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As the Olympics descend upon China, the critiques have begun. Already we are hearing stories of more than 1.5 million “displacements” to clear space for Olympic facilities, reports of human rights abuses, sweatshop labor, and Olympics-related graft. The spotlight will naturally be on China, but China is only part of the story. The modern Olympic Movement itself has been highly controversial – and far from the ‘above politics’ Olympian level that some would have us believe.

If you follow the British press, you may have caught mope-rock singer Morrissey’s latest controversial outburst against the treatment of animals in China. Simon Armitage’s interview can be found here and further comment on the accusation of the Chinese being a ‘subspecies’, here. While Morrissey’s statement is reprehensible, racism at its most dismissive and insidious, it also brings to mind the inherent problems in criticising China itself. The former singer of The Smiths probably knows the only way he can draw attention to his cause – animal welfare – is to be deliberately provocative, because the international community is quite aware of the many civil liberties abuses that occur within China, from forced detention of political subversives, to internet censorship and widespread poverty.

None of that matters though, because China is the future world superpower on the rise. Its story of a massive economic recovery following military incursions by Japan and the disastrous Maoist experiment with industrialisation in the twentieth century would be no less remarkable had the eventual result not been China becoming a major world player. Their position within the international community is consequently very important to the Chinese government and so hosting the Olympic Games represented a major opportunity to woo popular opinion in their favour. In short, the potential profits earned by investment in China outweigh any moral outrage that may be occasioned by foreign criticism.

This book contains a series of essays on different aspects relating to China’s bid to host the Olympics in 2008. The writers include foreign journalists, from sports, economics and political writing, as well as former Chinese political detainees. There is even a photo-essay displaying the hardship faced by construction workers who live and work in Beijing, often having travelled away from far-off provinces to provide for their families.

The quote above is taken from an illuminating essay by Dave Zirin on the dubious history of the Olympic Games. One of the complaints of Chinese government officials in the face of calls for a boycott of the Games (similar to the efforts made to hobble the Soviet Union’s hosting following their invasion of Afghanistan) was that critics were unfairly mixing politics with sports. Zirin shows how political manoeuvring is an essential element of hosting the Games, as the display of competitive prowess is not only inevitably bound up with nationalism, but also provides a platform for host nations. International Olympics Committee president Avery Brundage for example, who supported Adolf Hitler, which he never apologised for, and turned a blind eye to the sins of participating Apartheid nations. He also fervently objected to female athletes entering the games.

The financial cost of hosting the Games is repeatedly stressed. Host cities Montreal and Athens are cited as examples of how crippling debt can often result, with the attendant civil disruption adding salt to the wounds. The welfare of inadequately protected construction workers was also put at risk in the building of Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” stadium, as well as other Olympic structures erected just for the purposes of capturing the lens of foreign cameras. Homes were demolished to make way for much of this development, such as the aging hutong residences, whose owners were turfed out with little compensation.

For China the Games represented an opportunity to erase the spectre of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Arguments in favour of their bid included citations of the positive social changes that followed the Seoul Games in South Korea. However, this conciliatory move on the part of the international community only served to give China exactly what it wanted. Mia Farrow’s ‘Genocide Olympics’, op-ed piece caused a domino effect that increased pressure on China to review its policy of investment in Darfur, but a broader social change was always unlikely.

There are two Chinas, the one we are allowed to see and the one the Chinese live with. This is a fascinating and very readable collection of essays on that schism.

That there were two sides to Hamzah Effendi was common knowledge. The family man and the crime boss, Jekyll Effendi to Felaheen Hyde. Offend the first and he’d buy out your company and close it down. Offend the second and he’d slaughter your children, bulldoze your house into the ground and sow that ground with rock salt. There was something very biblical about some of those reports on file.

I picked this book up in the library as both the title and premise intrigued me. This is a novel set in an alternate reality where the Ottoman Empire never failed, yet similarities with our world remain. What I did not realize was that this book is the second entry in Courtenay Grimwood’s Arabesk trilogy. Consequently I was a little at a loss when characters appeared without introduction. I imagine the first book in the sequence, Pashazade, probably explains exactly what the points of difference within this alternate timeline are.

Nevertheless I was able to get to grips with the plot of the book, which begins as a murder mystery set in the city of El Iskandriyah, with the investigation conducted by Ashraf al-Mansur (referred to as Raf) uncovering a history of war atrocities and child soldiers. At various points the book introduces flashbacks to a war in the Sudan, which slowly reveals the truth behind the present-day events.

Our hero Raf is an enigmatic figure, whose identity is shrouded in mystery, having arrived in Iskandriyah under false pretences and wrangled himself a position within the police force. The story begins on the 27th October, with Raf acting as Magister to a trio of international judges called to oversee the trial of industrialist and rumoured crime boss Hamzah Effendi. We then cut to July of that year and witness the events that led to the trial. Hamzah is framed for a series of ritualistic murders involving American female tourists in the city. The victims are found to have been partying at clubs owned by the businessman and his own daughter Zara is rumoured to be a target of a kidnapping plot. Realizing that he no longer has the protection of the Governor General Koenig Pasha, Hamzah tries to convince his daughter to leave the country. She refuses believing that he is only looking to marry his daughter off following her embarrassing and very public rejection at the hands of Raf in the previous book.

As more murders occur, each with Hamzah’s initials carved into the wrists of the victims, Raf discovers that there is more than one killer involved. Former European intelligence agents and Soviet Spetsnatz soldiers are carrying out copy cat killings and arson attacks on the city. Furthermore the Governor General seems to know more than he’s letting on, dropping cryptic hints that lead Raf to investigate Hamzah’s past as a child soldier in the Sudan and the mysterious Colonel Abad, presumed dead. On top of all that he has to keep his precocious niece Hani under control and figure out how he really feels about Zara, who may be married off to the young Khedive for her own protection.

I enjoy alternate history novels, imagining how history might have gone if significant events had turned out different. Not only do they allow for interesting science fiction yarns, but they throw new light on how we perceive historical progress. World War I is generally seen as a response to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Official accounts do not describe it as a resource war over oil in the Middle East. In Effendi we have a strong, independent Muslim North Africa that controls its natural resources, while mention is made of a more insular United States and there is an offhand remark regarding Scotland’s oil reserves having been depleted. The lingua franca of the region is Arabic first, Hebrew Spanish and French next, with English a distant fourth or fifth. It’s an interesting premise for what is a fairly standard murder mystery/political thriller plot.

The hero Rah himself enjoys certain mysterious physical advantages that are ascribed to extensive childhood surgical implants. He has visions of a fox that advises him on what to do, courtesy of a device in his brain that acts like an augmented reality filter.

What this all adds up to is a quite entertaining and inventive yarn, though strangely for a novel set in an Arabic country, references to Christian Hell and Dante feature throughout. A fun romp.

 

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