North Korea Duh!

The UN is finally talking about North Korean human rights as if they just discovered the abuses. On closer inspection, two things have happened. Firstly they found their balls in the same draw as the charter on human rights extending to all nations. And secondly China is now more ripe to push into at least not vetoing official comments on North Korea. China’s burgeoning social media is full of public comment, still under the censor’s gaze but much more open that before. But while comment is accepted, China favours stability in North Korea even it recognises the brutality of the regime. It fears a flood of refugees and military instability should the regime collapse.

North Korea’s position is also helped by the timidity of Japan and the reluctance and of South Korea to confront its brother. While most of North Korea’s army is ill-equipped, poorly-fed soldiers and its equipment is near obsolete, it’s been given time to fortify and entrench itself. Should China pull the plug, I have no doubts, North Korea would collapse. However I am sure they would take people with them.

But this is some progress but while North Korea is the world’s worst country and offender on these issues, if these charters meant anything they’d also be addressed at China, Russia, the US and everyone else. Alas their balls aren’t that big. Westphalian sovereignty is still the fall-back position disallowing real action on Tibet, Chechnya and Guantanamo. Or another way to look at it is, don’t bite the hand that provides you with a place of work, a seat, a bountiful salary, nice lunches and generous accommodation.

I Think I’ve Checked Out. I Think

I have spent the last 10 days in some kind of haze, a mist that left me ambient and confused, ambivalent and docile. I am not sure what has caused it. Possibly the upcoming events and my feelings towards it and the general future or the recent past which no doubt will soon seem like a distant time. I am not asking for sympathy or help. I’m not feeling listless or incapable. I just have an inert feeling. I’m unworried but uncaring concerned for my near future or what I’m leaving behind. I should be excited but I really am not.
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I leave Qatar next week after 18 months. I’m going to Russia and then Serbia and Slovenia. I’ll be seeing people I miss and care about. It should be a joyous time but it feels like I am hearing someone else talk about it. I’m one of those friends who never left now, sitting in a bar with that recently returned friend who tells you all those adventures. You remain enthusiastic for as long as possible but soon fatigue runs over you and you stop smiling, caring and listening. I am that person to myself. Have I done this too long?

This soon-to-be past in Qatar, or the time spent in general, have been a fortunate time for me. I’ve earn and learnt, honed some skills and diversified my knowledge. I have learnt little of the language but I hope plenty more about the culture within the Gulf, the Arabic world in general and the interlocking relationships between the states and their people. This broad brotherhood (or umma) is a whole other, ancient civilisation founded on one lingua franca and one religion and yet within this broad diaspora there are vast difference histories, ethnicities and political goals. The mess in the Middle East tell us of the depth of said differences. However this gulf in my (and I think the West’s) knowledge of the Muslim world has narrowed. For that I am greatly appreciative.

And yet despite such learning, such difference, and the great holidays I’ve had along the way, I don’t quite feel happy about it. I can’t say I am unhappy. It has no impactful feeling. I’m leaving little behind. A period of my life is coming to an end and yet I can’t define anything tangible to cherish. The future, a mere 10 days away seems like another Earth in a parallel universe visible in my imagination yet dulled by time and dust. How I reach it I am not sure. It doesn’t feel like it exists right now except in my dusty reaches.

I’m writing this at 2:02am. I can’t sleep, a bad habit that’s formed in these recent days. My mind is occupied but I can’t tell you what by. Tiredness captures and steal me away but never to restful sleep but slumber. I suppose all will become clear soon. I hope so and know so. I really don’t know where I am. Maybe these coming days will help but I know I need a mind clear-out. That spring clean is a mental exercise. I’ve already left. Mentally I’ve checked out even if I’ve yet to leave those a note. Those days are over now. With it, some of the haze lifts and I can spot some roads to the horizon again.

The Shaggs – Philosophy of the World

9bc38e6cI found this album on my harddrive and realised I’d never listened to it. I’d have remembered for sure. Beyond the band name that brings on a smile, the music itself send you into a giggling fit for a long while.

The album is well-known in music circles. Made in 1969 by three sisters at the behest of their overbearing father, it’s been touted as one of the most original or worst albums you’ll ever hear. I am listening to it again as I type this.

Everything about it is wrong. The rhythm section is so out of synch you can’t help laughing. It’s like hearing a performance at a special school. The drumming is completely monotonous and bizarre. The shifts within the tunes (if you can call them that) never match. There isn’t a seamless movement within them. They clearly had no producer when recording the album. The lack of complexities leave you perplexed. Is that it? I thought.

But like beginners, the album does get better as it goes along. They were learning all along. The chords gain variety and the sound becomes more dense. Alas the drummer never quite makes the adjustment. The lyrics concern parents, religion, driving to school and their portable radio. It’s ineptitude is charming after a while. You start to care and feel proud when they put on a half-decent song. By the end of the album, you are smiling and want to encourage them along.

I could never say this is a great album. It’s stubborn amateurishness is astonishing. This isn’t an album of brilliance. There is no redemption. Yet the simplicity of the whole affair is endearing. Despite their lack of talent, you feel their earnest effort. And by the end, you do give it another listen. You never know what you’ll hear.

Missed Life

As I enter the final few weeks of my time here, here is the other side of the What I’ve Loved post. Partly to explain why I am leaving and also, after just coming back from Asia and after being in England over the summer to visit London, Brighton and Newcastle and finally to Devon for Christmas, I’ve accumulated what I have missed, not what I can’t do without but what I’d chose. This blog might seem very negative but give it a chance. You have to appreciate life in the Gulf, even more than the rest of the Middle East is very different.

1. When I asked Asen recently how was last night, he replied good. We found a new place cos you know Doha is limited. Everyone is trying to find something new to do. As a sociable person, fairly extrovert, making friends has been easy in Qatar. I’ve a good group and I’d consider some good friends under any circumstance. However while we socialise together, the country doesn’t make it easy and there is a feeling of slight disparateness and possibly desperation. You make the most of what you have but sometimes that’s trying tells its own story.

2. Music. Oh My God music. The music festival in Gdansk brought home how much I need and love live music in my life. I feel out of the loop of current music, clubs and albums. Mostly I miss bars with music.

3. Weather

Qataris love rain and clouds. They take pictures of the rain. They laugh videos of the floods after. They’ll take about how wonderful the weather in the UK is. There is little drainage in the country and so rain turns to floods immediately. Expats talk of the beautiful weather but in truth that only lasts 7/8 months. The rest of the time it is relentless and oppressive heat. Hot wind fills the air. Dust is everywhere. A day with clouds is so welcoming and so rare. The English might moan about the weather but I’d rather have a British winter over a Qatari summer.

5. Greenery/Waterways

The very thought of this brings a lump to my throat. I miss grass. I miss trees. I miss parks. I miss park benches and fountains. Flying into the UK in summer, seeing the hedges and small, narrow, winding lanes brought such a smile. While we have a seaside and beaches up the coast, I live in the desert. It’s a desert. A harsh, unforgiving landscape.

6. Walking/Biking

I love walking, whether through cities or the countryside. I like to be under my own steam, to see the world up close. Biking is a way of getting around for me but I love the adventure of skipping pavements, taking sidetracks, feeling my legs tire and the panting, joy of arriving.

7. Exercise

Gyms are boring. I feel deeply unmotivated in them. But really I miss cardio. I can’t ride. Can’t run and football doesn’t happen enough. I know this is a personal issue. I can spend more time in the gym but I’d prefer to be able to play, walk or ride my way back to fitness.

8. Organised traffic

The everyman for himself attitude in traffic is firstly dangerous and secondly obnoxious and arrogant. The blind turning of Indian drivers, ridiculous cutting across lanes or the Toyota Land Cruiser tanks brings unnecessary stress to life. This is obviously not a Qatari issue. Selfish driving exists around the world but coming back to Europe and seeing how everything is organised to make it work for everyone brings home a lot about Europe I love. The most angering issue is the sight of kids standing between the front seats and parents stupidly ignorant to the dangers they are exposing their children. Public transport is also missing. There are plenty of taxis and apparently buses but the ability to mix is totally lost. The subway is being built but who will use it ? The same people using the buses i.e. the poorer migrants.

9. Style

Nadia was cute recently. In her dancey, extravagant way, full of hand gesturing and smiles she said when she came to Qatar she was very ‘bling, bling,’ loving bags and jewellry but now she just wants simple things. I completely get this. It’s so shallow and consumerist here. I miss seeing people. The lack of individual style, the ability to show difference and expression is lost. Dress in Qatar is conservative of course for the locals but the accessories they wear are worrying. I see teenagers with huge watches. Women with jewellry, bags and sunglasses that cost into the thousands. One woman told me how the bag she wanted was too much at 12,000 pounds. Instead she got the 2,000 pound bag. She showed no flicker of understanding how wasteful this is. Fashion labels must be making a killing here.

10. Architecture

Qatar has nothing old. Nothing classical. The Souq is a quaint but only few decades old. ‘Old Doha’ is merely a few decades old. It will all be bulldozed in the next decade to make way for more modern structures. And yet West Bay and the Pearl contain tower blocks which are mostly empty. They will fill up for the World Cup and as Qatar develops. What happens after that, I don’t know. I miss walking round towns, spotting curiosities and small alleyways leading to little restaurants and pubs.

11. Social integration

Qatar is a hierarchal society. The mixing that exists comes in levels. A service economy makes most workers and the few leaders. This is the same for the top two echelons of the society; the Qataris and the whites. Most people are here for pragmatic reasons. They are transitory in spirit. Life might be better here for many than in their more unstable homes. They stay for the stability and the money. And yet everyone wants to go home.

12. Fun

I can’t put enough fingers on it all. It’s an unquantifiable sense or feeling, a loss of empathy. I’ve seen and done most of what I can. Repeating it all is doing little for me. The country tends to be full of married couples too. The lack of randomness is depressing. I’ve missed the party.

13. Dignity

I work for money. I live in Qatar for money. While my job is sometimes enjoyable and I try to make the most of it all, I would rather be working far harder in an interesting place than taking the easy route. But then I have it easy. The real issue here is seeing a maid from the Sub-Continent or SE Asia trailing behind her employer holding the baby and all the accumulated shopping, constantly being handed more and more without a flicker of grateful emotion from her mistress. It makes one angry.

Here’s to the summer

There is Too Much Cycling and Swimming…….in the Olympics!

Two of the most admirable sports and human endeavours I am sure we can agree. And yet at the Olympics they antagonise me to the level I find myself ignoring the events at the Games.

Why? Well I am never doubting the dedication and fitness required. These girls and guys are phenomenal athletes. Swimming also has the added dimension of technique being a fundamental to carve through the water efficiently. My gripe is the amount of events they have and therefore the number of medals available.

Chris+Hoy_1635_18954122_0_0_7019282_300Somehow Chris Hoy managed to become the Britain’s most successful Olympian with 6 golds over just two Games. On the back of it, he got his knighthood whatever that is worth these days. His gold medals have come in the 1km, the sprint, the team sprint and the keirin. While Team GB gets a lot of medals out of this, it’s bizarre that Hoy gets more plaudits than, for example, a gymnast who has to train in a variety of disciplines and genuinely put their bodies on the line. His collection indicates the events are too similar.

Swimmers gain in the same way by having introducing four different strokes at almost each distance. No one offers gold medals for runners to do the 100m backwards or skipping. While each event, including the numerous rounds, takes a lot out of the athletes, the collection of medals garnered by swimmers and cyclists suggests the events are too manageable, too easy to compete in.

I’d scrap the butterfly. Who swims like that anyway? And how is it faster? The backstroke could also go. Again if I was in my local pool I wouldn’t appreciate or respect someone swimming backwards. Your mother also told you to look where you are going. The breaststroke could stay maybe. It’s everyone’s friend. However I’d keep the medley. That’s where these outer strokes can be appreciated.

I’d add in athletics, the triple jump is also a bizarre and unnecessary event. High jumps and long jumps at least have some practical basis. Throwing the discus and hammer could be merged. At least the javillan has some great, historic basis.

ChigishevWhile I am on it, water polo is ridiculous, yet maintains it’s place and then they have the nerve to try and get rid of weightlifting, one of the true iconic sports of the Olympics and a true measure of man/woman. These people are risking renal collapse!

Don’t even get me started on the Winter Fun Games.

March Muchness

March was a fast month beautifully-dissected by a long-awaited return to my second home Japan. It also heralded the true beginning of my countdown to leaving Qatar. As the temperatures rise, bringing with them sand and electric storms, it’s time to get out of here. It’s fulfilled its role.

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Leaving aside Japan for a moment, work contracts are coming to an end. I’ve enjoyed them all this time round and should I not get into the university I want, I’d consider coming back for a few months in the autumn. But I know in my heart, I am done here and need an environment where I don’t need to search out things to do. We did however make a great little boat trip a few weeks ago for the afternoon into West Bay, sailing past the towers and onto an island out in the bay. The water was too salty due to desalination and the jetskiers were annoying but we had good company, a boat, sun and a barbecue. It served its purpose.

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Japan was every bit as excited, warm and rewarding as I hoped. It truly is a different world out there, inaccessible but liveable. I saw no shrines, no temples, no Mt Fuji but I did see the lights and energy of Tokyo, sang karaoke, drank sake, ate takoyaki and okonomiyaki, wndered at Kyoto Eki Ko, marvelled at the cleanineess and orderedness of the place and saw snow over Kyoto. Seoul remained its rougher edged brother, bleaker in many ways but has a vitality missing a few years ago. It’s progressing and interacting with the world unlike before. Wine, coffees, teas, food, music and beers were now international in flavour. The trade has gone both ways.

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Next month is going to be fairly-chaotic or at least looks that way right now. I’m planning a trip to Moscow follwed by Jan’s wedding in Belgrade. I’ll do a week or 10 days of travelling after that (Croatia, Amsterdam) with Olivia and then return to London. Nancy is coming to visit for a few days to look around summer schools. She’s hoping to stay for a few months later. She’s never been to England or London so it should be fun.

I also regained contact with a few friends I’ve not spoken to for a while. These people remind me of summer, travelling, freedom. Despite Oli being away, I’m looking forward to catching up with Weronica, Si, Tom, Viola, Mary, Alex, Luke, Helen. Jorden and the Devon guys. Even the lovely Ash (who was with me in my David Lynch dream) is talking about coming to Europe to live awhile. And Marsha and Jeroen….I promise I’ll be over in Holland to see you.

Uni applications are finished and I await the answers. My summer work looks set. June is a free-ish month. I suspect I’ll be watching a bit of the World Cup and travelling! I’ll be in Devon, Cardiff or Oxford and yes, I’ll be making sidetrips to see you. And you. And you.

Beirut

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It’s no surprise for you to learn that Beirut is a divided city. I was picked up at the airport ┬áby a taxi driver who was a Druze The airport is in the south of the city. As we pulled out the airport and gathered speed on the highway, ducking through tunnels and weaving lanes he told me of his brother in Australia and his other brother who served in the army there. I listened intently but my eyes were relentlessly drawn to the city, a broken, hodge-potch city. The buildings on the left and right were battered and damaged. I commented on it and the taxi driver said ‘fucking Hezbollah. This is a Shia area.’ They’d clearly taken a beating but it became a familiar theme for the Shia communities. These were communities of Shia refugees from the south.

Lebanon in general and Beirut in particular is inhabited by three communities; the Christians and the two sects of Islam, Shias and Sunnis. These endless civil wars reflect Lebanon’s location near the centre of this pot. Just as Lebanon recovers from one war, it seems to all happen again. The large Lebanese communities abroad give you an example of their plight and the Lebanese boat people marooned and dying off Australia indicate some of their desperation. The UN announced today they’ve registered their 1 millionth Syrian refugee in the country.

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Yet the Lebanese are often hugely very successful. They are the creative force in the Middle East, running the media across the region. Carlos Slim the world’s richest man is Mexican Lebanese. Salma Hayek is the same. My Colombian mate Gabriel is part-Lebanese! They have an entrepreneurial spirit, a vibrant music scene and world-famous cuisine. There are thousands of Lebanese in Qatar. The bustling atmosphere of Beirut produces the very cosmopolitanism, open-mindedness and eye for a capitalist deal we applaud in the West. And the Lebanese love showing it off. Ostentatious signs of wealth are expected.

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What did surprise me was how close the communities lived to each other. The central areas is packed full of mosques, churches and even synagogues. Wandering around in the afternoon, as suddenly as I crossed a road, the feeling was different. Every 10 metres were posters of a military man with a full beard, beret and machine gun. The ambiance on the street was different. Young men were sitting on steps sipping tea or kicking dust. Women were covered. Building were damaged, pot-holed and worn. This was a Hezbollah district yet a road away from a church, a stone’s throw from restaurant serving alcohol and a few hundred metres from the decadent city centre.

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Walking through most of the city revealed a worn, depressed environment. The apartment blocks near the water were once the site of revelry and openness. Communities lives together even if they didn’t mix. Now the rundownness is a signifier of the decay, a loss of community and abandonment. The centre looks like a Spanish city with its 5 storeys and narrow lanes crammed with boutiques and bars. Well-heeled Lebanese sat drinking beers in sunglasses. Just a walk a way, the long corniche which stretched around to the Raouche Rocks was full of runners and walkers. The cafes attached to the cliffs invited groups of over-dressed women to drink and chat. Ignoring the shisha pipes, I could be anywhere in the world. Look back a generation and you must imagine what was.

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The military is everywhere manning city buildings or keeping protesters out of the government squares. Outside the parliament building a protestor with a board was soon surrounded and walked out the area. TV cameras were stopped from rolling and I was asked not take any pictures. Lebanon is a democracy but a very fragile and fractured one. After the civil war, the country remains officially united but politically divided.

Hariri, the billionaire old President lauded in the West but assassinated by the Syrians with a city centre car bomb has a memorial in the centre. Yet the victims of the civil war are overlooked. The state is attempting a collective amnesia to not open wounds. The unacknowledged reason is the winners from the war are now in power. An open tribunal would implicate half the government. Yet the wounds are openly talked over within communities. The price paid for the lack of public explanation is a private separation. Everyone lives in the same house there but no one is talking and the troubles continue to fester.