Greek islands: No holiday in the sun for Syrian refugees

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

Kos is straining under the influx of Syrian refugees.  Though locals are hospitable, the refugees are desperate to move on but where or how eludes them.

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Tuesday 23 June 2015

Over the past couple of months, the Eastern Aegean islands have become the main gateway for the refugees and the immigrants seeking entrance into the European Union. The mere few kilometres separating the Greek islands from the Turkish coast have long been one of the Turkish traffickers’ favourite approaches, while the sheer volume of people making their escape to a hoped-for better life has never been greater.

“You know the most devastating irony of all? That we have to pay one thousand euros to get from Bodrum to Kos, while the return trip costs the tourists only €10,” said Amir Obada, a thirty-year-old Syrian standing with me in the shade cast by the abandoned hotel Captain Elias on the outskirts of the Greek island of Kos.

Amir comes from the famous Christian town of Malula in Syria, where a bitter struggle between government forces, the Islamic State, various insurgent militias and armed groups of local Christians has been taking place for the past few years.

When the war broke out, Amir was just finishing his studies in chemistry. His father was one of the professors at the Malula university, which got shut down on account of the fighting. As a devout pacifist, Amir refused to pick up a rifle. Staying home, he assured me, was not an option. His family home got shredded in the crossfire. And so he set off for Turkey and then to one of the Eastern Aegean islands, where a serious humanitarian crises has been developing over the past few months.

The Greek authorities found themselves unprepared for such a massive inflow of people. So far this year, the island of Kos alone has seen the arrival of some 7,500 migrants and refugees – six times more than was the case over the same period in 2014. Most of them had come in from Syria and Afghanistan. During the second half of May and the first days of June, Kos – still much favoured by tourists from all over the world – was in a state of turmoil. Anywhere between 100 and 500 people were arriving daily by rubber dinghies and small sailboats from the Turkish coast.

One of them was Amir Obada, who set off on his journey accompanied by five of his friends and relatives from Syria. At the time of our interview, he was sharing a small room with them in the squalid, abandoned hotel with no electricity and no functioning toilet facilities.

Walk west

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

“I’m so glad I’m safe. I don’t know what else to say. These last two years I’ve seen some things that, well… I still can’t believe I managed to escape the war,” Amir confesses. “But I can’t help thinking about my parents and relatives who are still in Syria – I think about them all the time. Unlike most of my travelling companions, I’m not married and I don’t have any children. In a time of war, that is a huge advantage.”

Amir proudly produced his ticket for the evening ferry to Athens. The Greek authorities – at least partly because of the approaching peak of the tourist season – had recently introduced the so-called fast-track for Syrian refugees. This means that the people arriving daily aren’t given too much hassle. After they reach Athens, they are issued with a permit for a six-month stay, which can later mostly be renewed without great difficulty.

None of the many refugees I talked to wished to remain in Greece. They understood all too well that the country is in a state of profound crisis, and that things can only get worse. “I had to leave behind my wife and four children – they’re waiting for me in the countryside near Damascus. I promised them that, once I reached Europe, I would do everything in my power to help them join me,” Muhammad Issa, 45, told me, as he sat in a cramped room filled with old mattresses, tattered blankets and empty plastic water bottles. “Yes, I know it’s going to be very hard. But I simply couldn’t have brought them along on such a dangerous journey. It was too risky. And the children were too small.”

Some two and a half years ago, a similar task – getting his loved ones safely out of Syria – was undertaken by Yassin Sinno, 26. He somehow managed to escape Malula and reach London through Turkey. The British authorities approved his request for asylum. Earning his living as a waiter in a coffee shop in Yorkshire, he is now free to travel all over the European Union. He came to the island of Kos to pick up his brothers Mahmmoud and Hussein, who had sailed here in the same boat as Amir Obada.

“I can’t describe my joy at seeing them again… It was God’s will that we met again, and we all cried,” Yassin grinned, going on to describe how he had arranged his two brothers’ entire trip from Syria to Greece. The goal now is to get to Athens and seek out one of the more competent ‘contacts’ who can get his siblings further on their way. The official routes toward Great Britain are out of the question. At this time, the only remotely tenable way out of Greece and on to Western Europe is the extremely dangerous and arduous walk through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary.

Muhammad Issa managed to reach Greece on his second attempt. The first time around he was caught by the Turkish police. He was thrown in jail for two days and was then released. In Bodrum and all over the nearby coastal cities in Turkey, where the trafficking trade is booming, this is more or less a matter of routine. “There were 44 of us on the rubber boat. It was very dangerous. We went out around midnight. The trip only took two and a half hours,” Muhammed recalled in the ruined hotel. “I was very scared, because I can’t swim. When we got to Kos, they took us in with decency and kindness. It’s just that here, where we are now stationed, things are quite unbearable. But tonight we’re moving on.”

Amir Obada didn’t have a clear (geographical) destination in front of him. He was more than willing to go anywhere where he could continue his studies in chemistry. His country of choice would be Sweden, yet he knew all too well that this choice, for him, might prove to be an unattainable luxury. He was prepared, he said, to start from scratch. In order to reach Greece he had had to invest a great deal of his savings. This is the reason why on arriving to Kos, like most of his friends and companions, he took up lodgings in the filthy and dilapidated ruin on the outskirts of Hippocrates’ town.

In front of the main building, a few Afghan teenagers were kicking around a somewhat deflated football. On a meadow nearby, a pair of cows were grazing in the sun, while a number of Pakistani men were lying in the shade.

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

On a platform in front of what remains of the hotel, the local authorities have set up a system of pipes providing the residents with drinkable water. This was where the refugees could also wash and shave. As I strolled by, some of them were washing their clothes and mending the decrepit shoes that still needed to get them over the long trek to Central Europe.

“I’m not used to living like this,” Amir frowned at me.  “Until the war, we lived very well back home in Syria. I have to admit that the people here greeted us kindly, but there are no resources to be spared for us refugees.” Amir chose his rundown lodgings in order to save money. “I’ll need every coin I got to get me further off into Europe. I have decided to walk,” he informs me. “I intend to cross Macedonia and Serbia to get to Hungary. Once there, I will probably take a train through Austria all the way to Germany. To be honest, I don’t have much choice.”

Good Samaritans

As he told me of his plans, Amir’s comrades were nodding their silent agreement. No one among them was able to produce anything resembling a clear-cut plan. They were hoping for one of the target European countries to grant them asylum. As of yet, no one had informed them how to apply or even what basic rights had been accorded to them. In general, the presence of the international humanitarian outfits on the island of Kos was much too scarce for comfort. The necessary infrastructure for helping the migrants and refugees was virtually non-existent. For the most part, these tormented souls were depending on the help of local good Samaritans. For the most basic medical support, a small itinerant band of Doctors without Borders (MSF) was on hand to provide assistance.

“The island was completely unprepared for such a crisis. The sheer number of incoming people is staggering. And it is only likely to get bigger. The smugglers’ routes have been changed. Right now, the Eastern Aegean islands are the most popular location. Kos, Lesbos, Leros, Samos… The Greek authorities are trying to help, but they themselves are struggling under some pretty heavy loads. There’s no infrastructure here to help us help these poor people. So we had to improvise,” explains Aggelos Kallinis, the local UNHCR representative, who was speaking to me in front of the local police station, where hundreds of people were waiting every day to obtain the permits enabling them to proceed to Athens. “We’ve managed to enlist the help of the local community, some NGOs and a number of local volunteers. Surprisingly, many of them have risen to the occasion, but the situation is still rough, very rough.”

All-inclusive solidarity

©Boštjan Videmšek

©Boštjan Videmšek

On a daily basis, the Kos Solidarity volunteer group comes to the Captain Elias ‘hotel’ to distribute food, clothes, shoes and items of basic hygiene. When these local Samaritans – Sofia (a primary school teacher), Elena (a doctor), Alexander (a primary school teacher) and Jorgos (a businessman) – arrive to bring the refugees their one daily meal, a huge cheer can be heard from far away. The children, some of them not even ten years old, cling hard to the visiting humanitarian workers who can barely control the surges of the starving crowd. Under the vicious sun, the locals keep handing out the food prepared especially for the migrants in the kitchens of some of the nearby hotels.

There is plenty of food, enough to last the whole day. A tremendous gratitude can be felt emanating from the crowd, but also a great sense of shame. At home, these people weren’t used to living off their fellow humans’ pity. Quite the contrary. The Syrians and the Afghans come from arguably two of the most hospitable countries in the world. My long years of war reporting have taught me that a country’s hospitality usually bears a direct correlation to the scope of the tragedies experienced by the country’s population.

 

A tired man in his mid-forties, flanked by four of his six children, was observing the distribution of food from a distance. Visibly anxious, he obviously wanted to reach out and get his fair share, yet his pride wouldn’t let him. “I come from the Golan Heights, right near the Israeli border. Sometime before the war I moved to a suburb of Damascus, where I started a small business. I was doing very well. I built myself a big house and got married. Everything was fine. I had a good life,” Bilal informed me rather angrily.

During the first two years of war, not much trouble came to his neighbourhood, but his business slowly ground to a halt. About a year ago, his house got razed in the fighting. “The Free Syrian Army and the government forces were fighting for control of our mahala. A bomb was thrown directly on my house,” he recalled. “I don’t know who dropped that bomb, and frankly I don’t care. Me, my wife and six children – we got out of there as fast as we could.”

By now, there was a distinct tremble to Bilal’s voice. He landed on Kos last Friday. Huddled at the hotel with his family, he was waiting to proceed towards Athens, and then… And then? “I don’t know. I don’t have a plan. My only goal is to for us to be free and to be safe. To get where we are now, we had to spend quite a lot of money. The trip took twenty-two days,” he described.

“From Syria, we went to Lebanon, then we flew to Turkey. We had to pay off a huge number of people. You know that merely to go from Turkey to Greece by boat you have to pay one thousand euros per person,” Bilal continued. “I mean, of course we would like to move on! Maybe to Germany or even Scandinavia. But I know it’s going to be very hard. I want to find work. I have a lot of skills and experience.”

As I talked to Bilal, his wife and two youngest children lingered in the cold room of the abandoned hotel. The lady didn’t feel very well. Some time ago, she underwent a complicated and dangerous operation. Breast cancer had taken a visible toll, yet she still managed to endure the risky and exhausting journey to freedom. “I can’t wait for my [wife] to get well, so we can all relax and start living again,” Bilal said quietly: “Inshallah, God willing!” He was still making a strong effort not to join the line formed by his fellow refugees waiting for food.

Absolute uncertainty

In the hot Aegean mid-afternoon, a pair of young Syrian girls were simultaneously leaning against a wall and against each other. They had been doing their best not to fall asleep, but their exhaustion had finally prevailed. Sleeping, they were breathing in unison, with their mouths open, joined at the hip as if they were Siamese twins.

But the trauma of everything these two little girls had been through was etched deeply onto their young, sleeping faces.

Only a few hours before, they had arrived in Kos at the break of dawn in a rubber dinghy, along with their parents and a number of other Syrian refugees. “Hey, do you need a room? A hotel? Cheap – very cheap!” an older local woman accosted the family as they stood waiting in line in front of the police station. The two sleeping girls’ parents hesitated for a moment. As to their immediate future, they had very little relevant information to go on, even though they had been waiting in the crowd since early morning.

“Only for one night? Just to get some rest? We want to move on as soon as we can, madam,” the father replied and gently woke his daughters. Once they stopped propping each other, they nearly collapsed from exhaustion. Their mother gave them a warm hug.

They then scooped up their pitiful possessions and followed the Greek woman’s lead.

This “lucky” family may have managed to escape the bloodiest conflict of our time, and they may have just passed the major mark of having successfully landed in the EU. But their future was still heartbreakingly uncertain.

____

Follow  Boštjan Videmšek on Twitter

His website is: bostjanvidemsek.com

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Angela’s angels and the political patriarchy

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite the “Merkel miracle”, the political patriarchy remains strong. However, more women are exploiting and even defying it to lead their countries.

Wednesday 2 October 2013

The Merkel miracle and redefining charisma.

The Merkel miracle and redefining charisma. Image: German government

Angela Merkel has made it to a third term in office. Not being a fan of her conservative austerity politics and feeling that Germany, not to mention the EU as a whole, needs an injection of progressive radicalism, I had half-wished that the protest Pirate Party would,against the odds, force Germany to change political course.

Still, I have some reason to rejoice. Merkel, as the leader of the EU’s largest member state, remains the “most powerful woman” in the world. Merkel is the first woman in Germany to become chancellor, and now she’s done that thrice over, in what has been described as the “Merkel miracle.”

This achievement is all the more impressive when you consider that Merkel – a scientist and not a politician by training – started off at a severe disadvantage in Germany’s post-reunification politics, hailing as she does from East Germany. Often dismissed as “dour” and “too boring for Germany“, some are now talking of the need to redefine “charisma” in light of her understated “charm”.

Like that other poster girl of conservative Europe, Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel also has the distinction of being one of the few female heads of government to have made it to the very top of her country’s political game on her own steam, and not thanks to being the member of a patriarchal political dynasty, as many others have proven to be.

Take Indira Gandhi in India. She was the daughter of Indian independence leader and the country’s first premier Jawaharlal Nehru. Prime ministerial surrenderer Sonia Gandhi, wife of assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, was also connected to the Nehru dynasty.

In neighbouring Pakistan, the late Benazir Bhutto was the daughter of the popular but disastrous Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In Indonesia, Megawati Sukarnoputri was the daughter of independence leader Sukarno. There were also Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh.

China’s Soong Ching-ling was married to Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the 1911 revolution. The parents of Sri Lanka’s Chandrika Kumaratunga both served as prime minister in Sri Lanka. In fact, her mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, was the world’s first female prime minister.

Nevertheless, even if these woman did receive an initial leg up from the men in their families, their rise to the very top of the political game required talent. It also highlights an interesting reality, not to mention an intriguing paradox. The West prides itself on being the world leader in female emancipation, yet developing countries, especially in Asia, including quite a few Muslim-majority countries, have apparently delivered significantly more women heads of government.

Despite the fact that Western society is generally more gender egalitarian, the political, as well as the corporate, upper echelons have remained largely an old boys’ club. In the United States, for instance, the only woman who has come within dreaming range of becoming president is Hillary Clinton, who ended up losing the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama, but may yet become president in the future.

This sole woman has also risen in the political game as her husband’s successor. Of course, there’s long been talk that Hillary was Bill’s de facto vice president, or co-president even, and had a significant unofficial role in running the country, rather like the “Sultanate of Women” in the Ottoman empire of yore. But this notion is also partly fed by the discomfort the patriarchy feels towards a strong and outspoken woman.

Fortunately, there are exceptions to this dynastic rule – and, as female emancipation advances, these exceptions are gradually becoming the rule.

In addition to Merkel and Thatcher – who made it in male-dominated politics by becoming honorary members of the patriarchy and not by advocating the cause of gender equality and female emancipation – there were a number of noteworthy women, usually in small countries, who managed to circumnavigate the boys’ club by themselves.

These included self-made lawyer Eugenia Charles in Dominica, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia, Israel’s Golda Meir, Australia’s Julia Gillard, New Zealand’s Helen Clark and Jamaican incumbent Portia Simpson-Miller.

In Europe, there has been Gro Harlem Brundtland in Norway whose presumptive new premier is also a woman, Hanna Suchocka in Poland, the controversial Tansu Çiller in Turkey, and Yulia Tymoshenko in Ukraine.

Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, former prime minister of Iceland, had the distinction of being the world’s first openly lesbian head of government.

What this reveals is a promising trend in which a growing number of women are leading their countries, and they are doing so solely on their own merit.

___
Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 27 September 2013.

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Forecast: dry, becoming drier

 
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By Khaled Diab

There’s more than enough fresh water in the world to sate our thirst. The problem is getting it to where it is desperately needed.

September 2008

With the depressing torrential rain and flooding at the weekend, water shortages are the last thing on our minds here in these wet, northern climes. In fact, perhaps we need a collective ‘sun dance’ to implore the powers that be to deliver us an ‘Indian summer’.

Despite the misery, we are fortunate, as more and more areas in the world are beset by water shortages. Over the past week alone, the water table in the Pakistani capital Islamabad has fallen to dangerous levels (a common problem across the subcontinent), Kyrgyzstan has cut electricity production to save water, and Californian farmers have complained of lower yields due to water rationing.

The Middle East and North Africa, the driest population centre on the planet, is particularly vulnerable to water shortages. According to the International Water Management Institute, every country in the MENA region suffers from physical water scarcity or is approaching it.

Yemen – fabled for the fertile ancient kingdoms of Arabia Felix – is expected to be the first country in the region to deplete its ground water.

The Sea of Galilee in Israel has reached the lowest levels ever recorded, with fears that, if the government continues to pump it at current rates, the country’s main fresh water reservoir could reach the point of no return.

And the situation is likely to deteriorate, if climate change models prove to be accurate. Earlier this year, the UN released a report estimating that a 3-4°C rise in temperatures could lead to a drop of up to 35% in agricultural output. However, more localised analysis by an Australian scientists suggests that some parts of the region, such as Iraq, may see more rainfall.

Nevertheless, the forecast looks dry for the Middle East. In addition, with around 730 million people, including in the EU, expected to rise to 1.8 billion by 2050, in the world living with water shortages, the future looks bleak.

Not, necessarily, says Jonathan Chenoweth of the Centre for Environmental Strategy. “I believe the looming water crisis is primarily a problem of distribution and management rather than supply,” he wrote in a recent New Scientist article.

In addition to water efficiency and desalination technologies, the major pillar of his strategy would be for arid and semi-arid countries to import “virtual water” in the form of food because agriculture consumes some 90% of water supplies. These countries would shift to less water-intensive sectors, such as trade and services.

Although largely unspoken, this is the direction in which the Middle East has been heading for decades. In fact, the term virtual water was probably coined by Tony Allan of SOAS in reference to the region. Without it, the region may have suffered severe famines by now. For instance, Egypt, with some of the most productive land in the world, imports more than half of its food owing to water shortages and population growth.

Soon-to-be-published research carried out by Chenoweth suggests that “by importing virtual water, a country could offer a high quality of life with as little as 135 litres of water per person per day”.

While this theory is promising at certain levels, it seems to overlook some crucial issues. While the more developed Middle Eastern countries with a smaller population, such as Israel, Lebanon and Dubai are successfully shifting their economies towards trade and service, it is difficult to see how many others will be able to reduce their economic dependence on agriculture and manufacturing.

Egypt, for instance, has a large educated population and its economy has a robust and rapidly growing service sector, including IT. Nevertheless, agriculture accounts for 14% of the country’s GDP and employs a quarter of the labour force. In addition, cash crops and cotton textiles and clothes are among Egypt’s main exports. Moreover, other large sectors of the economy, such as steel, manufacturing and chemicals are heavy water users.

If Egypt, a middle income, relatively developed country has such difficulty shifting its economy towards water-light sectors, what of less-developed countries? Sudan, for instance, overall has abundant water supplies, yet it is unable even to meet food shortages within its own border. The situation is even worse in Ethiopia where I personally witnessed UN food aid being distributed only miles away from the source of the Blue Nile, Lake Tana.

What Chenoweth’s analysis also seems to overlook or understate is that water-rich regions may have an abundance of water but they are already sailing pretty close to the wind in terms of food output. While growth in Middle Eastern agriculture is crippled by the absence of water, it is highly unlikely that largely temperate regions, such as the EU, will be able to translate their water abundance into significantly higher agricultural production, since most of their arable land is already in use.

The current food crisis may be an early indication that we are slowly approaching an agricultural ceiling. In addition, the energy crunch suggests that the kind of globalisation of trade required to shift virtual water effectively may be unsustainable.

Then, there’s the issue of food security. How can countries dependent on virtual water ensure a sufficient flow of food to sustain their populations? What if a more severe crisis in the future forces major food exporters to cut off exports? Alternatively, if wealthy and arid countries, such as the Gulf States, buy up large tracts of farm land in poor countries to ensure their food security, this will help these countries to boost their agricultural output and develop their economies. But we could also be looking at future artificial famines rather like the Irish potato famine which, interestingly, prompted the Ottoman sultan and native Americans to send humanitarian aid to Ireland.

If virtual water is to be successful in feeding the world, we need robust and effective international mechanisms to ensure that this redistribution is implemented equitably and that neither suppliers nor recipients go hungry in lean years. In addition, development programmes in poorer arid countries will need to find ways of reducing dependency on sparse local water resources and controlling population growth.

 

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 9 September 2008. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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Paradise forsaken

 
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By Khaled Diab

With the separatist movement committed to non-violence, now is a good time to visit Kashmir.

October 2008

Kashmir: tranquil and beautiful... but volatile beneath the surface. Photo: Copyright K Maes/K Diab

Kashmir: tranquil and beautiful... but volatile beneath the surface. Photo: Copyright K Maes/K Diab

Since partition in 1947, Kashmir has experienced a spectacular fall from grace. Once upon a time, its warm and soft name conjured up images of a Himalayan paradise suspended between the heavens and earth.

Today, the mountainous state, caught between the territorial greed of India and Pakistan, evokes associations with conflict, strife, and, above all, a tense standoff along a precipitous line of control between two nuclear-armed foes. Despite its troubled present, we found that Kashmir still has the ability to charm – and it felt safe.

Although the state is predominantly Muslim, its winter capital on the Indian side, Jammu, has a large and vibrant Hindu population and has provided shelter for Hindus fleeing the insurgency in the Kashmir valley. It is fondly known as the ‘City of Temples’, which includes one inside Bahu fort where worshippers yearn to be splashed by the milk poured on holy goats.

The fort and all the tourist sights in the region are complete security fortresses, reflecting an underlying official nervousness and fear of terrorist attacks. Although visitors are padded down and searched everywhere in India, in Jammu and Kashmir, you must pass several checks and surrender your camera and bag, too. The never-ending army barracks not only blight the landscape but are also a nuisance to locals.

Despite the inter-communal tensions that flare up in the city occasionally, we sensed little obvious hostility between Hindus and Muslims. Interestingly, Jammu is dotted with Sufi shrines, known as Durghahs, where people of all faiths flock to revere the Muslim mystics buried there. In our time in Jammu, we did not come across any other foreigners which made us something of a local novelty.

For sheer beauty and majesty, Srinagar, the state’s summer capital, is the place to be. Its cool mountain atmosphere is welcome after the waterlogged air and soggy stickiness of the lower altitudes.

The city’s centrepiece is the magnificent and tranquil Dal Lake. My wife was intrigued to see whether the lake was really as icy blue as Kashmiri skies, as Salman Rushdie describes it. But it turned out that the weed and algae which are slowly choking the lake have turned it more emerald green than icy blue. Similarly, few Kashmiris actually possess eyes which are “the astonishing blue of mountain sky”, as Rushdie puts it.

Since the British docked the first houseboats on Dal in Victorian times, the lake has evolved into a veritable floating community. Roving tailors, grocers, photo shops, and discreet offies also float by the houseboats on the backs of small boats called shikaras.

Srinagar is famous for its stunning Mughal gardens which, with their symmetry and flowing water, are reminiscent of gardens across the Islamic world. Young couples, many of whom arrived there on the backs of motorbikes, wander together, not touching, through the parks, the girls in colourful salawar kameezes and the boys in jeans and shirts. This phenomenon is deceptively liberal, one local explained, because most of the couples are courting within the confines of an arranged relationship.

Although most people are friendly and welcomed us constantly to Kashmir, three religious-looking young men we passed several times caught our eyes. Their flashing white teeth and smiling beards were very different to the menacing media image of conservative Muslims. Amusingly, like other Indians we met, they struck a serious pose when we came to photograph them which, coupled with the fading sunlight, gave them a wholly undeserved sinister edge.

Unlike the hustle and bustle of the ancient quarters of other Indian cities, Srinagar’s old town is relatively peaceful. Its Sufi shrines and Sikh temples aside, the city’s most intriguing architectural feature is its unique central mosque. Lacking minarets and featuring by ornate wooden ceilings, roofs and columns, the Jama Masjid conjured up images of China in my head and of the Vikings in my wife’s.

Despite the tranquillity of our surroundings, tension was never far below the surface. The Indian army and police were everywhere and the city lived by an unofficial curfew. At around 8.30 pm, all the shops would close and eateries would suddenly empty as people rushed for the shelter of their homes. Several locals told us that, although the official curfew was abolished, they do not stay out because they are still regularly hassled by the security services after dark.

In fact, it seems the Indian army presence, which to the innocent outsider resembles a full-scale occupation force, is the subject of much resentment. We heard numerous complaints from locals about feeling constantly watched and the economic price of the conflict. One told us that even many of the Kashmiris who were once happy to be a part of India have gone off the idea due to Indian heavy-handedness.

As a reminder of the underlying volatility of the area, the army shut down Srinagar and the entire Kashmir Valley to thwart a planned pro-independence rally. This left us wondering how it was that a country which prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy could stifle free expression in such a massive way, especially as the wave of protests which have swept the area since the summer have been peaceful ones, with the violence coming mainly from the army, causing the death of 45 protesters in the past few months.

We suffered the minor inconvenience of not being able to enjoy a relaxing last morning on the houseboat we had rented, the rudeness of swaggering officers and the Catch-22 challenge of getting to the airport when we were allowed to move but nobody else was.

The locals, however, were left to endure effective house arrest and a shoot-on-sight curfew. The Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh unwisely chose this time to go and open Kashmir’s first train line, triggering angry demonstrations.

For the rest of our trip in India, we monitored the country’s English-language media to try to learn the latest about the situation in Kashmir. With the exception of one small paper called The Asian Age, we found no mention of the crackdown beyond a couple of news-in-brief items. With that kind of media blackout, it’s little wonder than so many Indians believe the mess in Kashmir is solely Pakistan’s fault.

 

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 22 October 2008. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

 

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Tainted honour

 
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Rana Husseini's book about honour killings

Rana Husseini's book about honour killings

By Khaled Diab

The taboo surrounding the cruel murder of family members in the name of honour is slowly being broken.

May 2009

Though relatively rare, killing a family member in the name of honour should be a cause for shame, not pride, as it reflects a cowardly compliance with inhumane norms.

Killing someone, especially a family member, is something I cannot begin to contemplate. Of course, I realise that it is a sad fact of life that some of the worst physical, sexual and psychological abuses – and even murders – are perpetrated by relatives.

In some ways, it is more horrifying and tragic when abuses are committed not to satisfy some base motives but for the apparently exalted ideal of “honour”. Each year, thousands die around the world – from the Middle East to the Indian subcontinent, and from Latin America to China – in the name of family honour. The victims of these crimes are mostly women.

Rana Husseini – a courageous and outspoken Jordanian journalist who has dedicated most of her career to campaigning against this warped cultural practice – will publish a book on the subject at the end of May.

Murder in the Name of Honour (pdf) continues Husseini’s groundbreaking efforts to break the silence on this disgraceful crime. The book shines a human light on some of the victims of honour killings, exploring their lives, circumstances and deaths – an epitaph to women whose families and communities would rather forget.

The first case Husseini investigated, back in 1994, was that of Kifaya, a young woman from a very traditional family in a conservative neighbourhood of Amman, who became pregnant after being raped by one of her brothers, Muhammad.

Instead of understanding and sympathy from her family, the poor young woman who had been violated by her own kin was forced to marry a man 34 years her senior to cover up the scandal. When the marriage ended in divorce six months later, the perceived shame led the family to decide that Kifaya had to die, and her other brother, Khalid, was forced to carry out the ugly deed.

Although most honour killings are ordered by men and carried out by men, Kifaya’s father, who worked abroad to provide for his family, had no idea of the plot co-hatched by her mother, and the news of her death devastated him. “I would never have allowed anyone to kill my daughter, no matter what,” he confessed to Husseini.

The fact that Kifaya was a victim twice over – once for being blamed for her rape and then being murdered for dishonouring the family – is not unusual in the grizzly annals of this type of crime, where a woman’s virginity is worth more than her life. In fact, there are women in the most conservative circles who have paid with their lives for the malicious gossip of others.

Husseini points out that only a small number of men are murdered in the name of honour, despite the fact that they played a major role in the supposed dishonour. Indeed, men – even rapists – do get off lightly in this type of sex-related honour crimes. But her assertion overlooks the fact that there is a whole other world of honour that overwhelmingly claims men as its victims: the vendetta – think Romeo and Juliet or mafia films but in real life.

One place where this dated practice, known locally as ‘el-tar‘, still continues, despite decades of efforts to wipe it out, is Egypt’s stronghold of conservatism and tough traditions, al-Said (or Upper Egypt). Highly codified and ritualised, some of these feuds can last for generations, perpetuated by a stubborn belief in “el-tar walla el-aar” (“revenge is better than disgrace”).

It’s not just the fact that someone can muster up the ability to murder a loved one that disturbs, it is also the cruel manner and abandon some people bring to the task. One father hired two thugs to rape his daughter for two hours – as punishment for shaming him – before killing her. To my mind, there is no way a father like that can be anything but completely diseased in the head.

The crime can also be cruel on the chosen executioner. Families often choose one of the younger men – often a minor – to carry out the crime because he will probably get off with a lighter sentence, although the powerless youngster is condemned to a lifetime of trauma and often regret. “I know that killing my sister is against Islam and it angered God,” said Sarhan, a young honour-killer Husseini visited in prison. “She was close to me, she was the one who resembled me the most,” he said. “I alone cannot change or fix things in my society. My whole society has to change.”

And change is coming gradually. Thanks to the efforts of Husseini – who has endured slander, unpopularity and even death threats – and other activists and campaigners, the issue has become a very public one in Jordan, and concern about it has grown in other countries, particularly Pakistan.

This breaking of the taboo has incensed many, not because they approve of the crimes but because of the shame and embarrassment it brings upon their societies. At one level, this is understandable: although honour killings are pretty isolated occurrences, many in the outside world have the warped idea that most Arab and Muslim men are bloodthirsty women-bashers. However, sweeping the issue under the carpet is not an option, and it must be dealt with.

Although Jordanian campaigners have so far failed to change the law that enables honour murderers to get off lightly, the struggle is as much about changing cultural perceptions and attitudes as it is about legislation. Public and judicial tolerance of these crimes is wearing thin as the silent majority begin to raise their objections to these barbaric acts. “The protection of every woman’s life should be a key issue for the government and community alike,” emphasises Husseini. “Real honour is about tolerance, equality and civil responsibility.”

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 3 May 2009. Read the related discussion.

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Pakistan: stifled from birth

 
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By Khaled Diab

Why does India, despite its size and diversity, seem so much more stable than Pakistan?

The rivalry between India and Pakistan goes back to partition. Photo ©Copyright - Khaled Diab

The rivalry between India and Pakistan goes back to partition. Photo ©Copyright - Khaled Diab

Last week, I was in Barcelona attending a conference on the challenges to development posed by countries defined as “fragile” – which is the focus of the first-ever European Report on Development. The focus was sub-Saharan countries, but I was led to ponder Pakistan’s chronic instability as I viewed the images of hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing the fighting between the army and the Taliban.

One expert at the gathering described Pakistan’s fragility as a paradox and an anomaly, given the size of the country’s economy and its level of income and development. The current flare-up aside, some of the differences are more ones of perception than reality.

For instance, according to the Human Development Index – which, incidentally, was developed by two economists from India and Pakistan – these two countries are at similar levels of development (132nd and 139th respectively). For the past few years, India has been experiencing extraordinary economic growth – fuelled by its knowledge boom – but until the 1990s Pakistan performed consistently better and had a significantly higher per-capita GDP.

As for civil strife, sectarian conflict and secessionist struggles, India has its fair share, too. For instance, in the two weeks we were in India last year, there were Islamist bombings, the killing of Christians and Muslims by Hindu mobs, and the complete shutting down of the Kashmir valley. Still, despite its significantly larger population and dizzying ethnic and religious mix, India appears, impressively, to be more stable, viable and democratic than Pakistan. Why is this? Well, one reason could be that India’s very size and diversity are actually serving the country well.

Far more than Pakistan, post-independence India has needed a political culture of compromise and consensus-building based on an understanding that no one group would be able to completely dominate the others – what Brian Whitaker calls “stability through stalemate”. However, the well-worn adage of the “bigger they are, the harder they fall” could well apply in the case of India. If the wrong combination of factors emerges, the resulting chaos could make the instability in Pakistan look like a children’s picnic.

India’s diversity is a good incubator for scientific and intellectual excellence – at least among a certain elite – and its size means it can tap into economies of scale and markets that other developing countries can only dream of.

With Pakistan being a majority Muslim country and the Taliban on the rampage, what role has Islam played in the country’s demise? In recent years, it has been popular to link Islam to underdevelopment, but the evidence does not really back this up.

“No clear conclusion emerges from the study of the impact of Islam on economic growth and development,” observes Jean-Philippe Platteau, professor of ­economics at the University of Namur in Belgium. “If anything, the effect is positive rather than negative (at least, when the sample consists only of developing countries).”

He goes on to say that the “influence of Islam seems to be much clearer on politics than on economics”, pointing to geo-political factors, interstate conflict and the resource curse to explain this democratic deficit. “[However], it is difficult to determine to what extent Islam hampers politics or politics subverts Islam.”

On Cif recently Whitaker explored how Arab leaders exploit Islam to silence dissent and legitimise their questionable authority. A similar process has been at play for much of Pakistan’s history, with secular dictators such as Ayub Khan and Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, and democratically elected leaders such as the Bhuttos all employing religion to impose their rule or veil their corruption.

But looking at Pakistan’s problems solely through the prism of religion is intellectually lazy and counterproductive. This approach fails to appreciate the uniqueness of the country’s circumstances, as well as the huge amount it has in common – both positive and negative – with neighbouring India.

To properly understand Pakistan, one must go back to its birth. The country was “conceived in a hurry and delivered prematurely”, as Tariq Ali puts it. The Indian independence movement matured over decades and had the chance to build enduring democratic and civil institutions, and much of what we call India today had been a recognisable political entity, first under the Mughals and then the British.

In contrast, Pakistan had no precedent and was created almost as an afterthought by the British to reward the loyal Muslim League, which had split away from the Congress party out of fear of post-independence marginalisation or persecution.

Much more than the rest of the subcontinent, Pakistan was rocked to the core by the massive population shake-ups – with a huge influx of Muslims from all over India and an almost complete exodus of Hindus and Sikhs. However, Pakistan’s apparent religious uniformity masks major ethnic and cultural tensions.

The dominance of the Punjabis and muhajirun (migrants or refugees) is resented by the native Sindhis, Pashtuns and, earlier, Bengalis, who broke away to form Bangladesh after Pakistan’s bloody invasion in 1971.

So, despite Pakistan’s original conception as a secular democracy, its leaders, faced with the prospect of territorial disintegration and a lack of legitimacy (particularly among non-Punjabis), fell back on the only common denominator, Islam, to try to keep the fragile country together and cement their hold on power – with disastrous consequences.

Regional geopolitics has also been a major factor in Pakistan’s instability. India has never been able to forgive Pakistan for breaking away, and Pakistan has always sought to outshine India and is bitter about not being awarded Kashmir. In a parallel with cold war, the India-Pakistan standoff has been far more costly for Pakistan than India, given the disparity in the size of their economies.

In addition, the volatility in neighbouring Afghanistan – and Pakistan’s role as a staunch US ally in the cold war, training mujahideen and the Taliban – has been the cause of one of the most spectacular cases of blowback in recent history: with the monster returning to consume the hand that shaped it.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 13 May 2009. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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