July 10, 2005

After a think...

Over the last few days I've been contemplating how I feel about what happened in London on Thursday. It was a bloody horrible thing to happen, and I wouldn't wish that kind of pain or misery on anyone.

Plus it was especially meaningful for me and Mrs L because we lived in the Aldgate East area for two years from 2001, and used those tubes and that bus route on many many occasions. But despite the awfulness of it all, I can't help thinking about the reaction of the media and our politicians to this most tragic of events.

To be honest I don't know where to start. A good place is with the persistent bombardment (excuse the pun) of our senses with images and sounds of suffering, carnage and grieving. The meticulous pulling apart of evidence, footage, eye-witness accounts, and all the CG models and plans and details of how everything happened (the BBC website is particularly guilty of this). Is all this really necessary? Does the general public actually want to see every gory detail? Or are we being force fed this mountain of information to frighten us, and conversely to dehumanise what has taken place? What does this achieve? It certainly doesn't make it any easier to deal with, for exactly the same thing happened when the Madrid bombings happened last year, and also when 9/11 occurred; yet Thursday showed everyone that you can never be prepared for the unexpected, especially not in a place as busy and impersonal as London.

And for the politicians - by this I predominantly mean Blair and Bush - it is such an aptly timed and convenient thing to happen. Yes, I am cynical, and with good reason. Politicians get an easy time with this kind of thing; it deflects the attention from them, and gives them an easy opportunity to build up brownie points by using heavy-handed and emotionally charged rhetoric to 'condemn the terrible events' and 'show that we will not be defeated'. How easily we forget that Bush and Blair have sent hundreds of US and British troops to their deaths, and condemned countless thousands of innocent Iraqi and Afghan civilians to death by declaring meaningless war with Iraq, and overthrowing the corrupt Taliban regime in Afghanistan. While we're on the subject let's not forget Kosovo either. And have their overblown reactions to this imaginary threat, their 'War On Terror', achieved anything constructive at all? It certainly hasn't dulled the perceived threat to our safety at home, as illustrated beautifully be Thursday's bombings. They haven't found Bin Laden (if he is the one to blame for 9/11), and they haven't achieved anything fundamental or worthwhile in Iraq, other than unsettling the entire region and creating a situation they can't resolve. I must admit to feeling a kind of miserable pleasure about how Bush has backed himself into a corner with the Iraq debacle. It's good to see someone so evil and with such misplaced motives (no-one can tell me that Bush is interested in the safety of the American people; if he was he would sign up to the Kyoto agreement like a shot, and wouldn't have sent so many troops to their deaths needlessly) get their comeuppance.

So I hope that the attention soon turns to why the bombings happened, rather than constantly focusing on who did was responsible. I haven't seen one news report alluding to the ongoing problems in the Middle East, and the sustained western presence in the region. A possible invasion of Iran, the sustained US presence and the failure of the US-installed government in Iraq to maintain any kind of peace, aligned with consistent US support for Israel, has created the most potentially explosive climate for years - completely the opposite to what was intended. Oh well, put an idiot in charge of your country and what do you expect to happen?

I'd also like to see more attention paid to the people who die in Iraq on a daily basis. Sure, fifty people have died in London, and countless more have been injured or crippled, but dozens are killed in fighting, raids, attacks, and suicide bombings in Iraq every day, yet do we hear how terrible and awful this is? Of course we don't. It's not close to home enough. The government only wants us to worry about ourselves, as that keeps the attention on the 'good' work they do at home promoting homeland security. (I have literally just been shown this. How very very apt. And I just cannot believe that the scaremongering has begun already.) And all of this has happened because Tony Blair decided it would be in our interest, and in the world's interest, to send British troops in to back up the Americans. Well hasn't that plan backfired fantastically?

I'm sorry for ranting, but I really feel passionately about this issue. It affects us all, and if you don't pay attention to what's going on you'll never be able to make a difference, no matter how small.

For further information as well as some refreshingly different points of view visit:

Michael Moore
Bush Watch

Why Are We Back In Iraq?

UPDATE: Here is a brilliant link I've nabbed from Vanessa's website. Shows all those bigots out there that it's not Muslims who are doing this, it's idiots.

Because of all this brouhaha I've been thinking about my previous travels a fair bit. So what follows is the first part of what will possibly be quite a few installments about my time in the Middle East. If I can be bothered.

Part 1

In autumn 1996 I decided that this poxy island had nothing that I wanted, or could make use of, so I packed what little possessions I had into a holdall, and bought an open return ticket to Israel.

I didn't know what to expect, had little or no prior knowledge of the country or what I was going to do when I arrived, and to be perfectly honest I didn't really care. I had always had an urge to go - probably something to do with the alluring historical and religious stories I'd heard so many of at school - and it sounded like it was a completely different place to where I was from, and to what I was leaving behind. Why go for the safe option of say, Sweden (even though I'm sure Sweden is wonderful, and being 20 years old at the time, the lure of many young Swedish girls was not lost on me), when you can go for the dangerous option of Israel. The place you always hear about on the news. The place where someone gets shot or blown up every five minutes, or at least that's what it appears like. The place that is seemingly surrounded by countries and people that don't like it very much and keep on threatening to do quite nasty things to it if they don't push off any time soon. The place your mother would really appreciate it you don't go to just in case you die. That place.

Apart from perhaps Cambodia or Antarctica, Israel was possibly the most utterly different place to Felixstowe, England that I could think of. It also had the added benefits of not being really far away from the UK (which I imagine pleased mummy a little bit), and of not being very expensive. The last one was the important one.I only had £500 saved up and the ticket cost me £230, so I had to find the cheapest way to stay out of the country for the longest period of time.

Luckily, I knew a fair amount about kibbutz's (or is it kibbutzes?), as I had purchased a book which dealt exclusively with what to do on a year out from university. It contained all sorts of bizarre things, like being a tomato-picker (been there, done that) on an organic farm in the Shetlands, or teaching people to windsurf in Afghanistan (I might have made that one up), but most importantly it had a suitably large chapter dedicated to volunteering at a kibbutz. Through this I found out that just by working five or six shortish days a week, I would get a room, three square meals every day, my washing done for me, and plenty of time left to get a nice tan. All for virtually no cost at all; it is volunteering after all.

I calculated that apart from the small cost of commission I would have to pay to some organisation in Tel Aviv on arrival to help me find a kibbutz to work at, and the cost of a couple of nights at a hostel when I got there after the flight, there shouldn't really be a lot else left for me to fork out for. And I was right. It was the cheapest year of my life. I managed to travel all around Israel, Sinai and Egypt, and have a sneaky peak into Jordan, all for the measly sum of £500. If anyone's ever done better than that please let me know, because personally, between you and me, I think that's some kind of record.

Anyhow, Israel really was the alien world that I was expecting it to be, but at the same time was completely unprepared for. For a starters it was really bloody hot, and for seconds my first point of arrival, the airport, was a total free-for-all. queuinging as such for the passport checks, more a general thronging. And absolutely no quietly ponderous waiting for my bag to appear on the conveyor belt thingy, oh no. It was best compared to a rugby scrum, with Orthodox Jews and mad old Israeli women climbing all over each other to get to their luggage. And I couldn't understand anything that anybody was saying, and none of the signs for anything were in English, which didn't really help. After the scrum had died down and the people had cleared away, I moved out of the terminal to try and work out how to get into town and find a place to stay.

As you can probably tell, I was winging it. I find this is a good way to keep oneself on one's toes.

After trundling my way from bus stop to bus stop for half an hour, and generally appearing (in case anyone was watching) totally lost, I gave up, and resorted to sitting on my bag dejectedly. It was now evening time, it was dark, and I was all out of ideas. Luckily for me though, I had happened to sit on my bag dejectedly right next to a friendly American guy who worked in a hostel in the middle of town, and who was looking for people to come and stay at said hostel as he probably got free booze for doing so. Tim's first lucky break (the first of many).

So I had a place to stay - a dingy, smelly place, granted, but a place nonetheless - and could now focus all my effort on getting some sleep, which I duly accomplished with no fuss whatsoever. In the morning I took advantage of the free breakfast (bread, tomato, and cheese.It it was free so I wasn't moaning) and then headed out, with the directions I had taken down from the barman/receptionist at the hostel, to find the nearest kibbutz placement office. I wandered around for a while, but again, everything was in Hebrew, so I found it pretty difficult to ascertain exactly what was what. I did eventually find the place however, and they were very kind to me. After I'd given them the shekel equivalent of sixty quid. But I didn't care. The lady I spoke with asked me some questions; what kind of work I wanted to do (not factory work) , where I'd prefer to go (the desert please), how big a kibbutz I'd like (small to medium) - it was a bit like choosing a stereo - she then showed me some pictures of the three kibbutz she'd whittled it down to. They all looked a bit rough, apart from one which had some trees and a bicycle in the picture, so I went for that one. 'If it's got trees it can't be bad', I thought. She called the kibbutz up, spoke to Nati, the volunteer leader at the kibbutz, booked me in, then gave me a piece of paper with a phone number on it (just in case) and the number of the bus I needed to catch to get there.

I went back to the hostel, got my things, and went to catch a bus to get to the main bus station on the other side of town. The bus station was like nowhere I'd ever been before. It was chock full of soldiers. Young men soldiers. Young girl soldiers. All sorts of soldiers. All of them with big guns, M16's, Uzi's, etc, etc. And all of them just milling about waiting for buses to get to wherever the hell they were going, just like me.

I'd never really thought that what with their country being constantly at war/defending itself against attack, Israeli's have to go into the army in some way, shape or form. And they all do it at seventeen I think (correct me if I'm wrong), so seeing literally hundreds of very young soldiers, both male and female, is not such an unusual sight after all. The first five minutes was the most shocking. After two hours of waiting for my bus I was starting to get used to the guns. After three I was bored of them.
But I'll never forget that feeling I felt when I first saw a group of kids, not much younger than myself, in their uniforms with their M16's casually hanging at their sides, laughing while they waited for their ride. I realised that this was not only a different country, but a different mentality, and a different take on life.

I remember sitting on the bus for the first time, and I remember that I was slightly paranoid. I sat near the middle of the bus, and the kids got on after me and sat at the back like they they always did when you were at school. Only difference is this time the kids are soldiers with big guns. I don't know why, but I worried to myself that one of them would go nuts and start shooting. I think this is what's known in the trade as culture shock. Two hours into the journey though and I'd forgotten all about the guns, and nobody had been shot yet, so I kind of figured everything was going to be okay. As it happened, when the bus got to the kibbutz, one of the soldier kids that had been sat at the back of the bus got off at the same time as me. Turns out he was just a kid going home, and that put it all nicely into perspective for me. Just because someone's got a gun and looks threatening doesn't mean that they are. And you have to consider the circumstances behind a situation before you judge the protagonists and the participants. These things are key, and I needed to take them into account on every single day of my time in that wonderful country.

For extended periods of time while I was on the kibbutz, I remember being told by the kibbutzim (the people who lived there) that Israel was the closest it had been to going to war as it had been in years. These people were properly frightened, as you would be, and I did discuss with Nati what would happen in that eventuality. It turns out that everyone who isn't an Israeli national gets flown or shipped out asap, but luckily enough that situation never arose.

Because the kibbutz was situated right in the middle of the Negev desert, and the Israeli government has strategically placed all of it's defences, ie. airbases, army barracks, etc, in the middle of the desert as far away from major towns and cities as possible, we would very often wake up to the sound of tank fire and what sounded like explosions. I did eventually get used to this alternative dawn chorus, but for the first month or so it thoroughly scared the crap out of me. I thought we were under attack.

It's funny how you react in that situation. Everyone probably reacts differently, but I seem to go quiet, then I wait for someone else to react. On a couple of occasions some fighter jets flew reasonably close to the kibbutz, maneuvers or something, and created a sonic boom by breaking the sound barrier. I had never heard a sonic boom before, but to hear one while you're sitting about in your pants after a hard days graft in the fields, in a country that is on the brink of war and which is where people regularly get blown up by suicide bombers, and where the place you're staying in not ten kilometres from Gaza City where Israeli troops quite often shoot Palestinians or blow up their houses, and so on and so on, is something else. It was possibly not the ideal environment for it. In short, I shit myself.

Everyone froze and waited. I'm pretty sure we all thought the same thing: "This is it." Then, after what seemed like an age but was probably only a matter of seconds, we all relaxed upon the realisation that we weren't being bombed.

To be continued...


Post a Comment

<< Home