Sunday, September 24, 2006

Why Hizbullah Won

It was inspiring to see (on television) Shaikh Hassan Nasrallah address a crowd of 800,000 in South Beirut on Friday afternoon. As usual, he delivered a stirring speech, slipping easily between standard literary Arabic and Lebanese dialect, and aiming his comments at international, Lebanese and Arab audiences.

Over the last few months I have read and heard all kinds of criticism of Hizbullah in the Western media. It is hard to reconcile this with the tremendous admiration that the Arab and Muslim ‘street’ has for the organisation.

I have read that Hizbullah is a misogynist organisation, that its activists spend their free time throwing acid in the faces of women who don’t wear the hijab. This is simply untrue. There were plenty of non-hijab-wearing women at Friday’s rally. Anyone who’s been to Hizbullah strongholds in South Lebanon, South Beirut or the Bekaa valley will tell you that women in lipstick and short skirts walk unharassed in the streets with their muhajjiba sisters. Many of the women invited to speak on al-Manar, Hizbullah’s TV station, do not wear the hijab. Hizbullah women are not prominent in politics or military affairs, but they do play important roles in social welfare and media work.

I have read that Hizbullah is a fiercely sectarian organisation. It is certainly a Shia organisation, but the alliance it leads in Lebanese elections includes Sunnis and Christians. When the resistance managed to finally remove the Israeli occupation in 2000 (after 22 long and bloody years), many people expected the south to degenerate into sectarian mayhem. After all, there were Maronite and Orthodox Christians, Druze, Sunnis, Palestinian refugees, and collaborators with the occupation from all sects, living in the area along with its Shia majority. All these groups had fought each other during the civil war. But Hizbullah kept the peace. At Christmas time, Hizbullah sends cards to Lebanese priests. Never once have we heard from Hassan Nasrallah the kind of poison that we hear from al-Qaida or Salafis about ‘apostates’ or ‘crusaders.’ In Friday’s speech, he pointed out that Lebanon was now split along ideological rather than sectarian lines, and he praised this development.

I have read again and again that Hizbullah is anti-Semitic. The accusation is backed in particular by this statement, attributed to Hassan Nasrallah: “If Jews all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.” The source of this seems to be the New York Times. I can’t say whether Nasrallah actually said this or not. I can just about imagine a rhetorical context in which he might have said it. If he did say it, I think he was wrong. I know that other Hizbullah leaders have generalised from Zionists to Jews, and have used Quranic condemnations of 6th century Arabian Jewish communities to attack Zionism. This is unfortunate and doesn’t help anyone. But I also know that my English grandfather, who nobody ever accused of being a racist, admitted to a deep distrust of Germans (not Nazis) to the end of his life as a result of what he saw and heard in the 30s and 40s. It is not so surprising that Lebanese people, who have suffered several decades of massacre, seige and persecution at the hands of the self-declared ‘Jewish state,’ may sometimes make unwise generalisations and bitter comments. I admit I find it easier to forgive Lebanese blurring of the distinctions between Jew and Zionist than I do to forgive Zionist and Anglo-American blurring of the distinctions between violent resistance to occupation and Islam. And using the Quran to make points about a contemporary conflict is no worse than American Christians using the Old Testament to justify the current ethnic cleansing of Palestine. But I'm worming around here, I know. Anti-Semitism is wrong, even in a war situation. Wrong full stop. If Hizbullah is guilty of it, it is wrong.

I have never heard or seen Nasrallah or any other Hizbullah leader make anti-Jewish comments, and I’ve watched a lot of speeches and interviews. I can however report Nasrallah’s words (more or less) at one rally: Our slogan is Death to America. We do not mean the American people, most of whom are ignorant of the situation in the Middle East. We mean the American government, the American army, the American empire. Our slogan is Death to Israel. We do not mean the Jews, with whom we’ve lived peacefully for centuries. We do not mean the Jewish religion, which is a divinely revealed religion. We mean Zionism which occupies our land and murders our children.

And of course, I’ve read that Hizbullah is a terrorist group that needs to be dealt with for the sake of global peace. I accept that firing katyusha missiles into towns terrorises their inhabitants. My problem here is that the people who call Hizbullah terrorists seem to think that Israeli activity in Lebanon is not terroristic.

Here is the Encyclopedia Brittanica definition of terrorism: “the systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective.”

Dan Halutz, the Israeli Chief of Staff, declared on the first day of the latest war that “Nothing is safe (in Lebanon), as simple as that.” And the 'non-terrorist' US and British backed onslaught showed the truth of these words. The civilian infrastructure of Lebanon was destroyed. 'Legitimate military targets' included factories, power stations, bridges, roads, a Greek Orthodox church, mosques, farm workers, refugee convoys, funeral processions, and thousands of homes. There was a new Qana massacre (the first happened in 1996). Depleted Uranium, cluster bombs and phosphorus were used. The aim of the attack was clearly to terrify the Lebanese civilian population in order to bring about the particular political objective of making them turn on the resistance. Terrorism, on a grand scale.

In contrast, while the overwhelming majority of Lebanese victims of Israeli fire were civilians, the majority of Israeli victims of Hizbullah fire were soldiers. Sadly, a disproportionate number of Israeli casualties were Israeli Arabs. There is a reason for this. While Israeli Jews and even the animals at Haifa zoo are provided with state of the art bomb shelters, the Arab villagers of the Galilee are not.

For more details on Israeli terrorist outrages in this war, and on direct military and political support for these outrages from the US and Britain, you can read this excellent report:

Hizbullah emerged from the murk of civil war Lebanon to become the recognised national resistance movement deterring the occupation in the South. When it pushed the Israelis out in 2000 – the first victory in all the years of Arab-Israeli conflict – it won support from the majority of Lebanese, of all sects. Since then its activity to try to release Lebanese hostages from Israeli dungeons, and to liberate the Shebaa Farms, has been measured and intelligent. It provided a shining example to the Arab world. For the first time, Israel was faced with a fighting force that could stand against it, despite its lack of hi-tech weaponry. For the first time, local people had organised themselves to fight back effectively. For the first time, Arabs were not waiting for their state machineries or the ‘international community’ to help them, they were liberating themselves. (In this last point there is more hope for future democracy than in a thousand years of Western initiatives). What’s more, a Shia group representing the poorest, most marginalised of Arabs was wildly popular amongst the Sunni Muslims of the region. Neither Israel nor America could tolerate the challenge.

Which brings us to the next criticism. I have read that Hizbullah took Lebanon to war. Perhaps the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers on the border was a miscalculation. It aimed to secure the release of Lebanese hostages, and to take pressure off Gaza, which has been drowning in blood since Palestinians kidnapped one Israeli in the hope of securing the release of almost 10,000 Palestinian prisoners. Whether it was wise or not, the border incident was not the cause of the huge onslaught. Condoleeza Rice made this very clear when she said the war couldn’t end until a ‘new middle east’ was born. In other words, until resistance and the possibility of deterrence was killed. The US and Britain did everything they could to stop a ceasefire, to give Israel time to ‘finish the job.’ When Israel was proven unable to even start the job, if the job was to defang rather than strengthen Hizbullah, then they rushed to implement an unfair ceasefire in Israel’s defence.

In any case, the border had been violated by Israel many more times than by Hizbullah. One of the many (unreported in the West) Israeli violations of the Lebanese border since its pullout was its shooting on an unarmed demonstration of Palestinians approaching the barbed wire to greet their relatives inside and to call for return to their villages. Several Palestinians were killed.

So why did Hizbullah call its rally on Friday a Victory Festival? People from countries which start rather than suffer wars find it difficult to understand the victory in having your infrastructure destroyed. And they have a point.

But think of it like this. Israel’s neighbours have been losing wars for decades. In 67 Israel launched a pre-emptive attack which captured the West Bank, the Gaza strip, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and the vast Sinai Peninsula, all in six days. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, it took them a week to reach Beirut, which they proceeded to obliterate. The first world effortlessly walked over the third. The Arabs were defeated psychologically as well as physically. Arab nationalism was discredited along with the Arab state system. Arab optimism dissolved. The Arabs lined up to surrender. (This pyschological defeat is one of the factors leading to the rise of Islamism).

This time, yes, the infrastructure was destroyed, and 1200 Lebanese were killed. But in more than a month, Israeli forces were unable even to fully occupy the villages on the border. This is a historical turnabout, and the Arab peoples know it. None of Israel or America’s war aims were fulfilled. Lebanese of all sects rallied round the resistance. Arab puppet regimes lost more shreds of credibility. Hizbullah was strengthened.

In Friday’s speech, Hassan Nasrallah was far more forthright than usual in his comments on Lebanese politics. He accepted that Hizbullah’s arsenal would eventually have to become the property of the Lebanese army, but said that would only happen when Lebanon had a ‘government of national unity’ capable of protecting its citizens. In other words, he called for a non-sectarian electoral system in Lebanon, in which the vote of a Shia farmer is worth as much as the vote of a Maronite Christian.

Nasrallah’s approach to Arab regimes has previously been diplomatic. On Friday that changed. He said that they are not capable of making peace or war. Why would Israel want to make peace with the Arabs, he asked, if the Arabs are not willing to fight, not willing to boycott, not willing to use oil as a weapon. He said that they are more responsible than Europe and America for starving the resistance government in Palestine. He said that if the choice is between Jerusalem and their thrones, they’ll choose their thrones. The change in tone suggests that Nasrallah foresees a revolutionary future.

And then he said it is possible for the Arabs not only to win back the West Bank, but all Palestine, from the river to the sea. This is language that we haven’t heard for decades from Arab leaders (and when they said so they didn’t mean it). From Nasrallah, who means it, who believes the people can do it, it is music to the ears.

I hope that Israel will delink itself from American imperialism, come to terms with its traumatised origins, and work seriously towards a two state solution in Palestine as a stage on the way to a democratic, secular, unitary state. I honestly believe this would be in the interests of Jews as well as Arabs. I don’t think driving the Jews into the sea is either desirable or possible. But the option of fighting to end the ethno-state (as opposed to driving out the Jews) must be on the table. The Arabs have been trying to surrender for more than thirty years, and their surrender hasn’t been accepted by Israel or the US, who always want more. If a balance of terror is what we need to establish to make Israel think seriously about just peace, then let’s establish it.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Misguided Responses

Here is my letter, which was published in the Guardian newspaper, on the fuss caused by the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad:

“Very many Muslims find themselves cringing between the charging rhinos of militant secularism and unreflective Islamism. On the one hand, the offending cartoons insult our most sacred values. This is not a question of free speech. In associating the Prophet with terrorism they only repeat in more grotesque form an allegation that has repeatedly been made. This last attack, following an endless stream of negative imagery emanating from Hollywood or CNN, and real attacks on Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, have been too much for some of us. But it is clear that most Europeans do not understand why the cartoons are so hurtful. The response called for is intelligent engagement with the media, not violent threats. Some Muslim countries also need to ensure that their own treatment of religious minorities is exemplary, according to Islamic principles, before they complain. And if Muslim countries wish to take political action against their enemies they should start by expelling the military bases of powers occupying Iraq.”

Although I found the cartoons offensive, I found the response more so. Some British Muslims made life even more difficult for the rest of us by holding up signs praising the tube bombs of July 2005. Nigerian Muslims attacked churches. Muslims rioted, threatened, and burned.

At times it seemed that the ‘leaders’ of Muslim countries were playing the cartoon thing up, for their own corrupt reasons. In Syria a mob burned the Danish embassy, conveniently showing
a). Islamists that the regime was on their side, and
b). The US that if the Syrian regime falls, these embassy-burners are the kind of wild animals the world will have to deal with.
In Syria embassies do not burn unless someone in charge has given permission for this to happen. And since when has the Syrian regime been a defender of Islam? Not so long ago Syrians used to be too scared to visit the mosque, or wear a beard or a hijab.

In the Gulf country where I currently live there were articles in government-controlled newspapers encouraging a boycott of Danish goods, and supermarkets dutifully stripped these products from their shelves. This despite the fact that it was a private Danish newspaper that printed the cartoons, not the Danish government. Meanwhile, Gulf supermarket shelves continued to groan under the weight of American and British products. The military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and military, financial and political support for the Israeli occupation, most definitely are the responsibility of the American and British governments.

A case of giving the people something to be angry about in the hope that they’ll keep quiet about much more serious things.

So far, the stupidest ‘leader’ in the Pope controversy has been the Pope himself. But this morning I read that churches in Palestine (not even Catholic, but Orthodox) have been firebombed, and that an Italian nun has been killed in Somalia. Please God, let the Muslims deal with this latest chapter in an intelligent and civilised way.

The Quran says, “We do not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.”

At Brian Anthony’s excellent blog on living in Syria a poster quotes the previous Pope.

“... we cannot fail to recognize the infidelities to the Gospel committed by some of our brethren, especially during the second millennium. Let us ask pardon for the divisions which have occurred among Christians, for the violence some have used in the service of the truth and for the distrustful and hostile attitudes sometimes taken towards the followers of other religions...”
John Paul II. Sunday, 12 March 2000

And the excellent Karen Armstrong comments here:

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Pope and Jihad

The world would surely be a better place if people were able to be critical of their own side before they laid into someone else’s. So, as a Muslim, I’ll start:

Straightforward imperialism has been pursued under the banner of Islam on various occasions in history. In Sudan, the state’s desire to extend its reach into areas where tribe counts for more than government means that Islamic rhetoric has been used as a tool of subjugation. In Saudi Arabia, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Shia Muslims face varying degrees of persecution for simply worshipping in the way they feel best. In Nigeria, Muslims have frequently taken out their political bad temper on their Christian neighbours (and vice versa). I could go on and on. The Muslim world is a mess.

If the Pope had condemned the treatment of Christians in Saudi Arabia he would probably still have provoked an angry reaction among the lunatic fringe of Muslims, but I for one would have supported him. It’s part of his job to defend Christians around the world, and by pointing to their oppression in some Muslim countries he would have encouraged a necessary debate among Muslims. If he’d made some kind of general statement that all religions must take care to interpret their scripture in the most positive and peaceful way, that Muslims and Christians and Jews have all at various times used religious language as they commit crimes, there would be no problem.

But what he did by quoting, but not distancing himself from, a 14th Century Byzantine emperor, was to suggest that Islam is an “evil and inhuman” religion that has no place for reason. Here we go again. It’s open season on Islam in the bloodhungry West. What is so depressing about this bout is that senior religious leaders had until now been careful to keep out of the fray.

It hardly needs to be said, I hope, that the Catholic church (as opposed to Christianity) has an exceptionally ugly record of crusading, anti-semitism, and persecution of intellectuals. It ethnically cleansed Spain and Sicily of Muslims and Jews. Muslim, Jewish and even Protestant refugees from Catholicism found refuge in the Ottoman Empire. As recently as 60 years ago, the Catholic hierarchy collaborated with the Nazis.

This is not the only side of the Catholic story. Catholics have also been persecuted, and there have been many instances of Catholics helping their persecuted Jewish neighbours in Europe. ‘Liberation theology’ priests in Latin America have been at the forefront fighting for oppressed people’s rights. Catholicism is a vast tradition full of diversity. My point is simply that Benedict could have found plenty of irrationality to talk about in Catholic history.

His statements are worse than unwise. Muslim-Christian relations are already in their worst state since the Crusades. On the one hand, Christian Zionists have been the most ardent supporters of the occupations of Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq. On the other, Wahabbi nihilists see everyone in the West (and quite a few people in the east) as Crusaders who must be destroyed. As the world seems to be lurching towards an apocalypse of environmental breakdown and total war – not following divine plan but for very human reasons – we surely need more intelligence, more self-criticism, more compassion for the blood of others.

And very quickly, a word about jihad in Islam. Jihad means struggle, not holy war. Struggling to pray or fast, to control your anger, to provide justice to the weak, are all forms of jihad. I get a laugh from my students when I tell them that marriage is jihad, but I mean it seriously. Learning to compromise, to recognise the needs and wants of another as valid as your own, is jihad.

And jihad can mean defensive, but never offensive, war. In an Islamic war, the following regulations must be observed: Non-combatants, women, children, the elderly, officials of any religion must not be harmed. There must be no mutilation of corpses, and no torture. Trees and crops must not be damaged. Property must not be damaged. As soon as the enemy forces wish to come to terms, fighting must stop.

Muslims have very often ignored the rules and the true significance of jihad, just as Christians have very often killed and conquered in the name of a prophet who taught men to ‘turn the other cheek.’ Whether or not Muslims should restrict themselves to Islamic laws of war in a contemporary world where no-one respects such restrictions – that’s another question entirely.

A last point. Although, as I said above, Muslims have built secular empires in the name of their religion, conversion by the sword was an aberration rather than a norm in Islamic history. Indian converts were attracted to Islam not by Mongol or Persian military might but slowly, by travelling Sufi mystics and musicians. In Africa Islam was spread not by the swords of Beduin raiders (who usually cared little for religion in any case) but by tradesmen and, again, Sufis. Even in what is now the Arab world the process of conversion was gradual and peaceful. All the time that Damascus was the capital of the Ummayad Empire it had a Christian majority.

Anyway, God save us all from bigotry and ignorance.

The vicar of Putney comments intelligently on the Pope’s speech. You can read that here:

Tariq Ali has words, here:

And I like Fareena Alam’s (Editor of Q-News, a British Muslim magazine) comments, quoted in the Guardian:
“The media are giving the supposed ‘anger of the Muslim nation’ too much coverage. Such insults are as old as Islam itself. The Prophet dealt with them with dignity. We must stop over-reacting ... A Muslim who truly lives according to the moral code of Islam - of justice, neighbourliness and compassion - will know that it is our greatest weapon against misrepresentation. Perhaps the Pope was ‘merely quoting’ the 14th-century emperor. Perhaps he did so because he actually shares this belief. If so, he is more ill-informed than we thought. I refuse to let such provocations shape the global faith agenda.”

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Islamism of Not

One of my correspondents has suggested that islamist economic policy cannot improve the dire social conditions of Muslim countries. I think it is being overly generous to islamism to think that it has an economic policy, or any kind of policy at all. Beyond vague promises to implement sharia law (and there’s a concept that means very different things to different people), islamism is best understood by what it is not. It is a rhetorical function rather than anything of substance.

Of course, there are as many different islamisms as there are contexts in which it thrives. Sunni and Shia islamism, right and left islamism, peaceful and violent, macho and feminist, and so on. Perhaps one good way to divide islamisms, however, is into two kinds: islamism to protect established power and islamism to challenge it.

Islamism which protects established power is the older form. The West complained less about it, because the West was happy with the status quo. The classic manifestation of this kind of islamism is the Wahabism of Saudi Arabia, which takes Ibn Taymiya’s anti-Shia, anti-Sufi, anti-innovation discourse to ever more puritan lengths, and which designates the Al-Saud family as guardians of the doctrine. So long as the Sauds suppress religious diversity, demolish shrines, allow full rein to the religious police, they are free to make whatever decisions they wish on the country’s oil wealth and foreign alliances. The king is ‘wali al-amr’ and it is part of religion to obey him.

So Wahabism is an islamism which is Not Shia, Not Sufi, Not innovative, Not democratic, Not anything that the king doesn’t want it to be.

And then, because of the alliance between the House of Saud and the United States, Wahabi islamism became Not Communist. The supposed ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan began before the Soviet invasion with Saudi Wahabis being sent to destabilise the Soviet client Afghan regime. When the Afghan government took the bait and called on its sponsor to help, and the Russians fell for it, Cater’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinsky rubbed his hands and said, “Now we’ll give them their Vietnam!” And so they did. And a third of the Afghan population fled. And the country’s infrastructure, all the schools and hospitals and economic machinery except for the opium plant, was destroyed. Neighbouring Pakistan, whose US-backed General Zia justified his rule by ‘islamising’ the country, was flooded with heroin and kalashnikovs. Hooray for islamism! And the Sauds and the USA!

When the various ‘mujahideen’ warlords had spent long enough fighting each other and the time came for America to build gas pipelines, America backed the Taliban. This was a group of refugee teenagers indoctrinated in Saudi-built religious schools on the frontiers of Pakistan. But to continue this story we have to move to the kind of islamism that opposes power. That comes later.

In the seventies other Sunni islamisms became attractive to the powers that be because they were Not nationalist. In Egypt, Sadat encouraged the Islamist groups (that later killed him) as a counterweight to the Nasserist and Arabist left. Israel encouraged the young Hamas movement as a means of diluting Palestinian support for Arafat’s still vital PLO. Israel and Jordan funded Syria’s Muslim Brothers so as to cause trouble for the Arabist regime in Damascus. Wahabis were sent into action to continue weakening the Soviet Union in Central Asia.

In economic terms, most of these groups, because they were pitched against nominally socialist regimes, were by default ‘capitalist.’

In 78 and 79, islamism showed that it had revolutionary potential. The Iranian masses of the left and centre supported Khomeini because he was Not the shah and Neither America Nor Russia. When the dust had settled, the Iran-Iraq war had set in, and Khomeini’s rightist islamists had defeated their leftist islamist, liberal and socialist opponents, opinion was much more mixed.

Now we have crossed the bridge to the islamism that challenges power, the more contemporary form of islamism, an islam that is essentially reactive.

With the proviso that some islamists (Hizbullah/ Hamas) can be more realistic and logical than their competitors, islamism's raison d'etre is to react against complex and painful reality. Like all fundamentalism (religious, market, nationalist, secular), it expresses a desire for the world to be a simpler place. Al-islam, huwa al-hal, is the slogan. Islam is the solution.

It reacts against the urban experience. Islamism is often the attempt of newly urbanised and deracinated people to recreate the (imagined) secure social setting and certainties of their lost villages.

It reacts against occupation. Very specific this one. The Palestinians didn’t vote for Hamas because they wanted sharia law (and of course Hamas has not tried to impose it) but because of the party’s reputation for uncompromising resistance. Hizbullah has become a beacon far beyond the Shia heartlands of Lebanon for its successful resistance against zionist attack.

It reacts against cultural domination. The Muslim who feels pained when he sees his compatriots wearing Western clothes, watching Western films, listening to Western music, eating Western junk, buying Western products, and who knows that in most of these areas Muslims can’t begin to compete, feels that a retreat within may be an answer. Does anyone remember the Buy British campaign? It’s something like that, with the provocation magnified a million times.

It reacts against forced secularisation and Westernisation. In Turkey in the 20s, Iran in the 30s, Syria in the 80s, women did not unveil as a result of a popular feminist movement. They were unveiled at gunpoint. Ataturk not only built opera houses and latinised the Turkish alphabet, he actually made it illegal to listen to Oriental-style music or to read Ottoman Turkish books.

It reacts against corruption, financial and moral. In places like Egypt, Pakistan and Syria, corruption is so all-pervasive it is a key part of the national economy. From the president’s relative ‘winning’ big government contracts to the petty bureaucrat or policeman supplementing his tiny income with bribes, everybody’s doing it. Most people do it because they can’t afford not to, and they feel guilty about it. If only this were a real Islamic country, they say, this wouldn’t be necessary. And the rich abuse the poor, the light-skinned abuse the dark-skinned, everybody scrambles for himself and the weak are left bleeding on the floor. If there were real Islam, they say, this wouldn’t happen. Al-Islam, huwa al-hal.

It reacts against the perceived failure of other oppositional forces. Forty and fifty years ago the Arab masses were socialist and nationalist. Then supposed socialist and nationalist regimes came to power. They were either unwilling or unable to solve problems, so built police states instead. What’s left?

And what to do about it? If islamists are ready to accept elections, it is logical to allow them to stand for election, and to let them win. If the Algerian FIS had been allowed to rule after their election victory in 1992, the country would have been spared a civil war in which 100,000 died, in which atrocities were committed both by the police state and the islamists. If the FIS had made a mess of Algeria (it's difficult to imagine a mess bigger than the one made by the police state, except for the civil war) then the people would have learnt a lesson. Perhaps Islam isn't the solution. Perhaps it's more complicated than that. That's how nations develop. That's how history happens. After almost 30 years of islamist rule in Iran, Iranians are markedly more secular than other people in the region. The regime still stands because it has not mismanaged the state enough for people to do much more than grumble, because it has provided the safety valve of a semi-democracy, because it has eased off on its (still annoying) interference in people’s private habits, and because Western sabre-rattling makes Iranian nationalists close ranks.

But then there are the Salafis. These are Wahabis who are as Not as ever, if not more so, but have given up the idea of loyal allegiance to any state leader. In fact, (quite understandably) enraged by the presence of US military bases in the Arabian peninsula, they have declared war on the Al-Saud. Here comes bin Laden, formerly the CIA’s man on the Pakistani-Afghan border, and his ever more crazed descendants. They are not, as many non-Muslims imagine, a product of Islamic civilisation, but a reaction against the collapse of Islamic civilisation. Uprooted from their traditions but not finding any replacement, alienated from their fathers and the failed regimes, their ideology is nihilism. They want to destroy the Shia, the mystics, the intellectuals, the traditional Sunni hierarchies, the Arab states, the West, and the list goes on. They have more in common with characters from Dostoyevsky than with Ibn Arabi or Al Ghazali.

They are a tiny but noisy minority. The danger they pose is not in their strength but in the weakness of the Arab state system and the stupidity and barbarism of the West. The Arab state system seems to be slowly but surely falling. Nobody knows what will replace it. Its failure to educate or even feed the people, let alone fight America and Israel for Arab independence, means that the Salafis, insane as they are, hold centre stage. All Arabs and Muslims, in these desperate times, need to do what is almost impossible, and find alternatives. Intelligent, tolerant islamists like Hizbullah and self-sacrificing liberals like Ayman Nour each hold some possible answers. And the West must stop occupying Muslim lands, must stop supporting the terrorism of its Israeli friend, must stop interfering to prop up or bring down governments. The West has failed in the Muslim world, dismally, over more than a century. Each intervention makes things worse. The best the West can do is leave the Muslims alone.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Great Contemporary Arab Women

A friend expressed the opinion that the Arabs need more women leaders. I don’t agree that having women in charge automatically makes things better. Thatcher, Indira Ghandi, Golda Meir, Madeleine Albright, Condoleeza Rice all prove that women can be every bit as power-crazed, militaristic and ruthless as men. And I think that the Arabs need leaders full stop, men or women. But the general point, yes, of course I agree with. There aren’t enough women leaders in the Arab world. My friend’s comment set me thinking though, about prominent and admirable Arab women. So here’s a quick list of some contemporary Arabat who I think have made a difference.

Atwar Bahjat

The reporter first for al-Jazeera and then for al-Arabiya who became a household name for her bravery and compassion in covering the Iraqi tragedy from the frontline. No hotel journalism for her. She was a Sunni Muslim with a Shia mother, who always wore an Iraq-shaped golden necklace on air to symbolise the country’s unity and the brotherhood of its different communities. She was murdered on the 22nd February 2006 after reporting on the bombing of the Askari shrine, sacred to the Shia. Who killed her? Probably nihilistic Zarqawi-type militia, but possibly US or Iranian backed militia who had penetrated the interior ministry.

Nadia Yassine

Of the Moroccan ‘Islamist’ Justice and Charity Group, which was founded by her father Abdessalam. Nadia is on trial for saying that a republic would be preferable to a monarchy. Those who place all Islamists in the same category will be surprised by her perspectives. Some quotes: “Muslims have inflicted a terrible injustice on women in the name of Islam.” And: “Freedom of speech is a positive thing, not only for the Moroccans, but for all Muslim peoples who for fourteen centuries have been living the tragedy of silence, criminal silence.”


After Um Kulsoom, who isn’t contemporary enough to be included here, Fairuz is generally regarded as the greatest Arabic singer. She introduced the Arabs to jazz, starred in numerous ‘musicals’, and became a national icon with her patriotic songs like “Jerusalem in our Hearts.” She remained in Beirut throughout the civil war, but refused to sing until her brothers and sisters stopped killing each other.
Read more at and

Fadwa Barghouti

A lawyer, human rights activist and Palestinian national figure in her own right, she has also campaigned on behalf of her husband Marwan, the imprisoned leader of Fatah in the West Bank. Fadwa’s eldest son Qassam also languishes inside an Israeli prison. Her indefatigability symbolises all Palestinian working women, mothers and wives as they not only survive in the most appalling of conditions, but also fight.

Buthaina Shaaban

Writer, professor, translator (of Chinua Achebe amongst others), advisor at the Syrian Foreign Ministry, and today, Syrian Minister of Expatriates. Whatever your views on the Syrian regime, you have to admire Buthaina for her articulate advocacy of Arab causes in the international media. If only a few kings or presidents could occasionally speak like her. And her translation work, her belief in positive cultural interchange, is something we need much more of.

Hanan Ashrawi

Poet, academic and activist. Hanan established the Department of English at Bir Zeit University on the West Bank. She was one of the most able negotiators at the Madrid conference, but was sadly overruled by Arafat when he signed the doomed Oslo accords. She is an independent member of the Palestinian parliament and a tireless advocate for Palestinian rights.

Nancy Ajram

I jest not! We need more gloriously sexy Arab women like Nancy, confident in their beauty and talent. She isn’t vulgar like Haifa or others, and she can actually sing!

Who else? There’s the Arab-Israeli actress Hiam Abbas (Paradise Now, the Syrian Bride), researcher and writer Mai Yamani, the writers Ahdaf Soueif, Hanan Ash-Shaikh and Ghada Samaan, and….. Please add your suggestions.

But before I finish, let me cheat by adding a couple of Iranians. Nobel peace prize winner and human rights lawyer Shireen Ebadi, and film director (Blackboards, The Apple, Five o Clock in the Afternoon) Samira Makhmalbaf.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Save us from Amis

Martin Amis has written an ignorant, monomaniac and hysterical essay about what he calls ‘Islamism.’ You can read it here:,,1868732,00.html

He makes all kinds of ridiculous assertions. For example, “Today, in the West, there are no good excuses for religious belief.” So there you are: all you Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, non-aligned-but-aware-of-the-spiritual types, all of you non-atheists in the West – you have no excuses! So that’s tidied up. Amis has sussed you (just like I thought I has sussed all the stupid believers when I was a teenager), and that’s all there is to it. No need to explain further.

But Amis’s target is Islam. He trots out the usual insulting idiocies. Genital mutilation, honour killings and wifebeating are taken as representative of Islam and Muslims, in the same way that the most unhinged Wahabbi preachers take heroin addiction and child abuse as representative of the Crusading West. Amis concedes that all religions have their terrorists, but says: “we are not hearing from those religions. We are hearing from Islam.”

Two problems here. One is that religions are not the only forces to practise terrorism. Corporations and states, often covering themselves in semi-religious vocabulary like ‘civilisation versus barbarism’, also terrorise, often in a much more efficient fashion than the religious loons.

The second problem is, it depends who Amis’s ‘we’ are. If ‘we’ means bourgeois Anglo-Saxons whose range of news exposure runs from Fox News to the BBC, then, yes, we hear of terror issuing only from Muslims. If you watch Al-Jazeera, however, you become aware of the daily crimes committed by or resulting from the Western war machine, crimes which range from the slow ethnic cleansing of Palestine to the drenching of Mesopotamia in Depleted Uranium, from CIA coups to bring people like Saddam to power to the ‘shock and awe’ used to remove them again, from the deliberate dismantling of states so that only sectarian militias will hold sway to the construction of police states to guard the ‘Western interests’ under those states’ geographical control. If you watch the al-Qa’ida videos instead of al-Jazeera (and it is al-Qa’ida media rather than Jazeera that best mirrors Fox News and Amis) you will hear how all of the trouble in the world, from Kashmir to Chechnya, Lebanon to Somalia, needs no more context than this: “We are hearing from the Crusaders. We are hearing from the Jews.”

For Amis, Hizbullah, Hamas, the Taliban, the Egyptian Muslim brothers, the Saudi regime, are all the same thing. All Islamists. No matter if they are Sunni or Shia, right or left wing, conservative or revolutionary, if they keep women locked in the home or encourage them to get involved with media and social work, if their focus of opposition is foreign occupation or another Muslim sect. No need for context or discrimination. They’re all the same. Just like al-Qa’ida’s Crusaders and Jews.

Amis is suffering information deficit. In his essay he relies on the notorious racist and Islamophobe VS Naipaul, and on Bernard Lewis, the neo-cons’ own historian. Naipaul’s thesis in Among the Believers is that non-Arab peoples who adopted Islam have been culturally deformed, as Islam is an Arab religion. This argument is not only an insult to the plurality of Islamic cultures, but is as absurd as saying that Nigerian and Irish Christians have mutilated their own cultures by adopting a Palestinian-Jewish religion. And Bernard Lewis, whose son is an AIPAC leader, is hardly an impartial, or sane, observer. It was Lewis who told Cheney that US troops would be welcomed with flowers in Baghdad. Lewis who last month predicted that Ahmedinejad was planning a ‘cataclysmic event’ to match an occasion in the Islamic calendar corresponding to August 22nd.

Poor Amis suffers serious information deficit. He thinks ‘intifada’ means ‘earthquake.’ In fact it means ‘shaking off’ or ‘uprising.’ He says the second intifada “got under way….with a steady campaign of suicide mass murder,” and that an Israeli ‘crackdown’ only began when Barak succeeded Sharon as Israeli prime minister. In fact, the second intifada began as a series of stone-throwing demonstrations. Barak’s government killed dozens of unarmed Palestinians every day. After some months of this, with Amis-like members of the Western commentariat raising not a peep except against the Palestinian ‘terrorists,’ the intifada was militarised.

Amis on Palestine is about as offensive as he manages to get. The phenomenon of the suicide bomber in Palestine is, he tells us, all about an entrenched culture of murderous martyrdom. And that’s all. Why did it show itself in recent years and not before? It just did. Decades of dispossession, occupation, torture, imprisonment and murder, decades of waiting for states and international institutions to help, all to no avail, had absolutely nothing to do with it.

On second thoughts, blaming Amis’s blindness on information deficit is too charitable. When he makes it seem that Ken Livingstone’s comments on Palestinian suicide bombers were intended for the bombers of the London tube, he is doing something worse than being ignorant. He is consciously twisting truth to smear a politician who has sought genuine understanding and real solutions.

Much contemporary Islamism is indeed ugly, and especially the Wahabbi variety which America did so much to support and extend during the Cold War. Muslims, particularly Arabs, have a great deal of work to continue to do to challenge the inner demons of sectarianism, oppression of women and minorities, literalist approaches to scripture, failed education and economic systems, and so on. But the selective generalisations and prejudices of non-Muslims, in fact anti-Muslims, like Amis, neither help nor aim to help the success of this work.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


At the foot of Mount Dena, in the Zagros mountains, central Iran.

How clean and cold the water tasted. There were beehives by the stream and Qashqai nomads down the valley.

May it remain clean.

May it not be polluted with the Depleted Uranium that has now been showered over Iraq and Afghanistan.

Taking a Step Back from Taking a Step Back

It was two weeks into the Israeli blitz against Lebanon. Was it about to escalate to include Syria, where most of my family, and my wife’s people, live? My wife’s best friend, Randa, had already lost 22 members of her extended family under the rubble of their southern Lebanese village. The kind of epic tragedy, like Iraq and Palestine, that I follow on the internet for several hours a day, and get emotional about. But on this occasion, I couldn’t do so. I was booked in for 10 days of meditation at a retreat in Herefordshire. Fate decreed withdrawal from the war. No internet. No TV. No newspapers. No contact with the outside at all.

And no contact with the other meditators. We had to agree to maintain ‘noble silence’ for the duration: no talking, no physical contact, no eye contact.
Ten days of silence at the end of a hectic summer. I’d travelled in Iran from the migrainous Tehran traffic to the desert peace of Yazd, experienced a spiritual moment in Shiraz’s Nizam ul-Mulk mosque, and another by a spring in a mountain village, spliff in hand, taking a step back from my chattering voice, and observing it. I’d seen Kandinsky’s revelations in London and the Kirov ballet in Petersburg. I’d been racially profiled by a Finnish border guard, and felt how much more uncomfortable it’s become to be an Arab and Muslim in Britain. After all these environments, all these preoccupations, it was time to detach myself.

Why? I do a lot of thinking about spiritual and philosophical matters. Being a human being, I naturally want to know the truth. Is there a God? Do I have an eternal soul? Why am I here? And the rest. And practically; what do I do with my fear of death? How do I better control my mind and emotions? Intellectually, cerebrally, I’ve already met my limit. I’m equally able to construct arguments for and against the existence of God, which doesn’t help much. What I need, I decided, is another tool. I need experiential knowledge, subjective knowledge. I need to know better what happens inside myself, to know what it is I believe rather than what I want to believe. I thought that meditation might give me this ability. I wanted the opportunity, and the imposed discipline, to make progress in meditation.

I arrived in the late afternoon, and called home before the silence started. I missed my beautiful boy and beautiful girl. Most of all I missed my beautiful wife. I’d seen them for only one day in the last five weeks. “I’m scared,” I told my wife, “I want to come home. But I’m excited too. This will be a challenge.”

The meditators promised to follow the rules. We pledged not to kill (easier in cockroach-free Herefordshire than in the Middle East), not to steal, not to engage in sexual activity. Men and women were separated. At eight pm we stopped talking.
Not communicating is also easier in Herefordshire than in the Middle East. The Anglo-Saxon lack of communication is one of the reasons I wanted to go home. I had a non-contact barber experience in Clapham the day before I travelled to the meditation centre. It involved a series of worried pokes towards my beard. Some strands of hair floated to the ground. The barber avoided my eyes in the mirror. And then I paid. But here, alright, there was a point to the silence. It was meant to focus you on the inside. Yet the miserable faces, and most of them were very miserable, demanded more of my mental attention than talking would have done. Likewise, a few words with my room-mate every so often to check he was happy, that we weren’t stepping on each other’s toes, would have allowed for more peaceful introspection than the strained silence and the pain on his face.

At least I interpreted it as pain. It was interesting watching myself make assumptions like this. Without exchanging words or direct looks, I built up characters to fit my fellow meditators. The one with an illness wallowing in his misery. The black geezer who wasn’t taking it too seriously. The Jew who was taking it much too seriously. The arrogant Indian. The philosophic Pakistani. The people I liked and the people I didn’t like, based on almost no evidence at all.

Day One was hard. The gong sounded at four. I didn’t like the smell of the eating area. I wanted to smoke. I missed my family. When I tried to meditate, for hour after hour in the hall, my thoughts wandered uncontrollably. My back ached. I kept slipping towards sleep, and jerking unpleasantly out of it. In the breaks I did circuits of the walking area, in the humid English air, swimming in melancholy. The walking area was certainly beautiful, half meadow and half forest. The animals seemed to know about the pledge not to kill. Rabbits continued nibbling even as you stood close enough to kick them. Like tellytubby land. In the forest I heard a snuffling, and stopped to look. For the first time in my life I saw a mole, its pink nose and hands and its black fur. I picked cherries from the trees.

On Day Two my concentration was greatly improved. I was able to focus on my breath for extended periods, and the interruption of thoughts - more precisely, of words - was no more distracting than a light breeze. I recognised their noise, and turned away from them. When the sessions ended I would walk in the forest, and happily, with awareness, inhabiting the present moment. The setting of one foot in front of the other, the temperature of the air, the quality of the light: it all felt more real than it usually does.

Words. After a piece of fruit for the evening meal and another hour of meditation, we watched Mr Goenka speak on video. Goenka is the virtual teacher, by video and audio cassette. He is an Indian in late middle age, formerly a businessman, who claims to have rescued the Vipassana technique from Burmese obscurity. His courses run around the world. In India they’ve been run in state prisons, with great success. Sri Lankan schoolchildren have improved their exam results and behaviour after attending.

His discourses lasted for about an hour and a half each evening. His words were the only ones we heard, except our own, inside our heads. Goenka is plump and expressive. He has a rich voice and a good sense of humour. There was plenty of wisdom in what he said. Like this: All spiritual traditions teach the same three things. Don’t harm others. Do good. Purify the mind. These are three things that count. What you believe is conditioned by your environment, and ultimately doesn’t matter.

The focus of concentration was narrowed down, from the breath to the point where breath enters the nostrils, and then away from breath to the triangular area between the nostrils and the upper lip. I’d never realised this area was so large, nor that so much happened there. As I concentrated I became confused about context. Who was breathing over the area? Whose upper lip was it? I noticed myself attaching faces to the breath and the lip, identities, which didn’t belong to me. And at times I thought I was observing not a lip but a pillow, or a book. I noticed myself thinking, making assumptions, but all the time continued concentrating. By now I felt constant stripes of sensation and burning dots.

On Day Three the amount of time I was able to sit without moving extended from 20 mins to an hour. I knew the time was coming (it came the following day) when we would be ordered not to move. Dealing with the pain of my thighs and knees and back was like the familiar meditation of climbing a mountain, when you are sure you can go no further, that your lungs will burst, and then without stopping you burst through the pain and walk freely again until you meet more pain, and burst through, and so on.

On Day Four we were instructed to start vipassana meditation. Mr Goenka on tape talked us through it. We were to observe sensations at the top of the head, any sensation that was there. Vipassana means ‘things as they are,’ so only that. As soon as a sensation was observed the attention was to be moved across the scalp, over the parts of the face, the neck, the shoulders, and down, by degrees, to the toes. “From head to toes,” Goenka intoned. “From toes to head.”

As I concentrated I noticed again the flickering background of thought. Focussing on my left arm made part of me think of my mother. Examining my chest I found myself examining a pair of breasts which I sadly do not possess. At the top of my head I saw hands covering the area up, not letting me see.

Now not only during meditation sessions but also while I was walking I had a distanced awareness of my mind’s behaviour. I heard the voices compete in my dialogic imagination. I was always dramatising conversations, playing out sketches. I (or not really ‘I’ any more, but a variety of voices identified with ‘me’) argued and joked with my wife, my friends Giles and Jed, my mother, Tony Blair. These dialogues are always rattling inside me, and usually I don’t even notice them.
The weather changed from British heatwave to more traditional gusts of rain. On Day Four I felt physical and political winds blowing. Something bad was happening out in the world. Children were being killed. I circled the exercise area under ropes of cloud.

I had questions, more and more questions, and nobody to pose them to except myself. We could ask the Burmese assistant teacher practical questions about the technique, but nothing philosophical.

Some of the questions: When I start examining myself I immediately split into at least two pieces, subject and object. What then is the observing self as opposed to the observed? In Islam there are two words for soul. Firstly, nafs, which means identity or self or psyche (the Quran says that every nafs will taste death), and rooh, which means something like eternal soul, and also wind. The rooh is mysterious. The Quran says the rooh is from God, or of God. Could I map the observer and the observed onto these concepts? I’d heard the terms ‘big self’ and ‘little self’ from Zen Buddhism. Would these help? Mr Goenka only talked about observing mind and matter. But what does the observing? This seemed so important to me I felt I couldn’t continue without working it out. Nevertheless, I continued.

Another question. Goenka told us we are reborn not only after the death of the body, but every moment. Science seems to support him here. The cells of the body are constantly being replaced, consciousness shifts and changes, and quantuum physics suggests a continual coming-into-being of particles from which everything else, including us, is built. But Goenka said rebirth is caused by the operations of consciousness, by craving and aversion, and that rebirth could be halted by ending this desire. Why, then, didn’t Gotama dissolve on attaining Buddhahood? Why did he continue to be reborn until he reached 80 years of age? How for that matter did the cycle of rebirth start? When Gotama achieved enlightenment he addressed the Creator, who he called ‘the builder of the house’, triumphantly. ‘You won’t build me any more houses,’ he said. ‘I have smashed the bricks. I have destroyed the tools.’ But who is the builder of the house? Why did It build in the first place?

But these are questions that shouldn’t be asked on a Goenka course. These are questions, if I have understood correctly, that Buddhism doesn’t even seek to answer. When somebody asked Gotama such questions, he was answered with the parable of a man pierced by an arrow. This man wouldn’t allow the doctor to remove the arrow before he found out who had shot the arrow, from what caste he was, what his occupation was, the names of his wife and sons. So don’t ask questions. Receive the treatment. But me, I want to know. I ask the questions even if I suspect I will find no answers. I must look for the answers. More than that, I enjoy looking for the answers.

Which brings us to misery. According to Goenka (and Gotama), death and age and disease are misery. Love and security and beauty are misery too, because we know even as we enjoy them that they must end. I agree, and yet... I remember my grandfather in his last days, his heart failing, breathless, having seen his first child die, and his sister, his parents, his wife, his friends, having seen his daughter disabled by disease, and going open-eyed to death without the consolation of firm religious belief. “What a miracle,” he would say, looking through his window. And: “What a stupendous experience it’s been. If there’s a God,” (with a chuckle), “I’ll thank Him.” In my better moments I feel like that. I haven’t yet put up with the loss that will come, but for the moment I can say I agree with my grandfather. Even in misery it’s wonderful. Or perhaps more to the point, it’s fascinating. I don’t know if I want to be ‘liberated’ from it.

And selflessness. Goenka said that ‘I’ is an illusion. There is no self, no soul, only the flicker of consciousness. But do we not construct a self through memory, and give it narrative coherence? This may not be a permanent essential self, not something you can measure or prove empirically, but it may be the best we can do, and in its own way ‘real’ enough. More mystically, I’m not sure I agree with the notion that all we have is the present moment. In my childhood I had three strange experiences which suggest the past and the future are also accessible. And this has huge ramifications. If we are not trapped by time, then the coherence of the self through time may be something we can realistically hope for. By not taking these possibilities on board Buddhism can only counsel detachment. It seems that Buddhism recasts death not as our central dilemma, but as the principal aim.

These are some of the philosophical problems I have with Buddhism. They wouldn’t have mattered on the course if Buddhism weren’t being whispered in my ear as I meditated. I couldn’t respond, so I tried to shut it out.

On Day Five I was a mess of emotion. At the end of meditation sessions I was variously elated, depressed, restless, serene. On one circuit through the forest I was near tears, on another I was giggling. I knew this was part of the process. Stuff was coming up. All very interesting.

But by Day Six I was experiencing a fixed aversion to what I thought was the intellectual dishonesty of the course. No talking, no philosophical questioning, no writing: this was justified by emphasis on the experiential, non-intellectual nature of the technique, yet every evening we were subjected to Goenkaji’s linguistic philosophy. Even while we were meditating, Goenka’s voice interpreted what was happening through its Buddhist prism. Like any proper political prisoner I had my illicit writing materials. I found a pen and a scrap of paper in the bottom of my bag, and scribbled the odd note when nobody could see me. Breaking the rules thus made me feel a little better, but still I was in an unequal power relationship with this place. It was becoming ‘this place.’ I was counting the hours.

And the Pali chanting was increasing. At the beginning it was a verse or two. By Day Six it went on for a quarter of an hour three times a day. The true believers thought it set up good vibrations. Perhaps true, but I hadn’t experienced that, and the only way I could accept this theory was by religious belief. I hadn’t gone to Herefordshire to practise religious belief. I already have a religion. There are mosques for that. I have a prayer mat. I have some prayer beads.

So I decided to leave. I had an hour-long interview with the Burmese assistant teacher. “Let me decide what my experience means,” I told him. “I’m being guided too much. It’s time for me to take a step back a step back.”
He said nothing to change my mind. I packed up my bedding. But then one of the meditators I’d talked to on arrival, Simon Vatcher, broke his vows by gesturing to the forest. It was like smoking cigarettes at school. We scurried off together and whispered guiltily. “The Buddhism is bollocks,” Simon said. “The chanting is bollocks. Ignore it. But stay to the end. Your mind is in a laboratory here. You may as well stay to see what happens to it.” It was good advice. I stayed.

By Day Seven, however, it was clear that I had a mental block. Goenkaji’s voice was annoying me immensely. I hated the way he said aneechaa (it means impermanence, transience) - with a jumpy opening, a stressed middle syllable and a growl at the end. I resented being told what to think. It can’t be a good idea, I decided, to put yourself in an altered state while someone you can’t agree with is whispering in your ear. So I couldn’t meditate anymore. You have to be comfortable to do something so profound. I wasn’t.

The management were friendly and understanding. They helped me with bus and train times. As I left I wondered if I would feel that I had failed. But what I felt was a surge of freedom, and that I had done the right thing. I ate raspberries at the side of the country lane. And on the bus I met a Ukrainian girl who picked berries at Brook Farm, Malden. Voda, pajalsta, she said. I passed her my water bottle. She couldn’t speak English. I used my phrasebook Russian from Petersburg, and wrote some English sentences for her. She was very pleased. She was very lonely she said, reading from a dictionary. She hadn’t talked to anybody for weeks.

I read the papers on the train. Another Qana massacre. 62 civilians killed, 42 of them children. It had happened on Day Five. On the 18th April 1996, 106 civilians had been killed in the same way in the same place. I remembered watching my future wife weeping over it on the first year anniversary.

In London I phoned home. Randa’s family death toll now stood at 27. I smoked a spliff, and immediately felt a flow of impermanent particles from head to toes, from toes to head. I recognise that this is cheating on an enormous scale. Despite the spliff, I felt strengthened physically and mentally. I felt tuned up. I was happy I had done it. I still am.

A couple of nights later, walking back from visiting friends, I saw a fox not 10 metres away, slipping from the mouth of Manchuria Road onto Clapham Common. It turned its snout to look at my eyes, and padded on.