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Damn you Twitter, you keep shattering my windows

May 29, 2015

Yemen

I’m having a red hat day. And I blame it on Twitter.

About two months ago I started checking out Twitter feeds on a daily basis. I wish I hadn’t, but now I’m addicted.

I avoid the feeds of the great and the good, because half of them aren’t written by them. They’re the work of blatherous PR people. And anyway, what can I hear from Barack Obama and David Cameron that I can’t pick up with lashings of opinionated tosh (I was going to say comment and analysis, but as I said, this is a red hat day) from newspapers and websites?

Celebs are boring. Thespians should be watched and not read. Footballers tend to be as thick as two short planks (with a few honourable exceptions). Rock musicians? I suppose those who still have functioning brains have something to say, but there aren’t many of them left from my era.

So what’s left? Writers, journalists, and people valiantly tweeting from a stricken land. People who dance on a tightrope between saying what they want to say and being persecuted for saying it. Historians. People writing from and about the Middle East. Not everyone’s taste for sure, but they work for me.

Some of them are such prolific tweeters that you wonder how they find the time. Is this a hobby or profession? If the latter, how the hell do they make money from it? What’s the motivation? Ego, celebration, concern for the world, personal branding, boredom or cries from the wilderness?

I don’t follow many people, and not many follow me. The tweets of the people I follow outnumber those who follow me. This is not surprising, since I only tweet when I post to my blog. I can’t bring myself to play the town crier who feels he has to tell the world about everything he finds interesting. Selfish me.

As a side issue, the balance between followers and the followed is quite interesting. Has anyone created a power index based on the gap between the two? Christiane Amanpour, for example, has 1.36 million followers, but only follows 124 lucky people. She must be near the top of any such listing. You could call it the Narcissus Index.

As for my followees (anyone used that word before?), many impress with their renaissance-grade range of interests. Tom Holland, for example, a historian whose work I greatly admire. When he’s not playing cricket against the Vatican XI in Rome, he’s off to Alberta in search of dinosaurs. Or risking his life at the Hay Festival by talking about reforming Islam. Or checking out Roman ruins at glorious locations on the west coast of Italy.

Then there’s Mary Beard, ancient historian par excellence (and I’m not talking about your age, Professor – after all, I’m older than you are). She pops up on regular basis sharing thoughts about subjects far beyond Greece and Rome, opening herself up to yet more abuse from slimy trolls.

And Laura Rozen, who writes for AlMonitor. She’s my queen of the re-tweeters. 24 re-tweets in four hours on subjects ranging from Don Blatterone of FIFA to shenanigans behind the scenes of the Iran nuclear negotiations, with the thoughts of Putin and Obama thrown in.

Another favourite is Rashid Abu-Alsamh, a Saudi-American journalist who lives in Brazil, and whose eclectic taste in stories knows no bounds. Pity I can’t read Portuguese, so I’m precluded from enjoying his Brazilian posts (lazy me, I should use Google Translate. Sorry Rashid).

I read lots of posts about Yemen, Syria and Iraq. The most heart-breaking stuff comes from Ammar al-Aulaki, who tweets from Sanaa. Every day he reports on bombings in the city. A recent one shattered his windows and rearranged the furniture. Power cuts, water shortages, deaths, injuries and human suffering from one of the poorest countries in the Middle East. A people caught between various actors beating the hell out of each other and them into the bargain. And for all that, someone with great fortitude and relentless optimism.

So my problem is that in between the fun and eccentric tastes of some people I follow, the endless stream of posts about the manipulation, cynicism, stupidity, envy, cruelty and hypocrisy of the self-serving SoBs who hold sway over vast areas of the globe, and the poverty, repression and destruction of the soul over which they preside, make for a pretty depressing read.

And in no region are those qualities shown in greater abundance than in the Middle East, most of whose people just want to be left alone to pursue better lives for themselves and their loved ones. The stamped-on majority, dodging bullets, bombs and policemen in a region I love almost as much as my homeland.

My fault. I chose the people I follow. Maybe I should sign up with Pope Francis, Kim Kardashian, metal bands or stodgy academics.

Yet I continue to read, because in between the stream of posts about stuff I already know or don’t want to know about lurk gems in places I might never have explored. Fresh opinions. Sites I’d never heard of. The occasional flash of 140-character wit (mostly from Tom Holland). Great travel writing by Matthew Teller. Insight from the likes of Andrew Hammond, Frank Gardner and Brian Whitaker.

And anyway, why should I be depressed? Think of the starving millions, as the nuns used to tell little schoolgirls who wouldn’t eat their lunch. Wherever I go it’s in relative comfort. No RPGs and snipers waiting around the corner (though I sometimes wonder about that when I venture out in the streets of Riyadh). No sitting beaten and bloody in some cell from which I might never emerge. No need to pander, flatter, crawl and tip the non-existent forelock in deference to some arbitrary power.

So those Twitter feeds serve another purpose. To remind me how very lucky I am that an accident of birth brought me into a part of the world where the rule of law prevails (mostly). Where I’m free to mock and be mocked. Where I was fortunate enough to get an education that saved me from the dole. And where I have a reasonable chance of dying in my bed rather than at the bottom of a rubble-filled bomb site, or by a flashing blade on a piece of desert wasteland.

Yet all the blessings counted daily are not enough to spare me from regular waves of melancholy. A wringing of impotent hands at daily acts of inhumanity.

So what to do, as my Arab friends like to say? Keep reading, keep writing, keep caring. Keep loving life, keep loving people and throw the occasional oar in as the need arises and, I’m ashamed to say, expediency allows.

That’s the life of a back-seat witness whose armour-plated windows keep being shattered. Damn you Twitter.

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