Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Boxing-Day Tsunami

It's already two years since the massive Tsunami visited Asia and wreaked the kind of havoc that can be glimpsed only in Hollywood blockbusters. The loss of lives and the destruction of the infrastructure only added to the tragedy while the numbers told their own story. It appears that a total of 229,866 people were lost, including 186,983 dead and 42,883 missing.

According to Michael West, John J. Sánchez, Stephen R. McNutt in their paper Periodically Triggered Seismicity at Mount Wrangell, Alaska, After the Sumatra Earthquake, The magnitude of the earthquake was originally recorded as 9.0 on the Richter scale, but has been upgraded to between 9.1 and 9.3. At this magnitude, it is the second largest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph. This earthquake was also reported to be the longest duration of faulting ever observed, lasting between 500 and 600 seconds, and it was large enough that it caused the entire planet to vibrate at least half an inch, or over a centimetre. It also triggered earthquakes in other locations as far away as Alaska.

A disaster of this proportion prompted massive humanitarian aid and relief efforts from the entire world, and according to figures from the United Nations and quoted by the BBC it seems that $6.7 billion were pledged in total. However, the same news report goes on to say that some governments have yet to deliver yet $550m of the humanitarian aid pledged for the victims.

The UN figures show that the US has given just 38% of the aid it pledged. In Europe, the UK, France and Italy, as well as the European Commission, have also failed to fulfil their pledges so far.

According to the UN figures, the Commission still has to pay about $70m while the UK has $12m outstanding.

The UK says it has given £195m towards humanitarian assistance and long-term reconstruction, £55m of this through the European Union.

Among Asian countries, China and Australia are among those yet to pay up while Germany only paid its full $128m sum in late December.

Source BBC News


A detailed summary of expenditure by agency and country can be accessed by clicking this http://ocha.unog.ch/ets/

However, the most significant development was the way the world wide web came to the rescue of relief efforts, and demonstrated how effectively the Internet could be used to mobilise resources, provide key information and initiate action.

In fact, the blog that started it all - SEA-EAT blog - provide the template for future relief efforts conducted online and was replicated during Hurricane Katrina and the Mumbai Floods, to give two examples.

Bahrain-based blogger Angelo Embuldeniya, who was one of the people behind these blogs, said that the only reason why they did it was because 'there was a need'. It was a spontaneous response to what he and his friends (across the world) saw and felt they had to do something about it.

But at the time they had no clue that they were onto something really big and it was only later "when our bandwidth zapped on two occasions in under 24 hours, we had 500gigs of data transfer and we found the wiki and blog going under and inaccessible error codes popping up instead.. when we checked the stats we saw that we had about on average - 4000 people an hour, and in two days we peaked at more than half a million."

As a result of their success in the Tsunami and Katrina and other relief efforts, he and his friends have now launched re-grouped themselves as the "World Wide Help Group" and set up a dedicated blog with a specific objective of 'using the web to point help in the direction where it's most needed.'

The point is, there was a need and a group of young people without massive funds at their disposal responded with what they knew best, and were able to make a positive impact. Massive funds were not required but just a little imagination.

Now just think that the global military expenditure totals nearly trillion dollars - and yet, the nearly $6 billion pledged have not reached the victims.

It makes one wonder, and I mean, seriously wonder.

Monday, December 25, 2006

A Very Merry Christmas

I don't know about you, but I felt Christmas came early this year. It seemed it was only a month or two ago when we celebrated the last Christmas - and wham bang - it's here again.

I hope things just slow down otherwise the next Christmas will bamboozle its way before I find time to breathe. Oh well, it doesn't matter... festivals always proud some cause for celebration, and an excuse to party. So why complain?

Anywayyyyy, now that Christmas is HERE...

A very Merry Christmas - or shall I say, Eid Al Milad Mubarak - to all those who are celebrating the festival.

Have fun. Smile. Be of good cheer... and ho ho ho till the next year.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Laylat al Milad
The night before Christmas

To end this 12-part series on Christmas, I thought, it would be ideal to do so with a song. Laylat al Milad or 'the night before Christmas' is a traditional Arabic Christmas carol, which is usually sung on Christmas-eve and has words that have special relevance to today's troubled world.

If you click this link, you'll be able to listen to the Bethlehem Star Choir singing the carol, and I thought it was touching that these singers would sing these words of hope despite living in a battle torn and war weary land.


Refrain
Laylat al-Milad ... yummahah-l-bughdou
Laylat al-Milad ... tuzhiru-l-ardou
Laylat al-Milad ... tudfanou-l-harbou
Laylat al-Milad ... yanbutou-l-hubbou.


Verse 1
'Indama nusqee 'atshan ka'sa ma' ... nakoonu fi-l-milad
'Indama naksoo 'uryan thaowba hub ... nakoonu fi-l-milad
'Indama nukafkifu-d-dumoo' fi-l-'uyoon ... nakoonu fi-l-milad
'Indama nafrishu-l-qulooba bi-r-raja' ... nakoonu fi-l-milad.


Verse 2
'Indama uqabbilou rafeeqi douna ghush ... akoonu fi-l-milad
'Indama tamootu fiyya roohu-l-intiqam ... akoonu fi -l-milad
'Indama yarqudu fi qalbi-ya-l-jafa ... akoonu fi-l-milad
'Indama tamootu nafsi fi kiyan il-lah ... akoonu fi-l-milad.


English translation:

Refrain
On the night of Christmas ... Hatred will vanish
On the night of Christmas ... The Earth blooms
On the night of Christmas ... War is buried
On the night of Christmas ... Love is born

Verse 1
When we offer a glass of water to a thirsty person, we are in Christmas
When we clothe a naked person with a gown of love, we are in Christmas
When we wipe the tears from weeping eyes, we are in Christmas
When we cushion a hopeless heart with love, we are in Christmas

Verse 2
When I kiss a friend without hypocrisy, I am in Christmas
When the spirit of revenge dies in me, I am in Christmas
When hardness is gone from my heart, I am in Christmas
When my soul melts in the Being of God, I am in Christmas

The jolly old man makes a return
2 Days to Christmas

As far back as I remember I never really believed in Santa Claus. I couldn't imagine an old man with a bunch of red nosed reindeers would be flying across Manama skies without alerting the air traffic controller. On the other hand, being the youngest in the family I had to prove that I wasn't all that kiddish, as everyone presumed, and so there was this extra effort to emphasise that I didn't believe in this 'Christmas Father' story.

However, come December, and there would be a sea-change in my belief system and I would suddenly begin to believe in Santa Claus and would make persuasive arguments in favour of the old man's existence. Of course, I'd be as loud and vociferous whenever my parents were around and, also, add how good a kid I've been the whole year. Well, I don't know if it was the power of my argument or whether the old man actually sneaked in to our living room, but every night after we returned from the Christmas Eve service I would find a little box near the Christmas tree.

Now there are many people who have the same ambivalence about Santa Claus.There are those who dismiss him as another paragon of Christmas consumerism gone berserk while others see him as a glaring example of the kind of Christlessness that has turned Christmas into a secular event.

I'd rather go for the middle road.

Yes, there has been an unhealthy focus on Santa Claus that has made most people oblivious to the fact that this season is all about celebrating Christ's birth in an obscure town in Palestine. And yes, most retailers have capitalised on the Santa Claus myth and are reaping millions of dollars each year.

But let's scratch away all the myths and views and all the baloney, and look at the impact of having a creature like Santa Claus around. On one hand, it promotes gift-giving, bringing smiles to the faces of children (and adults as well) and on the other hand, it encourages people to give gifts secretly. The whole idea that a gift appears mysteriously in the living room has its merits because it gives children something good to look forward to, and gives them good memories that will be with them as they grow up and become parents.

True, there is the ugly side of reckless consumerism and the drive to spend and spend and spend. But that's an individual choice and something that people have to sort out themselves. The point is, if they also remember that the season is also about a fragile baby that was born in Bethlehem with a message of love and peace and hope for humanity, then, it doesn't matter what other decorations colour the celebrations. As long as one remembers the main point because that's what matters

Carols of the year
3 Days to Christmas

Whenever I think of Christmas, it is always one carol or the other that stands out each year. It's almost as if THAT carol takes pride of place and becomes the 'carol of the year'. In fact, I could describe each Christmas according to the carol that was ringing in my ears that particular year, and the memories, too, acquire a musical resonance because of these carols.

Now I'm not a very musical person - or so I've been told by knowledgeable sources - but I do like to sing aloud whenever I can. There is a certain release one gets and, I think, it has to do with the throat muscles, oesophagus and some other internal organs deciding to work in tandem that does the trick. In some cases, it works like magic as in the case of Andrea Bocelli or, in other cases like yours truly, it has the dubious effect of a jackhammer doing the drills or worse.

For such a person to have memories filled with music should rightfully raise eyebrows, but Christmas, I suppose, follows the words of psalmist when he cried, 'make a joyful noise unto the Lord'. In my case, there is a whole lot of joy and a whole lot of noise.

But going back to carols, I find it hard that these songs are rarely sung outside the Christmas season even though the words are equally relevant throughout the year. Inspiring words like "joy to the world", "silent night", "o come all ye faithful', "hark the herald" can be mulled over any time of the year, but we don't do that and instead slot them only in December.

Of course, if we sing them year-round there won't be any memories with the carols. For instance, I won't be able to connect "Away in a manger" with my fourth grade Christmas, or "We three kings of Orient" with my seventh grade.

I mean, I could give more examples for each year but two days ago I listened to "O holy night", and I immediately remembered the Christmas of four years ago, which included two of my friends who are no more. Samir passed away in the tragic boat accident last year, and Lina died two years ago after a serious illness. Samir like me and others was not a great singer but he joined us for those carol rounds, and though Lina didn't join us for the rounds she did help us with the planning and in encouraging us to sing along.

When I sang "O holy night" all those memories came back about these two precious saints who left an indelible mark in the life of their many friends and associates. They will be missed like many other close friends and family members who will not share the Christmas season with us this year. They will be missed for what they were and what they meant, but most importantly, for the blessing they were to us.

This Christmas season will be a memory soon and with that there will be other carols to remember it by, and there will be people we may no longer meet... perhaps, even I may not see another Christmas next year... but it is necessary to remember what kind of memories are left behind and what will people remember us by. We can't answer that because we have a duty to perform and that is, to live our lives as best as we can and be thankful. Finally, that's what matters, to remain thankful because that will shine through and make all the difference to our world.

Technical problems

Technology is supposed to make life easier, but sometimes things don't work according to plan. On Friday I decided to reformat my hard drive and install some necessary applications, but the result was that my ADSL modem refused to co-operate and I was left net-less over the weekend. It affected my series of Christmas countdown posts and though it is still 'down' at home, I am making a frantic attempt, neverthless, to meet the deadline.

Let's see what happens.

In any case, this just goes to show that technology must not be seen as a completely infallible and invincible entity, but for what it is -- a tool to make life easier. A tool, mind you, and nothing else. Our problems usually begin when we elevate technology to almighty status and expect blessings and miracles.

Anyway, I better go back to my countdown and wrap things up as soonish as possible.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

A season of offence
4 Days to Christmas

The Christmas story began on a very discourteous note. The angelic hosts bypassed the high officials, the political leaders, the bourgeois who's who, the business magnates, and instead, chose some lowly shepherds to proclaim the news of the Messiah's birth. If I was a big cheese in Palestine, I would have been seriously offended that such important information was not conveyed to me first but, instead, was given to the riff raff. I would have considered it to be a personal affront, a breach of protocol and would have demanded nothing less than a written apology.

The thing about Christmas is that it has always been, somewhat, offensive. The virgin birth, for instance, was not something that would have earned Christ any brownie points from religious fundamentalists and moral watchdogs of any generation. Even his choice of an obscure little town like Bethlehem in Palestine for his birth and not any of the big cities in any of the civilisational hotspots like Rome, China, India or Greece was a bit odd, to say the least. Not a great PR move if world revolution was on his agenda.

Even today, Christmas has maintained its capacity to offend, and now it is the turn of the pundits of political correctness to see red whenever Christmas cruises into their radar. Some want to ban any explicit expressions of Christmas' Christian background, and re-brand the festivities into something else. Or at least they tried and it didn't work. Some want to either dilute or sideline it completely so that it doesn't exclude people of other faiths from the festivities and that no offense is caused to their religious sensibilities. Controversies surrounding Christmas festivities have been around for a long time, and are not likely to go away anytime soon.

But this little discussion on the Red Cross' ban on Christmas nativity decorations reveals how the response has evoked some mixed reactions, and opposition to the ban has come even from non-Christians.

And this is the very point some people are making - if the word "Christmas" has to be banned because it would offend non-Christians and if it so happens that non-Christians are not offended, then what?

Now I live in Bahrain, a bona fide Islamic country, and here Christmas decorations are not banned and, instead, there is open acknowledgment of Christmas in shops, malls, hotels, supermarkets as well as the media. In fact, for the past four years the Manama based Hussaini Drawing Society for Islamic Arts has been organising a major arts festival and competition to mark the birth of Jesus Christ. Although this years' event was washed away by the heavy rainfall we experienced this year, nevertheless, the idea was to hold this event specially during Christmas to promote religious tolerance in this country.

Now the idea of not offending people of other faiths is very noble and, let me add, commendable; but I'm not sure if 'banning' the word Christmas is going to achieve this objective. For instance, it is bound to create an unnecessary backlash from unlikely sources who have their own petty - and mischevious - agenda.

Of course, the root cause of this controversy lies in whether or not to honour and celebrate the birth of Christ. The assumption being that Christ is the one that will offend and so it's best to delete His name from the celebrations. It's rather tricky. On one hand, everyone knows that Christ was not born on 25th December since the gospel accounts do not mention any dates. After Christianity traveled to the west and became part of the establishment there, earlier pagan celebrations of the winter solstice were given a Christian colour and "Christmas" soon substituted earlier festivities. Hence, there have been persistent Christian opposition to "Christmas" celebrations as well and, most notably, during Oliver Cromwell's Puritan regime. But the thing is, over the centuries, Christmas has been celebrated in honour of Christ's birth and the pagan origins of 25th December have not remained the main highlight of these celebrations.

Now what should be done about it?

If there are those who wish to remove Christ from the "Christmas" celebrations, they have already made their choice. And I have no qualms about how they want to celebrate 25th December. But if there are those of us who wish to honour Christ's birth on this date, then, I don't see any reason why anyone should protest. If there is freedom to believe or disbelieve, then, there ought to be freedom to celebrate or not to celebrate.

Of course, there is, also, the question of not offending non-Christians, and in my opinion, the best way to do so is by examining other sensitive spots that are routinely ignored. I can think of unnecessary wars of aggression and occupation as well as senseless cartoons depicting revered figures as a good place to start as far as snuffing out offensive spots is concerned.

It will definitely be less cosmetic than what is currently offered. It will be more substantial, and hopefully, more long-lasting. And isn't that what we need to create 'peace on earth and goodwill towards men'?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Peace on Earth
5 Days to Christmas

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." (Luke 2: 13,14)

One of the mysteries of the Christmas season is that, suddenly, there is goodness all around. People wear a smile on their faces and talk about being good to others. Songs and carols are all about spreading love and happiness. Films are infused with that 'feel-good' chemical that's supposed to have a ka-ching effect on the box office. Restaurants serve up goodies that are supposed to take us back to memories of happier times. And of course, shops and malls are in full throttle to make us spend a lot of money on our 'gift-giving'.

Now I'm not against all these things per se, but my cynical side does tend to groan at this excessive sweetness. On the face of it, I'm glad people are making a sincere effort at being kind, generous and loving, and then on the other hand, one looks at the debris left worldwide by human greed and one wonders. How much of this goodness is real, and how much is synthetic? How much of it is spurred by the festivities, and how much of it is encouraged by the need to justify mass-consumption?

I wish I had some ready-made answers, but I think it will be pointless to go answer-hunting. Some things are best understood by reflecting on the broader context. A deeper reflection always throws light on perspectives that we don't notice at a first glance. A closer examination will show us that 'intentions' play a key role in these festive expenditures. And as 'intentions' go, there is always the good side and the bad side. But for now I'll resist this massive urge to go ballistic on the negative and, instead, look at the bright side.

Quite frankly, if we just concentrate on the best-case scenario we'll notice that the purpose behind gift-giving, sumptuous lunches and dinners is to bring some kind of joy in the lives of people towards whom it is intended. At least, that's the intention, the objective, the goal or whatever it is you'd want to call it. The idea behind all these festivities is to bring some peace and goodwill in the hearts and minds of people. And that's a good intention to have, right.

I decided to crawl the world wide web to find out if I could put a ballpark figure to these good intentions, and if some facts and figures could be retrieved to help us determine its net worth, so to speak. It was hard to find global estimates because data is all scattered, but going to this site, I was able to find out that the estimated spend for the Christmas period in UK is £33billion, which is an increase of 6% on 2005. And that over £15billion is estimated to be spent in the two weeks before Christmas which is a rise of 8% on last year.

The same statistics go on to say that on average a person will spend £390 on Christmas gifts. And that the average household expenditure on food and drink is likely to rise by 2% to £163. Christmas lunch will cost on average £14 per head.

Obviously, these facts and figures will raise questions about excess, and how millions die hungry without a chance of a decent meal. One can't argue that at all. However, keep your finger on the 'good intentions' button for a while, and let's place these Christmas expenditure figures next to global military expenditures.

Some of you may say it's not fair to compare the two because both have different goals. Precisely. And that's why, I've asked you to keep your focus on the 'good intentions' bit of the argument. But first, let's look at the facts and figures.

According to data released by Global Security, the official figures (that may understate actual spending) for global military expenditure is $950 billion (2004). The top five military spenders are US ($466 billion), China ($65 billion), Russia ($50 billion), France ($46.5 billion)and Japan ($44.7 billion). And of course, UK spends $31.7 billion.

And if this wasn't enough, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has reported in its annual yearbook that world military spending rose for a sixth year running in 2004, growing by 5 percent to $1.04 trillion on the back of "massive" U.S. budgetary allocations for its war on terror.

Perspective is important when one looks at such data. Perspective helps us to take a look at the essential context of things. And basically, enables us to compare and contrast, and hopefully, arrive at our own conclusions.

I don't know about you, but I have a hunch that trillion dollars is a lot of money for security. And if this much money is required to keep the world safe, then, something is seriously wrong with the human race. If we are so angry with each other and our enmity is so strong that governments feel that it makes more sense to spend huge amounts of money on armaments and not on welfare, healthcare, education and food. Then there is something chronically wrong somewhere. We have certainly missed the mark as far as common sense, decency and values are concerned. Or maybe, our priorities have changed.

Whatever it is that's missing, at least, this Christmas season we better do what we can as far as 'peace on earth and goodwill towards men' is concerned. How? Let's first do it and figure out the hows later.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A Hungry Christmas
6 Days to Christmas

In my house Christmas is incomplete without my mother's special donuts, chaklis, karanjis and the best possible chivdas that only my mom knows how to make. By the way, the hyperlinks do not take you to my mom's recipes but they are there just to give you an idea what I am talking about and, also, because I'm too lazy to explain what those strange sounding names are all about. :-)))

Then, of course, there is the dinner on Christmas Eve when an exotic meat is the main course -- roasted duckling, turkey, venison or whatever new is available at Al Jazira Supermarket. And on Christmas Day, my mother's biryani or pulao is what we have for lunch and is something we look forward to each year. Since it's an old tradition in our family to have an 'open-house' each Christmas, the evenings are spent entertaining people and, of course, this, again, involves a lot of eating.

So you see, 'food' forms an important component of my Christmas memories and though much of the goodies will be curtailed this year because my parents are currently vacationing in India, nevertheless, there will still be lots and lots of serious munching going on.

Now while I gorge on memories of past gastronomic experiences, and contemplate making new ones, it is worthwhile to consider that, today, 852 million people across the world are hungry, up from 842 million a year ago. And that everyday, more than 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes, that is, one child every five seconds.

If this is a very unappetising thought, then consider, another uncomfortable perspective. The world's current population stands at 6.55 billion people, and that 852 million people do not have enough to eat - more than the populations of USA, Canada and the European Union.

But the most horrible statistic is that the world produces enough food for everyone, but over 800 million people remain chronically hungry. And that for the price of one missile, a school full of hungry children could eat lunch every day for 5 years.

As I said before, these are just statistics but they could also be food for thought this Christmas. The Saviour was born in impoverished surrounding and if this festival is meant to remember his birth, then, it is worthwhile to consider the millions who will have no gastronomic memories this - or any other - Christmas.

No point in abandoning all festivities, but some perspective will always help. Perspectives always do. Question is, what do we do with them?

Monday, December 18, 2006

The need to go anti anti-semitic
7 Days to Christmas

So far this series has tackled some of the obvious sufferings and deprivations experienced by the Palestinian people in the holy land, and hence, it would be the right time, I think, to look into that other age-old problem that has affected the 'other' section of people who, also, consider the holy land to be their home.

Anti-semitism has been largely considered to be synonymous with hatred for Jews, and the 20th Century, in particular, has witnessed some tragic instances where it was adopted as official policy and gave rise to the holocaust and the death of millions of Jews and others.

However, etymologically speaking, the term 'anti-semitism' suggests hatred for the entire semitic race, that is, people who speak the Semitic languages like, Amharic, Arabic, Aramaic, Akkadian, Ge'ez, Hebrew, Maltese, Tigrinya, among others. Semitic peoples and their languages in modern and ancient historic times have covered a broad area bridging Africa, Western Asia and the Arabian Peninsula whereas the word "Semitic" is an adjective derived from Shem, one of the three sons of Noah in the Bible (Genesis 5.32, 6.10, 10.21).

In Genesis 10:21-31 Shem is described as the father of Aram, Asshur, and others: the Biblical ancestors of the Aramaeans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Chaldeans, Sabaeans, and Hebrews, etc., all of whose languages are closely related; the language family containing them was therefore named Semitic by linguists, according to an article.

But over the centuries, 'anti-semitism' has moved beyond its etymological roots and has come to be understood as a purely anti-Jewish phenomenon. The US Department of State, in its report on global anti-semitism, has stated that the phenomenon has four main sources:
* Traditional anti-Jewish prejudice that has pervaded Europe and some countries in other parts of the world for centuries. This includes ultra-nationalists and others who assert that the Jewish community controls governments, the media, international business, and the financial world.
* Strong anti-Israel sentiment that crosses the line between objective criticism of Israeli policies and anti-Semitism.
* Anti-Jewish sentiment expressed by some in Europe's growing Muslim population, based on longstanding antipathy toward both Israel and Jews, as well as Muslim opposition to developments in Israel and the occupied territories, and more recently in Iraq.
* Criticism of both the United States and globalization that spills over to Israel, and to Jews in general who are identified with both.

I find it rather odd that criticism of the State of Israel has, also, been clubbed under 'anti-semitism' because it does seem like a gross generalisation of the definition. No government is perfect, and most governments adopt certain policies that inspire legitimate opposition. The State of Israel is no different in this regard, and in fact, some of the policies it has enforced in the occupied territories are downright brutal and deserve to be opposed. In fact, some of the fervent opponents have included Israeli organisations like B'Tselem, and Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), for instance, files regular reports on atrocities committed by the Israeli military and settlers.

So where does this place the Jewish question? Is it still possible to oppose anti-Jewish ideologies and actions when there exists in the Middle East an economically and militarily powerful entity like the State of Israel in comparison to some of its neighbours?

Obviously, one option would be to exclude the policies of the State of Israel from any discussions on anti-Semitism, and perhaps, it would be relevant to include the sufferings experienced by the entire Semitic race. It would be a step forward but it may take some time for some rational discourse to take place on the subject, but for now, it's best to examine some of the anti-Jewish attacks that have taken place over the past many centuries.

The sad thing is that there are far too many instances of attacks on Jews, and history is full of these miserable accounts of discrimination and ghettoisation faced by these people who considered themselves to be 'the chosen people of God'. The real tragedy is that it was allowed to continue for so many centuries and had the blessings of both secular and religious authorities in the West.

It must have been humiliating to be considered a second class citizen in the countries where they lived, and not allowed to fully participate and integrate with their fellow citizens. Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, for example, gives us Shylock, a Jew, as the villain and though there are some powerful lines that elicit sympathy, nevertheless, we can't ignore the bottomline was that Shylock was the bad guy.

I've never fully understood why some churches advocated 'anti-semitism' even though there is no biblical justification for this kind of discrimination. They were called 'Christ-killers' despite biblical accounts of resurrection and forgiveness, and so it's rather puzzling as to why Jewish persecution acquired religious overtones. The obvious explanation is that the authorities realised that people did not know their scripture and used misinformation to push their own xenophobic agenda.

The Jews have suffered and deserve our fullest sympathy, support and understanding, and perhaps, a pledge that similar type of persecution will not be repeated on them and other ethnic races. It is necessary that such acts of brutality and discrimination do not occur because civilisation cannot move forward if cruelties of this nature are allowed to continue.

But if we are really serious about it, then, we will also consider that the fight against 'anti-semitism', must also include, the suffering, persecution, discrimination and humiliation experienced by other marginalised groups like Arabs in Palestine, the blacks, the low caste hindus, the girl-child and others.

There are victims everywhere, and our world is full of them. We cannot just look at one set of victim and believe our job is done for the day. We must look at the conduct of the entire human race, and weed out those dangerous attitudes that fuel discrimination.

If we are the most sophisticated creature God has ever made, then, we have to live up to our Maker's design. And behave like civilised creatures that have learnt the meaning of respecting others, and 'to treat others like we want them to treat us'.

Maybe Christmas is the best time to start.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Raindrops were falling... yada yada yada

I just did something that I wanted to do for a long, long time.

I picked the armchair that was lying in the store-room, and took it to the garden and decided to sit out there. Of course, hot cocoa and the weekend edition of Gulf News gave me company as I braved the cold and cloudy weather. And as bravery limits go, I'm sad to say, mine lasted a full fifteen minutes. The first five minutes were spent on enjoying the experience, the next five minutes were spent on figuring out the stupidity of this plan, and the final five minutes were spent on abandoning this reckless exercise.

Now those of you who are not in Bahrain (and the Gulf) may not understand what I'm talking about, and so let me explain. For the past two days, we've been having cloudy skies and rainy weather, and to top it all, the mercury is going south. Yes, it's cold this year. Perhaps 8 degrees Celsius (or 46 Farenheit) may not mean much to those of you living in North America and Europe but here in tiny Bahrain it's cold enough to keep us all homeward bound. I'm not much of a Met guru but, I think, the rain and a bit of shamal (north wind) have added to the chill factor, but don't quote me on this.

I'm so thankful that its been raining during the National Day weekend, and not during the week. Of course, it's a pity that much of the National Day festivities and fireworks had to be postponed because of the rain and cold, but hey, on the bright side, at least, we don't have to go to work all wet and shivering in the cold. It's just great to lie in bed and watch the cloudy skies from the window and not have to rush through the early morning bathroom dance.

My only regret is that I don't feel like stepping out of the house at all... and that means, no new DVDs to watch but just the telly and the net... might go to the NEC tonight though and listen to the Grace Notes performing tonight. But let's see... there's still time to decide.

A Remnant
8 Days to Christmas

They are part of an ancient community. They are considered to be a living link with the early church, and descendants of the first Christians who received the message. They add to the diversity and richness of the Palestinian cultural and demographic landscape, and yet today, they are threatened with extinction in the very land of their birth.

Palestinian Christians are, often, an oddity whenever the Arab-Israeli conflict is discussed. Some people are even surprised that such a group exists in the first place. Still others prefer to view the conflict as being primarily between Jews and Muslims, and if Christians are to included in this narrative it is always as a means to emphasise the greater battle.

According to Bernard Sabella, Associate Professor of Bethlehem University, in his paper "Palestinian Christians: Challenges And Hopes" points out that the people have deep roots in the land.

Palestinian Christians have deep roots in the land. The great majority, estimated at 400,000 worldwide or roughly 6.5 percent of all Palestinians, are of indigenous stock, whose mother tongue is Arabic and whose history takes them back, or at least some of them, to the early church. At present, the 50,000 Christians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip make up only 2.2 percent of the total population estimated in the mid-nineties at 2,238,0001. Palestinian Arab Christians in Israel were estimated, for the same year, at 125,000 or 14 percent of all Arabs in Israel'. Christians in Palestine and Israel make up 175,000 or 2.3 percent of the entire Arab and Jewish population of the Holy Land.

A majority of fifty-six percent of Palestinian Christians are found outside of their country. This situation of out-migration resulted from the exodus of 726,000 Palestinian refugees in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Fifty to sixty thousand Palestinian Christians, comprising 35 percent of all Christians in pre1948 mandatory Palestine, were among the refugees'. In 1996, these refugees and their descendants are spread over the entire Middle East but primarily in the sixty refugee camps dotting the topography of the West Bank (19 refugee camps); Gaza Strip (8 refugee camps); Jordan (10 refugee camps); Syria (10 refugee camps) and Lebanon (13 refugee camps).

As for Palestinian Christians, refugees and non-refugees, they are found mostly in urban areas of the Middle East but many have opted to leave to far away lands such as the USA, Central and South America, Australia and Canada. The dispersal of Palestinians since 1948 has spared no one family or group. The demographics of Palestinian Christians is as much shaped by the politics of the Arab-Israeli conflict, as it is the demographics of Palestinians in general.


According to some estimates, current population of the Palestinian Christians is 60,000 as opposed to 400,000 when Israel was established. Fundamentalism, war, and job opportunities are some of the factors that have been blamed for the depletion of indigenous Christians in Palestine but these factors can, also, explain the exodus of some Muslim Palestinians as well because these factors impact everyone.

Sabeel, an ecumenical grassroots movement among Palestinian Christians, have been examining some of these issues affecting the Palestinian Christians and have recognised that the difficulties they face is part of a wider struggle involving the Palestinian people, in general.

During Sabeel's 6th International Conference, which was held November 2-9, 2006, a statement was issued that emphasised (among other things) that Palestinian Christians are an integral part of the Palestinian people. They share the same aspirations and destiny as their Muslim sisters and brothers. All Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have been living under an illegal Israeli occupation for almost 40 years. With many peace-loving people from around the world, whether faith-based or secular, Muslims and Christians continue to work for the end of the Israeli occupation and the establishment of a viable, independent and sovereign state in Palestine.

The Israeli Arab community – Christian and Muslim – continues to struggle for total equality with its Jewish counterpart. The obstacle, however, is the nature of the state of Israel. It is a Jewish state and not a state for all its citizens. Therefore, the struggle will continue until total equality is achieved.


But challenges still remain, and one of the biggest one is to ensure that the Arab Israeli conflict does not descend into the kind of religious war that is hungry for an all-out Armageddon. And while one does not know how the conflict will eventually unravel, it's best to go back to the Christmas story, for a change, and consider the hope enshrined in the words of the angels when they sang, "peace on earth and goodwill towards all men."

National Day greetings... !!!

National Day greetings to

His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa
Prime Minister Shaikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa
Crown Prince and Commander-in-Chief of BDF Shaikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa

Members of both houses of the Parliament

and to all the people of Bahrain.

God bless.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Joyeaux Noel
9 Days to Christmas

This is a very moving song, and I confess it always leaves a teeny weeny lump in my throat after I listen to it. The song is especially moving because it's based on a true event that took place during the First World War. An event that has, also, inspired "Joyeaux Noel", the Oscar winning best foreign film in 2006.

I wanted to write about it in this series because it encapsulates everything I want to convey through these series of Christmas centred articles. But after thinking long and hard about it, I realised it'd be best if I post the song instead. The alternative would be to have me 'sing' and am sure most would consider that to be a fate worse than death.

The words and music are by John McCutcheon, and the song Christmas in the Trenches has been inspired by a back-stage conversation with an old woman in Birmingham, Alabama.

Click here if you wish to listen to the song. Or you can read the lyrics and hum along as you listen.

My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool,
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
To Belgium and to Flanders to Germany to here
I fought for King and country I love dear.
'Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung,
Our families back in England were toasting us that day,
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.

I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound
Says I, "Now listen up, me boys!" each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice sang out so clear.
"He's singing bloody well, you know!" my partner says to me
Soon one by one each German voice joined in in
harmony
The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more
As Christmas brought us respite from the war.

As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent
"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" struck up some lads from Kent
The next they sang was "Stille Nacht," "Tis 'Silent Night'," says I
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.
"There's someone coming towards us!" the front line sentry cried
All sights were fixed on one lone figure coming from their side
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright
As he bravely strode unarmed into the night.

Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man's land
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand
We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave 'em hell.
We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own
Young Sanders played his squeeze box and they had a violin
This curious and unlikely band of men.

Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more
With sad farewells we each began to settle back to war
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night
"Whose family have I fixed within my sights?"
'Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung
For the walls they'd kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone for evermore.

My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell
Each Christmas come since World War I I've learned its lessons well
That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we're the same.

©1984 John McCutcheon/Appalsongs (ASCAP)

Friday, December 15, 2006

Scratch that itch
10 Days to Christmas

Joseph and Mary had no place to stay the night Jesus was born. An innkeeper's stable proved to be the Messiah's makeshift maternity clinic. Hardly the place one would expect a divine being would choose to make His presence on Earth. And as unlikely places go, Palestine seemed to be quite an odd venue for such a celestial event because it has certainly maintained - to this day - this tragic image as a stomping ground for the persecuted, marginalised, demoralised and the enforced homeless.

And talking about the homeless, it is so very easy to slip into sentimental balderdash, and to talk and talk till the cows come home and our throats wear out after croaking some rhetoric or the other. We can only grasp at its fringes because we cannot fully understand what it is like to live one's entire life out on the sidewalks.

All we can do is feel the best we can because that's the only way we can get some idea of what this thing - or anything, for that matter - is all about. Feeling is good because that, I think, is the only way we can be motivated towards some action. Loads of data and head-knowledge are important but they lack that crucial X factor that's necessary for inspiring people. Being knowledgeable is nice, but it won't drag us to the ends of the earth. It will only make us cosy in our armchairs.

The Christmas story, for instance, provides one example of a roofless situation that we conveniently forget because the nativity pictures look rather cute, almost ethereal or nearly divine. The artists simply airbrush away the reality of a dirty and smelly and mucky stable. Like we do with most uncomfortable realities. Like the homeless we see in big cities. Like the marginalised we tend to ignore sometimes. Like some facts we cannot forget. That we must not forget. That we should not ever... forget.

B'TSELEM - The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, for example, has some facts and statistics on Palestine that should nudge us towards some kind of feeling. Or at least, start an itch that wants to be scratched. Mere data is just a bunch of numbers, but what we do with it makes all the difference.

Over the years, more than 130 settlements have been constructed in the West Bank, and as of October 2005, the total population of these settlements comes to about 235,845 compared to 140,684 in December 1996.

The statistics on punitive house demolitions shows another interesting trend. In October 2001, the Ministry of Defence had resumed the practice of house demolitions as punishment after a gap of four years, and was continued till February 2005. A total of 668 homes were demolished, leaving residents homeless.

From the beginning of the Israeli occupation, in 1967, to 1992, when Israel ceased deportations, 1,522 Palestinians were deported from the Occupied Territories. None of the deportees had been charged with a criminal offense, nor tried and convicted. By law, they must therefore be considered innocent of any offense.

As far as the data on injured persons is concerned, it would be best to compare available statistics provided by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society and the Israeli Defense Force.

I could go on and on with more data, but then again, they'd be just data and nothing else. Question is, what do they tell us about people who have lost their homes and their lifestyle? What do they inform us about a situation that's not going in the right direction? Question is, are we willing to take the high road or just wander by the wayside?

Whatever we do, we cannot - and cannot allow anyone else - to be a statistic.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

O little town of Bethlehem
11 Days to Christmas

Two thousand years ago, Christ was born in Bethlehem, a city that was occupied by Rome the big imperial power of the day. Jewish zealots were known to have maintained a stiff resistance to the Roman presence, and the Judaean-Palestinian province wasn't considered to be one of the most idyllic corners of the empire.

Today, the situation may not be altogether different from the time of Jesus because 'foreign occupation' is still a defining characteristic of life in modern Bethlehem. Officially, at least, Bethlehem is part of the autonomous Palestinian National Authority, and is included in the internationally recognised territory of the future Palestinian state (that is, all Palestinian land that was annexed by Israel after the 1967 war). However, there is a huge gulf between what is 'official' and what is 'real', and much of the problem has been in reconciling the two.

It should have been a very simple process. A peace treaty is signed in 1993 by two warring parties and a decision was taken to make it a 'peace of the brave'. But somewhere down the line, it became obvious that peace cannot be established on mere rhetoric and photo-opps, and more substantive measures needed to be adopted.

For instance, there is still continuing construction of Jewish colonies (or 'settlements') in Palestinian territory despite explicit commitment not to do so, Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks that prevent Palestinians to lead normal life, relentless provocative gestures from fanatical settlers whose obnoxious behaviour is politely ignored by world media and the frustrated response is given headline hogging coverage, regular curfews, house demolitions, civilian deaths, and constant humiliations have been a fact of life for Palestinian residents of Bethlehem and other Palestinian cities. And to add insult to injury, the new West Bank Barrier or Separation Wall, or to call it what it really is - the Berlin Wall of the Middle East, the Israeli occupation authorities are unilaterally deciding the borders between the two 'states', and most significantly, rupturing the political, economic and social life of ordinary civilians.

Now if Joseph and Mary had to travel to modern Bethlehem, I'm sure, the situation wouldn't have seemed altogether different. Perhaps differences, if any, would be in nuance but the essential brutality that characterises any foreign occupation would, undoubtedly, give them a sense of deja vu. Joseph would be eyed with suspicion and humiliated, Mary might be forced to give birth to the Christ Child at one of the checkpoints like this Palestinian woman from Jerusalem.

It was a cruel world in which Jesus was born, and in the two thousand years since His time on Earth not much has changed. I'm not sure if things have worsened, but it's safe to say that cruelty has become technologically more sophisticated and brutality more subtle.

And in such a world, one wonders, how does one talk about the love that this Prince of Peace talked about? What words, language, gestures can be employed? Or maybe one can just ponder over the failures of things as they stand, and seriously consider peace not as a piece of rhetoric but as a serious option.

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie;
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

12 Days to Christmas

Christmas is often criticised for reasons that have nothing to do with it. At least, not essentially. It is blamed for fueling reckless consumerism, feeding the capitalist monster of greed and encouraging excess as if there was no tomorrow. And yet, the very first Christmas took place in the impoverished surroundings of a dirty stable where the Christ Child was born. A far cry from all that 'modern' Christmas stands for.

It is, somewhat, ironical that the poverty angle gets somewhat lost in all the manic Christmas celebrations even though Christ had some really harsh words to say to those who ignore the poor and go butt-varnishing the rich and mighty. But that should hardly surprise us because, even at the best of times, poverty is an uncomfortable topic and often brushed under the carpet in polite companies.

However, poverty does not disappear that easily and just like the Christ Child born in a manger could not be ignored forever, poverty has a way of creeping in to our consciousness in all kinds of ways. And statistics don't help much either. According to data compiled by Global issues, half the world — nearly three billion people — live on less than two dollars a day, the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of the poorest 48 nations (i.e. a quarter of the world’s countries) is less than the wealth of the world’s three richest people combined, less than one per cent of what the world spent every year on weapons was needed to put every child into school by the year 2000 and yet it didn't happen... this data is just the tip of the iceberg and a careful reading of the rest of the data will provide an uncomfortable picture of a serious gap between the very rich and the very poor.


What can be done about it?

I wish there were easy answers but there aren't any. The solution does not lie in changing the system and forcing some sort of artificial equality through a proletariat revolution. It did not work when it was attempted because the heart of the problem is human greed, and this greed cannot be tamed through legislation or revolution but it must be a voluntary effort. By the same token, the assumption that poverty can be reduced through 'trickle down economics' is, also, a naive supposition because if greed governs the income generation process, then, it is safe to assume that what would trickle down eventually to the bottom rung of the economic ladder will be ... nothing much.

The solution (if at all) lies in changed hearts of people who want to do something about it. And that's a real tough deal, if you ask me.

But since Christmas is round the corner, all I can do is be grateful to my Saviour for identifying Himself, during his time on Earth, with the world's disadvantaged instead of aligning Himself with the imperial powers of the day.

Perhaps it would be necessary to remember the squalid manger now and again, at least, while doing the Christmas shopping and planning the Christmas lunch. At the very least, it will bring perspective and that will be a significant step. Or so one hopes.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Manama Readlings

Some friends asked me what "Manama Readlings" was all about, and I thought, why not give it a plug here and give my explanation to much wider audience.

Well, it's a group that's been around for a year or so, and meets in a coffee-shop every fortnight to read plays, poems, short stories, well, mostly plays and mostly Shakespeare. Why Shakespeare? A very silly reason: Shakespeare's plays are easy to get hold of unlike some other contemporary plays that are not easily available in bookshops and libraries. Besides, Shakespeare is so profound that just reading his plays is a good enough reason to meet and read.

The first meeting took place in June 2005 when I invited a couple of my close friends to Starbucks in Juffair. We read Merchant of Venice together and afterwards read a selection of favourite poems. Everything went well except for the noise in Starbucks. The place might be great for socialising, but it's just not THE place for reading plays and poems.

Hence, alternate venues were considered, and so far, it has been either The Conservatory or Verandah, and both are in Adliya. Conservatory is a fine venue because it's quieter, more intimate, comfortable, and serves the tastiest carrot cake in the island. The only problem is that we have to leave by 7 pm, and that leaves us only two hours to read a play, comment on it, eat and drink, gossip and read a favourite poem or prose piece in between. So what really happens is that we read as much as we can, and if possible, continue next time we meet.

The idea of Readlings is to bring back the tradition of those old literary gatherings in coffee shops, and hence, Conservatory, Starbucks, Verandah have been chosen as venues for past meetings. It has to be a coffee-shop or, at least, a restaurant in order to capture the spirit of that tradition. And yes, we read the plays together with as much emotion our thespian nerves can manage. The advantage being that we get to do Shakespeare and other greats without actually having to memorise the lines and do the boardwalk.

I'd be quite thrilled to have many more "Readlings" around, and have been persuading some of my friends abroad to do something similar. Besides, there is no reason why we cant have more than one Readlings in Bahrain because more the merrier... or in other words, more people reading together is what we really need.

Our next meeting is at The Conservatory in Adliya and we'll meet there between 5 and 7pm. We'll be reading Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet", and so if you plan to attend do get hold of a copy and bring it along.

Friday, December 01, 2006

World AIDS Day

Everyone has something to say about AIDS. It's a subject that simply provokes opinions of all kinds, and usually, opinions that are strong, vociferous and rarely neutral. There is something about AIDS that does this to people. They have to say something and they have to say it as loud and as persuasive as possible.

Religious fundamentalists view it as divine punishment for drug addicts and the sexually promiscuous. Politicians view it as bunch of statistics to pinpoint failures in health care programs and policies. The decidedly licentious use it to promote the need to be 'well-protected' during sex. And then there are those who just don't care because AIDS hasn't touched anyone they know, and they are convinced it never will.

The trouble is, most of these opinions simply grapple at the superficial and manage to address only one side of the issue. It may be an important side, but it is, nevertheless, 'only' one side. A comprehensive assessment is essential but it, somehow, does the slip whenever any discussion or debate takes place on the subject. And it is not hard to see why. Sex and drugs are a potent combination in the best of times, and if you bring in a deadly disease into the equation, then fireworks are to be expected, creating a lot of heat and dust and nothing else.

Now I do believe there is a place for debates on AIDS, and there is a serious need to address moral and spiritual matters that concern this disease. It is necessary to look into the 'why', 'how' and, also, look into ways that would discourage people from pursuing a lifestyle that makes them increasingly vulnerable to AIDS. It is so vital to continuously engage ourselves in conversation and keep the subject alive. Silence will only lead to either denial or irrelevance, and both options are not welcome because the statistics are not going to alter according to the changing contours of our opinions.

And the statistics compiled by UNAIDS/WHO does not present a very encouraging picture. As of December 2006, the total number of people living with HIV is 39.5 million, and out of this huge number children below 15 years constitute 2.3 million. As far as AIDS death is concerned, the total number, as of December 2006, is 2.9 million, and out of this figure, fatalities amongst children below 15 years came to 380,000. However, the most heart-rending statistic was about those who were newly infected with AIDS, which was 4.3 million people, and children constituted 530,000. Is 2007 going to be a happy new year for these people? Do the math and you'll get the answer.


But no matter what side of the debate we are, it is important to realise that, at the end of the day, AIDS is not about fancy statistics, divine wrath, sexual choices, and morality. AIDS is about people who are sick and dying and in need of healing. That's what it is all about. AIDS is about people with friends and family who will be left grieving the loss of their loved one. AIDS is about people with skills and talents that will be cut short by this dreaded disease. AIDS is about people whose potential will never be realised. AIDS is about people with a history of affection for others that will turn into a memory. AIDS is about people who will be missed. It is not about debating points, but people. It is not about statistics, but people. It is not about choices and preferences, but people.

And yes, AIDS is about people whom God made and wants to heal.