About Alex Marshall

Hi, I'm a freelance journalist who's just written Republic or Death! Travels in Search of National Anthems - the world's first book on these songs and their meaning today. It's "part travelogue, part social history" as the BBC have aptly described it. It's also officially "entertaining", after it got reviewed in the Times, but I'll leave you to make up your own mind! Feel free to contact me at asmarshall at gmail dot com or, if you're a journalist, you can contact Jess Gulliver instead (jgulliver at penguinrandomhouse.co.uk). Thanks for visiting! Alex

Has Kurdistan just given the world its newest national anthem?

Voters!

Kurdish voters! Why can’t we have that inky finger in the UK?

Kurdistan – at least the bit of it in Iraq – has voted for independence. Go them!

Which means one of two things: either the Middle East is about to have its most earth-shattering moment since the creation of Israel, or the US will tell the Kurds to shut up and it’ll have to stay awkwardly part of Iraq for a few more years (here’s a good analysis explaining both possibilities).

But one thing’s certain whatever the outcome: Kurds will keep singing Ey Reqib – Oh, Enemy! – as if they already have a national anthem.

“Oh, enemy! The Kurdish people live on / They have not been crushed by the weapons of any time,” goes the song, written by the poet Dildar while in an Iranian jail in 1938 (he was locked up for campaigning for independence).

“Let no one say Kurds are dead, they are living / They live and never shall we lower our flag.”

That clip’s a version by the singer Dashni Morad, which she posted on Facebook just before the vote with the note: “To all my Kurdish brothers and sisters, times may have changed, but our objective hasn’t. Do not lose sight of what is important here. Independence is within touching distance. Let us unite and make this happen, as those before us always dreamed.”

As an anthem, it certainly does the trick, which explains scenes like this after the vote – (weirdly filmed in Iran, I think):

When researching my book on anthems, I considered a chapter on Kurdistan – I liked the idea of looking at the power of national anthems in countries that didn’t exist – and did some initial research by visiting Bayan Rahman, the Kurdish government’s representative in the UK.

In our first meeting, just down the road from Buckingham Palace, she diplomatically told me Ey Reqib isn’t an independence song:

“It was written at a time when Kurds’ language wasn’t recognised, when people were trying to deny the existence of Kurds at all in Turkey.

“They were killing Kurds – genocides – but it was saying, ‘I’m the never-ending Kurd. You can try to kill me but we will get up again.’

“It was a song about survival. ‘I will exist.’ It’s really not about independence.”

A few months later I went to meet her a second time – ISIS were bearing down on Erbil and I was trying to get access to the Peshmerga’s front lines so I could see if they sang Ey Reqib in battle. And that time, for some reason, she was far more open about the role the song had played in both her life, and the wider independence movement.

Bayan’s father had been a senior member of the Peshmerga and went on to be a successful politician until he was killed by a suicide bomber in 2004.

Bayan smiled while telling me about him, and suddenly remembered a night in the ’70s when he woke her and her brother, dragged them outside where all the adults were partying, and made the two children sing, while recording it all on a tape player.

“You would think that at that age we would be singing nursery rhymes, like Humpty Dumpty or whatever. But we were singing Peshmerga songs.

“My father was a Peshmerga. We’d lived in the mountains and we had guns in the house and he’d come home with his Kalashnikov, and so we had grown up with all that, seeing them sing before they went off to battle. So he made us sing like them.

“He got my brother to sing one: ‘Mother dearest, don’t start crying. I’ve been killed, but I’m a martyr, I’m a hero, I’ll come back.’

“And then my brother and father were killed in 2004, and my mother used to play that tape [over and over].

“And, of course, all she did was cry.”

I asked Bayan if Ey Reqib meant more to her because of that loss:

“Yes, I definitely think of them and others who have been killed when I sing it, because they were killed because they believed in it.

“They believed in what that song says.”

That quote tells you everything about the strength of feeling in Kurdistan and the power of anthems.

Whether Kurdistan becomes independent or it has to stay part of Iraq, neither the anthem nor the desire is going anywhere.

 

“Get that son of a bitch off the field right now”

Was anything surprising about Trump calling American footballers who protest the country’s anthem ‘sons of bitches’?

Nope, of course not. It served its purpose – kickstarting a “USA! USA!” chant at his latest rally.

It’s also not surprising he had a completely different opinion last year either.

As it won’t be if he changes his view again next week.

It’s times like this, when I’d really like an American book publisher to get in touch and ask me to update my book for them!

Why I became a jihadist poetry critic

Elisabeth Kendall in Yemen. She owns this photo!

Er, not me, but the woman pictured!

Anyone who’s read my book on national anthems will know that I have a deep (i.e. worrying) fascination with jihadi culture, especially the songs that such groups put out and almost gain the status of ‘national’ anthems. You can read a little about that musical world here.

Well, this week I wrote a piece for the BBC extending that interested. It’s a profile of Elisabeth Kendall, an Oxford academic who’s not just interested in jihadists’ music, but their poetry too. You can read about her insane life and learn just why such work is important here (or if you’re Spanish, here).

The piece has been having very nice things said about it by everyone from Peter Frankopan – author of The Silk Roads – to Rukmini Callimachi, the NYT’s terrorism correspondent. Even Tom Holland, the historian, said he liked it.

All of which is very professionally pleasing, but I’m largely putting it below to try and make you read the bloody piece as this stuff’s vital to how we understand the world. Thanks in advance!

Why China’s national anthem is about to become the world’s most contested song

Hong Kong football fans do not agree with China’s new anthem law!

Back in June, China proposed a law making insulting its national anthem – March of the Volunteers – a criminal offence, subject to 15 days in prison (I wrote about it here).

Well, on Friday it finally went ahead and, ridiculously, passed the thing, as Reuters reports.

The final law is wider than the original proposal. Playing the anthem is now banned “as background music and in advertisements,” as well as at funerals, weddings and “on other inappropriate occasions”. You could be locked up if you “distort” or “mock” it, the law goes on.

Those attending public events must stand to attention and sing in a solemn manner when the anthem is played, it says.

By my reckoning, this means blokes in their bedrooms doing rock covers like the one below are now fugitives:

Please hide him if you can!

More importantly, expect China’s anthem to soon be sung far more frequently in Hong Kong – in entirely disrespectful ways. And expect Hong Kong’s football fans to continue their long practice of booing it whenever it’s played. When you pass draconian laws like this, you don’t tend to get the outcome you expected.

Update: The South China Morning Post has some interviews with Hong Kong football fans here, saying they’ll continue ignoring it. “I won’t stand up [when the national anthem is played, because I do not have a sense of belonging [to China],” Ricky Wong Ka-ki told them.

If Ricky is locked up, China’s anthem overnight becomes the world’s most controversial song.

God save our ears!

At the end of August, you might have seen the below clip of a Libyan military band butchering God Save the Queen when playing it for British foreign secretary/buffoon Boris Johnson:

It is very funny.

But I did feel slightly sorry for the Libyans when that clip emerged as few people pointed out that they’re far from alone in butchering anthems, even in the Middle East. So, please, let me jog your memories of the wonders of the Egyptian military band – and especially the time they played Russia’s national anthem to Vladimir Putin:

A-hahahahahahahaha!

In praise of the new Kaepernicks

Cleveland Browns players forming an anthem-rejecting prayer circle. I think I stole this photo from Getty. I usually do. Sorry, Getty!

Last year, an American footballer called Colin Kaepernick got – rightfully – a lot of praise after he refused to stand for the US national anthem before games as part of a Black Lives Matter protest (I wrote about it a lot on here, as this, this and even this post prove).

Kaepernick’s travails since, including failing to get a team this season, have been widely documented worldwide. (Update: The Washington Post has published a great profile of the man – The Making of Colin Kaepernick – that’s well worth your time). But what isn’t getting anywhere near the attention it should be outside the US right now is that A LOT of other footballers have taken his stance and run with it.

Right now, in the sport’s pre-season, it seems like every team has at least one person protesting the anthem. There’s players kneeling and praying (see the Cleveland Browns in the photo). There’s guys taking a kneeothers sitting alone, some raising fists. They include everyone from Super Bowl champions to nobodies.

Colin Kaepernick’s become enough of a name that journalists outside the US can write about him happily, but people should realise he’s not the only one using the Star-Spangled Banner in a way that it has been for decades – to try and hold a mirror back at a country. Let’s give them their due.

Where are my royalties, Tim?

After I wrote my book on national anthems, many, many, many people told me to do a follow-up on flags and – for some reason – I decided to give it a miss.

About a year later, Tim Marshall, the author of the great Prisoners of Geography, and no relation to me, did it so removing my dilemma. You can get his Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of Flags here.

Last night, I finally saw a copy and it was very nice to find my book being called “invaluable” in his bibliography. Amazing to be cited anywhere, to be honest. Although I’m assuming that means he owes me several million pounds in royalties. I look forward to the cheque, Tim!