Memoir and Personal Essay

This piece appeared in Guernica magazine in December 2015.

Ours is a country of words. Talk. Talk. Let me rest my road against a stone.

Ours is a country of words. Talk. Talk. Let me see an end to this journey.

Mahmoud Darwish, ‘We Travel Like All People’

Over the past few months, the amplification of the routine violence in which Palestinians have lived for decades has thrown up a new set of linguistic hot potatoes. I’ve been especially struck by claims of ‘incitement’, which my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines as ‘that which rouses to action; a stimulus, incentive, spur.’ This useful noun used to enjoy common ownership but lately appears to have been requisitioned for exclusive use by the Israeli cabinet and the U.S. House of Representatives.

Over the last two weeks alone, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely has begun pressing Silicon Valley executives to pull online videos of Palestinians being shot by Israeli occupation forces, while her government shut down three Palestinian radio stations in Hebron and launched an Orwellian review of Tel Aviv’s Nakba film festival, lest any of the images or words presented in these outlets 'incite' Palestinian violence.

Although I remain perplexed by its mysterious precision of the 'I know it when I see it' variety, my own investigations have narrowed its definition down as follows: when uttered by a Palestinian leader, any noun, verb, adjective, punctuated by a pause, comma hyphen, animated by an underscore, exclamation mark, in any order whatsoever, constitutes the 'incitement' which propels young men and women to pick up stones or knives with which to assault Israeli settlers and heavily armed soldiers.

By contrast, I’ve noticed that neither the failure to prosecute the murders of Ali, Saad and Riham Dawabshe, nor forty-eight years of occupation of Palestinian land meet the rigors of this revised definition. This is also true of the epidemic of settler attacks on Palestinian olive farmers while Israeli occupation soldiers stand idly by or the incarceration of Palestinian children, not to mention the daily expansion of illegal settlements and the demolition of Palestinian homes.

Hebron buses intended only for Israelis

A few weeks ago, a six year-old Palestinian boy was detained by Israeli forces in Bethlehem, along with the ten children who were arrested in East Jerusalem the same day. Two of them were nine, the eldest fourteen. In 2011, half a dozen Palestinian 'Freedom Riders' were arrested for travelling on Hebron buses intended only for Israelis. In Old Hebron, 400 settlers are kept safe by 2,000 Israeli soldiers, and Palestinians are barred from Shuhada Street, the city’s main commercial thoroughfare. Those who live on the street have had their doors welded shut and access their homes via adjacent properties or alleyways.

In 2013, the writer and Hebrew University lecturer David Shulman wrote, 'a visit to Hebron eats into one’s soul'; just imagine what it does to the souls of the Palestinians who live there? Still, we’re told, the only permissible response to this Jim Crow-inspired ugliness is acceptance; anything else is ‘incitement.’ [Note: since this essay was published, Prof. Shulman was awarded the Israel Prize for his research into Indian languages and culture. He donated the prize to Ta’ayush, an organisation that seeks equality for Palestinians.]

The boundaries of permissible speech

This reformulation was formalized by the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee which did AIPAC proud on November fifth, passing a resolution condemning Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s 'incitement' of Palestinian youth. The vote followed a committee hearing with the smugly un-ironic name 'Words Have Consequences.'

Questions such as these about the ownership of language and the boundaries of permissible speech, were already on my mind when I arrived at 'Rethinking Trauma and Resilience in the Context of Political Violence', a conference here in London in November about the psychosocial impact of Israel’s sustained aggression against the Palestinian people. The event was organized by the UK Palestine Mental Health Network, of which I’m a member, and other groups and it’s where I came across Brian Barber, founding director of the Center for the Study of Youth and Political Violence at the University of Tennessee.

A rather melancholy fellow, Dr. Barber described two key findings that emerged from his interviews with Palestinians who had been youths during the first Intifada, which began in 1987. First, he said, their chronicles routinely included accounts of Israel’s 'persistent, indignity-violating humiliation' of Palestinians, from random house searches to indiscriminate harassment at checkpoints. This 'brutal form of psychic violence' is often overlooked by experts on war and trauma, said Dr. Barber.

Who has been crushed by whom

Dr. Barber also told us that the Palestinians he interviewed repeatedly used the same handful of analogous words to describe their current feelings about life under occupation. 'Broken,' 'destroyed', 'shaken up' and 'crushed' appeared on a screen behind him. At that point, a Jungian psychoanalyst, Heba Zaphiriou-Zarifi, interjected that in Arabic the adjective 'crushed' doesn’t merely connote a state like bored, say, or hungry. Instead, she said, 'crushed' bears within it the notion of being acted upon; as such it invites the listener to contemplate just who has been crushed by whom.

Besides the linguistic clarity it provided, Zaphiriou-Zarifi’s contribution was a reminder that while words themselves can be said to wield power, they nonetheless remain stand-ins for the dialectic between subject and object, the self and other. Of course, colonialism is always a lopsided affair, sustained by whatever works while it works, and abandoned when its utility is exhausted. In the case of Israel/Palestine, if historic entitlement loses its force, call it security or anti-Semitism, call them a 'cancer', call their children 'snakes' or 'cockroaches', call them an 'invented' people, desecrate the Holocaust.

These are the means by which words and the narratives they weave reconstitute the oppressed as the oppressor, and pave the way for all manner of savagery.

Steadfast perseverance

Against the backdrop of these perverse, inverted narratives, the recurrence of 'crushed' and similar states of destruction troubled me especially, for it exposed the depleted condition of sumud, a pivotal concept meaning ‘steadfast perseverance’ that has characterized and animated the Palestinian resistance since 1967. In fact, sumud has been reformulated many times over, shedding connotations and acquiring new ones as facts on the ground change. Here’s an interpretation from Abdelfattah Abusrour, founder of the Al Rowwad Cultural and Theater Training Center, which appeared in Jerusalem Quarterly:

Sumud is continuing living in Palestine, laughing, enjoying life, falling in love, getting married, having children. Sumud is also continuing your studies outside, to get a diploma, to come back here. Defending values is sumud. Building a house, a beautiful one and thinking that we are here to stay, even when the Israelis are demolishing this house, and then build a new and even more beautiful one than before—that is also sumud. That I am here is sumud. To reclaim that you are a human being and defending your humanity is sumud.

However defined, for Palestinians sumud is embodied in the olive tree whose cockled trunk and extensive root system represent the Palestinian love affair with the land, an ardor which undoubtedly explains the sadistic glee with which Israeli settlers destroy these centuries-old living emblems, symbolically crushing the steadfastness that has marked the Palestinian resistance.

‘I am the lover & the land is the beloved’

Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine’s poet laureate, brought his people’s love affair with the land to vivid life in much of his work, including his 1967 poem 'Diary of a Palestinian Wound' where he writes:

O brave-faced wound

my homeland isn’t a suitcase

& I’m not a traveller

I am the lover & the land is the beloved

Affecting metaphors aside, you needn’t dig deeply into Darwish’s oeuvre to find evidence of his ambivalence about the power of words, and even an explicit disavowal of that power. For instance, in 'On Poetry' he writes:

If only these poems were

a chisel in the hand of the proletariat

a grenade in the palm of the struggler

If only these poems were

If only these poems were

a plough in the hand of the peasant

or a shirt or a door or a key

If only these poems were

His conception of verse devoid of either utility or agency, illustrated here through a string of sturdy nouns and a clause that never ends, is captured more elliptically in 'State of Siege' when Darwish cautions:

To a reader: Do not trust the poem

The daughter of absence

It is neither intuition nor is it


But rather, the sense of the abyss

I spent much of the summer of 2006 reading Darwish as I researched and wrote 'Cultural Intifada', my Master’s dissertation about art and political resistance in Palestine, while Israel laid siege to Gaza in Operation 'Summer Rains'. I felt tremendous sorrow when he died unexpectedly in August 2008, four months before the next Israeli blitz of Gaza, Operation 'Cast Lead.' And thanks to J.K. Rowling, Darwish has been much on my mind again lately as I’ve watched the daily executions of Palestinian youth in the streets of Hebron and East Jerusalem, the weekly razing of Palestinian homes, and the detention of scores of Palestinian children.

Recently, the Harry Potter author fronted a clutch of public figures, including several British politicians, to denounce academic and cultural boycotts of Israeli institutions. Under the banner ‘Culture for Coexistence’ her group alleged that only ‘cultural bridges’ will build ‘peace’ between Israelis and Palestinians. When challenged on this flaccid claim, Rowling’s gambit was to invoke Darwish.

Banning poets from the Republic

The ploy struck me as artfully insolent, for Darwish was not blind to the limitations of his medium. Sure, he was a thorn in the side of the Israeli authorities who kept him under house arrest for years. Indeed, as we’ve just seen in Saudi Arabia, where the Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh has been sentenced to death, those who wield power recognize the unruly force of words to 'disrupt the order and hierarchy of the soul' thereby disrupting 'the order and hierarchy of political authority as well', as the philosopher Judith Butler puts it. In the face of this force, she says, Plato wanted to ban poets from the Republic outright.

Still, as any student of his work can tell you, while Darwish acknowledged that acts of imagining can flout the reductiveness of the Palestinian identity, ('If I write love poems, I resist the conditions that don’t allow me to write love poems', he once said) he never conceived of them as the exclusive currency in some mythical 'negotiation' between his own exiled and occupied people and their swaggering, hyper-militarized occupier. For Darwish, poetry was a gesture not a debate, and the pen was neither mightier nor feebler than the sword. The pen was the pen, the poet the poet, and the soldier the soldier. If they were useful at all, words were metaphorical instruments, sometimes blunt and at others devastating, but neither weapons nor tools of a make-believe reconciliation.

I’m sure that to some these thoughts will seem dubious, sacrilegious even. After all, we’re talking about the secular humanist scribe of Palestine’s hopes, its suffering and its rage, author of its 1988 Declaration of Independence. Nonetheless, for me Darwish’s poetic consciousness is a compelling prototype of the fraught battleground between art and political struggle. As he told the journalist Adam Shatz in a New York Times interview, his exalted status did little to palliate the frustration of being ‘read before I write’.

‘My readers expect something from me, but I write as a poet,' he said. 'So when I write love poetry, they think it’s about Palestine. That’s nice, but it’s just one aspect of my work.'

Fragments of the broken and brutalized self

If Darwish’s poetry is a stand-in for anything, then, it’s the refusal to submit to the denial of Palestinian humanity in all its facets. It is both a bridge uniting fragments of the broken and brutalized self, and a mirror with which to see them. It is sumud.

Still, the “cultural bridges” affair reminds us that language has always been wielded with savage ruthlessness in the relentless moral and political siege that enables and emboldens Israel’s expansionist project. After all, 'a land without a people for a people without a land' are eleven words that together sought to disappear indigenous Palestinians long before the first gun was fired or the first village razed during the Nakba.

Indeed, those who defend Israeli ambitions expend much energy denying even the basic terms of reference that might constitute the beginnings of a dialogue. There was no Palestine, there is no occupation, there are no war crimes, and the twenty-five feet high concrete separation wall is merely a 'fence'. They insist instead on their own lexicon of 'terrorists', 'security' and 'God’s will'.

On the other hand, I heard an Israeli remark at a lecture recently that it doesn’t matter whether we call the current eruption of violence in Israel/Palestine an 'intifada' or a 'banana'. Its name, he said, neither elucidates the sentiments or situation that propel it nor determines its contours or outcome. For now, then, let us call it 'the sense of the abyss' and leave Darwish to rest in peace.



Early this year Dan Cohen, an Arizona-born independent journalist who works in Palestine, posted a tweet about an Indiegogo campaign. Cohen is one of a handful of young activist journalists I follow who put themselves in the line of fire, literally and figuratively, by spurning putative objectivity on Israel/Palestine in order to report what they see with their eyes and feel in their hearts. Here’s a widely retweeted selfie Cohen posted in January:

These days my Twitter timeline seems to consist mostly of links to petitions and crowdfunding pitches, but the campaign Cohen tweeted caught my eye because it had been launched by a young English teacher in Gaza named Alaa Radwan, who was determined to learn the violin, and was looking for funds to buy an instrument.

Regular readers of this blog will know about my commitment to Palestinian rights and Israeli accountability (re-cast by hasbara trolls as terrorist sympathies and anti-Semitism respectively, of course). But they might not know that my stepfather was a Czech-born violin maker, and my mother continues to run the business they founded together which produces accessories for violins and violas. Having worked for this family business on and off for close to 20 years, I enthusiastically donated to Alaa’s campaign and sent the link to my mother who did the same.


In the course of a brief Twitter exchange with Alaa, I mentioned our business. A few weeks later she contacted me to say that she’d miraculously raised the money she needed but now she had no idea how she was going to find an instrument. Could I help? I said yes and began thinking about UK-based contacts I could approach. The next day, I had an idea: in April, I would be attending the Frankfurt Musikmesse, the world’s biggest musical instruments fair. I proposed that if Alaa could wait that long, I was sure I could find her a far better instrument through a violin maker or one of our wholesale clients at the fair than we would find in a shop. She ok’d my plan, saying it might then be possible to send the violin by post, for a friend had successfully sent her Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns in the mail. I suppressed my doubts, and we agreed to sit it out till April.

This is how I found myself on a sunny Tuesday morning two months later at Western Union on north London’s Caledonian Road accepting receipt of a wire transfer for the purchase of a violin in Frankfurt, Germany, from a young woman I’d never met who had just lived through Israel’s third siege of Gaza in six years, along with its ongoing eight-year blockade of goods from pasta to chocolate, lightbulbs, medicine and crayons. In that moment I became keenly aware that whatever passion, anger or despair the words ‘Gaza’ and ‘Palestine’ had aroused in me over two decades of protest, debate and sleepless nights, those places had in fact remained stubbornly abstract to me. However noble my intentions, I had unconsciously made Alaa an emblem instead of the person she was: an ordinary young woman imagining the talents she might discover and the self she might become. Gaza was the place where Alaa lived, where her emails were carefully composed and sent, and where her fantasy of playing the violin had taken hold. Unbound suddenly from the embarrassing constraints of my own imagination, I discovered that there is room to dream in Gaza of something other than peace.

Indulging in adrenaline fuelled chatter with the friendly young guy at Western Union, I mentioned what the money was for. His face broke into a warm, approving smile before he indulged a whistle-stop critique of UK foreign policy from Iraq to Palestine. And then he gave me Alaa’s cash.


The next day, I awoke to the dawn chorus and jumped into the car I’d booked for London’s City Airport. By mid-day I’d checked into my hotel and my fair pass had been scanned. Since I was last there, before my children were born, the sprawling fairgrounds had grown to include a shopping mall, although a Spring heatwave meant the outdoor stalls hawking beer and wurst boasted snaking queues against a soundtrack of thumping bass from the sponsored performance tents.

I breached the wall of cacophonous sound to enter Hall 3.1. Although I’d compiled a mental list of prospects, I began by having a look around the neighbourhood where the stringed instruments were concentrated. I said hello to a few people I knew and explained my mission to find a violin for a young woman in Gaza. In return, I got a couple of blank stares, a few throats in urgent need of clearing, and several pairs of eyes seeking embarrassed refuge as far from mine as their extraocular muscles could travel.

But for some, a sale was a sale. One nervy Brit insisted all I could get for Alaa’s money was a basic Chinese outfit before grudgingly offering a discount off the retail price when his colleague, who’d been eavesdropping, gave him a quizzical look. Our Romanian friends, who’d successfully navigated the post-communist landscape to build a thriving violin-making enterprise, showed me their wares with a kindly smile and a shrug; I said I’d think about it.

And then I approached the Germans, a formidable wholesale and manufacturing company we’d been dealing with for many years. Like his predecessor, Mr H, their head of strings, is an innocuous looking fellow but anyone paying attention will quickly spot the shrewd twinkle in his eye. I explained what I needed and how much I could spend. He leapt into action, showing me a good, ‘antiqued’ German-made student instrument that was on display. Judging by a YouTube video Alaa had sent with an exhortation to please find an instrument ‘that sounds like this’, I sensed that her view of the violin was rather romantic so she wouldn’t want an instrument that looked new. ‘Yes!’ I said, nodding happily.


Mr H offered to include a good German bow and some rosin, and to swap the standard Thomastik strings for Larsen, his preferred brand. With a flourish, he announced he’d throw in the case for free et voila: a high-quality student ‘outfit’ at about one-third the retail cost. ‘I’ll take it,’ I said, thinking I’d sort out how to get it to Gaza when I was back in London. ‘Well, I can’t sell it to you here,’ said Mr H. ‘We don’t have enough instruments to sell at the fair, and anyway we’re not permitted to sell here,’ he reminded me. ‘We will see if we can send it to Mr A,’ he said, naming an Israeli company that’s a mutual client of ours. My heart sank. ‘Um, I don’t think that will work, Mr H,’ I stammered as politely as I could. ‘The violin is going to Gaza,’ I emphasised. ‘I doubt Mr A will want to be involved in this.’ Silence. ‘Let me ask Alaa what she thinks, and I’ll get back to you.’

Early that evening, I emailed Alaa from my hotel room telling her about the violin, and the proposal to get it to Gaza. She didn’t reply till the next morning, apologetically explaining that there had been no electricity in Gaza the night before. ‘Sure,’ she replied to my tentative query about delivery to Tel Aviv. ‘A friend might be able to collect it for me.’ And that was that: later that morning, shortly before I left for the airport, I happened upon Mr H in a corridor at the fair. Money changed hands, a handwritten receipt was scribbled on a bent knee, and I returned to London. The following Monday I heard back from the Germans that our Israeli client was happy to help, and suddenly the fate of Alaa’s violin was out of my hands.

Needless to say there were customs delays and a few administrative headaches, which gave me the opportunity to be in touch with Mr A, without whom I’m not sure any of this could have been possible. Although we’d met several times, I hadn’t seen him for years, but I recalled a brief exchange in which he mentioned that he was on the Israeli left. From what I saw last summer, I didn’t think there were any leftists remaining in Israel, save the besieged staff of Haaretz and a few NGOs, but it seems I was wrong.

Then I read on Twitter that a rocket had been launched from Gaza into Israel and although ISIS had claimed responsibility, Israel began bombing again. When I didn’t hear from Alaa for a few days, I began to worry so I emailed her. A couple of days later she replied: she was fine, she said, but still no violin.

This morning Alaa told me that her instrument arrived. Now she can retire the pencil she’s been using to practice her bow hold, instead carefully placing each finger on the ebony frog while she keeps her wrist still and flat, but always relaxed. What’s more, she’s already got an audience: four and five year-old nephews Mahmoud and Omer, begging her to make music.


I know that my blogs are often bleak and despairing, and I was pleased to have some good news to share today. But it’s a tepid palliative for the deteriorating situation on the ground in Palestine, from the energetic expansion of settlements to the appointment of the most hawkish cabinet in Israeli history. Outside the region, those of us engaged in this issue are witnessing an unprecedented – yes, singular and extraordinary – campaign to shut down and even criminalise non-violent protest against Israel’s colonialist project and the apartheid mechanics that enable it.

Just a few weeks ago, Haaretz reported on a planned anti-BDS summit convened by Sheldon Adelson, the American casino magnate who poured $85-million (read that again) into Republican coffers during the 2012 US presidential election campaign, and attended by a who’s who of the pro-Israeli super-rich including Haim Saban who’s bankrolling Hillary Clinton’s White House bid, and Heather Reisman, who owns most of Canada’s bookstores. Call it a pro-Israel Bilderberg Group.

Around the same time, the Illinois legislature passed a law forcing state pensions to divest funds from companies that boycott businesses operating in Israel’s illegal settlements. In other words, Illinois has outlawed non-violent civil protest against a campaign of military occupation and state terror. Here’s how Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah put it,


These moves are galling but unexceptional. From a New York Times campaign to smear BDS activists, to the indefinite ‘postponement’ of a University of Southampton conference on Israel and International law with the help of Eric Pickles, the former UK Communities Secretary who’s now Chair of Conservative Friends of Israel, from Canadian government moves to equate a defence of Palestinian rights with ‘hate speech’ to US legislators making an EU trade pact conditional on European silence about Israeli settlements, debate and dissent are under sustained siege. As Saree Makdisi put it in a Los Angeles Times op-ed about attacks on campus protest movements,

the defenders of Israel…are in deep trouble, not because student well-being is at risk but because the rickety assemblage of distortions and myths used to justify support for Israeli policies can’t withstand scholarly scrutiny. Having lost the actual arguments, Israel’s defenders have now declared war on argument itself.

The campaign to outlaw dissent is attracting a motley crew of mercenaries. As Richard Silverstein tells us on his blog Tikun Olam, The Jerusalem Post has gleefully reported support for the anti-BDS movement from the likes of Jose Maria Aznar, Spain’s Francoist ex-President who founded Friends of Israel in 2010, and has lobbied to have the Jewish state admitted unconditionally into the European Union.

According to Aznar, the goal of BDS activists is to ’empty the country of Jews’, a wild and ironic claim from a man who posthumously awarded Spain’s medal of civil merit to the late Meliton Manzanas, a high-ranking cop under Franco who helped the Gestapo arrest Jews trying to escape Occupied France. (Aznar also allegedly used state funds to pay American lobbyists pushing to award him the US’s Congressional Gold Medal. They failed.)


The Nobel prize winner F.W. de Klerk has also weighed in. Calling comparisons between Israel and South Africa ‘odious’ de Klerk claims that it was negotiation and not international pressure including boycotts that toppled apartheid. I confess that I’m only mildly curious to know who is persuaded by the preposterous contention that if the Palestinians would just ask nicely, Israeli settlers would stop running over their children, uprooting their olive trees and forcibly evicting them from their homes while the IDF stands idly by.

No, what strikes me more forcefully is the burgeoning club of Nobel laureates eager to swap their moral capital for Israeli favour. This group includes Barack Obama, no friend of Bibi’s to be sure, but a peace prize-winning supplicant nonetheless, who perversely claimed a ‘direct line’ between the behaviour of the Israeli state and the black civil rights movement just a few weeks ago.

What’s more alarming still is that several of these moves came just days after the group Breaking the Silence released ‘This is How We Fought in Gaza’, a 240-page report comprising testimony from dozens of IDF soldiers. According to The Washington Post,

The soldiers described reducing Gaza neighborhoods to sand, firing artillery at random houses to avenge fallen comrades, shooting at innocent civilians because they were bored and watching armed drones attack a pair of women talking on cellphones because they were assumed to be Hamas scouts.

Strenuous efforts are being made to silence those dissenters too, from claims that their testimony was treasonous to the allegation that some soldiers’ anonymity meant the whole thing was a fabrication aimed at smearing the IDF. Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister failed to shut down an exhibition in Switzerland based on the organisation’s report, but worked with its embassy in Germany to secure cancellation of the same exhibition in Cologne as part of an event marking Israeli-German relations. In fact, that victory produced a grand slam week for Israeli hasbara when the Germans also agreed to postpone discussions on peace groups in Israel and Palestine, and on Palestinian Christians, that were part of the same event. Meantime, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon elected to exclude the country from a list of children’s rights violators despite its record in 2014 being the third worst in the world.


Today, a report from the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights concluded that both Israel and Hamas had committed possible war crimes in last summer’s Gaza siege. Hamas’s consisted primarily of executing collaborators and firing rockets indiscriminately. Israel was guilty of much else including deliberately targeting hospitals and ambulances, attacking residential buildings when it was likely that most family members would be home, stopping medical personnel from reaching the wounded, and deliberately killing unarmed civilians waving white flags.

The incidents are often chilling, especially those that took place in Khuza’a. The wheelchair bound 70 year-old who was shot in the head from a distance of two metres because she hadn’t heeded IDF warnings to leave. The mentally disabled boy who was beaten by IDF soldiers as his father stood by unable to intervene. This is the second time I’ve read about the Palestinian men who were stripped naked, handcuffed and blindfolded before being forced to stand in windows to act as human shields, and it wasn’t any easier than when I first heard this testimony in a Russell Tribunal video.

Naturally, Israel had pre-empted publication of the report a few days ago by clearing itself of the murder of four young boys playing football on a beach in Gaza, a judgment strengthened by its decision not to seek the testimony of any of the journalists who witnessed the event.


Unlike Hamas, Israel had refused to co-operate with UN investigators despite its success in hectoring William Schabas, a Canadian academic of Ashkenazi Jewish origin who sat on the editorial board of the Israel Law Review, into stepping down as head of the commission. According to the Israeli government, Schabas – who was described by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum as ‘the world expert on the law of genocide and international law’ – was incapable of leading a fair enquiry.

At 183 pages, the document is too long to summarise here, and in the event I’ve seen that the usual suspects have been prolifically tweeting its ‘highlights.’ What struck me most about it was its most obvious theme: the Israeli occupation of most of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, alongside its eight year-long blockade of Gaza. Indeed, notwithstanding its often excruciating attempts at ‘balance’ and its explicit repudiation of the notion that war crimes can ever be justified, the report repeatedly contextualises the unprecedented devastation wrought by last summer’s 51-day siege within the crippling impact of the blockade. Here’s a quote from paragraphs 589 and 590:

“The impact of the 2014 hostilities on the Gaza strip cannot be assessed separately from the blockade imposed by Israel. In particular, the destruction and damage brought about by the escalation of violence last summer pose significant challenges to the enjoyment of the rights to an adequate standard of living, housing, food, water, sanitation, health and education of the population of Gaza. The damage to electricity infrastructure, critical for power supply and a whole range of services, including health services, water and sanitation has been devastating for the enjoyment of human rights in the short, medium and long-term…

In that context, while fully aware of the need for Israel to address its security concerns, the commission believes that the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism, put in place with the assistance of the United Nations to accelerate efforts to rebuild destroyed houses and infrastructure, is not a substitute for lifting the blockade.”

Ah yes, ‘lifting the blockade’: another dream from Gaza that will have to wait. But for now Alaa Radwan got her violin, and so today was a good day (relatively speaking).

This piece originally appeared on the Gramophone blog. Reciprocity premieres on 10th June at The Forge, in London’s Camden Town

Although she dreamt of learning the cello, my sister never played an instrument. She loved to sing but her voice wasn’t especially good: our annual duet of The Boar’s Head Carol at Christmas was as close to choral performance as she ever got. And yet Darya’s connection with music was so profound, her sense of the musicality of life with its singular and idiosyncratic rhythms so innate, she was one of the most musical people I’ve known.

Darya died of breast cancer more than three years ago, and in less than a month’s time The Forge in central London will host the premiere of Reciprocity, a half-hour chamber work based on her poetry which I commissioned from the exciting young composer Daniel Patrick Cohen. Daniel caught the attention of the national media in the UK in 2012 when he was among a handful of composers selected by the British Film Institute to write scores for Alfred Hitchcock’s silent movies. The PRS for Music Foundation pointed us in his direction in what has turned out to be a stroke of matchmaking genius.

He’s male of course, and shockingly young to boot, so Daniel didn’t fit my preconceptions about the right fit for this delicate project. But among the composers who submitted proposals for Reciprocity, as the project has come to be known, it was clear from our first exchange that Daniel’s response to Darya’s poetry was visceral and acute. And curiously, through months of intensive work together I’ve discovered that Daniel has much in common with Darya. They share a restive curiosity, deep sensitivity, intellectual confidence absent arrogance or smugness, and an aesthetic sensibility unbounded by labels and categories. They would have liked each other.

I recall very clearly the day any lingering doubts about Daniel’s suitability were put to rest. He was working from Word versions of the poems, which had been transcribed by Julia, Darya’s literary executor, from the teetering pile of notebooks Darya had left behind. Confused about the correct order of a few sentences, Daniel asked to see scans of Darya’s own written copies. Julia obliged and Daniel instantly became obsessed with these originals, laboriously penetrating the meanings behind arrows and underscores and scratched out words that were replaced and then occasionally restored. Soon he’d spurned the Word documents altogether and began working from Darya’s versions instead. This exacting approach in which meaning can be embodied in a comma, or its absence, brought to mind the painstaking craftsmanship Darya had employed to create the experimental films she made in the 1990s, and the clothing she designed under the label My Brilliant Career after she was diagnosed with cancer. Kindred spirits, I thought.

If I had to locate the ‘beginning’ of Reciprocity, it was close to three years ago at the National Portrait Gallery café over tea and a soggy, microwaved scone with my friend, the journalist and novelist Jessica Duchen. Jessica is well known for her concerts linking themes from her novels with classical works, and like me she lost a sister to cancer. Talking about what to do with the piles of poetry Darya had entrusted to her Julia, Jessica said ‘why not commission a song cycle?’

Whilst the idea instantly struck a chord (yes, a pun), in the months that followed I sometimes wondered why. Some of Darya’s work had already been published, for instance, so surely it would make sense to put out a collection of her poems? Alternatively, as a writer and sometime-memoirist myself, I could write a book about Darya and our childhood together. Or for that matter a talented painter might capture her spirit, not just her likeness.

And yet all of these ideas seemed predictably literal compared with the thought that had taken root since my chat with Jessica. Darya wanted desperately to live, not to be frozen in time. I didn’t want to memorialize her in a tribute, or commission a ‘cancer piece’ that would reduce the richness of her life to the cause of her death. I wanted a work that could be joyful, dramatic, and even dissonant perhaps, for Darya never fought shy of messy contradictions. Embedded in my mind was the notion of a piece of music in which her poetry would commingle with its score of notes and rests to create a new art work entirely. After all, music is unique in being a living art that leaves plenty of space for its listeners’ own imaginings.

Naturally, the path from those aspirations to next month’s Reciprocity premiere has been strewn with delays, setbacks, and the myriad prosaic challenges that sometimes sink hope and ambition. But from Darya’s work Daniel has created something miraculously new, and together we have dared to thumb our nose at death.

If you’d asked me a couple of years ago whether I’d ever wade into the debate about girls and pink, my response would have been an unequivocal ‘no.’ Which isn’t to say that I didn’t have a view; rather that the issue is both thorny enough and dull enough to put me off, so while I avoid pink for my own daughter, I’ve failed to rouse the energy to develop any sort of argument.

So why the change of heart? First, having boy/girl twins who are now capable of (forcefully!) expressing preferences of their own has sharpened my focus on what kids seem drawn to, how I feel about it, and how it gets reinforced or discouraged by friends and strangers. Then I came across a terrific piece by Allison Benedikt in Slate who articulated a feeling that’s nagged me for some time. Benedikt writes, ‘[i]t is a given that if you are a mildly feminist mother (or father, but more mother), you are going to do everything within your power to steer your daughter away from anything that has the stink of “girly” on it.’ The emphasis on ‘stink’ is mine of course, but here’s the bit that resonated loudest: ‘[mothers’] reflexive disgust [about girls wearing pink] has always struck me as some sort of weird female self-loathing.’

Parsing the so-called literature it strikes me that the case against pink rests on two notions. First, the insinuation that there’s something inherently undermining about the colour itself, that it suggests the first stages of an alarming and flighty vanity. Then there’s the simple fact that lots of girls like it, which apparently exposes an equally ominous herd mentality, a preoccupation with what others think and do that’s in turn exploited by cynical marketers. In response to these provocations, we frantically flip flop between the ironies of judging and objectifying our daughters, and victimising them, all in the name of equality.

I confess that I struggle to grasp what’s so great about blue or any of the other dreary colours boys are consigned to, and why we should want our daughters to prefer those shades. (Red for boys is an exception, but I’m guessing that’s because it’s suitably aggressive, and – like blue – reassuringly primary, not some watered down mongrel.) In fact, one article I came across reported the findings of a study of under-3s that showed boys and girls both prefer pink, which squares with my observations about my own son – but more on that later.

Now let me pause for a moment to acknowledge the hackles of the anti-pink brigade springing to attention at the idea that this issue is ‘thorny’ at all, for I’ve read enough to know that some folks think it’s pretty clear cut. Simply put, pink is a ‘gateway’ colour that leads inevitably to low self-esteem, body image disorders and binge drinking. What’s more, girls clad in pink are apparently destined for mathematical ineptitude, a disinterest in learning computer code, and a university degree in a putatively soft subject with no practical applicability.

If this sounds dismissive or disparaging that’s not my intention for many of these difficulties cause significant distress. But the question is whether they arise because some girls like pretty pink things, and how on earth any single colour could bear so much cultural and psychological weight.

What’s interesting, too, is how this love of pink is subject to forensic, hand-wringing scrutiny, whereas boys’ putative preferences are taken as normative. Indeed, there’s a curious double-speak at play here wherein boys’ conformity is celebrated, while girls doing ‘what other girls do’ is denigrated as evidence of an inability to think for themselves.

For instance, I often hear women lamenting their daughters’ insistence on dressing up as fairies or princesses, but rarely do I find parents of either gender complaining that their sons want to dress up as fire fighters or Spiderman. Conversely, girls’ love of lorries and trains often elicits a smug, indulgent shrug, whilst boys who want to take ballet lessons tend to embarrass and worry. Now Benedikt might argue that’s because our society sees ‘girl culture’ as a blight on the very socio-cultural landscape that shapes it, but I think she’s only half right. The other half of the picture is the pressure boys are under to just, well, ‘be boys’.

Benedikt tells us that she’s tried to interest her son in princesses, but ‘so far, it’s a losing battle.’ ‘And no wonder!’ she adds. ‘Most of the adults around him also think that the stuff that girls like is lame.’ It’s convenient that her son mirrors society’s contemptuous view of girl stuff not to mention the theme of her article, but I’m not so lucky. Sure, my son adores his fire truck and his favourite colour is orange but he also ‘loves’ (his word) pink, and constantly nags to wear my daughter’s dresses and nighties. Sometimes he does, and why not? They’re far more comfy than trousers, and her clothes are certainly more fun to look at than most of his. He loves flowers and butterflies, along with his zebra top and the one with the Mini Cooper on it. At 2 ½ he’s too young to know what he’s ‘supposed’ to like so he follows his nose, and my husband and I haven’t seen fit to set him straight. Once he starts nursery and sees the same kids day in and out, he might begin to sense what’s expected of him but by then I hope he’ll be comfortable enough with his choices not to care.

As for my daughter, she does love pink and I confess that I braced myself for the first hint of it. I hoped she’d be one of those apparently free spirited girls who wants to dress up as a monster for Hallowe’en and learn tap dancing rather than ballet, and a preference for pink made these possibilities seem remote. Looking back, I’m quite certain my anxiety was fuelled by a deeper (and still unresolved) question about where a sense of agency comes from – how we become the subjects of our own lives – instead of a conviction that its lack is caused by a particular colour.

My children don’t watch TV and don’t go to nursery yet so I’m unsure where their choices come from. But I’ve come to accept through the sheer force of her iron will that my daughter believes she’s making a choice, that pink is her ‘special’ thing just as my son is obsessed with orange. Whatever the feminist in me says, I’m unable to rationalise valuing one of those choices and not the other, rejecting her delight while embracing his. More importantly, turning the issue into a battle of wills between me and my daughter – and presuming she’s just a patsy for the Disney marketing department to boot – does nothing to enable the sense of agency I wish so fiercely for her.

The other troubling aspect of the anti-pink stance is the way it implicitly accepts a profoundly dualistic view of identity. A couple of years back I’d see young girls at the park gussied up in party frocks and plastic tiaras and think of their parents, ‘why on earth would you let her come out to play in that outfit?!’ My (rhetorical) question is reinforced in Steve Biddulph’s book Raising Girls when he says that a first step in bringing up confident, competent girls is dressing them in tough-wearing tops and trousers, and sturdy shoes for playing.

Over time, though, I’ve come to see that Biddulph and I were both missing a key observation: wearing party clothes does nothing to inhibit girls from climbing, tumbling and playing in the sandbox, on the slide or on their scooters along with the boys in the park. Sure, they might get upset about a ladder in their favourite tights, but that won’t slow them down, nor will it persuade them that they ought to wear something a little more practical next time. For them, it’s not either/or; instead, it strikes me that they’re exploring myriad sources of pleasure and outlets for their enormous vitality.

As for boys, I’m not convinced they have it much better. Sure, society unquestioningly embraces the things they’re meant to like, and a plethora of sweaty and macho cooking shows like Hell’s Kitchen and Master Chef means it’s now ok for boys to play in kitchens. But I was struck by this ‘parent tip’ which appeared on a Babycenter e-newsletter a few weeks ago: ‘my son plays with his sister’s dolls all the time. I think it’s perfectly fine and teaches that boys can be nurturers, too.’ So it won’t make him gay or a nurse, then? Phew. I mean, not that I’d mind if he were gay or a nurse because, you know, I’m really open-minded. But, uh, phew.

Here in the UK, there’s much talk these days of extended parental leave that would allow fathers more time off work when their children are born, and how men’s desire to embrace this opportunity is undermined by cultural messages that tell them it’s ‘unmasculine’. In fact, this social pressure begins long before their children are born. As long as boys opt for the colours and toys and jobs we prize so highly, we don’t take much notice of their choices. Anxiously obsessing about our daughters, what we miss in all senses are the choices our sons don’t feel empowered to make.

Ever heard of L. Brooks Patterson? Me neither till a few days ago when I learned he’s the ‘county executive’ of a large district outside Detroit. Blunt and arrogant, revered and reviled with equal intensity, Patterson is credited with running one of the most economically efficient counties in America, and I know all about him thanks to a long profile in The New Yorker. Mind you, I’m still not sure I give a hoot about Patterson but thanks to the magazine’s reliably exceptional writing my insomnia-addled brain was happily engaged reading about him for some time, and along the way I learned a thing or two about the tragic decline of Detroit, urban American politics, and the curious pathology of unrelenting self promotion.

I’ve been a New Yorker subscriber for many years now, and what I’ve just described happens often when a new issue turns up. In the old days, I’d rip off the plastic cover with a sense of delight and anticipation, anxious to see what I’d find in that week’s issue. After mentally bookmarking whichever articles caught my eye, I’d skip ahead to the movie reviews where Anthony Lane on a mean streak can make me wet myself with laughter, before reversing back to ‘Talk of the Town’ at the front of the magazine with its fly-on-the-wall ephemera and short-form commentary on politics and the economy.

I say ‘the old days’ because that all changed when my husband bought me an iPad, after a string of increasingly less subtle hints. A lifelong insomniac, I desperately hoped that a dimly lit screen I could curl up with under the covers would at least save me from having to switch on the light and risk waking my husband, or actually leaving the room and risk the creaking floorboards waking our children.

I was sure I’d never read a novel on my iPad, but I switched to The New Yorker app with far less ambivalence than I’d anticipated. Other than a few aggravating bugs in the app (and an aggravatingly useless reply about them from The New Yorker), I continued reading the digital edition quite happily for several months.

I don’t recall precisely what drew my attention to the new deficiencies in my reading, but at some point I noticed that over the course of a few weeks I’d missed several articles of the L. Brooks Patterson variety, which had initially caught my eye but which I had never returned to. Puzzled, I had a look at the tables of contents of a handful of recent issues and spotted an alarming number of stories that rang no bells whatsoever. And then it occurred to me that I’d more or less forgotten about Talk of the Town and hadn’t even glanced at the readers’ letters in some time. All of this might seem odd since since I’d never read the print version chronologically anyway, but I could only conclude that the digital interface – despite being virtually identical in layout to the print edition and (arguably) enhanced by some interactive features – had frustrated my sense of the magazine’s geography. Instead, I began navigating The New Yorker app the way I do online newspapers and magazines, distractedly jumping here and there, gravitating towards familiar themes and rarely making my way back anywhere.

Indeed, my New Yorker observations prompted me to consider my other reading habits. Although it was the birth of my twins that had derailed my weekend ritual of reading the Financial Times (save the revoltingly unironic ‘How To Spend It’ supplement) on Saturdays and The Observer on Sundays, since domestic life has become moderately more manageable I’ve never really taken up that routine again. Instead, I browse The New York Times and The Guardian online most days and The Observer on the weekend, invariably drawn to the comments pages with their grinding output of ‘opinion’ about the ‘new’ feminism, the hubris of bankers, the weakness of Ed Miliband, the butchery of Assad, and so on. I used to look at The Evening Standard and The Independent every once in a while, too, until the adverts became so unwieldy it was impossible to scroll down the body of an article.

I tend to click on the same topics over and over again, rarely read hard news stories beyond the headline and a couple of paragraphs, and browse the readers’ comments mostly to remind myself (again) of how crass and mean-spirited people become when anonymity relieves them of accountability. Sure, I come across plenty of interesting articles through Twitter but the people I follow are selected by me based on the same instincts and biases that dictate how I browse news sites. What I don’t do is turn the pages of a magazine or newspaper to see what’s next, my eyes possibly alighting on a story about something or someone I know little or nothing about, and which I would never have discovered in a link-driven environment where there are no anchors, just surfboards.

As I pondered these newfound habits, my ingestion of current affairs began to look less like grazing Babette’s Feast than confronting an all you can eat buffet at a suburban strip mall. Overwhelmed by choice of uncertain quality, I opt for comfortingly familiar eggs on toast off the a la carte menu. The result – if you’ll permit me to switch metaphors – is not just an impoverished intellect but curiosity left idling at the kerb and a degraded sense of the ‘self’ that delights in quirky ephemera, ideas for their own sake and reading for pleasure.

With all of this in mind, last weekend I bought the Financial Times for the first time in a while. As it happened, ‘Lunch with the FT’ featured Nick D’Aloisio, the teenage wunderkind who sold his Summly startup to Yahoo for $30-million. Summly’s mission, embodied in a range of increasingly complex apps, is to summarise web content so you needn’t click through from a search to see what you’ve found. Over roast pork, D’Aloisio – who is clearly bright, inquisitive and serious-minded – described how he had briefly subscribed to The Economist but found there just wasn’t time in the day to do it justice so he dropped it. I could relate to that; it reminded me of the anxiety I used to feel as unread copies of The New Yorker would occasionally pile up next to my bed during busy times.

But the interview also reminded me of the forecast a few years back that news would soon be completely ‘customised’ to reflect your own preferences and interests, and delivered straight to your Inbox (already an old fashioned notion thanks to social media). This claim was invariably mooted with the breathless enthusiasm merited by some genuinely utopian ideas the Internet has given us, such as Creative Commons licenses. At the time, though, the prospect filled me with a vague sense of alarm, and now I know why. Left to my own devices and with limited time on my hands, would I carefully select reading material that would present a broad range of ideas and expose me to topics I don’t yet know I’m interested in? Would I learn about gene therapy in China and the new brain science? Would I know about Nick D’Aloisio and Aaron Swartz – or just Mark Zuckerberg?

On balance, I’ll happily admit that digital media have enhanced my life in countless ways, and ironically one of them is the consumption of e-books. I was sure that if I tried reading one, I’d long for the feel of paper beneath my fingers and the dog-eared copy I’d place among the others on my shelf. When I decided to give it a shot, I was delighted by the ability to choose a font, change the type size so I can read without my glasses on, bookmark where I’ve left off. I love downloading samples that help me gauge whether I’m really interested or just like the sound of something. As for magazines and newspapers, it’s the content, stupid: I’ve gone back to print to see what I’ve been missing.

The Christmas of 2005 was the first I spent with Kit, my new partner and the man I’d marry 18 months later. We’d met in London where we both live, and as the holiday approached I spontaneously invited him along to my family celebration in Canada and he spontaneously agreed.

He arrived a few days after I did, and I recall with grim clarity the drive to the airport in Ottawa to pick him up, my knuckles white and hands trembling as I imagined the mother of all clashes between my Tory politician boyfriend and my left-of-centre Arab-Canadian family. ‘Just don’t mention the war!’ I exhorted both sides, referring to the Iraq conflict which my family and friends had vociferously deplored and which he had supported. As it happened, best behaviour ruled the day (the accent and tweed flatcap helped) and relations remain warm and lively.

We decided to spend that first New Year’s Eve in New York although the city was actually our second choice: first we set our sights on Las Vegas. Neither of us had been there before and we figured wallowing in its vulgar charms would keep us entertained for a few days at least, and we could go to our graves knowing we’d ‘done Vegas’. In the end, it seemed too far to go for such a short time so we opted for the Big Apple with a bit of Vegas bling: we would stay in Times Square.

It would be an exaggeration to call our decision the mother of all follies so let’s just say it was less than it was cracked up to be. Our hotel felt like a posh nightclub, complete with dour doormen clad in floor-length Armani coats, and a ‘pillow menu’ beside the bed. Post 9/11, the iconic Manhattan district went into lockdown on iconic holidays and penetrating it made security at JFK feel like the sign-up desk for a shuffleboard tournament. The restaurants we’d booked from London were neither bad enough to complain about nor good enough to recommend.

There were some great things, too, of course: the concierge at our hotel secured us impossible to get tickets to see Sweeny Todd with Patti Lupone on Broadway. (‘Do you think they’d tell Julia Roberts there were no tickets?’ he asked rhetorically. ‘There are always tickets,’ he assured us with a camp and knowing wink.) After refusing to queue at the Guggenheim we chanced upon a wonderful Egon Schiele exhibition. And we shopped. But the fact is that no one stays in Times Square at New Year’s other than the kind of tourists locals probably call ‘schmo’ – as in, ‘he’s a real schmo’ – and by the time we left that’s exactly what we felt like.

We hadn’t booked anything for New Year’s Eve on the basis that we both hate prix-fixe forced-fun affairs, and anyway wouldn’t it be more fun to be spontaneous, to see where the city would take us? As it happened, the only restaurant in town with a table to spare was Counter, an unspectacular (and now defunct) vegan joint in the East Village owned by the singer Moby. You’d think the star appeal alone would have filled seats but it seemed that in those days vegan trumped celebrity, even in New York.

I think we were poking at a soy-based dessert when a woman in her early 30s approached our table and started talking. I don’t remember whether she was another customer or someone who’d walked in off the street; if it was the latter, the management didn’t seem to mind her approaching customers for a chat. I don’t even recall what we talked about or why we indulged the conversation at all except I suspect we were simply too embarrassed by her forwardness to do anything else.

What I do remember is the playing card she gave me from a miniature pack. It was a 10 of spades with a common, vaguely Celtic pattern in red on the reverse. Unremarkable really, except that its size has allowed me to carry it with me ever since that night, shifting it from wallet to wallet as zips have faltered and leather has worn out. My current wallet is big with lots of slots so my playing card has its own little space now, which means I only see it when I’m frantically searching for a business card I’ve probably forgotten to bring, or a months-old receipt I probably should have kept. Still, whenever I come across my own private playing card I wonder why I’ve bothered to keep it for so long. It was given to me by a woman I wouldn’t have recognised the next day on a relatively unmemorable evening in a restaurant I can never return to. What symbolism could it possibly have?

So far this talisman (if that’s what it is) has spared me no pain I know of, insofar as you can know what didn’t happen, what lurked and pulled back at the last minute. It didn’t save me from a traumatic miscarriage or a severe ankle fracture that left me immobile for months and whose effects I still feel today, five years later. It failed to halt the illness and death of my sister.

Arguably, though, its tug derives from the suspicion that it might yet be an antidote against the random evil that sometimes turns up unannounced on your doorstep and invites itself in. Indeed, occasionally I’ve sensed that unremarkable little card making itself comfortable in the corner of my psyche where I store the things I might well need one day, the things I’m poised to bin when superstition throws itself in my path. Or perhaps it isn’t really a talisman at all, just proof of my own hunger for magical thinking. Perhaps it’s just crossed fingers, offered up by a stranger in a restaurant.

After a blistering heatwave that lasted a couple of weeks and wrung the green out of our dazzling new lawn, London’s weather has regained its familiar gloomier aspect. For some reason, though, despite a drop in temperature the air has retained a heavy feel, moist and dense and tiring to wade through. By mid-afternoon each day, I feel my eyes pulling shut, gravity and exhaustion besting my good intentions. Of course, these are sensations to which folks in some cultures are encouraged – required, even – to surrender. It’s called the siesta, and boy could I use a couple of those.

From time to time, such frustratingly languid afternoons, wherein Protestants and Catholics seem to be waging a fierce battle for my will, bring to mind the summer I surrendered to one long siesta under the fiery sun of Campania, the region that fans out from the smouldering shadow of Mt Vesuvius in southern Italy. That’s where I found myself more than a decade ago, playing groupie to an Italian folk band whose gruff frontman, Antonio Matrone detto (aka) ‘o’Lione’, was the lover of my Canadian friend, Kate.

O’Lione’s group specialised in tammurriata music which originates in the rough countryside around the volcano, and the music is driven by the rhythms of a crude drum called a tammorra at which o’Lione was an acknowledged master. While the concert season follows the Easter calendar and the seven festivals honouring the Virgin Mary, your ear detects instantly that the music is pagan. In fact, these hints of its pre-Christian origins are bolstered in the ruins of nearby Pompeii, the famed casualty of Vesuvius’s wrath, where a markedly similar drum appears in frescoes. 

Fumbling kisses in the moonlight

Like much percussive music, tammurriata is throbbingly sexy and it’s accompanied by a simple dance in which a couple remains within a few inches of one another throughout, their bodies sometimes even entwined, without ever touching. I recall one concert where the dancers were so carried away that he leaned down and kissed her, instantly earning the hissing disapproval of the entire audience. At nightly feste in town squares primped with twinkling Christmas lights, drummers, accordionists and other musicians would gather and play till early morning, while passers-by and die hards joined in the sweaty dance. Groups of older men clustered alongside the musicians, freestyling tammurriata lyrics about pretty girls who break boys’ hearts and other familiar disappointments with bravado and wit. But it’s not all fumbling kisses in the moonlight: the most famous tammurriata song is the Tammurriata Nera, an anti-war song about all the dark-skinned babies born in Naples after the Second World War when those pretty Neapolitan girls briefly turned their attentions to the African-American soldiers who poured in during the Allied invasion of Italy.

Bald from head to toe thanks to the alopecia he’d suffered as a child, o’Lione was a stocky chain-smoker and avowed Communist. He was terrified of airplanes and elevators and cursed northern Italians as cold-blooded tedeschi (Germans). But he was also a legend in the Campania region, and I soon observed that whatever grubby town we drove through on our way to one of his group’s nightly concerts, hearty shouts of ‘o’Lione!!’ would carry through the streets as word got out that the maestro was in town.

Pitstops for cigarettes and roadside espresso

Startling heat conspired with those nightly street parties to transform my days with Kate and o’Lione into an undifferentiated succession of simple meals and random activities, climaxing in a performance by o’Lione’s band. Most days we woke up in late morning and made milky coffee into which we dunked the plain, dry biscuits Italians call breakfast. Idle chatter filled a couple of hours till it was time for lunch: typically, pasta topped with sauce made from sweet local tomatoes, basil and garlic, sopped up with crusty bread we’d bought from the dour widow who ran the shop down our dusty road, and vinegary homemade wine someone had left at the door with no note attached. A brief siesta revived us for afternoons spent making our way through Kate’s teetering pile of English language books – Somerset Maugham, say, followed by Dominick Dunne. Otherwise, we’d decorate tammorras o’Lione had constructed from scrap wood and the lids of tins, which we’d sell at festivals. (It was here that I discovered the complexities of the Italian verb ‘arrangiarsi’, which simply means ‘to get by’ but forms the basis of the economy in Italy’s Mezzogiorno, as the south is known.) Then at about six, we’d head off to that night’s gig, collecting members of the group along the way with pit-stops for cigarettes and roadside espresso. No journey was ever direct.

I confess that the memory of those seductively insouciant days still prompts my eyelids to droop with sleepy pleasure. At the time, this Italian sojourn simply provided a reprieve from notions of ‘productivity’ and ‘status’ that had dominated my middle-class upbringing. In retrospect, though, I see that my dream-like holiday also offered relief from the relentless strain of envisaging myself at the centre of things, and then fully inhabiting my own life. I had become a casual witness to other people’s lives, actively observant but only mildly engaged. After all, aside from a few would-be lotharios whose attentions were decidedly capricious, none of these Italians could care less who I was, and soon enough I began to care a little less, too. Campania suited me fine.

‘See Naples and die’

Although I’d visited Italy many times before that hazy summer, I had never dared venture south of Rome and I was both fascinated and terrified by Naples. The city had achieved infamy for its bold pickpockets and vicious local Mafia (known as the Camorra), and in the contemporary era Goethe’s memorable aphorism ‘see Naples and die’ sounded more like a threat than an homage. Nonetheless, a balmy evening’s concert in one of the historic centre’s beguiling squares had ignited my curiosity, so when Gigi – a mercurial actor-friend of Kate and o’Lione’s, and a dead-ringer for Che Guevara – offered me a tour a few days later, I seized the chance.

Our adventure began at Scaturchio, a renowned patisserie in charming Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, where we gorged on cappuccini and sfogliatelle riccie, semi-sweet ricotta-filled phylo pastries invented in the city. Then in the ferocious heat of late July we wandered through a maze of nearby streets, slender corridors formed by dilapidated palazzi with laundry lines zig-zagging overhead. Teenagers on mopeds zipped past within inches of us, invariably helmetless, cigarettes dangling from mouths already sullen with the disappointment they’d inherited from parents worn down by hard work and Catholic fatalism.

Eventually we ended up at the Cappella Sansevero de’ Sangri which houses Veiled Christ, a famous sculpture of Jesus prostrate beneath a shroud. Now if you’ve ever visited the Louvre in Paris you’re certain to recall the way the Mona Lisa’s eyes stalk you around the room, while a smile plays coyly at the edges of her mouth. Or perhaps you’ve found yourself riveted to one of Duane Hanson’s eerily lifelike sculptures – Queenie II, say, or Jogger – certain that if you’re patient enough, you’ll catch them blink. Veiled Christ embodies precisely the opposite phenomenon: death depicted with such profound stillness that the shroud that covers the corpse appears to tremble with it. And in the few moments I spent with my eyes open wide and unblinking, waiting for the deathly gesture that would surely come – a final, earthly sigh? a ghostly soul rising heavenward? – I determined that I had to return to Naples where miracles like these might occur.

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