Elia Suleiman and the politics of disappointment

Doha diary, part 3

The second story on the front page of Doha's English-language newspaper the Peninsula yesterday concerned the declaration by the emir's economic adviser that Qatar had no plans to sell gas to Israel. Dr Ibrahim al-Ibrahim had been challenged by an audience member on the Qatari equivalent of Question Time to confirm that Israel wouldn't be benefiting any time soon from the emirate's huge reserves of natural gas. (Gas now accounts for a larger proportion of Qatar's GDP than oil, and the exploitation of those reserves is very big business indeed. The Duke of York was here last week inspecting Shell's research centre in Doha, and on Saturday night, in the lobby of my hotel, I met a bored and rather languid lawyer for the company who's spending several weeks in this gilded prison, scrutinising contracts on several eye-wateringly substantial deals.)

Israel was also on the minds of the audience at a Doha Tribeca Film Festival "masterclass" given by the Palestinian director Elia Suleiman, after a screening of his latest film, The Time That Remains. Suleiman based the screenplay on the diaries of his father, Fouad, who is played in the film with extraordinary, almost aristocratic grace by Saleh Bakri.

The first portion of the film is set in Nazareth, the director's birthplace, in 1948, as Palestinian fighters, of whom Fouad is one, are surrendering to troops of the Haganah. Many of the townspeople flee to Jordan, but rather than showing us the flight of the Palestinian refugees, Suleiman allows his camera to linger on hastily abandoned homes -- in one house, a half-eaten breakfast is left on a dining table. This reticence is the source of the film's considerable power. At no point in the subsequent segments, set in 1970, 1980 and the present (in Ramallah, as well as Nazareth), does Suleiman allow himself to be seduced by the myth-making of Palestinian resistance. The dominant note is not of anger or rage, but of melancholy resignation.

And that is the sentiment that is etched across Suleiman's lugubriously handsome face in the final act, in which he himself appears, playing the returning son as a completely silent observer of the quiet agonies of a land that it's not at all clear he still calls home. (Indeed, in the discussion afterwards, the director asked rhetorically: "Where is my homeland? Every place I enjoy is a homeland for me.")

Suleiman's temperament evidently tends towards pessimism and the ready acknowledgment of defeat (the title of the film, he said, is meant to remind us that "time is running out"). When he was invited by a journalist from al-Jazeera to send a message to the "suffering people", not just of Palestine, but of the entire Arab world, he refused. To do so, he implied, would have been inauthentic, for he "didn't suffer as a child". (At that point, I half expected Tariq Ali, who was in the audience, to intervene. Ali is here promoting South of the Border, Oliver Stone's docu-hagiography of Hugo Chávez and the other strongmen of the Latin American left, which he co-wrote with the director.)

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

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The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times