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Review: The Arab Awakening - Islam and the New Middle East by Tariq Ramadan

The Arab Awakening: Islam and the New Middle East

Tariq Ramadan

Allen Lane, 288pp, £20

Many opportunistic books on the Arab spring have been published in recent months. Tariq Ramadan has wisely avoided using the phrase “Arab spring” in his title. Several Arab countries that are experiencing turmoil are likely to proceed from winter to winter without any intervening spring or summer.

Ramadan makes a persuasive case for caution, even pessimism. It appears that Libya post-Gaddafi is being pulled apart by regional and tribal rivalries. Popular protests in Algeria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have been suppressed ruthlessly. Yemen and Syria continue to drift towards outright civil war. In Egypt, the generals enjoy even more power than they did under Hosni Mubarak. Ramadan judges that only developments in Tunisia, where the moderate Islamist Ennahda party has won a fair and open election, give grounds for tentative optimism. He is also chary of making predictions. Political scientists specialising in the Middle East failed to spot what was coming. What use are they?

Unfortunately, I think Ramadan goes to too many conferences. Just as Iris Murdoch and John Bayley joked about “whithering”, attending symposia on such nebulous questions as “Whither the modern novel?” or “Whither a globalised culture?”, so Ramadan seems to have sat on an awful lot of panels debating “Whither Islam?” and “Whither the Muslim community in Europe?”. As a consequence, he has developed a sonorous and vaguely upbeat rhetoric about contemporary Islam that often deteriorates into blather. For instance:

But only by reconciling the political with the economic can the deadlock of a timeworn dialectic be broken, thus opening the way to a more comprehensive approach based on an open, far more challenging triangle whose components are the state, the economy and the cultural and religious references of the people.

If one writes at this level of generality, it is easy to dodge specific issues such as how non-Muslims and women can be assured of fully equal rights if sharia becomes the law of the land in, say, Egypt or Tunisia. (Elsewhere, Ramadan, taxed about the Islamic penalty of death by stoning for women found guilty of adultery, has gone on the record as saying that there should be a moratorium on the practice while there is a debate about it. He likes debate.)

The Arab Awakening repeatedly stresses the diversity and evolving character of Muslim responses to political and economic changes, and this must be correct. However, it is striking that the author does not credit western countries with the same quality, so that throughout the book the west is presented as monolithic, unchanging and invariably driven by economic self-interest, leaving Muslims with the mono­poly on idealism.

According to Ramadan, things are not always as they seem; he detects a hidden hand at work everywhere in the Middle East. He improbably suggests that the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, is a stooge of the Americans, but at the same time he underplays Russia’s role in supplying arms to Syria and in blocking Security Council measures against the Assad regime. When he asks why events in Syria have received so little coverage in the west, he takes no account of the severe difficulties journalists have encountered in entering that country. Indeed, some have been killed while trying to cover the Syrian uprising.

He finds the training of secularist Arab cyber-activists by American non-governmental agencies sinister, yet makes no reference to the Muslim Brotherhood’s intensive use of the internet for propaganda. Ramadan, currently professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford, is a grandson on his mother’s side of Hassan al-Banna, one of the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Ramadan claims that al-Banna “was assassinated in 1949 by the Egyptian government on orders from the British occupiers”. However, there is no evidence at all to support this allegation of British involvement, and it is perfectly clear that the Egyptian regime had its own reasons for carrying out the murder even though, according to a minority opinion, the killing may have been carried out by fellow members of the Brotherhood.

The author contends that “democracy is characterised by five inalienable principles that are not only not in contradiction with Islam, but are in fundamental conformity with it: the rule of law, equality for all citizens, universal suffrage, accountability and the separation of powers (executive, legislative and judiciary)”. This is a fine thing, but it is something that should be demonstrated, rather than merely asserted. The past history of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates and the Mamluk and Otto­man sultanates does not suggest that it is necessarily true; nor does the present practice of the Saudi and Iranian regimes. More facts and fewer debating points would be desirable. Although he has declared that “it is high time to move on from useless ideological debates”, I do not think that Ramadan ever has. l

Robert Irwin is Middle East editor of the Times Literary Supplement. His most recent book is "Memoirs of a Dervish: Sufis, Mystics and the Sixties" (Profile Books, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Halal: Britain’s most feared food

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.