World Book History #7: Music In A Crisis

It has been said a thousand times: music is the great healer.

From the earliest days of ritualistic dancing to cathedral choirs, music has always been the most direct form of creative expression. And many people will be feeling that as keenly as ever right now.

In desperate times, it’s always music that brings people together. Its value has been explored in literature for decades, but never is its impact more powerful for any community than when in a crisis.

It’s no wonder, therefore, that the Coronavirus is inspiring writers to ponder its resonance. Back in March, online music publication Pitchfork published this article detailing which albums its writers were listening to in order to ‘ease the lockdown’.

This article features three books which examine the impact of music in a crisis. From Northern Ireland to South Africa via Serbia, they exemplify just how universal the curative power of music is. They explore not just how music unifies people, but also the way it tracks cultural upheaval.  

‘Trouble Songs’, and music in Northern Ireland

Written by the legendary music journalist and activist Stuart Bailie, Trouble Songs is the definitive examination of music in Northern Ireland. Spanning the entire four-decade conflict of The Troubles, Bailie’s book traverses from the early days of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Radio Free Derry in 1969, right through to the Good Friday Agreement and beyond. Along the way he touches on seminal figures like Terri Hooley, John Lennon’s contrarian support for the IRA and the revelatory power of punk music.

Central to Bailie’s narrative is the way in which music acted as a revolutionary motion for the normal people of Northern Ireland. For many, it was a literal escape from an otherwise disastrous probability. As Jim Reilly of the punk group Stiff Little Fingers says: ‘All my friends I grew up with – they all ended up in the IRA doing long years in prison. And simply because I was playing music that kept me away from that’ (Bailie, 2019).

Stiff Little Fingers onstage in Berlin. Image Credit: Montecruz Foto Flickr

And in Northern Ireland, music counted for the truest representation of the community – a counter to the bias that was appearing elsewhere. Late on, Paul Hartnoll, one half of the English duo Orbital talks about their super-hit ‘Belfast’;

‘We just thought ‘wouldn’t it be good to actually make something that’s beautiful and lovely and soft about Belfast and put it out in England where everybody has a completely different view of the place?’’ (Bailie, 2019).

Bailie proves that during the Troubles, music was both a reaction to the violence and how people come together to rise above it.

How can Electronic Music Save Communities?

Rave culture also has a well-documented history of inclusiveness, from its early beginnings as minority expressionism in the US to the fall-out from the Berlin Wall in 1989. Matthew Collin’s Rave On is meant as an exploration of clubbing across the world, but many of the communities he visits turned to electronic music culture as – just like in Northern Ireland – a reaction to their dire surroundings.

The most obvious example is techno’s birthplace, Detroit. Throughout the book, he hands the narrative over to those who were there at the time, including choice quotes from the likes of scene originator Juan Atkins; ‘There’s nothing to do here. There’s nowhere to go; the scene is dead. That’s why our stuff sounds like it does’ (Atkins, 1988).

The story is similar in Israel, where the psytrance scene has consistently seen Israelis and Arabs push beyond the never-ending conflict and conservatism there. Like in Stuart Bailie’s Trouble Songs, Collin emphasises how it’s most notably the everyday, normal people that come together to push back against distasteful politics and partisan atrocities.

And in his chapter about the impact of house music in South Africa, he examines why it means so much in a country still marred by racial division. But again, in places like Cape Town and the suburbs of Durban, music is what unites black and white people above everything else. When talking about black and white kids partying together for the first time, he makes a profound assertion; ‘rave culture, with its implicit message of tolerance, suggested… that another way might at least be possible’.

What toll does a crisis take on music?

The Troubles saw a high physical cost to musicians. The horrific case of the Miami Showband Massacre is the most infamous example.

But Asne Seierstad, in her wonderfully human With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia, navigates the mental cost in the final chapter with Yugoslav pop/rock titan Rambo Amadeus.

From the beginning Amadeus’ music reflected civilians’ distrust and their suppression by a malignant regime. He has always cultivated himself as a protest against the uber-nationalistic musical fare that dominated the Serbian charts – and pretty much acted as a propaganda machine – in the late ‘80s.

Rambo Amadeus. Image credit: zeljkoo Flickr

On the one hand, Seierstad spends a lot of time dealing with Amadeus’ cultural importance. When she observes his gigs at the time of writing (1999/2000), he remains as popular and performative as ever, providing welcome relief to students suffering the perennial economic hardships since the break-up of Yugoslavia.

But as he reveals at one point; ‘I’ve asked my parents not to tell me anything related to politics – I’m just sick of hearing everyone complain while nothing happens’. Amadeus expresses what we know many musicians come to feel; that kicking back against oppressive governments – and dealing with everyday political life – is exhausting, and ultimately devoid of romance.

Conclusion

During the coronavirus, many people will have sought solace from music. But a literary approach to why and how it has that power is a useful tool.

Music provides an escape from political wrangling and Machiavellian point-scoring. While much of the press will be focusing on how politicians across the world deal with crises, explorations of music are far more human and relatable.

Music accompanies change, growth and development on a global scale. The three books here, alongside others, are prime examples of why that’s so important.  

Purchase Stuart Bailie’s excellent Trouble Songs from Waterstones here.

Pick up Matthew Collin’s Rave On for an insight into how dance music has also changed Shanghai, New York and more.

And head here to purchase Asne Seierstad’s now classic With Their Backs to the World: Portraits From Serbia.

World Book History #6: Terrorism in Western Literature

How do you write about a lived experience which is not your own? More importantly, *should* you?

Those are questions which must haunt fiction writers all the time. And they need to be considered whenever writing think pieces, articles or blog posts too. It’s clearly not true that everything worth writing has already been written. But when considering certain contexts, there is a discussion to be had around who should be doing the writing.

9/11 and Its Impact on Literature

Post-9/11, terrorism in literature became a small zeitgeist movement in the West. Unsurprisingly, most of that occurred in the US. That horrific day cemented in Western minds the terrifying reality that Arabic, African and Central Asian countries had been experiencing for decades. Terrorism is obviously a well-found fear, but paranoia can be a very dangerous tool as well.

And Western literature hasn’t risen above the more pernicious, xenophobic elements of the aftermath either. It’s not alone in that; that paranoia has been capitalised on right across Western entertainment media. Numerous Hollywood box office hits have laid themselves on a dubious bed bolted together by a distrust of foreigners since.

Unfortunately, in the hands of writers, that same alarm-ism can be wielded in just as worrying a fashion. Just like how war films are often showcases of patriotism without any real nuance or second glancing at the wider situation, authors can be fuelled by the darker connotations of the society around them.

At its core, American Sniper is about white fear
Bradley Cooper in Clint Eastwood’s 2014 blockbuster American Sniper.

Notably, you don’t see the same misguided one-sidedness in much Middle Eastern literature. Why? The difference is in that idea of a lived experience.

The Lived Experience

The history of violence in the Middle East is impossible to surmise quickly. It’s as much a result of despotic power structures and foreign intervention as it might be religious zeal or the desire to protect one’s livelihood. The issue with Western authors writing about these situations is that they often have no understanding of them beyond how their media frames them. The distinction comes down to what writers have actually seen.

An example of the dichotomy between an American lifestyle and lived experience is Khaled Housseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’, a novel whose acclaim transcends the cultural divide. Housseini has lived in America since the age of fifteen but sought political asylum during the Soviet War in Afghanistan in the late 1970’s. It’s the beauty of the liquid and emotional praise which makes his book so appealing, and Housseini’s ability to challenge Western readers with both distant horror and relatability.

But when approached by writers who have no lived experience, it becomes problematic. Take the American author Richard Updike, for example. He has famously admitted that the majority of research for his 2006 novel ‘Terrorist’ was conducted via a book called ‘The Koran For Dummies’. It’s an attitude problem. If my friend comes to me and says that he hates immigrants based on the Brexit Party’s manifesto, then it reflects the same desire to absorb the quickest or most reactionary reading material.

A good example of writing which encapsulates the entire complexities surrounding extremism is Syrian author Khaled Khalifa’s ‘In Praise of Hatred’. Amidst a maelstrom of violence, torture and hateful worldviews, Khalifa manages (at points) to make one feel pity for some perpetrators, without ever choosing a side. There’s a caveat in this case, in that Khalifa is a man writing from a woman’s perspective. But he writes with the kind of sensitivity and understanding that many Westerners lack towards Arabic gender politics. 

Open letter from Khaled Khalifa
Khaled Khalifa, the author of ‘In Praise of Hatred’.

There are exceptions to the rule. As Ruth Franklin highlights, books like Lorraine Adams’ ‘Harbor’ provides an example of a US author with the nous to intricately research and shape their characters’ perspective and journey. And there’s plenty of ‘Troubles’ fiction which uses drama as a tool for exposing the wider reality, rather than making it a baseless, narrow pool. Brian Moore’s ‘Lies of Silence’, for example, mirrors a lot of Middle Eastern literature in that it depicts the everyday people, who want nothing to do with the violence, as the pivotal victims.

An interview with US author and former intelligence officer J. A. Walsh on writing about terrorism.

Representation of Arabic Writing in Education

Representation and format are to blame too. In the UK, there’s no foreign literature on secondary school educational syllabi at all, so readers are required to seek it out for themselves. They’re often published in anthologies, but as Ruth Franklin wrote for the New Republic; ‘anthologies are panoramas, not stereoscopes; the picture they present is wide not deep’ (2016).

The short story format suffers from the same limitations. For example, in ‘Girl, Balancing’, Helen Dunmore’s 14-page-long ‘A Thousand Roses’ – which revolves around a woman who believes her foreign lodger named Khalid may be planting bombs in her suitcase – falls prey to that very ‘Middle England’ ignorance. But the format doesn’t allow for it either. 

There’s also the tenuous reality of translation of Arabic literature. The translations are re-configured to fit in with Western reading sensibilities. That means that there’s room for the messages to get lost in translation with regards to how the author intended them to be received.

Alongside all this is the long-standing issue of reach and distribution. As outlined in this paper about Saudi Arabian writing, much of the most evocative literature hasn’t travelled ‘beyond the Arab world’s periphery’ (Moghales et al., 2018). Obviously Arabic literature is far from the only type to be undervalued in this way. But on an issue like terrorism, it exposes Western publishing prejudices against certain perspectives.

By extension, the educational value of terrorist literature in the west in general is reduced. By fuelling the inward-facing, arrogant dialogue that has seen the ascendancy of Trump, this model suggests that despite having actually lived these things, Arabian authors’ stories cannot possibly be of as much value as Western writers.

Ultimately, The Answer Is Research

Without any desire to actually understand the people they’re writing about, Western authors will only create more literature that’s shallow and vacuous. If one has not or cannot live the experience they’re writing about, then they have to trust in the perspectives of those who have.

For readers, starting from within a culture and then venturing out is the best way to get the most balanced perspective. It’s just a shame that that option has never been as accessible as it should be.

World Book History #1: The Girls of Riyadh

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital city. Credit: ujahabdul

Rajaa Alsanea’s The Girls of Riyadh is one of the most famous modern Arabic novels. First published in Lebanon in 2005 and immediately banned in her home country of Saudi Arabia, it’s certainly had its fair share of controversy.

Following the lives of four young women struggling with notions of romance and life in privileged but suppressive Riyadh society, it immediately inhabits a world unfamiliar to us here in the West. Observations of Islam and Arabic writing via the Qu’ran are at a dangerous fever pitch in 2019, so the book is certainly as relevant now as it was then, if not more so.  

Within the last few years we’ve seen a proposed travel band on Muslims in the USA. We’ve seen the increased prevalence of the far-right anti-Islam group the EDL here in the UK (though thankfully they now seem to be more forced onto the fringes).

We’ve seen would-be British Prime Minister Boris Johnson say that women in full burqas resemble ‘letterboxes’. Though Saudi Arabia lags behind other states still in terms of equality, all of those assertions have been made without any insight into everyday life for these women.

US President Donald Trump, whose Muslim travel ban made headlines around the world. Credit: Gage Skidmore

In the World Economic Forum report for Global Gender Gap parity in 2018, Saudi Arabia was ranked 141 out of 149, which is higher than previous years. Progressive attitudes towards women in Saudi Arabia have been incredibly recent.

Some of the changes, as further outlined by this article, have only occurred in the last five years:

  • The first university that women could attend, the Riyadh College for Education, wasn’t opened until 1970
  • It wasn’t until 2015 that women could legally vote and get elected to government
  • Until 2018, there was a driving ban for women.

The Girls of Riyadh doesn’t shy away from or deny some of the seemingly bizarre restrictions that dominate Saudi law. But the main philosophical sticking point of the novel is living within one’s means within the world around you. It’s something that all humans have to contend with, and especially women. It’s easy to think of the UK and US as egalitarian utopias, but the rise of fourth wave feminism has had to fight on many a hill.

Women in the West want to be successful, independent and stable, just like women in Saudi Arabia. By bridging that gap, Alsanea reduces the idea that the way Arabic women think, behave and exist is alien. The issues the four female protagonists deal with are issues experienced by most women; the societal parameters in which they operate are merely different.

There has been some controversy around the book’s misrepresentation following its translation from Arabic to English. But Alsanea herself has always been happy with the end result. In an interview with Penguin Random House in 2008, she said: ‘there aren’t many books Arabic books translated into other languages and that’s why people know so little about us’.

True enough, the translation has been a certified smash. It’s a bestseller across Europe and the US. But as more dangerous rhetoric becomes enabled, nuance is glossed over. Even if you think you’re well-informed but still find Islamic society mysterious, The Girls of Riyadh would at least provide you with an insider’s perspective.

The Girls of Riyadh is available from all good book shops and Amazon. Open your mind and bridge the cultural gap today.