Phyllis Chesler Interviews Carol Gould

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Arabia, Let your Daughters Sing
Last uploaded : Wednesday 9th Mar 2011 at 15:13
Contributed by : Carol Gould



I live in parallel universes. There is the universe of my sister and of my American friends and huge family spread across the United States who provide me with accounts of opera, ballet, theatre, church organ and concert performances they have attended in various cities. Then I go to Press TV to talk about the revolutions in the Middle East and Gulf and watch long tableaux of what can only be described as sadistic mass slaughter. As I write this Coptic Christians and Muslims in Egypt are fighting each other to the death.

In the discussion at Press TV I remind my co-debaters in Damascus and Beirut that great leaders produce successful revolutions, citing Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and even Franklin Roosevelt. FDR and his brilliant wife Eleanor steered out of Depression and despair a 1930s America that could easily have succumbed to the template of fascism of Italy, Japan, Spain and Germany, instead transforming itself into a booming success story.

Adding to the equation of great leaders of their people I make the mistake of mentioning Golda Meir and David ben Gurion. Of course, the floodgates of hatred open. It is impossible for me to contribute anything more to the live discussion because the two men in Beirut and Damascus and the agitated hostess in Teheran go into fits of apoplexy at the very mention of a Zionist leader. One of the men screams at the top of his lungs about the ‘massacres’ perpetrated by ben Gurion and Golda. I try to intervene to assert that Golda deeply lamented being put into the impossible position of having to retaliate after Arabs, time and again, attacked the Jews, but my mike and earpiece go dead. My point about great leadership had been the lack of bloodletting during the era of Martin Luther King and the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliaiton Committee after the release of Nelson Mandela from twenty-seven years on Robben Island.

I never get to the subject of Abe Lincoln and of the Founding Fathers. Despite great bloodletting in the Civil War and in the American Revolution these men of extraordinary vision and ideals led their people into a better world. The US Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence have been a template for other nations’ aspirations for two and a half centuries.

The eighteenth-century architects of these documents were my fellow Americans Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton and the man who financed their reviolution was Haym Solomon, a Philadelphia Jew whom they welcomed into their midst whilst my ancestors in other countries were beinf slaughtered and stashed into walled, locked ghettoes. How the Muslim world could do with a Franklin, Jefferson or Hamilton. Abraham Lincoln led a noble campaign in which thousands of white men went to war for the cause of the abolition of slavery.

So what has this to do with ballet and opera in America? My friends and family, like their parents and grandparents before them, live in what Thomas Friedman recently called ‘civil society.’ I am one of the few not rejoicing at the sight of mayhem and tribal violence in Muslim country after Muslim country as women in veils and viscerally angry men scream wildly into the camera. Every time a ‘revolutionary’ or democracy-seeker is shown on the screen he is chanting ‘Allahu Akhbar.‘ Why must religion always figure in these nations? After all, were I to walk into some of these countries as I am right now, I would be torn apart -- and gang raped like Lara Logan of CBS who was attacked to chants of ‘Jew! Jew! Jew’ by a large crowd of Egyptian men -- because I am an American of Jewish ancestry.

My esteemed colleagues Phyllis Chesler and Yasmin Alibhai Brown have been writing about women in the Middle East. Phyllis exposes with brilliance the painfully backward situation that exists for women in much of the region, most notably in Saudi Arabia. Yasmin wrote in the Independent of 28th February that we are not seeing very many veiled women and that the revolutions in the Middle East will calm the angry young Muslims of Great Britain. I disagree. I see scores of veiled and fully-covered women from Bahrain to Egypt to Libya and lament the onslaught by Islamists in supremely secular Tunisia who are already shutting down western establishments and making women for the first time ever feel they must cover themselves.

When Tom Friedman talks about ‘civil society’ (he believes it will take generations, if ever, for Arab countries to achieve the level of civil society we enjoy in the west) he means the kind of world in which my family and friends grew up, generation by generation. Winston Churchill knew Britons would have to fight from the air, on the sea and on the land down to the last soul in order to preserve the civil society nurtured and renewed generation after generation for a thousand years. Yes, the Nazis also attended performances of Richard Strauss operas and appreciated classical music.

If I wax lyrical about my own childhood steeped in opera, ballet, theatre and orchestral concerts does that make me a Nazi or does it make me a better human being than the man shouting ‘Allahu, Akhbar?’ Arrogantly I must posit that it makes me a better person because the culture in which I grew up and into which my parents were born fiercely defended individual rights and evolved, overcoming the German-American Nazi Bund, McCarthyism and segregation. But most of all my mother and aunt, who served in the United States Army and Intelligence Crops, lived as free, educated and enlightened women alongside their enlightened men.

My childhood burst with heroes: John Glenn, Dr King and Moshe Dayan, but most prominently in my memory are Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, the aforementioned Phylis Chesler and Midge Decter. Aside form the fact that they were all Jewish, they were women if extraordinary purpose who led the feminist movement without one drop of blood being shed. Yet look at how many women have died this past month in Ivory Coast for daring to step out and protest their benighted lot in life!

I will pull these various threads together thus: in Britain we have come to accept that Muslim children cannot be exposed to the dynamic experiences of ballet, opera, choral and theatre studies from early childhood. My entire family, including my long-departed aunts and uncles, would have enjoyed the pleasures of music and singing lessons, trips to the opera, theatre and ballet and the presence of books, quiet family dinners and trips to the library all of which were the standard fare of the one-hundred years of my life, my parents’ lifetimes and my grandparents’ lifetimes. My sister and I associated with others of all faiths in school and have continued those friendships into our older years. When I was in high school I sang in the famous Philadelphia High School for Girls Gospel. I was one of only two white girls in the group and the only member of Jewish extraction. (The other white girl had one leg and I always used to wonder how she managed to stay standing for those endless concerts. )We toured churches across greater Philadelphia and I was not struck down dead because I sang in a choir or mingled with people of another faith.

What would please me most in the context of the present ructions in the Muslim world would be the arrival of what Tom Friedman calls ‘civil society.’ This is a world in which you start to live your life as you so desire, not worrying about whether you will be struck down if you do not pray five times a day, (I long ago stopped worrying about kashrut and carrying on Shabbat,) not worrying if you stay up late seeing a terrific opera or show and letting your children -- most particularly your daughters -- sing to their hearts’ content.


Carol Gould was Commissioning editor at Anglia Television Drama for eleven years and has been published in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and the Jewish Chronicle. She has appeared on Sky News, Press TV, al Kawthar, al Alam and ITV as well as on BBC Radio Four's Any Questions, Woman’s Hour, the Sunday Programme with Edward Stourton and the Jeremy Vine Show on Radio Two. She is the author of ‘Don't Tread on Me --anti-Americanism Abroad’ and her novel, ‘Spitfire Girls,’ is scheduled to be made into a UK television drama series in 2012.

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