subject she graduated in? Sociology of religion.

Charlie Hebdo & Voltaire

Photo: Le Monde/AFP

"I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." (Voltaire)

When I read about the massacre at Charlie Hebdo this week, I felt such sorrow for the twelve victims. Much has been written about the cartoonists, who bravely exercised their right to poke fun at every single world religion. As Salman Rushdie said in reaction to the killings: "Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect." Now that the news cycle is moving on, some columnist seem to be grasping for clickbait and creative angles, and I've seen a few stories saying that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were provocative or rude. This of course misses the point. The point is not that Charlie Hebdo's cartoons were great. 100,000 French people didn't spontaneously take to the streets in mourning because the cartoons were great. The point is that everyone has the right to draw cartoons. And if someone takes offense, they also have the right to respond: by drawing another cartoon, by arguing against the cartoon, even by sueing if they feel the cartoon is defamatory. That's how democracy works. What is unacceptable is to kill someone because you disagree with them. It is also unacceptable to blame the victim, or, as the Financial Times did, to suggest the editors at Charlie Hebdo could have used more "common sense", which sounds suspiciously like "well she shouldn't have worn such a short skirt". Cautious satire, common-sense satire, is pointless satire.

In that context, I was thinking of the non-journalists who were killed at Charlie Hebdo. The bodyguard, the two policemen, the receptionist, the caretaker. In some ways, they were the best and bravest defenders of free speech and liberal values. They weren't the ones who drew the cartoons. But they worked in a building that had been repeatedly threatened, and in the case of the policemen, they tried to protect the lives of others simply because it was their duty, because it was the right thing to do. It's sad that so little is known about these victims, and I hope we'll learn more about them. I keep thinking that there must have been at least one among them who didn't even read Charlie Hebdo, maybe didn't even like the cartoons. Someone who truly embodied that Voltaire quote: someone who perhaps disapproved of what the cartoonists said, but defended to the death their right to say it.