A hymn at Calapi

(Unpublished, 2015)

A Hymn At Calapi

I thank you my Beatrice,
For this my plight,
To wade down from northern shores,
And taste wild rosemary,
On cliff face over which,
Mediterranean’s blue wonder,
Shelters all men before,
Gates through which Odysseus sailed.

And onward northern soul,
Towards a point forlorn,
Atop cliff in tower,
To scour the sweet azure,
For the fury untold,
Sweet nature cannot last,
All flux among the pearls,
No island without sin.

And as Milton’s broth,
Conjoins in corporeal reform,
Man’s fate, no more of paradise,
Beatrice out of sight,
Crashing waves against these rocks,
Torn asunder without fail,
In time more armies will arrive,
Allowing no rhyme to contrive.

The Vagabond Spirit of Poetry

(Published in Village Magazine, November, 2014)

Few of us can recite a poem in its entirety. Perhaps this no longer matters as even an infant can now find whatever it was on YouTube. Yet many of the outstanding technological advances humanity has made only seem to increase stress levels, generate inequality and cause environmental degradation.
What is the antidote? Is it possible that close engagement with Romantic poetry can bring us from the brink of meltdown? Edward Clarke, the author of ‘The Vagabond Spirit of Poetry’, believes so.
In recent times many in the West have been drawn to the non-dogmatic spiritual traditions of the East from Buddhism to yoga as they search for tranquillity and deep meaning. But Clarke suggests that we “we have our own traditions and mysteries, our own ways of taking hold of breath” that can be found in our inherited poetry.
He argues that “by reciting poems and remembering them, we find that we have been provided with narrative exercises sufficient to apprehend that we are greater than we know”.
Clarke writes of how he continues to draw inspiration from a passage from Milan Kundera’s novel ‘Slowness’. Kundera enquires in one powerful passage:
‘Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared? Ah where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear? Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of folk song, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars? Have they vanished along with footpaths, with grasslands and clearings, with nature? There is a Czech proverb that describes their easy indolence in a metaphor: ‘They are gazing at God’s windows’. A person gazing at God’s windows is not bored; he is happy. In our world, indolence has turned into having nothing to do, which is a completely different thing: a person with nothing to do is frustrated, bored, is constantly searching for the activity he lacks”.
Clarke makes bold claims on behalf of his poetic ideal: “Swearing by capitalism, democracy, reason and science, we are all the while cheerfully ignorant about supernatural powers that hide themselves in great poetry”.  Essentially Clarke holds a neo-Platonic, pre-Enlightenment worldview, much like that of most of the poets he adulates including Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and Yeats.
Unlike most critics Clarke is unabashed at the suggestion that great poetry engages with supernatural forces: “I contend that the greatest poetry can make us apprehend that God, the centre of religious celebration, whatever we call that nothingness or darkness, incomprehensible and vast in its own being, is a force within man”.
Clarke’s deep engagement has brought him to an explicit belief in the supernatural. He poses the question: “If a work makes us believe in fairies, even temporarily, do they thus come into existence within that work whenever it is read with the most believing mind, however strange that seems?”
The author is unrepentant in response to an accusation from one critic of “spiritual literalism” in his first book. He says: “I will persist in what many critical contemporaries see as a folly because the older poetry calls for it (such is my piety)”. Surely Clarke cannot be faulted for giving poetry a neo-Platonic reading considering the poets he parses would have approved of it rather than the sociological or deconstructive approach now favoured in academic institutions?
Clarke is wary of a melancholic trend in modern poetry. He argues that the worst kind of poetry is confessional. He identifies Sylvia Plath among a raft of poets who he says “are depressingly limited and dangerously egotistical poets”. Clarke insists that poetry should seek to answer eternal questions and eschew self-indulgence.
William Wordsworth’s poetry encapsulates this tension between a Romantic poetry searching for a ‘great beyond’ and the self-referential poetry he holds in contempt: “Wordsworth worries me because he becomes so consumed by the story of his life, ‘The Prelude’, so obsessed with what comes before, that he neglects to develop his capacity to look after, his ‘capacity of thee’, or that which comes to us from the future”.
Clarke identifies historical episodes when pre-modern ideas encounter industrial civilisation as propitious for poetic invention and the other-worldly forms that inhabit such verse. He claims: “Supernatural forms have a habit of entering a country’s literature when its oral culture is dying out and the population becomes more urban and sceptical. In England, genii have flocked to our literature from the sixteenth century onwards. When Yeats was recording the last vestiges of ancient tradition in Ireland during the nineteenth century, the fairies began to find a new home in his verse”.
Clarke endorses the revolutionary ideas of William Blake who favoured a sacramental poetry, and a universal form of religion: “The Religions of all Nations are derived from each Nation’s different reception of the Poetic Genius, which is everywhere call’d the Spirit of Prophecy…   As all men are alike, tho’ infinitely various; so all Religions: and as all similars have one source the True Man is the source, he being the Poetic Genius”.
There is a clear divergence between Clarke’s approach and that of one of the leading Modernist poets and critics of the twentieth century, T. S. Eliot. As a devout Christian Eliot rejected what he regarded as the paganism of Romantic poetry. Clarke claims that: “Eliot’s major problem with this book would have been due to his critical position as a Christian”. But Eliot’s devotion led him ultimately to admit that: “The poetry does not matter”.
Clarke is convinced that: “Poetry does matter because it opens paths to self-knowledge by acknowledging indirectly and formally that which I had better call ‘The bright eternal Self that is everywhere’; ‘that is immortality, that is Spirit, that is all”.
This divergence between Christianity and older form of religiosity is identified by the anthropologist Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy (2006). She argues that “today’s ‘faiths’ are often pallid affairs – only by virtue of the very fact that they are ‘faiths’, dependent on, and requiring, belief as opposed to direct knowledge. The prehistoric ritual dancer, the maenad or practitioner of Vodou, did not believe in her god or gods: she knew them, because, at the height of group ecstasy, they filled her with their presence”.
The poetry that Clarke esteems evinces this older form of spiritual engagement that a rationalist Christianity, especially that which emerged after the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, superseded. Seen in this way, poetry may be one among other forms of expression including dance and music that allows the human spirit to thrive.
Clarke might be faulted for an elitism that creeps into his evaluation of the poetic imagination. Should we restrict ourselves to the worship at the shrine of a few canonical poets? Or are there many more ‘loafing heroes of folk song’ in our midst as Kundera suggests there once were? Also, the poets Clarke esteems so highly are all male. Is the poetic priesthood a male preserve or should the female imagination be given more emphasis?
Furthermore, it seems unsatisfactory to dismiss the scientific field peremptorily. Undoubtedly there are some scientists that bring ‘scientism’ to an unhelpful extreme such as the tendentious Richard Dawkins. But Clarke may share more of a platform than he realises with others especially Iain McGilchrist. McGilchrist actually taught literature before training as a psychiatrist. His book ‘The Master and his Emissary’ (2009) explores what he views as a pathological imbalance of the brain hemispheres apparent in the Western imagination since the Industrial Revolution, with far too great an emphasis on the problem-solving left, at the expense of the creative right.
Clarke’s book is a powerful polemic that is unapologetic in its spiritual conviction. His Romantic reading of Romantic poetry diverges from most academic discourse and merits fresh appraisal. He traces a line of poetic authority, from Shakespeare to Yeats, which to his great regret was in the end largely broken by industrial civilisation.
As the world confronts the many challenges of a rampant globalism and a dislocated and uninterested population perhaps, as Clarke envisions, a revived mystical poetry, along with other art, can indeed help us comprehend the great beyond, as well as help us cope with the here and now.


Unmasking the shroud of Legalese

(Unpublished, 2010)

For the past two summers I have taught law in Oxford to Americans of High School age. The students’ enthusiasm and dedication in allowing their summer months to be spent in academic study is impressive and also indicative of the competitiveness of the application process for prestigious American universities.

What is most interesting from a teaching perspective is the degree of prior knowledge that students display. Most seem to have taken classes in what they call ‘government’ which develops a relatively sophisticated knowledge of their Constitution and Bill of Rights. In fact, knowledge of the basics of their law is something that I have encountered among most educated Americans.

Likewise, in France law is generally seen as part of a general education; Rene David wrote of this awareness of law as being an ‘element presque normal de la culture generale’. It has been said that the original French civil code owes its clarity to the fact that its draftsman always had to ask himself whether his words would withstand the criticisms of a highly intelligent layman like Napoleon, unfamiliar with the legal jargon.

Alas, the general body of citizens do not display the same legal erudition in this republic. The law and legal judgments are invariably rendered to the public in distilled form by journalist interpreters. Most students of history will be able to say that a Constitution was promulgated in 1937 and was informed by Catholic values, but the type of government that it creates and the rights that it enshrines are shrouded in what has come to be known as ‘legalese’; the obscure language of the legal professional.

Why is this the case? Why should legal jargon be inaccessible to the general public? In part, this is down to deficiencies in our secondary education system. Recently Civil, Social and Political Education (C.S.P.E.) was introduced as a mandatory subject for Junior Certificate students, but the syllabus merely piously enjoins students to understand that ‘laws and rules serve important services in any community or society, including the peaceful resolution of conflicts, the protection of life and property etc.’ There is no serious attempt to demystify the sources of law in this country. C.S.P.E. then ceases to be available to Leaving Certificate students. Unlike knowledge of religion, which is taught weekly to most students, a cursory knowledge of law is, seemingly, not considered an important aspect of a citizen’s education.

Arguably much of the difficulty lies in the Constitution itself. Article 50.1 states ‘subject to this Constitution and to the extent to which they are not inconsistent therewith, the laws in force in Saorstát Éireann immediately prior to the date of the coming into operation of this Constitution shall continue to be of full force and effect until the same or any of them shall have been repealed or amended by enactment of the Oireachtas.’ In plain language, this meant that judges would continue to apply the common law that had applied since the Act of Union. Behind the veneer of legal independence there was no clean slate.

Therefore, this state continued as a common law jurisdiction. So, for example, notwithstanding Article 40.6.1 which guarantees ‘the right of the citizens to freely express their convictions and opinions’, the courts continued to apply the common law rules of defamation with its obscure distinction between libel and slander.

Max Weber, the renowned German sociologist, provided a compelling critique of the verbal gymnastics emanating from common law lawyers: ‘The extensive participation in the process of juridically experienced and trained experts, who to an ever increasing degree devoted themselves “professionally” to the task of “counsel” or judge, has placed the stamp of “lawyers’ law” upon the type of law thus created’. This creates a situation where ‘reasoning is tied to the word, the word which is turned around and around, interpreted, and stretched in order to adapt it to varying needs, and, to an extent that one has to go beyond, recourse is had to “analogies” or technical fictions’.

While statute law ameliorates this situation to an extent, the technique of lawyers honed in the professional schools of our common law system often descends into over-complication and even casuistry, and much of our law, particularly on the civil side, is still governed by judge made common law.

This “lawyers’ law” is impenetrable to ordinary citizens. A letter from a solicitor creates consternation as the ordinary citizen feels ill-equipped to understand the obscure workings of laws that might as well be written in another language. This situation serves the law firms and barristers very well. In fact, textual obscurity is for some (particularly those engaged in the law of real property) a defence mechanism against professional obsolescence. In a post Catholic society the interpretation of the divine by the priesthood has been replaced by the legal oracle.

Of course a society needs experts in law, but the present system promotes legal mumbo jumbo, and too often opinions are addressed to a narrow professional audience. The deeper the pocket, the further the lengths that can be gone to stymie the ascertainment of truth and the determination of justice. One has only to observe the legal subterfuge used to undermine the workings of tribunals.

What can be done to bring about reform of a system that leaves the general population confused? Firstly, it is necessary that law as a subject be brought into the mainstream; that it should be a part of a secondary education, and at third level that it be taught alongside other humanities subjects as an abstract discipline that includes a comparative dimensions rather than solely as part of a vocational education. Second, it is necessary that judgments and legislation be drafted in a style comprehensible to an educated lay audience. A general understanding of the law among the citizenry is necessary in this republic otherwise we remain a subject people and the lawyers will keep coining it.

Large scale immigration requires ‘the nation’ to be redefined

(Published in Metro Eireann, 2007)

‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’ (Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784)

Provisional census figures indicate that the there are approximately 400,000 non-nationals living in this country. Coping with such a level of diversity is a new challenge for the indigenous population of a peripheral island historically removed from the European mainstream, une isle derriere une isle as a French historian once put it. To date most of the new entrants have come from other EU states, but if, as seems likely, our economy continues to grow, increased numbers will arrive from elsewhere.

In order to achieve successful integration we may need to learn from other states in the Union, in particular Britain, where a model of multiculturalism prevails, and France where a different policy – that of assimilation, has been pursued. In 2005 both countries experienced serious incidents, civil disturbance in France and the terrorist attacks of July 7th in Britain, which called into question the efficacy of their respective policies. To achieve a peaceful transition, in this country, from a relatively homogenous society to one that is successfully cosmopolitan, it will be vital to strike the right balance between respecting diversity and encouraging integration.

The Immigration Residence and Protection Bill 2007

In a recent address to the Law Society the Tanaiste, and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Michael McDowell revealed the legislative response, in the shape of the Immigration Residence and Protection Bill 2007, the government will make to the large scale immigration of recent years.

In his speech, McDowell also explored how we identify ourselves, a theme which has been put in sharp focus by the pronouncements of the leader of the opposition, Enda Kenny, to the effect that we are a ‘Celtic and Christian’ people, which, apparently, makes us ‘understand better than most the special challenges of immigration and integrating new communities’. In an international climate which features a perceived ‘clash of civilisations’ to define ‘the Irish’, an increasingly diverse population, in racial and religious terms can, at best, be regarded as naïve, and at worst provocative. Mr McDowell, to his credit, repudiates the Fine Gael leader’s simplistic characterisation and instead advocates a ‘republican’ model rooted in ‘diversities of identities and traditions’.

The Minister also adds to the lexicon of Irish historiography by coining the terms ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Irish to distinguish between the indigenous population and new arrivals, many of whom will become citizens. One letter-writer to a national newspaper complained that, by analogy, an Irish person living in England could be referred to as ‘New English’, suggesting that this would be entirely unsatisfactory. This, however, is more testament to the stunted level of integration in Britain; the McDowell definition suggests that ‘Irishness’ is not the sole preserve of indigenes.

McDowell argues that there is little a government can do to promote integration: ‘[T]he breadth of the approach to this issue internationally suggests that integration policy and objectives are not particularly tied to legislative diktat’. He does, however, envisage some form of citizenship test: ‘[Citizenship] should perhaps be conferred only on those who can demonstrate that they have a minimum level of understanding of the nation and state to which those duties are owed and a minimum capacity to interact linguistically with the other citizens of the state’. The legal basis for a language test might be difficult to find in a country where the Constitution defines Irish as the ‘first national language’. Would immigrants be required to learn Irish? This approach evokes memories of Norman Tebbit’s absurd ‘cricket test’ for immigrants to Britain. The idea appears misguided; such an examination might demand a level of knowledge from a new immigrant that many a native would not attain.

Island Refuge

From independence, this state did not welcome foreign intrusion. Notably, Jewish refugees were not offered sanctuary during the Second World War. This reluctance can be explained by the efforts of a newly emerged governing elite to forge an unvarying national identity based on language and Catholic values.

The arrival of exoticism from abroad, in any shape or form, was not encouraged, especially while the country’s population continued to be drained by emigration, and resources were scarce. Cead Mile Failte would be extended so long as foreigners remained foreigners, admiring us from afar, or ideally, providing us with tourist dollars.

Times have obviously changed, the policy of autarky; the goal of self-sufficiency belongs to the past, we swim in the global economic maelstrom. It took some time to get there but now we serve as an exemplar to other post colonial states; the star pupil of the EU, brash and self-confident. While the boom depended in the early stages on the young population, since the turn of the century we have come to rely on foreign labour.

The relative opulence of virtual full employment counters a prevailing inclination towards begrudgery among the ‘Old Irish’, and also means that the new arrivals have, in general, avoided poverty. Further, as the majority have come from other European states, most of the ‘New Irish’ share cultural traits common to the ‘Old’, not to mention similar pigmentation. These factors have defused the threat of xenophobic political movements emerging. However, with birth rates at historic lows across the EU, and with the likelihood that the economies of Eastern European will improve as community membership takes effect, demand for labour will be filled from elsewhere if our economic success is to be sustained. This will bring increased immigration of peoples from countries with traditions and lifestyles more divergent to our own.


In Europe, it is possible to identify two main approaches to immigration; the British model of multiculturalism, and the French alternative of assimilation, neither of which have proved entirely successful.

In Britain, the issue of immigration came to the fore in the 1960s, most memorably in Enoch Powell’s speech predicting ‘Rivers of Blood’. The doomsday scenario has certainly not come to pass, although there have been numerous incidents along the way; race riots, the infamous Stephen Lawrence murder, and more recently the modest rise of the BNP and UKIP.

The main thrust of successive British government policy has been to deter discrimination. The Race Relations Acts (1965-2000) provide a legislative scheme for ensuring equality of treatment in areas such as employment, education, and housing. Further, a long liberal tradition has allowed immigrants, stretching back to Karl Marx, to freely express their opinions. Indeed, during the 1980s and 1990s ‘Londonistan’ emerged as a place of intellectual ferment for Islamists. This has been offered as an explanation for why Britain had not been subjected to attack by Islamic terrorists before the events of July 7th 2005 shattered the delicate modus vivendi.

Stemming perhaps from colonial experience, the British approach has been to identify various ethnic or religious blocks and patronise their leadership. However, the attempt to define, and to an extent control, ‘ethnic’ groups often generates confusion; for example in the ethnic coding for the 2001 census; ‘Muslim’ is offered as an ‘ethnic’ category under the heading ‘Asian’, while ‘Jewish’ (another religious category) falls under the heading ‘White’, with ‘Arab’ (are Jews and Arabs not supposed to both be Semites?) defined under ‘Chinese or Other’. The point is that ethnicity is a malleable concept, subject to change according to individual whim.

The British Home Office patronises various groups such as the Muslim Council of Britain (which is provided with financial support), as representatives of religious or ethnic blocks. But it is not always the case that individuals are satisfied to be represented by so-called ‘community leaders’, or that these often self-appointed individuals accurately reflect the views of their ‘community’; recently, a group of Jews in Britain came together to launch Independent Jewish Voices, an organisation opposed to the policies of Israel which are supported by the long-standing Board of Deputies of British Jews.

Anyone who has lived in London can testify to a level of alienation not experienced in other large cities. A trip on the Tube offers a parade of withdrawn faces. Tolerance can often lapse into a superficial political correctness, while communities stick to themselves.

Acknowledgement from social commentators and politicians that all is not well in multicultural Britain is beginning. In a recent article in The Guardian (1/2/07) Timothy Garton Ash wrote that the reality of multi-culturalism is ‘one of far-reaching alienation among young British Muslims. In an NOP poll last year, less than half of British Muslims interviewed identified Britain as “my country”.’ The situation in many communities of Afro-Caribbean descent is also a cause for concern, as gun crime reaches alarming proportions.

One source of the difficulties is the existence of an entrenched class system that encourages segregation. The effect of this is reinforced by colonial traditions that frowned upon miscegenation (cohabitation or marriage between different races); Britain is more mosaic than melting pot, and global currents enlarge the cracks.

Political Islam lays emphasis on the umma, the Islamic community, to the exclusion of ethnic or national identities. Social stratification has provided a breeding ground for this ideology, especially in the North of England ravaged by Thatcherism. Added to this social discontent, the foreign policy of the British government, strongly associated with what is perceived as a U.S ‘crusade’ against Islam, has created serious tensions that culminated in the suicide attacks of July 7th, 2005 which marked a new chapter in inter-communal relations. Currently relations are frosty, and much could depend on the foreign policy that emerges from the Blairite abdication.

The tradition of tolerance in Britain is to be admired, but the rigid stratification of ‘ethnic’ groups is increasingly a cause for alarm among politicians and social commentators in that country. Successive governments have tended to ignore the challenge of integration, giving rise to a situation where it would be fair to ask how many people would see themselves as ‘British’ as opposed to any of the other competing identities.

Veiled Threats

French colonisation developed by contrast, a policy of Assimilation (although Association was practised in later colonies such as Morrocco and Syria). The objective was to mould Frenchmen out of the native populations and there was no such taboo around miscegenation as under British colonisation. Indeed, the more sensual French tended to celebrate the native, perhaps most memorably in Gauguin’s depictions of Tahitian life.

However, efforts to integrate native populations ultimately failed, owing perhaps to the exploitation that defines the relationship of coloniser to colonised. This failure was seen most starkly in Algeria, the oldest of French colonies which had been integrated into Metropolitan France, where a brutal war of independence led to the deaths of at least 350,000 (and over twice that number according to Algerian sources) which effectively led to the demise of France as a colonial power, and has caused lasting enmity.

Within France, the state seems to continue a policy of Assimilation towards immigrants most of whom arrived during France’s trente glorieuses, (1945-1974); the thirty years of prosperity that followed the Second World War. In contrast to Britain, the French government does not allow official statistics based on ethnicity or religion to be compiled. Nonetheless, it is estimated there are 6.7 million people of immigrant background.

The absence of statistics cannot, however, mask clear fault lines exemplified vividly by the continued success of the National Front, Europe’s largest avowedly xenophobic party, the leader of which, Jean Marie Le Pen, interestingly, fought in the Algerian War of Independence. Its continued electoral success shows that there are ingrained prejudices in French society directed against those perhaps still considered colonial underlings. Indeed, an analysis of 1999 French census data elicited evidence of significant occupational segregation with immigrants occupying ‘jobs shunned by natives.’

Recent years has seen unemployment hover around 10%, generating discontent, and latterly civil disturbance. Scenes projected by the fictional film La Haine came vividly to life on a massive scale in 2005 as riots erupted in les banlieus causing extensive damage to many French cities, and leading to the declaration of a state of emergency.

Although the Renseignements Generaux (French Intelligence Agency) denied that there was an ‘Islamic factor’ to the riots, the aggressive policy of secularisation, a polite form of Assimilation, has fuelled tension. The ban on the wearing of the hijab (and other religious symbols) in schools allows Islamic militants to portray the state as Islamophobic, but for many in France this has become a fundamental tenet of their republicanism, so it would be almost impossible for any government to change course.

French society is highly politicised, strikes and manifestations seem to occur more regularly than in any other state on the planet. To an extent this is indicative of a healthy body politic, and revealingly, a 2006 survey, conducted by the Pew Research Centre, found that 72% of Muslims in France perceive no conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society, in contrast to Britain where Muslims split evenly (47% saw a conflict, 49% did not). Furthermore, French foreign policy, particularly the French stance on the U.S. invasion of Iraq, has brought the French government more in step with the views of most immigrants.

Nevertheless, the seeming unwillingness of the state to face up to diversity ignores the frictions in French society, and the ban on the hijab only stokes tensions without achieving any discernable objective. Ultimately, it is likely to be economic factors, especially the prevalence of unemployment, which will define future relations. It also remains to be seen how, if elected, the current Presidential favourite Nicolas Sarkozy, who advocates a more pro-American foreign policy, will effect relations.

Clean Slate

Unlike many other European states, the ‘Old Irish’ can define a relationship with the ‘New’ without the burden of colonisation. Indeed, as colonial subjects, and with a history of emigration, we should begin with a certain empathy with many Third World immigrants. Also, a tradition of neutrality means that this state is unlikely to get involved in foreign misadventures. But initial goodwill, on both sides, could rapidly dissipate.

There are clearly lessons to be learnt from the French and British experiences, and Michael McDowell is disingenuous to contend that the legislature does not have a role in confronting the question of integration. Council estates, and les banlieus have emerged in Britain and France as breeding ground for poverty and crime, allowing terrorism and civil disturbances to flourish. It is crucial for integration that our government pursues housing polices that counter the possibility of such ghettos. Already, socially deprived council estates have engendered a pernicious gangsterism among the ‘Old Irish’. It is surely vital that a like degeneration does not manifest itself among the ‘New Irish’.

Another danger, in the longer term, is that the gulf in wealth between the migrant and native could fuel tensions. An increase in the minimum wage, or further reduction in the lower band of income tax, would have an equalising effect. Otherwise, a neo-colonial relationship could take hold, with immigrants taking on the subaltern roles in Irish society with ‘occupational segregation’ emerging.

From the French experience it is worthwhile to observe the value of instilling in immigrants a sense of pride in the nation. The educational system is crucial to this endeavour. The presence, still, of habit-wearing nuns still teaching in schools, ought deter controversy over the issue of the hijab, but our education system does perhaps require a dose of secularisation; schools run by religious orders are unlikely to be acceptable to many non-Catholic immigrants, and it is important that children from different backgrounds are acclimatised to one another. The bifurcation of Protestants and Catholics in the North of Ireland can perhaps be traced to the segregation of schools there.

Modest Proposal

Article 27 of the Canadian charter reads as follows:

‘This Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.’

The Irish Constitution already ‘cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage’; would it not be fitting to amend our Constitution to include a similar endearment towards immigrants?

Rising Tide

Fortunately, no significant racist or xenophobic political movements have emerged in this state; in contrast to many other European countries where, in recent years, political parties advocating stringent controls on immigration have grown in popularity, and have even entered into ruling coalitions. For all its faults, the melting pot of U.S. society has been far more accommodating to immigrants. Perhaps Europe’s inability to integrate immigrants is best explained by how, with France perhaps excepted, pride in the nation is generally bound up with attachment to a particular ethnic background, or volk. There is an urgent need to repudiate this conflation, and re-appraise this understanding of the ‘nation’. The views of Dominique Schnapper of the Constitutional Council of France are endorsed: ‘The Classical concept of the nation is that of an entity which, opposed to the ethnic group, affirms itself as an open community, the will to live together expressing itself by the acceptance of a unified public domain which transcends all particularisms.’

If we define ourselves as a ‘Celtic and Christian’ people we embrace an exclusive “particularism” that will exclude immigrants. Michael McDowell’s definition of the ‘Old Irish’ and ‘New Irish’ is helpful, as Irishness ceases to be exclusive. Nonetheless, the state should refrain from a heavy-handed Assimilation, allowing for the celebration of other cultures, not just our own. It is also important that this government move beyond rhetoric and adopt policies that will smooth the process of creating an “open community”.

Portrait of a Communist as a young man

(Unpublished, 2002)

The decline of both organised religion and mass political activism would seem to suggest that the ‘isms’ from Communism to Catholicism, have been confined to history. With such ideologies swept away by the march of time it would seem the only ‘ism’ left is cynicism.

Some have found in the anti-globalisation movement a refuge from the consumption-driven lifestyle of the west but the nascent movement contains no discernible objective, or philosophical rationale, other than engaging in aimless protests. The attitude seems to be let’s storm the Bastille now and somebody is sure to come with some ideas afterwards.

The voices of protest against the craven use of power for the benefit of a single country or even a single class within a country were not always so incoherent. Half a century ago many of the most intelligent and socially conscious were captivated by a particular ideology – Communism. The ideology that sprang from the writings of Karl Marx and Lenin’s October Revolution.

In this light, it was with particular interest that I read the autobiography of the self-confessed Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm (Hobsbawm, Eric – Interesting Times A Twentieth Century Life, Penguin, 2002). Although some French will be sure to disagree, I do not think it inaccurate to portray Hobsbawm as the greatest historian of the twentieth century. What distinguishes Hobsbawm is not the fluidity of his prose, which can, in truth, be quite turgid, but the breadth of his vision.

If Martians were to come down from earth and they wished to learn about the human species since the French Revolution one would not be doing a disservice to inter-galactic relations to recommend Hobsbawm’s four Ages (the Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, the Age of Empire and the Age of Extremes).

Hobsbawm’s greatness lies in an ability to view the world three dimensionally; the acute eye for detail is never distracted from the overall view. Furthermore, as a peripatetic polyglot, and a Jew by ethnicity, Hobsbawm was a first hand witness of many of the pivotal events of the last century.

Born in Alexandria in 1917 the same year as the October Revolution from which he draws so much inspiration, his parents (his father was British and his mother Austro-Hungarian) soon settled in Vienna where their son Eric was reared. Vienna, the imperial capital of a decaying multicultural mitteleuropean empire was a city where the seeds of two of the most damaging racial ideologies of the twentieth century, Nazism and Zionism, were sown.

Losing his parents, the orphaned teenage Hobsbawm moved to Berlin where he spent his formative political years witnessing the demise of Weimar Germany and the advent of Nazism. It was in this atmosphere of highly charged politicisation that Hobsbawm was converted to Communism.

On its face, the idea of reading the autobiography of an historian sounds uninteresting; suggeting a collection of anecdotes drawn from the often sterile world of academia? Is it not the case that the material of the historian is of interest rather than the historian him or herself? This book escapes tedium and is at times fascinating because it contains an invaluable insight into why such a patently rational and intelligent human being should cling to a seemingly utopian ideology such as Communism.

Communism is an ideology that views the world in terms of historical stages of development, with the ultimate stage, the end of history, being a celestial worker’s paradise where the injustice of material inequality comes to an end. Communists fought and campaigned for their cause with what can be described as a religious fervour, reminiscent of the early stages of Islam.

Like most faiths it involved personal sacrifice for the common good. A virtuous communist was unconcerned by his own life and livelihood because he was working towards the greater good of humanity. He or she was on the side of history.

What is striking about Hobsbawm’s philosophical self-portrait is the almost religious tone of his recollections. ‘For young revolutionaries of my generation mass demonstrations were the equivalent of papal masses for devout Catholics’.

Hobsbawm also describes his disgust for relapsed communists in similarly confessional tones ‘I was strongly repelled by the idea of being in the company of those ex-Communists who turned into fanatical anti-Communists, because they could free themselves from the service of ‘The God that failed’ only by turning him into Satan’.

While Hobsbawm feels no shame in his Communism it is clear that the events of 1956 when Khrushchev revealed the true depravity of Stalin’s rule, and when the Hungarian Revolution was brutally suppressed, were deeply wounding on a personal as well as a political level. He recounts ‘for more than a year, British Communists lived on the edge of the political equivalent of a collective nervous breakdown.’

The experience can be likened to the situation of devout Catholics having to come to terms with revelations of a paedophilic clergy. However, like many Catholics of today, disgusted by particular priests but convinced by the truth of their revelation Hobsbawm remained true to his ‘church’ – ‘emotionally, as one converted as a teenager in the Berlin of 1932, I belonged to the generation tied by an umbilical cord to hope of the world revolution, and of its original home, the October Revolution, however sceptical or critical of the USSR.’

For Hobsbawm and many others, Communism served a proto-religious function. Leo Tolstoy writes ‘Whatever answers faith gives, regardless of which faith, or to whom the answers are given, such answers always give an infinite meaning to the finite existence of man; a meaning that is not destroyed by suffering, deprivation or death.’ In communism the infinite meaning can be found in the maturation of the historical process which would give rise to the communist utopia or heaven.

The outlook of the Communist as described by Nobel Laureate Jose Saramango contains the same religious leitmotif, but also contains an element of distrust for all ideologies:


What hasn’t been taken into account is that it is possible to be a hormonal communist. I carry inside me a hormone that means that I have no other choice than to be a communist. You can ask, ‘against everything? What about the barbarities and crimes committed?’ My answer is that there is probably no difference between the negative, criminal horrendous, horrible things done in the name of communism and everything that the human being has done throughout human history in the name of the best intentions. Christianity is a good example: millions of people have been sacrificed for a doctrine which is its opposite, a doctrine that promised forgiveness, love and compassion. Forgiveness, love and compassion are things we have been able to show now and then, but they have ended up being submerged by the mass of badness that we also carry. That is why I logically continue to be what I am.


Poignantly, Hobsbawm identifies a loss of faith in higher ideals that haunts many young people today. Comparing his youth to contemporary times, he writes ‘we avoided the strain of unhappiness which today frustrates people whose instinct it is to feel about world affairs exactly as we did then, but who find it impossible to translate their feelings into action as we did.’

Who is to say that a new ideology will not emerge to fill this moral vacuum and harness the instincts of this generation of malcontents? Or perhaps it is better that ideology should be caste aside, as Saramango seems to suggest, because of its legitimisation of “the mass of badness that we also carry.”

September 11

(Published in La Vanguardia online, translated by Alvaro Reynolds, 2001)

It is exceptional that a news story produces shock waves across the world. An event like the death of Princess Diana dominated the media, at least in the United Kingdom but it was somehow parochial, pop cultural, and at times comical. Even those who lit their ‘candle in the wind’ must have realised that Diana’s death did not have the potential to alter the course of human history.

Similarly, it is possible to read about two and a half million deaths in the Congolese Civil War, or about the threat of global warming, and find these happenings somehow uninvolving. Undoubtedly, it is terrible that two and a half million people have died in the Congo but it is so far away, unrecorded, unconnected with the wider world. Likewise, one can worry about global warming and its attendant threats, but it is a bit like the character of Vitalstatix in Asterix who feared that tomorrow the sky will fall on his head, but tomorrow never comes. So we carry on, taking aeroplane trips, driving cars, heating houses. What can we do? The luxuries have become necessities.

When September 11 occurred it felt like it could be the end of the world as we knew it. The attack on the epicentre of capitalism revealed the fragility of the global economy. Those of us who had consistently criticised the “World Order”, who bemoaned the crass commercialisation of our age; the McDonaldisation of our culture; the instillation of MTV values, suddenly realised that we too had been become dependent on the fruits of commercial progress. How would it be possible to live without flying away to other countries, without the opium of televised football and the succour of culinary variety? Even worse, one had to contemplate the terrifying spectre of war, the poison of chemical and biological weapons and the Armageddon of nuclear catastrophe.

The television images that came before us were horrifyingly hypnotic, perversely satisfying. Across the world people were transfixed. Most had a clip that stood out for them. My own personal was the sight of one of the aeroplanes disappearing altogether into the vastness of the tower, like sperm implanting an egg. The events became a movie blockbuster played out across the news media. Somehow each one of us was a character in the movie, caught inside the buildings, jumping out the windows, powerless, vulnerable.

Many people have their own personal involvement with what happened. My sister was in New York at the time. On September 10, less than twenty-four hours before the first plane hit its target, she visited the World Trade Centre took the lift to the top and appreciated the view like so many other tourists had done before her but will never do again. At the bottom of the tower, she purchased her brother a t-shirt in The Gap. Now that t-shirt is mine, my own little part of history, my own fragment of Berlin Wall.

How times have changed since September 11 is a question that will fill vast quantities of newsprint over the course of the forthcoming week. In reality little has changed, there are still two worlds, the North and the South, one aspiring to be the other. September 11, beyond the three thousand innocent people killed and their families, has only really affected a change in perception. A realisation that history is not at an end, that the steady march to prosperity could be de-railed.

A moment of high drama captivated a planet. Two of the great phallic symbols of capitalism rendered impotent. It seemed to be inaugurating an era of uncertainty, but instead we went back to work, to watching football, to eating Indian food to taking trips to far off places, but it did shake us and forced conclusions to be drawn.

In exchange for the pleasures that we derive from the liberal economy so we must accept the dominance of the US Superpower. The torture of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay or the deaths of Afghani civilians may trouble us but we learn to forget very quickly as such occurrences do not imperil our existence. In all likelihood we won’t do anything beyond mutter disapproval if the US affect regime change in Iraq. The US government is the guardian of the wealth and material comfort to which we have become accustomed, and most of us, including myself, are, in the final analysis, unwilling to countenance the alternative. That is what was scary about September 11.

In search of the quinta essentia

(Spectator Scoff, November, 2010)

Courvoisier, the Cognac brandy, has long been synonymous with opulence and majesty. Napoleon himself was known to be fond of a snifter, giving the English owners of Courvoisier in 1908 the idea to market it as the drink of the diminutive Emperor. An early case of ‘celebrity’ endorsement, albeit achieved without the consent of the participant who had died nearly a century before.

This glamorous aura lingers as Courvoisier, and other Cognacs, have become for some African-Americans a status symbol to compliment the ‘ghetto styles’ of Nike Air Force trainers. When Busta Rhymes rapped that ‘Everyone is singing now “Pass the Courvoisier”’, his management company maintained that the beverage had been chosen for ‘artistic reasons’. Needless to say, Courvoisier was not complaining about a double-digit upsurge in US sales.

Surprisingly, today more Courvoisier is drunk in Britain than France and here the company has cultivated an image as a drink for those with cash to burn: the Courvoisier 500 is a marketing campaign in which emerging business people are approached and co-opted by the brand, in exchange for a few perks one assumes.

Last week I was invited to Jarnac, the town where Courvoisier is based in the Cognac region. The offer of a private jet was too good to pass up, so early one Monday morning I found myself being driven to the rarefied surroundings of Cambridge Airport for lift off. In line with Peter Sarstedt’s old song, I would sip my Napoleon Brandy ‘with the others from the jet set’.

On arrival in France I kept secret the fact that my acquaintance with Cognac was mainly restricted to underage forays into the forbidden fruit of my parent’s drinks cabinet. Nonetheless, over the course of three days I confess to developing a taste for the beverage that could have alarming financial repercussions considering L’Essence de Courvoisier has a price tag, in Harrods, of £1,800 pounds. Fortunately their VS is available for the more reasonable sum of £20 or so.

The story of Courvoisier begins with the main grape variety Ugni Blanc – actually the Italian Trebbiano – low in sugar, and suited to the mainly chalky soil of the Cognac Appellation. After harvesting it is fermented to an alcoholic level of about 10% in stainless-steel vats.

That is the easy part. Wine and even lower alcohol beer have been around for millennia, but advanced technology is required to distil it into the hard stuff. This knowledge arrived via the Arabs who used distillation to produce concentrated aromas and called it al-khulul – ‘the finest’. European medieval scholars who encountered the writings of the scientist known as Abulcasis mistook al-khulul for the misleadingly similar al-ghawl, the ‘spirit’ or ‘spiritual being’. As a result of this confusion, it was believed that alcohol would bring them closer to the secret of human existence, the pursuit of alchemy. Consequently the effect of high alcohol was initially considered medicinal rather than simply pleasurable, and its production was the preserve of apothecaries, the medieval pharmacists. It was not long before its more light-hearted effects were recognised and the distillers became a guild in their own right.

The distillation chambers of Courvoisier retain hints of those original apothecaries: great stoves heat copper tanks out of which bewildering tubes emerge to draw the magical vapours. Distillation (deriving from the Latin destillare = to drip) occurs when the lower boiling temperature of alcohol separates it from water, condensing into what was referred to as the quinta essentia (from which we derive quintessence), the mysterious fifth element.

What emerges from the process is a clear liquid so alcoholic that it burns the mouth. But a distiller versed in the alchemic arts can blend the proceeds to produce the correct notes for maturation.

Next the alcohol is consigned to barrels where it will rest for at least two years and decades in the case of the superior grades which fetch the high prices. It is from these years of interaction with oak that the beverage draws the tannins that impart its distinctive character and hue. The alcohol level now declines as molecules slowly seep through the wood to concentrate the essence. In a throwback to more mythical times, this loss is said to be sacrificed to ‘the angels’. A mixture of old and new barrels are used in the process and stored in giant warehouses where, such is the fire-hazard, it is advised that phones should be powered off.

Courvoisier attach great importance to the quality of the wood that goes into their barrels which is all from French oak forests. The staves are split from the trunk and then seasoned outdoors for some three years.

A visit to a cooperage offers another insight into a bygone age when all work was manual. As the insides of barrels are treated with flame, huge men, resembling terrifying prop forwards, execute skills that have changed little over centuries. Such is the intricacy of the work that a team of about sixteen workers will produce a mere two barrels per person per day.

Cognac, though it does not age in the bottle, will preserve indefinitely because of its high alcohol content so long as it is kept away from bright light. It should be stored upright. Even uncorked, once kept air-tight, it will retain its alcoholic content for years. Efforts are now being made to market it as an aperitif, perhaps accompanied by ginger ale. But since my initiation, its appeal is as the traditional digestif, those aromatic qualities suited to after-dinner-reflection and calm discourse.

Courvoisier Is Beginning To Show Its Age

(Spectator Scoff, September, 2011)

I have previously referred to the great French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’s identification of eating with sex: une conjunction par complementairé. Both processes involve a union of complementary elements, though the digestion of one by the other is not generally considered appropriate in a relationship.

The process of drinking also involves a conjunction, and where a fine beverage is involved this can be quite intimate, beginning with the tender foreplay of olfactory reception, before a lingering swoosh in the mouth and then, lastly, the warming swallow. With this in mind, it did seem a little inappropriate for me to be crying out ‘I prefer the 12-year-old’ after sampling a new variety of Cognac brandy from Courvoisier’s ‘Connoisseur’ range recently launched on the UK market. Surely I should have plumped for the eminently eligible 21-year-old to whom I was simultaneously introduced, but somehow the risqué charm of that first encounter proved irresistible.

Salacious humour completed it remains for me to discuss the innovation of Courvoisier’s age statement, a new departure that will make this elite product more accessible to the UK customer well acquainted with whiskies displaying an age. And even the most gloopy New World plonk will show its vintage.

Traditionally Cognac does not reveal its age, relying instead on a classification that includes VS, VSOP, and XO. Confusingly, these marks are actually an indication of a minimum age, as any Cognac is rarely from one vintage alone.

Over time the distilled contents of the casks reduce as alcoholic vapours pass through wood, known as the share of the gods. Concentrated essences which have drawn out the flavour of the barrels made from the fresh French oak required by the appellation are blended together and aged further until bottling when maturation ceases.

Even elite products such as the L’Esprit de Courvoisier that leaves rappers weak-kneed with the anticipated bling of spending over £3,000 on a bottle does not reveal its age. L’Esprit comes from a range of vintages between the Napoleonic era and the 1930s, so what year could they to put on it?

Apart from the aging process the other key influence on the ultimate taste is the provenance of the grapes (90% Ugni Blanc) within the region as soil minerality varies and provides distinctive notes depending on whether they are from Borderies, or Grande Champagne etc.

Courvoisier have bowed to the Anglo-Saxon consumers’ desire for an age statement in bringing out two new marks: one with a minimum age of 12, the other 21.

As mentioned I preferred the 12-year finding it as spicy as an Arab Spring, and providing the aromatic intrigue suited to the after flush of a heavy dessert. The 21-year had a longer finish and I felt it best suited to the traditional situation of a Cognac: a lingering compliment to a post-prandial coffee. These are stellar beverages that offer a sumptuous compliment to fine dining. The gustatory complexity of good Cognac is really worth experiencing in this short life.

In terms of price, the 12 year is quite reasonable at £50, with the 21 year a good deal pricier at £175. However, when one considers the price Bordeaux and Burgundy wine is currently fetching then even the price of the 21 year does not seem outlandish since unlike Cognac, a bottle of wine is nothing more than a one-night-stand. Though I am keenly aware that the spirit in a bottle of Cognac, like that of a love affair, will also drain away eventually.

Perhaps Ireland can learn from Muslims

(Unpublished, 2005)

In a recent article (8/3/2005) Kevin Myers contends that Ireland ‘lacks any real awareness of the enormously complex problems which lie ahead of us as our cities are being transformed by immigration’ before proceeding to offer a typically superficial analysis of what he deems this “complex problem”.

The target of Myers’s ire is what he terms Islamic fundamentalism (a term rejected by most Muslims – though the Arabic neologism usuliyyah has crept into usage). This is presented by Myers as an ideology similar to Communism and Nazism that rejects the diversity at the heart of the liberal order.

Myers’s particular grievance is against the wearing of the veil by women, which he describes as ‘misogynistic and dehumanising’ and ‘a step towards Pharaonic circumcision’ – whatever that is.

The implicit suggestion contained in the article is that the Irish government should adopt the policy of the French government who banned the wearing of the veil by school girls, an injunction that has given rise to violent clashes and has heightened a sense of exclusion among French Muslim as well as pandering to the extreme right of Le Penism.

Myers falls into the same trap as the fundamentalists he fulminates against by demanding that Muslims abide by the potentially totalitarian moral norms of an aggressive secularism. Surely a true liberal, as Myers seems to style himself, wouldn’t object to the hardly totalitarian idea of an individual making free choices regarding their code of dress. One wonders whether he excoriated his sister-in-law for the choice she once made to take a veil as a nun.

A more nuanced understanding of the contemporary Islam is called for. Take the views of sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi who comes in for honourable mention in Myer’s piece.

Much of Qaradawi’s writings are to be found on the English language website www.Islamonline.com where eminent clerics issue online fatwas (legal rulings) in response to questions posed by Muslims living in the West. Some of the topics addressed are surprisingly explicit including; ‘a divorced woman using a vibrator,’ or ‘undergoing a penis enlargement operation,’ as well as intimate ‘sucking a wife’s breasts,’ while others are more banal such as; ‘animals slaughtered without mentioning Allah’s name.’ One can hardly imagine a Catholic priest addressing such themes, and the frankness of the exchanges between clerics and their followers are indicative of the extent to which Islam retains its relevance to people’s lives.

Qaradawi’s approach to the question of suicide bombing is also more complex than Myer’s indicates; participation in the martyr operations carried out in Palestine given the status of the land as an occupied territory in addition to a lot of sacrilegious acts perpetrated by the Jews against the sanctuaries – is one of the most praised acts of worship.

Standard stuff but he goes on to say; Our target should be military personnel and not civilians when Israel does not attack our civilians. But as we can see nowadays, they violate the lives of all Palestinians civilians or non-civilians. Thus Qaradawi advocates that once Israel refrains from acts such as indiscriminate ‘targeted’ assassinations the taking of Israeli civilian life should cease.

Closer to home, Qaradawi unequivocally condemns recent suicide attacks against Western civilians. Trully our heart bleeds for the attacks that targeted the World Trade Centre… despite our strong opposition to America’s biased policy towards Israel. Since; Haphazard killings… where innocents are killed along with the wrongdoers is totally forbidden in Islam. Here Qaradawi seems to be offering contradicting interpretations since he previously endorses suicide operations in Israel which invariably lead to the deaths of innocent civilians, including children.

While Myers’s entreaty to deal with the issue of the arrival of Muslims in Ireland is welcome, surely the issue doesn’t always have to be addressed in terms of the constantly magnified danger it poses. His simplistic rendering of a relatively sophisticated phenomenon shows no understanding of the Islamic Revival that is occurring in Europe.

According to one of its leading lights Tariq Ramadan, who has been described as the Luther of Islam, ‘We are currently living through a veritable silent revolution in Muslim communities in the West’ because ‘Muslims may feel safer in the West, as far as the free exercise of their faith is concerned, than in some so-called Muslim countries.’

Ramadan calls on European Muslims to interact with their fellow citizens in the following way; ‘it is a question of entering into an authentic dialogue as between equals, with all our fellow citizens with respect for the respective universality of our respective values, willingly open to mutual enrichment and eventually to become true partners in action.’

The arrival of Muslims in Ireland calls for dialogue and interaction, rather than goading polemics. Certain interpretations of Islam such as justification for the physical chastisement of wives offend against universal codes of human rights but it is important to look below the surface and recognise the variety of interpretations.

Moreover, perhaps Irish people can learn from the values espoused by Muslim such as emphasis on the family, a much needed asceticism in the face of an over-weaning booze fuelled culture, and a re-activation of a humanitarianism that has been abandoned in the quest for mammon.

Life Under Assad

(Published in Village Magazine November, 2012)

I think I may be one of only a handful of people, not engaged in espionage, to have travelled overland on the same day from Jerusalem and Damascus since the foundation of Israel in 1948. Then, in 2003, Israeli border officials allowed travellers to avoid permanent stamps, but the Jordanian entry visa I had been issued, to traverse that country, must surely have given my whereabouts away.

After crossing the border I spent a few uncomfortable minutes inside Syrian territory without my passport which was in the hands of the border guards. The temperature outside was about forty and I was sweating from the inside out; visions of being accused of spying were coming to mind. Eventually I admitted visiting ‘Palestine’, flashed some dollars and beseeched the official to let me through. He gave me a toothy grin and relented. I was to find the inconsistency of Syrian border officials less charming in future.

At least I was given leave to enter what was an instantly fascinating country. A tangle of east and west removed from history, an oriental Cuba frozen in time.

On that first visit, I saw some of its remarkable sites: Crac de Chavalier, a Crusader castle of lore; Palmyra’s ruins, a lost Hellenic city in the dessert; and of course Damascus, the longest continuously inhabited city in the world. There Roman ruins mingle with an Islamic heritage that includes the stunning Umayyad mosque as well some recent ugly additions inspired by close relations with the USSR. Alas, I never made it to Aleppo, where the battle for Syria now rages, on this or my subsequent visit.

I returned a year later to improve my Arabic, a project that was sadly de-railed. It is said to take 20 years to master the Arabic language. I never got passed year two, but in that time I at least gained some appreciation of what life was like in Syria.

The first point to emphasis is its religious diversity. This is inherited from centuries of Ottoman rule which ended abruptly after World War I. Under that Empire confessional communities joined together into semi-autonomous millet. The leader of each was the patriarch or chief rabbi depending on denomination; he would regulate relations between that community and the sultan’s officials.

It was a system that functioned successfully for centuries. Though Sunni Muslims dominated and did not pay the zakat a tax levied on religious minorities, there was a degree of toleration not seen in Europe until the nineteenth century. But it left a patchwork of self-contained communities when state boundaries were clumsily forged by the French and British who divided the Ottoman carcass between them. The League of Nations Mandates as these new arrangements were termed, were a cloak for imperialism.

The French, who conquered Syria from nationalists seeking to build a pan-Arab state under the Hashemite King Faisal, set about dismembering the old Ottoman province of Syria, creating the state of Lebanon with a Christian population sufficiently large to dominate its affairs. This left a Syrian rump, reduced further when Antioch (now Anatakya) was effectively transferred to Turkey in 1938 to ensure their neutrality in the forthcoming war.

The French preserved religious identifications but eschewed the traditional ruling Sunni notables in favour of the religious minorities; perpetuating sectarian differences in the process. Alawis, an Islamic offshoot, who formed under 15% of the population were invested with particular responsibility. Centuries of marginalisation ensured their antipathy to the Sunni ruling class and many were made officers in the new army. When independence was achieved after World War II their group solidarity endured and their positions in the military gave them serious clout.

After a succession of coups, the country became a stable military dictatorship in 1970 under Hafiz Al-Assad who surrounded himself with a loyal coterie of Allawi. Substantial Christian communities (20%) and a smaller Druz (below 5%), also identified with the regime. There are ethnic differences too with substantial Kurdish and Turkmen minorities to the north but these groups are too distant from the urban centre of power to play a significant role in national politics.

The Syrian Arab Republic is an avowedly Arab nationalist state under the Ba’th party. Pan-Arab nationalism was a useful ideology for a fractured, irredentist polity where a religious minority held the reigns of power.

Carefully selected Sunni Arabs were co-opted and placed in visible positions of authority, though the bulk of the population did not identify with the regime, as the recent revolt shows.

Syria proved a durable presence in a dangerous neighbourhood, between Iraq and Israel,  under the canny and often brutal leadership of Hafiz Al-Assad. A Cold War has been maintained with Israel since the Yom Kippur War of 1973, with Lebanon being the scene of proxy conflict where. Syria, along with Iran, have supported Hizbullah. The presence of an external enemy has served the regime’s interests, drawing attention from the fractured nature of Syrian society. A sense of paranoia over Israeli espionage was fostered; we learnt to refer to it as ‘the country with no name’.

On my second visit in 2004 I again arrived overland, this time from Turkey. I was to spend three months learning what life was like in Damascus under the dictatorship.

The first thing that struck was how safe it was. Crime was virtually non-existent, at least in the historic medina I lived. The greatest threats emanated from fleets of taxis that sped recklessly through narrow streets emitting cloud puffs of intoxicating smoke and horns beating Satanic rhythms.

Life seemed straightforward for most; artisans plied trades that would be undertaken in factories in the West. There were an extraordinary number of barbers, juice bars, and of course falafel or shwarma at every street corner. It’s a charming city of tea rooms where narguila pipes emit fragrant odours, and old men sit along roadsides playing endless games of backgammon. There is also the impressive Souk Al-Hamidiyeh where the bullet holes of French soldiers could still be seen. One wonders whether recent events are adding to those patterns.

In any business or government office there was always a smiling picture of the then young president Bashar Al-Assad, the son of Hafiz who assumed power in 2000 after the death of his father. This cult of the leader was firmly entrenched.

There was a tedium to life under the dictatorship: bookshops were a rarity and internet use highly circumscribed, at least at that time. Whenever I was lucky enough to receive a phone call from my parents there was always a muffled sound as if someone was snooping on the call, they must have grown bored by the accounts of what we ate for dinner.

There were more sinister aspects that I caught a glimpse of. Militants were said to ‘disappear behind the sun’ and mukhabarat agents were rumoured to abound. I once saw a chain gang of prisoners; but the regime did not generally air its dirty laundry in public.



When my university course finished and it was time to leave, I took a taxi, as you did, to the Lebanese border in order to catch my plane in Beirut. There my problems began as the military officials at the border told me I couldn’t leave. I was now in serious danger of missing my flight, or worse, so I rushed back in another taxi to Damascus and scurried around a number of government buildings, waking up officials en route before someone in the tourist ministry made a phone call to allow me through. At that point I resolved not to return as had been my intention.

I could not live in a country where my rights were so impeded. It is hardly surprising that so many Syrians drew the same conclusion after seeing there Arab brothers and sisters taking to the streets in Tunisia and Egypt. I hope they succeed in their struggle, but that diversity and religious tolerance in that country is preserved.