Saturday, 30 January 2016

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

One of the turning-points in the Viet Nam war was Associated Press photographer Nick Ut’s iconic black-and-white picture of nine-year-old Kim Phuc running away from a bombed-out village. What made the image more powerful was Kim’s shocking nakedness, the result of having her clothes burned off by South Vietnamese napalm-bomb-dropping aeroplanes.

Children in conflict zones usually trigger strong emotions in us. Whether we have offspring of our own or not, we feel a degree of sympathy towards those who are usually unfortunate victims of war. Last summer the world gasped in unison as the body of Syrian Aylan Kurdi was found on a Turkish beach. All of a sudden the refugee crisis felt more real. This child could have been ours. Lying face down, the calmness of the sea betraying the tragedy-punctuated moment, Aylan became a symbol in the never-ending Syrian saga and the refugee crisis at large.

The ensuing outcry and condemnation of both Assad’s strong-man domestic policy and Europe’s intransigence in the face of humanitarian crisis might come in handy in order to explain the reaction to one of satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo’s recent cartoons.

The drawing depicted Aylan Kurdi as an adult (had he survived) chasing two women. The image was the answer to a question in French: “What would little Alan have grown up to be?” Anyone familiar with the events of New Year in Germany and other European cities will have made the connection.

Two issues arise from Charlie Hebdo’s blunt – and some might say, insensitive – approach. The magazine was targeted by extremists a year ago. Members of its staff were killed in cold blood. Rather than toning its content down it has since then stepped it up one or two notches. The other issue is that in using a now deeply-embedded, much-loved and sympathised-with image like the Aylan Kurdi, the publication has drawn criticism from those who stood up for it twelve months ago.

There are people who have quite rightly said that the magazine’s assumption that little Aylan would have inevitably grown up to become a brute plays into the hands of the far-right. There are others who see the cartoon as a self-mocking exercise, rather than targeting Aylan, it is aiming its barrel at us. One minute we feel sorry for a toddler washed up on the beach, the next we are asking refugees to part with their belongings before they come in.

I say that the latter approach is a tad risky. You need subtlety to pull off a trick like that and in my opinion the drawing lacks it. Had Aylan-the-groper been painted inside a speech bubble with a small arrow pointing at a bigot, then the message would have been less murky.

Could the same have happened to Kim Phuc? I doubt it. I cannot imagine a cartoon depicting nine-year-old Kim as a prostitute in adulthood or similar. It could be that 1972, when the photo was taken, was a time when news lacked the immediacy it has now. Perhaps there was less cruelty, even in satirical publications.

I admit to not finding much to laugh about in the current refugee crisis. It could be then that Charlie Hebdo’s attempt to provide a light-hearted touch to the debate should be welcome. The danger is that instead of sending up ignorant bigots, it is giving them a soap box.

When it comes to freedom of speech, I am usually on the side of those who defend it at all costs. But (important “but”), sometimes I would rather we, adults, exercised caution more and focused on the long-term vision instead of the short-term gain. Are a few extra laughs worth someone else’s tears for the next decades?

It is not an easy question to answer and it is ultimately down to the individual to address. But it would be less complicated if sometimes, only sometimes, you just put a speech bubble with a small arrow pointing at a bigot.

© 2016

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 3rd February at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Dramatis Personae of a Previous Life in Havana

I can only imagine how carefully you applied make-up on your bruise. How long it took you to work around the edges of your battered eye. I can only imagine it. For I never saw you doing it. By the time I had come back from school, got changed into plain clothes and sprinted up to the third floor of my bloc of flats, you had mutated. The damage had been done and you had “moved on”. By the time the dominoes table had been set and you, your mother-in-law, one of your brothers-in-law and his wife had perched up together, you had put on the other face. “Nothing to see here. Shit happens. I caused the shit to happen. It was my fault. I’m the shit that makes the shit happen”. He was not there. He had already left for his beat, starched copper’s uniform, duty weapon in holster, probably whistling on his way down the stairs, José José or Emanuel (he was a romantic, after all); feeling like a man.

You, left behind. You, x-months pregnant. You, sitting around the dominoes table, smiling, laughing even, the corners of your mouth rising like the temperature outside in the sultry Havana heat. The others, reassuringly seeing calm after the storm.

I saw rictus.

Even at that young age, I could tell the truth behind the acting. It was a slow process, though. You set the stage for your one-act, one-actress play, but I never believed your silence-enforcing monologue. It was a performance-within-a-performance. I knew you had no choice but join this bruise-concealing farce, this confidence-destroying mise en scène. You were on your own, family-less, home-less, friend-less, a Cuban Easterner, palestina, looked down upon by habaneros. Habaneros like me.

We were the spectators. On the third floor, we were the audience during all the years you stayed in that house. That third floor was the observatory. To the outside world, never to the inside. The inside world was off-limits. It was known what was going on but… well, “shit happens.” That third floor was the balcony, the perfect site for the telescope that was missing but not needed. Around us the houses and apartments whose white-sheet-decked derelict rooftops cried out surrender. Surrender to the inevitability and the inevitable. Did anyone else see him raising his hand? Did anyone guess what was going to happen straight after? Did anyone notice the ever-growing bump, imperceptible still but noticeable once they came close to you? Did anyone care?

Every time you threatened to leave, every time, he laughed. I know, not because I saw him but because I heard him. The sarcasm-filled adverb. Destination? I did not need to see your face to know that in your head you saw a future of endless make-up-applying hours. The barrel of his duty weapon rammed down your throat as your pregnancy bulge kept him at arm’s length was evidence. The twelve-year-old secondary school girl he chased, groomed and started a relationship with was evidence. His own mother’s bruised arms the only time she very mildly dared to defend you were the evidence.

You did not seek help. In fact, you stood up for him. Some people said you had it coming. After all, you came from Oriente. What were you doing here? They asked. Correction: we asked. Also, why did you not leave him? Some others pointed at his outstanding attitude and behaviour in the community. Of course, sometimes he went a bit over the top.

I never asked you. I do not know if I would, were I to run into you now. After all, even you were aware that no matter how carefully you applied your make-up, we could still see your battered eye.

© 2016

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 30th January at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

What do parenting classes, Muslim women-targeted English lessons and radicalism-preventing measures have in common?

It’s all right, stop scratching your heads. I’ll tell you the answer: London’s mayoral election.

In May this year, voters in the British capital will elect a new mayor. The incumbent, Tory “blond menace”, Boris Johnson, will step down after eight years in power. The same length of time his predecessor, Labour’s Ken Livingstone, spent in City Hall.

Already the first salvoes have been fired. But it was only this week as I listened to Radio 4 that the penny dropped. The presenter made a reference to a new initiative by the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron to fund English classes. These will be aimed mainly at Muslim women. A couple of days before that, Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education, was on the Today programme explaining how radicalism amongst young people, especially of the Muslim variety, could be tackled in schools. Last week the main item up for discussion was the government’s idea to introduce parenting workshops.

It does not take a genius to put two and two together. The main contenders in the mayoral election are: Zac Goldsmith, on the blue corner, and Sadiq Khan on the red one. Polls at the moment put the Labour candidate ahead of his Tory rival slightly, but if there was a lesson to be learnt from the 2015 general election was that you could never trust polls. Still, Conservatives seem to be treating the London race as a litmus test for their own confrontation with Labour in four years’ time.

The mud-throwing in the London contest began early with Zac Goldsmith accusing Sadiq Khan of being a Corbynite. That mud, unfortunately for the Conservatives, has failed to stick and that is why I think that tactics have changed somewhat.

The three pieces of news I mentioned before did not come out randomly, or innocently. The three were put out by the Tory party with a two- or three-day gap in between. That was enough time for the items to sink in the minds of the electorate. The three were linked by a common theme: Islam and Muslims. You could even add that the first shot had been fired around Christmas when the Prime Minister declared that the UK was a Christian country. No surprise, then, that the headline-grabbing press release on the planned government-funded parenting classes was followed a few days after by the education-targeted, alarm-sounding news item about the alleged radicalisation of British-born, Muslim children The coup de grâce was delivered by the English-for-Muslim-women front-page maker. Suddenly you could be forgiven for thinking that unfit (Muslim) parents were not keeping tabs on their extremist offspring because they were isolated due to their lack of English.

Behind this anti-Khan attack is, I believe, the figure of one Lynton Crosby. The Australian-born strategist, hired to deliver victory to the Tories in the general election last year, is a tough-as-nails bruiser. Already an experienced hand in London’s mayoral elections (he was the person behind Boris Johnson’s triumphs in 2008 and 2012). Crosby is a man of many tricks. He needn’t mention Sadiq by name or allude to the fact that the Labour candidate is a Muslim. All he needs to do is come up with a “dead cat”. As long as people keep talking about the “dead cat”, they will not pay attention to what really matters. For instance, how the Tory party is falling apart at the seams over Europe. Even I am surprised at the split in the right over Britain’s membership of the European Union. I would have thought that having won a general election – albeit not with an outright majority, lest we forget – the Tories would have been in a merrier, all-together mood. But no, exit (or Brexit), or remain (Bremain) is just as important for Cameron's troops as beating Jeremy Corbyn (if he is still in charge of the Labour party) in 2020.

Oi, mate, who're you calling bad parent?

Crosby is a cunning man but he is not infallible. Sadiq Khan is not Ed Milliband, against whom Crosby deployed every single (dirty) weapon he had at his disposal. Just when the former Labour leader’s campaign was gaining ground on the Tories, out came Michael Fallon, Defence Secretary, with a totally made-up story about Milliband, knifing Britain in the back over Trident in the same way he had “stabbed” his brother. The news made no sense at all but it managed to push Ed Milliband’s well-thought reforms to the inside pages of newspapers.

What can Khan and his team do? First off, have a word with the gaffer. Jeremy Corbyn needs to win London as much as he needs to win the country. It is not a surprise that Boris’ victory in 2008 ushered in the Tory-led coalition in 2010 and that his success again in 2012 resulted in Cameron’s moving the furniture around at Number 10 but not chucking it out as many of us had hoped. Labour needs to stop its silly in-fighting. Like it or not, Corbyn won fair and square. Last time I checked Britain was still a democratic country. Run by Russian oligarchs and Arab oil magnates, yes, but still, if you like, democratic on the outside. Secondly, please, Corbyn and team, get rid of the whole socialism rhetoric. Voters are not binary beings anymore. You can be an eco-minded person but conservative (small “c) when it comes to the economy. You might believe in same-sex marriage and civil partnerships for heterosexual couples, but be concerned about immigration. This is the nature of London in the 2016. Heck, this is the nature of the developed world in the 21st century. I strongly believe that Sadiq Khan can deliver this message efficiently. Thirdly, invest in social media. The Tories coughed up a lot of dosh on advertising space on Twitter, Facebook and other social platforms for the 2015 general election. They targeted wavering voters. Savvy, London-dwelling techies should be easy to convince and sway to the party of the ever-smiling, council-estate-raised, business-friendly Sadiq Khan for the mayoral contest.

I do not think that the Tories will stage an all-out attack on Khan. They tried that tactic at the start of the mayoral election and it backfired. That is because London is not the rest of the country. The Conservatives did not fare as well in the general election in the capital as they did in the shires. Plus, they are also attempting to portray themselves as multicultural-friendly. Instead, what they will do is "guilt by association". It is more subtle and effective. They do not need to name Khan, but mix and match words that will cling to him: Muslim, parent, extremism, radicalism, Islam, schools. You could call it political antonomasia. Identify a person by appellatives but never use his name. This is no longer Michael Howard's 2005 "Are You Thinking What I Am Thinking?". And Lynton Crosby is part of that change.

Will Khan pull it off? I hope he does. The capital needs an injection of realism and pragmatism. It needs someone with a plan and concrete ideas on how to tackle the lack of affordable housing, unemployment, transport, the environment and education. I know that many voters will look at patrician, millionaire Zac Goldsmith and will see a safe pair of hands. But, how can a city like London, with the sheer variety of cultural backgrounds we possess, be governed by someone who was given money by his dad and a job by his uncle and has never had to face hardship?

The road ahead will be tough for Sadiq and his team. Better to start piecing together some of the headlines that will be appearing in the next few months. After all, in politics, nothing is random.

© 2016

Next Post: “Dramatis Personae of a Previous Life in Havana”, to be published on Wednesday 27th January at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

London, my London

And it’s six in the morning and, gave me no warning, I’m riding with Lady Luck, freeway cars and trucks/Stars beginning to fade, and I lead the parade/Just a-wishing I‘d stayed a little longer/Oh, Lord, let me tell you that the feeling’s getting stronger.”

But it was not six in the morning for me, Tom, rather, it was mid-afternoon and I was riding my bike. The rest, I dig. My feeling was getting stronger, too. I was on Grove End Road after leaving that famous crossing behind. My next destination? Camden Market.

At the point where Grove End Road meets St John’s Wood Road, NW8 opens up. This avenue-wide yawn provides much-welcomed extra space for cyclists. With Tom Waits’ piano-driven “Ol’ 55” riffing in my ears, I found myself getting closer to another “Lord”, but of the cricket variety. Not the ground where England had regained the Ashes a few days before playing against Australia (that honour went to Trent Bridge, Nottingham) but still, a site where history had been made before. The Lord’s Cricket Ground is the home of the sport that forms the UK’s Holy Trinity along with rugby and, of course, football. Even for people like me, who cannot play cricket, nor can understand the rules of the sport, the symbolism of this venue is too huge to miss.

It is ironic to think that the Ashes were born out of defeat. When the Australians crushed the English team in 1882 at the Oval, the Sporting Times carried a mock obituary proclaiming that “the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia”.

I did not stay long on St John’s Wood Road. The first exit at the roundbout led me towards Prince Albert Road and consequently more shade. The summer sun was out in full swing and the temperature had climbed up to the late 20s. I wanted to get to Camden before evening time. The Regent’s Park was now on my right and so were London Zoo and the Zoological Society of London, founded in 1826 and counting amongst its members one Charles Darwin. Current luminaries include go-to nature documentary presenter, Sir David Attenborough, perhaps one of the most, if not the most easily recognisable face on British television in the last four or five decades.

Whilst this is a post about my experience of cycling around London, I cannot get away from the topic of animals in captivity. That is one of the reasons why I have never set foot in the London Zoo or any other zoo for as long as I can remember. I understand that the nature of keeping animals in enclosures has changed drastically. I also understand that certain species would have disappeared had zoological societies not intervened in time. Furthermore, zoos have also adopted an educational approach which includes reaching out to schools and other institutions.

There was a long queue outside the London Zoo which made me stop for a moment and mentally flip a coin. What if it was the other around? Tigers lining with their cubs, crocodiles with their short-tailed babies and skunks with their magpie-coloured offspring to see us, humans, in cages?

I laughed internally, a long, silent and throaty laugh and carried on towards a real human zoo: Camden Market. In my head Tom Waits’ “Ol’ 55” kept riffing: “And my time went so quickly, I went lickety-splickly out to my Ol’ 55/as I pulled away slowly, feeling so holy, God knows, I was feeling alive”.

© 2016

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 23rd January at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

Don’t be a dick”. Those were the simple words with which Laurie Penny, contributing editor for New Statesman, ended a recent article for the weekly magazine. As New Year resolutions go, hers is as good as they come and one I would easily follow. If only I believed in New Year’s resolutions. The subject she and other writers had explored was the Ten Commandments and how to either re-write some of them or invent new ones for our fast-developing 21st century.

“Don’t be a dick”. Easier said than done. We grow up and in the process acquire ways of thinking that very often conflict with other people’s points of view. Rather than trying to reach a compromise, we try to beat them, to win them over. We put our side of the argument over theirs. We mock them, we deride them, we call them names. En bref, we behave like “dicks”. Even, when truth is on our side, when we can present evidence and this evidence is real, palpable, physical, we still behave like “dicks”.

Could 2016 be the year when we do less of this and we behave more humanely? I know it is difficult to keep a straight face when a Donald Trump-supporting voter lets rip into Muslims, Mexicans and black people. But we need to understand that, just like in Britain the likes of Nigel Farage and his merry band of immigrant-bashers won’t go away any time soon, in the States it is not Donald Trump who is the problem but the system that supports him. You can be a “dick” all you want towards his supporters and yet, the only outcome will be an enhancement of their sense of disenfranchisement.

Based on my personal experience, I can vouch for clear communication, respect, talking and a willingness to compromise as fundamental conflict-solving tools. Most of the time, of course. For a dialogue to take place you need two or more people. And one or more of those people willing to listen to you. But we should also be willing to listen.

Live life to the full, without fear

We do not have all the answers. Part of what makes us human is that eternal search for the meaning of our lives. Not just from a philosophical point of view, but also from an emotional, spiritual and mental one. 2016 has already kicked off with a fear-inducing mood. Some of it is real. Indonesia, as I write, Paris last week, Istanbul in Turkey a few days ago. Some of it, however, has been manufactured: more armed coppers on the streets of Britain (how will they stop an act of terror?), Denmark telling refugees to hand over their valuables in order to pay for their accommodation, a German town banning male migrants from its public indoor swimming pool. The message is clear: be afraid, be very afraid, they don’t look like you, they don’t sound like you and they don’t behave like you.

Sadly, every time this happens we lose another little bit of our humanity. Men do not grope because they are born in a particular country or belong to a specific culture. They do it because we still live in a patriarchy-ruled world. In most countries. That means developed and Third World nations and in between. Robbers are not gender-, or nationality-, or culture-specific. They are robbers, criminals. See them as such. Try them as such.

Since the beginning of the year I have gone out on more bike journeys around London, details of which will be included in future posts. Every time I go out it never ceases to amaze me how open and carefree people are in this mind-boggling (on a bike, it is) but gorgeous city. I see very little fear on people’s faces. I have seen resignation, doubt, uncertainty but not  a lot of fear. That has made me even more resolute in my decision to choose life over fear. Yes, I know that the worst can happen to me just like it could happen to anyone else in another country, or city or town. But, I cannot allow politicians, such as Donald Trump, or David Cameron, or Nigel Farage, to manipulate me, to make me believe that we live in the worst of worlds. And whilst I will politely disagree with their supporters and will try to engage them in conversation and will attempt – with every single fibre of my body – to reach a compromise, I will carry on believing that we live in the best possible of worlds. In fact, it could become even better if we follow Laurie Penny’s advice: “don’t be a dick”.

When I was still in college (high school for US readers), a friend of mine played me Space Oddity on his battered stereo. I didn’t think much of it at the time, to be honest. It was only when I was in uni and visiting another friend that I got hooked on Bowie on the spot. My mate used to live right next to the Japanese embassy in Havana and in those days people used to place a metallic coat hanger strategically outside their houses to try to get a signal from foreign (mainly American) channels via embassies (they had their own prerogatives, don't ask). It was the only alternative we, Cubans, had to the all-powerful, Fidel-run media. The images on the telly were fuzzy at best, but on clear days (and nights) the reception was decent enough to get a good image. MTV and MLB became our new “addictions”. One evening the video of Life on Mars came on and… well, the rest is history. Starman, Heroes, you name it, I sang them.

The death of one trail-blazer like David Bowie, is an accident. But when you lose such a versatile actor like Alan Rickman, then the whole thing could be thought of as carelessness. As it happens, on Christmas Day just gone, we all watched Love Actually,. This is a film that still manages to make me feel sick without any actual vomit coming out of my mouth. Even for someone with a sugar tooth like me, this sucrose-coated film is too much to take. Yet, the standout scene for me is between Rowan Atkinson and Alan Rickman in the jewellery section. This moment encapsulates everything I learnt when doing improvisational theatre: the constant status-swap (Rickman in control at first, Atkinson reacting and then both actors reversing the roles), the timing, the shortness of the scene (just under three minutes). It is pure magic and it is how I want to remember the man who has made me watch Die Hard more times than I care to admit. Rest in peace Bowie and Rickman, you will both be missed.

© 2016

Photo taken by the blog author

Next Post: “London, my London”, to be published on Wednesday 20th January at 6pm (GMT)


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