We don’t need to escalate

Here we are again, looking for a target for all that stockpiled ordinance we have that’s sitting around not being useful and blowing people apart. As with Afghanistan in 2001, drawing up a list of targets when much of Syria is made of rubble will not be easy. But still that brave Mr Cameron is prepared to give it a go.


He claims that doing so will prevent an attack on UK soil, when – as with Iraq – all those remaining capable of rational thought and not so maddened by the scent of blood in the air must know that it makes such an attack more likely.

Then there is the question of exactly which faction of murderous nutters we will be bombing in support of. The likely beneficiaries, according to Patrick Cockburn in the Independent, are going to be groups dominated by fighters affiliated to Al-Qaeda. You will have to forgive me if I don’t break out the Victory Gin in response.

The only thing that is going to resolve Syria to the extent that refugees might consider returning is a political resolution. All sides know this but as all sides hate all of the potential outcomes, we are supposed to stand aside again as the war drums take another pounding and be painted as naive idiots for not wishing to jump into what Cockburn rightly describes as,

a civil war of great complexity and extreme savagery.

Those reasonable voices, by the way, do not all belong to the left, although the usual suspects in the media are doing their best to paint those lacking a lust for cluster bombs as sandal-wearing peaceniks. Tory MP John Baron has stated:

Air strikes will only reinforce the West’s failure in the region generally at a time when there are already too many aircraft chasing too few targets.

He noted recently in an article on Conservative Home (yes, I know. Not my usual choice of reading material either…) that there can be no realistic resolution without involving Iran and Russia. Or accepting the unpalatable spectre of Assad remaining in power for at least a time. Otherwise what comes after him will almost certainly make Libya look like a smooth transition to democracy.

Syria at this point is all grey area. There are no good or easy paths out of this quagmire. Any attempt to make it into a battle between ‘our’ good guys and ‘their’ bad guys will end in the arming and assisting of some truly awful people, leading to the same unintended consequences, heightened terror alerts and traumatised children who develop into tomorrow’s suicide bombers on the streets of another capital city. Instead of doing the same thing and expecting a different result, I wish we could take the road less travelled and, in the words of a song written for an earlier, far-off, yet too-similar war:

We’ve got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today

Let’s hope (against hope) that this time, we get it right.

Picture of Homs in 2011 and 2014 from the Guardian

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Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

There has never been a better time to read Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Not only because it has recently been hailed as:

A benchmark for excellence in fiction writing

by the Baileys prize judges as they crowned it the ‘best of the best’ of the past decade’s winners. Not only if – like this reader – you were woefully ignorant of the Biafran war, its causes and consequences and your own government’s underhand behaviour throughout the period covered by the novel. Instead, read it because it really is an enlightening tale, far from being a dry history lesson, instead packed with vivid, memorable characters who it is difficult to step away from every evening when it becomes time to put down the book.


Twin sisters Olanna and Kainene couldn’t be more different in their approach to life after graduation: Kainene dryly amused by her work in their father’s businesses while Olanna heads off to an unfashionable university in a outlying town to be with her boyfriend Odenigbo (who Kainene dismisses as ‘the revolutionary’). Events leading up to the outbreak of war between Nigeria and Biafra conspire to drive the sisters apart and it is not immediately clear that they will be able to resolve their differences amid the chaos. The stories are also narrated in part by Richard, Kainene’s British boyfriend, who is attempting to write a novel inspired by Igbo-Ukwu art and Ugwu, Odenigbo’s houseboy, whose adolescence, education and journey to maturity are interrupted by the fighting.

This is a novel of bold ambition, not only in telling the stories of the war, but in dealing with the themes that engaged and challenged people through the 1960s. Olanna and Odenigbo are both academics, hosting colleagues and visitors at their home each night for lively, wide-ranging and drunken debates on the future of post-colonial Africa. Kainene and Olanna are both modern girls, keen to have careers and not be as dependent on their men as their mother perhaps is. Meanwhile fine distinctions abound – between wealthy Olanna (who after fleeing finds herself missing her tablecloths) and her aunt’s more down-to-earth family, the differences between the sophisticated city dwellers and the superstitions of village life, Richard’s attempts to distinguish himself from the other Westerners – which are often missed when the ill-informed speak of ‘Africa’ as one mass.

Although set in a different continent and era, it is difficult to escape the thought that not much has changed, as Olanna and Odenigbo are displaced from one home to another and another, each one more precarious until they arrive at a refugee centre. Initially, as the ‘police action’ begins and rumours swirl, they are so convinced that the situation can be resolved that it is not until they hear the sound of shelling outside that they finally decide leave their home. It is such an unplanned flight that they leave with a half-cooked pot of soup in the back of the car and not much else. Earlier, when the twins’ parents decided to go to London it was easy for the younger relatives to dismiss it as an over-reaction. By the time it looks sensible, of course, it is too late to follow them. The targetting of civilians, forced conscription, starvation being used as a weapon, other nations lining up to support one or the other side, rapes by soldiers: this is the story of the brief nationhood of Biafra, but it is not too dissimilar to what is in the news today and it seems we are no more able to prevent it and assist the victims than we were back then.

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Did you care about Beirut as well?

The online landscape has been akin to the shifting sands of the desert in the days since the attacks in Paris. As also happened after the attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine, many of the initial responses were graphical, with a very striking image of the Eiffel Tower looking like a CND badge by Jean Jullien quickly being shared far and wide. Facebook, which had initially offered a service to Parisians to let friends know they were safe, also rolled out a feature which allowed users to superimpose the French flag over their profile pictures, akin to the rainbow flags which did the rounds after the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling earlier in the year.

This wave of virtual tears then crashed on the shores of ‘whataboutery’, when other similar yet less prominent killings in other countries and cities around the world were invoked, culminating in a debate about whether higher prominence should have been given to the 43 people killed by a bomb that went off in Beirut the day before the Paris attacks. Did you care about Beirut? And did you do it quickly enough? Before or after this prompting?



As one article pointed out, sharing a link from the BBC News website and complaining that the media is ignoring a story you feel should be receiving greater attention shows you the limitations of this argument: The media did cover the attacks, you just weren’t reading it. The writer notes:

“Why didn’t the media cover *insert country here*?” appears to actually be shorthand for “Why wasn’t this story shared extensively on my Facebook feed?”

Increasingly we are taking our news via the social media sites and the way in which such stories reach us – via the algorithms which determine which friends’ posts we see the most of and which kinds of stories ‘pop up’ – is anything but random. Facebook is in the business of generating engagement and it is enhancing that by learning about our habits. That function on Facebook for Parisians to show they were safe that I was so impressed by was perhaps in response to a ‘person finder’ function that Google enabled after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011. There are social benefits to these initiatives, of course, but the sites are not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, remember. They want our engagement and they generate that partly by linking us with our global communities as well as by making themselves invaluable to us.

You could call me paranoid, I suppose, but the way that the Tricolore spread across the profile pictures of friends around the world and how that change was prompted by Facebook itself does make me wonder. Were we the guinea pigs in another behavioural study similar to this one on the Diffusion of Support in an Online Social Movement, as mentioned in this Washington Post story about the rainbow flags? Facebook was not particularly subtle in its prompting: a story about a friend’s updated profile picture with a button below to allow you to change yours. I am sure that they would never in a month of Sundays admit to using this kind of news story in such a way, but it does make you wonder. Or perhaps I need a tinfoil hat…

If, as this intriguing read from the New Statesman on PETA, Ferguson, jihad, Doctor Who, rape and kitten pictures (honestly, it’s great, give it a read) suggests:

Anger online is a cyclical parasite

then it stands to reason that online compassion or empathy is too. If you are pissed off that *insert location here* is not getting the right amount of attention, you must share more stories about that place in such a way that encourages your friend group to share those stories. Maybe then we will soon see the option to superimpose the flag of Lebanon over our profile pictures.


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I felt numb all over. Not this. Not again. Nothing original to say. Too many words getting thrown around elsewhere, why add to them? As the numbness wore off, it was like coming round from an anaesthetic, the pain starts again and the thoughts start to whirl. Why is it more shocking when it is Paris? Is it because it is happening on streets you have walked down, somewhere you could have been, somewhere you recognise, somewhere close. Not so easy to dismiss as when it happens in unfamiliar surroundings.

We have to face that our machinations over the past few decades have caused this to happen many, many times. We helped turn Afghanistan from a place where travellers arrived in the Sixties via the hippy trail, to one whose most recognisable public figure is a schoolgirl who got shot in the head. We turned Beirut from – ironically – the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ into a byword for chaos and death. Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya. Were our rulers really arrogant enough to think the bloodshed on their streets wouldn’t eventually spread to ours?

Religion is, I think, only a hook. Wars are fought for influence, land and power, as they always were. So in the name of any particular god that can be invoked, hospitals are bombed, children driven into the sea, families walk unimaginable distances towards a European winter. There has to be a better strategy than this. There has to be a way to find resolution that doesn’t involve another retaliation, followed by another, followed by another. We have to find that difficult path and then keep to it, however easy a swift and vengeful ‘justice’ appears to be. It never is.

I can’t remember exactly where I saw this, [EDIT to say it was here! In the Independent] but a few commentators have mentioned it so it bears repeating. Apparently one of the things that annoyed the living heck out of IS was the warm welcome shown to the refugees when they arrived in Germany. They want to see mistrust and hatred, fear and attacks. They want people to flock to them and their idea of the Caliphate, not turn away towards freer societies. They want their message that Muslims and Christians can’t leave together peacefully, that their war is the only way, not to be challenged.

So keep sharing this one. Don’t give in to fear of the other. Love is all we need.

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Slow down, you move too fast

Hard work is on the agenda. Hardworking is good. Hardworking families are apparently the best kind. Aspiration is the word of the year, surely, if we did one of those word cloud things for 2015 – or chose a ‘Word of the Year’ as they are about to vote on in Japan – it would be standing out bold and proud and – well – aspirational. But is all this hard work and racing about any good for us?

You may remember that ten minutes hate, perhaps strangely for a website on the internet, has long been an advocate for switching off your electronics and gazing out at the world around you instead. We agree with Carl Honore, practitioner of all things slow, that it is better to be a tortoise than a hare! At the start of the summer, I read an article about slow parenting and have been trying to give it a go. I don’t always get the balance 100% correct, but building in time for whatever comes up has been fun. Long walks to nowhere, rainy day painting and (of course!) time lazing with a book are all as valuable as days out and play dates.


If you have read the second volume of Hunter S. Thompson’s letters, Fear and Loathing in America, you may recall that after the splash created by his first book Hell’s Angels, he pitched a follow-up on the American Dream. Envisaged as an assessment of how the dream was faring, instead he got bogged down in trying to read everything from periodicals to magazines cover-to-cover. He did produce a series of jaw-dropping essays but crucially, no book. Deadlines whooshed by in a manner very pleasing to Douglas Adams. This American Dream thing is driving me mad, he confesses in letter after letter, as he pours out plans and proposals, attempting to get a handle on it. Until he eventually ditches the whole thing and writes the relatively small yet perfectly formed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The ultimate death of the American Dream story, right there.

We are in a similar state. It is impossible to see the wood for the trees in the forests of the internet. We kid ourselves that we can, but there is too much to be distracted by. All that remains is finding a focus, following what you love and trying to avoid clickbait wherever possible. Not to mention, turning it off every now and then. Now you have finished reading this post, we won’t mind!


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Up on the roof


The cars on the expressway look like toys and the only things above you are the planes taking off from Haneda, an airship lazily floating by and the ubiquitous crows. It is a chance to regain perspective, to see the now-familiar landmarks and look past them towards the horizons that you would never know are there when you are at street level.

As per usual whenever I go to one of these viewing platforms, Mount Fuji was hiding behind a veil of clouds. What else can you expect from such a ‘shy mountain?’

Don’t think I will ever get bored of looking at the city I call home from high up. Thanks to the good friends visiting from home who inspired the occasion!

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Hurma by Ali Al-Muqri

From viewing the cover of Hurma you might not expect a darkly comic sex romp. You might make some guesses as to the content and expect an illicit ‘peek behind the veil’ for Western audiences in this, the first of Yemeni author Ali Al-Muqri’s books to be translated (by Thomas Aplin) into English. Especially when the tabloids in the UK are equal parts fascinated and horrified by girls running away from home to marry IS fighters, you might expect a tale of misery, beatings and death – and while all those elements are present – what I wasn’t expecting was the laughter.

hurma ali al-muqri

There are so many beautifully-realised moments in this tale, some more poignant, some that will have you shaking your head with disbelieving laughter. The strict family patriarch who beats Hurma for drawing a heart in class but tells the rest of the family to allow older sister Lula complete freedom after her sex work pays for his heart operation. Raqeeb the secret drinker and public Marxist who nicknames his younger sister ‘Ruza’ and tells her:

‘Be free and wonderful like Rosa Luxemburg!’ he would say, ‘Read her book and you’ll learn what really matters in life.’

Raqeeb is scornful of religion until he transforms himself into ‘Abd al-Raqeeb, holy warrior, as he prepares for marriage to a neighbour’s daughter.

He encourages Hurma to attend Islamic college, where she too becomes more devout. Although, in the manner of girls’ schools the world over, her classmates are boy-crazy and the pleasures of the flesh can’t be shut out completely: even when the male instructors give lessons via video links that only show their hands. With her siblings pulling her in two opposing – both extreme – directions, Hurma decides to marry one of her brother’s co-conspirators. She daydreams of a happy, contented life with her husband and pictures herself performing heroics on the battlefield, but the experience is as unsatisfying as her marriage. Her husband is more turned on by martyrdom than anything else, including a Lula-supplied Viagra, and her role more akin to a mule than a freedom fighter.

Hurma’s story unfolds as she is listening to a tape made for her by a male neighbour and passed to her via his sister. She is looking for meaning in the lyrics of the songs by the singer Om Kalthoum as she also looks for meaning in the events of her life. She realises that she can interpret the songs as love songs, songs of desire, or with a more religious aspect and it is those two influences – which should be able to coexist instead of being in opposition – that keep pulling and pushing her along.

I prayed to God, but He didn’t answer. I became more and more frustrated as the days went by – in fact with every hour and every second. I tried to get my life in order. I asked myself: What do I want, and how am I going to get it? But my inner turmoil made it impossible… how could there be inner peace with the unquenchable flames of desire?

The more that something is forbidden, the more alluring it becomes. Once Hurma doesn’t have the war as a distraction, it isn’t long before the drive towards sex completely overwhelms her. Her lack of an outlet leaving her contemplating tunneling into the house of the neighbour who made the tape to jump him after a second unconsummated marriage to an impotent man. For all that this is a novel awash (sorry) and dripping (sorry) – one might even say stuffed (sorry!) with sex, for its heroine it is a messy, frustrating, unsatisfactory endeavour. Luckily, that isn’t true for the reader, who will find much to enjoy in this tale. I look forward to reading more of Al-Muqri’s work in English!

Thanks to Darf Publishers for sending me a free copy of this book.

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