Lucy Popescu

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Book Review – Haifa Fragments

Posted by lucypopescu on July 26, 2015

Mais, a jewellery designer, discovers further conflict when she begins to work for Amalia, a Jewish boutique owner, and becomes increasingly convinced she is betraying her heritage by working with Amalia. She also has to navigate tensions with her father, Majid, who resents her relationship with Ziyad. Then she discovers letters and poems written by Majid that reveal fragments of his past, a passion for writing, political engagement and Asmahan, his first love.

Khamis skilfully evokes a vivid sense of time and place, in particular the Wadi Nisnas souk in which Mais lives. She describes the laundry on the balkons, the regular market traders, how in the morning the “strong bitter smell of kahwa with cardamom would soon permeate the souk, penetrating the thin, uneven cracks between the stones”, while “the night air smells of rotten vegetables mingling with the odour of fish.”

However, the fragmentary nature of the narrative is also its weakness – Khamis offers various perspectives but her male protagonists are sketchily drawn. The introduction of bisexuality, implied in the relationship between Mais and Shahd and later a third character, Christina, a blonde backpacker who makes a move on Mais, is never fully explored and consequently feels superfluous. I longed for Khamis to delve more deeply into Mais’s complexities.

Haifa Fragments is written in English and Khamis repeatedly uses Arabic or Hebrew words when they are unnecessary. A glossary is provided at the back and while it makes perfect sense to include words such as sumud (steadfastness or resilience; the non-violent resistance of Palestinians who remain on their land) and finjan (a small Arabic coffee cup) it is distracting for the reader to have to look up kahwa (coffee) daktora (doctor) and shai with na’ana (mint tea).

Despite their fragmented lives, Khamis’s Palestinian characters find themselves ‘united by tradition, history, language, heritage. Divided by occupation.’ Piecing together and understanding her family history, Mais realises ‘she belonged here, in Haifa.’ Khamis offers no easy answers but her focus on the shared humanity of Christians, Jews and Muslims in the region, is compelling.

A shortened version was published in the Independent on Sunday

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Theatre Review – Positive

Posted by lucypopescu on July 26, 2015

PositivePark 90
UNTIL AUGUST 1
Box office 020 7870 6876

THIS is the third incarnation of Shaun Kitchener’s engaging comedy, which played Edinburgh in 2013 and London’s Waterloo East Theatre in 2014. Kitchener conceived Positive in order to confront the prejudices and misinformation surrounding people living with HIV in the UK today.

Since being diagnosed as HIV positive, 26-year-old Benji (Timothy George) has avoided starting a relationship. After a drinking spree, Benji ends up with Olly (Ryan J Brown), a brash student who rejects him upon discovering that he is positive. Benji’s flat mate Nikki (Nathalie Barclay) persuades him to go on a blind date with Matt (Kitchener). The play’s finest moments come during a delightful central scene where the pair flirt and spar over dinner.

Running parallel to Benji’s story is that of Nikki, who caught HIV while working in Uganda. She’s desperate to return to Africa with her supportive boyfriend Greg (Paul Heelis) but is anxious that her health is not yet stable.

Kitchener’s deft dialogue and Harry Burton’s well-paced direction ensures that Positive remains upbeat.

It is refreshing to see a relatively large cast playing on the London fringe, although the acting is a little uneven. The star turn comes from Kitchener himself, who gives a beautifully understated performance and generates most of the laughs.

Originally published by Camden Review

 

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Book Review – Tiny Pieces of Skull

Posted by lucypopescu on July 26, 2015

tiny pieces  of skullRoz Kaveney had to wait over twenty-five years for her debut novel to be published. One editorial director at the time rejected Kaveney’s manuscript, describing it as ‘cold, heartless and amoral.’ In more recent years mainstream films such as Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Transamerica (2005), the media focus on transgender celebrities such as Kellie Maloney and Caitlyn Jenner, as well as the critical success of trans writers such as Jan Morris and Kaveney herself, have helped to increase the visibility and acceptance of trans people. Loosely based on Kaveney’s experiences of living with trans sex workers in Chicago in the late 1970s, Tiny Pieces of Skull deserves to be recognised as a seminal fictional work on transgender identity and transphobia.

Kaveney’s central character, the literary journalist Annabelle Jones, meets Natasha, an American trans socialite in London.  Natasha beguiles Annabelle with stories of her life in Chicago including one about Mexica, a trans who has gained mythic status among Natasha’s American ‘sisters’ for having undergone an operation to change the shape of her skull.

The effect of body image on ego and desire is a recurrent theme – after a breast operation, courtesy of a Harley Street surgeon, Annabelle’s confidence is boosted and she decides to join her cooler, slimmer ‘sister’ in Chicago. Travelling by train, Annabelle blithely trusts her friend will be there to meet her at the station.  However, Natasha’s latest beau, Carlos has moved in and she tells Annabelle that she is no longer welcome: ‘there are lots of good cheap hotels in this city where they don’t mind, you know. And the privacy will be good for your self-discipline – you won’t have your feminist friends telling you it doesn’t matter about being fat.’

Annabelle rents a room in the shady Chesterfield Hotel, where she is befriended by fellow trans Alexandra, notorious for her dance act with a pet python. Socially excluded and regularly hounded by the police, the sisters’ ability to earn a buck is severely limited. Inevitably they turn to prostitution with both hilarious and chilling consequences.  When Natasha eventually falls out with the unscrupulous Carlos, Annabelle is invited to move in with her fair-weather friend.

Kaveney’s characters constantly strive for bodily perfection. Fortunately, Annabelle’s literary background gives her some perspective. Learning the S & M trade and developing an occasional taste for cocaine, she prefers to remain ‘sinisterly uninvolved’ during Natasha’s ‘hog-tying’ sessions. Instead, Annabelle reads Proust, ‘marking her place in the book with a piece of discarded thong’, and concedes that too much coke ‘causes odd glitches in her understanding of, and tolerance for, his longer sentences.’

Endlessly talked about by her fellow sisters, Mexica only makes an appearance at the end of Tiny Pieces of Skull, where we learn that the silicone injected into her backside and hips has drifted down her legs and she can no longer walk unaided. Kaveney’s conversational tone and her vivid descriptions give us the sense that we are eavesdropping on her characters and their colourful, sometimes tragic, lives.

Originally published by the TLS

 

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Book Review – México20

Posted by lucypopescu on July 4, 2015

Mexico20Despite  Mexico  being  the  market  focus at  this  year’s  London  Book  Fair, the  response  of  British  publishers  has  been relatively muted – novels by Yuri Herrera and Valeria  Luiselli,  published  by  And  Other Stories and Granta respectively, were notable exceptions.  So  Pushkin Press’s  excellent anthology, México20, is particularly welcome. Published in collaboration with Hay Festival, the British Council and the Mexican National Council for Culture and Arts (CONACULTA), the anthology celebrates the work of twenty Mexican  writers  under  the  age  of  forty  and includes twenty original translations.

Violence in its various forms is a recurrent theme in the collection. Eduardo Ruiz Sosa’s short  story,  “Madame  Jazmine,  or  News of the Decapitation” (translated by Margaret Jull  Costa),  featuring  a  bar  full  of  dolls’ heads,  probes  the  gang  violence  that  has become endemic in Mexico. In a memorable passage recalling Octavio Paz’s meditations on  death,  one  of  Ruiz  Sosa’s  characters describes how, to generate fear, decapitation is favoured over “disappearance”:  absence is no longer enough . . . the gnawing anxiety of doubt is no longer a useful wound because it leads to anger, and anger is a vital engine, a driving force: and what violence seeks now  is  stasis  through  image,  paralysis  of  the will by offering consequence rather than uncertainty, a  definitive  ending  rather  than  the possibility of some future return.

In  “History”  (translated  by  Lucy  Greaves), Antonio Ortuno explores Mexico’s repeated cycles of invasion, conquest and violation as a series of numbered references. Perhaps the most chilling imagery is in Emiliano Monge’s description  of  an  old  man  forced  to  hack up and burn corpses in a rag­ and ­bone yard (translated by Frank Wynne). Dislocation  and alienation  also  predominate, but the flavour is generally more surreal than magic ­realist, as in Carlos Velázquez’s “The Black Piglet of Love Stories” (translated by Nick  Caistor),  a  bizarre  exploration  of writing and creativity, Nicolas Cabral’s “The Birdcage” (translated by Ollie Brock), about a naked man held in a birdcage, and Veronica Gerber Bicecci’s meditation on love, loss and absence relayed through words and drawings (translated by Lorenza Garcia).  It  is  not  all  murder  and  violence.  There is  humour  in  Antonio  Ramos  Revillas’s “Singing for the Dead” (translated by Amanda Hopkinson)  about  a  boy’s  aversion  to  his father’s career as a Mariachi singer, as well as in Eduardo  Montagner’s  depiction of one man’s obsessive desire to wear his beloved’s work attire (translated by Juana Adcock).

Originally published by the TLS

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Film Review – That Sugar Film

Posted by lucypopescu on July 4, 2015

That Sugar FilmDamon Gameau’s documentary feature film about the detrimental effects of refined sugar and excess fructose on our health is both educative and entertaining. The central message of That Sugar Film (2015) is that the calories from sugar behave differently from other foods. Recalling Morgan Spurlock’s McDonald’s overdose in Super-Size Me (2004), Gameau set himself the task of eating the equivalent of 40 teaspoons of sugar a day for sixty days and filmed the experiment. However, he did not eat junk food and confectionary or drink fizzy drinks, but consumed only those foods and juices perceived as healthy. Gameau’s body was a clean slate as he had not eaten refined sugar for three years. As he amply demonstrates many low fat yoghurts, muesli bars, cereals and fruit smoothies are laden with sugar. Even juicing fresh fruit creates excess fructose that can be damaging to our teeth and waistlines.

By the end of the experiment Gameau had developed fatty liver disease and dramatically increased his risk of Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease as well as adding 11cm to his girth. Along the way Gameau consulted various specialists, who measured his waistline and mood swings. He also travelled across America to talk to some leading experts and food scientists.  In one chilling interview, a scientist claimed that sugar wasn’t a problem and then it emerged he worked for Coca Cola. In Kentucky, Gameau met children suffering from ‘Mountain Dew Mouth’ (caused by overindulging in Pepsi’s Mountain Dew). One teenager had to have all his teeth removed. In Amata, Australia, an Aboriginal community believes sugar is killing them through obesity – in a town of 350 people, 40,000 litres of soft drinks are consumed every year.

Gameau, originally an actor (Underbelly, The Tracker, Balibo), is an entertaining and likeable presenter. Realising the need to win over the next generation, he’s squarely aimed That Sugar Film at both adults and children. Gameau and his DP, Judd Overton, employ bright palettes, invigorating music clips and clever animation techniques, which include Gameau climbing up a rope through his nose into his brain to explore the effects of sugar. Talking heads become part of the food packaging, with specialists framed by the label on a cereal box, for example. There are also some star turns from various Australian actors and Brit Stephen Fry. Although the science could have been a little more rigorous, and Gameau’s interactions with his wholesome, pregnant girlfriend are occasionally rather nauseating, That Sugar Film is to be applauded for boldly and effectively confronting the worrying rise in obesity in sugar-rich countries.

Originally published by Cine-Vue.com 

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Book Review – The Reader on the 6.27

Posted by lucypopescu on June 23, 2015

The readerEvery day, Guylain Vignolles catches the 6.27am train to a job he detests. Guylain works at a book pulping factory, destroying what he loves the most. At the end of the day, he rescues pages of books from the murderous pulping machine that he refers to as “The Thing”. He dries them out and the following morning, on his daily commute, reads aloud from random sheets. He loathes his supercilious boss, “old Fatso”, and bigoted workmate Brunner. His one comrade is Yvon the factory’s security guard, who loves declaiming poetry and speaking in alexandrines.

Outside work, Guylain’s life revolves around feeding his goldfish, Rouget de Lisle, and visiting his solitary friend Giuseppe, formerly chief operator at the factory. Giuseppe lost both his legs in a horrific accident when “The Thing had devoured his lower limbs, right up to his mid-thighs”. An obsession with collecting copies of a particular book, Gardens and Kitchen Gardens of Bygone Days, made from the recycled paper pulped the day he lost his legs, offers Giuseppe some comfort. One morning, Guylain discovers a memory stick. He opens it to find “72 text files called only by their respective numbers”. From this unpromising start comes the diary of a young woman, Julie, who works as a lavatory attendant in a shopping mall. Every day, she counts the tiles in her miniature kingdom, describes the regulars and their habits, and dreams of finding Mr Right. Guylain finds himself unexpectedly smitten and begins to share pages of her diary with his fellow commuters. Meanwhile, Giuseppe decides to help locate Julie for his friend.

The Reader on the 6.27 is a delightful tale about the kinship of reading. Jean-Paul Didierlaurent explores the redemptive power of books, and plays with the notion that everyone can spar, find poetry in, tempt or seduce with words, whatever one’s station in life. For Giuseppe, books become the legs he lost. Guylain beguiles his fellow travellers and is then begged by members of the local old people’s home to read for them.

It’s also a love story. Much of the book’s charm resides in the simplicity of Didierlaurent’s prose and his vivid characterisation. Ros Schwartz’s translation perfectly conveys the warmth and eccentricities of his memorable cast. Already a bestseller in France, The Reader on the 6.27 looks set to woo British readers and become a book club favourite.

Originally published by The Independent on Sunday

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Film Review – Testament of Youth

Posted by lucypopescu on June 23, 2015

 

Testamount of YouthJames Kent’s magnificent feature debut, Testament of Youth (2015), based on Vera Brittain’s bestselling memoir about the First World War, is a real tearjerker that should move male and female audiences alike and appeal to fans of Joe Wright’s Atonement (2007). Screenwriter Juliette Towhidi (Love, Rosie) focuses on Brittain’s coming of age – from the rural idyll where she grew up, through the hallowed halls of Oxford, to the horrors of war – the loss she endured and the carnage she witnessed. All naturally led her down the path of pacifism.

Vera (Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina), is desperate to study at Oxford but her father (Dominic West) disapproves of her academic ambition. He’d prefer to see her married off as soon as possible. Persuaded by Edward (Taron Egerton), Vera’s beloved younger brother, he finally relents and allows Vera to sit the entrance exam. At the same time Vera falls in love with Edward’s school friend Roland Leighton (Kit Harington, TV’s Game Of Thrones). Both share a love of poetry, have literary ambitions and are determined to go to university together. But the First World War intervenes and Roland volunteers. One by one the men in Vera’s life leave for the front shattering her hopes and dreams.

Vera starts at Oxford but finds it increasingly difficult to study knowing that men are dying every day for their country. Against the advice of her blue-stocking tutor (Miranda Richardson) Vera volunteers as a nurse and experiences for herself the full horror of war and its casualties. During home leave, Vera and Roland become engaged but tragedy strikes before they can marry. Vera then has to endure the death of her brother and another friend Victor (Colin Morgan). She returns to Oxford grief-stricken and slowly begins to rebuild her life.

Brittain’s memoir is about the devastating effects of the First World War and the colossal waste of life over four brutal years. Kent forcefully brings this home in two scenes: In one, soldiers in the trenches, unknown to us or any of the characters, stare silently back at the camera; in another, cinematographer Rob Hardy pans over a vast field of the dead and dying lying on stretchers. Vera ends up working in a Casualty Clearing Station in France, where she nurses German soldiers – the experience teaches her humility and real, unwavering compassion. Here she realises the full extent of the bloodshed and has to deal with an overpowering sense of guilt. In return for Edward cajoling their father into sending her to Oxford, she had persuaded him to send her brother to war.

Testament of Youth is a compelling, poignant drama with extraordinary central performances from Swedish actress Vikander and Harington, as well as solid support from British stalwarts Egerton, Morgan, Richardson, Emily Watson as Vera’s mother and West.

Originally published by Cine-vue.com

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Silenced Voices – Jason Rezaian, Iran

Posted by lucypopescu on May 26, 2015

jason RezaianThe trial of a Washington Post journalist detained in Iran for almost 10 months opens behind closed doors.

Freedom of expression and access to information continue to be restricted severely in Iran. Journalists and bloggers are frequently arrested, websites are blocked and a number of news outlets have been shut down. Hundreds of political prisoners, journalists and human rights activists remain in prison, some without facing trial. One of these is Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, who was arrested in July last year after Iranian security forces raided his home.

Rezaian, a 38-year-old American-Iranian dual national, and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, Iran correspondent for The National, an English-language newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates, were arrested at gunpoint at their home on 22 July 2014. Salehi was released in October and warned not to work as a journalist again. Rezaian has been held without trial ever since. He has not been able to meet the defence lawyer hired by his family and his health has deteriorated as a result of over five months’ detention in solitary confinement.

Rezaian moved to Iran from California in 2008 and worked as a freelance journalist, based in Tehran, for publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, GlobalPost, Slate and Monocle. He has been the Washington Post’s Tehran correspondent since 2012. His last story for the Post was about the growing popularity of baseball in Iran.

Rezaian was reportedly charged in January 2015 with national security offences. Since then, Rezaian’s lawyer, Leila Ahsan, told Iranian state media that her client had been charged with “espionage, collaboration with hostile governments, gathering classified information and disseminating propaganda against” Iran. Many believe President Hassan Rouhani has little control over the country’s powerful security and intelligence agencies, which, since his election, have continued to crack down on the media and critics of the regime. At the time of Rezaian’s arrest, Reporters Without Borders noted:

Arbitrary arrests, illegal summonses, for example by intelligence officers of the Revolutionary Guards, are a daily reality for journalists in Iran. Media workers, particularly foreign journalists based in Tehran, are most often accused of spying. They are the victims of a policy of demonizing the foreign media, which is aggravated by the settling of scores among different groups engaged in a power struggle.

Rezaian’s trial opened today in Branch 15 of the Iranian Revolutionary Court, which deals with national security and political crimes. His case has been assigned to Abolghassem Salavati, a hardline judge known for delivering harsh sentences, including lashings and executions, who has been under European Union sanctions since 2011.

Iran does not recognise dual nationality and so Rezaian has not been granted any consular assistance. Rezaian’s family hired a high-profile Iranian lawyer, Masoud Shafii, who has experience of handling national security cases, to represent him. However, the court did not accept their choice of lawyer, instead appointing Ahsan, who also represents his wife. Rezaian was only allowed to meet her in March. A month previously he was allowed outside medical treatment for the first time and received some care packages. He was finally prescribed antibiotics for infections in his eye and groin area. He is currently being held in Evin prison in Tehran, where torture and other forms of ill-treatment are rife. The family has set up a petition on Change.org, where further updates to Rezaian’s case can be read. So far, the petition has collected over 230,000 signatures from more than seventy countries. United States Secretary of State John Kerry and boxer Muhammad Ali, a Muslim American like Rezaian, have called for his immediate release.

According to PEN, over twenty writers are currently detained or are on trial in Iran for the peaceful expression of their opinions. Iran is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits arbitrary detention and protects the right to freedom of expression and fair trial. Iran has a history of arbitrarily detaining dual nationals, including academics Ramin Jahanbegloo, Haleh Esfandiari and Kian Tajbakhsh in 2006 and 2007, and journalists Roxana Saberi and Maziar Bahari in 2009.

Readers might like to send appeals urging the Iranian authorities to release journalist Jason Rezaian immediately and unconditionally if he is held solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression; calling for him to be granted regular access to all necessary medical treatment and to his family; requesting clarification of the charges against him; and calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all other writers and journalists currently detained in Iran in connection with the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression, in accordance with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a state party.

Appeals to be addressed to:

Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran

Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei

The Office of the Supreme Leader

Islamic Republic Street – End of Shahid Keshvar Doust Street

Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran

Email: info_leader@leader.ir

Twitter: @khamenei_ir

 

President of the Islamic Republic of Iran

Hassan Rouhani

Pasteur Street, Pasteur Square

Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran

Email: media@rouhani.ir

Twitter: @HassanRouhani (English)

 

The ambassador’s post is currently vacant, but readers can send copies of their appeal to info@iran-embassy.org.uk

This is an updated version of an article published in the Literary Review in March 2015

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Book Review – The Happiness Industry

Posted by lucypopescu on May 26, 2015

The Happiness IndustrySocial media offer a platform for us to acknowledge our changing moods and encourage an unnatural obsession with how our wellbeing and happiness affect our working lives. Today, we can buy gadgets and apps that measure our sleep or assess the benefits of our physical activities. Self-help books about how to be happy proliferate and ensure that we remain fixated on the subject. There are even organisations which use cameras to track our smiles. Rather more worryingly, this technology and knowledge is being harnessed by corporations, policy makers and governments. According to William Davies, the science of happiness “has now penetrated the citadel of global economic management … the future of successful capitalism depends on our ability to combat stress, misery and illness and put relaxation, happiness and wellness in their place”.

In his impeccably researched book, Davies traces the history of the happiness industry back to the work of the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, a British philosopher and social reformer who believed human actions should promote happiness for the greatest number. Davies also examines the work of Gustav Fechner, a theologian and physicist who founded psychophysics; the economist William Stanley Jevons; the physiologist and philosopher Wilhelm Wundt; and the animal psychologist John B Watson whose research eventually led him to join the U.S. advertising agency J. Walter Thompson. He illustrates how these disciplines overlapped and how happiness studies became entangled “with economic and medical expertise”.

His main criticism of “the science of well-being” is that it encourages us to blame ourselves while ignoring political and economic contexts, Futhermore, those in power exploit the science for “private profit” or “social control”. As Davies underlines, “unhappiness and depression are concentrated in highly unequal societies with strongly materialist, competitive values”. The opinion poll Gallup estimates that “the unhappiness of employees costs the US economy $500 billion a year in lost productivity, lost tax receipts and health care costs.” No wonder wealthy states are so interested in measuring happiness. But the solutions offered, Davies argues, further isolate the poor.

It’s an erudite and far-reaching study but, because Davies covers so much ground, The Happiness Industry can be difficult to unpack. Davies suggests that the positive psychology movement (aimed at improving everyday happiness) has advanced to the detriment of more subjective methods geared towards identifying what constitutes emotional wellbeing. His conclusion is that only through “understanding the strains and pains that work, hierarchy, financial pressures and inequality place upon human well-being” can we challenge them. Rather than allowing our emotions to be bought and sold, we need to stop focusing on our inner lives and train our minds “outwards upon the world”.

 A shortened version was published by the Independent on Sunday

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Book Review – Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising by Jonathan Littell

Posted by lucypopescu on May 18, 2015

Syrian NotebooksIn mid-January 2012, the American-French author Jonathan Littell travelled to Homs in Syria with his colleague Mani, a photographer and translator.

They were smuggled into the city by opposition fighters with the Free Syrian Army and spent three fraught weeks bearing witness to the regime’s bombing of residential neighbourhoods and snipers picking off innocent civilians.

Littell was there to write a series of articles for Le Monde. On his return he realised that his extensive notes could also make a book documenting a pivotal moment in the conflict. Littell’s own emotional journey follows the sad trajectory of the opposition’s resistance.

At first he appears almost buoyant in his macho naming of the guns and weaponry used by both sides and their likely provenance. Littell adopts a nom de guerre, drinks whisky, the preferred panacea of hardened war journalists, and never complains about the discomfort of sleeping in bombed-out houses with the sound of gunfire all around. Gradually though, as the violence escalates, Littell starts to tire. He can’t shake a bad cough and becomes obsessed with meal times. He finds it increasingly hard to bear witness to the atrocities being committed day and night.

Listening to the numerous accounts of activists, fighters, doctors and ordinary citizens, Littell and Mani (aka Ra’id) have to sift through the information and decide what is fact and what may have been embellished. Some members of the FSA are suspicious of them, wary of it being reported that civilians have joined their ranks in case it supports the regime’s claims of “terrorism”. Others claim every death is regime-orchestrated.

A doctor describes in graphic terms how the wounded, both civilians and fighters, would be taken to the military hospital where he worked and were brutally tortured. He offers them evidence filmed on a camera-pen. “There were two torture tools,” he tells them, “an electric cable and strips of reinforced rubber.”

The YouTube videos the activists share with the journalists are gradually replaced by the physical bodies of the wounded and the dead. Littell conveys his sense of horror in stark, fragmented prose. After one particularly brutal day, his despondency is reflected in his writing and deteriorating health: “The coughing fits… undo me completely, leave me empty and trembling for a long moment.”

On his return, Littell warned Alain Juppe, then French foreign minister, that “the regime was doing its utmost to provoke cycles of sectarian violence while the FSA was frantically trying to contain them; born out of despair the Islamist temptation was growing but had yet to gain any serious ground.” Tragically, Islamic State is one consequence of the West’s inaction.

At the time, Littell was not to know that Homs would be bitterly fought over until last May, when rebel forces evacuated the city. But he clearly foresaw that “playing the extremists against the moderates” would serve President Bashar al-Assad’s regime well. More importantly, he realised that if nothing was done to curb the bloodletting, Islamist extremism would take hold.

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday

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