Author Archives: hilary

  • Certainties

    Posted on April 27, 2011 by in Blog Posts

    My euphoria after the people’s uprising in Tunisia and Cairo and the stirrings in Syria lasted for weeks. Then, during the long run up while the UN was deliberating over the no-fly zone for Libya, I was visiting the fiord country in a remote part of PNG where the villages are accessible only by boat and few people have access to radio transmitters. But mad bad Gaddafi was a name that resonated. PNG has a long tradition of zealots bearing news of change from other worlds. So when I found myself being asked questions about the Arab world,  drawing a map in the dust to show where north Africa is, and holding forth about how Cairo had been inspired by Tunisia and how Libya was in an uproar, I was tentative. But the questions I was asked went to the heart of the matter. Why did the rulers not share the oil money? Why did the people not tell the rulers what they needed? Why did the rulers shoot their own people? Port Moresby is more expensive than Sydney. With the building of the PNG Liquified Natural Gas pipeline from the Southern Highlands, have come the condominiums and marinas and …

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  • Great days

    Posted on February 14, 2011 by in Blog Posts

    Hosni Mubarak looking strangely like Silvio Berlusconi (who also doesn’t get it) has handed over power. Once the middle classes – especially when thousands of doctors and the elderly – joined the young, it was probably all over. But earlier that evening it had looked like a dangerous stalemate. I made the mistake of watching the remarkable Peter Watkins film made in 2000 of the 1871 Paris Commune and the role of the media  – and went to bed listening to all night radio full of dread of a mighty massacre. Then it was all over. Western leaders seem to be welcoming the change in tones both avuncular and hesitant. An Egypt directing its own affairs, influencing the rest of the Arab League to do the same, is a whole new world. The Western media, especially those whose journalists weren’t in Cairo or Alexandria, has largely erupted into worried negativity, evidence of just how far the caricatures and fear of Islam has penetrated since 9/11. The Muslim world is not all the same.Turkey is not Saudi Arabia.Yemen is not the Lebanon. Indonesia’s transition to democracy was peaceful. Eqypt is more secular, more educated, more cosmopolitan than we often recognise. It is also …

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  • Youth lash out

    Posted on February 2, 2011 by in Blog Posts, Other

    It seems to me there are a few hopeful signs – Egypt especially – and here  a generation of young Australians who can’t wait to get out there, lining up to study international relations and cross-cultural complexities, volunteering, learning second and third languages, galvanised by the thought that they are going to have to sort the place out. This is the same generation of students I met in the West Bank a year ago, who said they were impatient with the ideologies of their parents and grandparents, kids with their text bookbooks on their iPhones so they could study when held up at checkpoints. In Egypt, 30% of the population is under 20.  And recently the Gazan Youth’s Manifesto for change went around the world: “F*** Hamas. F*** Israel. F*** Fatah. F*** UN. F*** UNWRA. F*** USA!” the manifesto begins, with the verb spelled out fully. “We, the youth in Gaza, are so fed up with Israel, Hamas, the occupation, the violations of human rights and the indifference of the international community! We want to scream and break this wall of silence, injustice and indifference.” Gaza’s youth lash out at the institutions maintaining the seeming status quo on the hopelessness …

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  • Lesley Hazleton: On reading the Koran

    Posted on January 11, 2011 by in Videos

    Lesley Hazleton sat down one day to read the Koran. And what she found — as a non-Muslim, a self-identified “tourist” in the Islamic holy book — wasn’t what she expected. With serious scholarship and warm humor, Hazleton shares the grace, flexibility and mystery she found, in this myth-debunking talk from TEDxRainier. A brilliant introduction to the Koran and what it does not say. It’s just nine minutes of your time.

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  • National Biography Award Talk & Podcast

    Posted on December 1, 2010 by in Blog Posts

    [i]excerpt[/i]…

    Tonight, because I am in the Friends Room of the splendid Mitchell Library, talking to people who can be assumed to be interested in biographical writing, it seemed like a fine opportunity to talk a little about some of my time away from here when I was writing a complex biography.

    Talking about the book at all is hemmed around by stop signs and no-go areas – most of them in my head, some of them the normal restraints of confidentiality and privacy, some of them might sound a little paranoid to you, like an episode from Spooks, but I was in a world of security concerns, where emails are vetted regularly, at least for keywords, where computer files sometimes seemed to come and go – and formal communications are always coded and oblique.

    A few years ago, I was solicited for the task of writing a biography of a well known public figure in Amman – a man greatly respected all over the Arab world and in Europe. He is not at all well known in Australia, which is a pity because we could do with his insights, but it does make talking about the project slightly easier. I don’t need to name him but will try to ensure he gets a copy of this paper. He doesn’t ‘do’ emails, his staff do. And it’s a world of multiple agendas.

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  • Timid Minds

    Posted on November 1, 2010 by in Blog Posts

    CAL / Meanjin Essay ‘Cringe’, wrote A.A. Phillips, is ‘a disease of the Australian mind’. This was an unpleasant enough notion in the Australia of the 1950s, then a remnant colonial monoculture with no separate language to hide behind. Now with our cosmopolitan aspirations and liberal assumptions, it seems unthinkable. Arthur ‘Angell’ Phillips, critic and schoolmaster, had been commissioned by Clem Christesen to write ‘The Cultural Cringe’ for Meanjin in 1950. Clem did not much like the essay when it came in but ran it anyway, and eventually conceded that the reader response had been gratifying. Alliteration always helps and the phrase soon entered the language though some, like the member of the Commonwealth Literary Fund when asked to support publication of The Australian Tradition, a collection of A.A. Phillips’ essays, wanted ‘The Cultural Cringe’ dropped. Australian culture, he argued, needed bolstering not admonishing. [1] But A.A.Phillips was no reprimander. His assessment was affectionate but very much to the point. Menzies’ Australia was an insecure, often sycophantic nation, its cultural baggage a complex mix of adulation and hostility. Intellectuals headed to Oxford or Cambridge almost as a matter of course. The centrifugal pull of the great British metropolis was irresistible …

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  • Cover of Wordlines

    Wordlines

    Posted on July 1, 2010 by in My Books

    The published introduction can be downloaded in Adobe Acrobat format here . WORDLINES a selection of recent Australian writing I returned to Australia not long ago after a three-year absence, much of it spent working and writing in the Middle East. This time the feeling of dislocation and disorientation lasted for months. I knew I’d brought it on myself, the price to be paid for staying away too long and becoming too engrossed in where I landed – in Amman where the azans from the mosque five times a day are almost drowned out by the roar of the planes flying into Iraq from a nearby airbase. Australia feels a very long way off. Perhaps it was At first I tried to keep tabs on what was happening in writing and publishing at home and writer friends occasionally emailed work-in-progress. I downloaded the Book Show and Late Night Live, The Australian’s Literary Review and copies of Meanjin arrived in my mailbox in the wall of the compound.  But my reading was more and more about the region I was in – its pluralism, the clotted history and layers of identity politics made worse by 9/11. The Crusades seen from the other …

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  • Ayaan Hirsi Ali – Nomad

    Posted on July 1, 2010 by in Book Reviews

    Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s convert-like zeal is both disturbing and delusional, writes Hilary McPhee… Nomad: A Personal Journey through the Clash of Civilizations By Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Fourth Estate, $35.00 Ayaan Hirsi Ali has brains and beauty and is a gift to those of us who like our prejudices confirmed. In Australia, where she returns regularly to promote her books, she reinforces our idea of the Muslim world as monolithic, mediaeval and dangerous. Islam is all bad, religion is the problem, Allah is the villain. The West is better in every respect. These days she proclaims the American way with stars in her eyes. Hirsi Ali’s early life was difficult and spent on the move between Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya. Had she grown up elsewhere – in parts of the Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey or Teheran perhaps – she might have been able to give us a more complex and sympathetic picture of the Muslim world, but I suspect not. As each of us is shaped by family and culture, it was her dysfunctional family that formed her, and gave her the courage and impetus to escape – a harsh mother she despised, an educated politicized father she idealized until …

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  • Yann Martel – Beatrice and Virgil

    Posted on April 10, 2010 by in Book Reviews

    Beatrice and Virgil By Yann Martel, Text Publishing, $32.95 In a small room as white and brightly lit as an operating theatre, an antlered creature stands at bay, a beautiful commodity, a thing. Encrusted with large balls of acrylic and tiny crystal beads, it sparkles like a prize from a rich person’s treasure trove, a vision of the future. Not until you stand close and peer deep into the acrylic lenses at the magnified whorls of delicate brown and gingery hair does the taxidermied elk beneath reveal itself. This statement about manmade annihilation, by Japanese sculptor, Kohei Nawa, in Brisbane’s APT6 , is all the more powerful, it seems to me, because we have to do the work ourselves. He does with optics and silence what Yan Martel’s new novel seeks to do with words. Beatrice and Virgil, with its multiple vantage points, is a novel as much about the struggle to find the right words as it is about their meanings, words for the desperately difficult task, beset by taboos, which Martel embarks on knowing full well the risks. Beatrice and Virgil has two central animal characters who died a long time ago and two human characters both called …

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  • Glimpses of Heaven and Hell in Dubai

    Posted on September 9, 2009 by in Blog Posts

    The 8th Wonder of the World had already been proclaimed well before the grand opening in Dubai of Atlantis – The Palm in November 2008. The thirteen acres of artificial palm-shaped archipelago jutting out into the shallow waters of the Arabian Gulf featured a 42 acre water park of 65,000 fish, the soon-to-be controversial Dolphin Education Centre, the whole thing anchored by the vast pink luxury hotel, its 1539 rooms full for the occasion with the world’s celebrities and tycoons. This was to be an Event like nothing on earth and the $20 million fireworks display would be clearly seen from outer space. But the timing and scale of the opening of Atlantis –The Palm could not have been worse. International derision was guaranteed. ‘Dubai’s Last Hurrah,’ trumpeted the cover of Newsweek. The Guardian cited Ozymandius: ‘The dunes will reclaim the soaring folly of Dubai.’ And the Independent kept putting the boots in: ‘The Shangri-la of the Middle East bites the dust … a city built on credit and ecocide, suppression and slavery.’ The news that Dubai, like everywhere else in the over-developed world, was feeling the force of the global recession was endlessly repeated. The real estate bonanza had …

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