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Spring Clean

4589 Opera house steps

5304 Trees 2

4605 Pre-show, Opera House

4629 A chance encounter 1

4674 Shoes selfie

5689 Wall of remembrance

4769 Pigeon buddy

1962 Glebe Point

4909 Frames, broadway

6018 Reclining smoker

4521 The Hub

2035 Little flowers

5190 Lake, Snowy Mountains

4599 Opera House crowd

5841 Brothers

5827 Ripped dad

4850 Industrialism

5042 Text 2

6036 Towards Bondi

5016 Bus

5887 Bronte window selfie

4690 Dancing gait

5467 Eucalypt twist

6031 Suspended

5575 Variedad Geisha

5471 Alpine landscape

By way of contrast, V & I went down to the Snowy Mountains a couple of weeks ago and returned to Sydney to visit the beach for the first time this season. The ease with which we could transition between these regions was a welcome reminder of how fortunate we are to live in such a place. For the uninitiated, the Snowy Mountains lie about five hours drive southwest of Sydney in New South Wales and contain Australia’s highest mountain – Mount Kosciuszko. With a rather unimpressive elevation of 2228 metres, it is a reminder of what a flat country Australia is across its length and breadth. The Snowy Mountains form part of the Great Dividing Range, the 4th longest mountain range in the world after The Andes, The Rocky Mountains and The Transantarctic in, surprise surprise, Antarctica. While we’re on the statistics, for those who primarily consider Australia to be a hot and dry country, The Snowy Mountains are just one of the many and varied climate zones in a state which, while being only the 5th largest in Australia, is still bigger than France at a whopping 800,642 sq kilometres.

The Snowy Mountains are splendidly bleak; muted greens and browns, clumps of shrubs and grass and gnarly snow-gums with their twisting trunks that exhibit a surprising range of colours. They might lack the dramatic peaks and soaring walls of stone and ice found in higher ranges, and the skiing is at best mediocre, yet the mountains offer a curious play on the Australian landscape and, indeed, on Alpine zones generally. One noticeable contrast in Australian snow country is that, on account of the shape and nature of the gum leaves, snow does not generally sit on the trees, leaving them standing out starkly against the white.

In Jindabyne we found a magnificent Persian restaurant called Café Darya, set up by a former Iranian downhill ski champion with his wife. The menu was fascinatingly varied, with tantalising combinations of flavours and spices and a range of meats including goat and camel, yet in no way was it gimmicky. The love shown for the place on Trip Advisor confirms that we were not deluding ourselves in our assessment.

From here spent a couple of days in Canberra, a place often ridiculed as dull, bland or sterile, yet which we greatly enjoyed on this visit. A city planned from the ground up at the start of the 20th century, Canberra has the orderliness of Washington’s monumental heart, whilst exhibiting a far more modest monumentality. As the home of Parliament, the National Gallery and the War Memorial / museum, among many other significant institutions, it serves as a clean and refreshing shrine to culture and history, both Australian and international.

Back in Sydney now, the beach beckons and its lure is, as always, irresistible.

Man and Dog, Parker's Piece, Cambridge, June 7, 2006

Man and Dog, Parker’s Piece, Cambridge, June 7, 2006

In 2006 I returned to England, eager to get away from a claustrophobic, conservative Australia and indulge myself once again in the cultural circus of Europe. I had returned to Australia at the end of 2003 after four years away and, on doing so, never really felt completely at home. Living in Cambridge had thrown my sense of belonging and I wasn’t sure where I should be any longer. England and Europe were so much more interesting than Australia, yet the latter had a far more appealing lifestyle and climate. Which should I choose? My hatred of John Howard’s government made the decision a lot easier, but ultimately what really drove me back was an intense desire to return to Cambridge and to the life I had had while studying.

It was a chaotic, yet romantic beginning, wherein the first few months I moved around a lot – being accommodated by my old buddy, now college fellow, C, in his spare room, on his floor, and, eventually, in a splendid warren on All Saints Passage above an old-school barber shop. It is impossible to do justice to the many and various episodes – teaching South African literature in Pembroke College, hunching in a tiny garret playing World of Warcraft, meeting Prince Charles again, catching up with old acquaintances, tending the bar at the Anchor Pub once more and making various jaunts across to the continent – suffice to say, it was a splendid time full of rich experiences and intense emotion. And, all the while, I was becoming increasingly snap happy with my new Canon EOS 350D

This shot reminds me of that time especially well – not because it marks any special occasion or incident, but rather I recall being pleased with it then on account of the dynamic human subject. Prior to this, much of my photography was focussed on static objects – architecture, landscape, light and shadows – things which still greatly interest me, but have come to play second fiddle to candid human subjects. Once I realised there was so much gold to be had from shooting people doing their thing, I never looked back. There is, I feel, too much dead space to the right of the image, yet I so dig the harmony and juxtaposition of the two running man and the charging greyhound as to excuse the otherwise uninteresting context. Or perhaps the context is ideal – nothing too fussy and busy to distract from the principals – or so I like to tell myself : )

5998 HK Sunshine

Hong Kong, July 20, 2009

As a child, Hong Kong seemed to be a mythical place. It was British and it was Chinese – exotic and strangely familiar. Like so many children of the 70s and 80s in Australia, for whom a trip to a Chinese restaurant was both a great pleasure and an eye-opening multicultural experience in a then far-less Asian Sydney, I was enthusiastic for all things Chinese. Hong Kong was also the home of Bruce Lee, and though I wasn’t exactly a slavish fan as a child, he was seen as such a heroic persona that it was hard not to charmed even by the idea of Kung-fu itself.

My uncle lived in Singapore for some time and though I never visited him there, his visits to Australia were for a while accompanied by Asian artefacts – small ceremonial dragon dolls, brass coasters in the shape of Chinese characters, a wall-scroll of a traditional landscape. In a time when Australia was only beginning to see itself as a part of its Asian context, it felt exciting to live in a place surrounded by such exotic nations and cultures.

Later, in my twenties, when I was dating someone from Hong Kong, my curiosity and interest was re-awakened, but still only lived vicariously through films such as The World of Suzie Wong, In the Mood for Love and its sequel, 2046. Despite this interest, while I have visited Singapore a number of times en route to other places, I’ve only been to Hong Kong once, in 2009, at which time I went on a great photographic spree. While it might have lost some of its old Asia appeal, it is a stunning and exciting place, with a mix of gorgeous geography and eye-catching modernity. Hong Kong harbour is a marvel, irrespective of the rather tacky light and sound show which struts its stuff every evening.

 This photograph has long been a favourite as much for its geometry as for its subject matter. The leaves framing the image remind me of floral patterns on a loud shirt, reduced here to monochrome, and obscures the walking lady just enough to make it feel as though the photo is taken from a hidden vantage point. There is something magnificently languid and diaphanous about the woman – she seems to have an impossibly long stride, without appearing awkward. The sun is also directly overhead, so that all shadows fall immediately under their casters. It was a beautiful, clear and not too humid day; the air scrubbed and freshened by a typhoon which had lashed the place for two days previously. After a more than a month in sticky south-east Asia beforehand, I hadn’t expected to find such relief in this most splendid of cities.

Most love songs are rubbish. This is no particular fault of love songs, but rather fits with Sturgeon’s famous law that 90% of everything is crap. The same law applies for all artistic output – novels, movies, television programs, paintings – the world has long been flooded with cheap, disposable product through which we are forced to sift in order to find that rare percentile in which dwell the timeless classics. It is the purpose of this post, and indeed, of many subsequent posts, to highlight those songs which deserve respect for getting it right.

Firstly, it’s important to make a distinction between “love songs” and “songs about love.” A love song belongs to the romance genre – it is more often than not bludgeoningly romantic, fulfilling its function through cliché and banality, drawing upon well-established themes and tropes. They are often typified by overly sentimental choruses and trite circumstances involving material bribes, formulaic gestures, promises and the like. Or, otherwise, in the case of sad love songs, bemoaning the absence of certain stock sentiments and shows of affection, loss of trust and respect, lack of attention or commitment. Some of these songs have a simple charm and classic appeal, but all too many belong in the trash with all the other Valentine’s day pap, pandering as they do to the very worst commodification of romance, turning something beautiful into easily-marketed, mass-produced junk. They croon sweetly or bash our ears with brash platitudes, leaving the discerning listener feeling like they ate far too much sugar. The many failings of the average “love song” mirror the failings of most musical products (remember Sturgeon’s law) – bland compositions, tiresomely dull arrangements, and worst of all, dreadful lyrics.

Songs about love, on the other hand, are songs that explore the emotional experience of love and the complexity of relationships in a more sophisticated and less obvious manner. They use subtlety and carefully chosen, poetically expressed vignettes. They show, rather than tell, functioning in the same way as poetry: not being overly explicit and thus robbing the responder of the cryptic pleasure of interpreting the meaning and leaving little room for contemplation of the song’s, and indeed, the persona’s context. The best songs about love don’t even use the word “love”. Rather they find other means of expression, more covert modes of conveyance, hinting at and suggesting love, rather than just tossing it down on the table.

Equally, the best songs about sex function in a similar manner. Often they don’t even mention sex, but show through vignettes how the act reverberates in people’s lives and how its expression and the sentiments surrounding it can reside in objects, in spaces, in places, not just in the hackneyed “heart”, the body beautiful, nor in the wan, illusory “soul”. This doesn’t mean a great song about love or sex can’t speak of the heart, body or soul or indeed use the words love or sex for that matter, but it creates a context and a tone in which the word’s power is magnified through the potent lens of the very real and original emotion expressed. It’s not a cheap short-cut to meaning, nor a lame signifier of the song’s intent, not a repetitive slogan to drum us into emotional submission or give us a cheap sugar-high – it acts to punch us in the guts when we are already tearing-up in the emotional space the song has created around us – a very real story about very real emotions.

Such distinctions between the commonplace and the quality are as old as music and poetry. The ancients knew the difference well enough and Shakespeare’s sonnet # 130, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”, is a piss-take on all the trashy clichés of his day, as well as a welcome acknowledgement that beauty comes in many forms. And, as with Shakespeare, much of the best writing about love is based on personal experience. The dictum of “Write what you know” holds especially true in this genre, and only the very best can write what they don’t know in a deeply affecting way.

Of course, none of this is to say that one cannot or should not enjoy any of the more mediocre offerings of the genre. Junk food can be delicious, and sometimes the most ludicrously sentimental and simplistic of songs can move us deeply and hit just the right note. Equally, many will disagree as to where a distinction might be drawn between art and mere product, between masterpiece and bathos, and taste is a wildly varying thing. Yet if the art of review and critique has any validity at all, if aesthetics is something that can be judged objectively, if we can distinguish between great and poor on the grounds of technique, originality, subtlety and the like, and I firmly believe we can do so in all the arts, then we can recognise and pay due respect to those works which excel above others. In this sense, I come not to bury love songs, but to praise them – the good ones, that is, as I see it. There are enough posts and articles out there dedicated to listing the worst love songs of all time, so you won’t have to look far to satisfy your inner troll. I’m not interested in rubbishing that which others might hold dear.

And so, to praise the first subject of this series: Tom Waits’ – Ruby’s Arms, from his 1981 album Heart Attack and Vine. Here’s the song:

Heartattack and Vine

 

Ruby’s Arms – Tom Waits

 

I will leave behind all of my clothes I wore when I was with you

all I need’s my railroad boots and my leather jacket

as I say goodbye to Ruby’s arms, although my heart is breaking

I will steal away out through your blinds for soon you will be waking.

 

The morning light has washed your face and everything is turning blue now

hold on to your pillow case there’s nothing I can do now

as I say goodbye to Ruby’s arms, you’ll find another soldier,

and I swear to god by Christmas time there’ll be someone else to hold you.

 

The only thing I’m taking is the scarf off of your clothesline

I’ll hurry past your chest of drawers and your broken wind chimes

as I say goodbye, I’ll say goodbye, say goodbye to Ruby’s arms.

 

I will feel my way down the darkened hall and out into the morning

the hobos at the freight-yards have kept their fires burning,

so Jesus Christ this goddamn rain will someone put me on a train

I’ll never kiss your lips again or break your heart

as I say goodbye, I’ll say goodbye, say goodbye to Ruby’s arms.

 

 

This is a song about the sadness of leaving someone behind, yet it is richly complex in its evocation of regret, disappointment, loss and failed expectations. The maudlin brass with which it opens creates an almost agonised air of emotional pain, of desultory emotion, which is countered by the beautiful melancholy of the piano melody. The piano, in turn, tames the brass, bringing it, along with the strings, into a more complete, affecting whole. It is the sound of hollowness in the wake of an irreversible decision – it captures the unbearable sadness and the cold certainty of being cruel to be kind.

It is clear that the persona is deeply affected by his decision to leave; there is regret, there is sentiment – he misses Ruby even before leaving, yet has an intense awareness that what he is doing is necessary for he is simply not cut out for staying. His statement that “you’ll find another soldier,” offers a possibly misleading insight into Ruby herself – we catch a glimpse of a woman who, touchingly, desires a strong man, perhaps to protect her, comfort her and look after her. Yet perhaps our narrator has got it wrong? Is it not just “another soldier” that Ruby desires, but this particular soldier? Is this some cold comfort he is finding, reassuring himself that she will be alright, another man will come along, when really the failing lies with his inability to settle down, to stay with her and be faithful and fulfil the role she wishes him to fulfil?

Either way, irrespective of his understanding of her expectations, needs and desires, he is incapable of staying and this fills him with regret on her behalf as much as his. With this knowledge, he is deeply sympathetic on account of the hole he is leaving in her life: “Hold onto your pillow case, there’s nothing I can do now.” He knows how much she depends on him for strength and support, yet he simply cannot stay and provide this.

The slowness of his departure allows us to take the journey with him – a pre-dawn, wanly lit, sentimental tour of furnishings and personal effects which embody the intimacy they shared and remind us of how when we love someone and spend time in their space, we develop a deep fondness for their context and possessions. When we leave someone, we don’t merely lose them, but we lose all the trappings that signified their personality; that brought us comfort and pleasure – be it a chest of drawers or broken wind chimes. It is this reference to everyday objects, which, in the melancholy of the song, are invested with intense significance, that makes the song so effective. Indeed, the broken wind-chimes are, perhaps, a symbol of Ruby herself. Something beautiful, yet imperfect, and they also, indirectly, say something of her circumstances – she is not well off, but strives to have nice things, so to speak. By such means a surprisingly rich characterisation is achieved, just as “railroad boots,” and “leather jacket” are strongly suggestive not just of a working class persona, yet one who is perhaps a drifter, an itinerant worker, likely a de-mobbed soldier, offering further explication of the inevitability and root cause of what is perhaps the latest in a series of departures from other such women as Ruby.

The pale blue light of morning, the mention of the scarf, the rain and the fires of the hobos at the freight-yard create a cold atmosphere of early morning departure. Perhaps our persona has been lying awake all night thinking, only knowing for certain in the chilly reality of morning that the time to leave has arrived. And yet, despite this certainty, we can feel his anger and frustration, seemingly directed at the weather “this goddamned rain”, yet really directed at himself. “I’ll never kiss your lips again, or break your heart.” He knows only too well that he can’t be anything but his flawed self, yet wishes somehow that he could manage to be otherwise. At this point the difficulty of his decision has left him exhausted and doubting; “will someone put me on a train.” He finds some hope in the fact that the hobos have “kept their fires burning,” yet the burden of his choice, the weight of emotion he carries has left him spent; he wishes things to be taken out of his hands, he needs someone to be strong for him now, to get him away from this source of angst, doubt and regret.

This is a song which must be listened to to be fully appreciated. This is no deficiency of the lyrics, but rather a compliment to Tom Waits whose slowness of delivery, whose pauses and lingerings lend these lyrics quite extraordinary pathos. No matter how often I listen to this song I still get tears in my eyes at the line “and your broken wind-chimes.” Rarely have I come across such a potent piece of sentimental symbolism, combined with such a heartbreaking rendition. I always try to sing along with this song, but can never sing that line because my voice chokes every time. And that, apart from all the other great qualities of this song, is enough to make it one of the greatest ever written about love.

4127 Pilot

4365 Moreton Bay

4387 Mangrove

8485 Beastman, Annandale

8314 Surfer

8216 Surfing in a sphere

8266 Sculpture by the sea

2344 Circular Quay

8562 Sunset, Camperdown

8513 stairs rotate

8226 Lady at the beach

4484 Prism Vault light

4155 Airport

1927 Liverpool street apartments

3809 Iron railing

4037 Sydney domestic

4106 Pilot

2595 Legs

8544 Lips, Macro 2

4432 Glebe sun

8519 Self portrait

4339 Horse drinking

1915 Glebe Point silhouette

4133 Airport 2

1426 Baseballer

4333 Dead car

2319 Dude, The Rocks

4370 Horses in Moreton Bay

The title here is misleading as most of these photographs were not taken in August. Indeed, I have a sneaking suspicion that not a single one of them dates from August, but of course, the responder’s context is equally valid in determining the meaning of a text, yada yada yada. The centre of gravity here is a recent visit to Brisbane to see my brother – hence the airport and shots of Moreton Bay. A few of the photos are older ones I’d not quite noticed before, but most are recent. I especially enjoyed shooting at Sydney Domestic airport. I’ve always felt very self-conscious taking photos in airports as I don’t want to be deemed a security risk, and in many places it is discouraged or illegal. Either way, there’s a lot of stuff worth shooting at the airport and I look forward to the next opportunity.

There is a battle between civilization and barbarism taking place in the Islamic world, but the forces of “civilization” are not those of the West, as some have seen it, but those of moderates and secularists against hard-line religious fundamentalists. This is, of course, an age-old conflict, yet it has reached a new intensity in the revolutionary struggles for power in the wake of the Arab Spring. The rise of ISIS / ISIL and their recent conquest of significant territories in Iraq leading to the announcement of a new Islamic Caliphate and their rebranding as the Islamic State is a deeply troubling example of war’s tendency to unleash the worst in people. The brutality of ISIS reflects the brutality of their context – the devastating civil war in Syria and the power-vacuum and simmering insurgency in Iraq. As so often happens when a state’s monopoly on power is removed – the thugs and bullies take charge to the suffering of all.

This alarming development must be viewed within the context of the new geopolitics of the post 9/11 world. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq increased resentment against the West, rapidly accelerated radicalisation and, particularly in the case of Iraq, introduced a volatile fluidity that lapped at the phoney political boundaries of the Middle East which have been largely in place since the Great War. As Rosemary Hollis recently commented in The Observer, the borders established in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916: “paved the way for the British mandates in Palestine and Iraq and the French mandate in Syria-Lebanon that endured until 1948. Thereafter, maintenance of the lines drawn on the map by the British and French has required a level of enforcement and dictatorial rule at odds with the ideals of self-determination and democracy.” These developments must also be considered in the context of long-standing regional problems, including the absence of mature democracy and enlightened leadership, massive youth unemployment, food security, the situation of women, a burning sense of ressentiment and the cancerous effect of Israel.

The Middle East, in many regards, is coming unstuck. The devastation of Iraq in the wake of the American invasion left the country a weak and ineffectual Anocracy – a sort of midpoint between autocracy and democracy, but certainly nothing resembling a mature democracy. Whilst some American commentators would have us believe the Arab Spring was in part triggered by America’s example of “liberation”, this is fraudulent – it was driven by youth unemployment, the slow-burn effect of exposure to media sources like Al Jazeera, food prices and a whole host of other specific local circumstances, most of which were promisingly secular. When the tidal wave of the Arab Spring reached Syria, what began as a something more akin to a revolution became bogged down in a devastating civil war, the brutality and chaos of which hardened attitudes and beliefs and attracted extremists. The influx of foreign fighters and the porous nature of Syria’s borders soon called into question the legitimacy of regional boundaries. With so many Iraqi insurgent groups joining the Syrian conflict, it was likely only a matter of time before the war flowed back into Iraq, transforming the conflict into a regional war.

Such an outcome was, however, not inevitable and could have been avoided with more enlightened leadership. Yet, as always in the Middle East, current events have deeper historical roots. Just as the consequences of the Second World War were not really resolved until the break-up of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, so the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was never adequately resolved in the Middle East. In this sense, the region more resembles the Balkans, in which place competing nationalisms reflect both ancient cultural units and the frontiers of Ottoman expansion and contraction. Unlike Western Europe, where large minority groups like the Sudetenland Germans were expelled at the end of the Second World War, the intertwined and overlapping ethnicities in the Balkans were not redistributed, for better or for worse. This not only resulted in a dreadful Nationalist war, but also left a patchwork of delicate territorial arrangements and the barely viable state of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Whether the map of the Middle East will ultimately be redrawn along ethnic and sectarian lines and whether current events will result in a stable and long-lasting arrangement is yet to be seen. Yet, what we are witnessing is far more than a redrawing of boundaries and challenges to existing regimes; it is more akin to an Islamic Reformation. Indeed, perhaps this is, very loosely, what the Protestant Reformation looked like. The religious conflicts in Europe equally radicalised populations and created a destabilising geopolitical fluidity which took decades to resolve itself. It drove people to extremes of very selective black and white morality and was staggeringly destructive both of life and property. Iconoclasts rampaged through Europe, smashing icons, images and stained-glass windows. It unleashed a wave of barbarism under the guise of religious ideology that still occasionally flickers in Northern Ireland – the last battleground of Reformation diehards inextricably woven into a tribal conflict over self-determination. The Islamic “Reformation” of the present is equally a mix of sectarian conflict, competing nationalisms and self-determination movements.

Putting aside for a moment the bombastic anti-western rhetoric of groups such as ISIS, this has far less to do with Islam vs. the West than it does with intra-Islamic theological disputes. And whilst ISIS is largely composed of Sunni insurgent groups embittered by their sense of disenfranchisement, the conflict across the region is as much about fundamentalist Islam versus the inexorably growing wave of secularism and liberal, tolerant Islam which the Arab Spring made plain, as it is about the Sunni-Shia divide. This battle between hard-line fundamentalists and moderates has been an ever present feature of the Islamic world, and, in the Middle East, it has recently played out far more overtly in the wake of Iraq and then the Arab Spring, particularly in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Iran and Iraq as an inherent subtext of the popular struggles for regime change. It has reached a new intensity in Turkey, is part and parcel of the unrest witnessed in Bahrain and, on a smaller scale, Saudi Arabia, and has been an ever-present feature driving the power-struggles in Gaza and the West Bank.

As was the case with the Protestant Reformation, the close relationship between religion and state means theological conflicts are played out in quotidian power struggles. One inevitable consequence of this is that genuine theological differences and sectarian interpretations of religious doctrine and practice are often very crudely applied by partisan forces on the ground. ISIS is a classic example of this. Their brutality, genocide and authoritarianism have rightly been denounced by Muslims the world over. Their rhetoric is as hypocritical and flawed as their theology and has been picked to pieces by countless Islamic commentators. Hence the rejection of ISIS in a collective statement by nine Syrian rebel groups fighting Assad’s regime; hence their condemnation by senior Sunni clerics, one of whom, Sami al Uraydi, stated that the “Caliphate” “is really a declaration of war against Muslims, rather than an Islamic Caliphate.”

In this regard, whilst ISIS might be characterised in many ways, ultimately they most resemble a barbarian horde, more akin to the Vandals that marauded through Spain and North Africa in the fifth century, taking advantage of a Roman power vacuum. Then, what began as a relatively distinct ethnicity rapidly evolved into an agglomeration of the unemployed, discontented, oppressed and, indeed, psychopathic – a wandering warband that picked up anyone who cared to join along the way. Likewise, in the case of ISIS, now the Islamic State, the Syrian civil war was the centre of gravity that brought them together – a draw-card for radical extremists and deluded and impressionable young men who, morally, ethically and theologically wouldn’t know their arsehole from their elbow. This is not the Spanish Civil War of our generation, it is far more akin to the Vandal sack of Rome. And, with Syria sacked, much of the horde has moved on to Iraq, following the path of least resistance and greatest plunder, seeking the settling of old scores.

Rhetorically, and, in practice, ISIS embody the very worst extremes of theologically-derived fascism. They also mark the worst-case scenario when it comes to a political-theological roadmap for the region’s future. ISIS, who “reject democracy and other garbage from the West” are, in effect, rejecting modernity, and indeed, ignoring the desires of most Muslims across the region. There is an inherent irony in their attempts to impose a backward and murderously repressive regime under the guise of the “Caliphate” when we consider that, at its high point, under the Abbasids, the Caliphate represented the most modern and advanced culture of its day – China excluded – overseeing the golden age of Islam – a flourishing of science, culture and invention. There is also a great danger in propagating the idea in the Islamic world that democracy and liberalism are exclusively “western” and thus to be denounced and rejected.

Firstly, democracy is not garbage. Rather, it is the only way to contain and neutralise competing political ideologies and prevent conflict between diverse ethnic and religious groups whilst creating a stable environment in which peace and prosperity might flourish. For anyone who might sneer at this, take a look at Steven Pinker’s scholarly masterpiece The Better Angels of Our Nature, which makes an irrefutable case for the positive effects of democracy based on exhaustive data.[1] Winston Churchill famously said: “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. We know it is flawed, but it works. It is democracies that best provide services, create equality, and harness the creative talents of their citizens. The difficulty, however, lies in taking the guns away from the thugs and bullies.

Secondly, democracy is not exclusively western. It has been and is being embraced by countless non-western cultures to their benefit. Take the example of Japan. It had a strong feudal culture, a warrior code and a religious ideology which fuelled a militaristic attitude to resolving issues internally and with its neighbours, but the Second World War was the last throw of the dice for its medieval adherents, now wielding industrial armaments. Renouncing violence and embracing democracy in the wake of its humiliating defeat transformed Japan into one of the great economic and social success stories of modern history. Japan is a democracy – it is modern, it is liberal, it might retain aspects of its past paternalistic culture, yet it enshrines equal rights for women – but, look more closely, and it is hardly “western” as people, including the Japanese, are often rather casually inclined to suggest.

So far as Islamic democracy is concerned, Turkey has long been trotted out as the key example, yet more telling examples of the transition to democracy can be found in Malaysia and Indonesia. In many regards democracy is still maturing in these nations and they are not without their problems and ethnic tensions – more a consequence of stubborn inequalities, institutionalised corruption, lingering desires for self-determination, and the scale of cultural variation than religious tensions. Yet, anyone who has been to Bali will marvel at how a predominantly Hindu island can exist so comfortably inside an ostensibly Islamic super-state, will all its girly-show licentiousness and throbbing alcohol-fuelled bar and nightclub culture. This vision will no doubt seem disquietingly inappropriate to some Muslims, yet many Muslims also live very comfortably in the West, just as strict Catholics in Italy, for example, or any other modern and liberal country, are able to live in dignity, despite differences of opinion with the broader public. This is the way Islam can and should be – a personal expression of belief, confident and comfortable in a sea of variety – and key to this is democracy, which tempers conflict by providing a proxy forum for expression of difference, and equality under the law, which empowers the entire population to contribute to and direct society, whilst protecting the right to be different.

Rejecting liberalism, rejecting secularism, rejecting democracy, is not rejecting western values, it is rejecting the universal humanitarian inheritance that is a composite of global cultural traditions, including diverse theological and philosophical ideas. Just as Buddhism, Platonic philosophy and Confucianism are part of our universal ethical and intellectual inheritance, so the reason and humanism of the Enlightenment is part of our universal inheritance.

The Islamic world will only suffer a most brutal stagnation and economic catastrophe if ISIS and their like succeed. Yet, of course, they won’t succeed. Not in the long run. Their present victories might evolve into something more permanent, yet even this will only temporarily put the brakes on something they cannot ultimately stop – the freedom and democracy that is a universal desire of a universal citizenry. The Arab Spring gave voice to the man and woman on the street, and they want a more liberal and modern lifestyle. They want peace and jobs, internet and affordable bread, not Islamofascism. Ultimately, the Middle East must accept that the values of the Enlightenment, of the modern global humanitarian project, are to be embraced if these societies are to become great again. This is not because the West says so, but because the evidence shows unquestionably that this is how you create peace and prosperity and provide a place for innovation. Who doesn’t doubt that Egyptians could again be world leaders in science and medicine, or that Iran can take its rightful place as a powerhouse of innovation? There is nothing un-Islamic about modernity, which is, by definition, a shifting, illusory horizon created by varying degrees of technological development and social freedom.

When it comes to technological and scientific development, the Middle East’s record is nothing short of abject. This is nowhere made more evident than by a quick look at the statistics on patents over recent decades. Taking 2013 as a sample, in that year South Korea registered 15745 patents. Meanwhile, in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia 239; Kuwait 86; Turkey 83; Iran 40; Egypt 34; United Arab Emirates 19; Qatar 9; Lebanon 9; Jordan 6; Tunisia 4; Oman 3; Syria 0, and Iraq 0. Indeed, since 2000, Iraq has only successfully registered a single patent. Israel, on the other hand, registered 3152 patents in 2013. Maine, the smallest US state, produced 243 patents that same year, more than any Middle Eastern country, Israel excluded. Israel has a population of 8 million people, Egypt, 80 million. Malaysia, incidentally, a developing Islamic democracy, has, in the last decade, quadrupled its number of annual patent registrations. When we look at trends in growth as well, the Middle East is largely stagnant, with Kuwait the only true standout so far as significant improvement is concerned, while Egypt creeps slowly forward. This gulf in innovation is fundamentally retarding the development of Middle Eastern economies and industries, the growth of specialisation and opportunities for employment and education. It is also retarding social development.

In the 19th century the Ottoman Empire was described as “the sick man of Europe.” However racist and Orientalist this phrase might be, in many ways what caused this sickness in the Empire was its backwardness in technology and information dissemination. Like Confucian China’s turning inward in the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire did not embrace the changes that were driving Europe to greater heights of industrial domination and commercial expansion. It languished, falling increasingly far behind in everything except its adoption of modern military hardware. Consider this fact: by 1500 Europe had already printed an estimated 8 million books with the Gutenberg Press, a number which, after four centuries, had risen to the incredible figure of around one billion books. In the Ottoman Empire, the printing press was banned from publishing Arabic text until 1727. Between that time and 1838, just 142 books were printed. Books and patents make for a pretty rough analogy, yet these figures underline the degree to which the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the present state of Middle Eastern nations is tied to a failure to embrace innovation – not just technical, of course, but social and political.

The present-day backwardness causes frustration and envy in an internet-savvy generation who are witness to all the shining modernity of more prosperous countries, and, indeed, ultra modern local examples such as Dubai. No one wants to be the sick man. In more extreme cases the response is a turning inward, a reactionary kicking against the pricks who make the Middle East feel so second-rate. Yet a return to medieval barbarism is not the answer, and destroying mosques is barbarism. Female genital mutilation is barbarism. Imposing restrictions on freedom of choice or religion under threat of death is barbarism. War is barbarism. It is neither a mature nor enlightened response. And, despite western prejudices, this is not a problem intrinsic to the nature of Islam.

There is nothing more inherently warlike about Islam than there is about Christianity, or at least, nothing that need make it so. Christianity has a disgusting and hypocritical history of violence and torture, yet it has largely renounced these things in recent decades and focussed increasingly on its message of peace. As Steven Pinker points out, we have a sanitised version of Christianity. We don’t talk about the vengeful god of the Old Testament who condoned, indeed, unleashed rape, genocide, murder, fratricide, parricide and every other imaginable form of brutality, on the ancient world.[2] Similarly we only talk of Christ as a man of peace and forget his aggressive activism, forget the fact that he was tried as a political prisoner for banditry. We quote him saying “love thy neighbour” a lot more than “I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword.”

The violence in Islam is entirely contextual, just as the wrong-headed abuses of Christianity were contextual. In a situation of conflict and inequality the idea of Jihad has been hijacked by extremists as an ideological justification for violence. As the movement My Jihad points out, the true definition of Jihad is: “An Islamic concept that means ‘to struggle’ against barriers and odds in search of a better place. Jihad requires faith, courage and perseverance.” It is more akin to a lens through which to focus personal goals and ambitions and, for the average Muslim, has precious little to do with murder, terrorism and conflict in general. Sadly, the present understanding of Jihad is as much a case of the term’s being misused by fundamentalists as it is a case of being stereotyped and fetishised by ignorant westerners, many of whom have now joined ISIS.

How then, did this context develop? Of course the West must accept its fair share of responsibility for the broadly moribund state of the Middle East. Irrespective of the fact that the imperial ambitions and interventions in the region over the last century by the Great Powers have had little to do with religion and everything to do with geopolitics and economics, the Arab world has been repeatedly put on the back foot by its ineffectiveness in the face of western militarism, or western-backed regimes, creating a perhaps inevitable resentment against modernising forces seen as western.

Yet the real problem goes far deeper, and at the core of the Middle East’s woes is a lack of empathy and tolerance among its leaders; for other religions or sects, for other cultures and ideas, and, most significantly of all, a lack of empathy for the situation of women.

When we repeatedly see weeping mothers in Gaza saying things such as “This has nothing to do with us”; “Why are they attacking us?” “This is unfair,” it reminds us how much this is all a problem caused by men. So far as Israel and Gaza are concerned, it is the doings of men who, on one side, are driven by a racist religious ideology and anachronistic attachment to a land that was never theirs to claim, and, who, on the other side, humiliated and frustrated, with a culturally ingrained sense of honour that has been deeply offended by their constant emasculation through an utterly, shamefully disproportionate application of violence and discrimination against them, turn to violent ideology in their despairing ressentiment. If only we could put the women in charge and take the weapons away from the machos, this problem might be solved far more swiftly. Indeed, if women had been given a greater say in regional affairs years ago, we might never have reached this point.

Again, we can consider historical parallels. Both the Bible and Quran espouse antiquated social attitudes to women, yet in most modern, ostensibly Christian societies, women have far greater social and personal freedoms. These, it must not be forgotten, were hard-won in the face of intransigent opposition by men, and, in some cases, women, motivated as much by social conservatism as religious interpretations of the traditional role of women in those societies. Religion has always been focussed through the lens of its local culture and just as we have a sanitised version of Christianity when it comes to violence, so we now have increasingly female-friendly versions of the religion which accept the equal place of women in society, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes enthusiastically. This is because we can apply modern social values and accept that such passages as govern the treatment of women need not be considered core principles, but rather guidelines once considered contextually appropriate. They are no longer contextually appropriate, and just as Christianity has increasingly embraced most social freedoms for women, so too can Islam. Islam and misogyny need not go hand in hand.

Would the disturbing levels of sexual harassment witnessed in Egypt still take place if men and women were free to engage in casual sex and form and break relationships at will as they can in most of the developed world? The pent up sexual frustration and fetishisation of women as chattels upon whom impossibly unfair restrictions are imposed is a recipe for disaster. Only when women are elevated to a position of equality and a more open society is allowed to evolve will the Middle East solve its problems in a more peaceful and co-operative manner. As Pinker points out: “A recognition of women’s rights and an opposition to war go together. In Middle Eastern countries, the poll respondents who were more favourable to gender equality were also more favourable to non-violent solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict… the better a society treats its women, the less it embraces war… Societies that empower their women are less likely to end up with large cohorts of rootless young men with their penchant for making trouble.”[3]

Equal rights, plus democracy must prevail. Not through external imposition, but through internal choice. Democracies generally punish those who fail to show empathy. A leader who is seen to be “out of touch” does not do well at the ballot box. If the entire adult population is free to vote in a universal, secret ballot, then leaders must show empathy for all the diverse members of their society or risk alienating them and losing their votes. In this way democracy is a great leveller – everyone becomes roughly equally important, statistically, with variation according to distribution.

Again, we can consider Indonesia, where the recent election of Joko Widodo provides a telling example of the positive effect of democracy in shifting a nation’s focus towards peaceful, domestic development. Widodo was chosen over Prabowo Subianto – a former military hard-man who represented the old regime – because of his empathy for the poor, his social programs, his humble origins and his proven track-record as governor of Jakarta in providing what matters most: peaceful development and advancement, support for the disadvantaged. Given time and enough breathing space, and given the complete enfranchisement of women, the people of the Middle East will also turn away from the militarists and hardliners. Again, the problem lies in taking the guns away from the thugs.

Democracy is essential – real democracy. It prevents wars – when it matures – and it opens access to innovation and to the vast ocean of talent each society has waiting to find its moment. Freedom of speech and expression allow people to make their contribution – their genius can be harnessed, their talents nurtured. Theory aside, reality makes this all very plain. Globally, there is a clear correlation between economic success, social stability, and the degree of freedom enjoyed by women. In the case of the Middle East, perhaps even more than Israel, this is the real elephant in the room. It is no surprise that Tunisia, the only vague success story of the Arab Spring, however tenuous, is also the one which most included women in its democratising process and enshrined their rights in the constitution, despite strong resistance from hard-line Islamists.

This brings us finally to Israel, whose actions are key to any lasting peace in the region. The peace process has been nothing but a sham – buying time for Israel to expand its settlement program at an even faster rate than previously. From an Arab perspective, the very existence of Israel is the embodiment of theft and its settlement program a metastasising cancer. Israel might feel it has a legitimate grievance with continued attacks on its territory and citizens, but you can’t continually commit daylight robbery and not expect your victims to try to chop your hand off.

It has been said countless times, but the United States must pull the plug on Israel once and for all. As long as the West tacitly condones Israel’s actions by not imposing sanctions, and worse, by equipping them with the means to carry out further acts of disproportionate brutality, there can be no real hope for stability in the region and little room for the acceptance of ideas categorised as western. The only viable response in the wake of Israel’s heavy-handed actions in Gaza is collective international punishment of Israel through genuine sanctions and the withdrawal of all military support. The freedom of movement of its political leadership should be restricted and any further instances of its flouting of United Nations resolutions must be met with more stringent punishment, including the possibility of war crimes charges. Whether or not Israel has committed war crimes, whether or not their actions can be considered state terrorism, whether or not we consider Hamas to be terrorists or freedom fighters, is a disputed, rhetorical propaganda battleground. What really matters is what standards the international community are willing to accept, and at present Israel’s treatment of Gaza is clearly out of proportion to the threat posed and to the reasonable use of force. As Ban Ki-moon said “Nothing is more shameful than attacking sleeping children” Israel’s actions are out of step with the desires of the broader international community who recognise Palestine as a nascent state. Yet, emotional arguments aside, reason and historical example dictates that this problem cannot be resolved with violence, which just propagates more violence. Sadly, the easiest part is stopping the violence. The hardest part is removing the causes of it.

The world must work to nullify Israel’s aggressive imperialism and land-grabbing, and push harder to establish a viable Palestinian state with its capital in a shared Jerusalem. If this means sanctions, then so be it. Beyond this, however, with the possible exception of shutting down America’s regional military presence, perhaps the best thing the rest of the world can do is nothing at all. As dismayingly apathetic as this may sound, it seems western intervention just breeds more resentment and anger and drives radicalisation. Just like the Protestant Reformation, this wave of violence will ultimately exhaust itself. Then people might focus on the real sources of their discontent – unemployment, food security and a lack of equal opportunity.

 The second Arab Spring will come – it has to – because no one can suppress forever the desire for freedom and self-determination. ISIS have momentum, but their toxic ideology is far removed from the desires of most of those they have imposed themselves upon and will, ultimately, be resisted from within. It won’t be pretty – the Reformation wasn’t either – but eventually the states of Europe came to accept their sectarian differences in favour of economic and political stability. Wars bankrupt states, and people want jobs and services. It’s the economy, stupid. Though it is unlikely to resolve itself soon, perhaps this devastating process is, for the Middle East, what the Second World War was for Europe – a great bloodletting in which ideology will so tarnish and exhaust itself that a long peace will ensue.

[1] Pinker, Steven, The Better Angels of our Nature, Penguin, London, 2011

[2] Pinker, Better Angels, pp. 7-20

[3] Pinker, Better Angels, p. 636

Heavy rain, Bangkok afternoon, July 7, 2009

Heavy rain, Bangkok afternoon, July 7, 2009

The sky has often been described as leaden, yet there is something more leaden about the way rain falls in the tropics – it seems to live out the lie that heavier things fall faster. When the pressure drops in the mid afternoon and the rain switches on, it is as though the atmosphere has liquefied and entered a state of collapse. Tropical downpours have a lush gratuitousness about them, a gentle ferocity, like being patted on the head by a giant uncle. For the most part, the rain is benevolent – a source of life and refreshment, fresh air and clean water, a time of abundance – yet all too often the weather is dreadfully heavy-handed.

This shot was taken in Bangkok, from a hotel window, during the regulation afternoon downpour. After the restless preamble of electric air, smothering oppression and a tell-tale cool gust, down it came, nozzle opened full, spilling most of its guts in the first five minutes. I’ve written elsewhere what a fan of rain I am – a fan of all weather, really – and watching these tropical downpours was a special treat.

The wall of drops adds a sketchiness to the shapes huddled behind it, as though the city were rendered in charcoal. This picture reminds me of such a sketch, but with a palpable sense of dampness – the ubiquitous moist fecundity of the tropics.

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