Tag Archives: Afghanistan

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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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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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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‘We need more work for and by women’ – an interview with Margaret Connell of Lantern Theatre Liverpool

Two best friends, two sons in the army, both serving in Afghanistan. Maggie and Rita were like sisters, until Rita’s son James was killed saving Maggie’s son Paul. An intense, emotionally charged play that illustrates that, in war, it is not only the soldier who has nightmares.

Poster for the play Broken Biscuits by Trisha DuffyThe work is an exploration of friendship and all the qualities that lie dormant behind the laughter, the jealousy, bitterness, loyalty and absolute admiration. The intimate Lantern theatre is an ideal space for this well-scripted piece, for the audience is positioned up close to the dramatic tornado.

Broken Biscuits has already been staged twice at the venue to packed audiences. It makes a welcome return to mark Remembrance weekend. ten minutes hate caught up with the play’s director and artistic director of the Lantern, Margaret Connell.

Artistic Director of the Lantern Theatre and Director of Broken Biscuits, Margaret Connell10mh: What attracted you to directing this piece?

I loved the dialogue, it really rang true and that can’t be said of all new work.  I also liked the fact that it was written by a woman.  We need more work for and by women.

10mh: How did you discover the script?

Trisha Duffy came on our ambassador scheme as she had an interest in writing and helped set up our writer development programme.  She asked me to give her an opinion on the script, I really liked it and offered to produce and direct it as a Lantern project.

10mh: What kind of things did you do in rehearsal?

It was an incredibly short rehearsal period so we worked through the script chronologically and blocked and learned it a chunk at a time. The hardest thing, because of the staging, was getting the actresses not to look at each other and imagine they were speaking through a door.

Thankfully I had a really great cast who worked together really well; it was a joy to work on and didn’t feel like work at all.

10mh: Is there any future plan to stage the play again in the future?

After the Remembrance Sunday dates we are looking at different festivals, but definitely Edinburgh.

10mh: Do you have a phrase or lines from a piece of poetry about war that you like?

The first line of Owen’s Futility: ‘Move him into the sun’ is the one that sticks with me.  It’s heartbreakingly loaded.

10mh: What advice would you give to new directors?

See as much theatre as you can and work with as many different directors as you can.  Trust the creative process.  The first day with a script can be terrifying, but you need to remember that your actors are your strongest asset and if you have cast well, you should all spark off each other.

Broken Biscuits was originally staged at Lantern Liverpool on 9th November-11th November 2014 and returned due to popular demand in March 2015.

Remembrance Sunday pictureUPDATE:

Broken Biscuits will be shown at the Unity Theatre on Wednesday 29 July 2015, before moving to the Edinburgh Festival from 24 to 29 August.


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If ye break faith with us

So Remembrance Sunday has passed, when the UK spends two minutes quietly remembering its war dead, before returning to the usual business of adding more names to memorials.  The event was originally conceived to honour the now long dead young men of that most futile ‘war to end all wars‘, but its motives seem to have been lost recently in a fog created by a bitter war of words over the poppy.

It is as if pinning one to your jacket and thereby supporting the work of the Royal British Legion has become akin to joining a kind of ‘all war is good’ chorus, instead of the charity appeal for a soldier’s welfare and campaigning movement which is what it really should be.  This is especially sad, as all this chatter about paper flowers drowns out the essential conversation we ought to be having about the lives our wars are damaging today.

These include, but are not limited to, the soldiers who are taking their own lives after returning from combat or others suffering the effects of mental illness alone.  The UK’s Mental Health Foundation reports that:

What is known is that only half of those experiencing mental health problems sought help from the NHS, and those that did were rarely referred to specialist mental health services.

Wearing the poppy should always be a matter of individual choice, after all, there are as many reasons to wear one or not to as there are people.  For some it might be a memory of those they have known personally, for others a matter of respect or gratitude.  For those who do not, it could be for based on their pacifism, or a reluctance to be seen to support the motives of recent wars.  On this, I agree with the Independent’s leader of last week:

The moment that someone feels obliged to wear the symbol for fear of looking out of place or disrespectful is the moment we forget what our servicemen and women actually fought for.

I would also love to see a moratorium on starting the next one (Iran) until all the damage caused from the last few (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya) has been cleared up.  I would like to see an end to politicians wielding huge wreaths at the Cenotaph while slashing the support available to serving and former services personnel.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I hope I’m not the only one…

Here are two war poems, perhaps the most famous of all and a more recent addition, Adam Ford’s prize-winning entry to the ‘Dulce et Decorum… Next!’ competition.


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WikiLeaks: the sound of a stable door slamming

Dorothy Parker, LCD Soundsystem, Paul Auster, Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, Jack Kerouac, Jimmy Hendrix, Billie Holiday, Muhammed Ali, MC5, Hunter S. Thompson, Blondie, Joel & Ethan Coen, Bruce Springsteen, Marilyn Monroe, Johnny Depp…

At times such as these, when America behaves more like a belligerent teenager than the Land of the Free/Home of the Brave, my friend and co-writer Mark Woff advises to take a minute out of your day to compile your own variation on the above list.  The aim is to hopefully cheer you up a little and remind yourself that a nation responsible for nurturing such a list of talents can’t be completely beyond hope and redemption.

I feel it is important to keep this in mind when considering what looks to be about to become the case of USA v WikiLeaks and Julian Assange.  The extent to which America is focusing on punishing the source of the information rather than addressing the more pressing concerns contained within it almost defies belief. Sure, diplomats, you got caught with your pants down.  But worrying about the secrecy of a database that can be accessed by millions of people does appear to involve a certain amount of stable door slamming post-exit by horse.

Of greater importance to this writer are the fascinating insights into the cozy pillow talk between governments and corporations as they conspire to brutally stitch up their countries’ populations and of how just how relaxed they can be when lying about details some would find electorally embarrassing:

The leaks make it abundantly clear not just that the US-Anglo-European adventure in Afghanistan is doomed but, more important, that the American, British and other Nato governments privately admit that too.

The problem is that they cannot face their electorates – who also happen to be the taxpayers funding this folly – and tell them this. The leaked dispatches from the US ambassador to Afghanistan provide vivid confirmation that the Karzai regime is as corrupt and incompetent as the South Vietnamese regime in Saigon was when the US was propping it up in the 1970s. And they also make it clear that the US is as much a captive of that regime as it was in Vietnam

Also of lasting importance is the wider war being fought by WikiLeaks, alongside this particular battle, as it has far-ranging implications for the freedom of information on the internet.  As Richard Wilson writes in his excellent article:

The very existence of Wikileaks also seemed to point towards a larger question – how durable is the scale of freedom that has developed on the internet in recent years? Will the net really lead to a permanent “redistribution of data” – the mass availability of information previously so jealously guarded by the media and political elites? Or will the current era come to be seen as a short-lived blip – an involuntarily loosening of controls that lasted only as long as it took for the elites to figure out the dynamics of the new technology, devise new systems for bringing it under control, and develop the political means to apply those systems worldwide?

However, none of these arguments should be taken to imply that Assange is himself beyond suspicion, at the very least as Justin McKeating argues, he is guilty of being a ‘great honking idiot’.  While Modernity reminds us that governments are not above using indirect means such as court actions to target those they perceive as enemies, if there is a case to be answered on the charges, he should answer it.  Perhaps I am displaying a naive believe in the rule of law, but if the case is dismissed, it is rendered redundant as a tool to smear Assange and the WikiLeaks project.  Greater damage is done by declaring him to be innocent or above the law because of his actions in leaking the documents, even if, as noted by Katrin Axelsson of Women Against Rape, it does appear strange that he has been hunted across the globe for a crime with staggeringly low conviction rates in both Sweden and the UK.

To anyone with an acquaintance, either from memory or through the writing of Hunter S.Thompson and others, of those dark days at the end of the Sixties that saw a political class create the My Lai massacre, the Kent State shootings and the Watergate burglary, it must appear that this is all familiar territory, that America is indeed doomed to repeat its history having failed to learn the lessons the first time around.  In such circumstances, we do well to remember that it is better to be a Daniel Ellsberg than a Richard Nixon.

The final word goes, as ever, to this man:

In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act

– George Orwell

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A free press

After writing yesterday of the Independent’s Murdoch-baiting, you could bet that I wasn’t going to be a slouch when I heard and saw the lovely lady dishing out free copies of the paper in my city centre this lunchtime. Oh no. I was over to her quicker than Tsegaye Kebede, ready to see for myself.

Today’s politician-skewering headline:

Inside, a neat editorial manifesto sets out what the Indy’s hoping to achieve with this election giveaway, which I am delighted to note is planned to continue until 6 May.  It doesn’t appear that James Murdoch’s tirades have dissuaded anyone from sticking the boot in on his Daddy in the slightest:

Rupert Murdoch’s mighty media empire has become a propaganda machine on behalf of the Conservatives

Yet the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the other smaller parties are routinely ignored by the media.  The Independent is hoping to redress this, while remaining true to the name on the masthead and not swinging behind any one political party.  How refreshing!

The paper continues, rueing the manner in which serious issues are being ‘ignored or underplayed’ by the main parties, giving the examples of Afghanistan – even as troops die there, their continued deployment goes undebated and largely unmentioned – as well as climate change, where politicians are dangerously out of step with wider opinions.

As the Liberal Democrats have noted in today’s horse trading over hung parliament outcomes, our electoral system is badly broken.  The Independent is an old hand at this game having launched, with ‘tens of thousands’ of readers backing it, a petition seeking reform after the last election.  Their archive reveals Labour wasn’t always so reluctant to talk to the Lib Dems about the subject.  The paper also extols the benefits an elected House of Lords, fixed-term parliaments, active membership of the EU, robust economic reform and a revival of liberal democracy would bring to the UK.  All the stuff that has small-l liberals swooning.  What is the Murdoch empire going to chuck back at that?  Page 3 and Dear Deirdre?

So far they’re ticking all my boxes but will there be room for insightful football coverage?  I fear that the Indy might disdain football, with its pampered millionaires, gargantuan debt and stonking carbon footprint.  So it is with some trepidation that I flip to the back pages, expecting to find coverage of Woodcraft Folk-esque non-competitive games.  But worry ye not, sports fans, the back section looks good enough to keep even the most avid of us happy.

Pick up one of these free copies and there is an offer to subscribe at a reduced rate.  I confess I have never been loyal enough to any paper to consider doing such a thing – do they guarantee to have it with you before the morning commute begins? – but once the free thing ends, I might be back to drop a few groats in the pocket of Mr Lebedev.


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