Dystopian future: a still from Bladerunner (1982)
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The Bladerunner book: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep on Radio 4

Jonathan Holloway’s adaptation rightly cherished many things that the film ultimately minimised, in particular the novel’s mourning of the extinction of various animal species.

Dangerous Visions: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Radio 4

A season of dramas about future dystopias on Radio 4 featured a nicely depressed dramatisation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (15 and 22 June, 3pm), Philip K Dick’s best-known science-fiction novel. James Purefoy played Deckard, the bounty hunter charged to “retire” advance-model humanoids manufactured by genetic engineers in a congested, polluted, postwar 1992. Purefoy got that Dickian sense of inward scrutiny – his voice a scar of suffering, quivering with impatience and humiliation.

So often, radio adaptations of stories that have already been made into blockbusting movies (in this case, Blade Runner) ooze with self-consciousness; you’re terribly aware that you’re listening to something suspended between the page and the screen. Not here. I was half an hour into the show when I noticed they were using the word “android”, which appears in the book, rather than the iconic “replicant”. (In 1982, Ridley Scott felt that “android” represented the kind of B-movie lingo that the world was heartily sick of.)

Jonathan Holloway’s adaptation rightly cherished many things that the film ultimately minimised, in particular the novel’s mourning of the extinction of various animal species. On the page, Deckard recalls the days when the owls “fell out of the sky” and people did nothing but sit about, numbly reading animal obituaries. On the radio, he has a simple, gnawing desire for a pet monkey – a real pet monkey, not one that smells of electricity, a sure sign the creature is artificial. (A brilliant suggestion in the early drafts of the movie screenplay was a menagerie of mythic animals – including a unicorn – created to replace real ones. But it proved too expensive and the animal idea became less pivotal generally.)

Philip K Dick’s sense of a world reduced to an electronic slum was marvellously captured in the production – often with just the vague sound of static, or the swish of doors sliding so smoothly open and shut that after a while it began to feel like barbed wire in your head. And always there was Purefoy’s Bogartian, mumbled, perished voice, longing for a glimpse of his non-electric monkey, or even a slither of real sky, poor son of a bitch.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

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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