Giving the Palestinians a voice

<em>The Death of Klinghoffer</em> does not go far enough.

Rarely has an operatic work been more controversial, or split audiences so cleanly down political lines, than John Adams's and Alice Goodman's The Death of Klinghoffer. Based on the 1985 hijacking by Palestinians of the Italian cruise ship the Achille Lauro -- and the subsequent murder of 69-year-old disabled American Jew Leon Klinghoffer -- the opera first premiered in 1991 to mixed reviews. Klinghoffer has been branded as "anti-Semitic" and "anti-bourgeois" for its consciously even-handed approach in documenting both the events on board the Achille Lauro and the historical content of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This new performance, co-produced by the English National Opera and the New York Metropolitan Opera, marks the London premier of Adams' sand Goodman's vision. Tom Morris, co-director of War Horse, brings a moody and modern take to the staging, adding further nuance to the work's historical context with the harsh grey lines of the Wall of Separation that encase and imprison the performers on the stage. Adams's soaring melodies, often modulated in polyharmonic tones reminiscent of the Arab love songs played to the captain by one of the hijackers, provide the perfect accompaniment to Goodman's lyrical prose.

The libretto juxtaposes mythological and Shakespearean undertones with colloquial speech as Goodman switches from depicting exiled Palestinians and Jews to the real-life characters of passengers and hijackers. The plot, too, is fluid and almost timeless; flowing from personal memoir to historical re-enactments and back again with no particular chronology. Michaela Martens's evocative performance as Marilyn Klinghoffer was a tender complement to Christopher Magiera's brusque and professional Captain, with a particularly haunting debut by Clare Presland as the Palestinian woman. Arthur Pita's elegant choreography was particularly effective in the "Aria of the Falling Body", artfully rendering the tragedy of Klinghoffer's body being thrown overboard.

Indeed, if this were any other opera, treating any other subject matter, I could not fault it. And yet what I found troubling about this new staging of Klinghoffer was not the opera itself, but the whiff of controversy that continues to cling to it. Alice Goodman, in a recent interview with the NS, conceded that the main reason Klinghoffer has been the focus of such public outcry is that it "looks at everybody as a person", whether that person be victim or murderer. In a 2001 New York Times article, Richard Taruskin criticised Klinghoffer for "romantically idealising criminals" and "indulging" terrorists. It is this that has so polarised opinion: on the one hand we have those (usually from the right) who say it is anti-Semitic and a glorification of terrorism; while on the other we have those (usually from the left) who defend it for giving a voice to the hijackers and placing them within the historical context of the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. But in the two decades since its premier, hardly has the debate gone beyond this simple division.

While I would applaud both Adams and Goodman for their political foresight (not to mention their artistic talents) in attempting to rectify the balance in debating Palestinian and Israeli issues, I would also argue that this work does not go far enough. Yes, there is a Chorus of Exiled Palestinians that is juxtaposed with a Chorus of Exiled Jews; but the Palestinians are portrayed as primitive, angry and destructive, while the Jews are seen peacefully planting trees and building a country. Yes, we are given an insight into the mind of the fictional hijacker Omar, but his dreams of martyrdom and Paradise are an absurd parody of Islamic values, and if anything serve to alienate him from the audience rather than underline his humanity. Ultimately, this production presents a spurious balance between the two sides in this conflict, tapping into contrived and cemented stereotypes of the "Arab terrorist" that do little to contextualise the historical scene or redefine the terms of the debate.

At the time of its premier, Klinghoffer may well have broken ground by daring to show Palestinians as human, in however a diluted form. The fact that over twenty years later we can still regard the attempt to give Palestinians a voice -- beyond that of "terrorists" -- as politically and morally contentious, is troubling in the extreme.

Alexandra Coghlan's essay on classical music and politics appears in the current issue of the New Statesman.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review, an online journal covering arts and culture in the Arab world. She also works as a freelance journalist specialising in the politics of the Middle East.

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon