Back in August, I got a call from a PR at the British Library. They said they’d read my piece on Qatar in High Life magazine, and wondered if I’d be interested in something else to do with Qatar.
What followed was a heads-up about something which I’d already been vaguely aware of, but hadn’t properly focused on – the British Library’s ongoing partnership with the Qatar Foundation to digitise the UK’s India Office government records on the Gulf.
They invited me to the BL for a look around, and to chat with some of the curators working on this vast trove of material going back more than 250 years. I was impressed. Qatari money had, in effect, bought the BL a team of dozens of specialists, working on conserving, cataloguing, digitising and uploading paper records to a portal website that had itself been designed and built in-house from scratch. They flew me to Doha for a 3-day visit to talk to people at the Qatar National Library. The portal was due to launch in a matter of weeks.
I had lots of questions, many centred on the role of Qatar. The paper files will stay in London, but who owns the digital scans? Where is the portal – with its .qa domain – being hosted? Qatar was always pretty tangential in Gulf history compared to, say, Basra, Bahrain or Muscat: isn’t there a danger its sponsorship of this project could mislead people into thinking Qatar was more important than it actually was? Qatar censors its own media: would they censor this historical material too? Isn’t there a contradiction in Qatar – a notoriously restrictive country, which jails individuals for saying things deemed critical of the monarch – sponsoring the free, open, global dissemination of knowledge? Is the BL being taken for a ride? And so forth.
Those questions went down like a lead balloon. I got told off for asking them.
Nevertheless I wrote a story for the BBC to tie in with the portal launch – click here to read. The BBC also commissioned a ten-part weekly series of quirky stories from the newly digitised archives – stories which the BL’s curators have unearthed during their research, and which they generously pass to me. It’s fascinating. I feel rather privileged (and grateful) that they let me tinker with their stuff. I’m also having lots of fun writing up these little vignettes.
Part 1 is about an isolated telegraph station off the Omani coast.
Part 2 celebrates a minor official in Baluchistan and his over-familiar approach to office etiquette.
Part 3 picks out a British diplomat’s testy response to a Saudi request for money as being the start of US domination of Gulf politics.
Part 4 is about pearl-diving in the Gulf, with fabulous pics from London’s National Maritime Museum.
Part 5 tells the tale of a French secret agent in Persia – and his mysterious death.
Part 6 mixes the life-story of an independent-minded musician with rare early tracks digitised from 78rpm shellac discs.
Part 7 introduces the story of Britain’s pre-WW1 secret weapon in the Gulf: a monumental, 5,000-page gazetteer.
Part 8 is a brief overview of the lost Jewish communities of Arabia, with a fabulous music clip.
Part 9 tells the story of William Shakespear (not that one!), who began Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Part 10 is about a local agent in Sharjah exposing the Sheikh’s pro-Nazi sentiment during WW2.
New stories go up every Saturday in the “Magazine Monitor” section of the BBC News website (top right on this page) – look out for them, from now until the end of January 2015. I tweet about them a lot @matthewteller.
A magazine in the US has also commissioned me to write a longer piece on the BL-Qatar partnership, looking at what I think are the fascinating implications of publication of these historical records en masse to a free-to-access website, both for academic study of the Middle East and for broader cultural relations between the Arabic- and English-speaking worlds. That will come in mid-2015, I expect.
A couple of my stories went out on the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent programme this summer.
First – a hot place. My story from Doha looked at how sudden extreme wealth hasn’t necessarily been a wholly positive experience for Qatar and Qataris. Radio 4 audio here starts 17’27” (a slightly edited version went out on World Service here). The transcript, which ran on the BBC News site as this feature article, went – kind of – viral, with apparently 1.2 million page-views in the first 24hrs after publication. It was also picked up by local independent media site Doha News here, sparking much comment.
Then – a cold place. After my trip to Antarctica last December, I wrote a piece looking at the intricacies of Antarctic politics: Radio 4 audio here starts 8’38” (a slightly edited version went out on World Service here). The transcript, which again ran as this feature article, also drew attention. It was picked up on Beacon here, and later I was contacted by a couple of Antarctic scientists, one from the UK, another from New Zealand, to point out that my wording could be misleading – the situation regarding the Antarctic Treaty will change in 2048, but nothing is ‘up for renewal’. The date marks an administrative shift from consensus decision-making to majority decision-making. At that point the ban on mineral mining can be overturned, but only if a binding legal regime is put in place to regulate it. It’s all a bit complicated, but the effect is that it appears I may have overstated the threat 2048 poses. More analysis required…
Earlier this year I was lucky enough to be in Qatar, on assignment for the British Airways inflight magazine High Life. It was for an idea I’d pitched to them, trying to give a bit of insider perspective to the way Doha is usually covered in the Western media – which tends to be either PR-driven guff about fancy hotels and multibillion-dollar developments, or hard-hitting exposes of the Qatari government’s truly appalling record on human rights.
Both have validity, but neither tells the whole story. I went for a people angle. Stories. Storytelling.
On March 5th last year, 2013, while discussing possible ideas for the BBC Radio 4 commissioning round, I sent an independent production company, Whistledown, a short email summarising an idea I’d had:
Five reigning Arab monarchs have passed through the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst: the kings of Bahrain and Jordan, emirs of Kuwait and Qatar and Sultan of Oman, alongside a long list of lesser sheikhs and princes. Sandhurst recently sparked outrage by accepting £3m from Bahrain and £15m from the UAE to rededicate two buildings. Using archive, analysis and new interviews, we examine Sandhurst’s longstanding links with Gulf royalty over six decades, explore how it treats its royals, and assess the ‘Sandhurst influence’ on the ongoing Arab Spring protests across the region.
There were mistakes in there (it’s not five, it’s four – the previous emir of Kuwait went to Sandhurst, but not the current emir – and the UAE donation was for a new building, not to rededicate an existing one) – but the idea stood. Whistledown longlisted it. Then the BBC shortlisted it. Then, incredibly, Radio 4 commissioned it. That was July 2013. Whistledown assigned a producer, the wonderful Karen Pirie, and we started work together, her and me, in December.
I’ve spent my life working alone. Writers do. I thought I’d be doing it again here, planning everything, setting it all up, writing everything. And similarly Karen – used to working with presenters who get parachuted in at the end of a production, to conduct pre-selected interviews and read a pre-prepared script – thought she’d be doing everything herself.
In the end, after working out where we both stood, neither of us did everything. We collaborated. And, speaking personally – what a revelation. Tremendously exciting. Two people with different approaches, complementary skills and a (small) budget to make things happen – it may be what normal people do every day, but not me. What a refreshing, liberating way to work.
Planning began in January. There was a visit to the BBC archive in May. We did interviews in June and July, and after a frenetic few days of writing and rewriting, I recorded my links in studio and on location at the beginning of August. A few days later, Karen finished her edit and the programme was complete, under Whistledown’s title “Sandhurst and the Sheikhs”.
Here is the 28-minute programme – the original BBC page here, and a duplicate at Soundcloud here. I hope you agree with me (and Whistledown, and Radio 4) that it is a programme worth making, and a subject that deserves more scrutiny than it gets.
BBC News Online commissioned a stand-alone feature to run in tandem – here it is.
A couple of weeks before broadcast, the BBC media centre put out a press release, which was picked up here and there. Radio Times named the programme one of their picks of the day, as did the Sunday Times.
This below, I think, is the Yorkshire Post.
There have been some very nice tweets and emails – thank you to everyone who responded.
Yesterday, I rediscovered a story of real life from the Shaja’iyya district of Gaza.
The small tale was written twenty years ago by Diala Khasawneh for her book Memoirs Engraved in Stone: Palestinian Urban Mansions, published by the Riwaq Centre for Architectural Conservation (Ramallah, 1995) – and republished by the Institute for Palestine Studies (Beirut & Washington, 2001). The original ISBN is 0887282792, the updated ISBN13 is 9780887282799. There’s a review of the book here, and it is still available from Amazon and (better) direct from the publisher here. It is beautiful; I recommend it highly.
And the story serves as a small reminder that Palestine, and Palestinians, had – and still have – a life beyond the demands of the news agenda. They are more than just tragic victims of violence and death, more than fiery-eyed zealots and filthy-faced children, more than weepers and fighters and shouters and haters and trudgers and starers and pleaders and beggars and trembling frightened survivors.
It is a place, and they are people.
Click on each page to enlarge.
Late last year, I was tweeting with Tom Fletcher, Britain’s ambassador to Lebanon – that’s the great thing about Twitter, it’s such a leveller: anyone can tweet with anyone. He mentioned in passing that his great-grandfather took part in the first-ever aeroplane flight along the River Nile, exactly one hundred years ago. That sounded like a great story to me: I asked Tom if he knew any more, or if anyone had ever told the tale.
With Tom’s help – and the help of Tom’s father, Mark Fletcher – I pieced together some more details about what happened, and managed to work it up into a script for the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent programme.
Click here for the radio version which aired in January (my bit begins at 17’51”) – and click here for the transcript, which was republished by the BBC News magazine the next day along with some previously unseen family photos supplied by the Fletcher family and the Royal Aero Club Collection (which is linked at the bottom of the BBC article).
What particularly appealed to me was the angle. Coverage of a 100-year-old flight would normally instinctively focus on the headline names – the pilots, the financial backers, the bigger picture of early aviation, even the aircraft itself – so the chance to tell the story from the unsung mechanic’s point of view felt refreshingly different. The fact that so little is known about Gus Smith’s life, let alone about the day-by-day crises on this particular journey, only added to the appeal. I was delighted when the BBC took it.
Last month, the British Embassy in Cairo commemorated the centenary of the pioneering flight with a ceremony and exhibition launch at the Children’s Museum in Heliopolis – built on the site of one of the first airfields in Africa – also reported in local media.