Tag Archives: Middle East

Tony Blair’s Muslim sister-in-law is performing at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Muslim sister-in-law is performing at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Lauren Booth, Tony Blair’s sister-in-law, was a very vocal opponent of the 2003 Iraq War and a supporter of the Stop The War Coalition.

She is performing Accidentally Muslim at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

She trained as an actress, became a journalist and converted to Islam in 2010.

Her father was actor Tony Boothwho became famous as the Left Wing son-in-law of Alf Garnett in BBC TV’s sitcom Till Death Us Do Part.

“Your mother’s maiden name was Pamela Cohen”

Accidentally Muslim is a dramatisation of her 2016 memoir Finding Peace in the Holy Land.


JOHN: Do you still exchange Christmas cards with Tony Blair?

LAUREN: Yes.

JOHN: So you are persona grata…

LAUREN: Ehhh… Well, I think there’s a lot of love in the family.

JOHN: Your mother was Susie Riley née Pamela Cohen. That’s a Jewish name.

LAUREN: Yeah. Her father, my grandfather, was Jewish.

JOHN: Was her mother Jewish?

LAUREN: No.

JOHN: So she’s technically not Jewish.

LAUREN: That’s right.

JOHN: There’s a lot of stuff at the moment about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. Can someone be anti-Israel without being anti-Jewish?

LAUREN: I’m not going to go into that, because that’s not in my show.

JOHN: So…?

LAUREN: It’s not the same at all.

JOHN: Why not?

Lauren in Iran with an anti-Zionist Rabbi and Christian priest

LAUREN: Because you can be against a political regime without wishing harm on people who follow a faith. There are Zionists who are not Jewish and it’s the political ideas that people protest against.

JOHN: Why are you an ‘accidental’ Muslim?

LAUREN: Because things kept happening to me that pushed me in one direction until, one day, I pretty much woke up and went: Whaaaaat?? – Oh! OK! Right!

Some people will go and read and study for six years. Other people will just accept a faith. But I was resisting. I was like: Nice food, but no thankyou. And… it just happened.

JOHN: You saw a report on TV in 2000 of a boy who got shot in the Gaza Strip and then you accidentally found yourself in his village.

LAUREN: Yes.

JOHN: Are you Sunni or Shiite?

LAUREN: I just say I am Muslim.

JOHN: Can you be?

LAUREN: You can, because everything is between our hearts and the Creator. I just think it’s really disingenuous and unhelpful to get involved in sectarianism.

JOHN: Don’t people say: “You have to be with us or them”?

LAUREN: Yes, unfortunately that happens and that’s why I don’t go into it.

JOHN: How do you spell the faith? Moslem or Muslim?

LAUREN: Muslim. Like the word mosque. You know the origin? Apparently the colonial troops in India described the people flocking to their religious building as mosquitos – that eeeee sound. There were thousands of them and you didn’t want them, so that’s why it’s ‘mosque’. Most Muslims refer to it as ‘masjid’.

Young Sarah Jane later Lauren Booth

JOHN: You were born Sarah Jane Booth. So where did ‘Lauren’ come from?

LAUREN: It’s an Equity name. There was already an actress called Sarah Jane Booth, my height, brown hair, brown eyes, born the same year.

JOHN: That is rather creepy. You have a doppelgänger!

(LAUREN HUMS THE THEME TO THE TWILIGHT ZONE)

LAUREN: I just plucked ‘Lauren’ out of the air.

JOHN: Accidentally Muslim is billed as a play in the Theatre section of the Edinburgh Fringe Programme. Is it a play or a monologue?

LAUREN: A monologue.

JOHN: So is it a monologue about how we should all become Muslims?

LAUREN: Absolutely not.

JOHN: But it’s going to be a terribly serious talk about death, destruction and…

LAUREN: Well, I’ve just come out of rehearsals for it and we’ve been roaring with laughter for 30 minutes. It has some real light and shade in it.

JOHN: You have a director for the show. You started as an actress, then became a journalist. You can write and you can act. Why do you need a director?

LAUREN: It would have been such an act of arrogance to have come back after 26 years of not being on the stage as an actor and say: “I can do this on my own!”… It would have been a catastrophe. I wanted to dramatise the story and make it ‘live’. It has a soundscape and visuals and lighting cues and I play twelve characters. So it’s very much not a lecture.

JOHN: So it’s not a monologue: it IS more of a play.

LAUREN: Is it a one woman dramatisation? Does that work? One of the characters I play is Billy Connolly.

One of the 12 characters Lauren will play (Photograph by Eva Rinaldi)

JOHN: If you have to cover your head for religious reasons and you don’t have a beard, how are you going to do that?

LAUREN: You’ll have to see the play to find out.

JOHN: Good PR!… So the play is a coming-together of your skills as an actress, journalist, world traveller…?

LAUREN: You know, going through these rehearsals, it’s a story of somebody who’s by chance at certain pivotal moments in history and has certain realisations along the way. It covers 40 years, 12 characters, 2 faiths and 2 or 3 continents.

JOHN: Which continent is the Middle East in?

LAUREN: It’s a totally Orientalist term. The Orientalists said Britain is the middle of the world and everything else (beyond the English Channel) is East, so it is the Middle of the East.

JOHN: It’s certainly not Africa; it’s certainly not Europe; it’s not Asia.

LAUREN: What about calling it Middle Earth?

JOHN: We would have to worry about the Nazgûl coming in. Talking of which, among others, you wrote for the New Statesman AND for the Mail on Sunday. There’s a – eh – mixture of politics in there.

LAUREN: Well, my politics was always the same. I like to tell myself that the Right Wing paid for my Left Wing pretensions. But I don’t know if ethically, looking back, that really works. Can you take quite so much money off Associated Newspapers and still be Left Wing? That’s up for debate. But I wrote what I wanted. They did give me free rein and I did get some good stories that I wanted in because I used to stand-in for Suzanne Moore: hardly a bastion of the Right.

I described doing that kind of job as being an aquifer for hatred for Middle England.

JOHN: …and at the New Statesman? The type of stuff you were writing was…?

LAUREN: I would call myself  “a chronicler of London society” at that time.

The Daily Mail’s photo of Lauren with her dad Tony Booth

JOHN: Someone said, when you converted, you had moved “from hedonism to hajj”. Your dad, actor Tony Booth, was very Bohemian.

LAUREN: Well, we are all products of our childhood and my dad taught me an awful lot. He taught me how to roll a spliff that would look like a cigarette.

JOHN: Remembered fondly.

LAUREN: Absolutely.

JOHN: You’ve worked for Press TV AND Al Jazeera. Press TV? That’s pure propaganda…

LAUREN: It was the only place to get out some really good information about Palestine.

JOHN: You spend a lot of time in the Middle East?

LAUREN: I haven’t been for five years. I’m hoping to go back to Qatar. I can’t really get into Gaza at the moment. The last time I went through Israel was 2009. The problem with getting into Gaza is you can’t get in through Egypt. You have to go in through Israel.

JOHN: Do you personally, specifically have problems getting into Israel?

LAUREN: I haven’t so far.

JOHN: You were on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here in 2006. Why did you do that?

LAUREN: Because it was adventure. The only thing that scared me was bungee jumping and I did three… Three!

JOHN: The viewers voted that you had to?

LAUREN: Yeah.

JOHN: You are always going to be tarred with Tony Blair… but the good side is you will always get coverage out of it.

LAUREN: It’s not about coverage. I have no issue with it having been a door-opener. At certain times, you have to say: That door was absolutely opened because of it. What you do when you get inside, though, is what defines you. So I am very grateful for that and I hope I’ve used it for good and made some points that needed to be made and told stories for people who don’t normally get their stories told.

JOHN: I was going to say it’s a cross you have to bear. But I suppose it’s a crescent you have to bear.

LAUREN: Can I have that for the play?

JOHN: It’s yours.

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Comedy godfather Malcolm Hardee’s daughter attacks Jerusalem Marathon

Poppy Hardee flies the flag at Beit Jalla on the West Bank

(This was also published by Indian news website WSN – We Speak News)

The Daily Telegraph said my chum the late Malcolm Hardee was “godfather to a generation of comic talent”; the Independent said he was “the greatest influence on British comedy over the last 25 years”; and the London Evening Standard, with considerable justification, said he was “one of the most anarchic figures of his era”.

Although I would say he was apolitical, he twice stood for Parliament – once in a 1987 Greenwich by-election, when he ran as the ‘Rainbow Dream Ticket, Beer, Fags & Skittles Party’ candidate, polling 174 votes. And again in the 1992 General Election in order to publicise his comedy club because he discovered the election rules allowed him a free mail shot to all registered voters in the constituency.

Malcolm was very proud of his two children. Well. Sort of.

They are both well-brought-up, honest, genuine and… well… good people.

As Malcolm said to me once: “They don’t tell lies. They wouldn’t steal a car. Where did I go wrong?”

He would be even prouder of them now, if he had not managed to drown in 2005.

Malcolm used to say he went to Oxford University… and then add it was “last Thursday afternoon”.

But his son Frank actually did go to Oxford University as a student and then successfully taught at two English public schools. He is now teaching in South Korea and widening his world knowledge, I suspect, for a career in politics. A Hardee in Number 10, Downing Street?… Now THAT would be something!

Malcolm’s daughter Poppy is in the Middle East.

After competing in the London Marathon in 2010, she caught the running bug and decided that it would be exciting to train for and run another marathon further afield.

She is currently working for the Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem, an NGO based in the Palestinian West Bank and thought she would like to run in the Jerusalem Marathon.

She signed up for it at the beginning of November last year and having paid the $60 entry fee was excited, shortly afterwards, to learn that she had been awarded a place. (You have to apply.) However, yesterday she told me…

In my ignorance, I had not really understood the full political implications of applying for a place. After being accepted, I started to research the Marathon route, its sponsors and its entry criteria. I realised that, rather than being a positive event, bringing together different people through sporting achievement, it actually served to further discriminate against Palestinian citizens and normalise Israel’s ‘apartheid’, thus making it appear acceptable to the outside world.

It became clear to me that paying to enter and support such an event only benefited Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians. For one thing, the Marathon is organized by the same municipality that routinely organizes housing evictions, ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and demolitions in East Jerusalem. Its route takes runners through illegal settlements, past views of the segregation wall.

Secondly, in terms of entry criteria for international runners, there is an option for persons with West Bank residence and nationality to apply. But, given the restrictions on West Bank citizens’ movements in and out of Jerusalem – even if awarded a place – there is a high likelihood that they would not be granted access to travel to the city to run.

As for Palestinians with a Gaza ID, there is no option for them to run.

This is another measure that ensures the event will be exclusive to Jewish Israeli competitors and their international supporters.

It seems quite clear that this marathon is an attempt to normalise Israel’s actions again Palestinians, by holding an internationally-attended and witnessed sporting event in the state’s ‘capital’… One can easily forget the discrimination and hurt that is being caused by Jerusalem municipality against Palestinians on a daily basis.

Scenes from last year’s marathon show thousands of Jewish Israeli and international participants running through this disputed capital, arms aloft proudly carrying Israeli flags, asserting an exclusively Israeli identity on Jerusalem lands. Given that much of the international community does not recognize any part of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (particularly because, under UN General Assembly Resolution 181 (1947), Jerusalem was established as a corpus separatum under a special international regime), these scenes are extremely politically and culturally controversial.

Added to this, there must be an awareness of how offensive the marathon must be to the many Palestinians evicted from these lands and placed under occupation from Israeli authorities. Now virtually excluded from running in such an event, they also seeing Jerusalem’s authorities gaining recognition and financial gain from hosting a marathon in their city.

After drawing these conclusions and feeling ashamed of my participation in the Jerusalem Marathon, I decided to withdraw from the race.

However, when I contacted the Marathon organisers, I was told that the entry fee was non-refundable. I therefore decided that the best way to approach this dilemma was to keep my place but turn it into some sort of political protest/awareness-raising campaign. 

Therefore, I have made the decision to run the Marathon in support of Palestine – by wearing full Palestinian colours and carrying the Palestinian flag for the whole route. I hope that this will give a Palestinian presence to the race, highlighting both their exclusion from running in this race and Israel’s deliberate erasing of the Palestinian identity from daily life in Jerusalem.

I have been training in both the West Bank and in Jerusalem – something which has further highlighted for me the discrepancy in opportunities for citizens of each area. A lack of gym facilities and even running routes in Bethlehem (where I live and work) meant that I often had to train in the better equipped Jerusalem, something which is not available for Palestinians who have their movements restricted through the frequent denial of access to Jerusalem lands and regions.

The most disappointing thing for me about this Marathon experience is that running is a sport that usually brings people and communities together – you train with someone, you befriend the person next to you running in a race, you get support from the communities of the areas you run through. I do not expect the Israelis to support me as I run in recognition of Palestinian causes, nor do I feel this is an event which truly brings people together. 

While it may bring together Israeli and internationals, in doing so it further strengthens the Jewish identity being imposed on Jerusalem, serving to marginalise Palestinians both in the race and in the city as a whole. 

Through my actions, I aim to bring a Palestinian presence to the race.

(The Jerusalem Marathon takes place this Friday, March 16th. You can follow Poppy’s progress on Twitter via @poppy_hardee )

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Painting a New York fart, Tony Blair and Jo Brand

Yesterday, in response to my blog mentioning farteur Mr Methane, Jackie Hunter, former features editor of The Scotsman newspaper, reminded me that early 20th-century artist Maxfield Parrish painted a fart into a mural that now adorns the famous King Cole Bar in New York’s St Regis hotel. I have to agree with her that painting a fart is quite an achievement.

Yesterday was a funny old mixture of a day because British comedians are now planning for the Edinburgh Fringe in August. Going to the Fringe, like having a baby, is a nine-month project involving a lot of nausea, pain and uncertain results.

Charlie Chuck phoned me about his planned return to Edinburgh which sounds suitably unusual and the extraordinarily multi-talented Janey Godley, not planning to play the Edinburgh Fringe this year but just about to go to the Adelaide Fringe, told me about two possibilities she has been unexpectedly offered in two totally different media. From Janey, the unexpected comes as no surprise.

In the afternoon, I had to take a friend to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich which, for reasons I can’t begin to fathom, is surrounded by a high Grade A security fence which makes it look more like a Stalag Luft Queen Elizabeth II escape-proof prison camp in World War II or a Ministry of Defence site in the Cold War.

In the evening, I went to Vivienne & Martin Soan’s monthly Pull The Other One comedy club at the beleaguered and now closed Ivy House pub in Nunhead. The venue was re-opened specially for the night to stage Pull The Other One with this month’s headliner Jo Brand.

Vivienne & Martin now have their next six shows arranged but with no definite venue and are looking round, although they would prefer to stay at the warmly ornate and atmospheric mirrored ‘golden room’ behind the Ivy House bar. One local alternative might be The Old Waiting Room at Peckham Rye Station.

Comedian and novelist Dominic Holland, making his second appearance at Pull The Other One called it “the weirdest gig that exists,” which it surely is. The format is about two hours of variety acts and two stand-up comics. Unusually, nowadays, the bizarre variety acts – far be it from me to name-drop Bob Slayer and Holly Burn – are as important to the feel of the shows as the stand-ups.

Afterwards, Dominic told me that his 14-year-old son Tom Holland, recently on stage as Billy Elliot in the West End, is currently in Thailand filming a lead role in major Hollywood blockbuster The Impossible. I thought Dominic was probably ‘talking up’ this film out of fatherly pride until I looked it up on IMDB Pro and found it is a big-budget tsunami disaster movie “starring Ewan McGregor and Tom Holland” and is one of the “most anticipated films of 2011”.

Other shocks of the evening were that the much talked-about cult comedian Dr Brown has got an entirely new character act in which he actually moves and talks semi-coherently. And I heard that legendary ‘open spot’ act Jimbo – he seems to have been doing open spots as long as Cilla Black has been acting-out the role of ordinary woman next door – is now getting paid gigs, has allegedly changed into a (different) character act and is perhaps going to the Edinburgh Fringe. If he won an award as Best Newcomer at the Fringe it would be very funny and would be a triumph for Brian Damage of Pear Shaped, who has long championed Jimbo and other – even by my standards – very, very bizarre acts.

A very funny night at Pull The Other One ended very entertainingly but totally unsurprisingly with nudity. There were even some calls for The Naked Balloon Dance of fond memory.

Meanwhile, out in the real world, Tunisia continued to stumble around like a blinded meerkat towards potential anarchic chaos and tanks were rolling around Cairo to prevent what threatened to be a popular uprising.

Is it my imagination or have things deteriorated badly in that area since the United Nations, evidently an organisation with no sense of irony, appointed Tony Blair as Middle East Peace Envoy and why is it I never actually see any pictures of him in the Middle East?

Could it be he’s just too busy talking to God and this week, according to The Times, signing a six-figure deal to make four speeches for a hedge fund which made around £100 million by betting on the collapse of the Northern Rock bank in the UK?

This was shortly after the Daily Mail reported that he got £300,000 for making one speech for banking giant Goldman Sachs, while he had a £2.5 million deal as “advisor”  to JP Morgan, who, according to London’s Evening Standard, won a contract to set up an Iraqi bank in the wake of the US-led invasion.

Which gets us back to the subject of Mr Methane and farting around the world and brings up the possibly pertinent question:

What is the difference between being a comedian and taking the piss?

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