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Ben Okri: rediscovering a 4,000-year-old poem

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When the world began to close down 17 months ago, I was filled with a sense of foreboding about what would befall the life of the spirit, and wrote a heartfelt appeal in this paper urging the world not to forget the arts. I maintained that art at its best reveals to us the fullness of what it means to be human.

At the time I feared the lights would go out all over the world and all forms of culture would sink under the assault of the pandemic. But it soon turned out that we could not live without art and culture after all. It was just that art had to find new ways to reach us, new ways to exist, and artists had to find new ways of making art. For many artists, their homes became their studios. Zoom replaced travel, and virtuality replaced intimacy.

But there is something matchless about live theatre. Nothing quite comes close to the mysterious vitality of living actors and an audience throbbing with anticipation and immersed in the entanglements of a story. And so this weekend something remarkable will happen. After a year and a half of not practising their art in person, a group of actors will be staging at the Young Vic my new play, Changing Destiny. It is set in ancient Egypt and is based on a nearly 4,000-year-old poem called “The Tale of Sinuhe”.

Ashley Zhangazha in rehearsal for Ben Okri’s ‘Changing Destiny’ © Marc Brenner

The play began its life before lockdown, but the writing of it and the intricacies of production took place during it. Most of the process happened on Zoom. Staff had to work from home and the theatre struggled for funding. A curious early obstacle was the shortage of black male actors, who were unprecedentedly in such high demand. Fortunately, we found the excellent Ashley Zhangazha, who had played Ike Turner in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. He plays alongside the wonderful Joan Iyiola, a veteran of the Young Vic.

The play began as a classic three-act play in the Greek tradition, then was compressed into a two-hander. We wanted this play, based on one of the most popular poems in the ancient world, to be as close as possible to the oldest form of storytelling on the stage, where the play is made up as much from the imagination of the audience as from the suggestive performance of the actors. We wanted an ancient form of theatre, the campfire theatre, alongside the most modern of technological innovations.

But producing a play during lockdown proved quite a challenge. And it took nerves of steel from the intrepid artistic director of the Young Vic, Kwame Kwei-Armah, to manage all the contingencies and devise the most Covid-free environment for the actors to rehearse and the theatre to function. Going into rehearsal required a rigorous daily health check. The rehearsal area was completely sealed off.

The pressure on the actors was enormous. There are only two of them, one male, the other female, playing 100 roles. They rotate the playing of the central role of Sinuhe. This makes it a gender-transcendent performance. To experience the play fully, you have to see it twice, to see what happens when Sinuhe is a man and then a woman.


Joan Iyiola in rehearsals for ‘Changing Destiny’ © Marc Brenner

I first became interested in “The Tale of Sinuhe” as part of my abiding curiosity about the ancient Egyptian civilisation and its relationship to Africa. It seems people have managed to mentally separate Egypt from the rest of the continent. Now, perhaps, is the time for Egypt to be dealt with as part of the broken history of the continent.

But my interest in ancient Egypt is also mythical and spiritual. The poem of Sinuhe is a literary text but also belongs to the mural tradition of Egyptian art. The scribe who copied it had it painted in his tomb. It is a visual poem, a performance to death and immortality.

A casual encounter with Kwei-Armah, who is himself a fastidious playwright, at an event celebrating Nelson Mandela through his prison letters, gave the second impetus for the writing of the play. We were surprised at our mutual fascination for this now little-known Egyptian poem.

After the final draft was accepted, Kwame decided early that he wanted Changing Destiny to be the first play the Young Vic performs as it comes out of lockdown, a play that matches the strangeness of emerging from the long period of isolation with the magic and strangeness of an ancient world. But it has proved as difficult coming out of lockdown as going into it. The production suffered cancellations and postponements and has been a lesson in bringing back theatre in historic times.

From the beginning, though, we were not interested in theatricalising the poem, but in finding an authentic political and ritual drama from it. No play about ancient times can be written that is not a play about today. We can only understand the past through the present. It is the only portal we have. Conversely, we can only understand the present through the past.

The Sinuhe poem reveals profound political tensions in ancient Egypt. It is an indirect account of the assassination of Pharaoh Amenemhat I; and of Sinuhe, implicated in the plot, who had to flee to foreign lands. Contained in the poem are archetypes that have haunted the human imagination.

Prefigured within it are preoccupations with home and exile, with identity, the unknowability of human motives, and those eternal issues of freedom. Right at the heart of the poem is the problem of power, of what to do when an autocratic regime is destroying the fabric of society. Hard as this is to believe, those pyramid-makers had their fingers on the pulse of things that would consume us 4,000 years later.

Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic and director of ‘Changing Destiny’ © Marc Brenner

Ancient Egypt has been marginalised in the story of literature. That ought to change. The tendency in the west has been to begin with the Greeks as if nothing much had been written before. But the writing of Herodotus and Plutarch bears witness to the Egyptian roots of Greek culture, to the notion that the Greeks got some of their gods from Egypt. There is even a fruitful tradition that contends that the ancient Egyptian mystery plays were the real progenitors of Greek theatre.

There are hints in the Greek myths of importations from other cultures. Dionysus has an Asiatic tinge. Many cultures inform the pantheon of Greek gods. In order to overcome enduring Eurocentric tendencies, we need to go back to the ancients to see how myths and mysteries spread from one centre to another. It should cure us of the notion that the roots of western civilisation come from only one place.

The migration of gods and cults and peoples is hard-wired into the story of civilisation itself. “The Tale of Sinuhe”, for this reason, ought to induce in us cultural humility and a sense of wonder. It ought to be widely taught in schools and be as well known as Homer’s Odyssey or The Arabian Nights.

Writing Changing Destiny, I wanted to bathe the audience in this eternal stream. I wanted to divert some of its waters into these divisive times. Whether it be the cruel treatment of migrants at American borders, or the European seas alive with the ghosts of migrants who tried to make it across, or the new immigration bill recently published by the British government, this ancient Egyptian poem, now made into a play, hints that the issue of immigration demands a new way to look at the human story and the human spirit. Not one that demonises out of fear, but one whose understanding comes from the long perspective about the mystery of the human estate.

To August 21, youngvic.org

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Is China uninvestable? | Financial Times

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Chinese business & finance updates

This article is an on-site version of our Unhedged newsletter. Sign up here to get the newsletter sent straight to your inbox every weekday

Good morning. I have more to say about yesterday’s topics — capital flows and private equity — but I’m still doing some reporting. Meanwhile, back to the biggest business and finance story in the world: President Xi Jinping’s attempt to transform of China’s economy. Email me: robert.armstrong@ft.com

Is China uninvestable?

If you have not been following the political and financial tremors that have been shaking China in recent months, I recommend the twin reads by my colleagues Tom Mitchell, James Kynge and Sun Yu, detailing how Xi is “reinserting the party into the private sector and into family lives in a way that has not been seen since Deng launched the ‘reform and opening’ era in 1978”.

Investors will have heard about government interventions in the technology, education, alcohol, video game, real estate and entertainment sectors, and will be wondering which industry is next on the hit list. To me, however, it is the tone set by the party and its allies that is most unsettling. A taste:

“A monumental change is taking place in China. The economic, financial, cultural and political spheres are undergoing a profound revolution,” Li Guangman, the pen name of a prominent leftist commentator, wrote in a commentary that captured the zeitgeist. “It marks a return [of power] from capitalist cliques to the people . . . It is a return to the revolutionary spirit, to heroism, to courage and righteousness.”

This commentary was amplified by state media. When governments start transmitting messages about “capitalist cliques”, surely it is time for foreign investors to pack their bags?

Some are. Here is a chart of global equity funds’ collective China exposure, based on a sample of funds with more than $1tn in assets, compiled by Copley Fund research:

The market capitalisation of China’s four biggest tech companies, formerly foreign investors’ darlings, have fallen by almost $1tn:

There is not a universal rush for the exits, however. Todd Sohn of Strategas Securities points out that the KraneShares CSI China Internet ETF received $1.5bn in inflows in August. While some of that may be down to demand for exchange traded fund shares for shorting, he says, most of the flow is likely to be from bargain hunters.

Looking at Chinese stock valuations, however, it is clear that we have not had a proper rout. Here are the forward price/earnings ratios of mainland Chinese stocks, Hong Kong shares and an index of US-listed Chinese groups, along with the 10-year average valuations of each (the dotted lines):

China stock valuations sit at their long-term averages, having only given up the premiums picked up in the past year and a half. Given the politics, is a foreign investor sticking their toe in this not particularly inexpensive water making a big mistake? 

It would be useless for me to attempt to draw a gestalt image of Chinese political economy, and weigh the chances of various outcomes. I don’t know enough. But a clarifying question does occur to me: does the CCP care about what happens if foreign investors take flight? Do outcomes for foreign investors figure in the party’s political calculus? I put the question to three China experts.

George Magnus of Oxford University’s China Centre, who appears frequently in this space, thinks the answer is basically “no”:

“I don’t think the party does care that much if global investors are selling Chinese equities, especially if these are foreign listings. If a distrust of Chinese assets resulted in a fire sale of domestic equities and bonds in China and capital flight putting pressure on the reserves, then yes, I think they’d try to limit that damage. 

“But you know what? The speed and scale of the initiatives that are being unrolled smacks of an ideological campaign to put backbone into citizens and the economy. It may not be a revolution as such, but there’s nothing random about it either. And because of that I suspect the leadership sees global investors as bits of capitalism that are of little relevance to them. 

“ . . . I suspect real estate and healthcare are the next sectors in the regulatory crosshairs, maybe even finally, the introduction of a property or other tax on capital.

“Foreign investors need to factor in the risk they could get blamed for any market or economic volatility, and have restrictions imposed on access to dollars and more restrictions on outward capital movements. It’s that sort of climate.”

Another noted China watcher — who did not want to be named because they live in China and would prefer to continue doing so — noted that as long as the party aims to internationalise its currency, it has to consider the “prestige” brought by foreign investment in its capital markets. But the party has no economic need for foreign investment: 

“When do you need capital inflows? When they bring you something like technology or management skill, or if you have huge investment needs and weak domestic savings . . . China doesn’t need capital, it has huge investment and a huge current account surplus, and stock and bond investments don’t bring technology or skills.”

The problem the party has to solve is almost the opposite: investment is so high that much of the capital is malinvested. As a result, debt is growing faster than gross domestic product. The irrelevance of foreign investors to China key problems doesn’t mean Chinese stocks might not go up, “but you have to get both the valuations and the politics right, and that’s just really hard”.

Jörg Wuttke, president of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China said:

“Does the party care [about foreign investors in capital markets]? Of course not. We should not forget, they are Communists, what matters to them is the party, what the party hates most is volatility [which they see in open stock markets].

The party is fully aware they are a huge domestic economy, they only rely on a few things from the world market . . . they feel less vulnerable and more at ease becoming a more insular country. They care more about foreign manufacturers, because they substitute domestic supply chains for foreign ones. But if someone doesn’t buy stocks and bonds, who cares? Institutional investors? Nice to have, if they don’t ask to look at the books.

China may not be uninvestable. But the stock market as a whole is still expensive, given that the party is cracking down on the symbols and sources of wealth and inequality, and has little incentive to consider the fate of foreign investors. 

One good read

Regular readers will know I have a side interest in the ancient world, and have tolerated my occasional references to it. This past weekend I came across this short essay by Simone Weil, first published almost 80 years ago. It’s the best thing I’ve ever read about the Iliad.

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EU calls for fines against Poland for ignoring court rulings

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EU rule of law updates

The European Commission has asked the European Court of Justice to fine Poland for ignoring court rulings over the country’s controversial judicial reform, in a significant escalation of a stand-off between Brussels and Warsaw over the supremacy of EU law over national rules.

The long-running confrontation over moves by Poland’s conservative nationalist ruling party to gain powers over its judiciary, including a disciplinary chamber with the power to punish judges, has deeply soured relations between Brussels and the EU’s fifth-largest member state. It has also hardened Eurosceptic voices in Warsaw.

Tensions were inflamed further last week when the EU’s economy commissioner said that the disbursement of tens of billions of euros in pandemic recovery funds requested by the country would be affected by Warsaw’s response to the commission’s insistence on the primacy of EU law.

The commission’s request to the ECJ on Tuesday stems from the country’s failure to comply with so-called interim measures imposed in July by Europe’s highest court over Warsaw’s controversial judicial disciplinary regime.

“The commission is asking the court to impose a daily penalty payment on Poland for as long as the measures imposed by the court’s order are not fully implemented,” it said in a statement, which did not specify the amounts involved.

The commission added that it would set in motion a separate process for Warsaw’s failure to comply with a second ECJ ruling that declared that Poland’s disciplinary regime was incompatible with EU law. Poland’s new regime, the court said, provided insufficient guarantees of judicial impartiality and independence, and did not protect judges from the influence of Polish politicians.

Brussels’ potential fine and legal proceedings come despite a pledge in August by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of the ruling Law and Justice party and Poland’s de facto leader, that the disciplinary system would be amended.

The commission is under increasing pressure from parliamentarians to make clear that the bloc will not tolerate a move by Poland to contest the primacy of EU law. Brussels officials view it as an existential threat to the very legal order that underpins the EU project.

That stance, however, has prompted scathing Polish criticism of the EU among some ruling party politicians. They equate it to financial blackmail, raising the question of whether the country would be better off without EU financing.

Poland in May requested €23.9bn in grants under the EU’s landmark recovery funds programme, along with €12.1bn in loans, but the package has yet to be approved. Paolo Gentiloni, the EU’s economy commissioner, said last week that the legal fight between Brussels and Warsaw had “possible consequences” for the Polish recovery and resilience plan.

Konrad Szymanski, Poland’s minister for EU affairs, suggested on Monday that the stand-off was harming the EU’s standing in Poland.

“In terms of the political costs of this — due to the disturbances that we are observing — their scale is unclear today, but there are some: there is certainly a political cost for the EU in Poland,” he told local television.

“Poland is owed money from the European Union budget and the Reconstruction Fund. Not because of this or that attitude of whichever political capitals or EU institutions. But as a result of international agreements, from the law,” he added.



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Germany protests to Russia over wave of cyber attacks

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Cyber warfare updates

Germany has accused Russia of launching a spate of cyber attacks on politicians amid suspicions that Moscow is interfering in this month’s election to decide who succeeds Angela Merkel as chancellor.

Germany’s foreign ministry said it held Russia responsible for illegally targeting a number of national and regional politicians with “phishing” emails to gain access to personal details.

These “unacceptable actions” posed a “risk to Germany’s security and its democratic decision-making processes, and [placed] a heavy burden on the bilateral relationship” with Russia, said Andrea Sasse, a spokeswoman for the German foreign ministry.

State secretary Miguel Berger had passed Germany’s protest directly to Russian deputy foreign minister Vladimir Titov at a meeting of the two countries’ security policy working group last week, Sasse said.

The warning comes ahead of what appears to be the most open election in recent German history, with polls pointing to an inconclusive outcome that could usher in months of uncertainty in Europe’s most powerful country. It will bring the curtain down on Merkel’s 16-year reign as chancellor.

Some polls point to a victory for the left-of-centre Social Democrats and their candidate for chancellor, finance minister Olaf Scholz. An INSA poll published on Monday put the SPD on 26 per cent, the CDU/CSU on 20.5 per cent, the opposition Greens on 15.5 per cent and the pro-business Free Democrats on 12.5 per cent.

It is unclear which party Moscow would like to see win the election. Both Scholz and Armin Laschet, the CDU/CSU’s candidate for chancellor, have struck emollient tones on Russia.

However, Annalena Baerbock, candidate for the Greens, is highly critical of the Kremlin and opposes Nord Stream 2, the pipeline across the Baltic Sea that brings Russian gas directly to Europe, bypassing Ukraine. Critics say it will increase Europe’s dependence on Russian energy exports.

Concern has been growing in Berlin that Russia could attempt a reprise of its interference in the US election in 2016. Thomas Haldenwang, head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency the BfV, said in July that foreign intelligence agencies considered the Bundestag election a “significant target” and were exploring ways to affect the outcome.

Germany has long accused Moscow of seeking to access the digital networks of its political institutions. Merkel said last year there was “hard evidence” that Russian forces were behind a huge hack of the Bundestag in 2015 that also targeted her own emails.

The two countries also clashed over the killing of an exiled Chechen rebel leader in a Berlin park in 2019, which Germany said was carried out on the orders of the Kremlin.

Sasse said that in recent months, hackers had been using “phishing” emails to try to access the personal login details of MPs in the Bundestag and in Germany’s 16 regional parliaments.

“These attacks could serve as preparations for influence operations, for example disinformation campaigns linked to the Bundestag elections,” she said.

The Kremlin and Russia’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Sasse said the “Ghostwriter” cyber group, which for years had combined “traditional cyber attacks with disinformation and influence operations”, appeared to be behind the attacks.

She said Berlin had “reliable information” that its activities “can be attributed to a cyber actor of the Russian state, and in particular Russian military intelligence, the GRU”.

Haldenwang said in July that the attempted hacks could be a prelude to “hack and leak operations” on social media in which personal information acquired by hackers was “published in a selective and misleading way and also falsified with manipulated information in order to discredit individuals or parties”.

In 2018, US authorities charged 12 Russian intelligence officers with hacking Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 presidential election which was won by Donald Trump. They said the Russians stole and leaked emails as part of a Russian government effort to interfere with the election.

Meanwhile, US intelligence concluded in March this year that Russia’s president Vladimir Putin authorised “influence operations” aimed at supporting Trump’s re-election attempt in 2020.

Germany’s federal court last year issued an arrest warrant for Dmitry Badin, a Russian man who allegedly works as a hacker for Russian military intelligence and who is believed to have been behind the 2015 attack on the Bundestag.

Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Moscow





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