A manifesto for the New Year: forget labels, and fix the problems

Alex Andreou's message for 2013.

It is that time of year again, when I sit down like Scrooge, doing the books. I am not counting money – precious little of that about. I am trying to reconcile the balances of my life. Trying to tally the columns of generosity, kindness and creativity with those of self-absorption, bitchiness and cruelty. I find myself in deficit again; maybe next year I'll break even.

2012 has been an angry year. And when I try to narrow down the "why", I find at the heart of my anger a frustration at the lack of discussion. A whole year of standing in front of a dark tunnel, shouting "anybody there?" and getting distorted echoes in return - or so it feels.

The need to widen discourse, to go beyond Labour or Tory or Pro-gun or Feminist or Eurosceptic, is pressing. Fundamental structures are crumbling around us and we're arguing about the decor. "We need to find a way of looking after each other," I said. "I take it that means you're statist," came back the obligatory, instantaneous Twitter response.

A lad in China sold one of his kidneys for an iPad. A young girl in Pakistan was shot for arguing she should be allowed an education. A classful of children in the US were murdered with an assault rifle. We gather around herbal tea and stick meaningless labels on each other, learned 20 years ago in a politics lesson, to which we were only half paying attention.

What do we need? What would make our life and the lives of those around us better? These are the questions we never ask. These are the questions we should always be asking.

We begin instead from cosmotheories, either discredited or superceded by clearer thinking in the last few decades. Do I define myself as a Socialist? Then I should stand against X. Do I subscribe to neoliberalism? I must never concede that the market may have screwed up. Am I a feminist? I will never admit to needing Y (no pun intended).

We have a paucity of black and white language attempting to describe a world gloriously full of colour. We start from the box in which we have chosen to live and define everything outwards. After all, The Apprentice, X Factor, Dragons' Den, Masterchef - I could go on - have taught us that people divide brightly into brilliant successes and hilarious failures. We choose to ignore our own, verifiable, personal experience which shows us that every day is full of small battles, bitter successes and failures packed with future wisdom.

The tabloids have become skillful illustrators of fear and suspicion. What's that? An unemployed man refused a job because he didn't want to get up at 8am? I knew it! My deep-seated fear now has a URL reference.

What do we need? What would make our life and the lives of those around us better? These are the questions we never ask. These are the questions we should always be asking. We lack the language to discuss them. We lack the openness to find the answers. We choose to centre the debate on whether Conservatism with a dollop of compassion or Socialism with a fixation on low taxes is the answer. When we know - we fucking know - neither is.

On Christmas Eve thousands of people gathered in the centre of Athens. In the midst of the worst financial crisis to ever envelop the country, they donated generously - food, clothes, toys, appliances; many had been sitting in a storage room or a garage or a loft, unopened. Were they socialists, liberals, anarchists, statists, bigots, monetarists, part of The Left, The Right, The Centre? Who cares? They saw a problem and tried to fix it.

What do we need? What would make our life and the lives of those around us better? These are the questions we never ask. These are the questions we should always be asking. Otherwise we are increasingly condemned to take to the streets in anger, shouting "WHAT DO WE WANT? We have no idea. WHEN DO WE WANT IT? Hopefully some time in 2013."

Food and clothes are distributed in Athens. Photo: Getty

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle