Sunday, 24 March 2013

Syria - something to begin with

I have decided to try and write a bit on this topic.   I probably won't finish and can only scratch the surface.   But I feel so passionately about the country, the people, my friends and the ongoing horror, that I have to make a start, and try to write as objectively as I can.

In Kuwait (more or less the middle of 2011) I met a Syrian taxi driver from Deraa.   He told me, first-hand, what had happened in his home-town, where his family still was.   When the Egyptians toppled Mubarak, a group of teenagers, 14-16 years old, decided that some graffiti was in order and wrote on the walls outside their school, that Syria also needed a new president.   The police swiftly picked them up and took them to jail, where their anxious parents tried in vain to get news of their children.   A week later they were still not free.   The police told the parents that they should go home and make more children, as these were gone, and if they were not capable, the police would visit their wives and do the job for them.

Eventually most of the children were released, some missing an eye, mostly with broken limbs, some apparently raped too, both girls and boys.   In the same week, one female gynaecologist telephoned another.   "Did you hear what happened in Egypt?"she asked, "They toppled Mubarak."   Her colleague replied, "We could do with something like that here."   Within minutes they were arrested by the police, who listen-in to all calls.   On the way to the station, one doctor got out, through having wasta (influence).   The other was released a week later, all her limbs broken and having been raped.  

A little later, the President's brother Maher, who commands the army, brought one unit to Deraa to sort things out.   Another was commanded by a relative of my driver.   Maher said that they were coming to protect civilians, but when they reached the town, they were ordered to shoot protesters.   The relative deserted and joined the Free Syrian Army.

Wind the memories back, Eid 2009, my first, and so far only, visit to Suriya.   Glorious times.   Damascus is a glittering open museum, Krak des Chevaliers (near Homs) a dream of a Crusader Castle, Aleppo steeped in tradition: the Citadel, the largest covered souk in the world and even the quaint and literary 1930s Hotel Baron.   My exquisite boutique hotel in Shams (Damascus), a converted Damascene villa, the restaurants, the tomb of the great Salah El-Din (Saladin), the glorious Souk Hamadiya, the wonderful Ommayid Mosque.   This is where I inadvertantly wondered into a section reserved for women and children.   A really pleasant young man asked me whether I was British, and what football team I supported.   Then politely explained that I was in the wrong place, and amicably guided me out of the area.

Outside, in the rather chilly evening, I saw two young women, arm in arm and chatting as they walked.   One was obviously Muslim - hijab, polo-neck sweater, long trousers underneath, full-length coat.   The other had long, loose hair flying in the wind, a short raincoat over a miniskirt, tights and boots ... a Christian most likely.   And obviously great friends, across the religious divide, which at that point was truly not an issue in Syria.

Such a beautiful country, such educated and unspoilt people.   I fell in love, and still love Syria almost as much as I love Italy.   I dream of going back.   But the Syria I visited is a shambles.   The souk in Aleppo is a shattered wreck, even the Citadel has holes in it, after hundreds of years of loving preservation.   70 000 Syrians are dead, a million are displaced refugees.   Bashar Al-Assad clings to power, his Alawite minority cheering him on as he makes rock-star appearances in his parliament.   Fighters on both sides die, civilians die, cities die.   As always, War ruins the lives of families on both sides.   There are no winners.

There is no oil, there are no (non-existent) Weapons of Mass Destruction, so no reason for the West to intervene.   Russia and China play their economically-motivated, self-interested games, Britain and the USA posture, Israel hucks on about Iran ... but nothing happens.   Kofi Anan fails, the Arab League Peace Envoy fails - the carnage continues.   I cannot support Bashar, he is an arrogant idiot, and deserves what he finally gets.   One knows, first-hand, about the deeds of his father, his massacre of Muslims in Hama, one knows first-hand of his political prisoners, one knows of the graft and corruption which encircles the Al-Assad family.   It is no wonder that the Syrian people have joined the (in their case) interminable Arab Spring.   But where will it end?   And how will the glorious and ancient country rebuild its shattered lives, its shattered infrastructure?

I could say so much more, but for now, can only hope for a speedy resolution, and ask my readers to hold Syria and its Syrians - in the country and over the world - in their hearts and minds.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Give Pope Francis a break!

I'm going to stick my neck right out.  

In the midst of the great goodwill which surrounds the new Catholic pope, Francis, the usual mutters are arising about the Church's stance on gay marriages, woman priests, contraception, abortion and so on.   But what I want to say is, enough already!

I myself have always supported what I call "People's Lib."   In the late 1960s, when my dear friend, the late John D'Arcy, invited me to a Gay Lib march, I refused.   Not because I was anti homosexuality (quite the reverse) but because I saw no reason to polarise gay people in this way.  Everyone is entitled to the same rights, irresepective of gender orientation, skin colour, religion or language; or any other distinguishing characteristic.   So it goes without saying that I have no issue with same sex marriages, a woman's right to choose what happens in her own body, a couple's right to enjoy sex without falling pregnant, and the rest.   I am not a Catholic, so I owe no allegiance to the rule of the supreme pontiff.  

If I were a Catholic, I would soon join the ranks of the lapsed.  However, millions of people around the world choose to follow this sector of the Christian faith, and good luck to them.   Francis is the new head of this global community, and is not expected to budge on these issues.   Good for him.   The things he will uphold are among the cornerstones of the religion he now commands, in loco St Peter, to whom Jesus said, "On this rock I will build my church."

I am a follower of Jesus.   I have never found any other teachings that speak so personally to me, so he is my man.   But whether I am still with the "Son of God, who died to buy forgiveness for our sins, rising from the dead on the third day, etc." concept, I really cannot say.    I see no reason why men and women cannot both be priests, marry one another in whatever configuration they desire to do, have children or adopt them ... it is their free choice, and if people disagree with me, that is their democratic right.   If Pope Francis says the opposite to me, this is his right, and as the head of a church which espouses the belief-system that he represents, his responsibility too - why should he have to change his stance?

So my plea is, give the man a rest on these ultimately insoluble issues.   If you a Catholic and you really cannot agree with these things, leave the Catholic Church, become an Anglican, for example - here you will find a home for almost every variation of the Christian belief system.   If you are not, what business is it of yours what Catholics believe and do?   Have your own opinion of course, express it, but there an end.  

I am heartened by the new Pope's declared concern for the poor and for a "poor church".   For the fact that he chooses to rule bearing the name of the sublime St Francis of Assisi.   But in the final analysis, however much I disagree with so many "Catholic" things, they are not my concern.   Different strokes for different folks and we are all entitled to what gets us through the day, and all our days.   So I wish Francesco Primo happy days and will observe with interest and admiration what he accomplishes - but we need to cut the man some slack, and give him a break.


Suriya not today

I wanted to write about Syria today, but am too emotional - Aleppo and Homs in pieces and now a raging battle for Damascus airport.  So excuse me, this will come.   Will find another battle to comment on ...

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Make Peace Not War

When I was growing up, in the 60s, the in-thing to say was "Make love not war" ... and we certainly did the former, albeit not the latter.   An innocent world we had; no Aids, no globalisation, no realisation that when one superpower sneezes, we all get the flu, so no global financial crises either.   But as I have grown older, and maybe wiser, I have come to realise that love alone will not arrest the all-pervasive, terminally destructive effects of war - only peace itself can prevent this, and (almost) peace at any price.

I say "almost", because if your life is truly intolerable, then anything which offers you a way out, however tenuous, will take you with it, and this is not always peaceful.   So people suffer, especially the ordinary people, their homes are destroyed, their families, their livelihood.   The leaders urge them on, but very seldom share their miseries.   They sit in some safe place, with access to the media, and broadcast their 'encouraging" messages, their rhetoric of hatred and violence. 

But the ordinary people do not have access to safe places, to family villas in the mountains, to underground bunkers, to aid and assistance in neighbouring countries, to expatriate communities in the West ... no; they must live and die where they are.   Their little children must cry alone, prodding at their dead parents to wake them up.   Some do get away, but are then doomed to live in dreary tented cities, utterly dependant on aid and charity.   And the leaders continue to resist a solution to the conflict, continue to exploit their fellow citizens in the name of some ideal, or their own selfish well-being.

One day, usually years later, the war ends with two groups of men from the opposing sides sitting across from one another at a table, with flowers all along the middle, usually in some neutral place like Paris, and peace is agreed upon.   But at what cost?   And to what end?  None of the combatants gets exactly what they fought for, and no one can erase the destruction of the very fabric of society, on both sides.  

I have purposely not linked my thoughts to any particular conflict, because we all have emotional attachments to one side or another, and if we are influenced by them, we will miss the point.   Ultimately all these conflicts are the same.   Whatever pretext is used to rally the troops, religion, racism or fear, one conflict is virtually no different from another.   (It's usually simply economic, about land, about greed; but that's another conversation.)   War is the evil personification of all that is bad in Man, all that is the complete antithesis of any life-affrming, nurturing culture.   Harry Patch, the last surviving soldier from World War I, said words to the effect of "War is legalised murder, and nothing else."

So, at the start of what is likely to be a very long journey, in my quest for a solution to this most hideous of phenomina, I ask my readers, how, how can we "make peace not war"?   There has to be a way.    Coming as I do at the very back of a long line of peace makers, from Jesus to Gandhi (without in any way presuming to have my name said in the same breath as theirs), I am a little daunted when I survey the task ahead.   But in my own life, in my own back yard, I shall work for this ideal, and I know I will be joined by others.  Together we shall start to make the difference.   We must.


Sunday, 3 March 2013

Welcome to Phantasmagoriajb.   "a changing scene made up of many elements".   Posts will be alerted to on FB - wait for it, world :)