I recently published the following article in The Muslim Newscontinue reading
Normally, politicians have an answer to everything. They sing their glib statements joyfully to the media, enjoying their power and status and the sound of their own voices. But in the last four weeks their opinions have been unnervingly silent in the face of the situation in the Middle East. Shouldn’t they have been our voices of conscience? Isn’t democracy designed for our representatives to represent our humanity?
The PM was on his hols. John Prescott was probably playing croquet. Parliament was closed for the summer. The silly season was not about beach holidays, but about a holiday of basic human values and response to a political and humanitarian crisis.
I kept a running count of the dead on the Israeli and Lebanese sides of the conflict. The numbers who were killed grew day by day, and the number of refugees soared into the hundreds of thousands. I had one single strong instinct, which cried from deep inside me, stop the killing. Stop the killing. I tore my hair out as each day all the politicians said was: there is no point to a ceasefire. But how could there be no point to a ceasefire? Surely people would be saved? Should we have told the people living in Qana that a ceasefire would have been a waste?
The politicians used very clever arguments. A ceasefire won’t last, they told us. It is not a long term solution. We need to fix the underlying problem. All very noble sentiments from comfy seats in leafy Britain. But every innocent individual who would have lived if there had been a ceasefire was a reason for implementing it. I scratched my head in confusion. Was I wrong? Were my instincts not trustworthy in believing a ceasefire to be the first step, and then all other discussions could follow?
All of the faiths of Islam, Christianity and Judaism share a common belief, which says, “A person who saves one life is as though they have saved the whole of humanity.” But these are words that express a basic human instinct, that life is valuable, that the lives of all human beings are valuable. So why did a basic morality that everyone supports – regardless of faith, ethnicity or political leaning – get whitewashed? As a society which way is our moral compass pointing and have we lost conviction in our ability to press for what is right?
As the days progressed, the crescendo of counter-intuitiveness grew. I wrote a piece on my blog asking “Who is the victim?” to question the growing view that it was not the poor Lebanese who were suffering. I also asked if the attacks were disproportionate. Is it the fault of the Israelis that they have bomb shelters? I was asked. Is it the fault of the Israelis if the Lebanese don’t flee with their children when we throw bombs and have air raids and then their children die? The voices barked.
My head hurt with these responses. I felt like I was looking at the world through a mirror where everything was back to front. Surely the common sense solution was not for people to flee, but for the raids and bombs to stop. More worrying was the fact that the Government, the media and our leaders followed this logic.
I was starting to feel like an extra in the Emperor’s New Clothes. Was I the only one who felt that our human instincts to the conflict were hidden beneath political rhetoric? I don’t believe so. About 100,000 people of all colours, shapes and sizes turned up in central London on August 5, to demand a ceasefire, to try and reclaim humanity and conscience for our society. But again the voices were dismissed. The time was not right, apparently. Our leaders claimed to know better. They implied we were wrong.
The media ran reports that the images coming from Lebanon were doctored. It was all propaganda we were told. Things are not really that bad. I saw one report on television showing that the Lebanese had created a whole real live theatre of people who pretended that they were being hit by Israeli rockets. I furrowed my brow in confusion. If Israel had admitted that they were attacking Lebanon, then why would the Lebanese have to make up imagery? Were the words of the victim less valuable? If we were in a court of law wouldn’t the evidence of both sides be heard and assessed on their merits, in line with natural human instinct and justice. So why were the words of the Lebanese civilians less merit-worthy of analysis and belief than those of the Israeli Government? Why were the words of the Israelis taken at face value?
BBC Radio 4 interviewed an aid agency and a commissioner from the UN agency that looks after refugees. They both stated clearly and on air that they had been denied access for humanitarian convoys into Lebanon by Israeli authorities. The Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mark Regev, was asked to respond. It’s not true, he said. But you just heard what they said. It’s not true, he repeated. There was no accountability, no challenge. He just lay down his truth unquestioned.
So the ceasefire did finally come. And that’s where we are while I write this (I’m sure things will be quite different by the time you read it). In Britain, fear is overriding conscience and humanity and the embers of hysteria are once again being fanned. And fear is one of the factors that makes us forget our basic moral values. It takes courageous voices to challenge and placate fear. Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, held a vigil to highlight the plight of innocent people in the Middle East, to speak out against the ‘idolatry’ of terrorists and against the irresponsible words of George Bush for saying that he was at war with ‘Islamic fascists’. Disappointingly, his acts have been met with derision. Why is this man’s courage being mocked? Has the political climate made us forget humanity?
In the complexity of the media and political rhetoric, we have forgotten to use our instincts and logic in responding to a very human crisis. All people of faith and those with none have a basic humanity and conscience, which we are being trained out of. The instinct to goodness is being edged out of the public and political domain, and we need to reclaim it. The whisper of conscience and the courage to unveil our humanity are the only hope that we have.
Overnight flights are not the best way to travel, I reminded myself this morning as we landed at Gatwick at 530am. This was made worse by the fact that I had been nursing a temperature of 103 F for the last two days for some inexplicable reason. So I’ve been at home today, feeling sorry for myself, and feeling sizzling hot and artically cold in turn.continue reading
A full set of photos will be posted up shortly so you can see the raw magnificence of sweet Sierra Leone. However, my macabre sense of intrigue tells me I should share this photo with you. As we drove through the interior we slowed down at one of the locals trying to sell us his wares. For a measly 10,000 Leone (about £2) you can pick up your own dead monkey for decoration or food. We stared at the monkey in shock. Was it really dead? Our taxi driver translated from our BBC English into Creole: “Da monkey don die?”
We decided to go down to Freetown central mosque today to see a local Friday prayer. It is a huge edifice downtown, in the main shopping district. Everyone knows where it is regardless of their religion. It is sturdy and towers high into the skyline, but is rather sparse in its completion. It looked like it once had a huge amount of money poured into it, but funding perhaps ran dry. Inside the structure rises high with lofty columns into a dome, with two balconies up above. The courtyard outside is vast as is the main prayer space inside, both of which are designed to be and also to appear spacious, something that many mosques somehow don’t manage to pull off.continue reading
However, the interior was all white, laid on the floor were cane mats, and the dome on the outside was black. I don’t think this was a tribute to any kind of simplicity or spartanism, but rather it was a step in the slow journey to completion. The steps leading into the courtyard from the street had suddenly been filled with men selling prayer beads, and young children and invalids with plastic bowls begging. We had come the previous day in the apocalyptic downpour to find the area abandoned and the courtyard awash with inch-deep puddles.
The Imam gave the khutba (the sermon) in a mix of Arabic, English and the local creole, as the congregation listened attentively. Although we looked foreign, there was little staring or pointing, as often happens abroad, everyone just went about their business of praying. Although the numbers were huge, possibly well over a thousand, perhaps two, moving about, entering and leaving did not feel crowded or jostled.
Except for the beggars. Who had obviously spotted and smelt our foreigness and thrust themselves in front of us. One young child followed us for about an hour, even waiting outside the cafe where we had lunch. They certainly were persistent.
My time at the internet cafe is up – more soon!
“The roads in Sierra Leone are like a disco” said our taxi driver sagely “When you sit in the car, all you do is jump, jump, jump”.continue reading
Some of the roads are marvels – long smooth tracks of almost fresh tarmac. Others are muddy, rocky, potholed death-traps. Ironically, these latter “roads” have speed bumps. The mind boggles.
Yesterday we checked out the road up to Signal Hill and up to the Hill Station. It wound dramatically up the mountain through verdant trees with tropical size leaves. The houses hid behind walls, changing from the more common corrugated iron roofs to expensive looking villas. Apparently, this is the place to live. It was a different world from bustling chaotic Freetown centre. Apparently this area was first developed for the European governing class to live in, to escape the “cesspool” of Freetown itself. A mountain railway was built to travel directly from this area to the centre of Freetown – a one in twenty two gradient that was the steepest railway which was not a funicular. The Europeans could commute to Freetown using this, and otherwise could totally avoid the locals whom they governed. Only in 1958 was the first black African allowed to live in this area by permission.
The road led past the EU complex further up and finally ended at the ongoing development of an American embassy. Towering over an area of 23 acres it was under construction, a massive complex built totally out of keeping with the local architecture and behind immense fortifications. We wondered why such a huge establishment was required – a military base? Or perhaps a regional presence? The Americans already have an embassy in the centre of Freetown, and Sierra Leone only has a population of around 4 million.
With the epic rainfall yesterday, the roads were muddy and we drove up and down hills where fresh rivers from the rainfall gushed past, deep terracotta red in colour from the earth it had collected. And that is one of the most noticeable things about this area – the intensity of colour, especially the saturated red of the earth, contrasting with the intense green of the leaves. A rainbow feast for the eyes. I dread the return to the washed out greys of England.
It’s right in the middle of the rainy season here in Sierra Leone. The rain has chucked it down all day today, as we drove in a 4×4 up the mountains that sit just behind Freetown, the capital of the country. The city lies between almost endless beautiful white sandy beaches that run forward from a dramatic black rock coastline and the exuberantly lush hills filled with bright green leaves and trees and torrents of rainwater flooding down the hills.continue reading
The country has been most unexpected. The signs of war, and the teetering infrastructure are apparent. And yet the city still holds its basic grid system, minivan buses still run with regularity and people go about their day to day business.
The most stunning thing has been the scenery – jaw droppingly gorgeous, a paradise on earth, and completely untouched. We drove along small resorts where tourists might come and stay in once luxurious chalets set on white beaches only metres from the clear warm sea.
By contrast, finding anything out about the country – simple things like where to go, what to see, where to eat – is incredibly difficult. Even history and culture are only anecdotal, and shared reluctantly by the locals. The veins of history run deep and rich but despite the easy facade, there is something palpable and untouched that seems to lie beneath the chilled and easy manner of the locals.
I’ve taken plenty of snaps of this gorgeous and ravaged place, and will post them up as soon as I can. I’ve satisfied my blog-craving which has been getting progressively worse since I left London on Monday. I’m sure I’ll be feeding this addiction again shortly. Watch this space. Signing off from SL.
In my research about Sierra Leone, I dug up some interesting facts. Apparently the University of Freetown (the capital) is twinned with Kingston Upon Hull (how???). Freetown has a suburb called Kissy. You can just imagine the cheeky young men teasing the girls “Let’s go Kissy, whaddaya say?” Kissy is also the name of a character in the game Baraduke (and no, before you ask, I have no idea).
Grahame Green lived in Sierra Leone. During World War II, he worked for the Secret Intelligence Service in Sierra Leone, which became the setting for his book The Heart of the Matter.
And the third largest diamong ever found, was the Star of Sierra Leone which came in at a whopping 968.80 carats. It was found in 1972 in Sierra Leone and weighed about half a pound. The rough diamond was eventually cut into seventeen exquisite individual diamonds, six of which are now set in the Star of Sierra Leone Brooch. This was a Rock and a half.
I’ll let you know if I get offered something similar while I’m out there. I’ll start a Shelina Diamond Fund. All donations welcome
I’m off next week to Sierra Leone for the wedding of a friend. I’m looking forward to a traditional wedding, but a bit nervous about all the stories about landmines and having to be escorted everywhere you go. It’s also the rainy season so I’ll be packing my galoshes and anorak. I don’t know what the internet situation is there either, so I’ll have to find a way to keep blogging… need my blog fix!
The flip side is that it is supposed to be quite beautiful with some gorgeous white sandy beaches…
Has anyone been out there recently and have any tips for me? Or generally any interesting information?continue reading