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Mehdi Hasan: Why have we ignored the plight of Palestine’s Bobby Sands?

We honour the memory of many men who took up armed struggle and died on hunger strike for their beliefs.

"His calls for freedom deserve to be heard. His valiant efforts should not go in vain. The president calls on all supporters of human rights and freedom, and the United Nations, to take up [his] case." Those were the laudable words of the White House press secretary, commenting on the hunger strike of the Iranian dissident and detainee Akbar Ganji in 2005.

Seven years later, the White House has issued no such statement on Khader Adnan, the detained Palestinian father-of-two who decided to end his remarkable 66-day hunger strike on 21 February as doctors warned he was "in immediate danger of death". Perhaps, just perhaps, the US is silent because his jailers are Israelis, not Iranians. Adnan is being held under Israel's "administrative detention" laws - inherited from the British Mandate era - which allow the military to detain prisoners indefinitely, without charging them or making them stand trial.

The 34-year-old baker from Jenin, who is accused by Israel of being a member of the militant group Islamic Jihad and of undefined "activities that threaten regional security", began his hunger strike on 18 December 2011 - the day after he was detained. He protests against what he says was a violent arrest as well as humiliating and abusive interrogation sessions.

His was the longest hunger strike yet by a Palestinian prisoner - and on 21 February it forced the Israeli authorities to agree not to renew his four-month administrative detention when it expires on 17 April. Yet this "deal" might be coming too late for him: on 17 February, the Israeli branch of Physicians for Human Rights said he had already suffered from "significant muscular atrophy" and was near death. His pregnant wife, Randa, who visited him in hospital, told Reuters that he had lost 35 kilos in weight and had started to vomit blood. It isn't easy to survive after starving for nine weeks.

Without trial

So why did he take such extreme action? "I have been humiliated, beaten and harassed by interrogators for no reason, and thus I swore to God I would fight the policy of administrative detention to which I and hundreds of my fellow prisoners fell prey," Adnan wrote in a letter from his hospital bed. There are 309 Palestinians being held under administrative detention by Israel - up from 219 in 2011 - including 24 Palestinian parliamentarians and one man who has been detained without trial for more than two years.

Will Adnan's bold, if near-suicidal strategy help draw attention to their fate, within Israel and beyond? "It's more important to talk about the issue of administrative detention than his hunger strike," a frustrated Anat Litvin, head of the detainees department at Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, told me.

As is so often the case, international law is not on the side of the Israelis. Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) - to which the State of Israel is a signatory - makes clear that no person should be "subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention". The ICCPR allows for governments, in narrow and extreme circumstances, to derogate from this obligation temporarily, yet, as Litvin notes, "Israel uses it on a regular basis".

In fact, the UN's Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has condemned Israel's use of long-term administrative detention - in particular, those cases, like Adnan's, in which detainees are held without trial merely for belonging to an "illegal organisation".

Here in the west, however, we have abandoned any moral high ground we may have occupied. The last Labour government inter­ned terror suspects without trial in Belmarsh between 2001 and 2004; the current coalition government's Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures allow for indefinite house arrest without charge. In the US, President Obama has signed into law the National Defence Authorisation Act, which permits the indefinite detention in military custody of terror suspects. Habeas corpus has been consigned to the history books.

Shameful silence

Meanwhile, the British media, including the BBC, have been shamefully silent on Adnan's plight. As of 21 February, his detention and hunger strike had been ignored by every single UK newspaper, bar the Guardian and the Independent, which ran a handful of pieces. The latter's Donald Macintyre devoted a full-page, 1,100-word report to Adnan's story, headlined "The West Bank's Bobby Sands" - a reference to the 27-year-old IRA prisoner who died in 1981 after 66 days on hunger strike.

It is an apt analogy. "To us, Khader Adnan just brings back memories of what we went through," Danny Morrison, spokesman for the Bobby Sands Trust, tells me. "The parallels are there for all to see." To Morrison, who was also interned in Northern Ireland, Adnan, like Sands, is driven by "the call of justice". He adds: "This man wants to live but what else can he do? He doesn't have any weapons to fight with so he fights with his own body."

“Where, one wonders, is the Palestinian Gandhi?" I asked on these pages in 2009. Perhaps he has arrived, in the unlikely guise of an Islamic Jihad activist. Some senior Israeli figures fear that Adnan's defiant - and effective - actions will inspire other Palestinians, frustrated by the political failures of Fatah and the military failures of Hamas, to engage in non-violent, Gandhi-style protests, both inside and outside Israel's prisons. As with all occupiers and oppressors throughout history, the Israelis are fighting a losing battle. Terence MacSwiney was an Irish republican activist and lord mayor of Cork who was imprisoned by the British in August 1920 and died the following October after 74 days on hunger strike. As MacSwiney once remarked: "It is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most, who will conquer in the end."

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The God Wars

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Margaret Atwood on how an inspired polymath resurrected Native America’s epics

Robert ­Bringhurst and the rediscovery of the Haida mythtellers.

Robert Bringhurst’s A Story as Sharp as a Knife is not only a testament to a monumental labour of love and intellect; it is an astonishing and essential book. But astonishing how, and essential why? Or otherwise put: astonishing and essential to whom? Astonishing and essential to anyone interested in storytelling, and stories, and how they move, and their local and universal nature, and what functions they may fulfil in their society. To anyone interested in myth, and how mythic stories differ from anecdote. To anyone interested in poetry, and how it may be constructed; thus, to anyone interested in structure and form, on which subjects Bringhurst is an expert. To anyone interested in the differences between oral poetry and literature, and written poetry and literature. To anyone interested in our human history and prehistory. To anyone interested in what makes us human, with language at the top of the list: how we think, or rather think-feel; how we express that activity; how we create “meaning”.

And also, to anyone interested in the catastrophic meltdown that took place in societies and nations all over North and South America after 1492, when Columbus made land with his boatload of infectious diseases to which Native Americans had no immunity. The mortality rate is estimated at 80 to 90 per cent: the largest human die-off we know about, much larger than the Black Death. For A Story as Sharp as a Knife is part of that event, as well, as it played out on Haida Gwaii, a once-mighty island nation located on the north-west coast of what is now Canada, in the 19th century.

A Story as Sharp as a Knife explores all those interests, as they come together in the story of how this book came to be. That story begins with two oral epic poets from Haida Gwaii, Ghandl and Skaay, one of them blind, who were living at the end of the 19th century, in a time of the almost-extinction of their people, and who made a last attempt to save something that might be passed on. Then there was a young American anthropologist, John Reed Swanton, who spoke no Haida but who wanted to record what he thought were folk tales, and an interpreter who helped him make phonic transcriptions and a rough translation.

Finally, Robert Bringhurst himself wandered into the dormant story, and found Swanton’s material slumbering in a library, and woke it up, and deciphered it, and led it out of its thorn-encircled castle. Is Robert Bringhurst this book’s author? Its singer? Its translator? Its fabricator? Is he a kind of Hermes, revealer of secrets, opener of doors, messenger who travels between worlds, including the world of the gods and the underworld? Is he a magician, bringing the dead back to life? For the story of A Story as Sharp as a Knife is also the story of Robert Bringhurst.

There’s no getting around it: Robert ­Bringhurst is a kind of genius. And like many kinds of genius, an odd duck. The paths he’s followed have not been those trodden by your run-of-the-mill duck. Unlikely are his ways, several are his attributes, many are his works, riddling are sometimes his words, and in The Hobbit he’d be Gandalf, who hasn’t got much of a personal backstory that he chooses to reveal.

Bringhurst has many strings to his magic bow; in fact, he has many bows. His studies have included (brace yourself): architecture, linguistics, physics, comparative literature and philosophy. He’s a poet himself, with over a dozen titles. In an interview, he said of his poet self:

“I am not my favourite subject. The earth is a lot bigger and more interesting than I am. I also have a strong desire . . . not to be trapped in my own time. The poetry of the present, when it isn’t playing language games, is routinely full of self-display and personal confession – or, to put it more kindly, it is full of self-exploration. In classical Greece or Tang Dynasty China or Renaissance Italy, and in the great oral cultures that were native to North America, there was very little art of that kind. Artists in those times and places were interested in human relations, too, and had serious questions to ask themselves – but most of the time they found it more fruitful and more powerful not to deal with the self directly.”

He is also a thinker about poetry and what it’s doing in the world: The Tree of Meaning (2006) contains, for instance, one of the really necessary meditations on form in poetry: how it works, why it’s there. Bringhurst compares it to wings on a bird: the bird may not use them to fly (as in poems that, as we say, don’t get off the ground), but without the structure of the wing, no bird flight is possible. Or as he puts it: “Wings are a constraint that makes it possible to fly.”

In addition to that, he’s written what is possibly the key book on typography and book design, The Elements of Typographic Style (1992). “In a badly designed book,” he remarks, “the letters mill and stand like starving horses in a field. In a book designed by rote, they sit like stale bread and mutton on the page. In a well-made book, where designer, compositor and printer have all done their jobs, no matter how many thousands of lines and pages, the letters are alive.” Thus he is well versed in the visual dimension of significant human markings, and takes them very seriously indeed; which stands him in good stead when he is interpreting the visual clues in the Haida poems.

What do all these things have to do with one another? To be a magician in the world of Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea, you’d have to have a similar portfolio of know­ledge and skills: the true names for things, how to fit words together to make powerful structures, what the world is made of in both its human and its non-human dimensions, the songs and stories about it, its deep semi-forgotten roots in the dark backward and abysm of time, and the many languages in which it speaks. “How things fit together” might be a way of describing the quests Bringhurst has pursued. For he seems to have been on a Holy Grail search for most of his life.

This bundle of interests and expertise made him the perfect Prince Charming to come across John Swanton’s neglected Haida oral poetry transcriptions, and to hack his way – with help – through the thicket of brambles surrounding them. He needed to teach himself Haida, a language which he still claims not to speak (though he could fool just about everyone on that score, since
there’s only a handful of fluent speakers alive). He then needed to discover the structural principles of the epics he was translating: not easy, since Haida (like Japanese) does not use rhyme as a structuring principle, nor does it use metrical feet in the way that English and French do. The structure he uncovered is based partly on numbers (enter the physicist), as is music, and our own poetry; but the significance of the numbers as symbols is different. “Nine”, for Robert Graves, pointed to the Moon Goddess; in the
Haida context it is an unfinished number, gesturing towards ten, its completion.

Next, he needed to learn the iconography of the Haida: the signs for clans, the signs for supernatural beings, the objects that point to the myths about them: myths everyone in the culture would have known, in the way we know a certain kind of cross means “Christianity” and another kind of cross means “Nazi”. The colour red in western iconography has many meanings, including passion, blood and Mary Magdalene. Among the Haida, a blue and red staff is the sign of a supernatural being. Every culture is filled with short cuts like this – signs that point to things all those within that culture can immediately grasp – and to understand the poems, Bringhurst needed to learn the symbol system.

Then he needed to think about why the Haida poets grouped stories together, the way Christian artists would group paintings in a triptych or murals around the inside of a church. Context is key, for any cultural artefact; and any cultural artefact, though it is made or shaped by an individual, is also, always, an expression of its culture. And finally, he needed to craft the results of all his work into a book – a shapely book; a book about the meaning of meaning; a book that did justice to his subject. This subject would be unknown to most of the readers he might hope to reach, just as Ghandl and Skaay hoped to reach people in the future who would not have known anything about their own art and their own society. And he needed to make this gnarly subject legible and indeed fascinating to his potential readers; because if the reader does not read, the message has not passed from mind to mind, and love’s labour will have been lost.

Most would have been daunted by the challenge. But Robert Bringhurst, we feel, enjoys being daunted. Many knights errant would have turned back. Many, indeed, would have stayed away in the first place: why put so much labour into something that must have seemed forbiddingly obscure? So into the dark forest he plunged; and then, after battles we can only begin to imagine, out of the forest he came, carrying this book of wonders.

He encountered opposition. Not every­one welcomed his vision of this Haida material as art, as poetry, as the creation of talented individual artists. So that was the final thing he needed to do: confront those who saw his grail as theirs, or as a teacup, or as the product of an anonymous drinking-vessel mass-production company. But Bringhurst is stubborn enough so he is not easily cowed. He has stood his ground. His book, he insists, is indeed a book of wonders.

And what a book of wonders it is! It does what wonder-books do: it opens locked doors, it reveals vistas, it illuminates. While reading it, you will see many things in a new light. Never again will you be able to think of oral poems as the product of some anonymous “mass”, as Swanton’s teacher, Franz Boas, liked to think of it; instead you will recognise that such poems were the creations of individuals working within their cultures. The best-known author in the world may well be “Anonymous”, but that is only because the names of Anonymous have been forgotten.

Instead of thinking of “native” stories as simple folk tales, you will be able to imagine them as they must have been experienced by their hearers: both beautifully formed works of art with precisely chosen words, and complex dramatic performances acted out by their poets in a darkness illuminated by flickering firelight. And each performance,
like each poem, was one of a kind. As Bring­hurst says of a performance by Ghandl, “It is a work of music built from silent images, sounding down the years. It is a vision painted indelibly in the air with words that disappear the moment they are spoken.”

Bringhurst also translated a number of Ghandl’s myth poems, which he published in Nine Visits to the Mythworld, with helpful explanatory notes. One of them is so much like the Swan Lake motif you will gasp, except that the woman who is also a bird isn’t a swan, it’s a Canada goose. There’s no Black Swan, but there is a sequence in which the man loses his bride and has to seek her through many ordeals. But my favourite is the story of Wolverine, who kills a woman and stuffs himself into her skin – shades of Men in Black – hoping through this ­impersonation to gain access to the entire tribe and eat them. The fraud is detected through Wolverine’s bad manners, a detail I cherish, and the supernatural being Mouse Woman sets things right. As with ancient Greek myth in its oral form, these poems were performed on specific occasions to specific audiences, and wisdom was transmitted through them.

Bringhurst’s devotion to the art of his long-dead fellow poets is evident on every page of A Story as Sharp as a Knife. Since he chooses his words advisedly, let us allow him the last ones:

“Ghandl’s spoken poem, like an apple or a loaf of home-made bread – or a coho skin or a cedar tree or Diego Velázquez’s painting – is both familiar and one-of-a-kind. It is something new and locally flavoured, fulfilling age-old, independently recurrent and widely travelled themes. And it is part of a whole forest of themes and variations, echoes and allusions, spreading out through space and time. It is one piece of work; it is also part of a fabric that is torn and patched, woven and unwoven day after day, night after night, and sentence after sentence, like the cloth on Penelope’s loom.”

The first UK edition of “A Story as Sharp as a Knife: the Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World” by Robert Bringhurst is published by the Folio Society and illustrated by Don Yeomans (£80).

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide