Capitalism, Michael Sandel and Michael Moore

Doha diary, part 1

I didn't arrive in Doha yesterday in time for the inauguration of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival at I M Pei's wonderful Museum of Islamic Art, which looks out over the Doha Sea at one end of the Corniche. So I missed seeing Martin Scorsese, Jeff Koons and Robert de Niro, among others, treading the red carpet ahead of a screening of Mira Nair's film Amelia, which stars Hilary Swank as the pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart.

I missed the festival after-party at the Four Seasons, too, having to make do instead with cocktails in the lounge of my hotel. (The hotel is the most easterly outpost of a chain of boutique hotels, and is blandly luxurious, in the style of such establishments the world over. Its lounge appears to be the destination of choice for the gilded youth of Doha, who smoke and drank heroically -- the drinking and the smoking surprised me -- and danced to a set by an expensively imported French DJ.)

I awoke this morning to discover that I'm staying in the middle of a vast building site. Towers of varying heights, some of them vertiginously tall, are sprouting wherever one looks. Doha, it seems, is a kind of dusty tabula rasa on which a 21st-century city is being built in staggeringly short order. Regular visitors tell me the city is unrecognisable from as little as five years ago.

Qatar, and Doha in particular, is currently in a frenzy of self-assertion -- it's the sort of place where strangers tell you, proudly and unbidden, that GDP grew by 11 per cent last year. As well as hosting the film festival, Doha is currently the venue for a high-profile women's tennis event, and in a couple of weeks' time will welcome the national football teams of England and Brazil for a friendly match. Indeed, so confident is this tiny emirate that it's bidding to host the 2022 World Cup -- as giant billboards throughout the city remind you.

And shortly before the festival opened, it was announced that the emir's daughter, who, like many of her counterparts in other Gulf states, is an enthusiastic and generous patron of the arts, was talking to the Palace of Versailles about co-funding an exhibition in Doha of the work of the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. (The past, meanwhile -- that is, the prehistoric era before the discovery of petroleum in Qatar in 1939 -- exists here only in facsimile. This evening, I was taken to the Souk Waqif, an architecturally faithful reconstruction of the original souk that the government tore down some years ago.)

The highlight of the festival this afternoon was a screening of Michael Moore's documentary Capitalism: a Love Story. I've often thought that Moore's work combines demagoguery and sentimentalism in a distinctively indigestible way, but this film is different. Sure, he does his ordinary-schlub-speaking-truth-to-power schtick, but his evisceration of the behaviour of the custodians of US capitalism, on Wall Street and on Capitol Hill, is extraordinarily powerful -- on account of its almost guileless quality of moral censure and disapproval. Think of it as an extended howl of what the American philosopher Michael Sandel calls "bailout outrage".

That's it for now. I'm off in a moment to an outdoor, midnight screening at the Museum of Islamic Art of Steven Soderbergh's new film The Informant. More on that tomorrow.

UPDATE: Frustratingly, I got to the museum just now, only to be told that the Soderbergh screening had been cancelled "on the order of the authorities". Mysterious. I'll try to find out why.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem