The Body Politic - The British Ambassador’s Belly Dancer
This article is from 2008.
A story of prostitution, oppression and torture might not sound like fun, but throw in a bit of belly dancing and you have a Fringe hit. Steve Cramer talks to Craig Murray, formerly our man in Uzbekistan, about baring souls on stage.
Many of our great political narratives are so compelling not because of what they teach the audience, but because of their inherent message. A Doll’s House might be seen as a clarion cry for women’s rights in its time, yet what’s notable about the text is how little time is spent upon the social issue in direct discussion. Much more recently, such Fringe texts as Particularly in the Heartland and Girl Blog from Iraq, have shown a capacity to ask their audiences disquieting questions about global politics, with little direct reference to current events.
It’s this tradition which we can locate in The British Ambassador’s Belly Dancer. Its story is the personal narrative of Nadira Alieva, a young woman much put upon in her early life. Descended from stage performers in Uzbekistan, Alieva’s family, who had run a theatre under the old Soviet regime, fell upon hard times with the collapse of the old order. Poverty followed, and with it such activities as drugs trafficking became a means to survival.
Alieva travelled to Tashkent where a hard life continued, but her fortunes changed while working as an erotic dancer and occasional prostitute, she met Craig Murray, the then British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Murray had problems of his own at this point, for he persisted in criticising the British government for its tacit endorsement of torture as a means of attaining intelligence. His public attacks on the government’s hypocrisy eventually led to his sacking.
Murray’s own story, which makes for a fascinating chat, is intriguing by itself, and inherently intermingled with Alieva’s. ‘I was a British diplomat for 20 years and I did believe in my country,’ he tells me. ‘I thought we were honourable, I thought we did believe in human rights. And I didn’t think we’d do things like collude with torture. I was a senior British diplomat, and even I didn’t know that secretly the government was up to all kinds of stuff. That’s a disillusioning thing; it attacks your belief system.’
Amidst all this, Murray left his wife and children and returned to London with Alieva, where they now live, a life decision which was used against him in order to discredit both Murray and his new partner. ‘The government said I was making it all up, because the government can get away with that. I’m now in a position where no one doubts I was telling the truth all along, but people compartmentalise that and don’t really want to know. I feel personally vindicated, because events have shown I was right; the war on terror, the war on Iraq, so much of that was counterproductive. But it’s no pleasure to look back and say, “well I lost my job and I had no influence on policy, but I was right.” It’s rather a sterile satisfaction.’
Alieva’s story, penned by herself, Murray and Alan Hescott, features voice-overs from Murray, but is spoken (and danced) entirely by her. Murray maintains that the politics emerge from something quite personal. ‘Like every young girl in that society she became a focus of sexual abuse by the police and security service, which unfortunately happens a great deal to people there. But she herself is not a political person, she doesn’t have a political agenda or even a particular opinion about her government. Her story reveals the effect that that kind of government can have on people. But only from a viewpoint of “this happened to me”; it’s not a didactic political show in a traditional sense.’
For all that, this story is one that can tell us much about what we choose to ignore about our country’s foreign policy. Murray maintains that our current capacity for human cruelty is a relatively recent phenomenon. ‘I’m quite certain things have got worse. I’m not a Tory, but I was at a meeting that Margaret Thatcher was at during the first Iraq conflict. The question of intelligence that may have been gained from torture arose at that meeting, and Margaret Thatcher said, “no, we won’t touch it, it’s not British”. It’s not as if there weren’t isolated incidents in the past, I’m sure there were, but it wasn’t policy before, this was a Bush/Blair thing.’
The British Ambassador's Belly Dancer, Gilded Balloon Teviot, Bristo Square, 0131 668 1633, 3-24 Aug (not 11), 1.30pm, £9-£10 (£8-£9). Previews 30 Jul-2 Aug, £5.