Vol. 43 No. 15 · 29 July 2021

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All Together Now

Ian Penman claims that John Lennon and Yoko Ono engaged in ‘fuzzy political gestures lacking any real slog or engagement’ (LRB, 17 June). That’s not the way Richard Nixon saw it. In 1972, after they moved to New York City, he ordered their deportation – to put an end to their political campaigning against him and the war in Vietnam. Nixon had learned that Lennon and Ono were planning a US concert tour that would combine music with radical politics and organise young people to vote against the war, which meant against Nixon in that year’s election. The first concert was in Ann Arbor, Michigan in December 1971. This was the Free John Sinclair concert (Sinclair had been sentenced to ten years in prison for possession of two joints of marijuana), where fifteen thousand young people heard Lennon and Ono sing their new song (‘John Sinclair, it ain’t fair, in the stir for breathing air’). Amazingly, Sinclair was freed from prison a few days later. But the rest of the tour was cancelled on the advice of Lennon’s immigration attorney, who said that his chances of winning in court were weak (Yoko discovered she had a green card, granting her permanent residency). In the end, of course, Nixon left the White House, and Lennon stayed in the US.

Jon Wiener
Los Angeles

Ian Penman gets it mostly right, but there’s more to say about why the Beatles have inspired more cover versions than the Stones. The Beatles, like Bob Dylan (and to some extent Van Morrison and Ray Davies), wrote songs in the same way Schubert or Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote songs. However deeply layered and baroque their own studio versions could be, the elements of the songs are separable from the original instantiation, which makes them susceptible to almost infinite reinterpretation or replication. Jagger and Richards didn’t write songs, they wrote tracks, and embodied them when they recorded them. The only successful Stones covers hijack the original. Penman cites two versions of ‘Satisfaction’, which is among the most song-like of the Stones’ 1960s tracks. But he might better have cited two particular covers of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. Stuck so deeply up its own self-regarding mythology that it should be impervious to reinterpretation, that song is nevertheless improved immeasurably by Bryan Ferry’s enervated cabaret version on These Foolish Things. Likewise by the Slovenian conceptualists Laibach, who issued an EP with no fewer than six versions of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, two of them actually quite good. Yet when Laibach try the same art-terrorist prank on the Beatles album Let It Be, it’s just pleasantly silly. Despite their almost exact contemporaneity, the Beatles and the Stones seem – sixty years on – to exist on different sides of a caesura, on our side of which the Stones’ selfish, identitarian possession of their music long ago vanquished the implied community that underpins everything the Beatles wrote and recorded.

Michael Kulikowski
Pennsylvania State University

It’s a bit unfair of George De Stefano to place ‘Octopus’s Garden’ on the debit side of the Lennon and McCartney ledger. The song is indeed a travesty, but it was written by Ringo Starr.

Keshava Guha
New Delhi

Contrary to George De Stefano’s claim that the Jagger/Richards songbook has nothing as embarrassing as ‘Your Mother Should Know’ and ‘Octopus’s Garden’, he has clearly never heard ‘Indian Summer’, ‘Hold Back’, ‘Highwire’ and ‘Sex Drive’, which lack even the fig leaf of being for children.

Mat Snow

How to Dress for the Desert

Michael Wood writes that Dieng, the hero of Ousmane Sembène’s film Mandabi, likes to walk the streets of Dakar ‘in his best outfit, a shirt-dress called a boubou, about ten sizes too large, more like a tent than anything else, and he has to keep flopping the folds over his shoulders, and nipping them in at the back as he walks’ (LRB, 17 June). Judging from the cut of boubous all over West Africa, Dieng’s isn’t too large but fits perfectly. Also called a dra’a in Mauritania, Senegal’s neighbour to the north, the boubou is really a vast gown or cape. Men bunch the folds over their shoulders or gather them behind; across vast stretches of the western Sahel, that is what wearing a boubou entails. Almost regal in style, it can be cumbersome, as even its wearers admit, but it blocks sunlight, wind and dust while allowing basically limitless ventilation, and is easy to wear while lying down. A Mauritanian friend once held up in both hands the folds of the dra’a he was wearing as he explained to me that, given the harsh climate, his culture ‘is designed for expending the least effort’. That’s one reason it isn’t often one sees a boubou-wearing man run, but I’ve seen one or two try, swinging one arm wildly while with the other desperately trying to keep all the drapery pinned to the small of his back so he doesn’t trip over it. That said, for the desert, it’s hard to imagine a better garment.

Lee Gillette

In Nagorno-Karabakh

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad conveys something of Armenia’s use of force, ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide to erase all traces of Azerbaijanis’ presence in Karabakh, where they have lived for centuries (LRB, 17 June). However, his article creates an illusion of balance while advancing a false Armenian narrative. He distorts the history of Karabakh by depicting it as part of the ancient Armenian kingdom. Karabakh is and has always been an integral part of Azerbaijan. In 1923, the Soviets had the region’s permanent ties with Azerbaijan in mind when they decided that Nagorno-Karabakh would remain part of Azerbaijan SSR.

Abdul-Ahad mentions Armenians fleeing their homes during last year’s military operations (many of them returned to Karabakh after the signing of the Trilateral Agreement in November), but does not mention the million Azerbaijanis forced to flee Armenian aggression between 1988 and 1994, who were denied the right to return to their homes during the subsequent occupation and cannot now return to the liberated territories because of the mines left behind by Armenia during the occupation. More than 120 Azerbaijani civilians and soldiers have been killed by mines since the end of hostilities; on 4 June, an anti-tank mine explosion in liberated Kalbajar killed two journalists and a state official.

It is also disappointing that while Abdul-Ahad dedicates several paragraphs to the Sumgayit disturbances of 1988, which left 32 people dead (26 Armenian and six Azerbaijanis), he has only a few words to say about the worst massacre of the war, at Khojaly, where 613 Azerbaijani civilians were killed and mutilated by Armenians.

‘Reconciliation is hardly possible while Armenian prisoners of war are still being held,’ Abdul-Ahad writes. Despite Armenia’s efforts to present them as such, the Armenians detained by the Azerbaijani authorities are not considered prisoners of war under international humanitarian law and are liable under the criminal law of Azerbaijan. A few weeks ago, the European Court of Human Rights rejected Armenia’s request for the immediate release of eleven Armenian nationals currently detained in Azerbaijan.

Tahir Taghizade
Ambassador of Azerbaijan in the UK, London W8

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad attempts to provide a ‘balanced’ view of events in and conflicting claims to the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Whether he achieves this is questionable. Of greatest concern is his choice of language when speaking about Armenians. The destruction of Agdam was, he writes, ‘the work of a termite army of looters. Roofs, rafters, window frames, doors, pipes and wires were removed and sold, mainly in Iran, leaving only the walls.’ The phrase ‘termite army of looters’ is a racist insult against Armenians. A parallel could be drawn with Azerbaijan’s recent issue of postage stamps depicting a person in a Hazmat suit fumigating the Nagorno-Karabakh region of vermin after its victory.

Abdul-Ahad claims that the Armenian narrative ‘fluctuated between wild claims that Azerbaijani forces would soon be crushed and hyperbolic warnings of joint Turkish and Azerbaijani aggression, stirring fears of a “new genocide”’. This appears to be a sarcastic downplaying of the 1915 genocide, while at the same time dismissing the ethnic cleansing by Azerbaijan since last year’s war.

He also refers repeatedly to the town of ‘Shusha’. The Armenian town of Shushi – and its name – is profoundly significant to both Armenians and Azerbaijanis. To consistently call the town by its Azerbaijani name, Shusha, is an offence to Armenians. In a ‘balanced’ piece, it would have been appropriate to use both names.

Finally, Abdul-Ahad rightly identifies the significance that drone warfare played in Azerbaijan’s victory last year, and mentions the use of Syrian mercenaries, which Azerbaijan has denied. However, his statement that ‘both sides used tanks, artillery, rockets, drones and cluster ammunition’ suggests an ‘equal fight’, which was never the case. The Armenian army faced far stronger military forces in their Turkish-backed Azerbaijani opponents than the article suggests.

Annette Moskofian
Armenian National Committee UK, London WC2

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad writes: Nowhere in the article do I refer to Armenians, Azerbaijanis or any other ethnic group using racist or derogatory language. Nor do I single out any ethnic group and accuse them of looting, war crimes, genocide or anything else. These are acts committed by individuals, not nations. The looting of the towns of Agdam, Fizuli and Jabrayil was to a large extent the work of profiteering military commanders, who treated the occupied cities as economic fiefdoms. They worked in tandem with middlemen and traders from neighbouring Iran. They stripped these cities of everything of value, and did so in a systematic manner. The criminal element profiteering from the war is what I describe as a ‘termite army of looters’.

Right and Wrong

Thomas Nagel provides a closely argued examination of the relative merits of consequentialist and deontological bases for moral decision-making (LRB, 3 June). His argument falters only when he replaces his usually well-chosen illustrative examples with political generalisation. In discussing how human morality changes over time, he gives the example of changes in views of homosexuality as a precise and appropriate illustration of how deep-seated taboos can be overcome ‘in the name of liberty and human happiness’; but in suggesting that on the contrary ‘some proposals for moral progress are simply false, sometimes atrociously so’ he is content with the examples of ‘Nazism and Bolshevism’. These two political phenomena were not (unlike changes in attitudes to homosexuality) primarily attempts to reform a particular moral outlook: Nagel might have made a better case by specifying the drive under Nazism – or indeed in English imperialist attitudes of the 19th century – to replace comparatively liberal views on race with the notion of a qualitative hierarchy of different races.

Nagel goes on to assert that ‘the radical hope that private property rights could be abolished in favour of common ownership has turned out to be a destructive dream.’ Though some 17th-century millenarian sects, and their eccentric modern counterparts, may have envisaged an end to all private property, Nagel appears to be making another side-swipe at communism, which however envisages not the end of all personal property, but rather the common ownership of the means of production, and a society in which private property ceases to have the character of (tradeable) commodities.

Fred Clough
Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear

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