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Reflecting on life as a British Muslim in a secular liberal democracy
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Book Review: Apropos of Nothing by Woody Allen

8 April, 2021 - 14:11

Almost forty years ago, in the song “Panic”, Morrissey from The Smiths damned DJ’s who kept playing inane music that said “nothing to me about my life.” I think Woody Allen may well have appreciated that sentiment as for over fifty years now, in an incredibly prolific career that has seen him write and direct almost a movie a year, he has consistently written screenplays that have tackled themes relating to love, death and meaning. And in case we don’t quite grasp it, a 1975 Woody movie is pointedly called Love and Death.

Born in 1935, Woody writes in his autobiography that he became aware of his own mortality very early on and didn’t like it one little bit.

“…around the [age] of five I became aware of mortality and figured, uh-oh, this is not what I signed on for. I had never agreed to be finite. As I got older, not just extinction but the meaninglessness of existence became clearer to me.”

The angst brought on by his vision of a bleak, uncaring and Godless universe is a consistent running theme throughout Woody Allen’s movies and in an insightful recent interview with the scientist Lawrence Krauss, Allen said that his writing and movie making were a necessary distraction for him to try and avoid facing up to that reality.

Woody started off his career while still at school. He would send off jokes to newspapers. They started printing them and Woody found that they paid much better than his newspaper round. Soon he was being approached by agents who asked him to write gags for TV comedians after school. He quickly began earning more money than both of his parents combined.  

Throughout the book Woody says that he has just been very lucky and that most people are unaware of just how big a part luck (or bad luck) plays in their lives. And he is also very self-deprecating – which is a welcome trait in an industry known for harbouring a number of oversized egos.

“I have no insights, no lofty thoughts, no understanding of most poems that do not begin, ‘Roses are red, violets are blue.’ What I do have, however, is a pair of black-rimmed glasses, and I propose that it is these specs, combined with a flair for appropriating snippets from erudite sources too deep for me to grasp but which can be utilized in my work to give the deceptive impression of knowing more than I do that keeps this fairy tale afloat.”  

Woody expresses regret towards the end of the book that he “has never made a great movie”. This verdict will no doubt be challenged by his many admirers, including your present reviewer, who regard Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanours, Husbands and Wives as being amongst the finest movies ever made. Certainly, the Academy Awards committees over the years who have given him four Oscars may also have something to say about that.

In more recent years, however, Woody Allen has perhaps been more often in the news due to his personal life than his movies. In 1992 there was a nuclear sized fallout following the end of his relationship with his partner for thirteen years, Mia Farrow, after she discovered erotic Polaroid snaps of her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn (then 22) in Woody’s apartment. Woody and Soon-Yi (whom he married in 1997 – they are still happily married) had been having an affair. Several months later, Mia Farrow alleged that Woody had molested her seven year old adopted daughter Dylan. To this day, this controversy continues. As you might expect, the autobiography provides Woody’s side of the story: he asserts forcefully there was absolutely no molestation and Dylan was brainwashed into making the allegation by a spiteful and vindictive ex-partner. The passages about Mia Farrow often make for uncomfortable reading and Woody sometimes comes across as rather cold in his remarks – which is perhaps understandable given the nature of the allegations that have been made against him. The fact remains that no charges have ever been brought against Woody in relation to the alleged molestation despite there having been two official investigations into them.

As he was writing this book, Woody was working on yet another movie, Rifkin’s Festival. The reader is left with a clear sense of an amazing work ethic despite his age. “I’m 84 – my life is almost half over,” he quips.

As for negative points, I must admit to being irritated by the complete lack of any chapter breaks or chapter headings in the book and the failure to include an index. This could perhaps be due to the fact that the previous publisher, Hachette, cancelled its agreement to publish the book following an internal staff rebellion related to the 1992 allegations and so the book may have been produced in haste by the present publisher, Arcade.

“An unexamined life is not worth living,” said the Greek philosopher Socrates. With his life-long pre-occupation with love, relationships, death and the quest for meaning in the universe, Woody Allen definitely cannot be accused of having lived an unexamined life. He certainly appears to have asked all the right questions. It could just be that the answers he arrived at were sadly perhaps a tad off-beam.

“…and despair not of Allah’s mercy. Surely none despairs of Allah’s mercy except the disbelieving people.” (Qur’an 12:87)

Movie Review: The Dissident

1 April, 2021 - 18:43


Bryan Fogel’s new documentary, The Dissident –which began airing on Amazon Prime Video earlier today – tells the gripping and horrifying story of the murder in October 2018 of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi government agents in the employ of the Crown Prince, Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS).

Khashoggi was an insider who had worked in the Kingdom’s media industry for around thirty years. However, he was also committed to increasing freedoms in the country and holding those in power accountable: something we would consider quite normal in the West but is unthinkable to most “journalists” who are on the Kingdom’s payroll. Early on we are informed that “In Saudi Arabia, journalists are tools of the regime who are only supposed to write magnificent things about the government and how wise their decisions are.” We are told that the Arab Spring had a powerful impact on Khashoggi who saw how Saudi money had bankrolled the counter revolution that overthrew the democratically elected government of President Mursi and restored a tyrannical army-led regime to power in Egypt.

There was no room in Saudi Arabia for anyone critical of the regime and following a number of thinly veiled warnings from Saudi authorities, Jamal Khashoggi left his homeland and moved to the USA where he began to write more freely in the pages of the Washington Post.

Concerned about the extent of power being amassed in the hands of the Crown Prince MBS, Khashoggi got into contact with young Saudi activists living in the West and encouraged them to take on the Saudi Kingdom’s propaganda army on Twitter. Unfortunately, Khashoggi did not know that his phone had been infected with a hacking tool called Pegasus and his words and movements were now being monitored by the Saudi regime. Created by the Israeli company The NSO Group, Pegasus was able to turn a person’s phone into a bugging device that could read all the emails and messages a person sent and could activate the phone’s camera and microphone remotely so it could see and hear what the victim was doing at any point in time. Pegasus had been approved for sale to the Saudi regime by the Israeli Defence Ministry itself. The Israelis have since been shown to have sold the same spying software to a number of repressive Arab regimes to help spy on their populations. It is worth repeating this: the Israelis are directly helping to repress Arab populations and strengthen authoritarian regimes.

During a conference in Turkey in 2018 just months before his murder, Khashoggi met a researcher called Hatice Cengiz who would go on to become his fiancé. Hatice’s participation in the documentary and the story of their relationship provides the documentary with an emotional centre and is very moving. When asked how she responded to Jamal’s proposal of marriage given that she was much younger than him, Hatice says:

“I thought Jamal would do something good for humanity. And if I’m going to spend my life with someone, it can only be with someone like Jamal. I wanted to help him on his journey, to be by his side. Otherwise we all just live life. We’re born, we grow up, eat, sleep, travel. But who we do these things with is what gives life its meaning.”

I won’t give away the ending – though most of you will know what happens next. Still, Fogel’s documentary surprises us by showing us actual transcripts of the recordings made inside the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul by the Turkish intelligence services which conclusively show that the murder of Jamal Khashoggi was a not a rogue operation or a mistake or the result of a “fistfight” as the Saudis laughably claimed as they kept changing their narrative, but that it was a meticulously planned operation from the beginning and had MBS’s fingerprints all over it. The Turkish transcripts are genuinely shocking and they enabled the Turkish government to refute the Saudi regime’s lies as it initially denied any knowledge or responsibility for the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi.

It is worth remembering that the last article Jamal Khashoggi ever wrote for the Washington Post was headlined “What the Arab World most needs is freedom of expression”. Within days of writing that article, Jamal would become a martyr for the cause of freedom in the Arab world.

The viewer – if you live in the West – is left feeling angry but also relieved that s/he lives in the West. We do not expect our governments to break our doors down and arrest and torture our relatives if we criticise their policies. The sheer terror of living under a totalitarian regime is made clear. How tragic (and perhaps symbolic of the current state of the Muslim world) that Islam’s most holy places in Makka and Madina are under the control of a criminal gangster regime. A regime that has to resort to buying the loyalty of its so-called journalists – including many in the UK.

Book Review: “Secrets of Divine Love” by A. Helwa

3 January, 2021 - 14:22

Secrets of Divine Love: A Spiritual Journey Into The Heart of Islam begins with an introduction in which the author, A Helwa, she seeks to explain her reasons for writing this book as follows: “I pray these words awaken your heart to fall deeper in love with Allah…[the book is] written for the longing heart, for the one who is searching for something they have not been able to find.”

The author provides very brief details about herself and says that although she was born into a Muslim household, “I was never taught how to love and be loved by God.” One day, in her early twenties while travelling in Turkey, she encountered an old lady “who was drowned in her worship of God” and “the divine spark of faith reignited within me like lightning.” It is a good reminder of how each of our own actions can perhaps unwittingly impact the lives of others.

What follows are twelve chapters, including a chapter on each of the five pillars of Islam, and the spiritual dimensions of Islam. Each of the chapters is laced with quotations not only from the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad as you would expect, but also through the welcome use of some helpful lessons from the Bible, and other religious traditions too.

Like many previous authors that deal with cleansing the soul, A. Helwa, explicitly singles out the need to tackle the ego.

“…like a fog that distorts out vision, the ego is a veil between our consciousness and our spirit. The purification and detachment of the ego is so vital within Islam because the more we purify the illusions of the self, the more we are able to witness the light of Allah.” (p46)

“The transformation of the heart and the purification of the ego is one of the fundamental purposes of divine revelation. Every pillar and practice in Islam serves to purify the ego by turning the heart from the desires of the fleeting world towards the everlasting love of God. The two most powerful ways the Qur’an speaks of how to refine the ego and transform the heart is through the practices of repentance (tawba) and remembrance (dhikr).” (p59)

The book could have done with a better editor – or the simple use of a thesaurus. The repetitive nature of some of the language did begin to grate with me very quickly. See the examples below:

“The following interaction between two great mystical masters beautifully articulates God’s mercy…” (p7)

“The all-encompassing peace that comes from relying entirely on God is beautifully illustrated in the following Japanese story…” (p8)

“The following quote beautifully articulates this notion…” (p18)

“The following story about the thirteenth-century spiritual master and satirist Mullah Nasruddin beautifully illustrates this point…” (p47)

“The core Islamic teaching that “verily with difficulty comes ease” (94:5) is beautifully shown through the popular teaching story of a boy and a butterfly…” (p53)

…and it goes on right throughout the book.

Still, in the balance of things, this criticism is a minor one and can easily be rectified in a future edition of the book. In the opinion of this reviewer, the author succeeds admirably in her goal to remind readers of the spiritual goals of Islam.

“No one knows when they will die or when the Day of Judgment will come, the only thing that is in our power is how we actively choose to live the one life that Allah has given us in this very moment. Instead of worrying about when we will die, it serves us better to focus on what we can do to positively affect this world. As the eleventh-century Persian scholar, Abu Sa’id Abul-Khayr said, ‘You were born crying and everyone around you was laughing. Strive to live in a way that when you die you are laughing and everyone around you is crying.” (p273-4)

This book contains many memorable and accessible passages and is highly recommended for new Muslims and those who are in need of reinforcing their faith – which is probably all of us.