In the Critics this week

Benjamin Kunkel, Talitha Stevenson, Will Self and more.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, writer and psychotherapist Talitha Stevenson examines the proliferation of new forms of addiction and the representation of addictive behaviour in literature. “All addictions,” Stevenson writes, “arise from the poignant desire to interpret existential anxieties as a physical lack … An addict tries to get ‘clean’, not because this is an end in itself, but in order to get back in the existential dirt with the rest of us. Cleanliness, in this sense, is a long way from godliness.” Addiction takes many forms, as novelists have long understood. “Most novels,” Stevenson contends, “are … about addiction: a sacred or fetishised object or behaviour is used by a character to displace or to eliminate more overwhelming anxieties.” Stevenson considers examples of this structure in the fiction of George Eliot, Jane Austen and F Scott Fitzgerald.

In Books, American writer and n+1 co-editor Benjamin Kunkel reviews Slavoj Žižek’s new book about Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously. “For many fellow leftists,” Kunkel observes, Žižek’s assumption of a highly idiosyncratic public persona “has been both a winning performance and a vexing one … [H]is intellectual celebrity has seemed a symptom of the very intellectual impasse he has diagnosed … [T]he figure of Žižek seemed to represent, encouragingly, the lifting of the post-cold-war embargo on radical thought and at the same time, discouragingly, its reimposition.”

Also in Books: Nigerian novelist Chika Unigwe reviews her compatriot Chinua Achebe's memoir There Was a Country: a Personal History of Biafra; the NS’s pop music critic Kate Mossman reviews Matt Thorne’s biography of Prince; and Labour peer Andrew Adonis pays tribute to the late Philip Gould in his review of Philip Gould: an Unfinished Life, edited by Denis Kavanagh.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey on Leos Carax’s new film Holy Motors; Rachel Cooke on the BBC’s new Victorian period drama The Paradise; Antonia Quirke on a Radio 4 documentary about a Tibetan lama; Andrew Billen on Carol Churchill’s new play and Simon Stephens’s adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time; “Clapper Bridge”, a poem by Fiona Benson. PLUS: Will Self’s "Madness of Crowds".

Dreaming dangerously: Slavoj Žižek
Getty
Show Hide image

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