Hisham Matar and the lost father.

His latest boook, The Return, has just been broadcast on BBC R 4.

It is heartbreaking and for that reason I don’t think I can now read the book. On the other  hand, it is so heartbreaking that I know I must read it.

The Return is  a memoir about his search for the father he fears he will never find.

In the Country of Men, a novel, is about a child’s search for his father. It ranks high in my chosen books and I have always been glad I read it. I am now reading it again.

It is about a marvellous man – the father in the story – who disappears from his home in Libya, is sought in Cairo and disappears again.

Since writing the novel, Matar has gone in search of his father again and so found out more about him.  The memoir is about loss and also about the man who has  been lost.  Lost forever? Only the writer knows.

The final sentences in the radio broadcast were so powerful that I was left alone, in the silent kitchen, the only other person there with me Hisham Matar.



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The joys of pitching

I’ve pitched a few ideas this week – a short story, two ideas for newspaper features and another short story.

Busy.Also done some walking connected to my current project and as a result wrote a piece about the walking sticks in my life. One from South Africa, one from Spain, one from Croagh Patrick and the rest salvaged from ditches and from the side of the road. I bond with my sticks.


Next up, something about that  most charismatic of men – Dan O Connell.

Also had a look at Lissadell and the disputed right of way. Those rights – of the poor and the dispossessed ( too many s’s?) –  are jealously guarded in England.


And did I mention the film The Siege of Jabotville – about the Irish UN  force in the Congo in the 60’s who were criticised by some  of the folks back home because they surrendered in the face of a force far larger than their own. Thank heavens we’ve moved on from the creed of sacrifice rather than survival. Plenty of the Irish UN force are still alive today due to the wisdom of their colonel…. Well done, that man.




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Young Syrian has refreshing viewpoint

Seventeen year old Nujeen  Mustafa, a Kurdish Syrian asylum seeker. is a tough nut. With the help of her sisters, she fled Syria last yeat, negotiating the  3.500 mile sea and overland journey in her wheelchair.

Interviewed in the Guardian recently she offered a refreshing view on the Harry Potter book: “Harry Potter is such a lifeless book, there’s too little emotion and too much display of power… it makes every boy in the world think they are the chosen  one.”

Clearly,  the hype failed to reach  Manjib, a town in northern Syria.

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My reading group has chosen The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers. To the 12-year-old protagonist, the world is her oyster and she prepares for her entry into it by changing her name from Frankie to F.Jasmine. She also takes time out to sign  herself F.Jasmine Esq. Why she uses the title Esq is unexplained by the writer which adds to the telling as we are left to work out for ourselves that F.Jasmine has probably seen letters addressed like this to her father who runs a jewellery business.

When I was 12, I wrote letters home from boarding school addressed to M.P.Russell Esq having observed that was how letters were addressed to my father. ( The Esq bit seemed fitting enough as he was a civil servant,  a senior civil servant as my mother always corrected me.)

“Why do you put Esq on the envelope,” a girl at school asked. “Does he own land?”

I was non-plussed. People in Dublin didn’t own land. Not the ones I knew. They owned houses alright, if they had the money, But of course, if you came from out of Dublin, in that place called down the country which was everywhere except Dublin, you most likely did own land, fields and fields of it. But those people didn’t have Esq on the envelopes, just plain Mr and Mrs. Of course, with the Esq business, my mother was left out of the equation altogether.


I am now half way through The Member of the Wedding and things are hotting up for our twelve year old heroine. She was, she knew, going to be famous. For what, she didn’t know. Reading the news or participating in a dramatic event of some sort. But definitely famous.

I recognised that almost-famous feeling from when I was her age which was why I practised my signature in different ways: neat and careful, artistic with lots of curlicues,wildly adventurous with enormous flourishes. I worked away on them all during one particular exam when I had finished early and had nothing else to do. Mary Russell  I wrote, over and over again. Mary Russell, Mary Russell Mary Russell. MARY RUSSELL!!!!  Then, calming down: Mary Russell


And when the bell rang to indicate the exam was over. I bunched up the sheet of paper and threw it in the waste paper basket. Except that I had been observed.

“What is this,” asked the head nun, known to us as Quack, holding out the A4 page she had retrieved from the basket and smoothing it out so that my sin of pride ( was it one of the seven deadly sins?) was revealed over and over again.

“Who is it written for and why,” asked Quack and I stalled. How could I possibly explain I was practicing my signature for when I became famous.

Yep, F.Jasmine and I had a lot in common. Though while she actually chose the Jasmine bit of her name, I concealed from everyone that my confirmation name was Fatima.That would have ruined the whole famous thing. Mary was bad enough. As the song went:

For she was Mary, Mary,

Plain as any name can be.

Maybe that’s why I never became famous – though I’m still practicing.



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My interview with Saddam Hussein’s ambassador

Near Abu Nawas Street, there are some interesting new buildings – a staggered landscape of concrete with curves, arches and perpendiculars in grey stone. Close to is a lovely old Ottoman house with broad steps leading up to a fret-worked balcony and double-doors.

Inside, I meet Dr A K al Hashimi who is small, rotund and slightly bald, the sort of Arab male whose presence is preceded by a warm swell of self-knowing charm. Educated in the US, his conversation is peppered with deliciously irreverent references to “Bush the Father, Bush the Son”, so that we both know exactly where we stand.

Previously, he was ambassador to France, a glittering diplomatic post that indicated his high standing with the Great Leader.

His office is expansive, his polished desk huge, the small shrug accompanying his smile, gracious. I dress him in a peacock-blue gown, place him on a divan covered with crimson silk and surround him with dancing girls. Then I pull myself together and accept the tiny cup of black coffee he slides towards me across the shining surface of his desk. I am here, after all, to hear about the sanctions.

“My dear Mary, ” he says, “ I will tell you the facts and you, with your clever journalistic mind, will draw your own conclusions. So, ” and he sips delicately from his own minute coffee cup, “ what we have here are the Uniteds – States, Nations and Kingdom – who are carefully and ruthlessly manipulating one of the biggest oil producing countries in the world. They are doing this in the name,” and he pauses, “of democracy.”

The word hangs in the air between us, swings to and fro. Defies definition.

“What about the invasion of Kuwait?” I begin but he waves my interruption aside dismissively.

“This has nothing to do with Kuwait.”

He smiles, refills my coffee cup, drinks himself before starting to recite facts and figures to support his claim.

“They control our oil output and, in that way, delay production.”

I rack my brains for figures related to this: the US, I know, uses 21million barrels of oil a day and half of that has to be imported. Fuel security is therefore a big issue for America, as it is for all of us.

But Hashimi has the bit between his teeth and demands my attention: “Listen, the UN – and remember, Iraq was a founding member of the UN in 1945 – the UN Resolution 661 allocates us 41bn US$ for health over 10 years but only 46% actually reaches us which amounts to 150m dinar per year and divide that by twelve, share it out among 24 million Iraqis and it’s less than 50c per person per month.” He shrugs. “Then we have the dual use restrictions. We can’t have this and we can’t have that because it might be used to make a bomb. A bomb? What bomb? Take, for instance, a pump. A pump is categorised as dual purpose so we can’t get any replacement parts for our failing electricity system. But electricity is health. So, our sanitation schemes suffer, we get polluted sewage, our children get dysentery and they die. ” He shakes his head and looks hard at me, determined I get his message: “It all results in a degree of deprivation that did not exist before.”

While he takes another sip of coffee I try to work out the rush of figures. Do they add up to what he says? I’ll have to check later because he’s returned to the dual use issue: “My dear lady, dual use? What is not dual use? Look at your pen. It can be used to write a feature for your newspaper or a love letter. Or it can be used to write an equation for a nuclear weapon,” and he smiles but with his mouth only.

“You know, we used to be the most important country in the region,” he continues, “not like some corner of Africa or South America and we always had good business partners. But they are turning away now. The international community wants to make us one big refugee camp run by the UN. So, everyone is getting nervous because we are becoming more aggressive. Especially the Americans so they say things about us – that we are a military dictatorship. Are we? Can you see riot police on our streets? Or check points everywhere? Are there armoured personnel carriers in Baghdad? Have you seen any? Are people being killed on the streets?”

I shake my head. It’s true. I haven’t actually seen any of these things.

“They have ruined our economy. Before, 3000 dinar would buy you a big car. Now, as you know, all you get is a bunch of false flowers. Do they think Sadaam Hussein is a one-man show? Of course he’s not. He has support, people behind him. He’s leading a whole economic and educational system. No, capitalism thrives on crises not on stability and that’s what it’s all about.”

Suddenly, like a machine that has run out of fuel, he slows down and asks a question to which there is no answer: “The US is afraid. They think we have nuclear weapons, chemical weapons.Weapons of mass destruction. What can Iraq do to show that it doesn’t, that it is not a threat?”

Extract from my book My Home is Your Home A Journey Round Syria


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Fallujah, Chilcot and the right to silent protest.

Fallujah. First time round.2004

When Fallujah was attacked and bombed by US forces in 2004, I later joined a friend in standing outside the House of Commons on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Between us, we held a sheet on which was written in red paint the number of civilians killed during this first battle of Fallujah.

The number was something in the region of 600 people, all Iraqi, all civilians.

Our presence on the pavement was a silent witness to these deaths. No leaflets were handed out and I made no attempt to engage people in a discussion.

Nevertheless, at the end of the afternoon, I was charged under the newly passed Serious Organised Crime and Police Act.  http://bit.ly/29f4Xhg

This law was one of the more repressive Acts introduced during Tony Blair’s time as Prime Minister which sought to curb the individual’s right to protest.

You have to wonder what it was Blair feared that he had to go to such ridiculous measures to stop people speaking their minds.

Perhaps we’ll find the answer in the Chilcot Inquiry.

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Here Comes the Sun

May Morning in Oxford when young women  shiver in their flimsy frocks and decorate their hair with flowers and young men invite them to come gather their nuts in May while they party through the night leaving older people to set their watches before they go to bed so that they are up and out and converging on Magdalen College for 6am.

And the tower of Magdalen will tremble with the sound of the bells ringing while the choristers sing out the Gaudi which was first sung in the reign of Henry Vlll though few will know what it is they are celebrating, its meaning long since forgotten.

But some will know it’s Bealtaine, the great Celtic fertility feast and that Oxford and a village nearby are the only places in England that have continued to mark this sacred time for centuries as have many other places including the Roman Temple of Bel in Palmyra one of the few times when town and gown come together for a bit of merriment.

And if you don’t know the words of the Gaudi, you can always sing Here Comes to Sun….



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