Sunday, 5 January 2014

Busted by the God Squad

The blog lives!  Hopefully 2014 will see many more regular posts.  

I must use this first input of the new year to address a very important issue, my relation to God.   I promised my friend Neville that I would explain my views in detail, well, better late than never, I hope.   This is also for my own personal "God Squad", wonderful people of faith who worry about my eternal soul, including but not limited to, Dee, Beryl, Zorina, Ferdi ... here then are my views, out in the open and sent out on the ether; a new version of Martin Luther's nailing on the church door.

First of all - do I believe in God?   I have to say, I don't know!   Oh dear ... so is that the closing of the book?   Well, no.   I was raised as a Christian and was a faithful one for many years.   Today I am a Follower of Christ.   But does that mean, Son of God, who came to take away our sins, died on the cross and on the third day, literally rose from the dead?    As I see it now, no.   A son of God - if there is a God, yes; but not the son.   I no longer believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, a literal heaven and hell, and a literal Resurrection.   (Well, most of the time!)

I have not found in all my readings and studies anyone to compare with Jesus.  His doctrine of pure, un-judgemental love is unequalled in the whole canon of global knowledge and history.   But I believe Jesus was not well-served by those who came after him, by St Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus, et al.   The Christian Church is a man-made creation, and has been responsible for so much unhappiness, death and division for so many centuries, that one cannot easily bond with it in our times.   Which is not to say there are not great people, great elements in the Christian Church; but it is so often at odds with the basic teachings of the founder.

There are great elements in other religions as well, especially Buddhism; with doctrines closest to those of Christ.   (Did he in fact go to study this faith in the "lost" years, before he was 30?)   Islam, meaning many of the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, also speaks wonderfully to us.   But the Islamic Church, so to speak, has in some places strayed even further from the teachings of its founder (essentially a message of love); especially in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan.  

"Religion" as such is perhaps the strongest motivator to lose one's faith in God.   The actions of so many people identifying themselves as Christians are as far from the great commandments as they can possibly be.   "Love thy neighbour as thyself" means you give your neighbour - your fellow man - the same freedoms you give yourself.   You cannot selectively take a verse or two from the Bible and judge others as such; this is simply not the teaching of Christ.   Believing in every word of the scriptures, so clearly manipulated and flawed, with so many "PR" touches, is not for me.   The spirit of what is written is another matter, and offers great truths and lessons to live by.

But what about the central question, is there a God, to which I have already admitted I have no answer?   Is all this God stuff just the "opium of the masses", something to comfort people as they struggle through the tough times in life, an instrument to control the people, to trick them into serving the secular, political ends of the governments, whilst  not having any spiritual foundation at all?

What makes us still believe there is a God?   Faith is not logical, and always comes and goes.   Still, I often have a sense of a higher power, things happen which defy any logical, empirical explanation, one seems to be guided along a certain path (often only apparent with hindsight) ... so I doubt my doubts.   I continue to apply as best I can the doctrines of the master teacher, master philosopher, our Jesus figure, and salute his followers across the ages who actually put them into practice.  So many ... such as Francis the saint, Francis the pope, Desmond the bishop ... and the huge body of Christian people who are not public figures.

Genoeg!   I could talk for days on this topic but (Neville and all), this is basically where I stand!  

Friday, 2 August 2013

Islamists - why feared?

So much talk of Islamists right now ... Tunisia, Egypt ...who are these people, exactly?  

I know a great many people who are Muslims, but when do they become "Islamists"?   The Islamists in Tunisia are the elected government, my friends distrust them.   The Islamists in Egypt were the elected government, but they were deposed by the army in the coup-that-wasn't-a- coup.  As Islamists they are Muslims - but what makes them Islamists?

I am most firmly opposed to a theocracy in government - especially where not all citizens share the religion of the rulers.   The supporters of the theocracy believe that all their beliefs come from God, so how can they not be right for everyone?   Trouble is, so often these beliefs result in people being killed because they have opposing views; they think their views come from God.   Our Christian history is awash with the blood and ashes of countless martyrs, whose only transgression was dissent.

I possibly distrust "Islamists" as much as anyone, but can they be deposed if they are in the majority?   Can one get rid of a government because of its religious beliefs?   Or is "Political Islam" the problem - people who take their religion into the rule of the country?  What happens if another religious group becomes the government - do all the laws have to be changed to suit them?

Turkey used to be the model of the secular state.  Now the rulers are strictly observant Muslims and there are debates about headscarves and occupations of parks and squares.  How much of the dissent is about bad government and how much is due to opposing the religious persuasions of the government?  

Bashar Al-Assad's Syria was a fearful, repressed place in many ways, but no one religious group ruled, at least not by virtue of their beliefs.   Then came the revolution and sectarian tensions surfaced (or were prodded into life) : "Christians to Lebanon, Alawites to the Grave!"   Marriages across the Sunni-Sheite divide were well-accepted in Iraq before the latest Gulf War - now they are shunned. It is bizarre that religion, which is meant to unite people in love, becomes the very thing that separates them.

Jesus spoke of giving to Caesar what belonged to him.   Does that mean that religion has no place in government?   What if the values that the religion promotes are ignored by the government, if people are oppressed and deprived?   Are the people justified in rising up against them?   Should the government not subscribe to the same values of the Believers?  But if they do, if they take the rules of the religion into government, does this not fuel the flames of dissent?   Should there ever be a marriage between the state and the church?

In South Africa, in the 60s, the head of the country's brother was the head of the Dutch Reformed Church, and between them they ruled the Afrikaans electorate absolutely.   Using the bible, and interpreting it to serve their political ends, they imposed their devilish ideology on our people for several blood-soaked decades.  

Is this why people fear the Islamists?   Or are they being unjustly vilified?  


Sunday, 7 July 2013

Honesty ...

... is such a lonely word.   So sang Billy Joel.   I have been off this blog for weeks but it wasn't for lack of trying.   Every time I intended to resume, something new happened in the world, which I thought I should write about.   But then something else happened - and then again.   And now we're back in Tahrir Square - and who knows what happens tomorrow, to stop me ... so here goes!

What has been on my mind for some time, is why people just can't be honest.   We ordinary mortals of course, but most especially the great and the not-so-good, who rule the destinies of nations, of peoples and especially the ordinary people of this world.  

Why couldn't George Bush and Tony Blair just say, "Well, we're really not sure about those weapons of mass destruction, and we really don't want the inspectors to confirm they're not there; we want to get rid of Saddam Hussein because he's no longer playing ball, and anyway we need to finish the unfinished business of Bush One, so here goes; war it is ..."   Why don't the Russians just say, "We have to keep on arming Bashar, although we've always known that family breeds brutal dictators ... because if we stop, the Chinese will take over and we'll lose our sphere of influence.   So we'll condemn anyone wanting to arm the rebels, while we continue to arm the government .... "

Why doesn't Israel admit it took Palestinian land, Palestinian houses, that they're relentlessly building new settlements, while pretending to stop, because it's simply a case of us or them? Neither side wants a two-state solution, they want it all.   And only one side can possibly win.   Why can't the Arab States and the United States actually assert their influence on the two sides to finally get them to stop, and make peace?   Why can't they admit that the festering atrocity that is the Occupation and the resultant Intifada is too valuable to put an end to - on the one hand as a smokescreen to deflect attention from their own nefarious activities and on the other as an invaluable sphere of influence in the Middle East?

Why don't the Mandela family and President Zuma come clean and admit that they are to a greater or lesser extent manipulating the "health" of the dying icon that is Nelson Mandela (ignoring the fact that he is also a desperately sick old man) so that he can reach his 95th birthday still warm - and they can make even more money out of him?   Why does President Obama assiduously refer to the "removal" of the democratically-elected President Morsi, instead of talking about a coup - so that they don't have to remove the billions of dollars with which they fund (and thus 100% control) the Egyptian army?

Why can't they all just be honest?   It wouldn't really change what they are doing.   One might even admire them, in a terrible way, instead of just being sickened by the blatant hypocrisy; on such a grand scale and on such a global stage.    Do we really live in a world where no leader can be honest any more?   Or has it been ever thus, and we just didn't know about it?   Ferdinand and Isabella wanted the land (of Granada) so they waged a "holy" war ... which was simply a civil war, Spaniards against other Spaniards, albeit of different faiths.  (But that's another subject!)

The questions I ask!   But sadly, I don't have the answers :)

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Viva Carolina

My friend Carolyn Holden, a.k.a. Carolina Rosa, died this last week of  brain aneurisym.   She was 50 and in the prime of her life.   Professionally she leaves behind her the La Rosa Spanish Dance Theatre and at home, her enchanting adopted daughter, little Eli-Rose.   She also leaves a vast mass of friends, students, former students, fellow-dancers.   Her sudden death has been a huge shock to us all and I can find little to comfort us.

Penning an adequate tribute to such a strong spirit, such an example of perseverance and fortitude, seems rather beyond me at this point in time, but I'll do my best.

I first met Carolyn around 1980, when I was working with her teacher and my friend, Mavis Becker, on the establishment of Mavis' Danza Lorca Company.   Blonde and pretty, she was not immediately recognisable as the Spanish Dance force she would become.   But she was no fluffy blonde ... her financial job kept her life ticking over and in all her spare time she danced, studied Spanish, went to Spain, danced - and dreamed.   We worked together on the Danza Lorca Oude Libertas shows, she was one of the featured members of the Flamenco de Africa ballet that Mavis choreographed for      M-NET in 1994, and lots more besides.

I remember when John Caviggia was fitting Carolyn for her Vlisco print flamenco dress for our first fusion of Flamenco and African dance (the aforementioned Flamenco de Africa).   The huge frill on the sleeve was right over the top, and when Carolyn raised her arm, it covered her face!   "Ja well, no fine," said she ..."    And laughed her famous, gutsy belly laugh.   The offending frill was cut back, and Carolyn's contribution to the hugely successful All Africa Film Awards cabaret was joyous and infectious.   In my house I have a great shot by Rebecca Hearfield, of Carolyn and Sonwabo.   Since last week, a blue glass rosary which I bought at the Monastry of St George, near Homs, in Syria, hangs over it.   I am not sure of the heaven and hell scenario, any more, but if that's the deal, I am sure Carolyn is teaching the angels flamenco 101,  or maybe emersed in a fiery discussion on flamenco fusion, with Luisa Aranda, and Antonio Gades!

Carolyn never let circumstances stand in her way, she persevered and succeeded.   She started her own company, she obtained funding and started an amazing training programme.   Sitting watching her female dancers, when  I was privileged to watch the dress rehearsal of her final show, on January 26, I was astonished.   I looked at Mavis and she just said, "She's phenomenal, her students are great, they dance wish such musicality ..."    Right before she died, Carolyn was fighting to keep the company going, waiting for funding, doing deals with the landlord, hearing the good news that an outreach programme she'd tendered for would be funded, and then ... 4 April: headache, faint, vomiting, coma, and death.   All in a matter of hours.

But that's not the full story ... at home was Eli-Rose, the vibrant little livewire, found in the ladies room of a garage in KZN, adopted by Carolyn, and the new love of her life.   They played, they laughed, they loved.   And in the midst of it all, Carolyn completed her M-Mus, in Dance, with distinction.   So it's easy to say, she achieved her dreams ... maybe she did, but this was only the beginning, and the decade to come would have seen her scaling amazing new heights.

I can't offer any good words of consolation, I am devastated by this tragedy and have no answers.   I can only pay huge, extravagant tribute to a woman who lived her life to the full, and met all challenges head-on.   The duende was present on many occasions in this relatively short life and the results were spectacular.   Carolyn, you are a inspiration and we will keep you and your example alive.   OlĂ©, besos querida.

Monday, 1 April 2013


Son of God?   Great Teacher?   Fiery rabbi revolutionary?   False Messiah?   Last prophet before Muhammad?   Incarnation of the Buddah?   Who?   Jesus, called The Christ.   For many millions of Christians the answer is not in debate.   Two thousand years down the line, Easter is as vibrant and joyous as ever - sacrifice, death, resurrection.   A new beginning ...

Wherever one stands on the curve, the teachings of this man, whomever he was, stands the test of time, and (for me) stands alone.   The message of love which flows out from the words attributed to Jesus are for me the greatest lessons and most empathetic utterances I have ever heard.   At great variance with so much of what The Christian Church (or parts of it anyway) propounds, simple yet utterly profound injunctions like "Love they neighbour as thyself" say it all.  

Loving your neighbour as much as you love yourself means that whatever freedoms of choice you allow yourself, you need to allow your fellow man.   So no judgement and no condemnation.   And those less fortunate than ourselves?   "Whatsoever thou doest unto one of these the least of my brethren, thou doest unto me".   So no apartheid for a start!   And certainly no denying the basic rights, which we enjoy, to anyone else.   Of course, The Church, Man's church, meaning the men of the church, will interpret these verses as they wish to.   But the hackneyed question, "What would Jesus do?" is really effective, if we see Jesus as the man of love and peace, and it gives the lie to so much dogma and doctrine.

So I suppose what I am trying to say about Easter is, whatever your beliefs, it is a great time to enjoy new beginnings.   God is within you, the Universe all around you ... starting afresh is within your grasp, and Easter is a particularly inspiring time to start.   May the blessings of the season be yours and the promise of your future be realised.    Buona Pasqua!

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.