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Daesh: the Destroyers of History? No Chance

ISIS Nimrud

Does the desecration of Nimrud and Hatra by the so-called Islamic State add ammunition to the argument that priceless antiquities scooped up from around the world by the colonisers and the wealthy should stay within the safe embrace of Western museums?

You bet, if you believe that sooner or later the black flags will fly over Athens, Cairo and Baghdad. And to boost the argument further, it wasn’t the Daesh storm troopers who blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas and looted the museums of Cairo and Baghdad.

In conflict zones where religion plays a part, it seems that antiquities are fair game, either as a source of funds or as a means of making a politico-religious point. Nothing unusual in this – the newly powerful have a habit of trying to erase evidence of the formerly powerful by destroying things. The early Christians in their desire to eradicate pagan worship pulverised much of the finest Greek and Roman statuary. The Byzantine iconoclasts ripped down and burned thousands of exquisite religious artefacts in the cathedrals and churches of their declining domains in the hope that God would thereby again look favourably upon them.

In Baghdad, the Tigris ran black with the ink of books cast therein by the invading Mongols. When Henry VIII destroyed the English monasteries, gold and silver treasures were melted down to fund the King’s endless arguments with France. His son Edward VI and the puritans of a century later finished the job by whitewashing the walls of the churches.

And in case we imagine that great acts of cultural destruction are carried out only by invaders and religious fanatics, consider the burning the Great Library of Alexandria by Julius Caesars’s troops, and the demolition of cathedrals and churches by Stalin’s henchmen in Moscow.

Yet for all the efforts of the blind, the bigoted and greedy, enough remains from every era of history to educate and inspire future generations. Daesh may seek to erase history and make a fast buck in the process, but their task is made harder than ever by the very medium that they have exploited to feed its rise: the internet. Every museum has a website. Books are being digitised and many universities have put the efforts of their scholars online.

What is above the ground has been documented, analysed and pondered over, even if future generations will now be deprived of the opportunity to revisit the conclusions of the past in Nimrud and Hatra. But what is still under the ground is equally important, and the likes of Daesh would need a massive fleet of JCBs to erase what has yet to be discovered in the territories they control. Beyond the Middle East, two-thirds of Herculaneum lies unexcavated under metres of volcanic ash. Cities are still being discovered in the jungles of Central America, and under the sands of the deserts that skirt the ancient Silk Road.

Of course it’s sad that young Iraqis will not have the opportunity to touch the walls of their ancient cities. Not just Iraqis – anyone who has an interest in the history of earlier civilisations. In one sense, ancestry doesn’t really come into it, because there are not so many ethnic groups on our mainland continents whose genes can’t be traced back to forebears from any number of geographical areas, whether as the result of migration or conquest. I am likely to have as direct a line of descent from an inhabitant of ancient Nimrud as a modern Iraqi, just as the blood of Genghis Khan flows in sixteen million people across the world.

But national heritage counts. Egyptians – those who don’t want to raze the sphinx and the pyramids – feel proud of their pharaonic past, just as the Irish are proud of their Celtic lineage, even if Egypt is a melting pot of African, European and Asian ancestors, and archaeologists cast doubt on the central role of the Celts in the pre-history of the British Isles.

Though organisations like Daesh try to expunge physical evidence of an inconvenient past, and fashion the minds of their youth through selective education and ideological control, they have no more chance of erasing history than they have of capping a volcano. There are too many books, too many internet nodes, too many satellite dishes and too many people. Information borders are way more porous than the walls and fences that separate countries.

I’m the proud owner of a modest collection of ancient coins. Every so often I take one out – perhaps an Athenian tetradrachm or a denarius of the Roman Republic – and I hold it in my hand, knowing that I’m touching something that merchants, slaves and small farmers might have used over two millennia ago. That’s just one way in which I connect with the past. Some sing songs and recite poetry. Others listen in churches, mosques and synagogues to tales of suffering and exultation. Or read books and visit museums.

Whether we’re illiterate or hold a doctorate from Harvard, we are all touched by history in one way or another. And it’ll take more than a bunch of psychopaths with sledgehammers to wipe out the history of Iraq and Syria. Just as when the murderers are all dead, buried or atomised, the memory of the suffering they inflicted will be passed on through generations.

People in the Middle East have long memories, in case Daesh have forgotten. The tragedy is that so many of their stories are soaked in blood.

Jeremy Clarkson – a product of his tribe….and mine


The difference between Jeremy Clarkson and the dinosaurs is that they didn’t know they had it coming.

I’ve never met the guy, yet I feel that I know him, as do millions of Top Gear fans around the world. I can number the times I’ve watched the show on the fingers of one hand, but I do read his column in the UK Sunday Times.

I don’t know him, but I know his tribe. Once upon a time, when I was at boarding school, I was thumped in the face by the son of a famous film director. I don’t remember why, but I do recall that he was several years older, and was good at sports. I’d probably behaved like a nerdish 14-year-old and hadn’t shown the necessary respect due to a prefect. A very male reaction. I won’t say he was a bully, because that was the only time it happened. Nor was bullying a regular feature of school life. But in Britain’s public schools war war has always been a viable alternative to jaw jaw.

Within the public school tribe of which I’m a member – Britain’s private schools are rather confusingly known as public schools – there tended to be two camps: those who were for things and those who were against them. The pro’s were the prefects, the captains of cricket, the upholders of the school traditions, those who excelled in the traditional things, like exams, who went to Oxford and became judges, or inherited the family land. The anti’s were the rule-breakers, the sniggerers, the mickey-takers, the poseurs, the smart-asses who mocked everything and everyone. They tended to be good at art, writing, acting and anything else that marked them out as different. Not rebels exactly, because many of them were smart enough to get to the universities of their choice.

When they left school the two camps coalesced at the edges somewhat. Comedians became doctors and head prefects became eco-warriers. More often the pro’s continued their upright path to become generals, captains of industry, politicians, academics and diplomats, though not without the occasional bout of ritualised wildness at university – as witness the antics of Boris Johnson, David Cameron and George Osborne in Oxford’s Bullingham Club. The anti’s went to art school, the BBC, the theatre or publishing, and sometimes to an early grave for one substance-related reason or another. I use the past tense because most of the public schools in my day were single sex. For the last thirty years many of them have opened their doors to girls. This has changed the dynamic somewhat, though there are a number of schools – Eton for example – that have remained resolutely male only.

Clarkson I suspect was a dedicated anti. He was expelled from a similar school to mine for various misdemeanours including, according to him, drinking and smoking. Very male activities, in which I also indulged, though not to the extent that I was kicked out. He comes over as confident within the parameters of male camaraderie. Perhaps more comfortable in male company – in the pub, in cars, doing male things. And like many fellow-anti’s, he’s intelligent, witty and perceptive. He would appeal to his smart friends like David Cameron because although Cameron took the pro path, both will sing from the same tribal hymnsheet. Also Clarkson will say things that our Prime Minister might believe yet can never afford to say himself. All speculation of course, but it’s based on my own experience.

So why would someone like him fall prey to the kind of rage that led him (allegedly) to throw a punch at a BBC producer? Was that late-night meal so important that the red mist descended when it was not forthcoming? What of the Madonna-like contract riders demanding that food be available the moment he and his colleagues stepped into their hotel after filming – so precise that they stipulated that the starter should be on the table once he crossed the threshold? Or was there an underlying problem between him and the guy he’s supposed to have hit, or perhaps against the BBC?

Did this example of “do you know who I am?” behaviour stem from the expectation of one who grew up surrounded by privilege, or was it another example of star become spoilt brat, like so many rock musicians I dealt with in my younger days?

I have no idea, because I don’t know all the circumstances and I definitely don’t know the man. But, as I said, I do know the tribe, because I belong to it too. I can spot someone who went to Repton, Eton, Rugby or Winchester a mile off. Not so much when they open their mouths, because these days many have learned to de-posh their accents. But because of signals that are imperceptible to those outside the tribe. Mannerisms, foibles, reactions, responses. Ask me to categorise the signals and I would struggle. But I know them when I see them. And I see them in Jeremy Clarkson. He may have his demons, but he’s a leader. The type of person to whom others gravitate. The life and soul.

If you took a representative sample of Britain’s TV-watching population and asked them what they thought of the man, I suspect that that they would be divided down the middle. There would be those who love Clarkson as the blokeish, brawling (ask Piers Morgan about that – he claims to bear a scar from an encounter with our hero) champion of political incorrectness. And then there would be those who see him as a boorish, bullying representative of the privileged classes with an emotional age similar to that of the guy who smacked me at school. A subset of that group would be the HR types who probably prompted his “final warning” last time round. The BBC is certainly full of them.

But the BBC of today is a far cry from the organisation that first employed John Simpson, that doyen of foreign correspondents, as a junior reporter in the 60s. When Simpson had the temerity to ask Prime Minister Harold Wilson whether he was planning to call an election, Wilson responded with a well-aimed punch in the reporter’s stomach. Did the BBC support its man by referring the assault to the police? It doesn’t appear so.

So will the BBC pull the plug on Clarkson and his show? I suspect not, unless they can come up with an astounding replacement, which seems unlikely – a bit like replacing John Lennon during the Beatles’ heyday. Also there’s too much money at stake, and the BBC is not exactly flush these days.

More likely there will be some sort of financial penalty and an apology to the hapless producer who was the target of the great man’s wrath. I also suspect that Clarkson won’t care either way. If he goes, other TV channels will snap him up in whatever form he proposes. Nothing like a new challenge.

In the long term, though, when details of the fracas become widely known, I suspect that his reputation will be diminished, especially if it turns out that the cause of his anger was the lack of a meal. Because much as we British admire a maverick, especially one with Clarkson’s charm and wit, we do have a keen sense of fair play, and there will be a number of people who might think that he should pick on someone his own size.

As for me, I don’t really care one way or another. It’s just a welcome break from all the really grim stuff that dominates the headlines. And a pleasant change to see a member of my tribe wielding a bludgeon rather than a stiletto.

One thing’s for sure: whatever he does next, he’ll always be part of an in-crowd. But whenever I see Jeremy Clarkson on TV from now onwards, it will be hard not to think of the raging thug who punched me in the face when I was 14.

Silence – The Disappearing Vacuum


At last a break in the emotional weather. Seven weeks in which my attention has been almost entirely focused on physical ailments and a death in the family have come to an end.

During that time, Jihadi John has turned into Mohammed Emwazi, Binyamin Netanyahu delivered his rapturously-received speech to the US Congress, the Islamic State has bulldozed Nimrud and Hatra in the mistaken belief that it is erasing history, Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in Moscow, England crashed and burned in the cricket World Cup, and a number of dogs that competed at the Crufts Dog Show appear to have been poisoned. Oh, and Britain’s politicians cranking up the silly rhetoric in anticipation of the May election. But the self-serving mediocrity of my country’s politicians is a perennial condition hardly worth highlighting just because many of them are about to lose their jobs.

All stuff that I might have written about had I not been contending with three weeks in a wheelchair while on “holiday” in Bali and Hong Kong, followed by suspected dengue fever and, for good measure, the death of my mother.

So the other day we buried my mother. As 94-year-old, she didn’t have many contemporaries left. And when she died, there wasn’t much of her either. Vascular dementia had taken its toll and pneumonia following a fall had delivered the coup de grace.

But there were enough friends, family, carers and fellow parishioners at the crematorium and the subsequent memorial service at the church of St Michaels in Barnes to make the event feel like an occasion rather than a lonely and anonymous disappearance into the unknown hereafter.

Judith, the priest who officiated, had known her for twenty years, and so had been able to talk about the person rather than blather on in the pretence that she actually had some kind of relationship with her. My brother provided the perspective on her life. And the organist was Martin Neary, who was the choirmaster and music director at Westminster Abbey, and directed the music for Princess Diana’s funeral. Mum would have loved that.

I’m not a deeply religious person, though I’m fascinated, or some might say obsessed, with religion. My attendances at church services are rare, though always interesting. Weddings, funerals and last year the ordination into the priesthood of my sister have all brought opportunities for reflection and observation, whether it’s the music, the ritual, the congregation or church itself.

On this occasion the one thing I yearned for was silence. There was very little of it as it turned out – probably not enough. Music and the spoken word came in a seamless procession. Only once punctuated by the ringtone of a mobile phone.

There’s something special – in fact very precious – about sitting in silence with a group of people, whether in prayer or simply in personal reflection. Where else do you find such silence? Not the silence of estrangement, between two people sitting at dinner who have run out of things to say to each other, or the silence that goes with reading a book. And especially not silent communion with laptops, smartphones and IPads.

My mother was no stranger to silence. In the last two years of her life she suffered from dementia, and would sit in her care home, often with her eyes shut but otherwise staring into space. She was no longer able to read, and I doubt that the pictures and sound that came to her on the rare occasions when she watched TV made sense any more.

But for those of us with minds that function roughly as designed, it seems that the moments when we deliberately sit in silent contemplation are fast diminishing. When we’re on our own we instinctively look for stimulus – a book, TV or radio, the internet or the company of online friends.

One of my abiding memories of the past six weeks of injury and illness was of a line of people sitting opposite the reception desk in our hotel in Hong Kong. There must have been a dozen of them, some related, others clearly not. Over a thirty-minute period I went past them three times. Each time there was no conversation. Each person was sitting, head down reading or tapping at their mobile devices. What were they doing? Scouring Twitter or Instagram? Sending messages via WhatsApp? Or just surfing the web? Or just aimlessly checking things, because the thought of sitting in one place with no stimulus was too awful to bear? Waiting for

Now it seems that we will soon be subjected by a barrage of peer pressure creation by Apple, who want to sell us a smart watch. So in a few years’ time there will be an outbreak of repetitive strain injury caused by the constant raising of the left arm to look at….what? Weather forecasts, email alerts, Tinder, tips on foreplay, heart rate, share prices?

Apple clearly understand their market. They understand that there’s a huge percentage of the population obsessed with measuring, defining, calibrating, monitoring. Seeing everything but understanding nothing.

I have never meditated, in the sense meant by practitioners of transcendental meditation, or by Buddhists, Trappist monks or the devout at prayer. But I’ve had plenty of practice at constructive silence.

Many decades ago, when I was at university, I had a summer job with Cadbury’s. I worked four 12-hour shifts a week. One of my tasks was to sit beside a bagging machine. For those who have never encountered one, a bagging machine sends a tube of plastic wrapping, fills it with product, – in this case chocolate – seals both ends and chucks the completed bag into a cardboard box on a conveyor belt. My job was to watch the machine, and press a button if it went wrong. Which it never did in my time of employment. For twelve hours a night, including a one-hour meal break and two 15 minute tea breaks.

You might think that this would be one of the most boring jobs on earth. Enough to turn your brain into sawdust. Yet I remember those hours as an enforced opportunity to put the brain to work. I would develop ideas and spin off new ones endlessly. Sometimes I would exhaust one train of though and say to myself “what am I going to think about next?” Sooner or later something else would pop up – sex, politics, religion, people, social behaviour. All stuff that these days I write about, but in those days stayed in my head. But the thinking was the thing, whether I replayed the output in subsequent conversation or years later in writing. There was no silence. The clattering of machines was everywhere. Yet when you’re internally absorbed you filter out the noise – or at least the repetitive sounds.

There’s some noise I find it impossible to filter – squealing babies, loud conversations in acoustically unsympathetic places and, increasingly these days, loud music. Yet for the past thirty years I’ve had tinnitus, a constant high-frequency whistling that I can probably blame on an earlier life in the music business. It bothers me not a jot because it’s become as much a part of me as the sound of my breathing.

Silence is a very rare thing. Real silence, so profound that it allows you to hear your heart pumping, birds singing, spiders crawling. Stuff that you don’t want to filter because it punctuates the vacuum. Sometimes in bed there’s a kind of silence, punctuated by the groans and creaks a house makes even though you don’t normally notice them. The deepest silence I’ve encountered has been in the desert.

But even in a noisy space, there are plenty of opportunities to sit and think – a park, a railway station, a street café. Yet I fear that small electronic devices have rid us of the habit of sitting in silence, just thinking. Is it because we feel that we’re not using our time wisely if we aren’t buried in an IPad? Are we worried about what others might think if we sit, Buddha-like, staring into space or eyes closed in contemplation? Are we mentally-unstable, demented, a religious nut or just stupid?

Another side-effect of mobiles is that we seem to be losing the art of casual conversation. When you have a smart phone, you always have an excuse not to speak to people around you. Ask yourself, dear reader, how often in a day you actually speak to someone you’ve never met before for anything other than a functional reason, such as to ask the time, or the directions to a place or to order a coffee.

A couple of days ago I struck up a conversation in a place where you normally not find a mobile phone. In a swimming pool. Aida is a 66-year old former nurse from Aden. She grew up under British rule, was educated in British schools and came to England to study nursing. She’s been here ever since. Her English-born husband died last year. She has several brothers and sisters in what is now known as Yemen. Years ago, when she went back to her homeland, the authorities took her British passport and gave her a Yemeni one. She had endless problems back in England, where she was treated as an alien despite holding down a responsible job in the NHS. She has been trying to help her sister, who is a doctor, to get a visa to visit her, but the UK immigration authorities refuse to issue one. The last time she saw her sister was in Sweden, a country she was able to visit without a problem.

Aida’s mother was illiterate, so she was very proud that her children all received an education. Several went to university, and are still working in Yemen and the Gulf. Aida will not go back to Aden because she thinks it’s too dangerous.

All this and more in a twenty–minute conversation between lengths. How many people in England would imagine that the nurse that treated them came from the Crater district, where Colonel Colin “Mad Mitch” Mitchell waged his counter-insurgency campaign in the 1960’s? How many would know that Aden was once a British colony – a convenient fuelling station for ships on their way between Britain and the Raj?

It was an unexpected and enriching conversation with a delightful person. And I wondered what those people in Hong Kong might have gained if they had put down their phones for a few minutes, turned to their neighbours and talked.

And failing that, what we all might gain from putting our phones away for a while and relying on what’s inside us for entertainment. Silent contemplation is a casualty of the wired world. Face-to-face conversation, for the joy of it rather than for a specific reason, seems to be going the same way.

Outside the “developed world” both are still normal features of daily life. But not, I fear, in my street or my town. Nor in my country, where forty-four million birds have disappeared in the past fifty years, and sixty million people are slowly losing their ability to think, listen and connect with others without the aid of technology.

The Streets of Jeddah: That Was Then – This Is Now


I’ve always enjoyed writing about Saudi Arabia, as regular readers of this blog will know. The other day I was delving through my digital archives and I found this piece from 1985. It was one of a series of vignettes I wrote mainly for my own amusement. To accompany them I asked a Filipino artist who worked for me to draw a series of illustrations, of which the one above is an example.

Here’s what I wrote back then about the Kingdom’s eclectic buildings:

“One of the remarkable things about Saudi Arabia is that you can live in one of its cities for five years and never see a building more than twenty years old.

This is largely because before the oil boom there were no cities in the Kingdom worthy of the name. In one of the most intensive and chaotic building sprees the world has ever seen, armies of foreigners in the space of twenty years turned villages into towns and towns into cities.

The result is an interesting mixture of conflicting styles. Almost every modern school of architectural thought is here, often juxtaposed in hideous discord. Multi-story, concrete-and-glass monsters spiced with arabesque twists so that the designers can call them examples of Islamic architecture. Outrageous Hollywood set pieces, like the full-scale replica of the White House that an admiring prince built for himself in Riyadh. Monolithic apartment blocks that could have been transplanted from Stalinist Moscow. Startling water towers, shaped like giant earth mothers, looming mountainous on the skyline, and towers rising like fertility symbols.

Some say that Jeddah and Riyadh closely resemble Dallas, that paragon of Texan good taste, in the vulgar showiness of their buildings. Having sat at the top of one of the huge buildings in central Dallas and gazed out at the rampant ugliness of that city’s golden-windowed towers, I have to agree that Jeddah could indeed be Dallas’s little sister. Perhaps the secret of the longstanding Saudi-American love affair is that when the oilmen from Texas deflowered the east of the country with their drills and derricks, they also taught the Saudis an American sense of scale. After President Roosevelt met King Abdulaziz in 1945, he followed the meeting with the gift of a Douglas DC-3 airliner; such grand gestures were bound to strike a sympathetic chord in a people newly rich.

In their headlong rush to be modern, the Saudis succeeded in obliterating most evidence of life before the boom. Luckily for the preservationists who have begun to surface in recent years, there are still older parts of the big cities where a few buildings have survived the urban planner’s contempt for the past. Wander through the back streets of Jeddah and you’ll still see coral-and-mud houses with wooden lattice window shutters, and ancient whitewashed mosques with leaning minarets. As well as air conditioners hanging out of holes hacked in the walls, and rusting loudspeakers clamped to the balconies where once full-throated muezzin called the morning prayers.

But oases of antiquity apart, the modem Saudi metropolis is very much a product of the brave new world – a place where the people end up serving the environment that was created to serve them.

For me, born and raised within a half-eaten hamburger’s throw of Birmingham’s dustbin of a city centre, urban Saudi Arabia is an endless source of bemusing amusement. To the new city dweller, who grew up under goatskin tents in the desert, it’s a terrain every bit as harsh and hostile as the one left behind, to be negotiated with fear, suspicion and lonely bewilderment.”

Much of what I wrote then still holds true. Admittedly I was gliding the lily somewhat by claiming that it was hard to find buildings more than twenty years old, but this was certainly the case if you lived in one of the newly developed suburbs – North Jeddah for example.

These days the city has more than doubled in size. The swanky new buildings I encountered thirty years ago are showing their age, especially those which were built on reclaimed land on the Red Sea coast. Salt has done its corrosive work, and a number of the buildings have been abandoned or demolished. Buildings that were old then are now in an advanced state of decay.

I still visit Jeddah regularly, and I can just about make my way around the city, but many of the landmarks of the city I lived in are diminished or gone. Our favourite mall, The Jeddah International Market, is a shadow of its former glory. Last time I visited it, half the shops were closed, and the rest were mainly selling cheap stuff. Likewise the Red Sea Palace Hotel, which in the 80s was a five-star establishment that hosted the most glorious Friday brunches. Nowadays it’s a threadbare three-star joint.

But in other respects much of the impression the piece tried to convey still holds true. The architecture of the Kingdom’s main cities remains at times spectacularly eccentric.

The cartoon was not a true reflection of life in the streets of the big cities at that time, though in the sixties and seventies friends assure me that water tanks towed by donkeys were a common sight at least in Jeddah. And even today motorised water tanks still trundle through a city whose sewage and water distribution infrastructure still leaves much to be desired.

All goes to show that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Raqqah and Mars – One-Way Journeys Beyond the Pale.


The Voyage of Columbus


Two stories about people making choices most of us would find almost impossible to comprehend hit the news this week.

The families of the three London teenagers who flew to Turkey, seemingly on their way to join the fifty-odd British Muslim women already in the tender embrace of the Islamic State, are distraught. Why would these children leave their comfortable homes and loving families for life in some bomb-scarred town in Syria or Iraq to become wives and very likely widows in short order?  Effectively they’re part of a conveyor belt of brood-mares and handmaidens imported for the benefit of the battle-hardened shock troops of jihad ISIS-style.

A few months ago in This Year’s Best-Seller: The Rough Guide for Jihadis? I offered an explanation as to why young men are flocking to ISIS in such numbers:

“Read their tweets and you can recognise the immaturity of any typical 18-to-20-year old. Wild excitement, enthusiasm and yes, idealism, though not yet tempered by the harsh realities of experience. For some of them that harsh reality seems to be bearing down.

So what if for these young idealists violent jihad is essentially a form of adventure, rather like the gap year rite of passage thousands of British school leavers go through when they head off to Thailand, India, the Antipodes and the Americas in search of new experiences, fun and, in some cases, to do some good in the countries they visit? Are these mamma’s boys from Luton, Blackburn and East London basically backpackers with attitude?”

But the girls? I’m stumped. Surely they realise that there is unlikely to be a way back for them? Even if they survive the increasing military pressure on ISIS, which sooner or later will escalate into a ground war, they are likely to be scarred for life by the experience. So should they ever make it back to their families they will surely not be the wide-eyed idealists that stepped on to the plane at Gatwick airport.

And so to another one-way voyage. Last week, the organisation behind the Mars One mission announced a short list of a hundred people who are prepared be part of the first human colony on Mars. The only problem is that it will be a one-way mission. No way back.

Now the spread of humanity across the globe would never have happened without explorers and migrants setting out on journeys from which they knew they were unlikely to return. But at least they had reasonable prospects that wherever they went they would have air to breathe, water to drink and sources of food. If food and water was scarce, they could usually re-trace their steps back to the last fertile land through which they travelled.

But for the Mars colonists life would always hang on a thread. The supply of food, water and oxygen would depend on technology. No technology has ever been infallible, and none would be more critical to life than that employed on Mars. The psychological impact of life in an unforgiving, alien environment with no prospect of return is surely something for which it would be impossible to prepare the colonists.

The mission may never happen, at least within the time-frame set by the organisers. This piece in the Guardian casts doubts on many levels. I for one hope that it doesn’t happen, at least as currently planned. I think it would be immoral to send a group of idealistic young people on a mission with no prospect of coming back, even if those involved have freely volunteered to take part. Far better, before we contemplate any colony, is to send people to Mars to explore and experiment, and then return them to Earth. And even if the exploratory missions were followed by permanent colonies, those colonists should be given the option of return.

If it takes another fifty years to achieve that objective, so what? Mars has been around for billions of years. Surely it can wait a mere half-century longer for the dubious pleasure of our presence?

So there you have it. Two one-way journeys, both a matter of personal choice. The first we – at least in the West – look on with consternation and horror. The second we look on with fascination tempered with trepidation for the future of those who wish to take part.

Should we condemn one journey as the result of cynical grooming and indoctrination, and not the other, in which twenty-four brave and idealistic people make their choices under the influence of what might be the misplaced optimism of those behind the Mars mission?

A bizarre juxtaposition of choices, perhaps. That’s for you to decide.

Chapel Hill and the Siren Song of Victimhood

Chapel Hill

The murder of three young people in Chapel Hill, North Carolina was tragic and disturbing. Equally disturbing was that the killer has, by the act of which he is accused, fed a narrative that is all too popular among Muslims across the world.

Let’s assume that Craig Hicks was the killer. We know that he was a militant atheist, and that he had posted a number of provocative statements to that effect on the internet. We will not know until his trial whether his motive for the killings was a hatred of Muslims. Perhaps we will never know for sure.

As soon as the shootings took place, there was an instant reaction in the social media. This apparently WAS a hate killing. If a Muslim had killed three non-Muslims in Chapel Hill, the reaction in the mainstream media and on the part of politicians would have been very different. Ergo there is a deep seated hatred of Muslims in the West, the result of which is that Muslims have been victimised consistently over the past seventy years.

Hamid Dabashi goes further. He is an Iranian/American professor at Colombia University in New York City. He’s clearly much smarter than me, as evidenced by the erudite prose in an article he has written for Al-Araby Al-Jadeed entitled “We won the narrative battle”.

The piece begins with what appears to be a summary:

“The narrative of the Chapel Hill murders became a battle between us Internet plebians and the patricians of the ‘Western media’. The plebs won.”

As I said, he’s smarter than me, so it took a couple of readings of his piece to catch his drift. I stumbled over sentences like:

“There is timing to the urgency of a narrative, or as French philosopher Paul Ricoeur would say the narrative emplotment brining (sic) the diverse forces of a condition into an imaginative order.”

By which I think he means that the stronger the evidence from diverse sources, the stronger the narrative. Or maybe not. But let’s assume so.

So what’s the narrative to which he subscribes?

It seems to be that the established media is run by and written for an oligarchy of powerful white and Jewish interests. They are those he describes as patricians. The denizens of the social media, who protested in their hundreds of thousands about the patricians’ coverage of the Chapel Hill killings and whose protests apparently led to qualifications by the New York Times and Obama’s denunciation of the killings, are in Professor Dabashi’s terms “the plebs”. He clearly includes himself in that number.

Another voice of the so-called plebs that the Professor called on in evidence is Philip Gourevitch, whom he quoted from a piece in the New Yorker:

“Far more Americans are killed each year by the shooters in our midst like Craig Stephen Hicks than have ever been killed by all the jihadist terrorist outfits that have ever stalked this earth.”

With respect to a well-known journalist, that statement is unprovable, because he doesn’t define “shooters in our midst” or “jihadist terrorist outfits”. Is he saying that bigoted militant atheists or Muslim-haters kill more people every year than Al-Qaeda killed on 9/11? More than 2,977 people every year?

Enough of this nit-picking. At least we understand what he’s saying, which is that Americans have a far greater chance of dying at the hands of a shooter – regardless of motivation – than they have of succumbing to religiously-motivated terrorists.

But to return to Professor Dabashi, it’s not clear to me what he means by Jews and whites. Everybody knows who Jews are. The next step beyond his narrative  – though he doesn’t explicitly say this – is that they are tacit or explicit supporters of the State of Israel by virtue of their religion and ethnic origin. But whites? What are we talking about here? White Anglo-Saxon protestants? Lithuanian immigrants? Ninth-generation descendants of British colonialists in North Carolina? Irish Catholics in Boston and New York? Amish and Mennonites in Pennsylvania?

To lump America’s hugely diverse white population into one category and characterise them as oppressors of Muslims, blacks and Latinos/Latinas is simplistic and verging on manipulative. Just as to take every Jew outside Israel and put their fingers on the triggers that fired bombs and missiles into Gaza is equally questionable.

So let’s cut to the chase. Here’s my perspective on the killings.

Any shooting of innocent people is an abomination, whether they are Muslims or otherwise, whether they are the victims in Chapel Hill or the 26 children and teachers in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.

Hicks’s motivation has yet to be proven. I know that’s not what many Muslims want to hear. Nonetheless  a look at his Facebook page does at least suggest that the target of his rantings is not Muslims per se. He has far more to say about evangelical Christians, of which there are many in North Carolina. If his posts are anything to go by, Hicks is an angry man. But Facebook is not a mirror into a person’s soul. That he killed because he hated Muslims is no more proven than that the Sandy Hook killer hated children.

Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and other “militant atheists” are no more to blame for Hicks’s alleged act than the Prophet Mohammed for the decapitation by ISIS of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya. To act through a perverted interpretation of a belief system is not the same as being directly encouraged to commit the act.

And yes, there is undoubtedly a concerted anti-Muslim lobby in the US, as this article in Middle East Eye suggests. America is full of lobbies – the gun lobby, creationists, political lobbyists, arms industry advocates and climate change deniers to name but a few. So those who fuel Islamophobia are not the only ones in the business of shaping opinion that many would find ludicrous and abhorrent. But that’s a long way from saying that the influencers of anti-Muslim sentiment would approve of the shooting of three innocents. However, they surely know their country well enough to guess that some of their words might lead to hate crimes. Which is why the author of the piece is quite right in saying that bigotry and unproven assertions should be confronted and rebutted.

But we should also understand that there are reasons why these pressure groups can sow their seed on fertile ground. There undoubtedly is an undercurrent of fear or dislike of Muslims in America. It would be surprising that it should be otherwise in a nation that saw attacks on its citizens at home and abroad over the past 20 years (Lebanon, Al-Khobar, Nairobi, Yemen, New York and latterly Boston), and hundreds of thousands of whose soldiers have been engaged, and many traumatised, in conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is not to debate the rights and wrongs of those conflicts. It would be easy to trace a sequence of reactive wrongs committed by Christians and Muslims going back to the birth of Islam. But I do believe that much of the fear stems from ignorance rather than malevolence. I felt a similar undercurrent when I married in Ireland thirty years ago. Nothing overtly stated, but there was an underlying resentment of the British in the Republic at the time. Scratch the surface of most societies and you will find undercurrents of racism, xenophobia and old grudges.

The mainstream US media are highly inward-looking. Foreign news in all but a handful of media usually appears way past the front pages. Yes, as Professor Dabashi points out, if the killers in Chapel Hill had been Muslim and the victims not, it would have instantly slotted into the “War on Terror” narrative. But you could argue that the story was covered initially as just another shooting, not a possible hate crime against Muslims.

Yes, the media in many Western countries are controlled predominantly by wealthy, ethnically white interests. And yes, Jewish interests exert an influence on public opinion in some of those countries out of proportion to their numbers in the population. The reason for this is that typically the control of the media vests in those who control the economy.

Does this mean that every Jewish press or online media owner is a slavish supporter of Binyamin Netanyahu, or that every Jewish citizen feels greater allegiance to the State of Israel than to America, France or Britain? Peruse New York’s Jewish Daily Forward, and you might be convinced otherwise, at least as far as American Jews are concerned. Certainly this is not the case in Britain, my country. Consider also the negative reaction of leading Danish Jews to Netanyahu’s call for European Jews to settle in Israel. For very good reasons, most Jews, wherever they are, have a horror of mass political movements. And you could argue that their success in many fields is down to the independence of thought and intellectual rigour that their religion has never inhibited.

And finally to the narrative of victimhood that so many Muslims shelter under to explain the suffering of so many who share their faith. Yes, millions have suffered grievously through the intervention of Western powers in their social and political affairs over the past century and a half. And yes, much of that suffering has been as the result of the West’s determination to secure uninterrupted sources of energy for itself and to establish spheres of interest that shore up their interests against the encroachments of rival powers.

Yet that’s not the whole story. The West was not responsible for the sectarian schisms that have caused such animosity and bloodshed over the centuries. It was not responsible, or at least even by the most virulently anti-Western narrative only partly responsible, for the tyranny and corruption of so many leaders of Muslim countries. Likewise for the endemic and overt racism to be found in many of the wealthy Muslim countries towards Muslims from poorer countries. And it was not responsible for the dominance of scholarly Islamic traditions that have discouraged independence of thought, intellectual curiosity and creativity over the past two hundred years.

The notion that all the troubles in the Muslim world are the creation of non-Muslims is simple, convenient and comforting, but unfortunately false. The picture is far more complex.

And the plebs, as Professor Dabashi describes them – the millions of voices on the social media that find common cause in an instant and then vanish again like the Higgs Boson? I’m afraid they are a long way from the original plebs – the turbulent, physically threatening mob that exercised so much power in the late Roman Republic. The modern day plebs did not prevail in the green protests in Iran, the country of his birth. They did not ultimately prevail in the Arab Spring.

Those in power remain in power or have regained it. The dominant economic and political forces in the West remain in power. You can’t throw stones and erect barricades through the social media, even if you can reach gullible and easily manipulated hearts and minds. It takes more than a million tweets to generate real change, because tweets are simple and life is complicated. Talk is cheap. Doing is hard.

I come from a generation that said “give peace a chance”. Since then we’ve been rewarded for our dreamy good wishes with a succession of wars on almost every continent. We shouldn’t have been so naïve. It will take a long time to unpick the wrongs of centuries, and no amount of online rhetoric will change that.

We are in a bind, and the sooner we start thinking of ourselves as humans, not Muslims, atheists, Christians, Jews, Americans, Syrians and Russians, the sooner we can mitigate the suffering of the oppressed, the diseased, the mentally scarred, the dispossessed and those who have never possessed.

That’s the challenge, and firestorm of angry words and a million online voices are but leaves in the wind compared with the mountainous forces that stand in the way of the kind of progress that benefits the many rather than the few.

I’m not as clever as Professor Dabashi, but I do know enough to remind him that the battle between the original patricians and plebs, with whom he compares the victims and the oppressors of today, neither won.

The Roman Republic, after decades of vicious civil war, was replaced by an absolute monarchy that persisted in one form or another for 1,500 years. It took an Islamic empire to finally snuff it out after centuries of conflict on its slowly receding borders. If we are to avoid a millennium of conflict between the West, where many see our values and institutions as the philosophical New Rome, and those who resent what they see as its power, unequal control of global resources and its cultural dominance – or worse still, a swift and devastating conflagration that renders many of the battlegrounds uninhabitable for centuries to come – then we need to start creating some new narratives that include rather than exclude.

The old stories, no matter how comforting and familiar, won’t help us cope with the new.

I for one grieve for the three smiling youngsters in Chapel Hill. Just as I grieve for the kids in Sandy Hook who will never grow up to live their dreams, for the thousands of innocents who have met their deaths in conflicts in the Middle East, in Africa, in Europe and in Asia. But I refuse to bundle their deaths into a set of overriding narratives like the one being put forward by commentators such as Professor Dabashi. I don’t want to stop people from believing what they choose to believe or not to believe. I only want them to behave as humans can – with compassion, respect for others and a sense of common responsibility that transcends religion, nationality and ethnicity.

Unachievable and unrealistic perhaps, but surely something worth aiming for in this world rather than the next.

Thus speaks a Western “liberal”. Perhaps I would feel differently if the Chapel Hill shooter had taken my daughter.

Postcard from Hong Kong- Cutting Loose in Kowloon (Not)


Tai Chih

A brief stopover at one of my favourite cities on the way back from Bali. I wish I could say that we went hiking up to the Peak and strolling through the markets on Hong Kong Island, but unfortunately the best laid plans have been stymied by the hamstring I tore in England three weeks ago.

So I’m still in a wheelchair – this one kindly provided by our hotel in Hong Kong. Never mind. Lots of people watching to do, as in Bali.

The one word that sums up Hong Kong more than any other is energy. I’ve taken to sitting outside the hotel at the top of a promenade overlooking the strait between Kowloon and the island. Joggers, walkers, old and young. An old guy standing in front of the promenade railings doing Tai Chi. A woman in jogging gear posing from six different angles for a waterfront selfie. A guy running to the railings three times in ten minutes posing stiffly for a photo taken by someone out of sight. Why the same shot three times? The search for perfection perhaps.

HK Jogging

Back in the lobby, endless group photos in front of the new year tableaux. A family of six sits in a line waiting for something or someone. Each buried in a smart phone. No conversation, no books. Just phones. Is there any other invention that better epitomises the past twenty years? Everyone talking in a personal vacuum, nobody communicating. Photos and games and Facebook and Whatsapp. What indeed is app?

For all the incessant digital exchange, it seems to me that the world through a smart phone is like a mirror. An instrument for self-absorption. A perfect accessory for the little emperors and princesses on the mainland, products of the one-child policy.

Here you can predict with some accuracy which families are from the mainland and which aren’t. If there are two or more kids, the chances are that they’re local, or maybe expatriates from Malaysia, Singapore or further afield – Australia or America for example.

In the West we read many stories about the evils of the one-child policy. Elderly parents abandoned. Female pregnancies terminated. A nation with a dangerous gender imbalance – millions of young males looking hopelessly for a mate. Not so many pundits look at the other side of the equation – the perception of the single kids. My wife knows a couple of young Chinese students in London. Their view is that being an only child is no big deal. In fact they feel lucky. All the efforts and resources of the parents focused on them alone. Could their parents have afforded to send two or three children to one of the top ten academic institutions in the world in one of the most expensive cities in the world? Most probably not.

But what of the poor? The dilemma facing the only child: do I spread my wings and go to the city, or stay at home and care for my elderly parents? And if I go to the city, and most of my earnings go back to support my parents anyway, what chance do I have of finding a mate and starting my own family? In a country that still pays lip service to the principles of communism, the one-child policy’s legacy is surely a dangerous widening of the gap between rich and poor. It may now be have been repealed, but for a generation it’s too late. The damage is done.

Back at the hotel, my wheelchair experience continues. They’ve provided me with an industrial size vehicle – far more robust than the one in Bali, from which regularly bits regularly flew off. This one is more suited to Western physiques. They’re clearly used to facilitating guests with elephantine backsides. Mine is more bear-sized, so I have a bit of room to manoeuvre.

Going through Bali and Hong Kong airports in a wheelchair is another experience altogether. So easy and fast that my wife is thinking about injuring me in time for our next trip. A preferential route through immigration. No looking up at signs and wondering where the hell to go. No messing around in duty free. But be careful what you wish for, a little voice tells me. I met another wheelchair user in Bali who looked like death warmed up. She was still suffering from the effects of dengue fever. And she wasn’t the only one. A sour-looking guy in our hotel whom I had dubbed The Professor in a previous post from Bali turned out indeed to be a professor. The reason for his permanent expression of misery was that he caught dengue several days earlier. He also could hardly walk.

The incubation period for dengue fever is a maximum of ten days, so we’re counting off the days from yesterday.

Back to England tonight. A few more weeks of hobbling around and hopefully some physio to help my recovery along. Assuming all goes well, I shall be back to my running, jumping iron-man self in a couple of months – well OK, walking will be quite enough thank you very much.

But after three weeks in a wheelchair, I will never again take for granted the ability to stand on my own two feet, and I have a new appreciation for what is a permanent reality for many.

That’s a positive I wasn’t expecting to take from what should have been an ordinary holiday, but a positive it surely is.


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