Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Will work for cake

I drew it for a t-shirt for someone who loves cake. I totally pilfered the lettering style from Caley Ratcliffe.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

The problem with liberalism: what me and Obama have in common

When Malcolm X was 13 years old, he was sent to a detention home after getting expelled from school for bad behaviour. At that time, he had already been separated from his seven siblings while his mother was institutionalised, sent to the State Mental Hospital at Kalamazoo. Her health had steadily declined since Malcolm’s father was brutally killed by white supremacists five years earlier.

Malcolm Little, as he was then known, got on surprisingly well at the detention home. The white couple who ran it, Mr and Mrs Swerlin, liked Malcolm and treated him decently. They treated him well—but not quite as equals, he realised. He wasn’t about to change how they saw ‘niggers’.
“I remember one day when Mr Swerlin, nice as he was, came in from Lansing, where he had been through the Negro section, and said to Mrs Swerlin right in front of me, ‘I just can’t see how those niggers can be so happy and be so poor.’ He talked about how they lived in shacks, but had those big, shining cars out front.
“And Mrs Swerlin said, me standing right there, ‘Niggers are just that way…’ That scene always stayed with me.
“It was the same with the other white people, most of them local politicians, when they would come visiting the Swerlins. One of their favourite parlour topics was ‘niggers’. One of them was a close friend of the Swerlins. He would ask about me when he came, and they would call me in, and he would look me up and down, his expression approving, like he was examining a fine colt, or a pedigreed pup. I knew they must have told him how I acted and how I worked.”
Malcolm X was a ‘mascot’. The token ‘nigger’ of his class. He was liked and accepted by this white family because he behaved himself, he conformed. He set a shining example of what a young black boy in a racist America should be: non-aggressive, obedient, grateful. It was to his credit that he didn’t exhibit the delinquent qualities attributed to ‘niggers’ in general.
“What I am trying to say is that it just never dawned upon them that I could understand, that I wasn’t a pet, but a human being. They didn’t give me credit for having the same sensitivity, intellect, and understanding that they would have been ready and willing to recognize in a white boy in my position. But it has historically been the case with white people, in their regard for black people, that even though we might be with them, we weren’t considered of them. Even though they appeared to have opened the door, it was still closed. Thus they never did really see me.
“This is the sort of kindly condescension which I try to clarify today, to these integration-hungry Negroes, about their ‘liberal’ white friends, these so-called ‘good white people’ – most of them anyway. I don’t care how nice one is to you; the thing you must always remember is that almost never does he really see you as he sees himself, as he sees his own kind.”

Among his detractors, Malcolm X came to be seen as brilliant but reckless, even dangerous. Mainstream white America couldn’t forgive him for failing to denounce violence. They pointed to less threatening civil rights activists like Martin Luther King, and asked why he couldn’t be like them. But what Malcolm X does—that more compromising figures don’t do—is turn the critical lens on liberal America.

He pours scorn both on white liberals and on black Americans’ efforts to ingratiate themselves with them. Black pride, as he saw it, could not exist as long as black Americans were trying to advance themselves within a system that wasn’t made for them; one that was in fact created out of their exploitation. Malcolm X was important because he demanded something more than just “crumbs from the white man’s table.”

Even Barack Obama himself recognises it! In Dreams from my father, he singles out Malcolm X from all the other classic authors on the black condition, saying, “His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will.”

Obama surprised me. I know he’s awesome and everything, but he’s a politician, and politicians are never to be trusted. So yes, I was surprised to read the following passage in his book that not only speaks to the continuing problem of racism in America, but also spoke to other racisms in other places and times:
“I had begun to see a new map of the world, one that was frightening in its simplicity, suffocating in its implications. We were always playing on the white man’s court, Ray had told me, by the white man’s rules. If the principle, or the coach, or a teacher, or Kurt, wanted to spit in your face, he could, because he had power and you didn’t. If he decided not to, if he treated you like a man or came to your defense, it was because he knew that the words you spoke, the clothes you wore, the books you read, your ambitions and desires, were already his. Whatever he decided to do, it was his decision to make, not yours, and because of that fundamental power he held over you, because it preceded and would outlast his individual motives and inclinations, and distinction between good and bad whites held negligible meaning. In fact, you couldn’t even be sure that that everything you had assumed to be an expression of your black, unfettered self—the humor, the song, the behind-the-back pass—had been freely chosen by you. At best, these things were a refuge; at worst, a trap. Following this maddening logic, the only thing you could choose as your own was withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat. And the final irony: Should you refuse this defeat and lash out at your captors, they would have a name for that, too, a name that could cage you just as good. Paranoid. Militant. Violent. Nigger.”
His words are strikingly reminiscent of Frantz Fanon’s articulation of what it means to be a racialised subject. For Fanon, born in the French colony of Martinique, the shock of reaching Europe and realising that ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ didn’t apply to black people triggered an understanding of race and racism that remains incredibly influential.

It was not the crude racism of the day that so concerned Fanon. It was the promise of humanity, cruelly denied. It was being “overdetermined from without… fixed” by the inescapable blackness of his skin. Like Obama, Fanon discovers that his choices—rebellion, submission, anger, pride—are choices that have already been made for him, they have been presupposed. “And so,” he says, “it is not I who make a meaning for myself, but it is the meaning that was already there, pre-existing, waiting for me.”

This problem now confronts Europe’s Muslims. Observers will have noted a dramatic difference in tone between the first ‘Islam vs. the West’ crisis (the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and subsequent fatwa issued against him by Ayatollah Khomeini) and the second (9/11). During the former, the Western media was full of overtly Islamophobic and frankly ignorant commentary denouncing Islam as backward and barbaric.

By contrast, in the days after 9/11, the leaders of the Western world bent over backwards to stress, in public speeches anyway, the essentially peaceful nature of the Muslim religion. They promoted a clear distinction between the peaceful Muslim majority worldwide and the excesses of a fanatical minority. Amongst Western populations there appeared to be a similar trend, with sales of the Qur’an and books on Islam soaring as people sought to inform themselves about the peaceful and tolerant ‘true’ Islam.

Now, I’m a peaceful Muslim, no doubt about it. But something began to happen as more and more people bought into this idea of a ‘true’ Islam corrupted by violent fanatics, something which I found alarming and uncomfortable. A binary took hold, and permeated the public consciousness, taking on the status of a self-evident truth. It was the difference between a Good Muslim and a Bad Muslim. The set of oppositions looks roughly like this:

secular --------------------- religious
liberal ---------------------- illiberal
democracy ----------------- authoritarianism
freedom -------------------- control
decency --------------------- corruption
education ------------------- indoctrination
progress --------------------- stasis/regression
universalist ----------------- parochial
Westernised/integrated --- traditional
religion as faith/culture --- religion as political
peace ------------------------- jihad
clean-shaven ---------------- bearded
rational ---------------------- irrational

Crucially, it’s not the far right who are responsible for this latest manifestation of racism. The BNP think all Muslims are terrorists; by now, everyone knows these guys are loopy. No, it’s precisely the liberal desire to see the best in Islam, the “disgustingly patronizing liberal respect for the Other’s spiritual depth” coming from “people eager to give Islam a chance, to get a feel for it, to experience it from the inside, and thus to redeem it,” as Žižek puts it, that is so dangerous.

Because what it says to Muslims—what it says to me—is that you can be a Muslim, no problem, but you’ve got to be our kind of Muslim. As a Muslim, the invitation to take up my fully human status is extended to me with conditions attached. Do I condemn violence? Check. Do I tolerate other faiths? Check. Do I believe in equality? Check. In other words, to be a Good Muslim I must be a liberal subject first and a Muslim second. Islam is reduced to a lifestyle choice.

And so I lament, with Fanon, that “it is not I who make a meaning for myself, but it is the meaning that was already there, pre-existing, waiting for me.” And like Obama, I know that to refuse my defeat, my powerlessness to define my own identity, desires and ambitions, is only to invite those alternative pre-defined identities. Militant. Violent. Extremist. Terrorist.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Hey, it's ok... to be a moron

This is why I love women's magazines. They go our of their way to make you feel better about yourself. The latest issue of Glamour tells us, "Hey, it's ok to have a 'what happens on holiday stays on holiday' policy - especially if what happened involved a pool and no clothes... it's ok to order the only wine you can pronounce... to spend your entire Boxercise class fantasising about the burger you're going to inhale afterwards... to secretly enjoy a construction worker's wolf-whistle, but give him the death stare anyway... to internally chant, 'Please God, please God, please God,' when you're using your cash card in a shop the day before pay day... to make the same mistake twice. Or even three times. But not if it involves John Mayer."

Thank you, Glamour! Now I can be totally reckless with my finances, act like a drunk teenager abroad, undermine my own efforts to keep fit and healthy, and internalise my own sexual objectification. Oh, plus I can bitch about the relationships of people I will never meet. And I can do all this completely safe in the knowledge that, as it turns out, all women do just the same.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Human rights and lame ducks

It was announced last week that ASEAN will launch its human rights body in October this year, after a high-level panel has finished preparing the terms of reference setting out its mandate and responsibilities.

Human rights NGOs have been pressurising ASEAN leaders to give this human rights body—the first of its kind in the Asian region—real powers to protect human rights defenders. A regional mechanism mandated to investigate individual complaints of human rights violations would be hugely significant, even if it took many years for it to become effective and properly fulfill its mandate.

But according to Ambassador Rosario Manalo, head of the high-level panel, the ASEAN human rights body will not initially possess any investigative power though she hopes that it will “evolve” such capabilities. “You don't change societies in the wink of an eye,” she said. “We are still grappling with what 'human rights' really is.”

This much is true, and the struggle for an effective regional human rights mechanism was never going to be easy. After living in Singapore and Bangkok, it became clear to me that ‘human rights’ do not mean exactly the same as what they mean in a British context. I understand human rights as the outcome of a particular worldview; one that asserts that humans are humans first, and everything else second. We are born equal, and differences of religion, class, nationality or gender do not change that fact.

However, ‘human rights’ in many Asian societies are the outcome of different worldviews and societal developments. They are more likely to be understood as a useful tool in the struggle against authoritarian leaders and oppressive governments. They may also be used to challenge harmful patriarchal traditions, to fight against dispossession caused by mining or logging, or to assert the desire to determine one’s own sexual identity.

What tends to surprise the western observer is the disconnect between these different struggles. It’s quite common, as one colleague noted, to find a human rights defender risking his life protesting against the Burmese military regime, but at the same time having nothing progressive to say on LGBT rights.

A more subtle example can be found in my Thai co-worker, a fellow intern in the Human Rights Defenders programme. He told me that in Thailand, it is commonly believed that people are born gay or transgender because they committed ‘sexual sins’ in a past life. I was somewhat taken aback by this: to me, the idea that any kind of LGBT identity is a punishment for former wrongdoing goes against the premise of equality underlying human rights. Well, he said, we don’t deny them their right to be gay—since they are born that way, we accept it.

It is true that this attitude prevents the ‘corrective’ kind of approach taken by some of the more loony Christian organisations, and does promote a general acceptance of diversity. But it is an acceptance premised on inequality, so that while the result appears the same, the root is very different. Acceptance of sexual rights in Britain or the US is grounded in a conception of all humans as equal; acceptance of sexual rights in Thailand is based on the perception that hierarchy is inevitable.

It is the ‘universal’ aspect of universal human rights that is missing here. This has the effect of weakening all specific claims made in the name of human rights by presenting them as the sole property of certain special interest groups. If human rights defenders themselves use human rights selectively—utilising the language to achieve goals that are specific to each local context or group—then demands for an ASEAN human rights body that embodies the notion of universal human rights are undermined.

Given this disconnect, it is easy to see why those like Manalo argue that ASEAN countries are simply not ready for a strong regional human rights body. But is a lame duck of a mechanism really preferable to a strong one that takes time and effort to fulfill its potential?

After all, what is being proposed is really little more than a watchdog focusing on human rights promotion and education rather than protection. Increasing awareness of human rights issues within ASEAN countries is supposed to lead eventually to these countries “internalizing” humanist values, in turn creating the necessary pressure for more substantial reform.

But in fact, it just lets authoritarian regimes and military juntas off the hook. No leaders will be losing sleep over such an anaemic institution. When Manalo says there is no political will to create an ASEAN human rights body with teeth, she undermines the political will of the hundreds of organisations and individuals across the region already crying out for precisely that. And without greater attention to regional NGOs and regional inter-governmental institutions, the universalisation of human rights as a worldview in itself will continue to be stymied.

Tuesday, 31 March 2009


I look down on them
from the bus
window open
red light
The taxi driver
I see his face and
he sees mine
looks away
Four brown legs
one brown, slim back
and shoulders, one young
chest, breasts
pushed up,
One paunch in a checked shirt.
His fair arm
fat and foreign.
fat hand reaches, creeps
up one brown leg.
I am still looking
down on them
Green light and
Taxi moves
Bus takes me

Monday, 30 March 2009

God and the Government

Last week the Malaysian Minister of Islamic Affairs warned the Malaysian Bar Council against conducting an online poll to determine whether lawyers and members of the public agree with the government’s ban preventing non-Muslim publications from using the word ‘Allah’.

The warning follows a dispute in January this year, when the Interior Ministry prohibited the Catholic Herald newspaper from printing its Malay language edition after it was found to contravene a 2007 ban on using the word ‘Allah’ to refer to the Christian god.

It later softened its position, allowing the word to be used as long as it is explicitly stated that the material is not for intended for Muslims. To prevent hapless Muslims becoming confused and accidentally converting to a different faith, the Herald was compelled to print ‘For Christianity’ on its cover.

It is worrying that the Malaysian government does not appear to be aware that the Arabic word ‘Allah’ predates Islam, that it is the only available translation for ‘god’ in the Malay language, and that the god worshipped by Christians is, in fact, the same god that Muslims worship.

More worrying, however, are the government’s continued efforts to politicise religion. In Malaysia’s highly racialised political system, religion was bound to get caught up in the whole thing to a certain extent, particularly given that ‘the Malay race’ is defined as unequivocally Muslim.

But recent years have seen a creeping conservatism gaining strength throughout Malaysia. When my mum was growing up in the sixties and seventies, hardly anyone wore the tudung (headscarf). Now it is commonplace, even among teenagers and twenty-somethings.

On a more sinister note, anger directed at the state of Israel is translating into a weird anti-Semitism expressed mainly by people who have never knowingly encountered a Jewish person in their lives. My own uncle, who almost certainly falls into that category, spent a good three or four days trying to get me to read that infamous forgery The Protocols of Zion. Malays routinely equate “Jew” and “Israeli”—an unsurprising conflation given that Malay Malaysians’ national identity is bound to static notions of race and religion, but one that makes me wince nonetheless.

In addition to this shift among the Muslim population, which may well be attributable to global political developments like the war on terror and the belief that Muslims are increasingly targets of victimisation, particularly in the Middle East, there appears to be a growing willingness by the Malaysian authorities to assert Muslim supremacy in the country and take an intolerant approach to the rights of non-Muslims.

In 2007 we heard about the Malaysian woman born to Muslim parents but raised as a Hindu, who asked to be officially registered as a Hindu. As a result she was detained for months in an ‘Islamic Rehabilitation Centre’, where she was forced to pray as a Muslim, wear a tudung and eat beef. In 2005, a Hindu Malaysian was buried in a Muslim cemetery under Muslim burial rites after a Sharia court ruled that he had converted to Islam just before his death, against the evidence of his friends and family. And now we have the government stipulating what non-Muslims are allowed to call the god they worship.

What's next?

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

White black people

You need to be careful about creating imagery of sub-Saharan African societies for British audiences. People tend to generalise about the region and often don’t understand the differences between different African cultures, and even different African countries. During my first year at university, I discovered that around half of my housemates were unaware that Africa is a continent, and not a country.

Lazy journalists and television appeals, for their part, routinely refer to Africa as if it were one homogenous society—poor, disease-ridden, unstable, corrupt and undeveloped—with little internal differentiation save for ‘warring tribes’ and rebel armies. Our ignorance is not only embarrassing; it perpetuates stereotypes that are dangerous for those they (mis)represent.

Photographers and filmmakers also have to be sensitive to the centuries of racist representations of Africans produced by Europe and the ‘developed’ world, of which Resident Evil 5 is just the latest manifestation. Treating black Africans as part of the backdrop for a storyline centred around a white, male, protagonist has a history going back at least as far as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and undermines efforts to bring about social change based on an understanding of Africans as just as human as Europeans.

A series of photographs centred on Tanzanians suffering from albinism—the congenital condition of being born without the melanin pigment that protects our skin from the sun’s UV rays—therefore has a heavy burden of responsibility to bear. And, arresting as these images by Jackie Dewe Mathews undoubtedly are, I’m not sure they fully acknowledge this responsibility.

There are two main problems. Firstly, while it is the job of the images to tell the story, the captions do play their part in explaining certain information. Who are these people? Where are they? Why is this happening to them? If information is omitted, it can change the way we consume the story.

Explaining these images, the photographer barely mentions the context or the history behind them. She refers superficially to ‘ingrained prejudice’, giving us the impression that this prejudice is something inherent to Tanzanian society. She briefly mentions ‘the killings that have ravaged Tanzania’ as if they were a tornado or some other natural disaster. In fact, the images and their accompanying information provoke more questions than they answer—and not in a good way.

It is true that albinos are stigmatised throughout many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, often being shunned by their communities and relatives, having to drop out of school because of sight problems, and suffering discrimination when they seek employment. They also face a greatly increased risk of cancer and other health problems because their skin lacks the pigmentation that protects against sun damage.

However, Tanzania has become far more dangerous in recent years after Tanzanian witch doctors have increased trade in albino skin, bones, genitals and hair. These are supposed to possess magical powers and bestow luck upon others. This belief has created a demand for albino body parts, and at least 45 Tanzanian men, women and children suffering from albinism have been killed and mutilated since the beginning of 2008. According to Tanzanian police officials, the violence is worst in rural areas where people tend to be more superstitious. Fishermen reportedly weave albino hairs into their nets, hoping that they will catch more fish.

One healer in northern Tanzania denied that albino body parts form part of the witch doctor tradition in the area, saying, “Yes, I’ve heard of it. But that’s not real witchcraft. It’s the work of con men.” Indeed, it is now commonplace to hear albinos referred to as ‘deals’ because of how lucrative trading their body parts can be. Albinos in Tanzania say they are being hunted and fear for the safety of their families. Already more than 90 people, including four police officers, have been arrested on suspicion of murdering albinos.

The cause of this recent resurgence of superstition is unknown, but authorities have blamed everything from Nigerian films to rising food prices. The killings have even spread over the border into neighbouring Burundi, where at least 10 albinos have been killed and dismembered, their body parts then smuggled into Tanzania.

Government spokesman Salvator Rweyemamu has said that the killings of albinos perpetuate “perceptions of Africa that we’re trying to run away from,” pointing to the positive developments taking place in the country that the government is keen to promote.

Of course, I am not advocating that photographers seek to support government propaganda. But statements like this point to another story that is not being told: a story about uneven economic development and education; about the invention of superstition and the point at which it begins to legitimise acts of great violence. According to 49 year old Samuel Mluge, secretary-general of the grossly under-funded Tanzanian Albino Society, the recent killings are a relatively new development. While albinos in his country have long been targets of discrimination, he said, “we have never feared like we do today.”

There is another story to be told here: a story about the way people deal with physical abnormality, about how we deal with it in Britain and have dealt with it in the past, and how we consume imagery of people we find fascinating and a little frightening. This is the second problem. There isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with looking at pictures of Tanzanians with albinism. But you really need to be presented with the context. Often context is all that stands between insightful commentary and pure voyeurism, as this photo essay clearly shows.

I’d like to think that the photographer’s aim was noble; that she was concerned by the stigmatisation of those born with albinism and wanted to convey this to a wider audience. Indeed, this may well have been her motivation. But somehow, I don’t think it was.

We are drawn to the weird and grotesque; the persistence of freak shows is evidence of that. Fascination with disease, deformity and physical abnormality has a history, certainly, but it also has a psychology and a politics. To be able to gaze upon the image of a person deformed by a genetic condition excites the viewer, while conferring upon him or her the peculiar privileges of distance and detachment.

These photographs are beautiful: expertly composed and thoughtfully lit. But the incredible visual appeal of the photographs actually enhances the objectification of their subjects. Tanzanians suffering from albinism are placed under the spotlight, positioned before our curious eyes while we gawp at their condition, simultaneously enthralled and repelled by the pale pinkness of their skin, mottled with sun damage, set against the healthy brown skin of those around them.

We stare, horrified, at the tumours, scabs and sores erupting on their bodies, and without the self-conscious need to politely look away we would experience in a real-life encounter. We stare unapologetically at the strange beauty contained within these images, feeling pity and concern. We probably do not feel guilty.

The photographer’s brief was to cover a story based somewhere else—not in the UK, not in the homeland of the Royal Photographic Society and the Guardian newspaper sponsoring the endeavour—and it was supposed to be a story that suggested connections between British audiences and the wider world. The winning story certainly suggests a connection, but I’m not sure that it’s the kind of connection originally envisaged.

The connection making the greatest impression on me is the connection with our racist colonial heritage; the one where we treat difference as a spectacle and see Africans as objects. I don’t doubt for a moment that this entirely contradicts the stated aims of the photographer, but I want to challenge the idea that we should be forgiven for our ignorance.

To portray people in Africa—anywhere in Africa—you have to recognise the burden of responsibility that your images will bear. At best, a series of photographs like this will tell an incomplete story. At worst, they will reinforce a dangerous and outdated way of looking at the world, gratifying our most base instincts and objectifying the very people the photographer wished to defend.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Free Speech and freedom to abuse

Poor old Free Speech is on the ropes again, it would seem.

A couple of months ago Italian comedian Sabina Guzzanti made some hilarious quips about Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, his equal opportunities minister (and former topless model) Mara Carfagna, and finally the Pope. Despite getting away with mocking the two politicians – Carfagna threatened to sue, but didn’t dare carry out the threat – the Pope has proved a little more prickly.

Before a large rally in Rome, she joked that in twenty years time teachers in Italy would be selected by the Vatican, before saying “but then, within twenty years the Pope will be where he ought to be — in Hell, tormented by great big poofter devils, and very active ones, not passive ones.”

This month she was almost charged with ‘contempt of the Pope’. Prosecutors wanted to invoke a 79-year old law originally introduced through a treaty between the papacy and fascist dictator Mussolini.

Dismissing the validity of the charge, Guzzanti said, “I believe that in a democracy there is no right not to be offended. I think that anyone ought to be free to say whatever he or she likes at any moment.

“If someone says things that are offensive, gratuitous and stupid, one has to assume that there will be others to demonstrate that what you said was offensive, gratuitous and stupid.”

There are two points I think we can draw from this story. Firstly, the way that the Free-Speech-In-Europe debate is usually framed, as a conflict between European civilisational values and Muslims, is flawed and – dare I say it? – more than a little racist. This Italian example demonstrates that stifling debate and criticism is a trait of certain aspects of Christian culture as well.

It is also a feature of secular democracies. Berlusconi’s own historically inaccurate assertion that Western civilisation is “superior” to Islamic cultures by virtue of its tolerant and democratic ethos is pretty laughable considering that he basically controls the country’s television broadcasting and silences critics by trying to sue them.

Secondly, the preposterousness of the attempt to prosecute a comedian for ridiculing the Pope can unfortunately lead to a rather overzealous reassertion of the right to free speech. Even Guzzanti falls into the trap: when asked by a journalist whether there should be any limitations on free speech in the context of Holocaust denial or the infamous Danish cartoons, she simply falls back on the free speech mantra.

This can be dangerous because it obscures the difference between poking fun at authority – religious or otherwise – and poking fun at minority communities. In Britain, we have the right to mock the Prime Minister, the Queen, or the Archbishop of Canterbury. We also have the right to mock Muslims, black people, or children with disabilities. So why does former feel ok, whilst the latter feels somehow wrong?

To take part in satirising, criticising and ridiculing someone else, you have to acknowledge that it makes a difference who you are, who the subject of your criticism is, and your respective roles in society. Directing your scorn at a person who has intentionally placed him or herself in the public eye, or who is a figure of authority and should therefore be held accountable to the people, is fine. Directing it at a member of a minority group – such as Muslims in Denmark or Jews in Europe – is less acceptable because these subjects are often already marginalised or discriminated against in some way by the state.

Guzzanti assumes that in a democracy, stupid and offensive comments are permissable because there will always be others there to counter them. This gives society a little too much credit in my opinion. When a well-known British author like Martin Amis makes racist remarks about British Muslims, there are plenty who will stand up and decry his comments. However, they may be less prominent voices, and are easily drowned out by stronger and louder popular discourses reinforcing the flawed association between violence, intolerance and Islam. These spokespeople present themselves as responding to a threat – but in reality they are little more than bullies.

In theory, there should be no limits on Free Speech. In practice, however, the way we use it reveals a great deal about our own positions in society, and how we relate to those we subject to ridicule.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Your help is URGENTLY needed

An emergency appeal
The world of finance has taken a blow over the last few weeks – and we’ve all witnessed the consequences. Newspapers and TV were full of heartrending images of Lehman Brothers employees, folornly carrying boxes out of their offices, clutching their precious belongings as others looked on in bewilderment. Further casualties are expected throughout the sector, and no-one in finance can be 100 per cent sure that they’ll emerge from the crisis unscathed.

Now, here’s your chance to make a difference. SPEW (Society for the Protection of Enormous Wealth) is dedicated to rehabilitating those worst affected by the financial crisis. You can make a one-off gift or sign up to make regular donations, but please, give what you can.

Why not Adopt-a-Banker? For the small sum of just £6,000 a month (minimum donation), you can help to bail out your own banker, providing him with the food, clothes and expensive London accommodation he needs to survive. By signing up to this scheme you’ll receive monthly updates (with photos) on your adopted banker – letting you know how much of a difference your contribution is making.

One grateful recipient of the Adopt-a-Banker scheme is Edouard d'Archimbaud, from Paris. Aged just twenty-four, Edouard was due to start his job as a trader with the now disgraced Lehman Brothers on a salary of £45,000. But even before he could reach his desk on his first day of work, he was told that he’d been fired. He had just taken out a six-month lease on a flat, and didn’t know how he would pay for it.

Thanks to generous donations from people like you, Edouard was able to rebuild his life. The help we provided paid for the lease on his lovely new flat, as well as setting him up with several expensive new suits for him to wear to job interviews. Extra funds went towards leisure activities, gym membership at an exclusive sports club, a short holiday abroad, and various other things to help him recover from the shock he suffered. He is now back on his feet, having landed a brilliant position with a leading investment bank – and he couldn’t have done it without the generosity of our donors.

All we ask of you is a small contribution of several thousand pounds a month – and you too could change someone’s life.

Review: Turtles Can Fly | Times and Winds

If you’re going to make a film about children, you need to make sure that the children are, well, childlike. This is the downfall of Times and Winds, an almost charming story set in the picturesque hills of northern Turkey. Young Omer, its central character, resents his upstanding father and spends his hours devising ways to kill him. I suppose it’s an achievement in itself that these efforts come across as quirky rather than psychotic, but nevertheless, the film is let down by its child actors. They all have the slightly wooden manner that makes you think there’s an adult just out of the frame, telling them what to do. Numerous issues are covered: sibling jealousy, the pain of feeling unloved by a parent, the realisation of sex, the heartbreaking imperfection of our parents, humiliation, inadequacy, desire, taboo. But the film itself jars; it is sometimes badly pieced together, or sometimes badly acted, or both. As you stumble out of the cinema, blinking, you’d be forgiven for imagining that you had accidentally wandered into an exhibition of beautiful landscape stills, only they happened to be moving.

Director Bahman Ghobadi, by contrast, despite the unremitting grimness of Turtles Can Fly, manages to imbue each scene with a sense of hope that must be attributed to the spirit of the child non-actors who make up its cast. Set in a Kurdish refugee camp in northern Iraq just before the US invasion, the story revolves around Satellite, a young, intelligent and wonderfully manipulative natural leader, and three newcomers to the village: an armless boy who can tell the future, his sad and silent sister, and a kid who appears to be their little brother. They and the other children in the community, many of whom have suffered horrific injuries, spend their days plucking land mines out of the surrounding hills and selling them on. The situation is bleak, and so is the story, which makes the frequent humour and vitality exhibited by the kids really quite impressive. The only problem with the film is that it does kind of portray the US invasion as a good thing, which is almost certainly a nonsense. But since the story ends just after news of the invasion arrives, we can perhaps interpret this as a symbol of the hope that people felt about the change of regime, before they realised what an awful disaster it would prove to be. Perhaps.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

On being a transnational oversoul, or, an awkward half-soul

The following is an miniature chunk of dissertation (for the Sussex University course Landscape/Memory/Identity):

In the journal I had been keeping two summers ago whilst travelling in Malaysia, Thailand and Bali, I wrote, “Maybe I am half-not-English, half-not-Malay.” This nugget of angst reminded me of a poem I had quite uncharacteristically written, more recently, about my grandmother Mak Eng and her house in Sibu. In the poem I had supposed my sister and I to be “neither this nor that,” using the image of “other people’s bare brown feet” as a marker of those other people’s authenticity, a kind of obvious and embodied belonging which we were denied. Ranciére writes that the “process of identification is first of all a process of spatialization. The paradox of identity is that you must travel to disclose it… Spatialization presents by its own virtue the identity of the concept to its flesh”. I can’t really remember a time before I was able to observe the peculiar shift that took place as I moved between Hemel Hempstead, a new town just outside the M25 where I went to school, and Sibu, a town on the Rejang river in Sarawak where my mum was born. That movement effected a regular transformation in my sister and I: from feeling often very English in Malaysia to feeling quite foreign in England. I was born in Hemel, but when I am there people still ask me where I’m from. Here, I reply. Then they ask me awkwardly where I’m… you know… originally from. What’s my… erm… background? (Or, in other words, why is my skin brown?) When I’m in Sibu, people often refer to me as orang puteh (white person) and wonder what I’m doing with all these Malay people who are, in fact, my close family. Once, some children approached my sister and I and proceeded to inform us that I was “seventy per cent Melayu, thirty percent orang puteh” whilst my sister, whose skin and hair are a shade fairer than mine, was just “twenty percent Melayu, eighty per cent orang puteh.” They had exposed us; my sister promptly burst into tears.


The paradoxical position of belonging to multiple places and, consequently, to no single place entirely, tends to be associated with an uncomfortable privilege. Edward Said – whose autobiography, it should be noted, is entitled ‘Out of Place’ – has said that his various identities and the multiple ‘worlds’ to which he belongs have afforded him “an odd, not to say grotesque, double perspective”. It is this ambivalent position, paradoxically incorporating the privilege of distance with the affliction of never wholly belonging, to which Hollinshead refers in his discussion of diasporic identities. He characterises these as an uncertain, even schizophrenic way of being, somewhere between the richness of a “transnational oversoul” (a term he borrows from Wilson and Dissanayake) and an awkward, off-balance “half-soul”. His argument that such identities are “invariably protean” suggests both insecurity and an automatic worldliness not available to more stable, unambiguously territorial identities which tend to lend themselves to essentialised notions of land and belonging. Others have noted the potential in ‘diasporics’ for the realisation of radical political alternatives, advocating the deconstruction of the parochialism associated with nationalism and other politicisations of identity which bind it to particular territories. Comparisons may be drawn between the marginal space occupied by the diasporic, exiled or migrant, and the politically marginal and insecure “space of radical openness” associated with postmodern cultural politics. Would it be better, then, to resist that impulse towards an immediate and automatic localisation of identity? As Casey notes, ‘Where are you from?’ is the first thing we ask of a stranger. Instead, should we entertain that possibility of de-localisation contained in what Clifford calls the “intercultural identity question” of ‘where are you between?’

Tuesday, 23 September 2008


Being a student in Brighton, you’re likely to come across a fair amount of recreational drug use even if you don’t happen to partake in such activity yourself. Ketamine, MDMA, pills, even cocaine; all may be notable presences at festivals and student parties. This alone is not particularly remarkable: they are used both responsibly and irresponsibly, and it would be rash to pronounce judgement on general drug use either way.

In fact, what infuriates many people is a particular kind of drug use – or rather, a particular kind of drug user. I am quite sure, this being the home of Sussex University and other institutions known for their tendency to produce opinionated activists, that this figure will be recognisable.

It is the figure of the politicised student, the green student, the anti-war or anti-capitalist campaigner who is concerned about all forms of social stratification, violence and oppression, and will happily take any opportunity to tell you so. It is the kind of student who is not content to work tirelessly for peace and justice and sustainability; no, they are determined to be a crusader for their particular cause, guilt-tripping all those who fail to meet their exacting standards.

Which is all well and good, of course. Until they tell you, with undeniable glee, about how they got wasted the night before.

It is no secret that cocaine, for example, finds its way onto our streets only through a whole host of exploitative and harmful practices in poor countries. The cocaine user is implicated in human trafficking, armed violence, increased substance abuse in the producer countries, and environmental degradation as coca plantations replace pristine forest. New problems are arising as stricter controls in North America and Europe force new routes to be forged through vulnerable West African countries like Guinea Bissau, which lack the resources and infrastructure to tackle drug smuggling and end up facing greater corruption and poverty.

And even once it reaches Britain, its use cannot be separated from its abuse in other contexts, and the damage that dealing and related crimes inflict on already deprived communities – communities that, incidentally, very few of those privileged enough to be attending university can claim to be familiar with.

Of course, coke is less widely used amongst students because it can be prohibitively expensive, but more commonly used synthetic drugs are not without their own serious social consequences. The procurement of ketamine within Europe, for example, often takes place through organised crime networks and dodgy pharmaceutical companies.

We also have to consider the costs of any illicit drug use to the wider society: the costs of acquisitive and associated crime, law enforcement and justice systems, property damage, hospitalisation and treatment, preventative efforts, unemployment and low productivity. For those concerned about inequality, it should be borne in mind that no drug trade is without its own hierarchy, and generally accentuates income disparities.


I believe that everyone has their causes, and if you’re passionate about something it’s only natural to try and convince others to share your passions – whether it’s nuclear disarmament, ecological sustainability, human rights or peace in the Middle East.

But for those who are serious about social justice in our so-called ‘globalised’ world, getting wasted is a wasted opportunity, stripping you of your socially conscious credentials. You can ignore the chain of exploitation that brings drugs like cocaine all the way from Colombia to your own pocket, but you do so at the expense of your credibility.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Unseen Scenes in Singapore

by Pia Muzaffar and Olly Laughland 
pictures by Alex Jimenez
This article was first published in Poda Poda in December 2007

‘Trespassers will be prosecuted’.

We wrench loose an MDF board covering the once grand entrance, before slipping inside, avoiding the rusty nails. Our feet crunch over broken glass as we peer into the gloom. The ticket booths, smashed to shit, still welcome Mastercard and Visa and still dispense mouldy, discoloured maps. Plastic statues slump, their plastic heads scattered on the floor. ‘I love sex’. ‘Get out’. ‘Bobby and Pris wuz here 99’. The ceiling is falling in, the lights exploded. The tropical undergrowth is slowly reclaiming this misguided business venture. The mosquitos have returned to these stagnant lakes. Giant pink paper horses and blue paper elephants, frozen mid-motion, aflame and collapsing in on themselves.

Perhaps this freakish fairytale was doomed to fail from the start. A tourist attraction designed for Chinese tourism and themed around ancient Chinese imperial history, elaborately carved from plaster of paris and plywood, built in 1980s Singapore, now stands closed a decade later and erased from the national memory.

Like so many Singaporean transgressions, ‘Tang Dynasty City’ remains very much present, but obscured from public view. On the surface, this highly successful city-state embodies the image its government seeks to project: it is clean and clean-living, obedient, polite, orderly and well-planned. Gays, prostitutes, transvestites, the homeless, political dissidents, governmental corruption and national failures – all these get swept under the carpet of state-sanctioned discourse.

The same may be said of the higher education system. When we first started studying here, we were shocked and bemused by the attitudes of the Singaporean students. The learning culture is totally at odds with what we’ve come to expect from our experiences at a British university. In Singapore, we said to each other with a mixture of bemusement and reproach, the students just don’t question anything. They don’t question their lecturers and they don’t question the way the university is run. They don’t question the texts they read, and they shy away from questioning each other. They are excessively respectful of authority, they study way too hard and hardly ever go out, and they ‘strive for excellence’ rather than seeking to critically interrogate established modes of thinking. Dr Chee Soon Juan, a former neuropsychology lecturer at NUS, recalls his frustration with his students. On one occasion he came to class and told them that he was just going to stare at them. So he sat there, and stared. After fifteen minutes of uncomfortable silence, in which not one student challenged him or asked him to begin teaching, he simply got up and left.

Of course, having been in Singapore for over three months now, this characterisation of ‘the Singaporean Student’ – as compliant, submissive and unquestioning – has revealed itself to be somewhat simplistic. In the terminology of James Scott, there are definitely both ‘public transcripts’ and ‘hidden transcripts’ at work here, as there are in Singaporean society more broadly. In public, we think it’s fair to say that the majority of Singaporeans are passive and conformist. Decades of authoritarian rule combined with generally decent standards of living and state-controlled media will tend to do that to a society. But in private spaces, Singaporeans still think; they still feel discontent and have that nagging sensation that all is not quite as it appears. However, these hidden transcripts of dissent tend not to manifest themselves in immediately visible ways. Thus our new self-appointed task has been to delve under the carpet and search out this undercurrent of opposition.

Our clandestine visit to ‘Tang Dynasty City’ was just one stop on an alternative 24-hour tour of Singapore, run by a PhD student here who delights in showing both foreigners and young Singaporeans alike the ‘seedier’ sides of the city. Most of our activities were illegal. We spent a couple of hours in a gay club, snuck around a disused, haunted hospital, wandered through a Chinese burial ground, discovered the red-light district, and broke into an indestructible house with a mysterious curse hanging over it – all in the dead of night. Aside from being fun (and pretty scary at times), it opened our eyes to the kinds of alternative narratives hidden under Singapore’s carpet of orthodoxy. The gay bar was far more open and ‘mainstream’ than we had expected – considering homosexuality is illegal in Singapore – and the haunted houses we visited were clearly also frequented by local ghost-hunting enthusiasts and grafitti-spraying youth. We realised there is unorthodox activity going on here but it has its designated place, out of the sight of foreign visitors, and indeed, of many Singaporeans.

What we saw on the tour seemed an apt metaphor for Singaporean ‘resistance’. As we were shocked to discover upon our arrival here, public protest, spontaneous gatherings and political dissent are among those things illegal under Singaporean law. Furthermore, the government invests significant time and resources in manufacturing and maintaining a climate of fear, ensuring that all but a few dissenters are either too scared or too apathetic to voice their dissent. People are unhappy with how their government runs the country, but virtually no one is willing to speak up. We have been incredibly fortunate to meet with one of the few Singaporeans who does speak out, at great personal cost, whenever he can.

Dr Chee Soon Juan used to teach here at NUS. As soon as he became involved in opposition politics, however, he was fired on tenuous grounds. But this, after all, is the National University – the University where ex-Prime Minister (and now ‘Minister Mentor’, a position of authority without precedent in any other professed democracy) Lee Kuan Yew has an entire school named in his honour; where his son (and current Prime Minister) Lee Hsien Loong studied; and where his son in turn and countless other state officials studied. Criticism of the government has been erased from the curriculum. Since his dismissal, Dr Chee has not relented in his mission to make Singapore the functioning democracy its leaders claim it to be. His party, the Singapore Democratic Party, is marginalised from mainstream politics despite having considerable (though often covert) support; he has personally suffered the abrupt ending of his academic career, repeated imprisonment, bankruptcy and continued fines for his political activity, and total demonisation and ridicule by the state-controlled media. Through making such an example of one man (and similar persecution has been acted out on a number of other dissenters in other contexts), the Singaporean government is able to maintain its society in a state of fear.

Even more frightening than this, however, is that the generation who have grown up in Singapore during the last quarter of the twentieth century have no living memory of what society was like before. They don’t remember the 60s and 70s, when student rallies could number in their thousands and to question the government was natural rather than prohibited. One twenty-something Singaporean friend of ours recalls that her uncle was once involved in some kind of activism many years ago, before being getting arrested. She doesn’t know what happened to him whilst he was in custody, and he doesn’t really speak about it, but says he was “changed” after it happened. An atmosphere of fear, secrecy and restraint pervades many popular recollections of this period. Or, even more alarmingly, activism is seen as a joke. The leftist nationalist movements that undeniably played a part in Singapore’s formal independence are reduced to comedic asides in lectures.

By now, the focus of civil society has shifted – and education is a prime example. As Dr Chee noted, the point of education is
to question. And yet students in Singapore are programmed from an early age to compete with each other in the quest for ‘excellence’, rather than question authority. This can lead to some paradoxical scenarios: in one of our lectures (a Political Science class no less), the lecturer at one point broke away from the topic to state: “I’m sorry to break it to you, but Singapore is another example of an authoritarian government.” Whilst this might not appear a particularly controversial claim, it is extremely unusual in Singapore to hear such a sentiment expressed by a person in a position of authority – especially at NUS. We were surprised, then, to find that the class spontaneously burst into applause. Clearly such political sentiments are widely-held, but can’t be expressed without first being sanctioned by a figure of authority.

The paradoxical character of dissent here demonstrates that when conventional protest is proscribed, most people seek other ways of expressing their politics. What might seem like a taxi driver merely bemoaning his lot, takes on new significance given the fact that thousands of taxi drivers have had to attend a government training course instructing them to have neat hair, no BO, and to not talk to customers about “sensitive issues” such as race or state policy. A sarcastic aside by an NUS lecturer carries great weight in an academic environment that stifles the free exchange of opinion. What might seem a slight matter, of whether or not to turn up to a peaceful vigil held outside the Burmese embassy in solidarity with the monks and civilians making a stand against a military regime, becomes a decision of great consequence, between silence and massive social transgression. Our experience in Singapore has made meaningful certain academic debates emphasising the myriad, everyday forms ‘resistance’ may take. Small acts may have enormous consequences, and the fact that much discontent is hidden does not mean it isn’t there. It only means you have to spend a bit of time unearthing and exposing it.

Review: Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan (No Harvest But A Thorn)

This book review was written in December 2007 for the course Rice, Spice and Trees: Peasants in Southeast Asia at the National University of Singapore.

Ahmad’s classic post-independence era novel is an exposition of peasant struggle, a gruesome celebration of the rural Malay livelihood and its associated pitfalls. The story follows the family of Lahuma, a padi farmer in a northern Malaysian village, throughout one disastrous padi cycle. After encountering a snake in their field (an indisputable bad omen), Lahuma later pierces his foot on a nibong thorn and is unable to continue working after it becomes infected. His body gradually swells up with pus, and he dies an ignominious death. It is left to his wife, Jeha, and their seven daughters to work the padi field. But the physical and mental strain causes Jeha to slowly go mad, and she must eventually be imprisoned in a makeshift cage in their tiny home, lest she endangers her youngest children or the padi harvest itself. The novel ends with the eldest daughter contemplating her future working the fields, and Jeha, caged, “screaming through the night” (Ahmad 1991 [1966]:177). This simple plot is thickened through the detailed description of everyday life in this rural community: its social stratifications and behavioural norms; the place of women; the peasant as “existentially involved in cultivation” (Wolf 1969:xiv) and essentially connected to the soil; the constant toil and hardship of the farmer; his cosmology, his fears. Ahmad frequently narrates from the perspective of his central characters as well as taking on a more omniscient third-person style of prose, giving a very full, almost ethnographic depiction of peasant life.

Vulnerability and anxiety are entrenched in this portrayal. Lahuma worries constantly about the day-to-day work at the rice field, and about his family’s future subsistence as their small plot of land decreases in size. When he dies, this anxiety passes to Jeha; after she goes mad, it is their daughters who then shoulder the burden. The village as a whole is subject to the whims of nature: to its floods, its attacking birds, its infestations of crabs, its thorns, its snakes. The peasantry is also constrained by the limited agricultural land upon which ever greater demographic pressure is exerted, exemplified by Lahuma’s concern about the insufficiency of his plot of fourteen relongs. There are hints at the social stratifications leaving the family dependent on the help of the Tok Penghulu (the head of the village), as well as at the presence of Chinese to whom Lahuma is loth to relinquish any more land. The village seems to fit Wolf’s characterisation of the peasantry’s “basic dilemma” as a constant, conscious effort to maintain its “precarious balance” against forces threatening to undermine it (1966:16). It is this vulnerability that leaves the most enduring impression.

Prayer and perseverance: the peasant hero
The novel’s constant and deepening anxiety about the future and the struggle for subsistence is (paradoxically) combined with a total and unshakeable trust in divine providence. It starts by anchoring Lahuma’s existence firmly within the land in “both a liturgical and genealogical charter” (Aveling 2000:112). Lahuma (whose very name is significant: huma, as Ahmad has acknowledged (1991:473), means ‘field’) remembers his own grandfather in the earth and silently repeats the mantra: “Life and death, dearth and plenty, are in the hands of God. In the hands of Allah the almighty” (Ahmad 1991 [1966]:1). Evident here is the rhythmic, repetitious quality characteristic of the book as a whole, which serves to create the sense of timelessness and inevitablity exemplified in the following passage:

Lahuma’s struggle for the children’s survival – sheer survival – would not end. It was going to be carried on by Jeha. Carried on by Sanah. Carried on by Milah. Carried on by Jenab. Carried on by Semek. Carried on by Liah. Carried on by Lebar. Carried on by Kiah. They would survive with the rice. Or die with the rice.
(Ahmad 1991 [1966]:95)

Ahmad also uses repetition to convey the determination of his characters in the face of desperate circumstances, constructing them as archtypal hardworking “peasant heroes” (Tahir 1982):

I will go down to the rice field… I will not come up again until all the plots are completed. I will pull up the seedlings at the belukar when the time comes. I will carry the bundles of seedlings down to the rice-field. I will plant the seedlings row by row. I will replace and rice-stems that may break. I will pull up the weeds that vie with the rice-plants. I will chase away the tiaks when the rice turns gold. I will harvest the rice in gemals. I will cary the gemals into the rice-barn. I will thrash the rice until the stalks come off. I will sun the rice until it is dry. I will pound the rice until the husks come off. I will cook the rice into hot steaming food…
(Ahmad 1991 [1966]:49)

Whilst the novel is incredibly effective at communicating the hardship and labour involved in rice production, as the very notion of the ‘peasant hero’ might suggest, such characterisations of the Malay peasantry are not ideologically or morally neutral. It is a commonplace within studies of rural Malay societies that a simplistic, conservative Islam prevails, which is associated with “a simple series of truths… A good man was one who worked hard and was wary of strangers” (Banks 1983:28). Moral status is highly dependent on hard work and acceptance of one’s rezeki (what one has been alloted by God). Some commentators have interpreted Lahuma’s total subservience to the will of God as passive, even fatalistic (see for example Banks 1987:118), indeed reflecting many anthropological readings. Swift, for example, has observed that in the Malay peasant cosmology, “[i]f someone dies an untimely death, “their span was up”… [there is] a predisposition to explain everything in terms of luck, and to neglect trying to improve one’s position, for after all one has very little control over it” (2001:91). However, the seemingly paradoxical combination of trust in fate and commitment to hard work is reconciled both in Islamic theology (see for example Basri and Zarkashi 1992:399, 401), and in Ahmad’s characters, who do not once question God’s wisdom and purpose, yet at the same time do not cease in their toil. It seems as if Ahmad is seeking to present a model ‘peasant’ response to circumstances of great hardship and suffering; indeed, he is not shy of generalisations:

The yield of rice was very poor. And the people of Banggul Derdap were plunged in gloom. But their gloom was not confined to themselves. They did not connect it with Allah the Almighty. They did not curse God. It was their habit to accept with resignation the disasters which so often befell them. Such was their life. Never to know full satisfaction. And they accepted the disasters of crabs and tiaks with fresh determination and spirit; to plant rice again next year if Allah the Almighty willed that they should survive till then.
(Ahmad 1991 [1966]:171)

It is difficult to read this passage without noting the implicit moral approval.

The construction of the peasant
Seen in the historical context of a newly independent Malaysia and contemporaneous discourses around ‘modernisation’ and ‘underdevelopment’, the anxiety that characterises the novel’s tone takes on a broader significance. For Ahmad, the peasant lifestyle and subsistence is cyclical in nature – in addition to the constant use of repetition, the novel’s time frame is one rice cycle from beginning to end, and the final chapter is entitled “The Cycle Continues” – denoting a certain stability, an enduring quality. This stability is reinforced by constant reference to elements of ‘tradition’. For example, the position of women is deemed unchanged by the possiblity of secular education: as Jeha says, “Girls needn’t know how to read. Doesn’t change the market value. I never even went to school” (Ahmad 1991 [1966]:18). Given that the area of peninsular Malaysia in which the novel is set has in the twentieth century “been transformed from an isolated and largely self-sufficient region into an administrative unit of a modern nation-state, and its residents are tied into the cash economy of rubber production” (Bailey 1983:8), we can ascribe a clear intent to Ahmad’s insistence on tradition; on the unchanging aspects of the peasant cosmology. He has made clear elsewhere his belief that wage labour, rubber tapping for the cash economy and collecting jungle products are not real farming, and that most Malays in the village of Banggul Derdap were “not real farmers” (cited in Aveling 2000:53); Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan, then, articulates the traditional ‘real farmer’.

Yet this representation obscures a great deal. Firstly, the very notion of a ‘real farmer’ or ‘authentic peasant’ tradition must be interrogated. Ahmad’s unsubtle rendering of Lahuma and family as existentially connected with the soil cannot be separated from its ideological buttressing of Malaysian society’s explicitly racialised division of labour. Twentieth century anthropologists such as Swift have also uncritically employed this form of social categorisation: “To know a person’s race is to know that he will probably perform one of a few economic functions. The Malay is primarily a peasant” (2001:88). This essentialises historically contingent social permutations, obfuscating the constructedness of the ‘Malay peasant’ (1) and how the peasantry initially came to work the land in such a way, as migrants, pioneers and settlers (2). Ahmad’s undeniably grim portrayal also obscures the wry humour that has been noticeably present in every kampung I’ve ever visited, unwittingly denying one of the ways in which the subordinated peasant may express his interpretation of contemporary events – his “hidden transcript” or “partial transcript” that may well constitute a form of resistance (Scott 1985:284-6). For example, though the Islamic worldview of the Malay peasant is presented as both profound and profoundly uncritical, there is no mention of the cynicism with which local religious leaders are often received (3).

Modernist ambivalence: the “babble and roar”
However, beyond the role of the author or anthropologist in disciplining the rural population, Ahmad’s reification of the Malay peasantry is also indicative of a broader anxiety – a “babble and roar about what Malay life style should be” (Nash 1974:65) – that characterised the Malay population during the postwar period and its associated social upheavals. ‘Modernity’ and later ‘development’ was seen as something external, foreign; both desired and feared (Johnson 2007:13). Nash also cites the rural expression, that if we don’t change we’ll be driven to hanging from the trees, which “sums up the poignancy of a peasantry who are the lagging members of a modernizing nation” (1974:67). This conception of the peasant is not mere paranoia; key anthropologists have also encouraged such a view (4). Other commentators have also noted the rapid de-kampung-isation of the Malays (see for example Sardar 2004). Viewed in social-historical context both the anxiety which is so intrinsic to the novel, and the simple, steadfast souls who inhabit its cyclical peasant universe, can be seen as symbolic of the endemic ambivalence of the period. Ahmad, at one point the national laureate of Malaysia, attempts to discursively ‘fix’ the peasant in his traditional lifestyle, asserting a permanence to Malay peasant culture in the face of existential threat. As Foucault (1970:290) argues, “if language expresses, it does so not in so far as it is an imitation and duplication of things, but in so far as it manifests… the fundamental will of those who speak it”.

Though Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan certainly provides a meticulous and moving depiction of peasant life, preserving it somewhat in the context of large-scale social change; ultimately its value must be seen in its exemplary construction (and simultaneous obfuscation) of ‘the Malay peasant’, and the reification of tradition in response to the perceived threat of ‘development’.

(1) The Malayan colonial economy was structured according to (and dependent on) this racialised division of labour; when Malays began to sell their land to Chinese, Indian and European buyers, threatening the organisation of the rural Malay population in their kampungs (villages), colonial administrators adopted a paternalistic discourse of protection. To prevent the “extinction” of Malay “tradition” – seen as “a race of yeoman-peasantry… deluded by visions of present but transitory wealth” (cited in Ong 1987:19-20) – they actively prevented such sales from taking place, whilst also restricting Malays who wanted to cultivate cash crops instead of food (1987:21). Clearly the essentialisation of peasant identity can be seen as a strategy of “containment” (Kearney 1996:60). During the period in which the novel was written there are further ideological implications of constructing the Malay as ‘native’ to and hence bound to the land itself, considering the political motives behind state and legal discourses according certain rights to bumiputera (lit. ‘sons of the soil’).
(2) (see also Walker 2001 and Tan 2000 for examples from Thai and Vietnamese contexts respectively).
(3) For example, Nash (1974:60) recounts one common anecdote in the village in which his research was based: “A man catches a strange fish. He brings it to a
Tok Guru asking if it is halal (lawful) to eat. The Tok Guru hesitates in replying. The fisherman says it would be a shame to throw it away since he wanted to give the Tok Guru half of it. The Tok Guru immediately says that the fish is of course halal.”
(4) Wolf, for example, places the peasantry “midway between the primitive tribe and industrial society… They are important historically, because industrial society is built upon the ruins of peasant society. They are important contemporaneously, because they inhabit that “underdeveloped” part of the world whose continued presence constitutes both a threat and a responsibility for those countries which have thrown off the shackles of backwardness” (1966:vii). He clearly understands the peasant existence as both threatened and threaten
ing in equal measures – and additionally, as a social permutation whose ultimate decline and replacement by modern industrial society is inevitable (and even desirable).

Ahmad, S. 1991 [1966]. No Harvest But A Thorn [Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan], trans. A. Amin (Petaling Jaya: Fajar Bakti)

Ahmad, S. 1991. Sastera Sebagai Seismograf Kelidupan (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka)

Aveling, H. 2000. Shahnon Ahmad: Islam, Power and Gender (Bangi: Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia)

Bailey, C. 1983. The Sociology of Production in Rural Malay Society (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press)

Banks, D. J. 1983. Malay Kinship (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues)

Banks, D. J. 1987. From Class to Culture: Social Conscience in Malay Novels Since Independence (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Southeast Asia Studies)

Basri, G. and Zarkashi, M. P. 1992. ‘Islam and Rural Development in Malaysia with Special Reference to Malaysian Fisherman’ in King, V. T. and N. M. Jali (eds.) Issues in Rural Development in Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka)

Foucault, M. 1970. The Order Of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Random House)

Johnson, D. 2007. ‘Malay Representations of Modernity, the Present and the Future’, Paper presented at the ICAS5 Conference: Shaping a Future in Asia. Kuala Lumpur, 2-5 August

Kearney, M. 1996. Reconceptualizing the peasantry : anthropology in global perspective (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press)

Nash, M. 1974. Peasant Citizens: Politics, Religion and, and Modernization in Kelantan, Malaysia (Ohio: Center for International Studies)

Ong, A. 1987. Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline: Factory Women in Malaysia (Albany: State University of New York Press)

Sardar, Z. 2004. The Consumption of Kuala Lumpur (London: Reaktion Books)

Scott, J. C. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (Yale University Press)

Swift, M. G. 2001. ‘Malay Peasants’ in Baharuddin, S. A. (ed.) Social Anthropology of the Malays: Collected Essays of M. G. Swift (Bangi: Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia)

Tahir, U. M. M. 1982. ‘Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan: The Story of a Peasant Hero’, in Review of Indonesian and Malaysian Affairs, 16 (1): 26-47.

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Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Compassion Fatigue and Palestinian Walks

Here’s a phenomenon quite particular to our late-capitalist modernity: Compassion Fatigue, the unwanted offspring of middle-class postcolonial guilt. So significant that it even has its own wikipedia entry.

What is described by this phrase? I characterise it as the process by which our attentions are constantly drawn to – that is to say, by which we are made Aware of – a multitude of Issues about which we subsequently express Concern, and the eventual weariness that accompanies repetition.

This concept should not serve to veil a negative judgement on those whose compassion reserves become exhausted, nor should it be seen as a derisive retort to those who annoy us with (some would say) sanctimonious appeals to our goodwill.

No, we can say with confidence that people are genuinely Concerned about Issues and believe that raising Awareness can help in some small way. We are convinced, perhaps, that if everyone knew what atrocities and indignities were suffered daily by our fellow men and women, such suffering would surely have to cease.

And yet this is, of course, the central fallacy that is both exposed and sustained by Compassion Fatigue. We are in fact experiencing exposure to an overabundance of Issues; an Awareness glut. Through consuming newspapers and magazines, documentary and television, charity appeals and the advice of Concerned friends, we bear witness to an extraordinary exhibition of mistreatment, conflict and disaster – to the extent that whole regions or even continents can become identifiable by a single image of human misery.

Just as poverty, famine and malnutrition appear as native products of sub-Saharan Africa, so Israel/Palestine is imagined as a conflict zone and nothing more. We cannot permit such anomalies, such divergent interests as the Jerusalemite heavy-metaller or the love story between two young people from Jenin, or indeed, the lawyer from Ramallah who enjoys nothing more than a ramble in his homeland’s historic hills.

It’s harsh, but true: when you utter the words ‘Israel’ or ‘Palestine’ – or worse, combine the two – and if your voice should betray the barest trace of self-righteousness, or even mere earnestness, the people you are trying to reach are fairly likely to just switch off.

Israel/Palestine is one of those Issues that both bores and divides, because people are either tired of hearing about a problem that appears so intractable, or they are pretty much fixed in their view on the situation. The task of recruiting new Concerned people, or shaking others out of their preconceptions and prejudices, can seem impossible.

Which is why a book like Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks deserves consideration. Structured around six walks in the hills of the West Bank undertaken by the author over a period of many years, this book provides an unorthodox route into Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, and may thus avoid the shortcomings of more overtly polemical, historical or legal accounts and their tendency to ‘preach to the converted’.

Shehadeh intersperses rather straightforward accounts of his journeys through the landscape with memories from his childhood, past conversations, details from legal cases in his professional work, autobiographical reflections and more random observations. These aren’t woven together by any means seamlessly, but the narrative’s sometime awkwardness is all the more charming for it. Its strength is the author’s flatly descriptive style which belies a kind of restraint, a reluctance to sermonise uncommon in other writings set in the same political geography.

The subtitle of the book is Notes on a vanishing landscape, and at a reading this week in Stratford’s St John’s Church, Shehadeh confirmed that his efforts may be understood as an attempt to chronicle a pastime that is becoming increasingly constricted in an environment that is ever more degraded and forcibly fragmented. The six walks – the six sarhat, an Arabic word connoting freedom and lack of restraint – map the shift that has taken place over the last twenty-five years as Israeli settlements have expanded, land appropriation has continued, military checkpoints have multiplied, and the Separation or Apartheid Wall has been built. It is a shift “from sarha to suffocation”, as the author puts it, away from “a land that was open and free” to one in which the simple urge to leave one’s house and walk into surrounding hills must be stifled. We need not speculate about the psychological effects of such physical confinement; they are manifest in the frustration, weariness and occasional auto-destructive violence exhibited by Palestinians living in the West Bank.


As an aside, Palestinian Walks is a particularly interesting text to read in conjunction with Meron Benvenisti’s Sacred Landscapes: The Buried History of the Holy Land since 1948. A central theme that emerges from Benvenisti’s book is the importance of the cult of ‘knowing the land’, knowing Eretz Yisrael. Its physical occupation through settlement is incomplete if there is not a simultaneous appropriation of the knowledge of that landscape; its symbols, its histories, its names. He describes the process by which the Palestinians’ local knowledge – which recognised every wadi, every stream and every tree – has been systematically erased as a key strategy in reducing the Palestinians’ claims to the land. First the Zionist cartographers renamed and Hebraeised these features of the landscape, and then the inhabitants of the land were increasingly denied access to it, through massacres, expulsions, or the physical strangulation that the checkpoints embody today.

In this context, Shehadeh’s attempt to record (in walks and words) a direct connection with precisely located, identifiable parts of the landscape, must be understood as an important political exercise, and one with considerable potential for empowerment. The youth at present have little memory of the relative freedom Shehadeh is able to remember, and cannot imagine the natural beauty that surrounds their towns and villages since they have such limited access to it – they are more accustomed to seeing the hills as a place of danger and insecurity. For Palestinians to retain their claim to the land, even as the population may be growing faster among the diaspora than within Palestine itself, it is this identification with the physical landscape that must be promoted and maintained if ‘Palestine’ is to be anything more than an ethnic marker or origin myth.