Skip to content

2017 Retrospective: Part 1 – The Year of the Narcissist

I could have written much more about Donald Trump this year, but in the end I realised that there were so many people focused on him that I would find it hard to say anything that wasn’t already being said. But I suppose that as a Brit who frequently visits America,  I have my own perspective, so here’s a selection of stuff I did write on the character I liked to call The Walrus (as in the Carpenter).

In January he was inaugurated. The Steele Dossier first raises its ugly head:

So on the day Obama says goodbye, The Walrus (aka Trump) has to deny an “unsubstantiated report” that he has indulged in an extensive dalliance with the Russians. Which bit is not true, I wonder? Getting two prostitutes to pee on his bed? Or bribery? Or extensive contacts between members of his team and Russian intelligence? If the Russians have video evidence of his antics at the Ritz Carlton, it’s a fair bet that the two girls performed more, shall we say, personal, services for the cameras than just a bout of voluntary incontinence.

Lies, all of it, goddamit! As The Donald says, it’s fake news. But what if there’s a teeny-weeny grain of truth in the allegations made by our present-day George Smiley?

No doubt the religious right will forgive him for his sexual weakness – if the report is true of course. After all, there must be a few pastors and God-fearing brethren out there who have fantasised about some of the stuff allegedly on offer in Moscow. (From Dirty Linen in Moscow)

On Inauguration Day, I was in Da Nang, Vietnam. The parallels between Trump and Lyndon Johnson were irresistible:

If Trump had to make the decision to throw everything against the Viet Cong today, the protests, the personal vilification and the political pressure that led to Johnson standing down in 1969 would be amplified many times on the social media. There would be so much abuse thrown at him that he would take years to fire his customary retaliatory tweets at all the critics who would take aim at him.

Johnson, himself thin-skinned, endured the opprobrium for four years before he threw in the towel. Would Trump, who is a more fragile individual than LBJ ever was, last that long? I doubt it. It would probably be a matter of how long before he tried to do something irrational and catastrophically stupid, at which point one would hope that more grounded people around him would either thwart him or declare him no longer competent to continue in office.

How long? My guess is a year, maybe two. (From Postcard from Da Nang, on the eve of an inauguration)

When Trump signed his first Executive Order banning people from a number of Muslim countries from entering the United States, I wondered what a close friend of mine, now passed, would have made of the decision:

Steve was a Republican. I last saw him in Seattle shortly before he passed away. It was during the Bush-Kerry election campaign. The Bush posters were outside his house, and American flag flew proudly in the yard.

He was a kind man who was never less than supportive of the young Saudis who were determined to break free of their reliance upon Westerners, yet proud and happy when they went to study in his country. In no sense did he share the attitude of superiority that many of his colleagues felt towards “the Arabs”. There wasn’t a racist bone in his body, and though he wasn’t particularly religious himself, he was never less than respectful to the religion of his hosts.

I thought of him when chaos unfolded in the wake of Donald Trump’s intemperate and ill-considered Executive Order banning citizens from seven Muslim countries from entering the US. He would have been appalled by Trump, and appalled at the fall-out from Trump’s latest order. “Completed staff work”, he would have muttered. (From Trump’s immigrant ban – management by thunderbolt)

By February, people were starting to wonder (if they didn’t already) whether there was something wrong with the President:

Dementia doesn’t deal an even hand. It can hit you at any age, though more frequently when you enter your eighth decade. Harold Wilson resigned as British Prime Minister at sixty. He is said to have been concerned about his declining cognitive powers, and subsequently developed Alzheimer’s. Donald Trump is seventy, the same age as Reagan when The Gipper first came to the White House.

In his recent press conference, Trump lurched from subject to subject, free-associating with gay abandon. As for empty phrases and fillers, do “great”, “sad”, “loser” and “failed” qualify? I guess we’ll have to leave it to the shrinks to figure out whether he too shows signs of pre-dementia.

Given his frequent bizarre logic leaps, it’s scary to think that he’s only at the start of his term, not nearing the end as Reagan was when his decline became evident. Even if it turns out that Trump shows no sign of incipient dementia, it’s hardly likely that at his age he’s at the peak of his mental powers. (From Alzheimer’s – which of us is heading for the sunset, and do we want to know? Depends on who we are…)

As Trump puts his team together, there’s cause to wonder whether a new kind of presidency is emerging:

Are we looking at an entirely new style of presidency, wherein Trump continues to behave like a man running for election, and his senior cabinet members – with the support and connivance of Mike Pence – get on with the business of government despite him, rather than because of him?

In other words, a collective presidency – government by cabinet – while the man himself rants and raves in a bubble of sycophancy in the White House?

Whatever one thinks of the policies, a degree of consistency and coherence applied by his less ideological team members is surely more to be desired than Steve Bannon’s destructive testing of the world order, and the chaotic leadership Trump has shown thus far. (From The collective presidency – Trump’s accidental innovation?)

Will the cult of personality Trump seems to be building destroy his businesses as his brand becomes increasingly toxic?

I appreciate that I have an outsider’s view. I’m not American, and I would never, ever set foot in a Trump-branded hotel or holiday resort. The last thing I need on a holiday or business trip is to encounter a garish portrait of the leader in the vestibule. I’ve been to too many places in the Middle East where monarchs and dictators similarly beam (or glare) out at you in halls and reception areas.

But how many of the seventy million or so voters in the United States who didn’t go for Trump would touch one of his properties with a bargepole over the next four years? Far less than would have done before he entered the presidential race, I suspect. The brand is becoming toxic. (From Information War: toxic brands bring down the castles too)

Trump’s demise, if it happens, will be very different to that of Brexit, which I fervently hope for:

If you’re a Brit, and a political junkie like me, you might think that the Brexit entertainment would be a welcome alternative to all the stuff going on across the pond. There have been times when I and many others have seen Trump and Brexit as intertwined abominations. Now I’m coming to see that the differences are as significant as the similarities. Brexit is a slow, muddy river of depression, whereas Trump is a manic white-water ride.

Or, to use a different analogy, Trump may well be a supernova, flaming out in a gigantic explosion that will light up the sky. My country, on the other hand, seems to be a dying star, slowly degrading. This year: Brexit. In 2018: Scottish independence. Any time soon: renewed conflict in Northern Ireland. No longer united, no longer great. Our politicians are the opposite of Trump – risk-averse and predictable. They are boring us into submission. (From Parallel Washingtons come together – a delicious confluence)

The idea that Big Data was responsible for Trump’s election starts gaining traction:

… the idea of Dataism falls apart somewhat when you consider that the Masters of the Data Universe saw fit to achieve the election to the most powerful office in the world of the ultimate collection of screwed-up algorithms – an ignorant, unpredictable podgeblaster called Donald Trump – who is quite capable of reducing all our treasured data to little more than particles of radioactive silicon. It doesn’t seem so inevitable when you consider that a significant minority of our planet’s population have no connection to or interest in the great river of data, and are concerned only with getting enough to eat and protecting themselves from earthquake and famine. And when you consider that even if Trump doesn’t blow up the world, that minority will still have to contend with the effects of climate change as cities are swamped and fields turn to desert. Indeed, the minority might become a majority in the not too distant future.

Should the unthinkable not happen, and wildly unstable biological algorithms fail to bring us to our knees, we may yet become subordinated to unconscious intelligence and ultimately eliminated. So be it. (From I’m not a number! Hold on, I’m an algorithm – allegedly….)

Thoughts on the President’s beloved Wall:

I love walls. Many of them are beautiful, though not in the way Donald Trump predicts about his wall.

For me, walls that define and protect boundaries are symbols of failure. They are steeped in emotion – hubris, fear and sadness. Think of the famous walls that remind us of those emotions: Hadrian’s Wall, the Land Walls of Constantinople, the Great Wall of China.

All of them failed in their objectives. Hadrian’s successors couldn’t protect Britannia from the encroaching Saxons, let alone the Picts and the Scots to the north. The walls of Constantinople crumbled under the onslaught of the Ottoman cannon. And China’s wall, a landmark five thousand miles long, visible still from space, couldn’t keep out the Mongols.

Yet the bricks are still there for us to admire, as we contemplate the downfall of those who defended them. (From Note to Trump: the only beautiful walls are monuments to failure)

Trump fires Comey, and all hell breaks loose. But will the Russia affair bring him down?

If Trump has anything to hide, I would be very surprised if there weren’t multiple Deep Throats ready and waiting for the appropriate moment to release the bombshell that brings him down.

Management by fear works for tyrants who are able to surround themselves with loyalists and put apparatus in place to weed out traitors. The United States is not at that point and hopefully never will be. So Trump is making enemies and doesn’t have the means to deal with them. Which suggests that Russia notwithstanding, his leadership style will eventually be his undoing. Every major media organisation in the US that he has insulted over the past year is watching and waiting for his next misstep. (From Trump fires Comey – management by thunderbolt, not Russia, will bring him down)

Unlike Theresa May, the President is never boring:

The danger for the Conservatives is not that Theresa May is likely to implode in a Trumpian inferno. More likely that the electorate will become steadily more disenchanted with the consequences of Brexit, or die of boredom with her uninspiring persona.

Trump, on the other hand, could never be described as boring. His qualities are the very opposite to those that May trots out several times a minute. He’s doesn’t appear strong, despite all the dice that are stacked in his favour. And as for stable, well that’s a matter of opinion, or more likely of clinical diagnosis.

When all is said and done, we shouldn’t be surprised if Donald Trump manages to slash and burn his way through to 2020, and maybe beyond. What America and the world beyond will look like by then is anybody’s guess. (From Trump on the slippery slope? A view from the other side of the pond.)

A comparison between Sejanus, the feared henchman of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, and latter-day chiefs of staff in the US and the UK:

Imagine a day in the life of the unfortunate Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff. Surrounded by a web of poisonous relationships between scheming courtiers who hate each other. Walking corridors where staff nervously eye their mobile phones, occasionally muttering “POTUS is tweeting again…Jesus!” Constantly dealing with outrage and confusion over Trump’s utterances, and fending off lawsuits triggered by his flawed executive orders. Bombshells to the left and tantrums to the right.

How calm the waters of Downing Street must feel in comparison. But (Nick) Timothy and (Fiona) Hill will have their crises too, especially when the Brexit negotiations start unravelling. And Theresa May will not be content to be seen as a pliant plaything in the hands of two ambitious ideologues. (From A courtier’s life is not a happy one – ask Nick Timothy, Fiona Hill, Reince Priebus…..and Sejanus)

Trump goes to Saudi Arabia – with Melania in tow:

Trump and Saudi Arabia are made for each other. I’m pretty sure the President is finding much to admire, and perhaps even more to envy.

The Saudis, for example, respect the elderly. At 70, Trump is years past the retirement age of the average Saudi, so he definitely counts as worthy of deference.

They love KFC and MacDonalds. They love big buildings. In their gilded palaces, the décor will make him feel as though he is in Trump Tower. The chairs are built for Trump-sized rumps.

In Saudi Arabia, women know their place in traditional society. When the head of the house goes shopping, his wives follow him several steps behind – a practice with which Melania Trump would be familiar, judging by the recent picture of her following him down the steps of Air Force One. (From Trump in Saudi Arabia – much to admire, even more to envy)

Sean Spicer falls on his sword:

The president doesn’t really want anyone to speak for him. I get the impression that he would be far happier giving the occasional rambling interview with the fake news media, and then lambasting them with his late-night tweets. If he has something big to say, he can always call his faithful to a rally, or deliver some set-piece rant at a G7 conference, or speak to the nation from the White House lawn.

Who needs people like Spicer, who don’t have the brains to keep up with him? I suspect that Trump secretly envies Kim Jong Un, who in all his public appearances is surrounded by officials who capture his every thought by slavishly scribbling away in the little notebooks that each of them carries. What’s more, they never fail to giggle at his jokes. (From Alas poor Spicer, we knew him well)

So does Scaramucci:

The most extraordinary aspect of Scaramucci’s stunning impact on the US political stage is that to me at least – and most likely to the vast majority of people like me who watch the reality show from afar – his existence was unknown a week ago. It’s as if some TV producer invented him for Trump’s benefit and our amusement, like some new character parachuted into the Truman Show, or a contestant inserted into Love Island half-way through the series.

What’s next? Caligula’s horse? The Terminator? Coco the Clown? Your guess is as good as mine. One thing’s for sure, if he continues to recruit such colourful characters, Trump will put Broadway out of business. (From Anthony Scaramucci, the latest arrival on Love Island)

Looking on the bright side:

Donald Trump will eventually expire. By that I mean that his presidency will sooner or later end, unless the lunatics in the asylum manage to make him dictator for life. In that event, the demented heffapsycho still has a limited shelf life.

We’re still in the European Union. And will be until March 2019, unless the bleeding obvious jolts enough Members of Parliament out of their career-protecting ideological delusions and persuades them to call a halt to the whole thing. (From Mr Grumpy looks on the bright side)

Trump recognises Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. And so?

It means nothing in the sense that it will not change the Israel-Palestine impasse. Few countries will follow Trump’s lead. In political terms Israel’s possession of the city is no more legitimate today in the eyes of most of the world than it was before Trump issued his fatwa.

And if Jerusalem’s ancient walls were sentient, I suspect that they would be having a hollow laugh at Binyamin Netanyahu’s triumphant crowing, just as they would have done at Saladin’s glee.

Nothing is permanent in Jerusalem. Saladin passed on. Over the following eight hundred years, and up to the present day, there were more conquests, sackings, periods of peace, changes in control. No faith or political entity could truthfully be said to own the city. (From Jerusalem – Everything and Nothing)

And so it goes on, as my late mother used to say. Donald Trump is the writer’s gift that keeps on giving.


The 59steps Retrospective of 2017: Introduction

Another year over, but how to mark its passing? Like so many other writers, I usually post some thoughts on the catastrophes, triumphs and lessons learned in the previous twelve months, as well as a few pious hopes for the year to come.

But this year – the year of Trump, May, ISIS, bombs, storms, elections and fake news – deserves special treatment. So I’ve decided to compile a 59steps retrospective. Bits of stuff I’ve written on various subjects organised into themes. It would be grossly Trump-like to describe them as The Best of 59steps, because that presupposes that they’re all good in the first place. But I do think that some of the stuff I wrote deserves a recap in light of what followed.

The idea came to me through reading everything I wrote this year. The exercise served to remind me – as if I really needed reminding – what an extraordinary year we’ve just been through. And I wrote lots about it. A hundred-odd posts and at least 150,000 words, enough for one of those books you buy that you never quite get to finish because you lose the will to live at Page 376.

Quite a lot of stuff, and not so easy to reduce to a few pithy words to describe my main preoccupations: American politics, and inevitably Donald Trump; British politics, with our Brexit struggles and floundering governance; the Middle East, and especially the efforts of Saudi Arabia to transform itself; cyberpolitics and the social media; thoughts on places I visited; and finally an “any other” bin which includes a mix of history, social commentary and other stuff from my personal experience.

Some of the subjects overlap. I find it hard to write about Trump, for example, without making reference to parallels where they exist in other parts of the world. So if you’re patient enough to read the next few posts, don’t be surprised if I stray off subject from time to time.

I make no apology for the fact that some of these posts will be quite long reads. It’s been a long year, full of interesting events and worrying trends. Not all negative, but anyone from my neck of the woods who thinks that the world today is a safer, more settled place than it was 365 days ago must be naïve, senile or barking mad.

With that thought, I wish you a happy, safe and fulfilling New Year!

On Christmas Day: so much from those who have so little

Last night I celebrated Christmas Eve with a post about faith – how difficult I find it to go the extra mile it takes to believe in a deity, yet how important it is to have some form of faith.

As I was posting my piece, my sister, who is an Anglican priest in Bristol, was preparing to deliver a sermon at midnight on what Christmas means for her. In it, she talked about a personal experience in Palestine that brought her faith into focus.

With her permission I’m quoting from it:

Just over two years ago I visited Bethlehem.  I went there from Jerusalem- only about 8km but it was a hairy journey where we had to cross a check point with Israeli guards who were not helpful or welcoming. And it took most of the morning. Bethlehem is a town full of conflict but that’s nothing new.  When Jesus was born, it lay in territory ruled over by Herod: not a safe place to grow up in.

When I visited, the town, as it does now, had a huge Israeli military presence especially around the church of the nativity reputed to be where Jesus was born.  Some of our group were told by the organisation that sponsored them that it was too dangerous to be out after dark and that they would have to return to the safety of their hotel in Jerusalem. A few of us decided to stay to look round further and we ended up having a meal at the “Shepherd’s Field” restaurant at Beit Sahour overlooking the place thought to be the place where the shepherds might have lived. We could only get back to Jerusalem that night by taxi because the check points were shut to public transport. And that taxi journey- brief though it was touched the heart of what the gospel is all about. This is what happened.

We were whisked into three taxis by smiling Palestinians but after a mile or so the taxis turned off the main street. All three taxis stopped and the drivers got out. I began to feel uneasy- worrying about hijackings and mugging but after a few minutes the drivers were back in the car and took us off to the check point. When we got out of the taxis they laid before us boxes of cake and encouraged us to share the cakes with them. They smiled and laughed and did not want any money apart from the taxi fare. They thanked us for coming to visit Bethlehem and asked us to tell the world what life was like living under the shadow of the separation wall and the Israeli occupation. They had an exuberance and love of life that was so infectious despite having very little- it made me realise that sometimes those who have nothing can be free because they have nothing to lose.

The journey I made to Bethlehem that day was totally unexpected. I was made welcome and shared hospitality with those who had very little and didn’t need to offer us anything. It was a real reminder of the real hospitality and welcome that is at the heart of the gospel- the welcome of the arms of God outstretched in the life of Jesus- longing to welcome us to share and break bread with each other.

I am not sure if anyone saw the BBC drama “The Nativity” a few years ago.  One of the most powerful images occurred at the end where both the wise men and the shepherds are seen kneeling before the crib.  Balthazar wipes tears from his eyes, and tells the other wise men that this vision before him was what he had longed for all his life, and that this tiny child was truly the saviour of the world.  And the shepherds, often at the bottom of the economic pile simply looked in wonder and said “He has come for such as us”. The powerful and the powerless found their healing and hope in a tiny baby.

Whether or not you believe in the story and meaning of the Nativity, it’s a powerful message.

I too have experienced kindness in the Middle East from people who have little to give, and yet are prepared to give so much. I have found no hearts warmer than those of many Arabs I have encountered.

On this particular day I have no desire to get into the politics of immigration and refugees, but for me the most hopeful story I have read today is that of the 24 Syrian refugees who settled in a remote part of Scotland, and whose presence appears to be changing the Isle of Bute for the better:

Now almost every other shop space along the front is an empty one. But as well as the Orient Salon, a Syrian bakery and patisserie will soon open. The Syrian people fleeing terror have possibly brought with them the miracle of life for Bute.

A small regeneration is taking place on the island. Four new babies have been born to the Syrian families and another is on the way. In their own way they are bringing optimism to a west of Scotland community that had almost forgotten what it meant.

The whole article in The Guardian is here. I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions. But I do know that if you open your doors, and equally importantly, your hearts, to people in dire need of a helping hand, good things often happen when you least expect them.

And at the risk of sounding excessively pious (for which I apologise in advance), as good a message as you could possibly send to those who advocate keeping the door shut on principle, regardless of need, is this: perhaps it’s time to re-examine your principles.

The Leap of Faith

This Christmas my wife and I are in different countries. She, grieving with her brothers and sisters for her recently-departed mother, and me, ready to lend a hand if needed to support our daughter and her partner, who are about to become parents themselves. It’s the first time we’ve been apart at this time of year in thirty-four years of marriage.

It feels strange, though not because of my temporary solitude – I’m quite used to that, and entirely comfortable in my own company. But what it does mean is that the family rituals of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are stripped away. No visits, no midnight mass, no present opening, at least on the night before the day, when the frenetic preparation slowly subsides.

Tomorrow, on Christmas Day, our daughter and her partner will be coming over to cook. Another first. The Christmas dinner is my job, just as it was my mother’s job before she became to feeble to handle the multi-tasking ballet required to bring the traditional elements to the table. The mantle fell on me a long time ago, and now it is about to slip on to someone else. I shall become a recipient, not a giver, at least in terms of physical effort. A watershed that points towards decline and death.

But not for a while, I hope.

So today, relieved of the usual obligations, I’ve enjoyed an opportunity for contemplation as my country prepares for the holiest day of the year. In any other terms Christmas is meaningless. It must be a focus for faith or it is nothing. Or at least, no more significant than Black Friday.

I’m not religious, but I am a Christian to the core. I’m profoundly moved by the rituals, the music, the sublime works of art and architecture inspired and created by the faithful. My values are Christian, and I try, usually unsuccessfully, to live up to them.

But long ago I lost the ability to make the leap of faith that would allow me to accept a deity that sees all, knows all, and yet is so disengaged as to allow humans to do to each other unspeakably awful things. A deity that allows the good to die young and the hateful to live long malignant lives.

The fault is mine, not the deity’s. I’m perfectly happy to accept other things in life that “pass understanding”. The mystery of love, for example. Why can’t I just submit, as Muslims say, to the ultimate unknowable?

I don’t ask that question of myself too often. Most of the time I’m busy dealing with the knowable, often with a cynical, knowing veneer. This morning I was going to write about Brexit (yet again), and news items such as the suggestion that being fat makes you happy, and the story of the French doctor who hasn’t worked for thirty years but still draws a salary because his colleagues won’t let the hospital fire him. I was going to grieve for the aardvark and the meerkats whose lives in captivity ended with a fire at London Zoo, and I was going to cast scorn on the idea that anyone would be prepared to eat a plate of spinach every day to stave off dementia. And I was going to join the chorus of contempt for those in Britain who think that changing the colour of our passports will make anybody but an idiot feel better about the fate that awaits us as an “independent” nation.

But I couldn’t. My heart wasn’t in it. The only thing that really engaged me was a sense of wonder that an idea, unknowable and unprovable, should impel so many millions of people, believers or otherwise, to focus on the symbols, the rituals, the expectations and the traditions of one special day in the year. And why people should act with kindness and generosity that is often beyond them on other days. And why it is that the idea should have inspired so many acts of sublime creativity.

The only way that I, who cannot embrace the deity, can explain the conundrum is to suggest that the catalyst that drives our behaviour is not so much the deity, but the mental condition of faith. If we have no faith, be it in the Muslim or Christian god, in the teachings of Buddha, in the Hindu gods, in the spirits and the ancestors or in the secular works that inspire our behaviour, we find it very difficult to function as human beings. If we stop believing in the possibilities of the future, we surely stop wanting to live.

I envy those who leave their future to God, who accept that there is something bigger than us, and that we can better understand what that something is by worshipping together, praying together and believing together. I do accept that we are part of a higher order of things – but I simply don’t have a clue about what the higher order might be. That’s why I’m fascinated by religion in all its forms, and curious about faith in all its diversity.

Perhaps I’m also waiting for something that will impel me to make my own leap of faith, which I suspect is harder to do for an adult scarred by decades of life experience than for a child who has never questioned the reason for believing.

Or perhaps I have as much faith as I will ever have: in the power of love, in the ability to rise above suffering, in the strength that forgiveness brings.

Whatever your faith, this Christmas I hope that you are strengthened by it, nurtured by it and use it to make our world a better place.

RetroSaudi: The Agony Uncles

This post, the latest in my RetroSaudi series comparing the Saudi Arabia I lived in thirty years ago with the country today, is about my experience of the rules of observance in Islam.

As someone brought up in the mild traditions of the modern Church of England, I was never much attracted to the symbolism and the rituals of Catholicism. For me, faith was always about the big things – belief, attitude and behaviour – rather than what I saw as the minutiae.

When I first came to Saudi Arabia, I was constantly surprised by the emphasis among devout Muslims of rules – rules for worship and rules for daily life. Lots of them. Big ones, medium-sized ones and little ones.

In the Anglican church, apart from the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, we didn’t seem to have many rules that we were expected to follow if we were to avoid going to hell.

We once even had a Bishop of Durham who doubted the Virgin Birth. Enough to have had him burnt at the stake as a heretic in earlier centuries. And he certainly wouldn’t be very popular if he was a Muslim expressing similar sentiments about the origins of Islam.

Although I had long possessed a rudimentary knowledge of the Holy Quran, and the importance of the Hadiths, in which the acts and words of the Prophet, and, by extension, the example he set, are enshrined, it only fully dawned on me how important rules are in Islam – or at least the Islam practised in Saudi Arabia – when I became a regular reader of the Arab News.

This august broadsheet was Saudi Arabia’s first English-language daily newspaper. Many of the cuttings from previous episodes of RetroSaudi came from copies of the newspaper I brought back to the UK when I finished my first stint in the late 80s.

As anyone familiar with the Muslim world will know, Friday is to Muslims what Sunday is to Christians – a day of rest and religious devotion. Yes, I know, in the West it’s become a day for shopping, football and DIY. But wherever Islam is practised, Friday is still the day for putting your best togs on and going to the mosque, even if you don’t manage it at any other time of the week.

In keeping with the requirement for religious contemplation, this was also the day when the Arab News would publish a centre spread devoted to Islam. I’ve always been interested in the great religions, so it became one of my favourite reads of the week, and not only because of the learned articles contributed by the sheikhs.

What fascinated me most was what could be described as the agony column. Whereas in the West, agony aunts try to unravel a host of sexual and emotional conundrums for their suffering readers, the Arab News agony column was devoted to dilemmas of faith.

People would write in with what to a non-Muslim’s eyes were bizarre questions about religious practice. Many were related to what the business world would describe as compliance issues. What amazed me was the minute detail of observance that clearly worried the readers.

Sometimes the queries were broad and quite fundamental, such as this one on the nature of prayer:

And this one about divorce:

Other questions were related less fundamental issues, such as bodily functions invalidating acts of worship. They are in excruciating detail, as are the answers:

Since the questions appeared in an English-language publication, I doubt if those seeking answers were Saudi. There were numerous Arabic publications with similar sections. I suspect that most of those who wrote in English were expatriates from the Indian subcontinent. As this clipping illustrates, concern with the form rather than the content of devotion was a theme that exercised people back home, too:

The purpose of these cuttings is not to mock, but to illustrate how important detailed observance is to the Muslim faith. It would be highly presumptuous for me to offer an opinion about the minutiae of another person’s religion. I think it’s important to keep an open mind.

In fact I once had a highly informative discussion with a Saudi doctor at a workshop I was facilitating. He was keen to stress the health benefits of the physical act of praying. He then took me into the bathroom and talked me through the process of ablution, which he had me try for myself. I have to say that I would find it hard to carry out such a ritual five times a day, but clearly for an observant Muslim it’s part of the rhythm of life. But as someone who injured his back a while ago, and needs to carry out regular stretching exercises to keep a recurrence at bay, I can certainly appreciate his point about the bending and stretching required at prayer.

More than anything else, what these letters from anxious people conjured up for me is lonely men in their male-only accommodation  – and occasionally women, perhaps working within Saudi families – worrying about whether they’re on the right path to the hereafter. After all, money was not (and still isn’t) the only reason for so many from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh to leave their families and friends and live often thankless lives in the birthplace of Islam.

A wider perspective is that these agony columns were a precursor to the internet forums and religious channels that abound today. Religious TV is as popular in the Middle East as reality TV in the West. Broadcasting from a number of countries in the region, sheikhs deliver their opinions on matters great and small. They have huge followings, even if some of their utterances are met with popular derision.

A few years ago a sheikh in Saudi Arabia, Saleh al-Lohaidan, ventured the opinion that driving was detrimental to women’s health. As the BBC quoted him at the time:

“If a woman drives a car, not out of pure necessity, that could have negative physiological impacts as functional and physiological medical studies show that it automatically affects the ovaries and pushes the pelvis upwards,” Sheikh Lohaidan told the news website

“That is why we find those who regularly drive have children with clinical problems of varying degrees.”

Soon afterwards, at least partly in response to the sheikh’s advice, a video appeared on YouTube featuring a young Saudi singing No Woman No Drive, a glorious adaptation of Bob Marley’s classic.

Never let it be said that Saudis lack a sense of humour.

More recently, Sheikh Mohammed Al Arifi, one of the prominent clerics who avoided Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent clampdown, drew a less humorous response when he expressed a view on whether it was permissible to wash the feet before prayers without taking socks off. One Twitter follower commented “Jerusalem is lost and you are talking about socks”.

The agony columns of the 80s seemed to indicate a hunger for guidance. This in turn suggested a lack of confidence, or an unwillingness to rely on one’s own knowledge. Perhaps it also reflected the possibility that religious education was scantier for South Asians thirty years ago than it is now.

The hundreds of madrassas funded by the Kingdom in the intervening years across the subcontinent will undoubtedly have improved understanding among their students of the faith, even if the teachings are not necessarily to the liking of all Muslims, and certainly not to westerners who blame them for the spread of jihadi violence.

Today, most of the religious channels are in Arabic, a language spoken only by a minority of South Asians, which suggests that at least in the Arab world, the hunger for guidance is still strong. Since some of these channels – and those who broadcast on them – are beyond the reach of the most determined autocrats, it’s easy to understand why one country could nearly go to war with another that it accuses of supporting what it considers the pernicious influence of the internet agony uncles and their inflammatory rhetoric.

The sheikhs were far easier to control when their only means of expression were the newspaper articles they wrote and the mosques in which they preached. In the 1980s, the nearest equivalent to the modern religious channels were the cassettes of their sermons that found their way into mosques and bookshops throughout the world. Satellites and the internet are far more effective.

I don’t blame those who turn to religious authorities for certainty in a volatile, confusing world. And many of the sheikhs I’ve met are positive, moderating influences. But sometimes I can’t help thinking of the scene in the movie The Life of Brian, when the accidental not-the-messiah appears on his balcony and tries to send away the mob of would-be followers by screaming out:

You don’t need me!

You don’t need anyone!

You’ve got to think for yourselves!

You’re all individuals!

A subversive message indeed.

Jerusalem: “Nothing and Everything”

In my favourite scene from Ridley Scott’s crusader epic Kingdom of Heaven, Balian of Ibelin, the defender of Jerusalem, asks Saladin “what is Jerusalem worth?” “Nothing”, says Saladin, and then, as he turns back to the defeated crusader, “everything!”

I keep coming back to those words when I think about Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

It means nothing in the sense that it will not change the Israel-Palestine impasse. Few countries will follow Trump’s lead. In political terms Israel’s possession of the city is no more legitimate today in the eyes of most of the world than it was before Trump issued his fatwa.

And if Jerusalem’s ancient walls were sentient, I suspect that they would be having a hollow laugh at Binyamin Netanyahu’s triumphant crowing, just as they would have done at Saladin’s glee.

Nothing is permanent in Jerusalem. Saladin passed on. Over the following eight hundred years, and up to the present day, there were more conquests, sackings, periods of peace, changes in control. No faith or political entity could truthfully be said to own the city.

Trump, Netanyahu and Abbas will also pass on. Unless the city is destroyed in an apocalypse, new leaders and new dynamics will come into play, and the struggle for mastery will continue.

No matter that Jerusalem means everything to those who seek to rebuild the temple, regain possession of Al-Aqsa and the Dome or hasten the second coming of Jesus, Trump’s pathetic gesture will most probably turn out to mean nothing to ordinary Israelis brutalised by the fear of encirclement and annihilation, and to ordinary Palestinians whose lives under occupation can hardly get worse.

The sadness in all of this is that we lucky people who only have the price of bitcoins and a few snow storms to worry about seem to think that we live in a better world than that of our ancestors.

The unholy conflict in what the devout call the Holy Land shows us that we don’t.

We’d better not be too complacent, because what we call civilisation is a very thin veneer.

Postcard from Ireland: the Passing of a Matriarch

Last week, Ireland had one of its rare moments in the international media spotlight, as Theresa May struggled to satisfy the Irish government and her obdurate partners in the north over the issue of what kind of border will exist between the two Irelands post-Brexit.

I was in the country for an entirely different reason: to attend the funeral of my mother-in-law Blaithín Meade in a country town thirty miles from Dublin.

Blaithín was a mother of six, a school teacher, music teacher and a tireless worker for many local charities. She died after an illness that caused her to spend the last ten weeks of her life in hospital. Like many mothers – especially Irish ones – she was the hub of her family, even more so in the fifteen years since the death of her husband Pat.

I was at Pat’s funeral as well, but this was before the death of my own parents in England, so I had no opportunity to compare different approaches to death in the two islands.

When my mother died three years ago, it took three weeks to book the church and the crematorium, and for the four of us siblings to agree a date for the funeral.

In Ireland, things work very differently. Funerals are held within a maximum of three days from the person’s death, regardless of who can or cannot attend. And so it was with Blaithín.

I arrived at the family home the night before the funeral. The wake had taken place on that day. Blaithín lay in an open coffin in the front room. A stream of visitors came to the house to pay their respects. Tea, cakes and sandwiches were on hand.

If you’ve ever seen movies in which an Irish wake is portrayed, you might immediately think of men like Milo O’Shea or Brendan Behan with cloth caps supping Guinness long into the night, occasionally bursting into song. That may still happen deep in the country, but not in Navan.

When I arrived late at night I looked at the condolence book, where visitors had signed their names. There were two pages of names, which seemed quite a lot. But that was by no means all. I looked further and found another six. Around two hundred people stopped by in the course of one day. Each would stay for between ten minutes and half an hour, say goodbye to Blaithín, pay their respects to the family and leave.

By the time I arrived, my wife and her brothers and sisters sat in a state of numb exhaustion.

Then there was the funeral itself. The rituals started with the removal of the coffin. The priest came into the house, said a prayer, and after the relatives had had the chance to say goodbye, the coffin was closed, and carried out to the hearse.

A slow procession headed for the church. As the hearse passed, people in the street instinctively stopped, faced the coffin, crossed themselves and waited for it to pass before resuming their business.

As with funerals more or less anywhere, loved ones carried the coffin on to a trolley, and it moved into into the church, where hundreds of mourners were waiting.

Inside the church, an innovation. The parish has installed a webcam, which allows anyone not able to attend in person to log in and view the ceremony. And so they did, from Galway in the west of Ireland to America, Australia, Spain and Germany. One set of relatives, who were delayed by traffic at the start of the mass, even watched it in their car.

It fell to me to introduce a sweet little tribute from Blaithín’s children, wherein each carried up an object that symbolised one aspect of her life. A book, a sheet of music, a teddy bear and a family photo.

On the day when the border controversy was at its peak, I had to resist the temptation to introduce myself to the mourners as a visitor from the land of Brexit, and to tell them how pleasant it was to be among sane people again. But I didn’t, because this occasion wasn’t about me. God knows what Donald Trump would have said.

The funeral mass took about an hour, with the usual words of comfort from the priest. He was a young guy with jet-black hair and a long beard. Afterwards, a few people agreed that he would look the part in a black turban, Ayatollah-style. Or perhaps in the regalia of a Russian Orthodox priest. One denizen of Islington even compared him to a Shoreditch hipster. Whatever – he was impressive, eloquent and compassionate.

After the customary conversations outside the church, we then made our way to the graveyard. Cremations are not common in Ireland except in the cities where burial space is limited.

At the grave, more prayers, a piece of Blaithín’s favourite music and a poem read by the undertaker, a family friend. Tears and linked arms as the coffin was lowered into the grave. More holy water, flowers from her sister and a handful of earth.

Then those of us who made it to the grave ceremony moved on to a local hotel, where a three-course lunch big enough to sink a battleship awaited.

And that was what my Irish relatives would describe as a decent funeral, as indeed it was.

But what was just as impressive was the way the family pulled together during Blaithín’s last weeks in hospital. Not a day went past when there weren’t two or three visits from her children and grandchildren, from her sister and brother-in-law in Galway, who were themselves not in the best of health, and from others who knew her well. Not ten-minute visits either – hours sitting by her bed, holding her hand, helping her with physio that they hoped would pave the way to the recovery that never came. Never giving up hope, even as the patient took one step forward and two steps back.

What made the difference was that five out of her six children live locally. That would have been quite normal fifty years ago, but less so now. After all, Ireland has always been a land of diaspora, whose children spread their wings and end up far from home. But in Blaithin’s case, those who had lived abroad – apart from my wife – eventually returned. She was surrounded by loved ones who cared for her until the end.

As I played my limited part in the proceedings, I kept remembering my mother’s funeral. It was a far quieter affair, which reflected her personality – far more introverted than Blaithín, not someone who made friends so easily. She was 94 when she died, ten years older than my mother-in-law. Most of her life-long friends had gone before her.

She spent her last few years in a care home, slowly succumbing to dementia, whereas Blaithín was sharp as a pin to the end. Three of my mother’s four children lived some way away, and for various reasons were not able to visit her often. The burden of care fell largely on my wife, and on me when I was in the country.

Many of her fellow-residents in the care home rarely had visitors, which we found desperately sad. When we visited, we took our dog, and made the rounds of the old ladies sitting aimlessly in their armchairs.

At her funeral there were far less mourners – ourselves, a few family friends and some who knew her from the local church. The wake, such as it was, consisted of light refreshments in the church after the visit to the crematorium.

Two very different endings to life. I’m not saying either was typical of the countries in which they took place, and it would be wrong to draw conclusions from them about the cultures of England and Ireland. Blaithín lived her life in a country town. My mother in a city. A couple of years ago, a close friend died in rural Essex, and his funeral was similar to Blaithín’s. No doubt some urban funerals in Ireland would resemble my mother’s.

There are not many upsides to death, unless it serves to release us from pain and suffering. Yet at the funeral of someone who has lived to old age, we console each other with the thought that they lived a full life and a good one, even if in some cases – though not in Blaithín’s – they haven’t.

With her passing we, the children and in-laws, have become the next generation that will be expected to go. It’s an uneasy feeling when you realise that one of you is likely to be next. Personally, if someone came to me and gave me the choice of not knowing when I would die, or the certainty that I would live to 87, I’d take the latter, even if I might feel differently as the time approached.

Whether you leave this life quietly and hardly noticed, or your passing is accompanied by a cast of thousands, as long as you live your full span, then your loved ones should be grateful that you were so privileged, when others in the past and still today are cut down before their time by untreatable disease, war and the capricious intervention of accidents.

If Blaithín’s funeral followed time-honoured traditions, so did her death – surrounded by people who loved her and cared deeply for her. What more could you ask for?

%d bloggers like this: