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Elif Shafak's Diary

Heavy metal in Wales, the horror in London and a return to Storyland.

I am in Oslo this week. I give a talk at the Nobel Peace Centre. The audience is from all backgrounds and age groups, and they have lots of questions. I’d rather focus on literature and art, but inevitably I am asked about Turkey and the Middle East. When you are a writer from a wobbly or wounded democracy (such as Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt or Venezuela) you do not have the luxury of being apolitical.

Afterwards I head to the Oslo Freedom Forum – an annual conference that brings together international human rights advocates. The dinner is crowded. To my left sits a Norwegian journalist and to my right a Mexican minority rights lawyer. Activists from all corners of the world. The next day I give a talk on Turkey, populism, freedom of speech and the need for global solidarity.

As free as a bird

On the way back from Oslo I check my emails. PEN International is about to launch a campaign for academics on hunger strike in Turkey. “We all need to work for the rights of people we have never met and probably never will,” writes the PEN board member and my friend Burhan Sönmez. “Doesn’t that give you hope about humanity?”

The fact that in 2017 we still need to fight for basic human freedoms makes me sad but I also know he is right. I waver between pessimism and optimism, unable to let go of ­either. Gramsci would have liked my endless confusion. The pessimism of the intellect, the optimism of the heart.

Face the music

The next day I am on my way to the Hay Festival. This year I am prepared for the rain – boots, scarves and raincoats. I remember the first time I went to Hay as a young novelist. I stopped by a road sign just because it was written in Welsh and English. I had never seen anything similar in Turkey. It was unthinkable: a simple road sign written in Turkish and Kurdish.

I arrive at Hay and the sun is shining. In the artists’ green room I run into friends, old and new. My first programme is BBC Arts Hour. Writers and musicians, we join Nikki Bedi for a wonderful conversation. In the evening we have a writers’ Question Time. We’re anticipating questions on British politics and the EU, and Trump’s dangerously irresponsible withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. The first question comes from a middle-aged Welshman: “I’ve listened to you on Desert Island Discs,” he says to me. “How can you possibly enjoy heavy metal and write fiction to that kind of music?”

I blush. It is something I don’t usually talk about – my passion for Gothic, industrial, folk, progressive and alternative metal. I do not have piercings or tattoos and people tell me I am a calm person. As a result, they do not expect me to listen to that kind of music.

Return of the rose

The next day, William Sieghart interviews me about my novel Three Daughters of Eve. Then there is a book signing. A little girl ­arrives with her mother, one arm in a cast. I sign a book for her. She eyes the paper rose on the table, which the organisers hand to every speaker. “May I give this rose to you?” I ask. Her happiness is touching. The queue is long and about an hour later there she is again. She went to the back of queue just to ask me if I’d like to sign her cast. I feel honoured. I know that she is including me in her circle of friends and family. We smile at each other. I don’t believe in ideologies. I only believe in small acts of kindness. Those are the ones that leave the biggest impact.

At night, tired and tipsy – both from the wine and the talks – I sit down in the B&B in the countryside and stare outside. For a moment I am isolated from the world. The next moment I turn on social media and suddenly there it is, the awful news. London Bridge. Cruel, horrific and utterly cowardly. My heart aches. It loses its meaning – what is the point of our debates on art, creativity and literature when life is so fragile? I want to think about Adorno. I want to think about how they’ve done it in the darkest times. Is poetry possible in a world gone mad?

Ticket to ride

Back to London, travelling on the same packed train – writers, editors and journalists. Some sit on the floor. Others offer their place to strangers. There is kindness. There is sadness. I tweet about London Bridge. Immediately people react: “Children died in Afghanistan,” says a Turkish follower. “Why do you only care about their pain?”

This is exactly what is killing our world. This appalling duality of “us” versus “them”. Why shouldn’t we be able to care – equally and simultaneously and sincerely – for people dying in Kabul and Baghdad and Istanbul and Brussels and London and everywhere? I find it awful to be told that we cannot feel for entire humanity. I find it awful when we are told that we ought to go back to our tribes. At the end of the day, isn’t this exactly what fanatics want?

Home sweet home

I take a cab in London. The driver is listening to the radio, and we start to chat. “You wouldn’t want to know my views,” he says. “I am quite far-right.”

“Um, does that mean you want to kick out immigrants like myself?” I ask.

“Nope,” he says. “Not you. You are fine. Only the Muslims.”

I sigh. He is genuinely puzzled when I tell him I come from a Muslim country.

The next morning I give a talk at the Arts Club, interviewed by the Israeli journalist Danna Harman. Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Israel, Russia, Pakistan . . . Countries with massive cultural and historical baggage.

In the evening we have a debate at Intelligence Squared on the future of Europe. Then the introvert in me rebels. I have a pendulum within: between optimism and pessimism, emotions and intellect, public talks and solitude. . . I go back to my desk, close the door, return to my new novel. Here I am, in my homeland: Storyland. I won’t be going out for a long time, but I know that I can never shut the world outside.

Elif Shafak’s novel “Three Daughters of Eve” is published by Penguin

This article first appeared in the 08 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special

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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?