Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Day

Well, I've come to an end of my 12 part Christmas series. I didn't realise I would actually finish it but thankfully I did. There were couple of issues that I felt I had to address, and Christmas seemed to be the right time to do so. Sometimes one gets an itch that needs to be scratched, and I think, ideas are like that... they need to be articulated, thought out, explained as a kind of scratching because anything less will leave us restless.

In a way, I feel there's still more I need to share, which is why I need to blog more often. Blogging will help curb the silence, and allow conversation to take place. My excuse for not being regular in blogging was work, and that is something I really have no control over but it's all a matter of finding time.

In the meantime, I like to wish all of you a very Merry Christmas and a blessed new year. I thought that the best way to end this series would be to share one of my most favourite T S Eliot poems, The Journey of the Magi:

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed,
refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the
terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and
grumbling
And running away, and wanting their
liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the
lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns
unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high
prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all
night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears,
saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a
temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of
vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill
beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped in
away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with
vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for
pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no imformation, and so
we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment
too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say)
satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I
remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth,
certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had
seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different;
this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like
Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these
Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old
dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their
gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Night Before Christmas

She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
(Luke 2: 6)



Away in a manger,
No crib for His bed
The little Lord Jesus
Laid down His sweet head

(Unknown author)



The first time I saw the homeless was in Bombay. It was my first time in that city, and the sight of people living on the streets was shocking. I couldn't imagine how people could actually live under the street lights, raise their families next to busy roads and impatient traffic. It didn't seem normal. It wasn't natural, I told someone who responded that it was something I'd get used to. I don't think I ever did nor do I ever want to.

Years later, I saw the homeless again. This time it was in Chicago and in Washington DC and in London and other cities in the world that I visited as a tourist. The cultures and ethnicity of the homeless may have been different, but the hardness in their faces, the vacant look in their eyes, the shabbiness of their attire, the uncombed strands in their thick hair combined with their unkempt demeanor possessed a sad uniformity. Whether it was cooking on the roadside or pushing a trolley filled with their life's entire possessions, the homeless in each of these countries seemed to roam the invisible spaces of the cities they were part of, but not considered integral.

Homelessness, as I soon discovered, is not merely and solely a third world problem but a human tragedy. It is a failure at a systemic level of humanity's inability to create utopia on earth. A tangible hamartia, as it were. Also, an indication that economic systems - however GDP friendly they might be - are unable to provide that basic of basic needs: a roof above a person's head. This inability has ended up reducing man into a stray animal sharing kinship with dogs and cats that scavenge our streets for food and space. Maybe that's too harsh a thing to say, but I can't think of any other way to describe the horridness of homelessness.

According to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, it is estimated that 100 million people worldwide are homeless today. That's a staggering figure and comes quite close to matching the total population of Mexico (106,350,434).

The next best thing would be to examine the statistics on a country-by-country basis, but I feel that doing so would miss the point altogether. It would only draw comparisons, and the focus will only lead to which of the country scores high on the homeless sweepstakes and which one scores way below the mark. The point here is not about creating heroes or demons amongst the countries, but to place the spotlight on homelessness as a global problem.

However, before doing so, one needs to pause and take a look at one uncomfortable fact. Not all of the 100 million people in the homeless category are there because they are helpless victims of the socio-economic system. Some of them are there as a consequence of wrong choices they've made in their life. Drug addiction, alcoholism and a life of crime that have pushed them to the streets. And then there are those who have been brought to cities under the patronage of political parties who expect votes in return.

As a result, one would be right to ask: why should we help such people? Why must we part with our hard earned money to support such freeloaders?

The thing is, logical as it may sound, doing nothing in response is also not the answer. It could also be like throwing the baby with the bath water. This is because there exist many genuine reasons for homelessness as well. The current economic crisis, for instance, has thrown many people out into the streets because of their inability to pay their mortgages on time and their inability to get a job that will enable them to pay their expenses.

On the other hand, there are those who have been pushed to the streets due to circumstances beyond their control. Lack of jobs and economic development in their rural community are key factors behind large scale migration to urban centres where low wages make it impossible for them to get decent housing.

The promise of prosperity and well being is what drives them to seek new pastures, but the reality can be disappointing and they soon learn that they have to make do with what they can get and make it work. In this case, they'd be just like Joseph who had to settle for a manger when there was no room in the inn or anywhere else. This was a situation beyond Joseph's control, and resulted in Jesus being born in a place where midwives dare not go.

The Christmas story, thus, provides a lesson on homelessness. Jesus as God incarnate could have chosen a luxurious venue for His birth on earth. However, the choice of manger as opposed to a decent and a properly ventilated room enabled Him to share a one-ness with the millions of homeless in our world today. He became homeless when He came on earth, and chose depravity over royalty. His birth showed His heart for the poor and for the unprivileged as people who matter.

It was His way to show that He is mindful of those who travel in the invisible spaces, the ones we ignore and rarely notice, the ones He chose to identify with to shame us who think we are above them all.

In such circumstances, those of us who call ourselves His followers have a choice to make. We can either rationalise the situation of the homeless as one that doesnt concern us, and continue with our comfortable lives doing all the comfortable things we usually do. Or we can engage ourselves in the debate, do something practical about it, look for a solution that is possible within our grasp, and do something that mitigates in some way the horror.

The approach we take can have myriad forms but Christ's parable on the sheep and goats provides some directions we can take:

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'

"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'

"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

2 Days to Christmas

Most of my favourite Christmas memories have to do with food. This fact may not seem so obvious if you meet me in person, but then again, you’ll agree that first impressions have never been a reliable indicator for anything. Thing is, I have always regarded Christmas at home to be mostly a celebration of good food and great company while remembering the Babe in Bethlehem.

I suppose it’s the nature of the festivities that have made food such an important component in the way we celebrate. Hospitality is incomplete without something to munch. And memories are made that much more precious when we can share them with friends and family over an array of delicious snacks.

As far as I remember, my mother’s donuts and chaklis have been something of a standard along with homemade cakes, cookies and assorted salties. Christmas Day lunch was always with friends who were away from loved ones, and included pulao or biryani. And on Christmas Eve, there was either roasted duck or turkey or whatever game meat was available at the supermarket. There have been slight variations over the years, but by and large, good food has remained centre-stage during the season.

While I do enjoy eating and find great delight in cooking, but for some reason, I have managed to steer clear from obesity. I suppose it has a lot to do with being fussy than disciplined, but frankly, it could be anything at all.

I was browsing the web the other day and was checking a few statistics, and I was reminded of my fussy eating habits. I realised I could be fussy because I can afford to be so. Not only me, but others who share my socio-economic status as well. We are privileged even without realising just how, and yet we are the ones who complain the most when the meat is not cooked properly or the presentation is not to our liking.

And while we make a fuss over what we eat or drink, there will be people in the world who won’t have the same advantage this Christmas. For them, it will be just another day with nothing to eat. For them, complaining of excess salt or sugar will be a luxury they can never dream about or even afford. For them, even a sugar cube would do to dampen the hunger pangs.

Maybe I’m being too harsh on myself and my peers, and maybe, I need to look at the entire situation with some perspective or even squeeze in some context. I wonder if that’s even possible when the following statistics aren’t something we can smile about.

• 1.02 billion people do not have enough to eat - more than the populations of USA, Canada and the European Union;

• The number of undernourished people in the world increased by 75 million in 2007 and 40 million in 2008, largely due to higher food prices;

• Asia and the Pacific region is home to over half the world’s population and nearly two thirds of the world’s hungry people;

• More than 60 percent of chronically hungry people are women;

• 65 percent of the world's hungry live in only seven countries: India, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan and Ethiopia.

• Every six seconds a child dies because of hunger and related causes;

• More than 70 percent of the world's 146 million underweight children under age five years live in just 10 countries, with more than 50 per cent located in South Asia alone;

• 10.9 million children under five die in developing countries each year. Malnutrition and hunger-related diseases cause 60 percent of the deaths;

• The cost of undernutrition to national economic development is estimated at US$20-30 billion per annum;

• One out of four children - roughly 146 million - in developing countries are underweight.

(Source: World Food Programme)



Since context is what is required in understanding the extent of world hunger, I want to add another nasty angle to this equation to make us understand the perspective in a much broader framework. Now I don’t know if the following statistic will shed light on the problem or offer some sort of a solution, but I would like to be deliberately naive in assuming that it might just demonstrate potential solution to the problem.

It won’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the global military expenditure is unbelievably gargantuan, and it’s unlikely that budgetary cuts will be introduced to feed the hungry millions worldwide. It would be idealistic to imagine a sudden change of heart in the powers that be.

Of course, the explanation for such a huge military budget is that we are living in a dangerously world with terrorists and rogue countries waiting to strike at a moments notice. While I don’t completely disagree with this opinion, nevertheless, I see something else, too.

When a budget runs in millions and trillion, then, it doesn’t necessarily indicate that we are facing a huge problem that only an equally huge budget will help solve. It simply means that military solutions have acquired an economic life of their own, that they are sustainable, have become an industry and like all good industry, committed to ambitious growth plans.

Summarising below some key details from chapter 5 of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)’s 2009 Year Book on Armaments, Disarmament and International Security for 2008:

• World military expenditure in 2008 is estimated to have reached $1.464 trillion in current dollars (just over $1.2 trillion in 2005 constant dollars, as per above graph);

• This represents a 4 per cent increase in real terms since 2007 and a 45 per cent increase over the 10-year period since 1999;

• This corresponds to 2.4 per cent of world gross domestic product (GDP), or $217 for each person in the world;

• The USA with its massive spending budget, is the principal determinant of the current world trend, and its military expenditure now accounts for just under half of the world total, at 41.5% of the world total;

SIPRI has commented in the past on the increasing concentration of military expenditure, i.e. that a small number of countries spend the largest sums. This trend carries on into 2008 spending. For example,

• The 15 countries with the highest spending account for over 81% of the total;

• The USA is responsible for 41.5 per cent of the world total, distantly followed by the China (5.8% of world share), France (4.5%), UK (4.5%), and Russia (4%):

(Source: Global Issues)


At the end of the day, it's a matter of perspective but more than anything else, it's a question of priority. What we choose determines what we regard as more important, and will define what we regard to be the most urgent problem. The words of Christ are relevant in such a context: Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Question is, where is our heart? What is our treasure?

3 Days to Christmas

Joy is the flavour of the Christmas season, and yet for many people around the world this year, it will be marked with a sense of despondency, frustration, and to some degree, disappointment. The global economic crisis has been particularly hard on the middle-class that form a substantial chunk of white collar workers who have been one of its biggest casualties. Life will probably not be the same for many as adjustments will have to be made to their lifestyles, and the old pattern will recede into a distant memory.

For those who have lost their jobs, it won’t be a ‘merry’ Christmas but instead the season will be plagued with uncertainty and tinged with a faint hope that the New Year will be happier. For those companies that have been closed down, it’s the loss of their credibility combined with a sense of shame that will make their owners long for, at least, a morsel of success in the year ahead. However, for that to happen, it all depends on how quickly the recovery takes place, and how soon the boom times, if at all, make their appearance.

Some historians talk about déjà vu in reference to the crisis, and say we’ve been here before 70 or 80 years ago.

Such information is of little use to those who aren’t sure how to pay their bills next month, pay their children’s school fees, pay their mortgage and avoid defaulting on their assorted loans and credit card bills. Or worse still, how to handle sudden illness in the family if they don’t have health insurance for medical emergencies.

Dire situations like these rarely occurred in the lives of most middle-class/ white collar workers, and the humiliation of having to experience poverty of this nature has been rather disheartening. However, the biggest question in most people’s minds is, how on earth did we land in such a big soup? Who is responsible for messing about so many lives and so many industries? What were they thinking?

While some would like to blame capitalism and the culture of free market reforms, there are those who feel that the banking and the real estate industry are responsible for much of the mess. Then, of course, there are still those who feel the real culprit ought to be the champions of deregulation and laissez faire business practise. Obviously, someone has finally discovered that freedom and anarchy are not bedfellows after all.

Alan Greenspan probably got it right when he told the BBC that we the economic crisis will happen again but it will be different.

“They are all different but they have one fundamental source. That is the unquenchable capability of human beings when confronted with long periods of prosperity to presume that it will continue."


He goes on to add that this behaviour is human nature, and “unless somebody can find a way to change human nature, we will have more crises and none of them will look like this because no two crises have anything in common, except human nature."

I don’t know if Greenspan is talking about ‘hamartia’, but it definitely appears that he is without saying so explicitly.

Back in the 80s, ‘greed is good’ was a popular credo and its principal proponent was the tragic figure of Gorden Gecko played by Michael Douglas in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. He seemed to have it all, and though the film looked at the finance industry with Stone’s characteristic scepticism, nevertheless, the culture of the 80s was such that it made him an attractive figure.

However, looking at Gecko and others like him with perceptions gained through the intervening years, we realise how phoney it was. Greed might have seemed good on paper, but it certainly had its limits and the economic crisis demonstrated the hollowness of this dream. Ideas like actions have consequences, too. Gecko might have probably retired on a fat bonus but Gecko’s ideological children ended up with their credibility torn to shreds and their reputation ruined forever. Or at least, till the next big news event.

The trouble with ‘morality by hindsight’ is that it is usually preceded by a bitter lesson that forces a change in one’s path. We need to be dragged by our ears to learn something, and have it drilled in our minds and our souls. We are slow learners, if we learn at all. But a crisis can be a good starting point for a new moral direction, and if the present global economic crisis will end up being that teacher, then so be it.

However, for that to happen, we need to undergo a ‘meta-noia’ (new mind) moment because nothing else will really work. The question is, are we prepared to do just that or will we dither, and allow historians to talk about déjà vu the way they are doing now?

Christ once said, where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Let’s ask ourselves: what is that treasure ruling our hearts? The answer to that question will determine how joyful we want to be, and how joyful we want our world to be.

It may not cure depression or mitigate despondency, but it will be a start.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

4 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. There is resistance on two levels: the modern day 'zealots' who see their struggle as more than just a fight for political space, and the moderate voice who are engaged in diplomatic and political negotiations. I'm sure there was a parallel to this situation in first century Palestine as well, and let's face it, the tussle between extremists and moderates is an ancient one and not peculiar to the Israeli-Palestinian situation alone. That, of course, deserves another essay altogether but for now, let's just focus on 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 was 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 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. Of course, as examples go, she was in a much better position than this woman who died because of delays at the checkpoint.

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... one that we need as desperately as a dying and injured man needs blood.

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.

Monday, December 21, 2009

5 Days to Christmas

Scrooge might smile when he hears what I have to say.

Why is there such an abundance of happiness during the Christmas season? Why do people suddenly turn on their charm and put on their best possible behaviour? Why is everyone so good this season?

Go anywhere, and all you see are smiling faces whenever the word “Christmas” pops up in conversation. Go to a mall, and you see children giggling and squealing with joy when they see Santa Claus. Go to parties, and you see everyone either a little tipsy or plain delirious after exchanging presents. Go to restaurants or concerts or other public events, and there’s a palpable sense of camaraderie in the air as if bosom buddies have got together after a long, long time.

Or try switching on any of the TV channels, and the Christmas specials are all about mushy stuff like love, family and music. Or it is about hardened souls melting after a little child gives them a Christmas present. Or it is about singles finding true love after a lifetime of waiting for some frog to turn into royalty. Or it is about news anchors smiling and showing a little more enthusiasm when it comes to human interest stories.

Go anywhere in the world, and Christmas immediately makes people turn to their good side, and if that’s not enough, it makes them want to spread this feeling of goodness all around.

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if I dislike this excessive goodness that one sees this season. I think it’s great that people are able to shed their normal cynicism and grouchy side, and behave more kindly with friends and strangers alike. It’s a real pleasure for humanity to be more amiable, decent and to walk around as if a halo was a natural part of their body.

The trouble is, this all-smiling, all-friendly, all-generous side rarely lasts beyond the season and gradually disappears into thin air after the New Year. Almost like a comet: shines for a while and soon disappears into the back alleys only to return later.

The thing is, this type of ‘cheerfulness’ seems to be a seasonal trait and hasn’t managed to be second nature. It would make the world a lot less stressful and an enjoyable place to live in. And no, I’m not suggesting that everyone wears some sort of a ‘perma-grin,’ smile all the time, and behave like they were mini-Santa Claus or something. The world would be an absolutely terrifying place if that were the case.

All I’m saying is, if it’s possible to be nice (at least, superficially) for a month or so, then, what’s the big deal behind the general nastiness, silly one-upmanship, bitchiness and backstabbing that punctuates life in general? Why isn’t it possible for cheerfulness, generosity and goodness to be a habit instead of being so occasional? I mean, why?

Maybe what we see this month is only a possibility of goodness that some tragic flaw within prevents from expressing itself more fully. Maybe the virus of hamartia is strongly ingrained after all, and all we can do is simply rise above the surface for a month or so, and gasp for air like the way flying fish do.

Whatever it is, all I can say is, enjoy it while it lasts, and if it’s not possible, then I can only repeat what Scrooge would say, Bah humbug!!!

6 Days to Christmas

Christmas used to be a lot colder in Bahrain. Not so anymore. Today, it's quite possible to wear a t-shirt without having to make a doctor's appointment. It's not as if winters are warmer these days but a plain jacket or cardigan can save the day if a rather cold breeze decides to blow your way. Of course, you can still find people in t-shirts walking around as if it was the most natural thing to do, and that's the big difference.

The thing about winters in the 70s was the many layers of clothing one had to wear just to stay warm. We had no choice. The shamal (or the north wind) would literally send a chill through the bones, and if it rained around the same time, it would get unbearably cold. I remember my mother used to complain that the flour would get frozen when she used to mix it with water for making donuts.

We used to enjoy sitting really close to the heaters, drink cocoa and munch Christmas goodies while watching the holiday specials on Aramco TV (or Channel 3 Television or HZ 22 TV). They used to have some really entertaining programmes in the month of December leading up to Christmas and would revert to regular programming after New Year. Actually Aramco TV deserves a separate essay altogether because that TV station has played a key role in shaping and cultivating our cultural and entertainment taste buds during our growing up years. It may seem a tall claim but

Since we were school kids, our parents would also ensure that we were sent off to school like Christmas presents: on top of thermals, there would be sweater, and on top of sweater, there would be a jacket plus gloves, scarf and monkey cap to protect our ears. I hated the monkey caps because I thought I looked silly in them, but there was nothing much I could do about it.

Christmas eve used to be the coldest or, maybe, we just thought it was so because it was one of the few times in the year when we used to get a chance to step outside around midnight. The midnight candlelight service involved a tradition that was stopped in the late 70s because it was no longer feasible. At quarter to twelve, candles would be lit and the entire congregation would step out into the car park. The ones in the balcony would form a cross while rest would stand around them in a large circle. Holding candles in our hands, we would shiver while singing a carol that I haven't heard for a long time: the light of the world is Jesus'.

I don't know when the winters started to lose their chill but I do remember it has been a gradual process, and today, the winter season lacks that consistency of being cold. Two years ago, it was cold like the old days after a long, long time, but in the following years it went back to not-so-cold winters.

Now I don't know if global warming has anything to do with this change in Bahrain's weather pattern, but I do know that a change has taken place and it hasn't been altogether pleasant. Lack of consistent rainfall has increased the temperature levels, and the intermittent cold wave has had an effect on every one's health. If this kind of radical change was limited to Bahrain, it wouldn't have been much of a botheration but meteorologists are talking about a global trend.

The Copenhagen Summit was supposed to address this problem but it has only succeeded in minor agreements while tough decisions have been postponed for another year. This has always been the case with climate issues. Kyoto Protocol sought to reduce noxious fumes from entering the atmosphere, but some countries refused to sign the dotted line since, they felt, it was not in the best interest of industries.

The economy seems to be at the centre of the argument, and is most likely going to be the key factor in unifying opinion makers and decision makers from around the world onto a common platform. Developing nations would like better funding for introducing ecofriendly industries and infrastructure while the developed nations are not excited about giving aid.

I do believe that the climate issue is not an economic issue alone, but is a spiritual and moral problem. If we believe in the existence of God and that He is involved in our lives, then, taking care of the world He created ought to be a natural response. Somewhere in the Bible, it talks about the concept of stewardship of all the Earth's resources and that human beings have been given authority over the entire flora and fauna. Question is, what have we done about this stewardship?

Currently, there are two sets of views on the subject: one that believe the science is all flawed and the other puts the blame at the entire human race for being negligent. The arguments seem to be nothing more than face-saving than anything else. Hence, teh ready-made answer is to blame the 'other' instead of admitting that a mistake was made. I am reminded of the Genesis story where Adam after biting the fruit denies responsibility for his disobedience and puts the blame on his wife for making him eat what he was not supposed to.

I wonder if the current climate debate is a repeat of that story: man is not at fault for global warming because it's nature that is responsible for the mess, not us, it has never been us... nature made us do it, right... hence, we must be left alone to strengthen the economy by building factories that spew fumes. Who cares about the future since we wont be there to see what happens? It's today that we need to worry about!

Copenhagen has not come to an agreement that will be legally binding on all the signatories, and that's the real tragedy at the moment. Final decisions have been postponed for another year when world leaders meet in Mexico. Kyoto should have been the venue for an agreement but due to various circumstances, everyone expected Copenhagen to deliver instead. Frankly, it seems to me like nothing less than passing the buck and not taking a decision.

The sad thing is, while the rest of the world dithers, countries like Tuvalu, Maldives and most likely even Bahrain, will end up suffering when the sea levels rise and create havoc. So while there is a bit of nostalgia for cold and wintry Christmas-es, I do long for them to return and remain a regular feature of Bahrain's winter because their presence would, perhaps, indicate a pleasant change in the atmosphere.

Or better still, it will enable countries like Maldives and Tuvalu to have a truly merry Christmas 50 or even 100 years from now.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

7 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 six or seven years or so, 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. Fact that a Muslim group would do such a thing totally contradicts popular assumptions, and is a fine example of religious tolerance and building bridges between communities.

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. Such attempts are, at best, cosmetic and are a little bit like throwing the baby with the bath water.

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, the ambiguities surrounding the war on terror, occupation of lands and construction of illegal settlements as well as publication of 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 do to create 'peace on earth and goodwill towards men'?

8 Days to Christmas

Since peace was my topic yesterday, I thought, I should repeat the thought for one more day. Peace can always do with a repeat. At least, in this day and age when peace seems to be so elusive.

This song is not only about peace, but about its possibility in the midst of war. The First World War was one of the most brutal wars of the last century, and was billed to be 'the war to end all wars.' It didn't quite end up that way, and the 20th Century ultimately became one of the bloodiest periods in human history. Peace, as we know, needs more than just signatures on papers but a change in the heart for it to be effective and long lasting.

This story is deeply inspiring and poignant at the same time. It was also made into a movie -- Joyeux Noel, which was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. While the film captured other elements and weaved various other subplots, the song, on the other hand, focuses solely on what actually took place on that Christmas eve.

In a few years time, we will mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War, and it should make us ponder on how badly we have squandered the sacrifices of those many young men who fought that 'war to end ALL wars'. The armed forces all over the world comprises some of the bravest, patriotic and self-less men and women, and even though I am a pacifist, I believe they deserve our respect and honour. Their commitment demands not just their obedience but life as well.

This story - and the song - shows their human side, which we should never forget. I do wish, however, that civilian political leaderships would ponder long and hard over the sacrifices these soldiers have to make, and not simply rush to declare war to demonstrate misplaced machismo or even score brownie points at some negotiating table. The soldiers deserve better.

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)


Thursday, December 17, 2009

9 Days to Christmas

And He will be called Prince of Peace...


Peace ought to get governments excited but instead it is often seen as a negotiating tactic. Like silence between words, peace ends up being nothing more than a pause between wars, a photo-opp for politicians or, at best, a simple yet ceremonial act of laying down of arms.

The heart, of course, tells another story.

For the lonely, the distressed, the heartbroken and the rejected, peace is not some sort of a deal for scoring brownie points. Peace is the answer to life's burning questions. It is what they seek to silence their souls and quieten the storms that keeps raging within and without.

Peace may imply different things to different people but the idea remains the same. It is a desire for some sort of an equilibrium that would restore a degree of normality or, at least, what they believe to be normal. This equilibrium, many believe, involves reconciliation in those relationships that are falling apart or broken beyond repair. The return of laughter in their lives is seen as a clinching evidence that peace has returned where strife once ruled.

However, for many more, the heartrending cry for peace does not involve others but themselves. Their search for inner peace is all about restoring the broken walls of self-esteem and a desire to finally be what they could be or would like to be. This disappointment becomes a constant reminder of how less a human they are, and how much more they need to do in order to come close to that ideal.

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders...
Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.


The Christmas story brings this search for peace into a more accessible and yet unfamiliar terrain. A little baby born in an obscure village seems an unlikely personality to be the 'prince of peace', and yet it is this very oddity that makes everything fall into place. Conventional ideas for securing normality no longer proved tenable, and so a radical message like the 'beautitudes' had to be introduced. And the cross, from being an object of shame, had to be turned into a symbol of hope.

What we learn is that peace can never be gained from treaties alone because they rarely address the core issues. Peace involves a change in the mindset of men and women who demand it in their lives. Peace is not about appearances but involves a surgery of the will. Peace is not only about laying down of arms but a recognition that arms are not the answer. Peace is not about signing papers but turning those words into action and making peace a habit.

True peace involves dying to self because the ego can be a huge obstacle. Its the ego that comes in between. It's ego that needs to go... or better still, the ego needs a new command structure.

The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.

10 Days to Christmas

I was at the mall last night. I went to see a movie with a friend, stopped by at a Turkish restaurant, checked some of the window displays and made mental notes of what I must purchase when I make my next visit. Discounts were being offered and great bargains were being dangled as carrots to a hound. Christmas shopping couldn't be more attractive with the kind of attractive rates that would delight anyone desperate for some serious retail therapy.

Christmas has become a celebration of consumerism, and the little Babe born in the dirty manger has been relegated to an afterthought. Or as a quaint decoration to add that religious touch. Materialism appears triumphant even though Christ talked about the meek inheriting the Earth. Possessions and the ability to acquire possessions have become more important than the need to cultivate character and integrity. While shopping is necessary in life, it does seem to be 'the reason for the season', and malls have become the heartland for all of this feverish excitement.

I couldn't help thinking of "Immanuel" as I was walking around the mall last night. Immanuel is the other name for Christ and it means "God with us." The name implies that we will never be alone and that God will be with us no matter where we are, where we go and what we do. If that be the case, then, it certainly means that His presence will be with me as I walk around the mall.

I wondered what would be His thoughts when He accompanies me, and notices things I rarely do. What do you think His response would be to what he sees there...

Will He admire the fancy designer labels that were, most probably, made in a sweat shop in some Asian country?

Will He approve of the huge posters advertising different products in language that appears to encourage covetousness?

Will He think highly of the fashion shops that appear to promote an impossible idea of beauty, and in the process induce young girls to suffer from anorexia and bulimia?

Will He be delighted to see men and women trying to attract each other by focusing solely on their sexuality and not their innate personalities?

Will He be happy to see underpaid shop attendants struggling to make a living while trying to be friendly with their customers?

Will He notice the cleaners and parking attendants whose existence no one cares about or even bothers?

Will He be pleased to know that the malls have put to death many pop-and-mom stores, small retail outlets and old shopping districts?

Will he observe the many lonely people sitting by themselves in coffee-shops, sipping cappuccino, staring into their laptops and pretending to be busy?

Will He sense the emptiness in people's hearts as they try and fill their souls with purchases that eat into their credit card balance?

Will we listen to Him as He asks us to adopt His standards and be a salt and light in such an environment? Or will we just nod our heads, think it's a great idea and do nothing at all?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

11 Days to Christmas

It's the candles I remember. It would always be four of them. Faith. Joy. Love. Peace. One by one, they'd be lit each week on the four Sundays preceding Christmas. It wasn't some elaborate ritual involving smells, bells and incense.

Someone would walk up the aisle -- either alone or with their family -- light one candle, read a passage from the Bible, say something about the theme for the week and pray. The service would then continue as normal except for the carols that were always a December highlight.

This was how my church would celebrate Advent, the period just before Christmas. The candles were a reminder of Christ being the light of the world, and the four themes emphasised the Christmas message.

The candlelighting tradition during Advent may not have stood the test of time in my church, and may not have been practised in other churches I have attended.

However, the simple ceremony has had a huge impact on me, and in my understanding of things divine. Faith, joy, peace and love no longer remained words that I needed to abide by but as things I ought to do or better still, integrate them in my worldview.

Faith. Joy. Love. Peace.

The certitudes of childhood, however, have a strange way of coming full circle. We run away from them as we try to demonstrate their irrelevance. We falter on the way not because we are hesitant about taking that path but we discover their necessity, and our own inability to follow.

We soon find out that faith, hope love, joy or peace are not that hard to attain but that we just don't try hard enough. Something always stops. Something prevents. Something holds us back. Something that makes us less of who we are and what we want to be.

St. Paul uses the word 'hamartia' to describe that state of missing the mark of being what we ought to be, the tragic flaw that prevents human beings from being the civilising force they were meant to be.

It becomes clear that what may seem like an individual struggle is not really a battle we wage alone. It is a pain we share with the rest of the world and the debris of that struggle is a reality we wish we could avoid at any cost.

No wonder, the birth of that little baby in an obscure town of Bethlehem becomes a cause for hope, reason for joy, rationale for faith and inspiration for love. The only problem is, that road leads to the cross, to pain and to sacrifice.

There may have been resurrection somewhere in the story, but death always precedes resurrection. We'd rather skip the messy bits but we realise it's a package deal and we can't have one without the other.

The advent candles might be missing in my church this year, but that doesn't really matter. What does matter is whether or not faith, hope, joy, love or peace are burning in our hearts.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

12 Days to Christmas

It will be 12 days to Christmas. Well, almost. If I had posted this note yesterday, I would have been able to say so with much more confidence. However, since I've been gloriously not-so-prompt with my blog postings, I guess, it would be very much in character to be slightly late.

The number 12 has been rather significant biblically speaking: the ancient tribes of Israel and the apostles were all 12 in number. I'm not sure if this number figures elsewhere in the Book, but it does offer a springboard for this new series of blog posts I'll be working on. The real inspiration, however, came from an unlikely source. I was listening to that silly old Christmas song, Twelve Days of Christmas and thought, why not start blogging again?

Of course, the idea of a countdown proved to be not only appealing but also downright irresitible.

Just to set the record straight, I am not into numbers in the way some people are obsessed with the cosmic significance that numbers may -- or may not -- have. To me, numbers are just numbers: a simple methodology to quantify the world around us in a measurable form. At the same time, one cannot totally dismiss the idea that numbers can be profoundly symbolic, too. They can set structures for abstract notions, provide framework for understanding depth and help us in making sense of the collective.

So what has all this got to do with that silly Christmas song?

Well, I've done this before. A couple of years ago, the song was the inspiration for a 12 part series on social, political and economic issues that have a bearing on the Christmas story. This year makes a re-examination of those issues much more necessary and even urgent because the global economic crisis has become a sad reality for people across countries and across economic groups.

Christ's birth in a lowly manger in an obscure town of Bethlehem ought to mean something in such an environment. And I dont mean, the cute images that Hallmark produces or the delightful nativity scenes that little children enjoy to their hearts content. I'm more interested in looking at the stinking stable in which He was born, an insignificant town of Bethlehem that He chose for His birth, the unconventional method He picked for His family life, the social outcasts He selected as His disciples, and the radical message that turned the world upside down with its promise of deliverance and freedom.

Of course, this message does not sit well with current perceptions of what Christmas is all about. Consumerism, capitalism and materialism have set the tone for the season, and the truth of the manger is pushed to the sidelines. After all, Christ may have reached out to the marginalised millions and shown that God finds His home amongst the lowly and the obscure, but to the world at large, the marginalised will always be pushed to the invisible spaces, and remain marginalised.

However, the thing about the 'marginalised' is that they are rarely easy to categorise. They could be rich or poor, suave or artless, wise or foolish, busy or lazy. They are simply those who are not wanted and thus kept away. The reasons for them being marginalised may differ but the pain they experience remains the same. The resultant despair and rejection becomes the narrative for the ones who are not wanted, so they slip away aching and looking for some sort of redemption.

Into this world, Christ came, suffered the same fate and was 'despised and rejected by men' prior to His triumphant resurrection. Hence, the focus for our Christmas celebration, too, can involve imitating Christ's journey to an obscure landscape where hope was given to a broken-hearted world. Salvation became a gift as a result of sacrifice. And brokenness paved the way towards reconciliation.

The only problem is, this journey also involves denying of our 'selves', which is something that our consumerist societies find hard to swallow.