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Postcard from Saudi Arabia: The Metro Cometh

Riyadh Metro

Riyadh is nothing if not cosmopolitan. Every day this week I have spent the journey to my client speaking a different language with Kamal, my Sudanese driver. On Monday it was Spanish.On Tuesday it was Tagalog, the language of the Philippines. On Wednesday we spoke Finnish and on Thursday Irish. Plus a little English and Arabic, of course.

Kamal has become my friend. He speaks in an operatic baritone that rarely fails to break into wheezy laughter at the slightest excuse. We have nicknames for each other. He calls me Sheikh Sleep because on the 45 minute journey I rarely fail to close my eyes at some stage, and I’m always moaning about how ridiculously early we have to set off from my hotel. I call him Sheikh Yalla (yalla means hurry in Arabic), because he’s always hustling me to get moving when he comes to collect me at the end of the day.

The reason for our multi-lingual mornings is Silva and Hani. Silva is a flirtatious Lebanese radio presenter on one of the Arabic stations, and Hani is her rather gormless sidekick. Every day this week they have been giving us lessons in the aforesaid languages.

So picture Kamal and me, weaving through Riyadh’s ridiculously dense traffic, risking life and limb as lunatic drivers overtake us from either side of the highway, counting from one to ten in Finnish, each trying to outdo the other with our extravagant interpretations of the Finnish/Lebanese accent so sweetly enunciated by the lovely Silva.

Our car is one of an estimated 18 million on the roads of Saudi Arabia. Most of them are to be found in the urban areas – Riyadh, Jeddah, Mecca and the Eastern Province. In a population of 30 million, of which 9 million are foreign workers, most of whom can’t afford a car, that’s a lot of cars. Especially when 30% of the Saudi population are under 15 and therefore – theoretically – are not allowed to drive, and when 50% of the rest are women, who are also not allowed to drive. If you exclude the elderly and the rural population, and that’s still a lot of cars and a lot of male drivers in cities like Riyadh.

It’s not uncommon for some Saudi families to own five or even six cars. One for Dad, one for Mum (complete with driver of course), and one for each of the older sons who are not yet married and away.

So it’s not surprising that the roads are gridlocked in the mornings. And every year it seems to have been getting worse. OK, it’s not quite like Lagos yet, as a Lebanese guy who has spent the last four years in Nigeria’s capital pointed out the other day. But it must be a pain for those who have to spend an hour or two every morning on the main highways into the city year on year.

All that is about to change, or so we’re told. Outside my hotel, which is on Olaya Street, one of central Riyadh’s main business thoroughfares, our side of the road is blocked off by massive red and white barriers formed into contraflows and U-turns – elegant geometrical swirls that from the coffee shop on the first floor look rather like concrete crop circles.

The arrival of the blocks adds at least ten minutes to my journey. But no matter. This is the beginning of one of those mega-projects beloved of Saudi Arabia and its wealthy neighbours in the Gulf: the Riyadh Metro.

The statistics are on a grand scale. 6 lines, 78 stations, 170km of overland and underground track, $22 billion cost and 30,000 workers who will beaver away to complete the project in four years. Yes, you read that correctly – four years. Not long when you consider that the vast majority of London’s 270 Underground stations and 402km of track took 50 years to build. Obviously technology and construction techniques have moved on since work on the London Underground started in 1854. But still, it’s an ambitious schedule.

As this article in the Arab News highlights, constructing the new Metro will not simply be a matter of sinking a few tunnels, laying the track and building the stations. Many of the buildings that are likely to sit above the tunnels were not constructed to the highest standards, and for some of them the architectural drawings will be long gone. What will be the effect of all that boring underneath houses built on sand?

Though I’m not an engineer, common sense suggests to me that four years for the whole project is a stretch target unlikely to be achieved. If they complete at least one of the lines within the period, that would be a significant enough achievement.

More to the point, will Riyadh’s shiny new Metro entice urban Saudis away from their beloved cars? For a number of reasons, I’m not sure.

The first challenge is that even with 78 stations, the Metro is unlikely to be within walking distance of every home in the city. Many Saudis have inherited the American habit of driving to the convenience store a few hundred yards away rather than walk. To an extent, this is understandable given the extreme summer temperatures. In July and August the thermometer can hit 40C early in the morning and up to 50C in the middle of the day. So if you need to get into your car to reach the station, it’s very tempting to keep driving.

The second issue is the Saudis’ famously protective attitude towards their women. Will the average father or husband be relaxed about their loved ones jumping on a crowded metro line full of men of varying nationality and social status? In the trains themselves that problem could be solved with women-only carriages. The buses have had female compartments for decades. But what about the stations? They may be new and shiny when the Metro opens, but will they be crawling with low life later on?

Then there’s the walk to wherever you’re going when you arrive at the nearest station. No doubt low-status expatriate workers will be happy to walk to the office, construction site or mall, especially if their employer no longer sees a need to provide them with transportation. But will that apply to the average Saudi? Or will we see the station approaches clogged with cars waiting to drive passengers to the doorstep of their destinations? In London, few people object to a ten minute walk through a leafy suburb to get to the tube station, and then another short stroll along the well-ordered pavements of the West End or the City to get to the office. But the Riyadh sidewalks – if they exist at all – are a different proposition. All kinds of obstacles, from potholes to concrete barriers and half-built steps, and sometimes no pavement at all, which requires you to brave the oncoming traffic and weave around badly-parked cars.

No doubt the city’s urban planners are aware of all these issues. And they will be aware that public transportation is a sensitive ecosystem. Safe sidewalks, a regular bus service – Riyadh is not blessed in this respect either – and perhaps congestion charges to deter motorists from clogging the commercial districts at peak time – all form part of a complex, inter-dependent equation.

Another factor is that every year the number of Saudis of drivable age is increasing. Despite the 8400 road deaths and 38,000 serious injuries expected in 2014, pressure on the road system will intensify. More cars, more roads, more pollution – Riyadh’s planners are facing a moving target. And if the decline in the oil price becomes a long-term reality, how many more huge capital projects will the country be able to afford over the next few years? Riyadh is not the only city that needs a Metro. The traffic situation in Jeddah is as bad if not worse.

If costs need to be cut, the concern must be that compromises may result in half-measures. That some essential components of the transport ecosystem will be delayed or sacrificed, which will mean that those components that do get finished – such as Metros – will not yield all the benefits that they should.

I wish the Metro project well, though I suspect that if I’m still visiting Riyadh in four years’ time, Kamal and I will be swapping platitudes in Basque, Japanese and Serbo-Croat, and Silva will still be soothing the frustrations of thousands of motorists crawling towards their offices. But maybe I’m wrong – I’ve learned over decades never to underestimate the Saudis.

Nine Habits of Successful Procrastinators

Speaking of hypocrisy, as I did in my last post on internet trolls, I have a further confession to make. Despite running regular workshops in which I urge participants to avoid the sin of procrastination, I am a master of the art of putting off until tomorrow what I could do today. In fact I revel in it.

I was reminded of my apparent character weakness by this article on the BBC website. It examines the pros and cons of procrastination, and describes the anti-procrastination tactics of historic figures, including Victor Hugo, who was in the habit of removing his clothes and having his butler hide them, so that he couldn’t leave the house – presumably until he’d written his few thousand words for the day.

My career as a world-class procrastinator began at school. I would do everything possible to avoid handing in assignments until a minute before the deadline. My exam revision consisted of fourteen hours before each exam spread over the eighteen immediately preceding the exam, punctuated by four hours sleep. It worked for me, and for my elder daughter, who arrived at the same techniques as me and used it to get a decent degree from a well-regarded university.

Since then, and throughout my business career, I have been incapable of finishing anything early. I’m energised for the task only when the deadline rears over me like an approaching tsunami. I’ve usually regarded deadlines as boring necessities of life which prevent me from doing what’s really interesting and important. Yet I hardly ever miss them, driven as I tend to be by self-interest, social obligation and a desire not to let others down.

So from the pen of a master, here’s a little guide to procrastination without tears:

Forget about the urgent/important matrix: there’s a hoary old model popularised by Steven Covey in his zillion-selling book, Seven Habits of Effective People. It’s called Covey’s Four Quadrants, and it’s beloved of those who preach the gospel of time management. It states that we should categorise all tasks in front of us into combinations of four conditions: Urgent, Important, Not Urgent and Not Important. So stopping the world from imminent nuclear meltdown might be considered Urgent and Important. Checking your Facebook page to look at comments on the picture of a two-headed cat you posted a few minutes ago may well rate as Not Urgent and Not Important. The fatal flaw is that the model doesn’t define in whose terms something might be considered urgent or important: yours or someone else’s? Sticking a chicken in the oven might be considered urgent and important by your family. But if you really don’t care that the sacred deadline of 7.30 for dinner might be overrun by an hour, it’s neither urgent nor important for you, except as a means of avoiding universal opprobrium within your family.

So forget it. You don’t need Covey to help you analyse each task and act accordingly. Unless you’re thoroughly stupid, you know what you have to do to avoid divorce or instant termination of employment. Use your common sense. If you must have four quadrants, I suggest you use Fun, Useful, Not Fun and Not Useful – a far more faithful reflection of human nature than Covey’s mechanistic creation.

Practice selective procrastination: by which I mean there are some things you can sit on, and some you can’t. Take lottery tickets for example. I’m entirely indifferent to the lottery, but my wife is a believer. So occasionally I’m sent up to the shop to buy the ticket that will surely turn us into multi-millionaires. For her, one lottery draw missed is a fortune lost. For me, no big deal, there’ll always be another one on Saturday. However, in the unlikely event of our numbers propelling us into the national rich list, it doesn’t make sense to wait until the last moment before cashing in. I would prefer the moment before the last moment. This way my wife would have time to divorce me and spend the millions, and I would have time to prepare myself for life in a monastery.

So, following on from the previous rule, selective procrastination is all about having a well-developed sense of what you can and can’t delay. As long as you’ve worked out what the really impactful consequences will be, you can afford procrastinate away with impunity.

Rejoice in serendipity: one of the joys of my life is being diverted. The internet is an endless labyrinth of accidental knowledge. No alley is blind, because it leads you somewhere else. The same goes for sitting around doing nothing. If you’re so minded, you can see, hear, feel and think things that you would otherwise screen out in getting-on-with-it mode. I learned this a long time ago when I had what some people would consider one of the most boring jobs in the world: sitting in front of a machine that put chocolates in bags. The machine never broke down, but my job was to be there when it did. I spent several weeks of my college summer vacation on 12 hour-shifts, with nothing to distract me other than what was going on in my head. When I had exhausted one subject, I had to think of something else to think about, and so on until it was time to say goodnight to the infernal machine. I much of the time in a kind of dream state. I created new political systems, plots for novels, compound nouns and more efficient bagging machines. I thought of what questions I might ask of famous historical figures, of novel opening lines to try out on girls I fancied at parties. I created recipes, TV game shows and goodness knows what else. And promptly forgot most of what I’d thought about at the end of the shift, leaving a few ideas as delicious cud to chew again on the next shift.

I discovered that there was nothing like sitting in front of a bagging machine for experiencing the delights of lateral thinking, even though Edward De Bono hadn’t invented it yet. Serendipity is the enemy of efficient time management, yet it’s the friend of the brain. Never be afraid to stop, look around and think. The chances are that you’ll discover things that are far more useful than the output of the dedicated one-track-minds around you.

Team up with a non-procrastinator: if, like me, you have a partner in love or work for whom procrastination is a deadly enemy, then you are blessed. Because you can get on with doing what you enjoy – procrastinating – safe in the knowledge that your partner is taking care of stuff that they love doing – finishing things off, doing things on time and kicking you up the backside when there’s something seriously useful to be achieved. I’m not talking about delegation here. It’s easy to pass down the chain of command all the dirty stuff you couldn’t be bothered to do on some unfortunate who is no more enthusiastic about the task than you. We’re talking about teamwork, mutual interest and happy cooperation, not the exercise of power to make your life easier.

I’m married to someone who loves paying the bills on time, who delights in beating mobile phone companies and insurers over the head to get a better deal. A self-confessed credit card tart who changes our cards so often that I sometimes have to ask her which card I can use on which particular day. A fanatical collector of air miles who enables us to travel like Joan Collins (not that she would deign to step on to a Ryanair aircraft as we do occasionally). When she’s in scourge mode, I call her Vlad, after the Impaler of that name. In short, she does all the stuff I hate doing, which leaves me with the time to do what I enjoy doing. A near-perfect partnership, even if I do have to hide under the table to escape her wrath at my dilatory behaviour from time to time. Find that relationship at home or work, and you can procrastinate to your heart’s content.

Celebrate your ability to do the impossible: one of the particular talents of successful procrastinators is the ability to perform miracles. The fourteen-hour last-moment revision technique I referred to earlier is one example. The ability of a 10-stone weakling to lift a car single-handedly off a person who finds himself crushed underneath it is another. People who leave things impossibly late and yet pull off some spectacular last minute stunt are harnessing powers that stitch-in-time merchants never realise they have.

Armed with the knowledge of what you can achieve when you really need to gives you great confidence. Making a habit of exceptional effort can be counter-productive, because then people expect miracles from you all the time. But knowing that you can put your foot on the gas when required is rather like being a judo black belt. Your skills may never be needed in a critical situation, but you gain an inner confidence from knowing that they’re within you and can be deployed if necessary. I once caused my father to burst into censorious laughter at my complacency when, after surviving yet another last-minute crisis, I commented “imagine what I could achieve if I put this kind of effort in all the time”. But what I didn’t say, and should have, was “but think of all the stuff I would miss out on by working hard all the time”.

Don’t be defined by the expectations of others: this gets easier the older you get. When we’re  young, most of us are anxious to fit in, don’t want to be seen to stand out (unless we’re in a business where you’re dead if you fail to stand out – like acting and music). You get on with your job, hope your talents are noticed and take discreet measures to make sure of it. But unless you run your own business, or are so ridiculously wealthy that you don’t need to “work” for a living, you are to a greater or lesser extent at the mercy of other peoples’ expectations, particularly in terms of what you do and when you do it. Even deadlines you set for yourself are framed within larger imperatives over which you have no control. You are not only a wage slave. You are also a time slave.

However there are strategies you can use to win back control of your time, and allow yourself to get away with a fair bit of creative procrastination. For example you can negotiate. Gone are the days when Oliver Twist brought the workhouse down when he asked for more. If you question deadlines you not only have a chance of redefining the commitment, but you might also win the reputation of being someone who doesn’t accept everything at face value. On the other hand, you may be perceived as a pain in the backside, but that’s perhaps a risk worth taking.

You can also try the Doctrine of Tactical Ignorance. This works on the principle that if you ignore a request long enough it may go away, revealing itself to have been unnecessary in the first place. I once knew a middle manager at IBM who turned the company’s clean desk policy to his advantage. He binned virtually every piece of paper that arrived on his desk. He worked on the basis that if something was sufficiently important to someone else, they would chase him up. No chase-up, no action. This happens often in Saudi Arabia, one of the countries I visit regularly. The Saudis have an additional gambit when faced with something important that they want to duck. They form a committee to consider it. By the time the committee has finished its deliberation – maybe in a year or two – the subject is no longer relevant. The committee gambit has the additional advantage of satisfying their love of social interaction – and the Saudis are very sociable people.

Re-visit your attitude towards time: “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date”, said the White Rabbit. My wife and I share a love of movies, concerts and theatre. Oddly enough, given my tendency to procrastinate and her fanatical adherence to deadlines that relate to family business, we are the opposite when it comes to making it on time to events. I can’t stand missing the start of the movie or a concert, and I’m prepared to sit through endless commercials, or leave home 30 minutes earlier than is strictly necessary to make sure I’m settled in my seat, ice cream or programme in hand, ready for the start. She, on the other hand, is quite happy to pitch up 5 minutes late and squirm past disapproving occupants of nearby seats. Are our brains wired differently? Perhaps. For her a movie or a concert is like boating on a river – you join it at one point, leave at another, and enjoy the view on the way. For me though, there’s a start, a middle and an end, and missing the start compromises the whole experience.

But when it comes to things she didn’t do when she had the time, she is sometimes consumed with regret. “Why didn’t I do this, and why didn’t I think of that?” To which I reply (even though I know a reply is neither requested nor desired): “because you didn’t. So put it down to experience and learn from it what you can.”

The lesson from all this? Think of how you perceive time. If you see it as a non-rechargeable battery, you might end up a sad procrastinator, forever regretting squandering the power that can never be regained. Or you could be a happy procrastinator, delighting in the meadows, the wildlife and the pubs as your boat cruises down the river of life.

Re-visit your purpose – constantly: when I was 12, I wanted to be Prime Minister – for about five minutes. Later on, I wanted to play cricket for England, until I discovered how inept I was at at putting bat to ball. Then I was going to be a lawyer, then a rich and successful concert promoter. As time went on one specific goal gave way to another. I achieved some, not others. Once achieved, the view from the mountain-top was spectacular for five minutes, then common-place. Time for a new mountain to climb, then.

The older I became, the more modest the goals I set myself. It wasn’t that I didn’t get a kick out of achieving them. But over a few decades I slowly came to realise that what was really important was not what I achieved, but what sort of person was doing the achieving. Would I kill to achieve? Was it OK that my advantage would result in someone else’s disadvantage? If I’d stuck to my goal of becoming Prime Minister, I might have got there – a slim chance admittedly. But at what cost? Would I have turned into a Francis Urqhuart, effortlessly plunging the knife into opponents who got in the way? I suspect there are many people who have reached their mountain top, only to find that they were looking out over valleys of sewage.

The master procrastinator may only reach the foothills, but the willingness to stop, ponder and do nothing for a while, rather than press on working towards a goal that no longer has a meaning other than the fact that long ago you set out to achieve it could be the difference between a life of illusory success and the ability to sleep well at night. I know which I value more highly.

In the end, you will be forgiven for the deadlines you missed: well, there are exceptions to that statement. Hitler, who held back Guderian’s tanks at Dunkirk; Nero, who fiddled while Rome burned (or didn’t, depending on who you believe); perhaps even Barack Obama, who conveniently forgot the red line he drew in Syria and sat hesitating as ISIS rampaged all over Iraq. But by and large, master procrastinators know that they will be forgiven for all the times when they sat on their hands. They will be remembered for what they did achieve, and what sort of person they became in getting there. So while they might apologise for keeping people waiting, they don’t really mean it, because they know that things will turn out OK in the end.

I rest my case with the career of Quintus Fabius Maximus, known to history as Fabius Cunctator (Fabius the Delayer).

Fabius is credited with saving Rome from final defeat by the invading Carthaginian general, Hannibal. Twice, after other generals had led the Roman forces to catastrophic defeats at the battles of Lake Trasimene and Cannae, he picked up the pieces and kept Hannibal at bay, refusing pitched battles but mounting a very effective war of attrition. For his pains he received the insulting nickname of Cunctator from his critics in Rome. But thanks to his strategy of starving Hannibal of his supply lines and depleting the invading army with a series of small guerrilla attacks, Fabius eventually forced the Carthaginian to leave Italy. Without the efforts of this supreme procrastinator, it’s fair to say that that there would have been no Roman Empire and no western civilisation as we know it.

So when it comes to the great debate on procrastination, I will always come down on the side of the procrastinators. At some stage. When I get round to it. When I can be bothered.

Hypocrisy and the Inner Troll

Gollum

I find myself in a moral bind about internet trolls. The story of Mrs Brenda Leyland, who was found dead in a Leicestershire hotel the other day after having been “unmasked” by a Sky News reporter as one of a number of people posting abusive tweets about the parents of missing toddler Madeleine McCann is both sad and instructive.

Before the internet, would-be trolls had limited outlets for whatever drove them to say nasty things about people. Gossip in the pub and in the secret recesses of the home would usually reach a small and geographically limited audience. Poison pen-letters, crafted with cut out letters to avoid detection would only go to as many letterboxes as the perpetrator had the time and energy to reach.

These days it’s possible to hide behind an online identity and reach millions of Twitter users in seconds it takes to write a hundred characters and press a button.

As a Huffington Post contributor noted here, the motives and states of mind of people we refer to as trolls are many and varied. Mrs Leyland, apparently, wouldn’t have recognised the description of herself as a troll. She considered herself to be a member of a community campaigning to expose some kind of conspiracy related to the McCann case. So one man’s troll is evidently another man’s conspiracy theorist, freedom fighter, holy warrior, animal lover, member of UKIP and goodness knows what else.

I’m only joking about UKIP by the way. Or perhaps I’m not, because what seems to drive many UKIP voters is exactly the same set of darker emotions that lie behind so many of those sour and abusive tweets: envy, anger, disappointment, alienation and hatred.

In the United Kingdom we have laws that prohibit abuse of various kinds – most notably racist abuse, expressions of religious hatred and threatening behaviour. So it’s entirely appropriate that the police should make efforts to track down and prosecute those who break the law. But the law is incapable of preventing gratuitous abuse that falls outside its boundaries, and there are enough grey areas to make it difficult for police and prosecutors to apply the law consistently. And where the criminal law doesn’t provide a remedy, the civil courts often allow suits for libel, as Sally Bercow, the wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons discovered when she tweeted about allegations of paedophilia on the part of a prominent political figure.

So my moral bind is this.

Leaving aside seriously disturbed individuals who spew forth their venom for no superficially apparent reason, is it not in our interest to know that there are racists, religious extremists – in fact, extremists of all varieties – in our midst? Are we better off because people no longer feel the need to keep their opinions confined to the pub, the kitchen and the place of worship?

The British security services would undoubtedly say that the social media offers them clues about the people who threaten us with their posts from Syria and Iraq. And the Saudi intelligence directorate would probably feel the same about the host of poisonous tweets emanating from that country every day. Two recent examples in Saudi Arabia particularly come to mind. 900 comments about the Saudi girl who was caught on video cheering her team in the UAE – women are not allowed to attend matches in the Kingdom, and her presence at this match unleashed a torrent of abuse. And then there was the 12-year-old who performed a poem for the Minister of Education and was rewarded with a fatherly kiss on her head, which prompted a similar reaction.

On the other hand, do we want to encourage the manipulators, the recruiters and the poisonous pack hunters who flock to pour abuse on public figures like Mary Beard? And are public figures who take to the internet with their views fair game, within the confines of the law?

Mrs Leyland’s case, along with the numerous examples of successful prosecution of online trolls, shows that anonymity is something of an illusion, so perhaps all those except people and organisations that are expert in covering their tracks will start to become more circumspect about what they post, just as life is becoming increasingly risky for paedophiles who buy, sell and swap their stuff online.

The internet was never a Garden of Eden, even though it might have seemed so in the golden days when we first discovered the joys of email, WYSIWYG and hypertext. As soon as it became possible to transact, we realised that the net could be used for bad things as well as good. The social media has merely served to bring that neutral canvas to half of the world’s population.

And anyway, how pure are we who have never posted an offensive tweet in our lives? Whether or not we use twitter as our mouthpiece, or content ourselves with sounding off among friends, an inner troll lurks within all of us. Is it less reprehensible to say nasty things about people behind their backs than to spew the poison over the net? Poison, after all is still poison. Within a circle of friends, it just spreads more slowly.

The fact is that we humans have always yielded to the temptation to say and do nasty things when we judge that we won’t have to face the consequences. People like Hitler and Stalin got others to do their dirty work for them. Personally, neither hurt a fly once they were in power, and both deliberately avoided sight of the human destruction they unleashed. At a more mundane level, how many of us who own a car have never honked our horns in anger or raised a finger at the behaviour of other drivers, knowing that the other person is unlikely to stop and take a baseball bat to us? How many of us have pulled out of a house purchase or some commercial transaction, knowing that we will not have to explain ourselves to the other party, who might suffer considerable financial loss as a result? How many bosses have the courage to fire people face to face, rather than leaving the dirty work to HR, or to George Clooney’s professional firing expert in Up in the Air?

Unfortunately for those who take to Twitter to enhance their careers, gratify their egos, sell their products or promote their politics, there will always be people emboldened to disparage, insult and hurt them, and sometimes to tell untruths about them. Anyone stupid enough not to realise that that’s the deal will find out quickly enough.

The rest of us who look on and tut-tut piously about all the sad and twisted individuals whom we call trolls should first look at ourselves, and ask how successfully we curb our own inner trolls.

Let’s encourage the law enforcers to do their jobs, and, when judging those who aren’t breaking the law, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

ISIS: collective insanity or just the latest generation’s death cult?

The day will come when ISIS has no more hostages like Alan Henning to kill. What then?

One only needs to look at the killing of Lee Rigby and the events in Saudi Arabia in 2004 to realise that there are many options open to people who are prepared to give up their lives for a cause.

Lee Rigby’s public slaughter is relatively fresh in our memories. For those who were in or around Saudi Arabia when al-Qaeda affiliates bombed western compounds, dragged the body of a western worker behind a pickup truck and kept the head of a slaughtered hostage in a fridge, the memory of those events will not easily fade, even though the perpetrators didn’t have the benefit of the social media to advertise their murderous piety. Frank Gardner, the BBC’s security correspondent, who was gunned down in Riyadh, will not forget those times in a hurry.

The fact is that we westerners are wide open to attack, whether we are walking the streets of cities in the Middle East or going about our business in our home countries. A few weeks ago I was one of several hundred people packed into a holding area queuing up to go through security at one of Britain’s main airports. There was no evidence of any measures outside the entrance or in the hall to detect a potential suicide bomber. It occurred to me then that a detonation would cause carnage, just as it did in Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport three years ago.

As the military cliché goes, we live in a target-rich environment. Nothing new about that. In Britain there are plenty of people still living who remember the Blitz, and plenty, including me, whose lives were touched by the activities of the IRA. The only difference is that these days an essential element of the terrorist’s tool kit is a mobile phone and a Twitter account. Our wonderful digital age has served to spread the terror way beyond those immediately caught up in it.

But we also have to be aware that each three-minute horror show diminishes the impact of the previous one. Just as when the Apollo space program died through lack of public interest, our sense of reality becomes desensitised to the familiar. Consider Ebola. The world has become used to people dying of the disease in Sierra Leone every five minutes. Only when one of their own falls victim to the virus do the people of Dallas become exercised.

I remember visiting a friend in South Africa a couple of decades ago, a time when apartheid was tottering and the wave of violent crime that is now endemic in the country was getting underway. Our friend lived in a whites-only suburb. She had a panic button that summoned an armed response team. She had one room in the house protected by iron bars where she and her daughter could take refuge. Supposedly one of the gun-toting patrols would come to her aid within three minutes of getting the call. She had a guard dog. She accepted as inevitable that her housemaid might at some stage steal from her. When we were visiting her, she and my wife witnessed a murder in a supermarket. They were three yards away from a man who killed a woman at the checkout.

How can you live like this, we asked her? Well, she replied, it’s not as bad as the foreign media portrays it. And I remembered that back home we had become used to the IRA bombings, and scoffed at depictions of our country as a war zone. Being blown up in the streets of Birmingham, or robbed and raped in Johannesburg had become an accepted hazard of daily life, just as for Londoners in the Second World War death from the sky was an ever-present prospect.

The moral of this gloomy meditation is that normality is an ever-shifting thing. We adapt, our expectations change and we find blessings where we can even in circumstances that would have been unthinkable the day or the week before.

ISIS will be defeated, and we will relax again, maybe for a few years, maybe for a couple of decades. But then some other group will rise up and threaten us, and another generation will become used to looking anxiously across its shoulders while riding the tube or walking the streets. And once again, we will rage about death cults and twisted morality. We will describe the cruelty and the killings as acts of collective insanity.

Every generation discovers first hand a reality about the human condition: groups like ISIS that carry out acts of horrific violence are not collectively insane. They are simply doing what humans do under certain conditions, and have been doing for as long as there have been humans on the planet. Morality has little to do with their behaviour. It’s just that the thin veneer of what the majority considers to be civilised behaviour is easily cracked. All it takes is a convincing ideology, unfulfilled human needs and ruthless, manipulative leaders. Thus has it always been and ever will be.

One only has to think of Josef Stalin and his cabal of drunken, fawning underlings presiding over the starvation of millions of smallholders for the sake of an ideology, the torture and execution of millions of imagined internal enemies and the sacrifice of yet more millions of soldiers and civilians through his blundering tactics in the Second World War to know that ISIS is only the latest, but by no means the most virulent, in a long line of death cults.

While we should never accept the murders of Alan Henning and the other hostages as anything other than disgusting acts, we should not be surprised or shocked. This is the world we live in laid bare by media more pervasive than in any other era. Could we really have expected much different when so much money and artistic creativity is invested in mass-audience movies and TV series that depict levels of pornographic cruelty, malice and destruction far exceeding what we see in those nasty snuff movies churned out by ISIS?

Yet against that dark backdrop, even in Syria, Sierra Leone and other grievously damaged societies, people still find it within themselves to live, love and laugh. Because that’s what humans do. Thus it has always been and ever will be.

Memo to the BBC: today’s zeitgeist is faith, not civilisation

Sistine Chapel

Suppose you could go back in time to when early humans were emerging from caves. You’re a genetic engineer, and you have the means to switch off a gene that causes us to form religious beliefs. You have the ability to snuff out religion before people become sufficiently organised to practice it. You know that if you do so, you will remove one of the principal causes of war, and thereby allow millions to live full lives that will otherwise end in early death by violence, starvation or disease.

But you also know that some of the most inspiring and beautiful works of art, literature and music will never be. No Iliad, Ramayana or Masnavi of Rumi. No Aya Sofia, Sistine Chapel or Angkor Wat. No Monteverdi’s Vespers, Bach’s Matthew Passion or Mozart’s Requiem. No Leonardo’s Last Supper, Michelangelo’s David or Rubens’ Descent from the Cross. No Holy Quran, King James Bible or Torah.

Would you switch off the gene?

A crazy thought, and among millions of believers in the divine hand in life, it would probably be seen as an act of blasphemy to suggest that religious faith is a mere genetic predisposition.

Certainly it would be crazy to think of just about any civilisation past or present without the religions that have defined them.

Back in the Sixties and Seventies, when television was coming of age as a medium not just of entertainment but of cultural enrichment, families like mine would be encouraged to sit down together and watch programmes dealing with such weighty matters. These days Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man and Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation would be regarded as special interest, screened on satellite TV and punctuated every ten minutes with interminable ads for things we neither want nor need.

Civilisation didn’t have to compete with a thousand digital channels, Netflix and the attention deficit disorders of twitchy teenagers switching between WhatsApp, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. For British TV viewers, it was on when it was on, and if you missed it, you would have to wait for the repeat. If you didn’t want to watch it, you watched  BBC1 or ITV, or just switched off the TV. Not much choice, really. And since Civilisation occupied a prime-time slot on BBC2, it got far bigger audiences than it probably would today.

So I was surprised to hear a few months ago that the BBC was planning to produce a new version of the series. As the UK’s Daily Telegraph commented when Britain’s public broadcaster announced the planned remake:

“The original, presented by Kenneth Clark as an emphatically Eurocentric personal view of mankind’s greatest artistic achievement, was unashamedly didactic and would nowadays doubtless be seen as stiff and boring. Invariably wearing a suit and tie, Clark would stand before a painting, building or sculpture and just talk about it. To watch Civilisation was to be enriched, enlightened and educated – and no gimmicky shots were needed of the presenter walking in silhouette across a beach or lying on his back. It is hard to imagine a new version will be done in the same way, and nor should it be. But is it too much to ask that the programme is presented by someone who, like Lord Clark, knows what he or she is talking about and is not fronted by a “celebrity”?”

I got to thinking about the original programme a few nights ago as I was listening to a sublime performance of Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts (Requiem Mass) at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Berlioz wrote the work to commemorate the dead of the 1830 revolution in France. A religious commemoration of a secular conflict – a reminder that not all wars are caused by religious divides.

The world in which Civilisation was conceived and produced was dominated by secular concerns. It was first shown in 1969 – the year of the first Moon landing, the year after the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. In 1969 two secular superpowers – the USA and the USSR – faced off against each other in an endless Mexican stand-off. The Arab-Israeli dispute was between a largely secular Israel and nationalist regimes in Syria and Egypt. Religion had its place, but it was not the cause of conflict and anxiety as it is today. Sectarian tensions – except in Northern Ireland – were underlying, not often overt.

Today, the power of religion is at the forefront of our concerns. We in the west worry about the divisive issue of Islam in our societies and about the Islamic State. In America, the religious right has become ever more strident and assertive. Ultra-Orthodox politicians hold the balance of power in Israel. In India a Hindu nationalist government has taken power. The Middle East is riven by sectarian tension and open conflict. China battles to suppress religious sentiment in Tibet and Xinjiang. Russia has seen the return of the Orthodox Church as a major influence in society, and is engaged in a long-term counter-insurgency campaign against Islamist fighters in its southern republics. And few days pass without stories about the activities of various al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia, Mali, Algeria, Nigeria and Yemen.

It may have been appropriate to explore and celebrate European civilisation in 1969, but today?

If there’s an underlying theme about the world that has evolved since then, it’s the role of faith and religion, and how they intersect with and define politics and society. And if there’s a consistent theme among adherents of faiths, it’s ignorance on the part of the vast majority of the faithful about the origins and essence of the beliefs of others.

So I suggest that instead of devoting vast sums of public money on further perspectives about the origins of what we call western civilisations, the BBC should be focusing on a history of faith.  What did the first humans believe in? How did the great world religions evolve? What lay behind the schisms that produced Sunni and Shia, Catholic and Orthodox? What do religions have in common? What of the outliers, the deviations, the beliefs that most of us find inexplicable? How does society shape religious belief? What influence does the physical environment exert? To what extent have religions been fashioned in support of political ends?

Big questions, and there’s probably not a single individual alive who could do justice to all of them. Too big for a Kenneth Clark or an Edward Gibbon. Yet we do have a wealth of thinkers who would be able to contribute to what would be a compelling series. I have my favourites – Mary Beard, Tom Holland, John Julius Norwich, Michael Shea, Karen Armstrong and Simon Schama for example. There are many others to choose from. But to create a truly global perspective there would need to be Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu contributors, as well as archaeologists, anthropologists and even economists.

It’s unlikely that such a series would be required viewing by the occupants of an ISIS dugout. And yes, it sounds like a very liberal middle-class project, as the original Civilisation was. But if it were to cause a few people to stop and think before coming to conclusions about the religions of others, it might do more good than a hundred well-intentioned inter-faith gatherings.

Leopards do change their spots. Think of the Reverend Ian Paisley, the former First Minister of Northern Ireland, who died earlier this month.  Here was a man who spent most of his life denouncing in thunderous language the Catholic Church and all its works, and championing the Unionist cause against the Irish nationalists of Sinn Fein and the IRA. And yet in his later years he felt able to work with Martin McGuinness, the former IRA chief, in a coalition government. He and McGuinness even became friends. In the end common humanity overcame political and religious differences.

If we could at least understand better the legacy of Greco-Roman divinity, the similarities between early Muslim and Christian practice, the origins of the ISIS ideology, the beliefs of the Twelver Shia, Confucian values, Tibetan Buddhism, the history of the Sikhs and the multiplicity of Hindu deities, then surely we might learn to show greater respect  to “the other”. We might even learn to fear less, to tolerate more and to disentangle political and social issues from matters of faith.

You might argue that the efforts of a British broadcaster would be dismissed as propaganda in the cause of a country that is firmly aligned with the values of the western civilisation that Kenneth Clark celebrated in his broadcasts. But if any country in the west has a public broadcaster that could undertake such a monumental project it is Britain. After all, we have probably the most culturally diverse, multinational and multi-faith population in the world.

Perhaps the values of the BBC have changed since the days when Sir David Attenborough as controller of BBC2 commissioned Civilisation. The broadcaster is still funded by public money, but perhaps not for much longer. It is as much a commercial concern as it is allowed to be. A quarter of its income comes from sales of its programmes overseas. It long ago embraced the digital future. Its website is among the most popular news sites in the world.

Commissioning decisions are no longer made by visionary broadcasters like Attenborough, but by career bureaucrats anxious to protect their turf and conscious of the need to protect their organisation from the jealousy of commercial broadcasters, accusations of bias by politicians and the consequences of a culture that allowed the likes of “Sir” Jimmy Savile to treat it as a playground for sexual exploitation. Avoidance of risk would seem to be a dominant concern in an organisation under siege.

But maybe the ethos of public broadcasting embodied in its motto – that “Nation shall speak peace unto Nation” – is still to be found in the BBC’s DNA.

If so, what better way of showing it than to bring some of the best minds on the planet together with the object of promoting religious tolerance through understanding?

A History of Faith would be a project for our time.

Ryanair: don’t be getting too nice, Michael – we love it when you talk dirty

Ryanair

Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair

It’s a scene that anyone who regularly flies short-haul will recognise. A packed aircraft ready to depart. You’re in a cramped seat towards the back in the middle of a row of three. The passenger in the seat next to you is going psychotic because the plane has not taken off on time. She’s muttering to herself and slapping the arm-rest in the kind of repetitive routine beloved of polar bears in zoos.

You’re subjected to surround-sound baby screaming. At least five of them are expressing their frustration at being strapped into place. The mothers are anxiously trying to placate their wriggling offspring. Everyone within earshot is politely frazzled.

The doors are shut. You look around for salvation, and find two rows of empty seats at the back, and a third row with only one person in it. You leave your seat and make a dash for freedom, only to be stopped by a stone-faced stewardess and ordered to return. Why, you ask? Load and weight balance, she replies.

That was a bit of an argument stopper. It would have been churlish to have compounded a stressful day for the stewardess by making a fuss. After all, she was only doing her job.

But if I was a naïve flyer, the implications of what she said might have been mildly alarming. Was she saying that if I sat in one of the vacant back rows I might cause the aircraft to ascend too fast and eventually loop the loop? I actually encountered a safety-related weight distribution problem once. Many years ago the pilot of a twelve-seater in Zimbabwe promoted me to the co-pilot’s seat because there was a large man at the back of the plane and he needed someone similarly corpulent at the front. A memorable if slightly worrying experience.

But this was an Airbus A-320 with over a hundred passengers, for goodness sake. Would relocating little me make so much of a difference?

But then I remembered I was on Ryanair, the airline run by an accountant called Michael O’Leary. So money would have been at the root of matter. If it cost Ryanair half a Euro’s worth of extra fuel to fly me in relative comfort at the back of the plane, that would have been half a Euro too much in O’Leary’s highly profitable ledger.

Why was I surprised? After all, this is the man who, according to a recent article by Alistair Osborne in the London Times, has spent 19 years of his 20 in charge of the airline:

suggesting that those who forget to print their boarding passes “should pay €60 for being so stupid” and handling complaints with his renowned bedside manner: “You’re not getting a refund, so f*** off”.

Apparently O’Leary – whose every outburst is greeted with chortling delight by my wife, who is a compatriot of his and equally renowned for her straight talking – is trying to be nicer to his customers these days. The only evidence of his change of policy on my flight was that he now signs himself Mick at the end of his message in the in-flight magazine.

And it doesn’t appear that his new niceness extends to his staff. According to another piece in the Times:

Ryanair has been warned that it is facing a pilot manning crisis that could be puncturing the airline’s much-vaunted punctuality record.

The Ryanair Pilot Group claims that unprecedented numbers of flight crew are quitting the carrier for pastures new, typically joining better-paying Gulf airlines and the fast-expanding Norwegian aviation group that has become the Continent’s third-largest budget carrier after Ryanair and easyJet.

Ryanair denies its pilot group’s claims, blaming falling punctuality this summer on French and Italian air traffic controller strikes. It also says that its annual turnover of flight crew is less than 10%.

That may well be, but on both legs of my recent flight we were late departing and arriving, with no controller strikes in evidence. And given that “less than 10%” has a good chance of meaning “nearly 10%”, you would appear to have nearly a one in ten chance of being on a flight piloted by someone who has been with the airline for less than a year, or by someone who is sufficiently disgruntled to be planning to leave within a year. Not a particularly comforting thought.

I would certainly not be relaxed with a staff retention figure approaching two digits, if for no other reason than the resulting cost of training and induction of replacements, an issue that would surely be close to O’Leary’s bean-counting heart.

For all that, Ryanair is still a phenomenally successful airline, and Michael O’Leary a charismatic one-man PR machine for his company. He is what journalists of old would describe as “colourful”. When you fly with his airline, you know exactly what you’re going to get, and if you’re prepared to put up with its idiosyncrasies, all well and good.

I for one would be sad if the CEO manages to tame his inner beast for ever, because he would deprive my wife of a seemingly endless source of amusement, and rob me of a favourite subject to write about. So I eagerly await a sign that he’s abandoning his sheep’s clothing and returning to wolf mode.

Perhaps he should reassure us by making a subtle change to the airline’s website. When you book a flight with Ryanair, you’re subjected to an endless catechism of questions about your preferences. Do you want to rent a car? Do you want priority boarding? Do you want put a bag in the hold? And so on ad nauseam. Instead of requiring a yes or no answer, wouldn’t it be nice if the airline allowed us customers to reply with an answer that O’Leary would understand?

So how about replacing the No button with one that says “F*** off”?

English Schools and Face Veils – Barriers to Education?

Niqab

Much fuss in the British media about a schoolgirl banned from class for wearing the niqab, the full face veil. Here’s an excerpt from what the Independent reports:

In a statement, the school’s governing body refused to “discuss individual pupils” but cited “an appearance policy” which states: “Inappropriate dress which offends public decency or which does not allow teacher student interactions will be challenged.” The statement added that the policy was adopted “several years ago” and “written at a time when a girl wished to wear a niqab, and teachers found that this made teaching difficult.”

The school defended its decision as “very much an educational one” and said: “teachers need to see a student’s whole face in order to read the visual cues it provides. In addition, it is important for the safety and security of the school community to know who is on site, and to be able to see and identify individuals.”

I’m not going to get into the politics of face veils beyond what I wrote on the subject four years ago, in The Veil of Fears. My views haven’t changed since then.

But I do have some experience of teaching women wearing the niqab. For the several years I’ve run management and personal development workshops in Saudi Arabia. Those of you who are familiar with the Kingdom might ask why, as a man, I am allowed to teach women in that very conservative country. The reason is that contrary to popular myth there are several workplaces where men work alongside women – the most common being hospitals.

So a couple of dozen times a year I find myself working with mixed groups. The men tend to be on one side of the room, and the women on the other. This is not a pre-ordained arrangement, just the way they feel most comfortable. Depending on the city, some or all of the women will be wearing the niqab. I don’t have the option – like the school in London, or the French state, which has legislated on the matter – to ask the women to remove their veils. I have to deal with what I see, or don’t see.

But I can see the eyes. At the beginning, it was a bit disconcerting. But over time I have acquired the ability to read much more from the eyes, from the voice and from body language than ever before. Think about it. When you watch the theatre that is human expression, the eyes are the leading player. All the other cues are the supporting cast. If you’re unable to see, then the voice takes the place of the eyes. The brain compensates for the missing input, and after a while does quite nicely without it.

The only problem I have is recognising names without a name card being next to the person. There again, there are ways around the problem. Although most of the women are wearing black abayas, each wears distinctive shoes. So I try to memorise names against shoes, as opposed to faces.

Would it be easier if faces were visible? Of course. But not so much easier that the process of teaching and interacting is seriously degraded without visual cues beyond the eyes. These days, it feels perfectly normal. In fact the women tend to be more lively and enthusiastic than many of the men. Their personalities shine through the black gauze, and working with them is often a joy. Whether this is a conscious effort on their part to transcend the limitations of appearance, I don’t know. And for my part, I can focus on the person within rather than the meta-information that comes from physical appearance.

So my message to the teachers in that London school is that the niqab needn’t be a barrier to effective teaching – you can do it if you want to. Whether you should have to do it, and whether the girls should be allowed to cover up, is another matter. The practical objections by the school, such as difficulty of identification, can be overcome. So I suspect that the underlying concern – especially in the light of recent revelations of covert efforts to “Islamise” teaching in various West Midlands schools – is cultural and social.

And that’s a far bigger issue which goes to the heart of much of the unease in Britain’s cities and in our society in general.

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