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Equality In Death

By Barbara Victor

25 April , 2004
The Observer

There are certain monumental events in life that mark us forever, when we remember time, place and person so vividly that our own actions or thoughts at that moment replace the enormity of the event itself. For each generation the references are different: the attack on Pearl Harbor, the assassination of John F Kennedy, and, of course, 11 September 2001.
Then there are other events that, because we happen to find ourselves in the middle of the fray, touch us more personally; pivotal moments that take a permanent place in our memories.

Many of these moments happened for me while I was working as a journalist in the Middle East. The first was in 1982, during the war in Lebanon, when I arrived in Beirut just in time to witness the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. When the press was finally allowed into the camps to record the horrors there, and after we had digested the visual shock of bloated bodies and houses reduced to rubble intermingled with an occasional sign of life - a twisted plastic doll, or a broken plate - an incident transpired that has remained with me throughout the years.

A Palestinian woman was sitting on the ground, cradling a lifeless child in her arms, while all around her was the stench of death that lingered after two days of unrelenting carnage. Kneeling down next to her, I asked her the prerequisite media questions: how she felt when she found herself the sole survivor in her family and, more crucial, how she would manage to live the rest of her life with those memories constantly there to torture her. She knew immediately that I was an American, and without any hesitation she looked up at me and said, in surprisingly good English, 'You American women talk constantly of equality. Well, you can take a lesson from us Palestinian women. We die in equal numbers to the men.' This tragic concept of women's liberation stayed with me.

In one of those horrific ironies that occur more frequently than anyone could imagine unless one is familiar with that part of the world, the other moment that has remained with me forever happened while I was in Ramallah in November 2001, accompanying a French journalist who was filming a report about the Palestine Red Crescent Society. My friend was doing a story on these young volunteers as they rode in ambulances, tending to the people left dead and dying after violent clashes with Israeli soldiers.

The Red Crescent office in Ramallah is housed in a three-storey white building with a red-tile roof, not far from the town's main square. On the first floor of the headquarters, the room where the staff gathered in between emergency calls was furnished sparsely with a wrought iron sofa and kitchen chairs grouped around a low blond-wood table. In one corner of the room, perched high on a wall, a television set tuned to the Palestinian Authority station monitored all events throughout the West Bank and Gaza and gave hourly news reports.

Waiting for the inevitable call that day were five Red Crescent workers, three men and two women who obviously knew each other well. There was casual banter and a lot of joking, although what struck me was how they each rocked back and forth in their chairs, arms clasped tightly around their chests. Their body language was a sign of the extreme stress that each of them undoubtedly felt, given the daily reality of closures, the possibility of a suicide attack within Israel that would bring military reprisals, and knowledge that at any minute they could be called out to the middle of a confrontation. As my friend's camera panned the group, each one gave his or her name and age, beginning with Tared Abed, 27 years old; Ahlam Nasser, 23; Nassam al-Battouni, 22; Bilal Saleh, 23; and Wafa Idris, who said she was 25. Almost immediately the others teased her, since she had apparently lied about her age, making herself younger than she actually was.

As I was observing the volunteers, there was a moment when the image on the television showed a man, his head and face wrapped in a chequered red and white keffiyeh to conceal his features, speaking in Arabic, holding a Kalashnikov rifle in one hand and a Koran in the other. While the others continued laughing and talking, I saw Wafa's expression turn suddenly serious as she watched the man on the screen make what was his last speech before he set off to blow himself up in a suicide attack somewhere in Israel. Concentrating on the 'martyr's' every word, she sat forward in her chair, her jaw set, her demeanour intense, silent and unmoving, until he concluded his videotaped testament to the Palestinian community, his friends and his family. I remember a gesture Wafa made after the suicide bomber finished his speech: she suddenly raised her right arm and waved.

Two months later, on 27 January 2002, Wafa Idris entered Palestinian infamy when she became the 47th suicide bomber and - more significantly - the first woman kamikaze to blow herself up in the name of the Palestinian struggle. Back in Paris, I would always remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news. Several hours later, my journalist friend who had taken me along that November day to the Red Crescent office called to say he had footage of the suicide attack. I rushed over to see it and while the entire scene was horrifying, the sight of Wafa's body lying in the middle of Jaffa Road in Jerusalem, covered haphazardly with a rubber sheet, was stunning. Even more shocking was the image of an arm, her right arm, which had been ripped from her body, lying bloody and torn several inches away. At that moment something clicked in my head and I recalled her goodbye that day in Ramallah.

A week after Wafa's suicide blast, I travelled to the al-Amari refugee camp to visit her family. Approaching the house, which is situated in a narrow alley, I noticed photographs of Wafa displayed on all the buildings. Children carrying toy guns and rifles ran up excitedly to point to Wafa and ask me to take a picture of them with their heroine, the woman who died a martyr's death. 'One of us!' they exclaimed with glee. A group of adults lingered near the Idris home, including several shopkeepers who wanted to share personal anecdotes about Wafa so that I would understand how she was revered.

But the Idris home was deserted, the family gone into hiding. Immediately after Wafa's death, the house had been ransacked by the Israeli military. Pushing aside the remains of a white metal door that had been torn from its hinges, and stepping over shards of glass that had once been the living-room windows, I entered. Suddenly, an old-fashioned dial telephone on a table began to ring and ring. The noise startled me and it took several seconds to regain my composure.

There were bullet holes in the walls, drawers had been tossed, beds turned upside down, and slashed cushions strewn around the floor of the living room. The only intact items were pictures on the walls of Wafa, in various stages of her brief life: in a graduation gown and cap with a diploma in her hand; standing with a group of Red Crescent workers at a reception with Yasser Arafat; and finally, the now-familiar photo of Wafa wearing a black and white chequered keffiyeh, the symbol of the Fatah organisation, with a green bandanna around her head, on which was written 'Allah Akhbar', or 'God is greater than all other gods.'

It seemed to me that amid all the destruction and chaos, Wafa's spirit was still very present and strong in her childhood home. It was hard to leave, but since there was no one to talk to, no one to see, I finally walked out into the street. There were more people crowding around the house, pushing and shoving to reach me and to talk about Wafa. All of them, regardless of age or gender, said the same thing: that one of their own had become a heroine for the Palestinian struggle - a woman, a symbol of the army of women who were ready to die for the cause. It was then that the journey began that would take me throughout the Middle East in an effort to understand this misguided feminist movement, which held up Wafa Idris as an example of the new, liberated Palestinian woman.

In the course of my research three more women strapped on explosive belts, following in Wafa's footsteps, and blew themselves up in the name of Allah. As I travelled throughout Gaza and from one West Bank town to another, interviewing the families and friends of the four women who had succeeded in giving their lives, as well as approximately 80 girls and young women who had tried and failed, I discovered the hard reality - that it was never another woman who recruited the suicide bombers. Without exception, these women had been trained by a trusted member of the family - a brother, an uncle - or an esteemed religious leader, teacher, or family friend, all of whom were men. I also learnt that all four who died, plus the others who had tried and failed to die a martyr's death, had personal problems that made their lives untenable within their own culture and society.

I found that there were, in fact, very different motives and rewards for the men who died a martyr's death than for the women. Consequently, it became essential for me to understand the reasoning of the men who provide the moral justification for the seduction and indoctrination that eventually convinces a woman or girl that the most valuable thing she can do with her life is end it; at the same time, I saw it was crucial to understand the social environment that pushes these young women over the edge of personal despair.

What stunned me as I questioned these men, some of whom were in jail, was that all of them, by virtue of their powerful role in these women's lives, had managed to convince their sisters, daughters, wives or charges that given their 'moral transgressions', or the errors made by a male family member, the only way to redeem themselves and the family name was to die a martyr's death. Only then would these women enjoy everlasting life filled with happiness, respect and luxury, and finally be elevated to an equal par with men. Only in Paradise, and only if they killed themselves.

Three months after Wafa Idris blew herself up to become the first Palestinian shahida (female martyr), long after the mourners had gone and the excitement had worn off, I went to the al-Amari refugee camp near Ramallah to meet Wafa's mother. The inside of the house had been made habitable again by friends and neighbours with money supplied by the Fatah movement.

Dr Abdul Aziz al-Rantisi, the charismatic spokesperson for Hamas, admitted during an on-camera interview that, depending on who takes responsibility for the attack, either Hamas, Islamic Jihad or the Palestinian Authority distributes a lifetime stipend of $400 a month to the families of male suicide bombers; he points out that the families of shahidas such as Wafa receive $200 per month. It would seem that even in death women are not treated equally.

Only 56 years old, Mabrook Idris looks far older, and feels years older, she says, given her weak heart. Greeting me in her shabby living room, she holds the tattered poster of her child, which she picks up automatically the moment I appear, seemingly by rote after so many months of practice, when local dignitaries, neighbours, friends and Western journalists have visited her to pay their respects. 'Thank God,' she says. 'I am proud that my daughter died for Palestine, proud that she gave her life for us all. Thank God, thank God...'

But after an hour of sitting with her, talking with her, listening to her, Mabrook Idris is weeping. 'If I had known what she was going to do, I would have stopped her,' she says. 'I grieve for my daughter.' Finally, Mabrook Idris stops talking about death and begins to talk about her daughter's brief life.

Wafa was born in the al-Amari refugee camp in 1975, conditioned to Israeli occupation and experienced in street fighting. 'We once had a home in Ramla,' Mabrook adds wistfully, 'but in 1948 we were forced to flee. Wafa never knew any other home but this.' She makes a sweeping gesture with her hand. She is silent for several minutes as two of her grandchildren, the children of her son Khalil, scramble next to her on the sofa. She hands them each a poster of their heroine aunt and instructs them to kiss Wafa's image. Their mother, Wissim, Mabrook's daughter-in-law, sits nearby, cradling an infant. The whole family shares the three-room house with Mabrook, as did Wafa before she died. At one point during the interview, Wissim recalls Wafa once saying that she would like to be a martyr. 'But only once,' she insists. 'When she saw pictures on television of a suicide attack committed by a man, she said that she wished she had done something like that.'

As had been previously arranged, three childhood friends of Wafa's arrive. Ahlam Nasser, who worked with Wafa at the Red Crescent, Raf'ah Abu Hamid and Itimad Abu Lidbeh are still visibly shocked by the death of their friend. But while Raf'ah claims that she had absolutely no inkling that Wafa harboured such violent intentions, Itimad remembers how in 1985 she and Wafa travelled once a month to the north of Israel to visit their respective brothers who were in an Israeli prison. 'Our trips up north continued right into the intifada in 1987,' Itimad explains. 'When Khalil, Wafa's beloved brother, was arrested for being a member of Fatah and sentenced to eight years in prison, Wafa told me that she didn't care if the Israelis killed her, she would always try to see him on visiting day.' Mabrook Idris agrees that the hardships of the occupation hit Wafa hardest then. 'My two sons worked as taxi drivers and they helped support us. When one son was arrested by the Israelis and the other lost his job because of the curfew, my daughter was desperate.'

When the first intifada erupted in 1987, Wafa was 12 years old, and her mother says she reacted in the same way as hundreds and thousands of other Palestinian children who were deeply affected by the first real display of rebellion and confrontation against Israeli occupation. 'A friend lost an eye,' she explains, 'and that affected Wafa very deeply.'
Mabrook maintains that her daughter was motivated more by nationalist fervour than by religion, even if she attributes that fervour to God's destiny for her daughter. 'She was a Muslim,' the woman explains, 'which made her fearless, but the injustice of the Jews made her act.'

And yet Raf'ah Abu Hamid is convinced that her friend, regardless of her patriotic zeal and courage, could never have planned and implemented the suicide mission on her own. 'She had to have someone behind her,' Raf'ah says. 'How could she get the bomb? How would she know how to explode it? We never learnt anything like that on television or on the street.'

How indeed?

Ahlam Nasser quickly explains that it is not difficult to make contact with an organisation and to volunteer as a martyr. 'Every group, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade,' she explains, 'has an office in every city in the West Bank and Gaza. People who want to become martyrs know exactly where to go.'

And then she offers another interesting observation about Wafa. 'But I don't understand. She was so happy when she was working. She was always so encouraging and optimistic to everyone she cared for. I never heard her say anything about violent retaliation or hate. It was only while we were waiting at the office for a call that she seemed depressed. Once she was looking through an old magazine and told me how she wished she could buy all the pretty clothes she wanted.' The young woman shrugged. 'But which one of us didn't wish that?'

It is then, at that point in the discussion, that Wissim Idris suddenly changes her mind when she says that she never really took her sister-in-law seriously when she claimed she wanted to become a martyr. Instead, she maintains that Wafa was never quite the same since her husband divorced her several years before. The three friends agree, while Mabrook, tears welling in her eyes, sighs heavily.

Apparently, while Wafa Idris was known for having an independent mind and a profound feeling of resentment against the occupation, she also had a reputation as a troubled young woman who was prone to bouts of melancholy and depression.

Without prompting, Mabrook Idris offers another piece in the puzzle of her daughter's decision to die: Wafa had been a constant target for mocking after her husband divorced her.

'My daughter's husband divorced her because she couldn't have children,' Mabrook says. 'Wafa knew she could never marry again, because a divorced woman is tainted... She was young, intelligent and beautiful, and had nothing to live for.'

As is the custom in Palestinian society, along with other Arab cultures, a dowry is paid to the prospective wife's family by the father of the groom. Mabrook Idris explains that because of the hardships of Israeli occupation, because her husband had died of natural causes when Wafa was a little girl, and because her sons have children of their own to support, her daughter was not worth a handsome sum, which would have ensured that her daughter would have a husband who could offer her a relatively comfortable life.

'When Wafa was very young,' she explains, 'we decided to marry her because the only thing we had that made my daughter a prize was that she was young and would have more years to bear children.'

In 1991, at the age of 16, Wafa married her first cousin, Ahmed, who also lived in the al-Amari camp and tended a small chicken farm along with his father and older brother. Fortunately for Wafa, according to her mother, it was a love story, since her daughter had had a crush on Ahmed, who was 10 years older than she, since she was a small child. But the euphoria of the union and the hope that she would have a satisfactory life as a wife and mother were dashed when, nine years later, social pressure forced Ahmed to divorce her. After years of trying to conceive, in 1998 Wafa delivered prematurely a stillborn daughter. The family was devastated, and Ahmed, according to his description of events after the tragedy, was humiliated. During an interview with Ahmed later, he explained how he had been disgraced by the tragedy. 'At first my family blamed Wafa, and then they blamed me,' he says. 'They said that I was too weak to provide an infant that would survive in her womb.'

After the trauma of the stillbirth, a local doctor told Wafa and her husband, in the presence of their families, that she would never be able to carry a child to full term. Ahmed is vague and obviously embarrassed when pressed about her medical problems. No, she didn't see a prenatal specialist or a fertility expert, and in fact she had been diagnosed by a general practitioner rather than a gynaecologist. No, she had no particular tests such as an MRI or a sonogram, and it was only after her ordeal that the hospital staff determined she could never have another child.

Was Wafa's plight just another example of the hardship of living under Israeli occupation? Was she a victim of poverty and ignorance? There are more questions that Ahmed cannot answer and that the local doctor, when interviewed, was also unable to resolve. Would things have been different if she had had access to the best medical treatment? And what happened after she lost her baby? Did she suffer from postpartum depression? Was her judgment affected? Was medicine prescribed to alleviate her mental pain?

It is as impossible to answer those questions as it is dangerous to diagnose so long after the fact. Ahmed claims that after she lost her baby, Wafa stopped eating and stopped talking. She stayed in bed all day and all night, and she refused to get up to clean the house or cook his meals. Ahmed admits that he was 'crazy with worry' and unable to cope with the situation. 'I called her brother Khalil,' Ahmed explains, 'to try and help, but she remained unresponsive.'

Mira Tzoreff is a professor at Ben-Gurion University whose research is in the field of women's history in the Middle East from a sociocultural point of view. Her doctorate is on Egyptian women in the period between the two world wars.

Tzoreff explains that throughout the Occupied Territories and the Arab world, a woman is dependent legally and socially. In every aspect of her life, a man - either a father, brother or husband - makes all her decisions and takes care of her. 'It is called bila-umri, or "not without my dearest one,"' Tzoreff explains. 'In Wafa Idris's case, because her father was dead, it was her oldest brother, Khalil, who was charged with the responsibility of his sister's life.'

After Wafa's marriage, Ahmed took over from Khalil, but in the event of a problem that put the marriage at risk, custom dictated that the husband consult with his wife's father, or in this case with Khalil. According to Ahmed, he also consulted his spiritual leader, a local imam, who quoted to him from the Koran a special passage that offered instructions about disobedient wives. 'In the marriage institution,' Ahmed says, 'the husband is the driver of the car, he is at the wheel and it is he who sets the rules that guides the family to serenity and happiness. When it comes to handling problems, Allah has set down rules or guidelines that a man can follow when a wife is disobedient.'

From his imam, Ahmed learnt that there were two different kinds of disobedience in the Koran. 'Rebellion, ugly things she does,' he explains, 'or just simple disobedience.'

The imam suggested that before Ahmed could define his wife's particular case, he should watch a weekly television talk show broadcast from Egypt called Life is Sweet, which featured a certain Dr Mohammed al-Hajj, a professor of Islamic faith at the University of Amman. Once Ahmed understood what constituted the different degrees of wifely disobedience, he was able to assess the problem with Khalil.

'She did not disgrace me in public or disgrace herself and the sanctity of her womanhood,' he explains. 'She merely disobeyed me when I ordered her to get out of bed and take care of the house, the meals, my family, my clothes.'

Itimad Abu Lidbeh, Wafa's close friend, describes what she believes was Wafa's state of complete 'inertia'. 'When she lost her baby, she lost the will to live. I never understood why she reacted like that, but she did. She was a woman in enormous pain, and although she never said the words, I sensed she had no desire to go on living.'

Dr Israel Orbach, a professor of psychology at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, whose speciality is studying suicide and suicidal behaviour, maintains that suicide 'is a very subjective experience...

A family member or friend might see the person's pain as something marginal or insignificant, but for the person who suffers, it is unbearable mental pain. As for Wafa Idris, it would appear that she carried an inner turmoil and pain for years, and the loss of a child was the culminating factor that made the process come closer to a final resolution.'

Iyad Sarraj, a psychiatrist and writer from Gaza, is not convinced that Wafa Idris ended her life because of only one reason. 'I believe the woman who does this is an exception to the rule, because basically, women are the source of life,' he says. 'There is no doubt that there were other psychological reasons or symptoms which drove this woman to suicide. Perhaps she was depressed, and since sacrifice is the way for liberation and the way out - and that affects people very strongly, especially with all the humiliation and violence on the Israeli side - because of this, it brings out the worst reaction in people. In other words, the cultural, religious and nationalistic reasons, combined with her own personal depression, gave Wafa the reason and the courage to do it.'

A fatal cocktail? Martyrdom that is rewarded in Islam by everlasting life at Allah's table in Paradise, combined with the political and economic oppression of an occupying force, and exacerbated by personal problems caused by constraints from one's own society that make life unbearable. What if the idea women who die as martyrs will finally achieve equality to men were added to that equation?

Dr Tzoreff not only accepts Dr Sarraj's analysis, she adds her own reasoning about how Idris achieved the dubious honour of becoming the first Palestinian shahida. 'If we take Wafa Idris,' Dr Tzoreff explains, 'the ultimate shahida, who is she after all? She is a talented young woman, married and divorced because she was sterile, desperate because she knew perfectly well there was no future for her in any aspect of the Palestinian society. She knew better than anyone else that the only way for her to come out against this miserable situation was to kill herself. Look at her funeral and what the Palestinian leadership said about her, calling her a national flower and the embodiment of Palestinian womanhood.

She knew her own society and the limitations they put on her and on women like her, and she understood better than anyone else that she had nothing left - no hope, no future.'

Ahmed, Wafa's former husband, is a gentle man, quiet and profoundly shocked by what happened. After the stillbirth, he was relieved to learn from his local imam that the first step in 'rehabilitating' his wife was nothing more harsh than to banish her from his bed, and if that didn't work after several days and she did not stop bringing the 'family into hell', he could proceed to the second step.

Banishing Wafa from his bed was moot, since she was silent and as listless as a child. In fact, she had grown gaunt and thin because she refused to take any nourishment and, according to her mother, her hair had begun to fall out. And so a week later Ahmed proceeded to the second step, which was gentle admonition, accompanied by another video that he was given by the imam to play for Wafa at home, which concerned the proper behaviour of a woman toward her husband. Had he been rich, Ahmed says with regret, he might have enticed Wafa with money or gifts but, of course, that was not an option.

After several weeks of this crash course in good wifely behaviour, instead of getting better, Wafa grew worse. She cried inconsolably day and night. The presence of her mother, her sisters-in-law and her friends did nothing to assuage her grief. The wisdom of Islam, the imam told Ahmed, was vast, and since his wife was suffering from a physical ailment, she would be spared from the usual subsequent punishment as stated in the Koran: a beating with a thick block of wood, but never in the face or hard enough to cause fractures or wounds. Instead, Ahmed was instructed to give her a 'gentle beating' with a handkerchief or a toothpick.

When she still did not improve, however, Ahmed broached the possibility that he take another wife, as was permitted in Islam, on the advice of his family and his spiritual guide. But when he raised the subject with Wafa, she became hysterical.

Beside herself with grief, she spoke for the first time in months to make it clear that she loved him and was not prepared, under any circumstances, to share him with another woman. More discussion ensued, and finally, in the spring of 1998, after several weeks and repeated efforts to convince her to change her mind, Ahmed divorced her. Two weeks later he married another woman.

With her heart and spirit broken and her physical health in decline, Wafa Idris watched Ahmed's marriage procession winding its way down the main road of the al-Amari refugee camp from her bedroom window. But what made the situation even more unbearable for her was that the entire camp knew the reason why she had been cast aside. 'Sterile,' they whispered behind her back - an incomplete woman, unable to bear children, unable to provide soldiers to fight the Israeli occupation.

Less than a year later, Ahmed and his new wife had their first child, and a year after that, their second. After the children were born, Wafa still wanted to return to Ahmed, but he told her that his current wife was against it and had already threatened that she would leave him and take their children if he allowed that to happen.

The last thing that Mabrook Idris said to me when I left her house that day was a request to help her retrieve her daughter's body. I promised to try, and did in fact talk to a contact in the military who was part of the contingent assigned to the West Bank. It was then that I learnt the rules that applied to all Palestinians who commit terrorist actions.

The law in Israel states that when a Palestinian suicide bomber dies or is killed while committing an act of terrorism against civilians or soldiers within Israel proper, his or her body is never released to the family. Instead, it is buried in an unmarked grave in a large cemetery in the north of Israel.

The only way the body of a martyr or shahida is returned to the family is if he or she dies somewhere within the Occupied Territories or Gaza. Only then is the body released for a proper Muslim burial and the honour of a martyr's funeral, with the coffin paraded through the martyr's home town or village while thousands follow behind, firing rifles and guns in the air.

A month after her daughter died, Mabrook Idris honoured her daughter's memory with an empty pine box. At least 2,000 Palestinian mourners marched in the streets of Ramallah behind the empty coffin, which was draped with Palestinian flags and pictures of Wafa, chanting and carrying posters of other Palestinian heroes in a display of pride and joy. A large photograph of Wafa was displayed prominently in the main square of Ramallah, and it remains there today.

Ceremonies in her honour were held all over the West Bank and Gaza. Elementary school children as well as adolescents throughout the Arab world chanted Wafa's name every day before classes began, and there were ads in newspapers from various social and religious organisations that praised her for her bravery and lauded her as an example of the 'new breed of Palestinian womanhood'. 'Wafa, we love you,' a group of 15-year-olds chanted on their way to school.

During the symbolic funeral for Wafa Idris held by the Fatah, one of the council members eulogised her in the following way: 'Wafa's martyrdom restored honour to the national role of the Palestinian woman, sketched the most wonderful pictures of heroism in the long battle for national liberation.' And from as far away as Cairo, an Egyptian film producer named Fatuh memorialised Wafa in a television programme broadcast throughout the Arab world, and then later in an article entitled 'An Oscar Winner', which appeared in the Egyptian government opposition daily newspaper, Al-Wafd. She wrote, 'This is not a typical film; the heroine is the beautiful and pure Palestinian woman Wafa Idris, full of life. I could find no better than she, and I could find no film more wonderful than the one that pierces Israel's heart. From Paradise where she is now, she shouts with all her strength the glorification of the dead, enough glorification of the victories of your forefathers, their part - and now it is your turn.'

Between then and the end of 2003, five more women would take this final directive to heart.

· To order a copy of Army of Roses by Barbara Victor for £8.99 with free UK p&p, call the Observer book service on 0870 066 7989. Published by Constable & Robinson on 29 April