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!

Sing the Philippines’ anthem with fervour or get fined!

“A little bit of Monica in my liffffeeeeee…”

Where China goes, the Philippines follows! Just days after Chinese politicians started discussing a bill to jail anyone who “abuses” their national anthem, Filipino politicians have started discussing one that’s mightily similar.

“Singing [of the anthem] shall be mandatory and must be done with fervour,” the bill says, according to the BBC. Punishment will include a fine of up to 100,000 pesos, which is apparently £1,560/$5,590. Ok, that’s better than the two-weeks in prison that China’s planning, but still: ouch!

Offenders will also be publicly “named and shamed.”

It all seems a bit harsh, especially as the country’s anthem – Chosen Land – is hardly something that can be sung with fervour, since it sounds like a fairground ride being wound into action.

“Chosen land, you are the cradle of the brave,” it goes. “To the conquerors, you shall never win.”

The bill’s still got to be passed by the country’s Senate, so it might not happen, but given the nationalist fervour in the country under new president – and self-confessed murderer – Rodrigo Duterte, I assume it’ll pass. That’s him singing the anthem at the top of the page, by the way. He clearly won’t be fined.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: never trust a country that forces singing of a national anthem!

One violinist, one anthem and a wall of riot police

Wuilly Arteaga playing Venezuela’s national anthem at a protest in Caracas in May. I’ve stolen this from Luis Robayo and Agence France-Presse/Getty Images. It’s too shocking not to

There was a brilliant story in The New York Times recently about Venezuela’s ongoing anti-government protests and how they’ve embroiled the country’s classical musicians. It was focused on the death of a viola player, Armando Cañizales, who walked alone towards a line of soldiers:

“He said nothing as he advanced, arms outstretched, palms facing up.

“Then the fatal shots rang out.”

Why’s this tragedy relevant to a blog on national anthems? Because Venezuela’s anthem – Glory to the Brave People – is regularly sung and played by protesters at home and abroad, trying to show they really represent the country. Iit’s been played especially since Armando’s death. Here’s one example from that New York Times story:

“On a recent afternoon, [Armando’s friend] Wuilly Arteaga, 23, stood in the centre of a crowd of demonstrators, his violin on his shoulder. His case was strapped to his back, his helmet painted with the colours of the Venezuelan flag. He played the national anthem.

“Explosions of tear gas canisters erupted between the notes he played. Finally, other protesters grabbed him by a shoulder and dragged him back from the security forces.

“‘I remembered my friend Armando,’ Mr. Arteaga said afterward. ‘I have spent ages now playing and living on the streets, and I see that so many talented Venezuelans have had to eat from the trash.'”

Read the whole article now. It’s a great piece of journalism. It’s a shame it’s such sad reading.