The Teardrop Island

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Ten years ago

We passed the church in Negombo.

It was a sleepy little place,

Where the pace of life was slow

On an island that had just found peace

After years of horror.

 

And now this.

I feel I am enshrouded in cotton wool,

But there is no comfort in that.

There is only numbness and sorrow.

 

But how can I speak of unspeakable things?

And what gives me the right to try?

Beautiful island, the shape of a teardrop.

Weep for Her.

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International Women’s Day

Today, on International Women’s Day, it seems appropriate to re-post this piece I put up several years ago. It seems that nothing has changed.

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It would be impossible to document all of the humiliations, injustices and degradations that women throughout the centuries have had to put up with in almost every part of the world. That they should continue to do so, even in the 21st century, is an absolute disgrace. The way the Taliban treat and regard women is well documented and needs little further comment. They routinely deny women education, healthcare or any freedoms. They can be bought and sold and married against their will. They have no legal rights. They can be killed with impunity. It is difficult to imagine how a society in which women are actually treated worse could ever be constructed.

However, the so-called Islamic State go one step further than this, and are happy to buy and sell captured women in slave markets as sex slaves, surely the ultimate degradation.

Yet, over a huge part of the globe, women are subject to treatment little better than this, and there is probably no country where they can be said to be genuinely equal to men. Certainly in the west, we like to think of ourselves as modern, liberal, forward looking and fair, so how can it be that such a situation still exists?

There are three basic reasons why men have always been able to regard and treat women as inferiors:

1) They have controlled and governed communities and societies through their greater physical strength. This, in turn, has led to their creation and codifying of the rules surrounding and governing these societies, and, in turn, the creation of their religious books that gave an even greater authority for the subjugation of women. This strength also effectively prevents any ‘rebellion’ by women.

2) Men’s stronger sexual urges. This (the ‘testosterone effect’ in male teenagers, for example), coupled with their greater strength, has allowed men to both physically dominate women and also to subject them to almost constant pregnancy and motherhood.

3) Women bear children. Neither pregnancy nor motherhood are helpful in resisting men’s dominance.

In the west, centuries of brainwashing have led to a situation where, although women no longer daily face a physically perilous existence, inequality lives on in other, often demeaning, ways. Although no longer in danger of being burnt as witches, being sold into servitude or (generally) forced into marriage, they are still way behind men when it comes to the labour market. It is comparatively recently that they have been allowed to train as front line troops in the army or join the clergy in the Church of England, and still encounter stiff resistance if they wish to do so. The Catholic Church still forbids them to hold any post and so we see an exodus of many ‘traditional’ members of the Church of England to the Catholic fold, which has enterprisingly created a ‘special’ niche for those who cannot bear to see women treated as equals.

There are still comparatively few women in high-powered jobs, and those who are still struggle to earn pay similar to a man in a comparable job. Interestingly, the reason often given for that is that ‘market forces’ dictate these pay scales. This is, naturally, a male-dominated market. Women are vastly over-represented, however, in low-paid and part time jobs.

Centuries of brainwashing have also trained them for a role as mannequins, or Barbie dolls; putting on make-up is essential before they go to work, attend meetings, go on a date or almost anything else. Their natural selves are not fit to show men. And if there is anyone who might be in any doubt about this, they need only take a glance at the blizzard of adverts on television or in magazines. And high heels are the obvious descendants of oriental foot-binding; a painful, dangerous and degrading practice designed solely to appeal to men and make running away impossible. I do not understand why any woman still falls for it. And those magazines; the ones aimed at women still manage to create the impression that life is all about make-up and home-making.

In many other parts of the world, though, life as a woman is not only demeaning but can still be ‘nasty, brutish and short’. One of the most common ways to control women, is to deny them the right to work. This might be justified as being degrading for the woman and her husband, or that she must be kept away from other men (because she will ‘stray’), or that she needs to be at home to raise children. This effectively means that she is then working full-time at home, but obviously without any financial reward or freedom. Along with refusing females education, this is another way to force them to remain at home in a state of virtual slavery. Commonly, they will have to work on any land that the family have – weeding and planting, looking after animals, etc – yet will be denied the chance to earn a wage.

This segregation is invariably justified on the grounds that women are sexually provocative and evil. They are temptresses that must be kept away from the eyes of all men except the husband. Hence they are dressed from head to toe in all-enveloping clothing, they are not allowed to speak to any males except close relatives, they are locked up in Zenana – women’s quarters, where they have to peer out at the world through heavily carved screens, whilst men are free to go around at will. Even in more humble dwellings, they are largely confined to the house, having to hide when male visitors come. Hence they cannot go out and work within the society. And this attitude, that women are naturally evil, tempting men against their will, is reflected in the punishments that many societies mete out to those that break their taboos.

The most extreme example is that where, in one or two societies, if a man is accused of rape, the woman is commonly held to be culpable since she must have tempted the man concerned, otherwise the incident would not have happened. The woman then is sometimes executed, although being the victim, whilst the perpetrator is either set free or given a minimal sentence. Rape, also, is frequently used in war situations to ‘control’ a population. Another medieval survival is the practice of confining women to their quarters during menstruation, on the grounds that they are ‘unclean’. Although the ‘punishment’ is not particularly onerous, the insult is that it further demeans women for simply being women. And then, while it tends to be perfectly permissible for men to walk around with bare arms and head, and frequently torso and legs, women that do not cover up from head to foot will feel the full rigour of society’s displeasure – usually physical punishments such as lashing or incarceration.

Suttee – who would still believe that the practice still exists? Yet there have been cases comparatively recently of women being forced onto the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands, possibly due more to the family not wanting an inconvenient daughter in law in the house, than to any religious urges. There are also still cases of bride murders, when the dowry has not been up to the expectations of the groom’s family. That the dowry system still exists at all is an insult; the bride’s family having to pay the groom’s family for taking an ‘unproductive’ woman into the household.

Then there is the lack of healthcare, education or voting rights, the forced marriages, the child brides purchased by the old men, the genital mutilation, the sexual trafficking…the list seems depressingly endless. 1975 was designated International Women’s Year by the United Nations – 44 years ago. Not much seems to have changed since then.

Why?

I swear we are becoming more and more intolerant at the moment. Not just in this country, but in many countries right across the globe.

I’m not going to single any one person or society out – no, not even He Who Shall Remain Nameless – but it feels at times as though we are surrounded by hatred and bigotry.

And so, in despair…

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Why?

 

Why?

Because a woman’s place is in the home

That’s what God created her for.

Men are in charge.

 

Why?

Because this is our country

And we don’t want no people of colour here

Go back to your own place.

 

Why?

Because it’s not our fault your country’s a hole.

It was okay when we gave it back.

Bugger off home.

 

Why?

Because we didn’t have any of this climate change nonsense

When we were children.

Load of old bullshit.

 

Why?

Because this is a Christian country,

Even if we never go to church,

Or practise what it says.

 

Why?

Just because!

We don’t need to justify it.

And we don’t need no liberal lefties interfering,

Either.

 

That’s why.

Time, Gentlemen, Please!

When I go out, I will frequently leave my phone at home. If I have no particular reason to take it with me, such as for work or awaiting an urgent call, then it is a real pleasure to be able to leave it behind.

I feel a release, not being in constant contact with everyone. I also rely upon it for the time, not possessing a wristwatch, so again, without it, I am freed from this small tyranny. Interestingly, I often know the time if I am asked, as long as I reply spontaneously, without thinking, but then, if I give it more thought, the gift disappears. I wonder if this is an instinct that we have largely lost. If so, and I ponder this train of thought, how did older, ancient peoples view the time? Presumably not as ‘nine’ or ‘three o’clock’ – morning, noon and afternoon? A time of waxing and waning light? Those more sedentary no doubt were as much tied to the sundial as we are to the clock.

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At court, or in monasteries, or other relatively affluent places, they relied on candles, marked with hours, to tell the time, but the common people would have had no such thing. Here in England, the church might have possessed a clock that chimed the hour, so that those who lived near enough might have an idea of the time, but apparently these could be notoriously inaccurate, sometimes being wrong by perhaps several hours or more.

But this probably did not matter, for the rural worker would not need to know the time. The farm labourers would rise at dawn, eat something for breakfast, then make their way to the fields. Around noon they would eat lunch, and at dusk they would return home.

They had no need of timekeeping any more accurate than that.

Contrast that to today, when it almost seems necessary to justify every minute of the day. I think this is one of the attractions of taking a holiday; it seems such a treat to spend each day doing as much or as little as is desired, and not to have to justify it to anyone. And, by extension, perhaps it is vitally important that we take holidays now. Hundreds of years ago in those semi-mythical non time-dominated days, workers did not get holidays. They just had Sundays off. It is easy to suggest that we are softer now, but I think the fixation of time has contributed to lives vastly more dominated by stress, and overwork, and that holidays are essential for us all.

I know I damn well need one!

A Week in McLeod Ganj – part 2

Apologies for the weird changes of tense – it was how I wrote the journal (in fits and starts), and I’ve not altered anything, merely missed out a couple of extremely uninteresting entries.

Sunday 29th November 2009

I didn’t get off to sleep for a few hours last night. There was lots of noise outside; lots of revellers going past. And then when I felt that I was almost off, a couple of vehicles crashed into each other just outside the gate. Lots more shouting. Then every time that a vehicle went past after that, I was waiting for another crash.

And the monastery across the road has its first puja at around 4am – the crashing of cymbals and the sounding of foghorns – that always wakes me, too.

So, I’m not entirely refreshed, but back in the restaurant at Green Hotel awaiting breakfast and just perking up with the first coffee.

I think I’m going to put off the visit to Dal Lake until tomorrow, and sit and write this morning. I’m tired and still feeling a little unwell. And read. It’s easier than having to think. I bought a big, thick, book yesterday, which should keep me going for a while.

Then in the afternoon, I mooched. Partly wandering the roads and hills around McLeod Ganj, and partly going for tea and coffee here and there. I have planned to go to the Tibetan music concert at the nearby school at 6pm, and after a shave and shower I head off there, find it, and take a seat along with about a dozen other westerners.

We sit and wait, and about a quarter of an hour or so after the scheduled start time, a chap comes in and announces that he’s sorry, but the musician isn’t coming. He has phoned to say that he couldn’t make it. He apologises to us again, and we get up to go. Because it was organised by a recognised NGO, and was intended to raise funds for the needy, I go and offer the guy RS 100/- towards the costs. In return, he gives me a long, meandering talk about volunteering and costs that I can’t really follow. It’s obvious that he’s been on the whisky and he presses me to meet him tomorrow to talk about the project. I waver, and then agree in a cowardly sort of way.

Once I have escaped, I go up to the Tibetan restaurant where I ate last night, since I rather liked the ambience of it. Unfortunately, tonight it proves to be full of a bunch of hard-drinking Tibetans, which I hadn’t really realised when I sat down to order. I get a beer and a thukpa, and am surrounded by whisky-swilling, chain-smoking Tibetans. This does nothing for my appetite, so I drink up, eat up and go.

I then wander up to the main part of McLeod Ganj and go to ‘Excite’ – the bar looks quite inviting from the outside.

Inside, though, it proves to be otherwise. I get a beer and order some masala peanuts, but don’t think much of them when they arrive. They are simply fried with a few bits of onion and tomato and seemingly no spices at all. I am offered a hookah which I decline. There are no other customers, and no music, in a plain, tatty room. I drink up and go.

Monday 30th November 2009

I cannot find the place that I agreed to meet the Tibetan chap and so, relieved, I go off to Dal Lake instead. It is a very pleasant walk of three kilometres or so each way, mainly through wooded hills, becoming quite autumnal in places. Magnificent birdlife – as well as the familiar ones, I see one with a very long tail that I take to be a Lyre Bird, and a very large eagle passes overhead, quite white underneath.

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I pass the church of Saint John in the Wilderness and go in to have a look. It says that it is the largest ‘cathedral’ in the Himalaya, in the diocese of Amritsar. It is big, and nice inside. There is a monument to Lord Elgin outside, but I am more interested in one of the plates inside, to a Thomas Knowles, who met his end at Dharamsala, courtesy of a bear.

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I rather like the ambience both inside and outside of the church. It is very peaceful and I linger. I think it is very hard to shake off the spiritual part of you that was formed when you were young, and I felt that I wanted to just stay there all day.

But I didn’t. I walked on to Dal lake, passing through the army training area, full of army personnel training, and along to the lake. It is a lovely spot, surrounded by deodars, and probably even more beautiful when the lake is full of water rather than full of bulldozers and mud.

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So I return to McLeod Ganj and go to lunch and, oh dear, food is beginning to taste a little rank, again. Not a good sign.

It is McClouding over, now. So far the pattern of weather each day has been the same – morning warm and sunny, with clouds beginning to come over at lunchtime. By late afternoon it is quite cool.

Later, I go down to visit the Tsuglagkhang Complex; the temples and the residence of the Dalai Lama (he’s out, at the moment). Outside the main temple, there is a puja going on involving a fire. I watch for a while, wander around the temples and then wander out.

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Tuesday 1st December 2009

Another visit to the Tsuglagkhang Complex, where I wander round and sit for a while, finishing with a visit to the sobering museum, telling the story of the rape of Tibet.

It is now evening. I am sitting in McLlo’s, looking out of the window down onto Main Square. There are a couple of liquor stores, with plenty of people, especially Tibetans, patronising them and milling around. But there is no trouble. People are peaceful, gentle. One would have to put this down to the influence of Buddhism. People have a code of behaviour that is based not on fear, but on an understanding of what is the right thing to do, for respect for others. There are no rowdy crowds; people don’t feel threatened. That is just one of the wholly benign influences of religion here.

It’s a gorgeous full moon, tonight.

 Wednesday 2nd December 2009

After breakfast I decide to sit up on the roof with my book for the morning. Some hours later, I am interrupted when two troupes of monkeys leap onto the roof and begin fighting each other. Honestly, how is one meant to concentrate? I give up and go down.

The cold develops. I spend most of the rest of the day in my room reading.

Saturday 5th December 2009

I still have a bit of a cold/sore throat/headache, but am feeling better in myself. Indeed, walking around the town this morning, I feel that I shall really miss McLeod Ganj. I love the ambience; the only place in India that I have visited that that felt more laid back than here was Ladakh, and this runs it close. The Tibetans are brilliant, and the Buddhist attitude to all things tends to come through all of the time – even the stray dogs get fed and petted and seem much better off than elsewhere, although I suppose that might be because they chase off the monkeys!

And having ranted about westerners enough times, last night the chap at the next table to me called the waiter over to say that he wanted to pay for the supper of the two monks on a nearby table, and I’ve been in conversation this morning with a great group of Americans who are working with the refugees here.

We’re better than you are!

I don’t buy into this ‘My country is better than yours’ crap.

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Are we talking about the political systems? I suppose we are, because that’s what seems to be grabbing all the headlines.

Yet the countries that seem to be the subjects of this particular debate are all, on the surface, at least, democracies. So, no difference then?

Hmm…

It might be ‘Our country’s values’, of course, because that’s another hot one at the mo.

Hang on, though, what does that mean? People were banging on about that yesterday, but I’m more than a little uncertain whether such a basket of goodies actually exists. ‘We are against racism and misogyny!’ Sounds good to me, only that’s not true. Some of us are, certainly, but you only need to spend a reasonable amount of time in any pub on a Saturday night, to hear plenty of racist and misogynist talk. And not just pubs. In every walk of life, you can hear this talk: doctors’ waiting rooms, shops, offices, bus stops…

We’re hardly perfect.

If a country is the sum total of its citizens, then you will struggle to identify that country’s ‘values’.

Culture? Culture cuts across borders, it is not constrained by them. We read books and see films and plays that have been written and produced by artists worldwide. Frequently, we have no idea where they actually hail from in the first place.

‘But,’ I hear an angry shout, ‘it is our indigenous culture that makes us great!

Uh-huh? I am often bemused when a famous painting in a British collection is under threat of sale to a foreign buyer and there is a collective wail of ‘Our cultural inheritance is in danger!’ Bemused, because nine times out of ten the painting in question is by an Italian or French or German or artist of some other nationality.

If we only had British paintings in our gallery things would look rather different.

And the Elgin marbles? Ours, dammit! Our inheritance!

The treasures filling our museums from all the countries we colonised and asset-stripped…

Maybe it’s our religious inheritance. Christian, according to a lot of the stuff I hear.

In 2015, 42% of the British population identified themselves as Christian. (British Social Attitudes survey) Those who actually attend church regularly, however, number only 5-6% of the population.

The vast majority of the British population do not go to church, so how can we be a Christian country?

What about our history, then?

Well, good and bad, like most countries. We abolished slavery in the 1800’s – all well and good, but we had profited hugely from it in the years before. The lot of a slave in the British West Indies, for example was horrendously barbaric.

Empire? Pfft.

Votes for women? Eventually, and only after a concerted attempt to trample the movement underfoot, using a fair degree of violence in the process.

Everyone will have their own ideas of what we do well, of course. I am proud of the fact that we give our share of aid to projects designed to eradicate poverty and disease around the world, and disaster relief. I am grateful that despite the failings of the system (and they are many) we live in a country where our representatives can be thrown out and re-elected on a regular basis. We cannot, in theory, be held without trial, and we are not in constant danger of being mown down by gunfire in our streets and schools.

But, before we get too cocky about that, remember how things can change over time.

Vigilance, my friends, vigilance…

Libya – Leptis Magna

Libya certainly seems to have suffered more than its fair share of misfortune over the years.

I was there in 1988 for six months – not that I’m suggesting that was one of their misfortunes – which should have been a good opportunity to get to know one of those countries that chose to be rather secretive and closed off to the outside world. It didn’t work out that way, of course.

As Westerners, we found it very hard to penetrate Libyan society and, to be honest, we really didn’t try that hard. There were almost no opportunities for socialising with local people, we were regarded with great suspicion by the authorities (although so were most of the general population, of course), and so we ended up in our enclaves even more than is usual in most ex-patriot societies.

But despite that, I discovered that the majority of the Libyans I did meet were wonderful, warm-hearted people. A few were slimeballs, but the same goes for the Westerners – many were great folk, but a few of them were also slimeballs, including the so-called friend who amused himself one evening by spiking my drinks with near-neat alcohol, knowing I was driving home afterwards. If by any freak of chance you ever read this, Shaun, you really are a shit.

It was always said that, as unpleasant and bad as Gaddafi undoubtedly was, there were others around him who were even more seriously dangerous and unhinged. Unfortunately, it seems that a number of them and their colleagues are still wreaking havoc in the country, along with the twisted followers of Isis and various other militias.

But the purpose of this post is to put up some photos that I took in Leptis Magna, which was a huge Roman city a couple of thousand years ago, and is located on the Mediterranean coast near the town of al Khums, some 125 km east of Tripoli. It is the largest extant Roman city outside of Turkey, and is a Unesco designated World Heritage site. I had visited Rome in the past, and I was astonished to see the extent of the remains at this site, which easily dwarfed those in the Roman capital.

Libya was certainly a place where I generally felt uncomfortable taking photos, and so I took very few other than these ones. The quality of the photographs, though, are generally very poor, I’m afraid, since all I took with me was an incredibly cheap camera. I was warned that there was a good chance that anything you took into Libya might get confiscated or simply stolen. The prints have also faded badly over time, and so these are presented purely for general interest.

I do have some more photos of Leptis Magna somewhere, which might be in better condition, so I will try to hunt them out for another time.

Leptis Magna is another one of those ancient sites that is under threat of destruction by the fanatics of Isis, and although I have followed quite a few threads on the internet, I am unable to find out whether there has been any actual destruction there yet. What I do know is that a group of very brave Libyans have formed a kind of militia to protect the ruins. I can only hope that they, and the ruins, are all well.

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Roman  Amphitheatre

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Roman basilica – converted to a church in the fourth century AD

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Roman baths

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Along a Roman street…

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Through doorways and buildings…

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…and along another Roman street.