Tomorrow, the shortlist will be announced for one of the world’s most prestigious literary prizes for political writing. Like previous years, the longlist is full of books that focus on the Middle East and Asia. Ben East takes a look at a few of the contenders and talks to some of the authors.
A Very British Killing: The Death of Baha Mousa by A T Williams (Jonathan Cape)
“George Orwell was the leading light in trying to turn political writing into some kind of art form,” says the author A T Williams. “It’s an honour to be associated with him in some way because he summed up everything angry writing should be about: direct, polished and an attempt to get a message across in an understandable and appealing way.”
Williams certainly does that with A Very British Killing, a forensic but thrilling look at the death of the Iraqi hotel receptionist Baha Mousa in the custody of British soldiers. For Williams, Mousa’s murder wasn’t a result of the actions of one “bad apple”
in the army.
“What I was really interested in was the institutional contempt and indifference by those in power to the suffering of others. It wasn’t just in Iraq – it goes back decades. It’s too frequent a story for the treatment meted out to Baha Mousa to be a thuggish one-off, as has been argued by the establishment.”
From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra (Allen Lane)
A call to re-evaluate how we see the world’s cultural and political developments since the first half of the 19th century, Pankaj Mishra’s book argues that thinkers in Afghanistan, China, India, Iran and Turkey were, in fact, gradually rebuilding their societies in new, interesting and dynamic ways.
He looks at the ways in which the Iranian Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, China’s Liang Qichao and India’s Rabindranath Tagore all foresaw a modern “Asian” world that didn’t necessarily have to be framed by western attitudes
Reviewing the book in The National last year, Kanishk Tharoor noted that one of its many feats is to make evident the astonishing and busy world of connections that linked Asia before the Second World War. And yet, despite our technologically advanced, “smaller” world, nations are now far more insular. It’s one of the many fascinating arguments in Mishra’s timely book.
Occupation Diaries by Raja Shehadeh (Profile)
Shehadeh has actually won The Orwell Prize before for his book Palestinian Walks, a wonderful ramble through a landscape pockmarked by beauty and violence.
“It meant a lot to win in 2008 and it gave the book a push, which means it has now been published in many countries and languages,” he says. “And I completely agree with Orwell’s views on political writing as an art form, too.”
All of which also comes across in Occupation Diaries, a personal look at what life is really like in Palestine. “I’ve been keeping a diary since the beginning of the occupation, 44 years ago, as a way of trying to figure out the confusion,” he explains.
“All my books have used them in some way. For this one, so much had happened in the past two years in the Arab world that I wanted to present a day-to-day account of how life actually can go on through difficulty and despair.”
On the Front Line: The Collected Journalism of Marie Colvin (HarperCollins)
Marie Colvin could be a popular posthumous winner of The Orwell Prize. Her death last year in Homs, Syria, after 30 years of reporting from places of conflict, was a great loss to journalism. On the Front Line includes interviews with Yasser Arafat and Colonel Qaddafi, and reports on Sri Lanka’s civil war (where she lost an eye), Afghanistan, Iraq and, more recently, the
When it came to offering a real insight into epochal moments in contemporary history, Colvin was unrivalled. As Frank Kane said in The National last year: “She saw her task as obtaining the facts that would later be used in the ‘first rough draft of history’, a phrase she used a lot. To do this, she went to some of the most dangerous places in the world, places a western woman would normally shun, and reported straight down the middle the facts as she saw them.”
Plutocrats by Chrystia Freeland (Allen Lane)
Chrystia Freeland, a former managing editor of the Financial Times, has an interesting theory in Plutocrats: that the new global super rich, a minuscule international grouping of incredibly wealthy people who need at least a US$1 billion (Dh3.67 bn) fortune to exist, are the people who run the world.
They have more in common with each other than they do with their countries. And one of the major cities in which they meet, do business and jet off from again is Dubai.
The book is a fascinating dissection of how the world’s wealthy operate – and something of a warning for the future: the argument being that as many of the current plutocrats pass their fortunes down to their sons and daughters, a new generation will become even more exclusive, negating any opportunity for social mobility.