Tuesday, 29 of July of 2014

Category » spirit21

People are the power for change not gadgets or websites

This is my weekly newspaper column published in The National.

I worked on the very first mobile phone for Apple. The iPod had already wowed the world, and now a global population was waiting for Apple to take the step into mobile technology. The handset wasn’t the iPhone that we know today, but a precursor: a Motorola phone loaded with an iTunes application. This allowed the user to transfer up to 100 songs onto the phone using the app. It was 2005 and I was the product manager for Motorola responsible for the handset across Europe and the Middle East.

In the trenches at Motorola we were inflated with excitementat bringing the first Apple phone to market, but our delight was tempered by the press, who were frustrated at its limited capability. Real users, too, weren’t willing to suffer compromise.

The public announcement of the first iTunes phone should have been tumultuous. Instead, Steve Jobs eclipsed Motorola with the launch of the iPod Nano on the same day. Our chief executive Ed Zander wasn’t best pleased and publicly dismissed the Nano: “Who listens to 1,000 songs?” History would prove Jobs right, and Zander woefully wrong.

Jobs has recently departed his role at the top of Apple. For all the criticism that Apple receives, its popularity is partly due to the fact that its technology is not an end in itself but instead enables users to do things more easily. On the flip side, as one executive commented on the launch of the Nano and as Zander found out, working with Apple is like dancing with the devil. It’s unpredictable and you may be outsmarted.

The same is true of anyone trying to tame a technology. Technologies take on the life of those who invest them with content and meaning. They are only as powerful as the imaginations of those who use them.

Hosni Mubarak learnt that at his peril. First he tried to shut down the internet and mobile networks to thwart the Egyptian uprising. It did the opposite. Then he tried to use them to disseminate his propaganda, and that just made his position more precarious.

Internet and mobile technologies like Twitter, Facebook and smartphones were credited for the revolutions of the Arab Spring. In the UK, the recent riots were blamed on them.

Take this comment on the role technology plays: “A means of communication, a privileged expression of the general transformation of social communication in a moment of change, a new management of time, speech and political discourse.”

Except this description isn’t about the Arab Spring’s use of Twitter. It was written more than 200 years ago at the time of the French Revolution by the Frenchman Pierre Retat with regards to printed material and its role in the political change.

In the 19th century, such thinkers as Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill wrote about how the move from books to journals to newspapers was changing the dynamic of political power and influence.

All of these technologies, from print to Twitter and everything in between, act only as catalysts in political change – they are not the cause of it. They are not the spark, the content, the aspiration, the blood. Yes, the revolutions may have taken a different course without them. Yes, they heightened the speed and ferocity of the uprisings. But we must be clear that it is people – not technologies – that make change happen. Let’s not diminish creativity and courage by attributing great sacrifice to amorphous, faceless technology.


It’s time for Muslims to reclaim their image

This is my weekly newspaper column published in The National (UAE).

A decade after September 11, how I long to declare that warmongering has been vanquished and peace flourishes. But sadly, the 10 years since the horrific deaths in New York have seen increasing war, growing suspicion and greater rather than less terror.

Muslims have been scrutinised, demonised and held to collective blame for the events. They have been accused of plotting to install Sharia in the West, of being violent villains poised to wage global jihad on a liberal enlightened Occident, and of hating democracy.

These types of ideas are memes – thought patterns replicated via cultural means, like viruses of the mind. These parasitic codes have come to proliferate so widely in the West’s collective consciousness and are repeated so often and so brainlessly that they are almost accepted as truth. The fact is they have been deliberately and maliciously implanted into popular thinking since 9/11.

But since the beginning of the year, events have taken an unexpected turn – a turn that offers Muslims a historic opportunity to change the lens through which they have been framed, a chance to expose these memes as the falsehoods they are. Muslims must grasp this moment.

The most prominent memes are that Muslims are inherently violent, opposed to democracy and want to impose Sharia. But the Arab Spring defies these ideas. Across the Muslim world, it wasn’t Sharia that Muslims wanted. People rose up for democracy, deposing dictators one after another. And in Egypt, we saw an object lesson in peaceful revolution.

Muslims who live in the West are eyed suspiciously as fifth columnists. The accusation is that they are disloyal. But in a Gallup poll released last month, 93 per cent of Muslim Americans say they are loyal to their country. And a Pew Research Center poll published last week found that Muslim Americans exhibit the highest levels of integration and the greatest degree of tolerance among major American religious groups.

Another meme is that “all terrorists are Muslim”. But the Norwegian extremist Anders Breivik was the most high-profile proof of the underlying fact that the majority of terrorist acts are not planned or carried out by Muslims at all. Check Europol for figures in Europe. Check CIA statistics for incidents in the USA.

One of the most powerful pieces of information to come to light is a report released last week by the American Center for Progress called “Fear Inc. The Roots of Islamophobia”. It has traced the sources of the fabricated memes to just a handful of funders, and a handful of so-called “experts” who try to take on the mantle of fanning fear and exaggerating threats. The echo chambers they use to amplify their voices are designed to make it appear that this hatred of Muslims is widespread – another falsehood they want to perpetuate – but it is not. The memes by and large stem from them, their funding and their handful of cronies. Their time is now up.

It is Tariq Jahan, a British Muslim who lost his son during this summer’s riots in the UK, who best embodies this moment of change for Muslims. “I’m a Muslim,” he announced on national TV, without fear or apology, but rather to explain that his strength and compassion came from his faith. He united a nation in grief and in dignity where politicians had failed. His dignity and his humanity changed minds about what it means to be Muslim. He instinctively knew that for Muslims the time is now. They must seize this opportunity to lay the myths to rest.


No sex-slaves please, we’re Muslim

This was my newspaper column in last week’s National in the UAE. It is a response to a video posted by a female politician in Kuwait where the protagonist says that men should have sex-slaves in order to protect themselves against the sins of fornication and adultery. See my thoughts below.

Muslim women rarely talk about sex in public. To do so is considered by the cultures they inhabit – not by Islam – as one of the great taboos. So what on earth possessed Salwa al Mutairi, a failed politician from Kuwait, to declare that female “sex-slaves” were a solution to meet the needs of lusty Kuwaiti husbands?

According to Al Mutairi, Kuwait is jam-packed with men whose excessive virility means they are aroused to a frenzy by the sight of female domestic help wielding a vacuum cleaner or stacking a dishwasher. Her solution to their uncontrollable libidos: buy women from war-stricken countries to be their sex-slaves. She suggests Chechnya, where female prisoners of war are in plentiful supply, and who will be grateful for being saved from starvation.

Predictably her comments have been seized upon by Islamophobes. And no wonder. She’s managed to wrap up every possible stereotype of Muslims into one mind-boggling story: men who treat women as possessions; oppressed wives; women who buy into the worldview that men are there to be satisfied at all costs and that the Arab desire for conquest is still rampant. And she’s quoted some “specialists of the faith” to make it look as though this is a religious position that all Muslims hold.

Here’s what I think of Al Mutairi’s views: bonkers.

Her opinion is about as representative of Muslim thinking as the Pope is a Muslim. That is to say, not at all. Yet because she feeds into existing prejudices, she has received wide coverage. It’s a bit Sarah Palin: all hype and no sense.

Just to be clear, Muslims don’t condone the buying and selling of women, or any human beings. We’re opposed to it. Islam doesn’t see men as ravaging sex-beasts, rather men should treat their wives with compassion and respect. Muslims are not out to conquer the world, or take prisoners of war. Instead, Islam counsels peace and harmony with its neighbours, and that Muslims should act as a refuge for those who have been afflicted by war.

Of all the craziness that props up Al-Mutairi’s strange notions, the one that really bothers me is that men are beholden to uncontrollable lust. And that’s a notion that pervades both eastern and western cultures. Let’s get rid of the idea that men are hostages to their libido once and for all.

I’m fed up with excuses rolled out for men that they are so feeble and lacking in self-discipline that they are incapable of controlling their sexual desire. But, strangely they are not incapable of being the head of a household or running a country. My view: if men can’t control what’s in their pants, then their argument that they should control society is on pretty shaky ground.

Men who have power and wealth believe that they can treat women as possessions; that “manly’ men who are overloaded with testosterone must inevitably engage in affairs. Al-Mutairi’s views fit into this same power and lust paradigm as the Dominique Strauss-Khans of this world, or the Arnold Schwarzeneggers. It’s the same wrong-headed thinking that sees women in war as legitimate targets for abuse through the wielding of power and sex, as we’ve seen in the recent allegations that Qaddafi used rape as a weapon of war.

Let’s get away from this sleazy, skin-crawling, dirty tone that sees women as sex objects. It’s a pernicious paradigm that men as well as women must challenge. And no taboo should hold us back from saying so.


An absurd proposal: what if men weren’t allowed to drive?

This is my weekly newspaper column published yesterday in The National (UAE).

With all the recent media coverage of women not being permitted to drive in a certain Middle Eastern country, I got thinking – what would it be like if men weren’t allowed to drive?

I came to one simple conclusion: we women would be much safer.

Think about the dangers of male drivers. Men have higher rates of speeding, they are involved in more accidents and cause more deaths on the road. Their high-testosterone brains ignite higher incidences of road rage. They are notorious tailgaters, failing to observe any measure of safe stopping distance. And, they can’t even be bothered to ask directions when lost. The solution is simple: bar them from driving.

If men start to whine and whinge about their “rights” being infringed, then just to stop their “waagh waagh waagh” moaning, consider this modest proposal.

Driving lanes could be segregated by gender. Or, better still, we introduce gender-segregated streets, some for men, and some for women. This way, we women would not have to look at the horror of their balding heads, especially those of middle-aged drivers in convertibles, their toupees or comb-overs flapping in the wind.

By limiting their access to certain streets, we would also be safe from their high-speed antics and reckless driving, which, due to their biological design, they are compelled to engage in. They can’t help it, poor things. Have petrol, will accelerate.

Where there are roads that men insist they need access to (although what kind of roads these could be, I just don’t know – perhaps ones with football stadiums on them?), a timetable could be devised with restricted hours for men to use them at essential times only. Of course, these hours would exclude the times that the men ought to be at home putting out the rubbish, fixing shelves or cleaning out the drains.

Segregated lanes, limited access and a timetable could be combined into a new road system based on Gender Prioritisation and Separation (GPS).

Male drivers are genetically predisposed to road rage, and if we are to permit them to drive, then we must warn them they will only have themselves to blame if they are attacked in any altercation that ensues. Not driving is for their own good, so if they choose to ignore this, they must bear the consequences.

Of course, we must ensure that these male drivers are not a source of temptation for women. And even more importantly we must take steps to prevent them from driving willy-nilly around on frivolous activities like collecting the children from school, caring for sick relatives or attending places of employment to earn wages to buy food.

In fact, now that I think about it, these tasks are entirely trivial and the men can manage them quite comfortably by hiring a female chauffeur to drive them around. If they are in the back, then they won’t be able to use their wiles to tempt the poor female driver.

When it comes down to it, I am of the view that men don’t really want to drive, but they think it’s fashionable to say that they do. I mean, why would they bother with the hassle of parking? Why get hot under the collar trying to navigate traffic?

In short, men are simply not designed to drive. We tell them and tell them that driving is not good for them, and it’s not good for society. But that’s typical of men isn’t it: they just won’t listen.


Edgware Road, Global Icon

This is my weekly newspaper column published in Abu Dhabi for The National.

Edgware Road greets you first with its fragrance. The sweet mellow caramel scent wafts gently along the street, invisibly kissing your clothes, and claiming you long after you return home.

Its every paving stone seemingly filled with shisha smokers, Edgware Road runs between Marble Arch and the Marylebone flyover in central London. Some call it Little Beirut or Little Cairo. Once it may have needed these namesakes as reminders of home for the Arab migrants who came to London as early as the 19th century as a result of increased trade with the Ottoman Empire; or the Egyptians in the 1950s, the Lebanese during the civil war, or the Iranians and Algerians after periods of unrest. Whether it is the mix of nationalities and cultures, the British setting or some other factor, Edgware no longer needs an alter ego. It stands as a global icon.

As a Londoner, I visit Edgware Road regularly. The area is always busy, from the Odeon Cinema where Edgware Road meets the arch, past the various sonorously named Ranouches, Marouches and Fattoushes. The eateries, which are part of such large chains as Costa Coffee, Caffe Nero and McDonald’s, feel different here than elsewhere. Veiled female customers chide children. “Mohammed!” “Fatima!” They stop running around. With customers spilling onto the streets until late in the night, it seems even Middle Eastern opening hours prevail. Some of the little shwarma outlets open their doors only as evening starts to set in, as their trade is most ebullient once the young men and women swarm along the road at night, chatting, eyeing, laughing, smoking, sipping.

Outside the summer months, these pavements and restaurants are populated by young hip things, usually Muslim, coming for a halal night out. They race their cars in the frosty November air for Eid al Adha, the men sporting Indian sherwanis and interspersing Arabic street slang in their conversations, the women in colourful Indian clothes, their veils tossed fashionably over their hair. On the weekends, Muslims congregate for shai bi na’na and a shared puff of the scented smoke.

This is the time of year when Edgware bursts into activity as visitors from the Gulf migrate to the fashionable London district to escape the summer heat. As dusk falls, women in achingly glamorous abayas glide along the road, the smell of bukhoor trailing them. Young men gesticulate as they speak on their mobiles arranging the evening’s activities with friends. Fathers march forward furiously, wives and offspring in their wake.

Londoners watch as Edgware Road is taken over, and we, its main actors for most of the year, are overlooked. Are we invisible to the visitors, we wonder? Spend a little time to get to know the local culture and people, we cry.

One of the great charms of Edgware Road is the variety of cultures, languages and ethnicities that populate it. Once, it may have been Little Arabia, but today if you cast your gaze around any cafe you will observe faces, clothing and dialects from as far as China, through Somalia and Sudan, across the Middle East, to North Africa, Europe and the Americas. Edgware Road may have its roots in another world, but now it has its own persona.

I say to those visiting: take a moment to look at its history, its present and its people today. Edgware Road’s microculture hints at an intriguing global multicultural future for the Arab and Muslim worlds.


Neither Bin Laden nor dictatorships: Arab youth choose their own models of leadership

This is a very belated posting of my weekly newspaper column written the week that Osama Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan.

Courtesy of Cartoonmovement.com

Osama bin Laden is dead. Bogeyman of western nightmares, and a figure of revulsion for many Muslims, his death brings to a close the ghoulish and virtual reign of an icon – loathed and despised, but an icon nonetheless – of leadership.

This is not to say he was a leader to be emulated, simply that he held a degree of influence. Witness the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre based in Jordan, which placed him on its list of 500 Most Influential Muslims under the category “Radicals”.

His death comes during sweeping changes in the Middle East. Bin Laden wanted these populations to rise up under his charge against the West, but they did it without him. Mubarak is gone. Ben Ali, too. Qaddafi fights for survival. The Arab people didn’t want them, and they didn’t want bin Laden, his philosophy consigned to a compound in Pakistan, his influence diminishing, his ideology rejected by the very people he sought to lead and who on the streets wanted the very democracy he reviled.

But what kind of leadership do Arabs, particularly young Arabs, actually want?

The urge for “participation and representation in the political life of their country of residence” remains a “priority” for young Arabs, according to Asda’a Burson Marsteller’s survey of 2,500 Arab youths in 10 countries, conducted during the recent events. “Arab youth have a deep and enduring desire for democracy” was one of their conclusions, obvious in light of events.

This change is self-driven. The youth are resigned to the fact that their current – and outgoing – leaders do nothing for them. Few bother to voice their opinions to public officials, according to the fourth Silatech Index “Voices of Young Arabs”, published in March, of 20 countries and 36,000 people and produced jointly by the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies and Silatech, a social enterprise addressing opportunities for young Arabs. They are not convinced their leaders are maximising the potential of young people. Instead, they wish to determine their own lives. This trend is clear in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Morocco.

OgilvyNoor, the Islamic branding and marketing consultancy division of the Ogilvy & Mather advertising firm, calls the movers and shakers of the current changes “futurists”, who are “fearless” and “vocal in their beliefs”.

“Their worldview is fundamentally meritocratic, backed by their faith in Islam’s principles of equal brotherhood. Authority is not solely top-down any more. It must make room for equal dialogue,” writes Nazia Hussain, head of strategy for the unit.

It is worth noting that the drive for self-determination, the desire for democracy and the demand that leaders should engage in dialogue are derived from Islam. Additionally, 70 per cent of “futurists” are extremely proud to be Muslim, according to OgilvyNoor’s research.

These young people have come of age in the shadow of September 11 and Osama bin Laden. The war on terrorism offered them two mutually exclusive choices: western democracy or bin Laden’s toxic leadership. They have rejected this bipolar caricature, instead creating their own models of leadership for their future: a future that takes pride in both Islam and democracy, a future fuelled by their belief that change is up to them, a future they can and will make happen.


The Blue Screen of Death has come for me

This is my weekly newspaper column for The National (UAE) published yesterday.

cartoon by Richard Thompson

The Blue Screen of Death came a’knocking at my door this week. The gruesome bright azure of his face, the hissing finality of his breath and the blankness of his unapologetic gaze are his hallmarks, and he used them to stare me straight in the eye. My computer was no more.

I was in the middle of an innocuous task, when suddenly everything froze. I wiggled my mouse, first in annoyance, then frustration, then fear. No. Please. No, I muttered to myself. Not now. Please not now.

My eyes grew wider, and I could feel tears pricking the corners of my eyes. My heart beat faster and my fingers started to twitch. This couldn’t be happening to me. I had a top of the range laptop. I hadn’t installed any bootleg software. I hadn’t been browsing anywhere off the beaten track. I was a good girl as far as my computer life went.

So why was this bad thing happening to me?

The Blue Screen blinked at me. “If this is the first time you are seeing this screen …” it said. Phew. It was the first time. So, I rebooted. I even used “Safe Mode”. As a non-techie I congratulated myself on not just knowing that Safe Mode exists, but that I knew how to access it. There on my screen I could see all my files and documents, and even the piece of writing that I had been working on, whose potential loss was causing me to panic.

Just as my palpitations subsided, the computer started whirring, like the shutting down of the last power station on earth. It hummed, then roared like a lion seeing its cubs about to be attacked, and suddenly it vanished into a void. The Blue Screen disappeared. No goodbyes, no warning, no “nice to have met you”. And with it, my latest work – literally – was sucked into the ether. Goodbye, computer. Goodbye, Shelina.

The Urban Dictionary, which is like Wikipedia but for street speak, has as its top definition of the Blue Screen of Death as “Microsoft’s most successful program”. Ha ha. I’m not laughing. There is even the claim that the Blue Screen’s name itself was a joke: the “blue” referring not just to the colour of the error screen but also to IBM in whose operating system the screen had first appeared, and which industry followers called “Big Blue.” It’s still not funny.

In the past two weeks, computer geeks who have had access to beta versions of Microsoft’s Windows 8 have been saying that the Blue Screen is no more, and the kiss of computer death has become black.

This is top-notch geek-gossip. Black might be a more appropriate colour to signal the demise of your beloved, but it’s less of a visual shock.

The geeks say the use of black by Microsoft is clever, because it will allow them to retain the BSOD abbreviation. Some even say they will miss the Blue Screen of Death. Strange, masochistic fools.

What I miss is having a computer that works. Now I will have to call technical support to perform a resurrection. The operative will have just the slightest whiff of condescension at my lack of technical knowledge. Have you tried switching it off and on again? He will ask.

If he does, this time the response will be my own blue scream of bloody murder. Just make it work. Just make the pesky thing work.


You say burqa, I say burqini

This is my weekly column published yesterday in The National newspaper.

Nigella Lawson sporting a burqini (image from telegraph blog)

Nigella Lawson has unwittingly moved forward the debate about Muslim women and the way they choose to cover their bodies.

Lawson, a celebrity TV chef, is famed for being proud of her curves and for eschewing the pressure on female stars to show off skinny bodies.

Last week, she was spotted on Australia’s famous Bondi Beach sporting a “burqini”. This is an all-over black bodysuit with cap that covers almost every inch of the female form apart from the face, hands and feet. Islamic swimwear like the burqini is something that has seen a rapid rise in popularity in recent years, usually worn by Muslim women wanting modest dress by the beach.

Newspapers are keen to plaster their pages with photos of female celebrities in bikinis, commenting on either how “hot” she looks, or disparaging unsightly flesh as unsuitable for public display.

So what would the press make of the voluptuous chef covering herself up and denying the paparazzi their expected moneyshots?

A columnist in the conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper indulged in some mockery at the supposed horror of Lawson’s attire: “The world stopped spinning this week when a woman wore some clothes on to a beach … You can’t just turn up on a beach in this day and age covered from head to toe and showing only the bare minimum of flesh. It’s offensive, and this so-called woman needs to realise that.”

That’s obviously what Muslim women are told all the time – that covering up is offensive to “our” values, in today’s “modern” and “liberal” age. Yet, here was one of their own, covered unapologetically from head to foot.

The surprise of the whole incident was that alongside the expressions of horror and criticism at Lawson’s level of covering was the begrudging hankering to follow Lawson’s lead, to which many female commentators admitted.

Some echoed Lawson’s own logic behind wearing the all-in-one: to protect sun-sensitive skin. Others suggested her choice was a snub to the media piranhas who feast on female bodies. But there was one additional thread of realisation: that maybe, just maybe, here was an escape for women from relentless body fascism.

“This must be what people mean by the “liberation” and “privacy” of the burkini – by refusing to strip to what is effectively skimpy underwear, non-Muslim women such as Lawson are saying: “To hell with your fake tans, diets, ‘bikini-readiness’,” wrote one commentator in the liberal Guardian.

And that is the whole point of the realisation that Lawson’s actions have prompted: that women don’t have to submit to baring all.

“Was there a woman in Britain, I wonder, who didn’t feast their gaze on Nigella and who didn’t on some level think … I wish I was brave enough to do that?” asked Rachel Johnson, sister of the London mayor, Boris Johnson, in The Times, a conservative tabloid. “Nigella’s capacious burkini has clearly liberated her, and there must be a positive message for us all in there somewhere.”

Lawson’s fear of sunburn may have inadvertently prompted the realisation that there is liberation in covering. This is something that Muslim women like me have expended much effort in explaining and defending. But maybe we can now move on from this constant need for explanation, defensiveness and the vague sense of liberal apologetics that occasionally appears. Perhaps it’s time to be a bit naughtily smug and say: we already told you so.


Hurrah for Wills and Kate! But what about all the other brides?

This is my weekly newspaper column published in The National today (UAE).

Hurrah for Wills and Kate! At the end of next week, they will be finally tying the knot at a much-hyped wedding extravaganza.

courtesy davegranlund

I enjoy watching a good wedding, and having organised my own a few years ago, I know what a challenge it can be to pull off the perfect one when nothing less than perfect will do. The entire shindig is usually the preserve of the bride, who has probably dreamt of this day since she was a tiny tot. Do men really care?

Don’t Tell the Bride is a UK television programme that plays with the notion that the wedding is all about the bride and that men know nothing – and care even less. To cover the expenses of the entire wedding, the programme gives the substantial sum of £12,000 (Dh72,000) to the groom.

As it happens, this is about the same amount the Emirati Marriage Fund gives to Emirati men, a sweetener to encourage Emirati men to marry Emirati women. Can he be persuaded not to “marry out” and instead rescue an Emirati damsel? Will the lady get her man?

In Don’t Tell the Bride, the catch is that the groom must not confer with the bride on any aspect of the wedding. Can he pull off her dream wedding, or will she curse him forever for ruining her special day? Will the lady get her day?

I admit to finding this programme disturbingly compelling. The bride’s desperation for perfection is played off against the groom’s cluelessness. She wants a romantic fairy-tale castle; he organises a poolside barbecue. She wants a slimming frock; he plumps for a flouncy, meringue-like skirt. And yet, it all seems to work out well in the end. The bride smiles, the groom’s relieved – and they all live happily ever after.

It seems men are not so useless wedding-wise after all.

Is this how Kate feels as her big day draws near? Is she the mastermind enjoying having a team of professionals at her behest? Or is she feeling excluded from the process that turns her wedding into a public spectacle?

Frankly, and I say this on behalf of all couples who are getting married this year, William and Kate have set the bar too high for the weddings of mere mortals.

How on earth can anyone compete with this royal spectacular? Surely every wannabe princess will bemoan her own very ordinary, “commoner” wedding after this. Copycat weddings will be all the rage, and the style of Kate’s frock will become staple wedding attire, as was Diana’s.

Westminster Abbey is the venue for the ceremony, one of the most exclusive locations in the world. And just to rub it in, the Abbey has just released an iPad application to allow you to see the building in its full 3D glory. The queen’s own kitchen staff will take care of the catering. And George Michael has recorded a special cover of Stevie Wonder’s You and I as a wedding present for the couple.

It’s estimated that two billion people worldwide will watch Kate get married on Friday. A wedding is a day many women see as their fairy-tale occasion. At this wedding, one bride will – literally – become a princess. Not for their royal status, but for their lives together as a married couple, I wish them every happiness and success.


Respect people, not just the earth

This is my weekly newspaper column in The National (UAE) published today, in a special Green Issue of the paper.

The concept of being green is like the concept of being religious: nobody is quite sure exactly what the definition is, but you are either a believer or you’re not.

from istockphoto

Once, everything was couched in religious terms; today everything is green. We’ve had religious buildings for centuries; fashionable religious gear has been around for years, and Malaysia’s Proton automaker has an “Islamic” car. Now we have green buildings, green fashion, green cars.

Like religion, the green movement has its own jargon, one that is part of our day-to-day lexicon. Green vocabulary trips off our tongues with words like renewable, recycling, carbon offsetting, pollution, eco-friendly, organic.

Being a believer in green doesn’t necessarily mean you will actually do anything about it. Like lazy religionists, it could mean you are apathetic or even agnostic, you think it’s too hard, or you’re a procrastinator. You think you’ll eventually get around to it – when it becomes really urgent. Mainly, you hope you won’t be dying before you actually do something.

Then there’s guilt. We’re familiar with cultural notions like “Catholic guilt”, but green guilt is rife, too; if you’re not recycling properly, or if you drive a gas-guzzling car, then you probably feel constant twinges of guilt. I admit that I’m a sufferer of this ailment.

But unlike religion, green belief focuses on material things. It’s about stuff: how much we use, where it comes from, what happens to it afterwards, and what the effect of our consumption and output on the physical world around us is.

But what if “being green” and being concerned about what we take from the world and what we return to it was a concept that also included the relationships we have with people? What if it encompassed emotions, spirits and feelings?

After all, if being green is a mindset that is respectful of the environment, then we should be respectful of the people in the environment. No point generating friendships and then throwing them away. Why not build them to be sustainable? No point allowing bad feelings to fester and spiral out of control. Why pollute the human environment with recriminations?

We could extend “greenness” to be a more holistic concept so that we treat the people around us in ways that are respectful and sustainable. For eco-friendly, read “good tempered”; for carbon offsetting, read “forgiving”; for organic, read “sharing”.

Of course “green” does have an ethos, a concern for something other than self. In this case the concern is for the environment. And one of its persuasive arguments is to be worried for the legacy we leave our children.

It also hints at related ideas about other people: that workers should be paid fairly, that their resources should not be abused, that countries should not be exploited, that wars should not be fought nor people killed for oil. These need to be made more explicit, and embody the ideas of sustaining the human environment, not just the physical one. We need to elevate the importance of the human atmosphere as something to be improved, protected and maintained.

image from triplenetmarcus

Going green, we normally ask ourselves: how hard is this going to be and how much is it going to cost me?

To be green in a human environment costs nothing financially. All it takes is a ready supply of smiles, a reserve of tolerance and an abundance of faith in the ultimate goodness of humanity.