Friday, 27 January 2017


Holocaust Memorial Day.

My paternal grandfather was born Fritz Rudolph Marx. He was German, of Jewish ancestry. Fortunate enough to be born into privileged circumstances, he and his immediate family left Germany before the country was fully entrenched in the ugly grip of fascism. He was lucky that his uncle, already settled in the UK, had had the prescience to tell my great-grandfather to get his family out while he could.

When the Second World War broke out, my grandfather fought with the British army against the Nazis. He faced dangerous situations and was awarded the Military Cross for valour. After the war ended, he became a naturalised British citizen and changed his name to Frank Ralph. He kept the name Marx.

All his friends knew him as Ralph and even with family he never spoke about the things he had seen and experienced. He never spoke German with his children. When I was about nine years old, I found some pictures in an old desk in his study which must have been taken when he was involved in the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. I will never forget those pictures, or the fact that my grandfather must have been thinking as he took them of his own family members who were not able to leave Germany as he had done.

Living in Britain, my grandfather adopted a conservative stance towards issues of national policy, particularly economic ones. Though he died when I was 17 and we never discussed politics or identity, I think more and more of him as I get older.

I’m sure there are many things we would have disagreed about but he was a deeply principled man, who was never afraid to put himself on the line for what he believed to be right. Probably the most important thing he ever taught me is that you should always stand up to bullies.

Now I look at the world we’re living in and I vacillate between anger and despair at the wave of popular support for demagogues, riding on ugly prejudice and ignorance, and total humility in the face of people risking their comfort and safety to resist in the ways they can.

I know the world has been witness to genocides for almost as long as human civilisation as we know it has existed. The horrors of the Holocaust should not eclipse what happened in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, or what is happening today in the Central African Republic, Myanmar and I imagine many other places that are not even on my radar. The genocide of Jews in Germany and throughout Europe is not a greater horror than the genocide of any of these peoples, but it does have particular resonance for me.

I feel these days as though everywhere I look the bullies are winning – whether it’s on a huge scale in Syria, Yemen, Occupied Palestine, where the injustice is so brutally obvious as to take the breath away, whether it’s tacitly acknowledged but not talked about, as in countries not facing outright war but existing in a vacuum of minimal social and political freedoms and human rights, or whether it’s in a country like Britain, which I believe has long basked in pride at having been on “the right side of history” in 1939-1945 but which is clearly in no way resistant to the current sweeping wave of right-wing nationalism that demonises minorities and lives off stereotypes and fear.

Clearly what is happening in the US at the moment throws everything into sharp relief, and I stand on the brink of being completely overwhelmed by what a Trump presidency means for the world as a whole – on everything ranging from climate change, to reproductive rights, to press freedom, to large-scale corruption and the threat of nuclear war.

But today, Holocaust Memorial Day, I am entirely consumed by revulsion at what Trump and his supporters are trying to do with their so-called Muslim registry. I am raging internally at their blatant pushing of a white supremacist agenda, their demonization of refugees, immigrants, citizens of colour, Black Lives Matter supporters, members of the LGBTQ community and anyone who does not fit their narrow, spineless, small-minded definition of being worthy to be accorded full human rights, compassion, security and support.

And I am disgusted beyond belief to see the British Prime Minister simpering and fawning as she tries to secure a trade deal with Trump to limit the disastrous fallout from Brexit by waxing lyrical over the fucking “Special Relationship”. Next thing you know she’ll be weaving friendship bracelets or engraving T loves D 4 eva into Westminster Abbey.

I don’t know what to do with all this anger but I have to do something.

I can’t look at this day and what it symbolises for me on a personal level without wanting to do more than show solidarity with people forced to live in fear, everyone being targeted directly or indirectly by an orange lunatic with delusions of grandeur.

Monday, 23 January 2017

A Present from the Past

I had heard wonderful things about A Present from the Past. So much so that I hesitated in going to see it, fearing disappointment.

The premise is universally relatable, even if the tale carries a touch of the extraordinary in the way it unfolds. A daughter buys her father, and herself, plane tickets to Italy from Egypt to celebrate his 75th birthday. Having studied there in his youth, he returned to Egypt leaving behind an Italian woman who he promised to go back and marry. He never did, and the love of his youth coalesced into a romanticised story about the one who got away. Now the daughter, walking in her father’s footsteps as a filmmaker, suggests a trip to revisit the scene of a story she has grown up hearing, and maybe find the woman he hasn’t seen for 33 years.

Filming almost entirely surreptitiously on an iPhone, Kawthar has captured the flickers of detail that make up intimate knowledge of another person. She shows her father in lovingly prosaic attitudes: lying in bed with his feet next to the camera, crooning old love songs, vulnerable in sleep. Her tenderness towards him is striking from the first frame and she revels in the quirks of his character without ever offering an opportunity for him to be mocked. Careful crafting shows a character who pretends to shoot koshary sellers from a passing car, chuckling triumphantly, who hoards mangoes like a mischievous child, who claims that his eagerness to see Patrizia is mostly so that he not “disrespect all Egyptians”, by giving the impression that Egyptian men break women’s hearts without explanation.

So much more interesting than the Mokhtar-Patrizia relationship, which you suspect remains well confined to the past, is the film’s dusting of emotion over the fragility of old age and the importance of memory. Mokhtar battles contradictory impulses as he contemplates the probability that this long dreamed-of meeting will actually take place. He wants Patrizia to remember him as the “prince” she once saw him as, resplendent in the abaya he has resurrected for the occasion. The prospect of a meeting is full of romance and significance. He will understand, he tells his daughter, if she has been with other men in the years since they met. After all, he never contacted her.

Delicately, with deliberation, he examines his memories. A letter in which she referred to him as the man of the house is recalled with pride, the recollection that she never wore earrings disclosed as you would something infinitely precious and cherished. He will invite her to come to Egypt, he muses in his hotel room; she may be tired of life in Italy.

Woven throughout the narrative is the yearning of a man who is preoccupied with aging to remain relevant, to have something tangible to offer the world. He has devoted his life to children’s education and speaks dismissively of people who try to communicate with youth in a didactic or patronising way. Periodically he rails against his daughter for taking control of the trip and their itinerary. A palpable fear of redundancy is evident in his calls home to his capable wife, asking her if she is scared to be in the house without him.

Equal in stubbornness, father and daughter fight. And then sleep, heads on one another’s shoulders.

The film is multi-layered and an understated, moving testament to love in its different forms. Kawthar, fearing that she has raised her father’s hopes for nothing, pleads with a bemused Italian hotel worker to help her find a trace of Patrizia online. Gone is her habitual tone of impish teasing, gone too the simmering frustration you hear at other junctures; tearfully she explains that she just wants to stop his sadness, and she suddenly sounds very young.

Mokhtar’s paternal pride is exhibited less directly. It is transmitted through the prism of an Egyptian-Italian they meet and befriend on arrival in Rome, who shrewdly observes the alchemic potency of the trip, the way that Kawthar’s presence gives her father back his youth. It is evident as they check into their hotel, with his loud declaration “father and daughter!”

If the film is a reminder to cherish those we live side by side with, it is one that is issued in the gentlest way. Unlike the countless evolving intimacies of daily life, memory is shown to be both enduring and malleable. We may never know why a story ends, but the ending we give ourselves may not be that of the person who lived the story with us. When it has been all this time, how could I not have loved you? How many people must have asked this question in the middle of a one-sided imaginary conversation with no end.

We may never know how our lovers remember us.  

At the end of the film, like mirages stepping from the screen, father and daughter appeared to answer questions, so guilelessly like their film selves as to be almost disconcerting. Basking as the visible hero of a story now firmly embedded in the collective imagination of filmgoers within and beyond Egypt, Mokhtar looked younger than his film self.

Immortalised by his daughter, his legacy is enshrined in the love story of his youth. What a tremendous gift. 

Friday, 20 January 2017

On the awful sterility of things having to make sense

M has a particular look she gives me whenever I use the expression I don’t know if I did the right thing. We both realise that she doesn’t have to say a word for me to understand what this signifies. There is no right decision, only decisions. You will hurt people, and you have to get over it. Your boundaries are yours to choose and others may not understand them. It is intention that matters most.

Allowing space for my own complexities doesn’t come naturally. Letting go of the compulsion to explain, taking the risk of not being understood or being thought badly of, are gut-wrenching prospects.

But devoting time to things I don’t believe to be worthwhile is killing my compassion. And the awful backdrop of the Brave New World we find ourselves in today kindles defiance in me as much as it breathes melancholy. I feel that we are inclining more and more towards reductionism and its manifestations are everywhere.

I see it in myself at a personal level when I try to bridge divides that in truth are great chasms in understanding and viewpoint. When I pretend to myself that I can understand someone whose words or actions nevertheless trigger a sense of something deeply wrong, for the sake of being open-minded, for the sake of wanting the world around me to make sense.

Denying my need to let go when there are insurmountable barriers to understanding has created a rage that I have swept aside for so much of my life. Wanting to be likeable, warm-hearted, generous, I have pretended there wasn’t something much fiercer churning away inside me.  

But the only way I stand a chance of understanding anyone is by not trying to be understood by everyone. It seems that the stakes are so much higher these days, with what feels like a world spinning faster and faster out of control.

So I have made myself a promise, because I only have so much space and so much time. I will let go of what I have tried, and failed, to understand or connect with. I will allow myself to rage against injustice and lack of respect in all the forms I encounter them, and I will struggle against my own inclinations to be peaceable and accommodating to people who demonstrate them when I know I am doing it for the sake of social convention, or my belief that things have to be in order or make sense.

But I will keep looking for meaning, nuance and new ways to understand this world that overwhelms me with its complexity and its inconsistency. I will seek out art that disconcerts and unsettles me. I will see the beauty and the brutality in people, but I will not interact meaningfully with them out of a sense of obligation; the ones who get real space are those who spark joy or passion.

I will accept that I may hurt people and that the alternative to doing so is living in a world of bland sterility, where I am afraid to say what I believe to be true. I will stop expecting everything to make sense.

Saturday, 14 January 2017


Always when I’m sitting in airports, I think about goodbyes.

I imagine us all as atoms – propelled like restless spirits in an endless dance of meeting and departure, scattering little pieces of our hearts.