Crossing the Border

If the wind changes direction, this man is in deep trouble. His mouth is so firmly down-turned that I wonder how he feeds himself.

He shoves out his hands, and I take two steps back. He stares at me, my little wine-red book on his counter.

The muscles in his face are drawn taught, toughness without any sign of strain. Only his eyes move: up and down, up and down, up and down, up and down. Matching photo to face, face to photo.

He flicks through the document, then slides it into a machine and stares expressionless at his monitor.

He returns to my face and my photograph. Except for his eyeballs, his face is completely frozen – do they teach that in border control school? Continue reading Crossing the Border

Diavata Camp, Thessaloniki

Before driving to Diavata camp, we had to pick up our interpreter. Being all-smiles Syrian, he was first compelled to cook up huge plates of falafel, mutabbel and hummus, and feed us until we could take no more.

Then we drove out to the camp.

Diavata is hidden away in the warehouse suburbs of industrial Thessaloniki. No one could come across these people if they didn’t know they were here – it’s a long way from the polished waterfront and expensive international chain coffee. Weatherbeaten old gypsies are on their haunches outside, selling vegetables and huge watermelons laid out on tarpaulins. Continue reading Diavata Camp, Thessaloniki

From Chios to Crisis

I’m writing this from Chios, hoping that my phone reception doesn’t flip into Turkish and I get charged £12.50 per megabyte. First world problems, I suppose.

Where I am now is less than 5 miles from Turkey: the mountains of Anatolia rise easily over the horizon. It’s the tantalising gap between Asia and Europe, between fear and safety for refugees from the wars in Syria and beyond. Continue reading From Chios to Crisis

Things I Have Learnt About Khora

The generously observant among you will have realised by now that I’m raising money for a community centre for refugees in Athens called Khora.

I promised you all that I’d do my best to find out where our money is going, and that I have done. Thanks to sunset on Strefi. Continue reading Things I Have Learnt About Khora

Options for Dealing with Squatting: A Mockumentary Radio Play

My radio play, Options for Dealing with Squatting, is now out! The Narrativist is a unique podcast that splices a conventional interview with an original radio play on the same theme. My episode is about squatting. No: not weightlifting, but the nefarious art of appropriating unused buildings for shelter. Continue reading Options for Dealing with Squatting: A Mockumentary Radio Play

After the Christmas, the Crisis

After the Christmas, the crisis. Or Crisis. I’ve been helping out at the Harris Academy Bermondsey, where volunteers have transformed a school into a week-long refuge for homeless people.

Crisis at Christmas is a brilliant idea that started 50 years as a publicity stunt. It’s been going every year since and thousands of homeless guests come through the doors for the good food, companionship and advice offered by more than 11,000 volunteers across 13 sites in London and beyond. Continue reading After the Christmas, the Crisis

Learning Arabic from a Syrian wanted by ISIS

I just spent an invigorating hour with M., a refugee language teacher from Syria. I found him through Chatterbox, a social enterprise that matches refugees with a talent for teaching with language students like me. Fantastic idea.

I haven’t spoken Arabic properly since the last time I was in Egypt in January 2010. That’s a heck of a long time for a language to lie dormant, but I was surprised by how easily some of came back to me, and M. was amazed – ‘You’re half Egyptian,’ he very much joked. Continue reading Learning Arabic from a Syrian wanted by ISIS

From Syria to Switzerland: Hossam’s Journey

In October 2015, I met a Syrian family near Spielfeld on the border of Slovenia and Austria. They were huddled together in the cold, waiting to cross into the first country in the EU that was even slightly capable of receiving them.

At that time, nearly 7,000 migrants from Syria, Iraq and beyond were landing in Greece every day. Making a notable exception for Angela Merkel’s conscience, most European governments were doing nothing more than passing the problem as quickly as possible to their neighbours.

Continue reading From Syria to Switzerland: Hossam’s Journey

#34: Grandhotel Cosmopolis

Boutiques serve coffee and fine art, grafitti scratches the medieval walls and students sit cross-legged on the cobbled squares, drinking Radler and slurping ice creams. After another thunderstorm, we see a young man in a wet suit surfing the engorged canals.

Augsburg is exactly the sort of place you’d expect to find the Grandhotel Cosmopolis, where guests arrive with or without asylum. Continue reading #34: Grandhotel Cosmopolis

#25 Heidelberg Helps

Heidelberg feels less a town and more a university campus. Arriving from the industry laden north, we’re suddenly in the land of bicycles, scrubbed smiles and yoga mats. Heidelberg has a population of 150,000, a third of which are students. In the summer, they’re replaced man-for-man by tourists, gaggling in the cobbled streets, selfying under the Schloss and monkeying around with the Heidelberg baboon.
Continue reading #25 Heidelberg Helps

They Want Me to Fly Like a Bird: Travels in the Belgian Asylum System

A four year old sits on a double bunk bed, his legs tucked under, assiduously scrubbing his remote controlled car with a nail brush. His older brother is crosslegged in front of a small television, watching Japanese cartoons dubbed into Dutch. His father, ginger beard framing blue eyes, offers us tea.

We’re squatting on small square stools around a small square table in the small square room that father and his two sons temporarily call home.

Continue reading They Want Me to Fly Like a Bird: Travels in the Belgian Asylum System

Story of the Day #28: Refugee Hospitality

Hospitality is a funny game. After stopping at a roadside fruit and veg stand, we set up our Campingaz kitchen in Weissach town square. As C boils some eggs, a young man approaches. In broken German he asks us, ‘Why you cook here? I have kitchen. Come.’
Continue reading Story of the Day #28: Refugee Hospitality

The School Bus Project, Calais

One of the beautiful things about this bike ride is that we can connect places to places and people to people. In Whitstable we spoke to Shernaz, an active organiser of support going from that part of the world to Calais and beyond. She told us that, while in Calais, we must visit Kate McAllister, who works on an educational project there. So two days of cycling later, that’s exactly what we did.
Continue reading The School Bus Project, Calais

Grande-Synthe & Calais: Compare and Contrast

The Grande-Synthe migrant camp in Dunkirk is to the Calais jungle as Milton Keynes is to London. Where Calais is only now having order imposed on a meandering medieval street plan, Grande-Synthe has been ordered from conception to execution. The result is that the two migrant communities could not feel more different. Continue reading Grande-Synthe & Calais: Compare and Contrast

Conversations in Calais

We are currently holed up in Petite Fort Philippe, equidistant from both Calais and Dunkirk, home to two of the largest migrant camps in Northern France. Yesterday we visited Calais, my first trip back there since the mass demolitions that have devastated the bustling shanty town. Continue reading Conversations in Calais

Cycling to(wards) Syria

This May, I shall set off on a 3,000 mile bicycle tour, following the routes of migration from the safe refuge of London to the bombed-out streets of Syria. [footnote]Don’t worry: safety is my first priority. I am fully expecting never to reach Syria, but that is my destination of the mind.[/footnote]

Along the way, I shall be collecting stories direct from the mouths of migrants, aid workers, government officials and local residents, using each interview to inform the course of the journey, and sharing these stories with as wide an audience as I can, in written word, photography, audio, and video.

Continue reading Cycling to(wards) Syria

“We would like to breathe the air that you breathe” – Nabeel Taha, Iraq

Back in October I was in Austria, the only open gateway to the EU for migrants and refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East. I took the opportunity to speak to migrants and activists about the current situation.

This is the story of Nabeel Taha, an Iraqi radio presenter and cartoonist (that’s his artwork pictured), who fled his home after an exhibition got him into deadly trouble with Daesh. Continue reading “We would like to breathe the air that you breathe” – Nabeel Taha, Iraq

Calais: From Crisis to Community

Back in March 2015, the French authorities in Calais made a tactical blunder. They evicted the dozen or so migrant squats and camps dotted around the town, which had been home to 1-2,000 refugees and migrants from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Syria, among others. Instead, they created a “tolerated zone” a few kilometers away, where the migrants could sleep and suffer until they decided that surrendering was better than staying.

The tactical blunder was to underestimate the response of civil society to this new tolerated camp. Then again, in fairness to the French, there was nothing in the air back then to suggest that civil society at large would give anything other than a flying fuck about the couple of thousand migrants squatting on their doorstep. Continue reading Calais: From Crisis to Community

“It’s time to do something” Austrian Migrant Supporter

Back in October I was in Austria, the only open gateway to the EU for migrants and refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East. I took the opportunity to speak to migrants and activists about the current situation.

These are the impressions of a young woman, who describes herself as “just a supporter”. For nearly four weeks, she had been supporting a refugee protest camp outside the police station in Graz. You can hear the story of one of the refugees, Mazin, recorded here.

This Austrian woman spoke passionately about her motivation to action. “This situation is writing history,” she explained. “When in 30 years my children ask me what happened, I don’t want to explain to them why did I just watch, why didn’t I do anything.” She sees action as a moral imperative: “I don’t see it as help,” she says. “I just see it as something you basically have to do now.”

This solidarity imperative means that, rather than becoming an aid worker, she finds herself surrounded by friends. “Everybody I met, they become friends,” she says. “It’s not like they are refugees and I am Austrian and I help them, but we’re doing something together and we become friends. That’s what it should be like.”

Unsurprisingly, she’s not terribly impressed by the governments of the EU. “They could do so much more,” she says. “If it would be about some economical crisis, they would have a solution in days.” Her laugh has real bite. “But now it’s about human beings standing around outside in the cold for hours and hours. They’re not treating people with enough humanity.”

“I always believe in humanity” Mazin Abu Khaled, Migrant from Syria

I’m very pleased to finally be publishing this, the first in a series of audio stories called Voices for Migration. The series will feature the voices of many different people, all talking about their experiences of migration – whether migrants themselves or people who have been touched by the effects of migration.

This first story is from a Syrian man called Mazin Abu Khaled, who I met while in Graz at the Elevate Festival. He is lucky to have made it to Austria, but his journey is far from over. His family are still back in Syria, but he can’t afford to pay the human traffickers who could help them escape, and is scared that they wouldn’t survive the journey in any case. “It is a death journey,” he says.

Even in Austria, Mazin is struggling. He has been waiting for his papers for months. Until his asylum claim is processed, he is not allowed to work or contribute to Austrian society, even as a volunteer. “We want to help,” he says. “We can do many things with them.” That is why he and other migrants set up a protest camp outside the police building in Graz.

Mazin’s sympathy, however, lies with less fortunate migrants, who are leaving Syria in their thousands, to be met in the EU with near indifference. The governments of the EU are not taking the problem seriously. “There is no food, no blankets, nothing,” he says. “I can’t understand it.”

So I hope you enjoy listening, and please share Mazin’s powerful story with your friends.

 

I’m a voyeur, a do-gooder, a megalomaniac!

“You’re a voyeur, a do-gooder, a megalomaniac.”

I’ve been called many things since I first started “getting involved” with Calais back in the summer of 2014. Rather than dismissing these accusations hurled as insults, I would rather examine them to discover from where they derive their power. Because power they have: I do feel, at times, a voyeur, a do-gooder and a megalomaniac.

I don’t think many people enjoy acknowleging these aspects of themselves, but I think it’s important to do so. Hopefully I’ll show you how listening to your feelings of voyeurism, do-gooding and megalomania can make you, not just a better activist, but a better person altogether.

“You’re a voyeur.”

This accusation is founded on the idea that the migrant camp in Calais represents a vision of the world so radically different to mine that I must be taking some kind of perverse pleasure in the encounter. My favourite term for this kind of activist tourism is, rather than solidarity, holidarity.

It’s true: my warm home in London couldn’t be more different to the waterlogged shanty tents of Calais. It’s also true that my life as a middle class white Englishman couldn’t be more different to the experience of a six year-old Syrian boy, alone in an unwelcoming foreign land with not much more than the shirt on his back.

The accusation of voyeurism hits the mark. The misery and squalor of Calais is horrifying. It does, sometimes, make me stare uncomprehendingly, and thank my lucky stars that I don’t have to live through this reality indefinitely.

But this is my reality. Calais is as much a part of my life as the streets of New Cross, and we are all part of a world crowded with camps as horrifying as Calais (and many much more so). Should we airbrush places like Calais from our pretty picture? I don’t think so. The only question that remains, then, is how we should act in such a world.

Here is where we get our first insight: the feeling of being a voyeur only hits me when I restrict myself to being an outside observer. This actually happens very rarely. When I’m in Calais, I usually spend most of my time talking to people, trying to teach English, sharing food, or playing cricket. The moment I take action, the feeling of voyeurism dissolves in a shared connection with real people who react and respond themselves.

It’s simple. We can’t deny that voyeurism is part of the spectrum of human feeling, but I see voyeurism as a timely reminder that we are not here on Earth merely to observe; we are here to connect.

“You’re a do-gooder.”

The sense of “do-gooding” is undoubtedy pejorative. Do-gooders are earnest, naive, impractical, patronising, relentlessly foisting their well-intentioned, but ill-conceived ideas of betterment on people who have asked for nothing.

I won’t repeat the unfavourable comparison I’ve made before between charity and solidarity, but I do feel that the difference is hierarchy and intention. (Please note that I’m not talking about all insitutional charities necessarily, but the fundamental concept.)

Charities are classically and intentionally hierarchical: a material need is identified and filled by an outside group. The power resides in the charity. Clothes, food, or bikes are handed out from those who have to those who have not. At its best, this is nothing more than resource re-distribution; at its worst, however, the recipient is turned into a beggar for aid.

The concept of solidarity is very different in structure and intention. Solidarity recognises the natural and fundamental equality of humanity. The intention is simply to stand side by side with your brothers and sisters, in the good times, as well as the bad. What is yours is theirs, and vice-versa. It is similar to a friendship bond, rather than an institutional or paterfamilias bond.

I have always left Calais feeling like I was an equal beneficiary from whatever exchange of humanity took place between me and the people I met there.

So when you are accused of being a do-gooder, it’s a signal that perhaps you have assumed more power than you should in an equal relationship. The solution is simple: check your privilege, and surrender any top-down control you have.

“You’re a megalomaniac!”

A megalomaniac is a pathological egotist, conceited, self-obsessed, with an exaggerated sense of their own importance. What has this to do with activism and Calais, you might wonder. Well, there are a couple of ways a megalomaniac might become involved.

A pre-existing megalomaniac might see in Calais and the migration crisis an opportunity for his own self-aggrandisement and fame. I’m not going to talk about those kinds of people; they have a lot more work to do than I can help with here.

What I will talk about, however, are the heady megalomaniacal feelings that an activist might get when they get media or popular attention, when they are part of something awesome, or when they start to feel possession over “their” action.

Since the middle of 2015, there has been a lot of attention on Calais, not just in the media, but on the street too. Back in 2014, no one was particularly interested in what I did in Calais. One mention of “migrants” and all I’d get was a dirty look. This autumn, however, those same dirty lookers were clamouring for tips on how to “get involved”.

My small part in the success of the Calais Critical Mass over the August Bank Holiday also meant that I ended up speaking to all sorts of national and international media, in print and on TV. A couple of things I’ve written about Calais on this site have gone viral, sending thousands of people to a blog that usually gets about 50 visits a day.

At times, it’s been hard to come down from the megalomaniacal high.

When I get this kind of attention and appreciation, my heart rate rises, I feel light-headed, and my voice goes all squeaky. It’s a pretty great feeling and it would be tempting, indeed understandable, to chase that megalomaniacal high. But I know that it is not a productive emotion to indulge.

I call these feelings “megalomania”, and not something more positive like “enthusiasm” or “ecstasy”, because they always result in me turning inwards, chasing the feeling, not the results that I would like to see in the world. The antidote to megalomania is modesty.

As we rode down to Calais in an eighty-strong mass last August, I kept telling myself (and anyone who’d listen) of the modesty of what we were trying to achieve. This was not a grandiose expedition, I kept telling myself. It would be a success if just one person made just one other person smile across the battlelines of our border.

Whenever I felt myself being carried along by incipient feelings of megalomania – “This is the beginning of the borderless revolution, and I made it happen!” – I would refocus on that one little smile, and give thanks that I was able to be a tiny part of a much greater positive force.

Megalomania is another useful signal, telling me that success is making me turn inwards. The solution is to appreciate our smallest imaginable achievement, and give thanks to all the others who make this possible. Megalomania is a call to acknowledge the higher purpose we share with the rest of the planet.

Yes, I am a voyeaur, a do-gooder, a megalomaniac (sometimes)

Occasionally feeling like a voyeur, a do-gooder, or a megalomaniac is an inescapable part of being an activist (by which I mean “human”). I’m only human; I’m bound to get swept away sometimes by feelings of horror and power, fame and pride.

I see these feelings, not as enemies or insults, but as signals, important reminders to reconnect with the real reasons for why I’m doing what I do.

  • When I feel like a voyeur, I must remember to stop being an outside observer, and to connect.
  • When I feel like a do-gooder, I must remember to check my privilege, and surrender my top-down control.
  • When I feel like a megalomaniac, I must give thanks to others, and acknowledge my small role in our shared higher purpose.

As activists, we must learn to take our own temperatures (or rely on a trusted friend). When you feel yourself getting too hot, dial the temperature down by refocussing on what exactly makes you feel good about what you do. What makes me feel good is the community, being able to make a personal connection with people from Sudan, Eritrea or Syria. That’s what’s important to me.

If you can’t find any good in that moment, then it’s time to take a step back altogether. Relax, go home, clear yourself out.

Refugee Crisis: Which Side Are You On?

Last week, I visited the Slovenian-Austrian border. What I saw there shook my perception of the “migrant crisis”.

What I saw resembled nothing less than the black and white photographs we’re so familiar with from World War II: lines and lines of patient refugees, holding nothing more than a bag and the hands of their children. Except this isn’t in black and white. This is happening now.

I shot this short video to try to capture the severity of the conflict in Syria and Iraq right now, and to inspire people to realise that this isn’t something that they can ignore for ever.

The conflict in the Middle East is only escalating, displacing more and more people. 200,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq entered Greece in October alone. David Cameron has said the UK will accept 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years. That is the same number that is arriving in Austria every five days.

For all of us, history is being written in this very moment. The question is: Which side are you on?

Thoughts on Saving the World

The other day, someone accused me of “trying to save the world” through my activities in Calais, the English teaching, the UKHIP cricket match, the bike ride.

I’m not, I can’t and I don’t want to try to “save the world”. I don’t even want to try to change the world. Changing the world is not something that you can approach directly. Like happiness, any direct approach only ends in disappointment.

So my only aim, both in words and in actions, is to help people think about the world. That’s it.

I can’t change what people think, I can only invite them to think about the world.

Sneaking up on change

The best form of thought is experience. Words (like these) are good, but never enough. To think about the world deeply, you have to seep yourself in the reality, the physical reality. One experience of Calais, one connection, will always be much stronger than any news story or blog post. Words can be a catalyst, but that’s it.

So I invite people to join a cricket match or a bike ride. My sole aim is to lower the barriers to action and try to make the experience rewarding.

If that invitation is accepted, then I’m happy, because as soon as someone does something, their reality changes and that change inspires change in their ideas, thoughts and future actions.

In turn, that change in the individual will create ripples throughout their social groups, as they talk to their friends and share their ideas and actions. Eventually, in enough numbers, those ripples might influence change in our wider society. And, maybe, just maybe, that’s when the world changes.

It’s a long road, but it’s approachable, one invitation at a time. My method is certainly not saving the world, and neither is it changing the world directly. At best, I’m sneaking up on change, hoping to take it by surprise.

Process, not results

For me, none of my trips to Calais have been about what the migrants “need”. The trips haven’t been humanitarian missions or any form of charity. They have always been about forming solidarity and connections between different people, between people in this country as well as with people from Sudan, Afghanistan, Eritrea – wherever.

The Critical Mass bike trip was the grandest expedition that I’ve ever had the pleasure of participating in. Dozens of strangers came together and formed strong bonds of solidarity, helping each other, sharing their knowledge, skills and optimism. Even close friends discovered new sides to each other during the journey. Before we’d even left the country, the “bike ride” was already a success: it had already galvanised people to exchange and connect.

Before we’d gone one mile, I was already delighted. A healthy and happy process is always much more important than achieving what we’re tempted to think of as “results” – how many bikes distributed or how much aid delivered. My favourite results are almost immeasurable and I have to take them largely on faith: sharing, smiles, stories. These three Ss are what cause ripples in society.

Be there

The primary importance of process stems from the idea that, in my opinion, no one can say what any other human being “needs”. What do I need? I’m not even sure I know myself.

The people who live in Calais are hugely resourceful; one more tent here or there is far, far less important than the smiles and stories that one more human connection can provide – on both sides of the interaction.

Whenever I have gone to Calais, I have always learnt and discovered far more about the world and myself than I feel I have contributed – yes, even when we brought over a huge van full of tents and sleeping bags.

Everyone who I have seen go to Calais has come back inspired, their lives altered, sometimes dramatically. Many have gone on to encourage their friends to go over and bear witness for themselves. At the very least, everyone has returned with a more nuanced impression of Calais, of migration in general and with deep memories of the people they met in particular.

Those impressions and memories will hold far stronger than a whole barrage of bigoted media coverage. Nothing beats being there, planting yourself in the kinaesthetics of the reality that, to some, is just another news story.

Whatever you do, be there.

The message

So my message is very simple: go over and see for yourself. That’s all.

Go and see for yourself, try to understand, exchange stories, find out why these people are coming here and what they want. I don’t mind if you go there and decide for yourself that you still want borders and immigration controls – as long as you hold that view from a position of knowledge.

In my experience, however, people tend to return from Calais inspired to tear down these fictional boundaries between mankind. It is usually obvious, once you’ve experienced the reality, that to militarise and strengthen the border is to put yourself in the same position as the builders of Hadrian’s Wall, the Great Wall of China or the Berlin Wall. Not only will it create more problems than it solves in the short term, but in the long term, sooner or later, the people will be free.

So I urge you to go to Calais and see for yourself. Obviously, don’t go as a tourist, camera clicking – it’s not a zoo. But don’t go as a charity worker or a humanitarian crisis worker either. Go as yourself, be yourself, be curious. Share your stories and your experience and be open to hear the stories and experience of others.

Understanding the Calais Critical Mass

Over the August Bank Holiday weekend, eighty cyclists rode seventy miles through Greater London and the Kent Downs to Calais. We cycled in a mass to the desolate camp ground and left our bicycles and tents for the migrants who live there.

It sounds simple when you write it down like that, but the trip had multiple and sometimes competing dimensions. My hope here is to explore these dimensions, from the superficial visceral to the more philosophical conceptual. I hope that this will help people, myself included, understand what the hell just happened.

The Ride

The first dimension was the logistics of the ride itself. Many people were not experienced long distance cyclists and none of us were riding flash new touring bikes. The road was punctuated with punctures, scattered with rain showers and undulating with hill climb, some unnecessarily arduous at the end of long lost detours (sorry about that).

But everyone who took part in the ride was gorgeous and courageous and threw themselves into the trip with optimism, laughter and steadfast determination that was quite hair-tingling to witness. All weekend, I didn’t hear a single moan, groan, quibble, niggle, whinge, whine, peeve or complaint that wasn’t soon laughed over as half a dozen other riders descended on the aggrieved to comfort or make right. Everybody made themselves indispensable.

That optimism, that coruscating energy that all eighty exhaled, pulled down all obstacles in our path and puzzle pieces fell into place precisely when they were called upon. The appearance of an eighty-seater roadside Chinese restaurant, kitchen ready to serve until midnight. The kindness of the proprietor who let us use his yard as an overnight bike storage unit. The large paddock opposite, with open gate and tree cover, for that blustery night’s camp site.

When you move in such numbers, with such force, not only does anything feel possible, but your very conception of the possible expands to encompass everything. Can we fix a double puncture in the dark? Yes. Can we climb another 17% hill on a single speed bike? Yes. Can we navigate through cat black woods in mud and hail? Yes. Can we find a restaurant, cycle parking and camping for eighty people? Of course.

Calais Critical Mass August 2015 2015-08-29 011

The Camp

After the group bonding transformation of the ride down to Dover, there was the raw experience of the migrant camp in Calais, overwhelming at the best of times, but this was, meteorologically-speaking, the worst of times.

That night suffered the worst of mauvais Calais: a ferocious thunderstorm. It lasted from dusk until the witching of dawn: cyclonic gales, hailstones, ripping thunder and flash dance lightning directly overhead. Many of our tents were ripped apart, sleeping bags soaked, turned to mops.

Far from drowning in disaster, we witnessed true solidarity, true friendship, true hospitality. The morning, dripping up from the night before, was filled with stories of how this and that party of Syrians or Afghans, those Kuwaitis or Sudanese, had invited tentless, sleepless cyclists into their shelters with companion offers of tea, supper and pyjamas.

There’s a fancy word that I’ve stolen from various theories of agricultural development and romantic attachment called “propinquity”. It basically means closeness, in both time and space. I’ve appropriated this term to capture the idea that the physical environment in which you find yourself at any particular time is the most important factor dictating the course of your life in that moment. Propinquity is hereness, nowness.

The most important person in our lives is always the person closest to us in physical space at that moment. The physical conditions and environment that we find ourselves in are always the most relevant to our lives at that moment. It’s no good having a nice warm house back in London if you’re stranded in a tempest in Calais. It’s no comfort having a hilarious friend who’d make you laugh about how wet you all are, if she’s not with you at that precise moment of drenchery.

No: you are entirely dependent, or rather interdependent with the people with whom you share this physical space.

Some people came with vague high-minded ideas that they would “help” the migrants. This is all very warm and fuzzy, but its misapprehensions were blown away by that gale. We were their guests; despite all the donations in the world, all we can ever truly bring each other is friendship.

Of course, in among all the handshakes, hugs, nuts, sweets, oranges and smiles, there was profound misery. Tents were washed away in mud slides, even vast UN-style refugee shelters stood in inches of water, only pallets on the ground raised the lucky ones from sleeping in streams.

A young man from Kuwait, a new arrival at the camp, came to me at four in the morning, trying to find a tent to sleep and shelter in. We walked around our clutch of canvas and found him one that was empty. But the door had been left unzipped and the tempest had made home there. He crouched down, dipped his hands into the swampish floor, stood up, covered his face with his palm and wept. I put a hand on his shoulder, another around his nape, and did all I could. He walked away over the dunes, backlit by lightning.

Calais June 2015 2015-06-21 063

There is a form of experience and learning called kinaesthesia. It happens when you actually do something, rather than read about it in a book or watch a programme about it on television. I believe that the only way you can truly begin to understand Calais is by taking part in such a kinaesthetic experience: by being there.

In many ways, the cycle ride was a ruse. The most efficient way to transport bicycles from London to Calais is to hire a van, pack it with fifty bikes and get someone to drive down. But then only the driver would have that understanding, that kinaesthetic experience of Calais. He could only attempt to spread his experience further through stories and maybe a blog post or a video. That’s not enough. I want everybody in Britain to travel to Calais and have a kinaesthetic experience; I want everybody to make friends and shake hands.

I always say that one trip to Calais, one cup of hot sugary tea with a Sudanese or Eritrean, is worth a full year of media stories, with their distortions, omissions, angles, exaggerations and outright lies. I think of Calais as an inoculation against the propaganda, a cool draught of reality against the slurping sugar and sour of the media and news machines. Some are hostile to migration, some are more sympathetic, but why filter through the eyes and words of others when you can immerse yourself in understanding by being there.

William James, the founder of modern psychology, said that we become what we do. I have become a writer by writing every day. You might have become a good husband by being kind to your wife every day. We weren’t born this way; we acted this way and became this way.

By cycling to Calais and staying in the camp with a family from Afghanistan, we become the person who cycled to Calais and stayed in the camp with a family from Afghanistan. That simple, but remarkable, act of solidarity becomes a part of us and makes us more empathic human beings in our future.

In some tiny way, the struggles of our own short two-day journey over land to Calais represented a scintilla of the struggles that migrants face, journeying not sixty miles, but thousands of unsettled, dangerous miles. We can never fully embody another person’s struggle, but we can stand closer with them through doing and becoming.

Calais Critical Mass August 2015 2015-08-30 024

The Bicycle Donation

Far and away the most minor dimension of the expedition was the handover of bikes to the people in the camp. We’d cycled them to Calais and we would be walking home.

For many in the media and for some on the ride, I’m afraid that this “charitable” aspect of the ride drew focus away from the more important dimensions outlined above: making the journey and simply being there at the camp, meeting and making friends, with people from very different backgrounds. Yes, it’s wonderful to be able to share the bicycle’s gift of freedom with someone who has none, but that gift can never outweigh our exchange of friendship.

Charity, as I have said before, can quickly become a hierarchical transaction between the supposed “haves” and the supposed “have nots”. I’m not saying that recipients of charity are not living without waterproof shoes or enough warm blankets, food or sanitation; they are. What I am saying is that we shouldn’t assume that, because these people “have not” something, they are somehow below us who “have”.

Ultimately, we are all human and we all live within the same range of emotions and experience, equally. We all love and laugh, we all get frustrated and angry. We all have good days and we all have bad days. We are all surviving together.

Going to Calais, therefore, should not be an act of charity. It should always be a shared act of solidarity between you and the people you meet there, moving equally in both directions. You are not giving anything away, no hand-outs, no donations, no charity: you are sharing yourself and putting yourself into a situation where you can invite other people to share alike. In this way, there is no distinction, no hierarchy, between “giver” and “recipient”: we will both have good days.

At times I have been angry, sad or vengeful over the injustices I’ve witnessed. Of course. But I have always come away from Calais immensely grateful to the people I met, for teaching me more about myself and the world we share.

Calais Critical Mass August 2015 2015-08-30 031

The Future

There is a fourth dimension to this trip: the future. What will I, what will you, what will we do with this experience?

First of all, we will share our stories with our friends, with our families. Do not underestimate the power of a conversation, of sharing your experiences and enthusiasm. That’s how ideas spread and ideas are far more durable than money, tents or warm socks.

Little by little, more people will hear of Calais and the conditions under which our government makes some people live. Little by little, more people will go to Calais and understand for themselves. Little by little, attitudes to migration across the country will evolve. Little by little, more and more people will understand that to support impermeable militarised borders is to stand on the wrong side of history. People will be free.

When you combine the kinaesthetic experience and the propinquity conditions of both cycling seventy miles and meeting migrants in Calais, you live powerful, even overwhelming experiences. I have looked to the skies and felt tears and a beating heart. We have all made unforgettable memories and precious friends. Keep them and use them to inspire yourselves and each other.

And let’s do it again sometime.

“LOVE. Always. It’s the most important thing in life. Everything else is just a story for your grandkids.”

Calais Critical Mass August 2015 2015-08-30 020

Critical Mass to Calais: Bikes Beyond Borders

As you may have heard, we’re launching a critical mass-style ride to Calais in solidarity with the migrants who are living there, persecuted by the French and British authorities and ignored by the rest of the EU. Here’s a bunch of answers to frequently asked questions, which should be useful to anyone tempted to come along.

What’s the big idea?

We’re riding bikes to Calais, to give to the migrants who are living there. The best ideas are always the simplest.

Why?

The vast majority of people living in the camp have left their home countries for reasons of war and persecution in search of safety and security. Now, having been forcibly evicted from autonomous camps in Calais to a new tolerated zone, 7km from the town centre, there are in the region of 4000 people, including women and unaccompanied minors, living in conditions of poor sanitation with minimal access to support and services.

See my very short film and a couple of stories on conditions in Calais.

Most cyclists can relate to the sense of freedom, mobility and self sustainability afforded by the bicycle. For people living in the camps, bicycles are an invaluable asset, improving quality of life by increasing access to basic essentials like the local shop and support and advice services, currently an hour’s walk away. Some organisations have already began taking bikes to the camps, but many more are needed.

Where can I find out more about the ride?

This is the event page on Facebook (you don’t need to be a member of Facebook to view). You can also contact us through Facebook or by email on [email protected]

We will also be holding a little meet and greet picnic on Saturday 15th of August, on The Rye in Peckham Rye (it’s a park) from 1pm. Bring something to share and any bike donations you have!

What is the ride route and schedule?

The ride will end in Calais over the August Bank Holiday weekend, 29-31 August. Those are the only parameters. Everything else is up to the individual riders.

More specifically, we (the original group of friends who came up with the idea) are going to set off from London (or Barnehurst, the last station in the Oystercard zone) at about 10am on Saturday the 29th and cycle along National Cycle Network routes 1 and 177 to Rochester.

Then we’ll head south, through the Kent Downs. We’ll sleep there, approximately 25 miles from Dover. On the Sunday morning, we’ll cycle the last miles and catch an afternoon ferry to Calais.

That’s us, but different riders will do things at different speeds. In any case, ferries will only take a maximum of 20 bikes, so arrival in Calais will be staggered over the Sunday.

Nothing about the ride is obligatory: some riders will only be coming as far as Dover, some will take a train down, some will part train, part ride.

A group of activists are planning a punk gig and pay what you can dinner in Calais on Sunday evening.

Can I come on the ride?

Please do! The more the merrier. All you need to do is:

  • Source your own bike to give away.
  • Pack up your panniers with food and a tent (if you’re staying overnight).
  • Book a ferry to Calais for the Sunday afternoon.
  • Meet us on Saturday the 29th.
  • Get cycling!

Let us know you’re coming through the Facebook event or by email on [email protected]

What will happen when we get there?

We’ll cycle the bikes and hand them over! In the evening, some people are trying to organise a pay what you can dinner and a punk gig, if that’s your sort of thing.

Some people will be staying over on Sunday night as well. You’re welcome to stay or take a ferry back that evening.

How will we get home without our bikes?

You can walk (~2km) from the camp to the port or take a taxi, a bus or hitch a lift. The ferry will take you to Dover and there are regular trains from Dover Priory (30 minute walk from the port) to London. You can also catch a coach from Dover to London, cheap if you book in advance.

What if I’m media and want to film / write about / photograph the ride?

Yes, you’re welcome to come on the ride as well! In fact, that’ll be the best way to share the story. On past excursions to Calais, we’ve had great experiences with sensitive media people coming along with us.

VICE: Playing Cricket in Calais with Screwed Migrants and UKIP-Trolling Activists by Charlotte England.

Sunday Mirror: Children of the Calais camps: Terrified refugee orphans have even lost wasteland they called home  by Gemma Aldridge

How many people are coming on the ride?

This ride is open to everyone and there is no formal sign up procedure – much like Critical Mass or the Dunwich Dynamo, if you are familiar with those rides – so we’re unable to say how many people will be coming.

While we really hope hundreds of people will turn up and “swarm” down to Calais on their freedom machines, Facebook RSVPs are highly unreliable so we can’t really know whether it will be 7, 70, or 700. Hopefully more!

Who is donating the bikes?

You are! The idea is that people coming on the ride will source their own bikes to give away. There are 7 times more unused bikes in garages and gardens in London than out on the roads!

The Bike Project will be donating as many bikes as they can for people to ride down. We’ve also had offers of bikes from as far afield as Wales, Bristol, Oxford and Norwich.

How else can I support the ride?

We’re raising money to cover expenses, like support van fuel and ferry, plus any other bike supplies the migrants might need – bike pumps and helmets, for example. Please donate and share!

Can I interview the ride organisers?

There are no organisers of this event as such. It was the idea of a bunch of friends and it’s really snowballed since then.

Perhaps the easiest thing to do if you’d like to interview the friends who have brain-childed this event is to come along to the social on the 15th of August. We’re hosting a bring-your-own-and-share picnic meetup on Peckham Rye from 1pm. See the Facebook event for a map and more details.

Contact us through Facebook or [email protected] for more information.

Can I interview other ride participants?

We can’t speak for anyone else, but we expect some people will be up for it so long as they are sure you are not going to Daily Mail it up!

Can I interview migrants in Calais?

See my advice to media, journalists and film makers in Calais.

SEE YOU ON THE RIDE, YOU CRAZY BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE!

Advice for Media, Journalists & Film-makers in Calais

Firstly, I don’t consider myself part of the media, a journalist or a film-maker. However, I have published many writings about my experiences in Calais and have produced a short film showing conditions in the camp. I have also spoken to many journalists and film-makers who have gone on to produce content that is very much within the mainstream media, including The Independent, The Sunday Mirror, BBC radio and VICE magazine, as well as independent film-makers, bloggers and magazines.

So, although I don’t consider my primary concern in Calais to be the media – I mostly teach English and make friends – I do think it’s very important to share the stories of the people who live there and to be a part of a information movement that promotes the humanity we share with migrants and refugees, rather than one which protects the material inequality that divides us.

All that is preamble to some basic notes and advice for media producers of all shapes and sizes who want to work in Calais. Please note: this is to be read in addition to my general advice for people visiting Calais.

Before arriving in Calais

Do your research. I don’t mean reading the Daily Mail or even the Guardian. Read the Calais Migrant Solidarity and Passeurs d’Hopitalités (in French) blogs. These are both run by long term activists in Calais and are full of the important day-to-day news that media outlets skip over.

Feel free to contact Calais Migrant Solidarity (check their website for their email address and, more reliably, their phone number) – but do not expect them to do your job for you. They will not set up interviews with migrants and they will not show you around the camp. Most likely, they will guide you to their website.

Working in Calais – short term

If your trip is short – just for the day or perhaps two days – my advice would be to follow simple ethical guidelines. I’m sure you’ve thought of these points already, but I think it’s worth repeating and reiterating.

Don’t film anyone without asking their permission – even from a distance. Many of these people are “illegal” (whatever that means!) and are justifiably suspicious of people wielding video cameras because it might (unlikely, but it might) get them killed or deported. Many don’t appreciate the attention, so don’t assume anything and always ask permission. It was for this reason that I decided not to shoot any people at all for my short film, which made the results suitably bleak!

Be careful not to treat your work, and the migrants themselves, as a means to an end. Frankly speaking, many, many film makers and journalists come to the camp in Calais and I feel that some of them go looking for a big news story or to profit through their line of business from the misfortune of others.

Having said that, many migrants are very eager for media coverage in the hope that it will ameliorate their living conditions or help pave the way to a fair resettlement programme. Your work really could become a small but important contribution to justice for the migrants, but, equally, don’t abuse their hope or make promises that you can’t keep.

If you get too close to the police, they may demand your camera and confiscate your memory cards. Big media companies are usually okay, but smaller indies or activists are at risk. Stay alert.

Working in Calais – long term

If you’re lucky enough to be able to commit a week or two, a month or several trips over the course of a year or years, then congratulations! You will be able to really get under the skin of migration, deep into the stories of migrants and witness the frontline battle that rages. Courage! And remember: the best stories don’t come out of nowhere or overnight.

I first went to Calais in the summer of 2014 and I have been back there many times since. I have seen tear-gassings, evictions, pitched battles with steel bars, cricket matches, film showings and a New Year squat party – but I still consider myself an innocent novice and learn a thousand things every time I visit.

I have made a few friends, who are still unfortunately living in the camp and I feel more and more welcome each time I go back. The last time I was there, teaching English for a week, I slept in the camp and I would suggest this as the best way to get to know people and understand camp life.

However, if you want to stay in the camp, you must:
a) be brave.
b) make friends.

Luckily, most people living in the camp are absurdly friendly, but ultimately it comes down to how personable you are. It’s obvious, but be nice!

On a more practical note, unless you speak good Arabic or Tigrinya, I’d recommend finding someone who speaks English, explaining what you’re doing and, above all, making friends. If you’re one of the good guys, they might invite you to camp with them.

The camp is roughly divided into mini-encampments of 5-20 dwellings, usually split along ethnic lines. There are plenty of Sudanese and Pakistanis who speak decent English – some fluently, no thanks to me! That should get you started.

During your stay at the camp, try to contribute something beyond your project: teach English or how to shoot films, fix bikes or shelters, keep the fire going.

Finally: Remember that this is their home and respect their customs and rules.


If you have any questions, please ask them in the comments below.

NOTE: Conditions in Calais change on an almost daily basis. This advice is based on information from late June 2015.

Bicycles, Freedom and Migration

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling…I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride on a wheel. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.”

So said Susan B. Anthony, a 19th century American suffragette and social reformer. No wonder that the newly invented bicycle soon became known as the “freedom machine”.

Bicycles give you the freedom and independence to travel long distances without having to rely on stage coaches, horse-drawn carriages or (ugh!) men.

But today’s petrol-fuelled transportation means we’ve forgotten how hard a five mile walk to the local shops can feel. An hour and a half foot-slog is covered in just twenty minutes by bike. That’s the difference between going out and staying in.

For women of the late nineteenth century, the acquisition of a bicycle meant they could travel further to visit friends, go shopping alone or take a job for the first time. The impact of this emancipatory invention cannot be overstated.

(Okay, so maybe the impact of the bicycle can be overstated a little bit: biologist Steve Jones credits the bicycle for the remarkable explosion in diversity of the human gene pool over the last hundred and fifty years. A boast too far?)

Bikes mean freedom for Calais migrants

For the migrants stuck in Calais, the bicycle can have a similar liberating impact. The wasteground where the migrants are ghettoed is more than two miles from the town centre. That means hours of sore-slogging walks every day.

The migrants are not given more than one meal a day at the Jules Ferry Centre. Where can they get the rest of their food? From the town, a five mile round trip.

The camp nurse is only available during restricted hours and not at all on weekends. Where can migrants seek medical help? From the town, a five mile round trip.

Clothes, the library, internet access – all are a five mile round trip away, or more. The most prized possession of many migrants is a decent pair of shoes: they are worn down in a matter of weeks. Many migrants are stuck in Calais for months.

Bicycles are a gift of freedom

But there is more to the liberating powers of the bicycle than the mere practicalities of transportation. As women found in the nineteenth century, bicycles are a gift of freedom.

Migrants in Calais have spent weeks, months and years, slowly making their way north from whatever war-torn country they are fleeing. They have trusted in mafia agents and abandoned themselves to deadly rust-bucket boats in the Mediterranean; they have spent days playing hide and seek with gun-toting border guards and dodging ticket inspectors in train toilets.

Nobody makes such a journey out of choice. Nobody wants to beg and borrow for their lives. A bicycle can give migrants the freedom to go where they want, under their own power – at last! A bicycle gives the gift of self-reliance, independence, autonomy and pride.

(Not to mention that bikes are damn good fun! I watched a group of lads taking it in turns to cycle at giddying speeds round the pretty flower beds of Richelieu Park. The simple pleasures.)

Words are not enough – what can I do about it?

Glad you asked! At the end of August, we’re launching a biketilla (a bike flotilla?) to Calais. On the 29th of August, hundreds of people will be cycling second hand bikes from London to France, leaving the “freedom machines” with migrants in the camp there.

You can join us by attending the Facebook event or by sending a message to humans [at] ukhip.eu. Then just put a call out to your friends for a spare bike and get pedalling!

If you can’t make it on the 29th, then please do consider getting involved in some other way, by sharing the event or by baking us a cake to keep us fuelled! THANKS!

Me and vegan cake

Charity or Solidarity? On my first day here, an Afghan bluntly asked, "Who pays your wages?" I replied that I was not being paid at all. He stared at me in disbelief. "Why are you here, then?"

A tall, thin man spots us and veers towards my companion, his fingers pressed together in supplication. “Madame – ticket, ticket, ticket!”

“I don’t have any tickets with me today. No tickets, no tickets!”

The man turns away, not so much disappointed as empty. Continue reading Charity or Solidarity? On my first day here, an Afghan bluntly asked, “Who pays your wages?” I replied that I was not being paid at all. He stared at me in disbelief. “Why are you here, then?”

The History of John and Henry and of Frederick

Late one night, after the longest English lesson in history, as we settled on blankets in the darkness of the Calais jungle, hot sweet tea in our hands, one of the Sudanese, an intense man with eyes like light bulbs, caught my attention.

“Mr Teacher,” he says, light bulbs flickering, “I want to tell you the history of John and Henry and of Frederick.”

“Okay,” I reply, thinking these sounded like odd names for Sudanese history.

So the man fixed his bulbs on mine and this is, word for word, what he told me:

John said, “My father is taking me to Paris.” And Henry said, “Oh, you are so lucky! I would love to go to Paris.” Then Frederick asks John, “When are you going?” And John replies, “This time next Friday, we will be in the car that is taking us to Paris.”

I waited for more. There was no more. I looked at the others who shared the blanket; they avoided my eye or smirked into their tea.

I looked back at the story-teller, feeling a little embarrassed. Had I missed something about this short tale, told in oddly precise English for a man who just hours before hadn’t been able to conjugate the verb “to be”?

The man clearly felt a little put out that his story had not had the earth-shattering impact that he felt it deserved and so moved swiftly on, to a story about Ellen and Helen and Margaret and Lauren.

The gist of the narrative was that, while Ellen was busy looking after her mother and Helen had gone out to buy a loaf of bread, the indolent Margeret was sitting in her bedroom listening to the radio. Lauren, our story-teller added, was at work.

Again expecting some sort of moral or narrative turning point, I waited for more. Again, there was no more.

I couldn’t bear the tension that was building around my incomprehension of this man’s clearly significant stories. “I don’t understand,” I said.

“You don’t understand me?” he cried, light bulbs flashing in exasperation. “Then why are you still here?”

I hurriedly corrected him. “No, no – I do understand you, but I don’t understand the purpose of your stories.”

“Ah,” he replied. “They are two histories that I lose in the boat.”

Slowly it dawns on me. “They were stories in a book?”

“Yes, English book. Somebody throws them into the sea.”

Now I understand. This man, one of the keenest of my students, used to have an English textbook. The “story” of John and Henry and of Frederick was clearly a model dialogue used to teach the future tenses.

I imagined my student, on the deadly Mediterranean crossing from Libya to Italy, reading and re-reading his beloved English textbook, until he had memorised its teachings perfectly.

The irony was sharp. The future tense is our way of envisaging and describing our hopes and dreams. My story-teller’s long journey from Darfur to Calais was fuelled by hope and dreams alone: the electricity that powers those light bulb eyes.

A story of hope and a future of dreams. Until both are tossed overboard.

Very Short Film: “The Wind is Free” – Calais June 2015

This very short film shows the basic living conditions of the migrants in the windswept “jungle” of Calais. Currently over 3000 migrants are surviving on one meal per day, in self-made shelters that vary from the miserably basic to the downright ingenious.

Filmed 21 June 2015.

The Open Air Prison of Calais

Riot police look down over the camp from the flyover. From below it looks less like a flyover than a prison wall. Five riot vans stand guard, half a dozen riot cops in each, just looking down on us. I take a piss into the bushes underneath their machine gun gaze. It makes me feel safer.

At the entrance to this open air prison, off rue Garennes, there’s a driveway of asphalt, where two games of football, a set of tennis and a cricket match are in progress, each game modified and adapted to the conditions. Spectators range the banks on either side, while the riot police keep score and umpire (maybe).

Saving four on the leg side are a range of new hire toilets, installed just a couple of days ago in response to a battery of complaints by migrants and by French charities on the migrants’ behalf. Before these new arrivals, toilet facilities were located in the bramble bushes, or a 15 minute walk over sand dunes in the Jules Ferry Centre.

Drinking water taps have also recently been plumbed into the arid ground. Three months of traipsing to and fro for basic facilities such as toilets and water are over. But to call the conditions satisfactory for human existence would be a grievous violation of the definition of the word “satisfactory”.

4,000 people live here, in a bewildering ingenuity of tents, wire fence cages and pallet wood houses. One man from Senegal has even managed to build a traditional house, complete with thatched roof. Another skilled carpenter has constructed a two-storey house of wood, with a twin room, kitchen and balcony that overlooks the road to the Jules Ferry Centre.

But most of the denizens of this sorry open air prison survive in throw-away festival tents, held together with gaffer tape and rope. The wind blows hard enough to rip open my shelter on the first night. The rain soaks heavy in Calais.

These people need proper shelter, they need many more water taps and many more toilets. Above all, they need proper nourishment.

The Jules Ferry Centre, the French government’s concession to humanity, provides one meal a day at 5pm. No breakfast, no lunch, just a kind of a supper, doled out at the end of a three hour queue. Many migrants rise above this desultory charity, preferring to fend for themselves, sharing large communal meals with their communities. Sacks of potatoes stand sprouting in the sun.

Many of the migrants here are Muslims, currently observing Ramadan, not breaking their fast until sundown, long past the 5pm cut-off time for Jules Ferry. From somewhere, the internal economy or networks of solidarity, my Sudanese friends summon up a traditional meal of stew, grilled chicken and hot harissa paste, with rice pudding for dessert, all laid out on a carpet covered with a bed sheet.

We sit and wait, clock watching. My neighbour offers me a date to break the fast. Then the call to prayer bursts out from somebody’s mobile phone. The sun finally dips below the motorway and the Calais sky blushes in embarrassment, silhouetting the riot police as they look on through binoculars.

We can eat.

The Ghetto of Calais

Almost the first sight I saw on my return to France was three Afghans making the walk of shame, back out past the barbed fences, trailed by a crawling Port of Calais car, window wound down.

Not a good sign, I thought.

But the sky was cerulean blue and the wind just freshening as the sun made out like it was going to be here until Christmas; the Afghans looked unbothered and the port authorities merely bored.

Cycling back into Calais town centre, though, I saw no more migrants. Compared to last summer, the streets were empty. Good sign or bad sign? The numbers of migrants here is already supposed to be higher than last year, four thousand by some estimates – so where are they all?

At the beginning of June, numerous camps and squats in the town centre were evicted and closed down. Gone are the Leader Price camp, the Galloo squat and the Egyptian house. These join the earlier evictions of Tioxide and the Afghan camp in the Zone Industrielle des Dunes. Chased from the town centre, their former inhabitants have no more cause to be in Calais. There is nothing for them here.

The mayor’s plan to cleanse the town seems to have worked.

I can’t help but feel a small corner of relief for the people and businesses of Calais who rely for their income on the clean tourist image that the mayor is so eager to portray.

Over the past few years, the people of Calais would struggle to feel pride for their town. Every street corner wore the badge of the failures of French welfare, UK immigration, EU foreign policy and the failures of humanity in general. Now, with the migrants largely corraled and confined away from the town centre, the effect is diluted and visitors can start to forget the “migrant problem”.

So I couldn’t help but feel a little glad that Calaisiens appear to have “their” town back.

But the greater part of me fears for what that absence means. It means up to 4,000 migrants are being forced to live in ever more restricted areas, more tightly controlled by the police and much, much more densely packed.

I fear because I know what happens when you squeeze more and more air into your bicycle tyres. Already this year, fights have broken out between groups of migrants, living in difficult conditions and in unnaturally close quarters in the Jules Ferry camp grounds.

(I won’t call these camps “jungles” because this light-hearted gallows humour name, given to the various wild camps of Calais, has been seized upon by the right wing press and used to promote their portrayal of the migrants as little more than animals, fit only for the jungle. The truth is the other way around: our governments are treating them as animals.)

Recently, tents were set on fire in the camp, in a dispute over control of the parking lot where many migrants try to cross into the UK. A wooden church was also burnt to the ground. The dispute, however, could have been over almost any real grievance or imagined slight – disrespect, drunkenness, a misplaced word – because increasing population density alone causes increasing incidence of violence.

Remember how fractious you get on long coach journeys, confined, packed close together with your fellow travellers who go from being charming strangers to stinking, inconsiderate, corpulent, greedy, selfish freeloaders in the space of just 9 hours.

Add to that the migrants’ growing frustration at a life interrupted by war and blocked by bureaucracy and you have too too much air squeezed into your bicycle tyres. It’s going to burst sooner or later.

I cycled, via the boulangerie, to Richelieu Park, in the centre of Calais. The sun grinds its heel into the yellowing grass. Two young boys share a bicycle, one pedalling, the other standing on the footholds on the back wheel, hands on the shoulders of his mate, looking for all the world like a Roman emperor. This is their empire again. Palm trees stand in rows, while the young take the sun, the elderly the shade.

A year ago, this park, and parks like it, would have been filled with lounging migrants, waiting for the evening and their chance to cross into England. Police, too, would have been strolling the grounds, moving people on in a haphazard, half-hearted manner. Today, both are gone. So too is the Salam food distribution that used to take place on a field behind the nearby town hall. Anything that might attract migrants has been excised from the town centre.

So I cycle for half an hour, out of town. The parks and polished streets of central Calais start potholing as the houses straighten up into apartment blocks and then abruptly flatten out into red-roofed bunglows. I overtake a boy carrying a fishing rod lance-like on his bike. Shopping centres skulk past, warehousing all kinds of cheap comestibles, from rack to ruin.

I cross the river and the wind hits me. Nothing but forty-foot lorries, factories and not much else. The rue Garennes is long and straight, built to service the industrial parks that line its verges. Some are still operational, choking fumes into the evening, others bear only the air of dilapidation and neglect.

This is where the migrants start to appear, on the side of the road, traipsing, schlepping, some carry boxes and bags, baguettes and energy drinks. Some coming towards me, heading into Calais, to try to cross at the Channel Tunnel. Others walk in my direction. I follow the trail underneath a motorway bridge and into the camp.

Here is where I shall sleep tonight. With those four thousand others, out of sight and out of mind.

Migrant Mythbusting!

There are probably as many myths floating around about migrants and migration as there are UKIP voters. (Fascinating fact: there are as many foreign born nationals living in the UK as there are UKIP voters.) In this post, I bust a good few of them:

They’re stealing our benefits!

Let’s make this absolutely clear with a quote from the House of Commons: “Asylum seekers are not eligible for mainstream welfare benefits whilst waiting for a decision on their asylum application.”

Asylum seekers can apply for financial support and accommodation. The accommodation is offered on a “no choice” basis and only outside London and the south-east. Financial support is £36.62 per week for a single adult. Asylum support rates have not increased since 2011, despite the rising cost of living.

In comparison, a destitute British person claiming financial support will receive £72.40 (Job Seekers Allowance) and will be eligible for Housng Benefit.

If migrants were after handouts, then they should stay in France: they have quicker access to housing and benefits there.

This is all despite the fact that, according to a University of London survey of 2001-2011, non-EU immigrants to the UK paid out 2% more in taxes than they received. EU immigrants paid out 34% more. Benefit tourism is a myth.

Well they’re stealing our jobs, then!

Asylum seekers are not allowed to work in the UK – unless they have been waiting for a decision on their case for more than a year.

Busted

They’re only coming because we’re a soft touch on immigration!

This could not be further from the truth. The UK’s asylum process is draconian: 65% of applications were rejected in 2013 and we accepted less than 5,000 asylum seekers.

The UK is not seen as a soft touch by migrants either. In 2013, the UK received far less applications for asylum than Germany, the USA, France, Sweden and Turkey. Most countries saw a significant increase in asylum applications between 2012 and 2013; in the same period, the UK’s share of total asylum applications dropped from 6% to 5%. For every 1000 inhabitants, the UK receives less asylum seekers than Belgium, Montenegro, Austria and Leichtenstein.

These are not the statistics of a country that is a soft touch or that is even seen as being a soft touch.

Busted

They should stay at home / in France / anywhere else!

There is a philosophical argument here as well as a practical one. As British passport holders, UK citizens are allowed to travel almost anywhere in the world; in many countries they are allowed also to set up businesses and seek employment. These benefits are no more deserved than a lottery winner “deserves” his winnings. It’s luck. Similarly, being born in Syria at a time when the country suffers terrible drought and civil war, is no more deserved.

Beside this philosophical argument, the truth is that most of these people do stay at home or in other countries. The UK take significantly less asylum seekers than the rest of the EU. Overwhelmingly, the burden of asylum seekers and refugees is absorbed by neighbouring countries. The Syrian civil war has created around 3.8m refugees. There are 1.3m refugees from Syria currently living in Turkey and 1.8m living in Lebanon. In the UK, we have accepted just 24. The ones that do attempt the dangerous journey from their places of birth to the UK face great difficulty claiming asylum.

Legally, the Dublin Regulation states that migrants fleeing to the EU should claim asylum in the first country they come to. Logically, therefore, the UK should never need deal with asylum seekers because they MUST travel through other EU countries in order to reach ours.

It should come as no surprise to learn that the Dublin Regulation was pursued by the rich northern European countries of the EU, particularly the UK and Germany, in order to keep the “asylum problem” as far away as possible.

So why don’t the Calais migrants stay in France?

When asked this question, the main reasons cited by migrants are:

  • They have family and friends in the UK.
  • They speak English.
  • They face racism in Italy and France.
  • There are more jobs in the UK.

This is backed up by the demographic distribution of migrants in Calais. There main groups of people there are from Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia. If these people speak a foreign language, it is English. Migrants from French-speaking countries such as Algeria do indeed stop in France.

Busted

They’re violent criminals!

Two facts:

  1. After 1996, immigration to the UK rose sharply, from around 300,000 people a year to as much as 600,000 people a year.
  2. After 1996, violent crime in the UK fell sharply, from 4.2 million violent crimes in 1995 to only 1.94 million in 2011/2012.

Independent studies by both Oxford University and the London School of Economics find that there is “virtually no evidence
in any country to suggest links between migration and violent crime”.

Violent crime statistics are matched by property crime statistics: rising immigration in the last ten years is paired with falling property crime rates. What you really want now is a pretty chart:

Falling crime chart

Busted

Britain is full up!

If that’s true, then why are there over 600,000 empty homes in the UK? Why have a third of those been empty for more than six months?

Immigrants make up around 13% of the UK population, a figure that is broadly similar to most other parts of the developed world – Germany, the Netherlands, France, Norway, Spain and the USA all have immgrant populations of around 12-14%.

There are around 7.8m immigrants living in the UK; according to a 2005 Foreign and Commonwealth Office report, there are 13.1m British nationals living abroad. I wonder if Australia, Spain and the USA moan about all those Brits clogging up their roads?

Busted

They’re illegal!

Some people may travel to the UK illegally because, unlike you, they are not allowed to travel legally. They might have had their passport confiscated by a military dictatorship; they might have fled their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

As soon as they apply for asylum, however, they are legally permitted to remain in the UK until their claim has been assessed. This process, by the way, isn’t exactly a bed of roses. Asylum seekers are often treated as we might treat criminals: by putting them into detention centres or tying them down with electronic tags.

Some people may attempt to work in the UK illegally (because £36.62 a week isn’t an awful lot to live off), but it is highly unlikely that they will be taking jobs from British workers. These “jobs” are run by gangmasters paying as little as £3 per hour – now that’s illegal.

Busted

Advice for People Visiting Calais Migrants

By popular request, here’s a rag-bag of advice for people visiting Calais for the first time (Last updated on the 5th of July 2015):

Planning your visit:

  • How to get to Calais: From the UK, the 90 minute ferry crossing is the obvious option. If you’re a foot passenger or with a bicycle, you can usually just turn up and buy a ticket for the next departure for less than £20. Ferries are very regular – when the workers aren’t striking!
    If you have a vehicle, it’s better to book well in advance as ticket prices can rise sharply. A car can cost up to £100, but that covers as many passengers as you can cram in, so take your friends!
    You can also take the Eurostar to Calais Frethun, but be aware that this is a good 13km (over 2 hour) walk from the camp.
  • Take good walking boots, a car or a bicycle. The camp in Calais is a long (2 miles +) walk from the town centre and the nearest shops. A car or a van is particularly useful for transporting things / people to and fro. If you do take a vehicle, be prepared to help people! You will be in high demand.
  • How to find somewhere to sleep: Talk to local activists or the migrants themselves about your sleeping options. I usually take a tent and camp. You could also try couchsurfing, sleep in your van if you take one, or stay at one of several hotels in Calais and the local area.

When in Calais:

  • Be kind to each other. Be awesome and considerate to yourselves, your group, other activists, local Calaisians and the migrants. Everyone’s going through a lot.
  • Always carry food and water. You don’t know when you’ll be eating, so take snacks. Otherwise you’ll get hungry, your blood sugar will fall and you’ll start getting annoyed and make bad decisions.
  • Migrants don’t need charity. Support and solidarity, yes; charity, no. You’ll find that they are the hospitable ones. You are visiting their homes (however temporary and desolate), so respect their rules and their wishes.
  • Be aware that the situation in Calais changes rapidly, often from one day to the next. Be flexible and…
  • Follow the lead and advice of local activists. But don’t be afraid to speak up and use your initiative if you see something needs doing.
  • Long-term activists in Calais may well be very tired. Don’t be put off if some people are quiet or unenthusiastic about your plans. You’re vital to inject some fresh enthusiasm.
  • Don’t be ashamed or afraid to take an hour, an afternoon or a couple of days “off”. Be a tourist, have a coffee, have a nice meal, go for a swim in the sea. Look after yourself and each other.
  • Don’t get involved with the police. They have a habit of smashing activist cameras.
  • Be aware that the camps in Calais are heavily male-dominated. It can feel threatening; as usual, follow the lead of local activists if necessary.
  • Be aware that the experience in Calais can be intense. Don’t mistake that intensity of experience with lust or love. But do make friends 😀

When you get back home:

  • Be aware of your (and others) emotions. Some people can be profoundly affected by what they hear and see in Calais. When you get back, have a little meet up with the others, or stay in touch by email. And keep being nice to each other.
  • Spread the news. Write something down, tell your family and friends, think about what you’ve seen and what it means. This is how things will change, through a slow process of bottom-up experience and understanding.

Finally: Have fun! I’m a big believer in fun. If something is not fun, then you won’t do it again and you certainly won’t encourage any one else to get involved. Yes, the situation is miserable, but that doesn’t mean that we always have to be miserable about the situation.

(If you’ve got anything to add, please leave a comment. Photo taken by Dominique Lyons – thanks!)

Thank-You Letter to the Daily Mail

THANKS FOR ALL YOUR SUPPORT >> FOLLOW BETH and DAVE ON TWITTER!

UPDATE: Now you can watch us thank the Daily Mail in person!

Dear Our New Favourite Newspaper, The Daily Mail:

A thousand thanks for your tireless support for the much-abused Calais migrants! (Or, as they’re also known, “Fellow Human Beings”.)

Some freeloading scroungers might have cynically used your festive promotional offer with P&O Ferries to go over and stock up on cheap continental booze and fags. But we know you meant to launch a D-Day-style flotilla of solidarity with Fellow Human Beings who have fled the blood and torture and killing and more blood and bombs (paid for by the British taxpayer!) in the hope of joining us in El Dorado where you can’t even have a fag indoors any more.

Your courageous humanitarian stance should be saluted – but instead you’re constantly pilloried by the loony left as “anti-immigration”, “anti-welfare” and “anti-freeze”. Everyone should clearly understand your newspaper is cover-to-cover political satire!

For example, we found your ironic article of January 15, “Michelin Chef And Curried Turkey”, to be an absolute hoot! The story was a lampoon of the highest order – imagine “thousands” of Fellow Human Beings being served “three-course meals” by a “three-star Michelin chef”!*

All this frivolity is “partly-funded”, of course, by… the British taxpayer! We love that catchphrase and the comic effect would simply evaporate if you were to list all the funders, the Cypriot, Latvian and Bulgarian taxpayers – in fact, every EU taxpayer. No, the gag wouldn’t have worked in the slightest.

Satirical Daily Mail Calais migrant story alongside hard-hitting news story about a woman wearing see-through pants.
Satirical Daily Mail Calais migrant story alongside hard-hitting news story about a woman wearing see-through pants.

What a shame fact-starved “Cheddarcakes” didn’t see the funny side, commenting on your spoof article, “They eat better than I do! And when they make it here, they will be put in a 4-star hotel.”

Don’t you hate it when a joke falls flat?

Your comically embellished language conjures up images of Fellow Human Beings dining out on British taxpayer’s money, as they whimsically discuss with the starched-shirted waiter the troublesome quandary of whether to have a starter and a main, or a main and a dessert – utterly priceless!

Of course, everyone knows the food at the miles-out-of-town day centre is not enough to feed even a quarter of the Fellow Human Beings in Calais, even once a day. The people we helped, thanks to your generosity, hadn’t had a meal in two days.

Leafy Calais
“Spacious accomodation in a leafy Calais suburb…”

A straight-laced piece of fuddy-duddy “factual” journalism would naturally have mentioned such realities and maybe too the violent harassment by police, pepper spray in the face, daily beatings – we met one chap who’d been chased into barbed wire, slashing open an eyeball or two!

But you played it for laughs and, inspired by your cutting satire, we used the money we saved on the ferry to do a supermarket sweep for “hundreds of smiling migrants”, packed forty to a room in a squalid end-of-terrace, without electricity, running water or heating.

Beth and Me trolley Calais
“Oh, well, if we’re all having starters..!”

On a border where a Fellow Human Being is killed every two weeks trying to cross the Channel, everyone finds the idea that Britain has an “open door” policy on immigration to be absolutely gut-busting.

Syrian Daniel, 32, said he hadn’t laughed so much in months, not since he was quoted $2000 to cross the Mediterranean in a rusty bucket. He sends his thanks for the morale-boosting laughs – keep up the good work!

In peace and solidarity,

Beth and David

p.s. After running the Daily Mail Big Fact Checker, it was found that this “three-star Michelin chef” had once been a trainee at a one-star restaurant. This is like saying you’re an Oscar winner when you once did an internship with Carlton Television.

p.p.s. Thanks for the free bottle of wine! The perfect way to wind down after a hard day’s solidarity.

Be like Satirical News Journal The Daily Mail and Support Calais Migrants!

1. Book a ferry ticket with P&O by the 1st of February, using code DAILYMAIL4, to take advantage of the Daily Mail’s humanitarian largesse.

2. Pack up a backpack or load up a car with tents, blankets, (men’s) shoes, winter jackets and a couple of sets of dominoes. If you have none of these things, take a warm hug and a friendly smile.

3. Visit the migrant camp at Impasse des Salines or the “Jungle” along Rue des Garennes. If you want to support activists in Calais, contact Calais Migrant Solidarity on +33 75 34 75 159.

4. Enjoy your free bottle of wine, courtesy of our sponsor, The Daily Mail!

p.s. Harkerboy comments that, “We should all go to Calais and demand that we are looked after in this camp”. This picture is for you!

Garder coûte que coûte...
Home, sweet home…

Humanity is Easy: Supporting Migrants in Calais

Over the New Year break, me and some friends went over to visit the Calais migrants. We brought over 200kg of clothes, tents and blankets to distribute around the jungles and squats, where over two thousand people from Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Syria and other conflict zones, live in what can only be described as icy squalor. On the 31st, we used funds we’d raised in the UK to help throw a New Year’s party for around two hundred people – migrants, activists and local Calaisians – in the Galloo squat, with dancing, fireworks and cake.

Beth in the back of the van Calais

Now, though, I want to take this opportunity to inveigle my way into your brain and, using the power of hypnotic suggestion, to cajole you into visiting Calais for yourself. I promise you an experience you cannot – and will not wish to – forget.

“But there’s no point me going over – I wouldn’t know what to do or say!”

You don’t have to do or say anything. We’re all the same, we’re all humans and we could be Calais migrants tomorrow, living on the streets in freezing temperatures without food, shelter or running water. Besides, as much as I try to be useful over in Calais, I feel that I get way more out of every trip than I can ever offer. I hear stories that make my synapses struggle and tales that make my teeth chatter. The least I can do is be a friend.

On New Year’s Eve, we’re chatting to a Syrian guy who was planning to cross the Channel in a dinghy that night. “It’s my last chance,” he says. “It’s the last night of the holidays, there will be less shipping traffic, less security.” The weather is calm too; he can escape before the high winds return. “I grew up next to the Euphrates, where I would swim against the currents, so I’m a strong swimmer,” he says. “And the boat has three chambers, so I have three chances if there is a puncture.”

But he doesn’t have a life jacket. We offer him money to buy one, but he refuses our help. “I used to give money to charity,” he says. “I find it difficult to take charity.” Some activists try to convince him to stay, to wait until he’s got a life jacket, until he’s got a winter wetsuit, until he gets some sea flares, until he’s got a support team who can call the coastguard if – or when – he gets into trouble. As we talk, he tells us his story.

In Syria, he’d been tortured by the regime. He shows us deep burn marks on the fingers of his right hand. “They knew I was an artist,” he explains, “so I couldn’t do my work.” He tells us how they would force him underwater for minutes at a time, but he grew up diving in the Euphrates and could hold his breath for longer. “They couldn’t take my soul,” he says, “because I was a bigger asshole than them!” He laughs – now – and we laugh too.

Living in Damascus, he’d literally looked death in the eye. “I saw the shell coming towards me,” he says. “It was like in the Matrix, you know? When the bullet ripples the air?” We nod. “It landed six metres from me, but only my face was covered in dust.” Another time, he was standing on a hill to get phone reception to call his mother and father in a different part of the city. “I heard the thump, thump of the shells,” he says. “I waited for the whistle – when you hear the whistle, then you know that you are dead.” He looks at us urgently. “I would never wish it on my worst enemy, that feeling when you hear the whistle. I listened. Then I hear the whistle. I know that I am dead.” He survived again, one lucky asshole, and left his country to find another land where he could work without fear and live without death.

But when he got to Calais, he found something else. “I used to believe that I was better than the other migrants,” he says. “I used to have respect for the police. I don’t want to run away from them, like the other migrants.” He’s proud of the fact that he’d got from Syria to France without paying the mafia or people traffickers. “I used to think I was better than the other people, but now I see that I am not. We are all the same. The police treat us all the same, with beatings and pepper spray,” he says. “That has changed me. Now I see how the activists have a hug for everyone, no matter who you are. You can be black, white, Arab, Christian, Muslim – it doesn’t matter.”

I lower my head when I hear him say this, some wash of tears in my heart. I’ve done nothing except be there; listening, giving a shit. That’s all that’s needed. Don’t underestimate your power to be there. It’s amazing how much how little is.

“I used to want to get to England, get my papers and start a normal life,” he continues. “But my experience has changed me. Now I want to get to England, get my papers and – insha’allah – come back to Calais and be an activist.” He smiles. “I want to be a pain in the ass for the Queen.”

We do manage to convince him to join the New Year’s Eve party at Galloo. He’ll be trying to cross the Channel again soon – this time with a life jacket, he promises.

Beth and Nahir Tioxide

What can we do now?

If you want to go to Calais, then go! Get in touch with Calais Migrant Solidarity on +33 7 53 47 51 59 or with me directly in the comments below. Tents, sleeping bags and shoes are the best things to take over there right now.

BONUS: The Daily Mail Migrant Solidarity Tour!

This is the funniest shit that has ever happened in history. The Daily Mail are kindly offering to support activists going over to Calais to help migrants. I know, right?! Hilarious. If you go to http://dailym.ai/1HnZmkE, you can get a massive discount on return ferry tickets from Dover to Calais – £1 for foot passengers, £15 for a car and four people or £17 for an overnight return for a car and four passengers. Plus you get a free bottle of wine to share with your new migrant friends!

I’m definitely going to take advantage of the immigrant-hating perversity of The Daily Mail before the offer expires on the 1st of February. Give me a shout if you want to join us!

Happy New Year!

Calais Migrant Factgasm: Episode 1

Welcome to the first edition of Calais Migrant Factgasm, in which I quite metaphorically round up every piece of internet about the Calais migrants and incarcerate it in the detention centre of my blog.

Featuring news from the past week and analysis of Eritrean migration vs big business and the lorry driver protest organised for this coming Saturday. Enjoy.


News in Brief

Monday, 15th of September: Ashford motorhome owner Teresa Tyrer discovers Calais migrant underneath vehicle

“He’s now sitting on our lawn having a picnic. He’s not shown any need to get up and walk. You’ve got to feel sorry for him. He’s only young and it’s just a shame they are prepared to do things that are so dangerous.”

Someone gave the migrant a sandwich, before calling the police. This mild act of human compassion caused a certain amount of internet hatred, including this from Lrg8:

Should of had a knuckle sandwich for doing that. GO HOME!! instead of sponging off of us

Home got bombed, honey, and I’m not sure who’s sponging off who, to be honest. Have Britain been “sponging off” Iraqi oil for the past century? Are Britain “sponging off” Eritrean gold mines? Meanwhile, a person calling themselves change says:

“I don’t know if its true but was told that they have been discovered coming in on lorries pretending to be mud flaps.”

Sneaky illegal immigrants coming over here, taking our… Oh wait. It’s a mud flap. Sneaky mud flaps coming over here… (Credit: Trucking Accessories)
Sneaky illegal immigrants coming over here, taking our… Oh wait. It’s a mud flap. Sneaky mud flaps coming over here… (Credit: Trucking Accessories)
Friday night, 19th of September: Egyptian squat on Avenue Blériot attacked by four youths with Molotov cocktails

The Egyptian Squat on Avenue Blériot.
The Egyptian Squat on Avenue Blériot. (Credit:La Voix du Nord)

One of the squatters got a busted leg. The police tried to catch the youths, but they got away. I think it’s safe to say that these youths were fascists. Like parasites, wherever there are migrants, there are fascists who come to prey on them.

Why? Boredom combined with empathy-erosion, probably. Chucking a Molotov cocktail and then running a car chase with the cops must be pretty exciting. And these youths just can’t see that the problems faced by the migrants are exactly the same as the problems they face: no jobs, no money, boredom and a sense that their life is going nowhere.

Saturday morning, 20th of September: Ten migrants – including a little baby – discovered in the port of Calais, hiding in a lorry bound for the UK

A baby. The baby was taken to hospital, the other nine were taken for questioning, detention and perhaps deportation. A baby.

Who’s to blame? The migrant parents for being so irresponsible? The French authorities for not caring for the innocent? The British authorities for closing the border to the innocent? The world order that creates political situations and conflicts in which ordinary people with families feel they have to flee their homes in order to build a better life for their children? Hmm.

Saturday, 20th of September: Home secretary Theresa May and her French counterpart Bernard Cazeneuve agree a deal for Britain to give £12,000,000 to help tackle ‘illegal immigration’ from Calais

“This money will be used to construct robust fences and to bolster security at the parking area of the port, which migrants use as a staging post for efforts to cross the Channel.”

Because that will solve the problem of war, poverty and starvation in Eritrea, Sudan and Afghanistan, won’t it?

Migrants in Calais banned from playing football

Every Sunday for the last two years, migrants and their friends have enjoyed a game of football in a park in Calais. Now, the mayor is going to court to stop them, sending in the police and bailiffs. If I was more of a conspiracy theorist, I’d think this was a Machiavellian move on the part of the mayor. If the migrants don’t take out their frustrations by kicking a ball around a park, then how will they? Riots?

Threat to public safety. No shin pads either.
Threat to public safety. No shin pads either. (Credit:La Voix du Nord)
Monday morning, 22nd of September: The Express rounds up more stories of migrants arriving in the UK

“Traffic on the M25 came to a standstill as the 20 people, who are believed to be Ethiopian, got out of a lorry as it was driving between Chertsey and the junction with the M3 in Surrey at about 8.50 this morning.” … “A 35-year-old Sudanese man was found hiding underneath a coach bringing children from Perry Beeches Academy, Birmingham, back from a trip to France.”

Tuesday, 23rd of September: La Voix du Nord reports a “special mission” to Calais

“Two senior officials will be on a special mission to Calais on Wednesday for three days. Appointed in late August by the Minister of the Interior, they have seven months to analyse the situation of migrants in the Calais and propose solutions.”

The mission will be based in Paris. They have seven months to work on this and they’re spending an entire three days in Calais, before squirrelling back to their ivory towers. Baffling.

And, finally…

From Stormfront.org (“Voice of the new embattled White minority!”) comes this comment by natsoci (harmless enough alias, don’t you think?) on an article about the migrants in Calais:

“Take them to the med, push them in, and tell them if they can make it here by swim-power alone then we’ll personally give them the passports.”

If only that were true, I bet thousands would try it. And succeed. Many of these people have already survived torture, bombings, slavery, crossing the Saharan desert, crossing the Mediterranean in sinking ships, four different kinds of Mafia and several Italian and French prison cells. They’re not going to be intimidated by a bit of swimming OR casual fascism on an internet message board.


Newsatrolysis Feature: Eritrean Migration vs Big Business

“We are human beings”: The treatment of immigrants in Calais, France by Petros Tesfagiorgis. Published on the 22nd of September, on Eritrean news network Asmarino.

The irony is while Europeans are complaining of the number of refugees entering Europe, they don’t hesitate to encourage their private companies to do business with the repressive regimes in Africa who are the underlining causes of flight of refugees. The West is gaining far more lucrative profits from the third worlds than they give back in terms of aid and giving sanctuary for refugees.

For example the British Government has encouraged a number of mining companies to invest in Eritrea and a visit was recently led by a British Government official to facilitate contracts. A mining company named London Africa Ltd has recently been granted a license covering over 1500 square kilometres of Eritrea. They have joined companies like Sunridge Gold Corporation and Bisha Mining Shared Co (BMSC). This is a real Gold rush like “El Dorado” in contrast to the asylum seekers desperately seeking safety in European countries.

What is sad is that many of these companies are using forced labour to extract the ore…

Just a brief insight into the nuances of a migration that is usually presented (by government and media) as lazy scroungers running away from their homes to sponge off the beneficent welfare state of Britain. This simplistic narrative conveniently hides our role and the roles of our governments and our government-supported businesses in the creation of these desperate migrations.


The BIG Report: The Lorry-drivers’ Perspective.

Tuesday, 23rd of September, Port of Dover blockade on Saturday to stop illegal migrants entering Kent could be illegal

“Lorry drivers, whose vehicles come under siege by foreign nationals desperate to reach Kent, are being slapped with fines of £2,000 per immigrant found in their vehicles – despite their efforts to stop them stowing away in their trucks.”

That is proper unfair, pushing the blame for the conflicts of the political classes onto a different set of the innocent working class. Divide and rule.

Wednesday, 24th of September, BBC: Lorry driver tells of risks of driving through Calais (Video).

Hmm. Interesting. I can empathise with these lorry drivers, who are just trying to do their jobs without killing anyone or getting fined.

Wednesday, 24th of September, Express and Star: Lorry drivers are being treated as “scapegoats” and penalised unfairly as the illegal migrant crisis worsens.

This features comments from Natalie Chapman, of the Freight Transport Association (FTA):

“It’s about managing EU borders better. A lot of migrants are coming through places like the Italian island of Lampedusa. We need to help those who are dealing with the initial influx of migrants who are coming through the Mediterranean. The Government needs to be protecting the drivers, not penalising them with fines.”

Is it about managing EU borders better? Or is it about addressing the causes of these migrations? But then we might not have such cheap oil, we might not have such cheap consumables and we might not have such pliable markets for our exports. Tricky one.

Protest organised in Dover for 1pm this Saturday (27th of September)

According to the “Support the Calais to Dover truckers” Facebook Group, the reasons to attend the demonstration are:

To stop a driver being injured or worse.
To stop Isis terrorists from re entering this country.
To stop Ebola being transported into this country.
To stop unchecked criminals from entering this country.
To stop rapists and child molester’s into this country.
To stop drivers being fined for clandestines being on their trucks.
To show the government your not happy about uncontrolled immigration.
To show the government your not happy being in the European union and it ruling our country with tin pot human rights laws.

NB: I’ve left the grammar exactly as the original writer intended. I think it’s funnier that way.
NBB: It’s not that funny.

Worth close inspection...
Worth closer inspection…

The Facebook group has been described as having links to far-right groups in the UK and are supported by Sauvons Calais (Save Calais), a French collective notorious for their “war against immigration and pro-migrant associations”. A counter-protest by leftie groups has also been organised… Can’t see this going badly at all, can you? Divide and rule.


* Please note: Although some of this blog post might smell funny, this is NOT a parody. This is happening, here, there and all over the world, right now, a witch’s brew of UK and EU border and foreign policies. It’s really easy to stand in solidarity with other humans, though. Pop over to Calais and see for yourself. They do really good and cheap cheese there too. Win-Win.

Do We Need Borders?

You might have seen some stories in the news recently about illegal immigrants trying to get into the UK. I recently spent some time in Calais, teaching English and generally hanging out with the wannabe immigrants there. I was staying with about sixty people in a squat originally set up by an activist group called No Borders, whose aim, you won’t be surprised to hear, is the dismantling of all national borders.

One migrant, who grew up in London, but is illegal there and had recently been deported, asked me: “What’s with all this No Borders stuff? Why do you bother? It’s obviously not working.”

It’s a good question, until you see that it’s loaded. You might as well ask why the government bothers with borders, because they’re obviously not working either.

Do we need borders? A barricade in Calais set up to defend against border police.
A barricade in Calais set up to defend against border police.

Borders aren’t working

Borders aren’t working for the hundreds of people killed every year trying to break into Fortress Europe, fleeing civil conflicts frequently armed by UK arms dealers. They’re not working either for the thousands of lives suspended in the limbo of Calais and places like Calais. These are human lives we have branded illegal and forbidden from working, forbidden from rebuilding their shattered dreams and contributing to their new society. Because, like it or not, these people aren’t going anywhere; they’ve got nowhere to go.

The borders are not working, you could also argue, for the people they are supposedly designed to protect. How are British jobs safeguarded by borders, when a transnational, borderless corporation like Amazon can suck our small businesses into the void, while contributing next to nothing to our society? How are British lives safeguarded by borders, when borderless ideologies – religion, politics – can twist minds and precipitate outrageous acts of violence from within?

In this article, I will ask: Do we even need borders?

Do we need borders? The sign leading to the border at the port of Calais.
The sign leading to the border at the port of Calais.

Why do we have national borders?

National borders really took off after the First and Second World Wars. They evolved to deal with a very specific problem: How can we divide nation states? You need borders.

Before the World Wars, there were only a scattering of recognised nation states – France, the United Kingdom, Germany and so forth – the rest of the world was divided among those nation states according to Empire. While the First World War was essentially the violent collapse of the imperial world order, the Second World War was the battle to decide what system would fill the void – nation states – and where the borders would be drawn.

From the end of the Second World War, for reasons of geopolitical organisation, every corner of the earth had to have a sovereign master, demarcated by borders from its neighbour. New nation states appeared overnight, defined only by lines drawn on a map. Where on earth was Palestine, where Israel? Where was India, where Pakistan? They were all invented and the borders often arbitrarily drawn with indelible marker by fallible administrators thousands of miles away.

My point: National borders were not and are not the “natural” way of breaking up territory. They were arbitrary servants to the invented political idea of the nation state. We only need borders because we have nation states.

Do we need borders? Map of border defences between Britain and France
The Channel: The final frontier of the Schengen Zone.

What is a nation state?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a nation state is:

An independent political state formed from a people who share a common national identity (historically, culturally, or ethnically).

I’m sure you can already see the problems we might run into if, by any chance, those unlucky administrators happened to draw borders in inauspicious places (i.e. almost anywhere).

To give you a guide of how ludicrous the idea is that a state-sized territory would have this mythical common national identity: at the time of the French revolution only half the population of France spoke any French at all. Some national identity, eh! France has taken hundreds of years to evolve a national identity. It’s too much to go into detail here about whether it was worth it or not.

My point: Nation states are not the “natural” way of organising ourselves politically and the global creation of nation states after the Second World War has been nothing less than catastrophic. If we didn’t have nation states, we wouldn’t need borders.

Do we need borders? We want freedom
Activists raise a sign: “We Want Freedom”.

What’s the problem with nation states and their fixed borders?

Basically, if arbitrary borders don’t fit perfectly with mythical national groupings, then we’ve got trouble.

Entire populations were uprooted and marched a thousand miles, as between India and Pakistan, as earlier between Greece and Turkey. In other places, the fall out was not nearly so “civilised” as population exchange. Rwanda, Palestine, Israel, Armenia, Turkey, Iran, Iraq – scarcely a single new nation state survived birth without bloodshed.

You could confidently argue that this calamitous squeezing of round pegs into square borders is the original cause of the continuing civil wars in Sudan, in Syria, in Iraq, in Libya. Even the civil conflicts between privileged and non-privileged – in South Africa, in Brazil, in the United States – could be said to be overspill from the decision that each arbitrary parcel of land shall have a sovereign and centralised supreme government, regardless of history, culture and ethnicity.

Do we need borders? "Everything is improbable, nothing is impossible."
“Everything is improbable, nothing is impossible.”

But borders are a good thing!

Borders have been nothing more than an attempt at a solution to a problem of politics. That problem was how best to manage our human affairs in an increasingly connected world – remember that, in a generation, wars went from cavalry charges between aristocrats to atomic weapons dropped by flying machines. That’s a radical shift in the scale of geopolitics and required a radical new way of organising ourselves.

You could argue that borders have been a decent solution to that problem. For many, particularly those in the west, the world has effectively been at peace since the Second World War. A strange thing to say, but I am not completely naïve. Considering how that conflict ended, with the devastation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, things could be much worse than they are.

But my point remains: There is no natural law that commands we live with borders. For most of human history, we didn’t have or need borders.

Do we need borders? "No one is illegal. We are all equal."
“No one is illegal. We are all equal.”

So do we need borders?

In a world where corporations and ideologies are borderless, are national borders, where we can restrict only the movement of people and goods, still the best solution?

I’ll let you make your mind up. Ultimately, whatever your viewpoint, we’re on the same side. This is a race to find a solution to a problem of politics. Perhaps the governments of nation states will find a solution that works for everyone. Or perhaps the solution will come from elsewhere, from groups like No Borders.

But who cares where the solution comes from? The important thing is that we try to find one, because what we have now isn’t working.

Do we need borders? A manhole cover announces the presence of No Borders.
A manhole cover announces the presence of No Borders.

Them and Us: Evolutionary Politics and The Philosopher Kings (and Queens)

The People’s Parliament is defiantly held in the least democratic building in the United Kingdom: the Houses of Parliament. Every Gothic gargoyle, every vaulted ceiling and marbled floor, every gun-toting copper screams totalitarianism. My local Territorial Army base is more democratic than the Houses of Parliament. Never mind. Our parliamentary host, John McDonnell MP, flaps his hands in despair at the larger-than-life oil paintings of dead monarchs around him, glad that this feudal building is being used “for something worthwhile, for a change.”

Police with guns
Not authoritarian at all.

That is how I started a blog post on a session of the People’s Parliament for Strike! magazine. The proletariat parliament had gathered in Committee Room 8 of the House of Commons to debate two questions posed by Zer0 Books: How has capitalism got away with the financial crisis? And (as if that wasn’t enough): Why is politics scared of political ideas?

* * *

A SIGNPOST: If you’d like to read a summary of the actual debate, then I politely usher you away from this post and to the very excellent Strike! blog. This post, on the other hand, will be a meta discussion on the very concepts of the People and Parliament.

* * *

Two things immediately struck me about the proceedings of this People’s Parliament. Firstly, that second question – Why is politics scared of political ideas? – seems to be missing a pronoun. Politics isn’t scared of ideas, not at all – why, only today, chancellor George Osborne dropped the Bingo Tax! And, over the course of the current parliamentary term, we’ve also seen the biggest reforms of the National Health Service since it was founded, austerity packages that have contributed to the slashing of the deficit by around £60bn and an Act of Parliament ensuring the environmental protection of the Antarctic (celebrated, I kid you not, with a commemorative tea towel and tartan tie). What’s wrong with these political ideas? Well… they’re not ours, are they? The question should be revised: Why is politics scared of OUR political ideas?

Which leads me on to the second thing: for a self-styled People’s Parliament, there is a lot of talk of “them” and “us”. And, make no mistake, this imaginary parliament is composed entirely of us: the Left. Even the man sitting next to me, dressed in leather shoes, wearing a smart suit and waistcoat, carrying a handlebar moustache and a leather briefcase with shiny brass buttons – even he is one of us. Neither the organisers of the People’s Parliament, nor Zer0 Books are particularly to blame for this imbalance – there were no Marxist goons at the door to the committee room, checking Party subscriptions or testing for neo-liberal sympathies. Theoretically, anyone could have attended – but I’m not even remotely interested in why they didn’t. I’m interested in why there exists a “them” and “us” in the first place.

The Right are often spoken about by the Left as if they are a monstrous sub-species, blood-sucking vampires and one-eyed cyclopes (the Right, I’m sure, feel the same about us). Now, I have some bad news: despite appearances, the Right aren’t diabolical creations of Frankenstein (George Osborne might be), they are as much a part of the human race as we are. But if that is true, I hear you cry in horror and disbelief, then why don’t they all give up and become more like us? Can’t they see that they’re wrong?

But, dear reader, we could ask the same of us. What are the Left? Why do we exist? Please tell me there’s more to us than good haircuts and indie bands. Well, let us find out…

Typical Lefty.
Typical Lefty.

* * *

Chimpanzees would vote Conservative. After spending ten minutes watching them picking nits at London Zoo, I’m almost certain that they’re Conservatives. In all my hours at the monkey house, I’m yet to witness any primate light up a spliff, read The Guardian or argue for a womanzee’s right to choose. And that’s why it’s the chimpanzees in the cages and us humans handing out the bananas. Chimpanzees don’t have evolved politics.

Cavemen were a fairly conservative bunch too, preferring grunts and wooden clubs to Marxist dialectics and nationalised healthcare. But, as well as the cave-conservatives, nascent human society had something else: mutant socialists. In order for evolution to proceed, there must be mutation. In political terms, this means we need people who blow away the status quo and do something Fucked Up and Wrong. And, politically speaking, that’s us, that’s the Left.

Sometimes, of course, those mutated ideas are genuinely Fucked Up and Wrong and result in a sicker society, one that ultimately destroys itself. Just as 99.9% of all species that ever existed are extinct, so too 99.9% of all societies that ever existed are now extinct. And that doesn’t mean that we have the best possible society now either – not at all. Just as some superb genes have been lost to the gene pool (I always thought that a pair of sabre teeth would have been useful for opening tins), so too have we in the West lost some superb social arrangements (anyone for matriarchy?). But without this constant Leftist innovation and mutation of politics and society, humans would still be stuck in caves, flinging shit at the walls, making friends by divesting their hair of head-lice and indulging in infanticide to preserve the purity of our bloodline.

You may wonder, then, why we’re not all brilliant socialist geniuses. The answer is that, sadly, for every one Lefty caveman who proposes the first primate parliament, there are a thousand who propose cooperation with sabre-toothed tigers, equal rights for head-lice or the League of Nations. Most ideas we have are Fucked Up and Wrong: the Right, then, exist to stand back and judge. If, by some miracle and contrary to all sensible advice, some loony Leftie has a break-through, the Right will immediately start copying us (and pretend that it was their idea all along). The Left and the Right are fundamentally different, but society is not them and us: human society is Left and Right together.

St Paul's Protest
Left and Right together at Occupy?

* * *

None of this is to say that the Right don’t innovate: Hitler was nothing if not, ahem, an innovator. But the Right don’t innovate the future; they innovate the past. Hitler innovated for the past of the Aryan race; Mussolini for the Romans; the BNP for a time before immigration. And, of course, most humans are neither far Right nor far Left: most people are somewhere in between – but it’s the extremes that define the debate, as we are finding out with David Cameron trying to out-UKIP UKIP and Nick Clegg trying to engage Nigel Farage in a debate on the EU.

* * *

Ancient Roman society innovated like mad in the industries of straight roads, the military and the imaginative torture of Christians – but why did they never invent the steam engine? Answer: because they had slaves. Their authoritarian Right would not allow the widespread manumission of slavery: free slaves are dangerous subjects and they must be kept occupied, doing the things that a steam engine could otherwise do. In the West, we had to wait for the radical Left to abolish slavery before a gap opened up in our technology for the steam engine – which kicked off the entire industrial revolution (for better or worse). The Left believed that the industrial revolution would result in a Utopic civilisation where days could be spent in the idle worship of beauty and smog. But, of course, our authoritarian Right wouldn’t allow that: free wage slaves are just as dangerous subjects.

The history of human society is a history of this constant pushing back and forth between Right and Left. An optimist would argue that the general trend of evolutionary politics is to drift left (because we’re awesome). An optimist would argue that the current lurch (lurch is a technical term from political science) to the Right is a mere blip in the millennial trend that has seen the end of feudalism and the start of a comprehensive welfare state. It is my belief that the Left should take great pride in this, our DNA-given role in political evolution – to fuck up society with a scatter-gun of new ideas and direct action. But we, the Left, must not also be complacent. If we are not vigilant, then the Right will nick all our best ideas and use them to justify their own ends (see “parliamentary democracy”). Dare they? Do they? Yes. Because they vastly outnumber us. It’s a hazy estimation, but one regular US poll judges conservatives to outnumber liberals by about four to one.

From an evolutionary point of view, I’m reluctant to admit that this balance makes total sense. In the battle for survival from one generation to the next, a genome wouldn’t want the entire population to be loony Lefties, inviting tigers home for tea. A genome wouldn’t even want half the population to be loony Lefties. A genome would want most people to be boring, a genome would want most people to keep doing what their great-grandparents did to survive – but with just enough loonies to keep things fresh. Evolution is a cosmically slow process, which can be frustrating to us revolutionaries, but you can see evolution’s point: If the status quo has worked for a billion years, then why change overnight, in a year, or even in a generation?

Typical scene after failed revolution.
Typical scene after another failed revolution.

* * *

Apologies for going on so – that’s the nature of impotent Lefty theorising. I assure you that the end approacheth, together with a (gasp!) practical proposal, as reward for your patience.

* * *

So the Left will always be outnumbered by the Right: that’s pre-determined in human DNA, I’m afraid. But we can load the game in our favour by exploiting maths (heinously flawed maths, but stick with me, if you will). Supposing that the above-cited US poll is approximately correct: that only twenty percent of humans are Leftists. Then, given that there are 650 seats in the House of Commons, we should find about 130 are on the Left. Now, assuming that MPs of the Labour, Liberal Democrat, SNP, Alliance, SDLP, Plaid Cymru, Respect, Sinn Féin and Green parties are at least Left-leaning (massive assumption given the last Labour government), then what we actually find are 333 Leftist MPs. That’s over fifty percent: a clear majority, even in this Tory-dominated government. The conclusion we draw from this anomaly is that Left-leaning humans are vastly more politically active than their Right-leaning counterparts. We are DNA’s anointed Philosopher Kings and Queens.

Why, then, do we find ourselves suffering such Right-wing authoritarian abuses as austerity, even under a coalition government including the Liberal Democrats? Why did those same Liberal Democrats drop their promise to abolish university tuition fees? Why did the Blair-Brown Labour governments embrace financial neo-liberalism? The answer, I fear, is terrifyingly simple: logistics. Societies with a large population, like the UK, are almost impossible to manage fairly. It’s hard to be democratic when 63 million people are represented by only 650 politicians. The very idea makes authoritarianism seem appealing, even to supposedly Left-leaning governments. By the way, it won’t surprise you to learn that David Cameron supports the idea of reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600, making the country even more authoritarian (or “less bureaucratic”, depending on your viewpoint).

The Left has a difficult time wielding power in large societies. The poster-girls of Leftist European government are Sweden (population 9.5 million, 349 MPs), Iceland (population 320,000, 63 MPs) and Denmark (population 5.5 million, 179 MPs). I conclude that it is in the Left’s favour to build and work in smaller societies. In these smaller societies, Philosopher Kings and Queens aren’t so easily drowned out by the clamour of X-Factor.

Therefore, I would politely suggest that the Left should throw their entire weight behind the YES campaign for Scottish independence. This will make whatever remains of the UK slightly smaller and the Westminster parliament marginally more democratic, marginally more of an actual people’s parliament. But, far more significantly, a YES vote will also give us a glimpse of what a smaller, more democratic and more Leftist population can achieve on their own. Scotland will become a precedent for total regional autonomy: If they can go it alone, then why not Wales? Why not Cornwall? Why not Humberside? The referendum on Scottish independence takes place on the 18th of September 2014. The rules say that anyone whose permanent address is in Scotland, ahead of the deadline for registration on the 2nd of September 2014, can vote.

Bonnie Scotland
Bonnie Scotland.

Finally, here follows my practical proposal:

This summer, gather your friends and allies, pack up your megaphones and polish your anarchist pin-badges and let’s move to Scotland en masse. Let’s create an independent Leftist state together, severing all ties with this most undemocratic of buildings forever.

Mel Gibson would be proud.

Straw Bale Building at Braziers Park

Last weekend, I went to Braziers Park to have a go at building a straw bale house. Here’s a little film I made about the project, run by Hugh Makins.

Straw Bale Building: Braziers Park from David Charles on Vimeo.

An introduction to straw bale building by Hugh Makins. Hugh is driven by his passion to find innovative solutions to the economic, environmental and social crises faced by humankind today. Affordable and sustainable straw bale building is just one aspect of his vision for a better world.

Hugh is a resident of Braziers Park in Oxfordshire. You can learn more about straw bale building by joining one of his experimental weekend building courses.

Filmed on location by David Charles in July 2012.

Tunis Martyrs’ Day Violence: Why and What Next?

Last Monday, I followed a protest in Tunis that was violently dispersed by police, using tear-gas and baton-beatings.

It is a delicate thing to comment on political protest in a country you have only been in for a month. But we all have eyes to see (except under tear-gas attack) and we all have brains to interpret for ourselves. My previous post demanded further explanation, so that is what I attempt here.

Since Monday, I have spoken to actual Tunisians, both in person and online, to find out more about the background to the protests and to ascertain how much support there is “on the street” for the protesters.

First, though, the official explanation for why the protest was broken up by the police. The government ruled a month ago that no protests were to be allowed on the main street in Tunis, Avenue Habib Bouguiba. The reason they gave for this ruling is that repeated protests and counter-protests (including one by radical Salafists in which they attacked the national theatre) were damaging commercial activity on the street and interrupting the flow of traffic down one of Tunis’ main transport arteries.

It should also be added that protests are allowed in the rest of Tunis (so far as I have been told) – and, indeed, our little march was politely escorted by police through the city to the union building, where it officially ended. That such a demonstration was permitted is certainly a step up from the days of Ben Ali.

So far, so reasonable.

Avenue Habib Bourguiba: nice, wide, pedestrian-protest-promenade…

(An obvious, although not necessarily relevant, counter-observation is that Habib Bourguiba is plenty wide enough to accommodate both traffic and protest. There is a vast promenade running down the centre, between the two vehicular lanes, that would be perfect for a leisurely march – were it not obstructed by barbed wire, soldiers and military vehicles…)

… Plus soldiers, tanks and a statue of Ibn Khaldoun.

That is the official line, but what did my proverbial man on his hypothetical street say?

To tell the truth, in all my conversations, interviews and casual chats, I am yet to meet a Tunisian who whole-heartedly backs the protesters (aside from the protesters themselves, naturally).

One man, when I asked him why the police attacked, said simply that the protests were forbidden. I pressed him further, asking him if it was political, but he waved an irritated hand at me and reiterated: it was forbidden. His closing of the topic reminded me of the political silence under Ben Ali. Not a good start to my information-gathering.

Others, thankfully, were happy to talk politics – and this freedom of speech is another genuine joy of post-revolutionary Tunisia.

One of my new Tunisian friends, a charismatic fruit-seller and fine art photographer, told me that he was sad to see photographs of the protests on my Facebook wall. He said they were ugly (I can’t disagree). But he also disapproved of the protesters. He told me that they were friends of Ben Ali and that they had started the fight by throwing rocks at the police – so of course the police attacked back.

I did see people throwing rocks at the police, but they were kids – teenagers – certainly nobody who would ever have been in the pay of Ben Ali. And nor did they start the fighting. The first rocks I saw thrown were a good half hour after the protesters had been set upon with batons and tear-gas.

Others said that these protesters have no idea what freedom is, that they are drunk on the power of revolution, that stability and patience is needed now, not more chaos. Every time there is a protest, they say, it is followed by a counter-protest and then a counter-counter-protest and on and on and on.

Another very wisely pointed out that these protesters are giving the government just excuses not to change anything, not to make things more liberal, not to give the people more democracy. In other words: their confrontational stance is counter-productive. He told me too that there have now been demonstrations in support of the right to demonstrate on Habib Bourguiba – “A demonstration for the right to demonstrate! Pff!” His frustration was palpable – and understandable, given the many economic challenges facing Tunisian society. Not least of which is the fact that, since the revolution, foreign tourists are going elsewhere, draining away the 7% of Tunisian GDP that tourism contributes.

Man on street, day after. Banner (approximately) reads: “Tunisia martyrs, commemorated in the Lord.” Excuse Arabic!

On reflection, it makes sense that the average man on the street would disapprove of the protesters. I have written before about Tunisia’s relative social stability, compared to neighbours Algeria and Libya and their relative prosperity in comparison to Egypt and most of the rest of Africa. These combine to give Tunisians a sense that they have much to lose by disrupting life further. My school-teacher friend told me that they have enough freedom for the moment. There are more important things than petty matters like more rights for actors: jobs, for example.

On top of that fear of loss, nearly 40% of Tunisians voted for the leading party Ennahda in the elections. It’s natural that they would largely support the government over anti-government protesters. Then there are the people who are simply tired of the conflict, tired of the constant protests and counter-protests, tired of the disruptive strikes, tired of abnormality. Together these groups must make up over half of the population, so it’s not unexpected that the average man on the street disapproves the protests.

Perhaps, then, the protesters should not have our sympathy. Perhaps their message is not shared by most of Tunisian society. Perhaps, even, the police were justified in using force to disperse the illegal demonstration – particularly as protests in London frequently face similar obstructions from both government and police (note: I have never been tear-gassed in London).

But against this conclusion, I would put that the protesters I marched alongside were a diverse group. They were not all angry young men. That was the reason I joined them in the first place, when they were just fifty or so people happily chanting and marching near the central market on Monday morning. They were young and old, women, men and children. I was particularly taken by a group from the Organisation for Women and Progress: I recognised myself in them and they won my sympathy.

I set against this conclusion also that I SAW plainsclothes thugs climb out of a van and start chasing and beating civilian protesters with cudgels of wood. Ennahda strenuously denies that they had anything to do with these cavemen, but nevertheless it happened. So no matter what the man on the street says, no matter whether the protesters should or shouldn’t be on Habib Bourguiba, no matter whether their protest is justified or not, even: the running battles that took place down side-streets, far from Habib Bourguiba – so reminiscent of the actions of Ben Ali – prove to me that there is something in the protesters’ grievance.

A bad photo I took, forgive me. But those plainclothes men in that white A-Team van are about to produce white painted wooden cudgels, with which they are about beat any protester they catch. Note the police are blithely ignoring them, letting them get on with scaring the heck out of me.

Rumours abound concerning the violence. I have been told that some of the trouble-makers on Monday were ex-government (Ben Ali’s government, that is) and some were from the Ennahda party. There are rumours too that there was an explosion at the Hotel Africa on Habib Bouguiba. Almost certainly we will never fully understand the sequence of events that ended in violence on Monday.

What we do know is that, since the broken protest in Tunis, there has been a wave of sympathetic protests in Kebilya, in Sousse, in Sidi Bouzid and in other towns across the country. What it will lead to, we shall discover in due course.

###

The above is all I learnt about the protests, talking to friends in Tunis and online. Now I shall give my impression of why the protest was attacked and dispersed using violent means.

My impression was that the protesters went one step too far. They had rolled over three police lines already, each progressively more aggressive – the first linking arms, the second with riot shields, the third unfortunately had tear-gas. The crowd was so large (thousands, according to some counts) and so optimistic that it could have carried on rolling through those lines all day, if the police hadn’t used their weapons.

If the protest had been small – perhaps restricted to the fifty people I joined near the market – and if they had behaved in an acquiescent manner, instead of insisting on marching, then perhaps the police would have allowed us to remain in a kettle at the edge of Habib Bouguiba. Perhaps we could have stood on the steps of the cathedral, a noisy – but static and merely symbolic – protest.

This kind of protest is allowed. Outside the union, not on Habib Bourguiba.

But the protesters pushed too far. The police couldn’t keep rolling back and retreating – they had to counterstrike. And once the first shot had been fired, that was it. The tragic but inevitable outcome was running battles in the streets.

(A side note: I don’t think you can ignore the part played by pride in the actions of both the police and the protesters. It reminded me of the Orwell story Shooting an Elephant. The police couldn’t accept defeat, for pride in their position. The protesters, once committed, couldn’t back down either.)

But supposing the police had let us march to the Ministry of Interior – what would have happened then? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps the crowd would have gathered there awhile, chanting, singing, making speeches. Then perhaps they would have dispersed of their own accord, their protest heard, their point made, the martyrs remembered.

But the police couldn’t let that happen. They couldn’t allow themselves to be defeated, even for the sake of injured civilians and widespread panic.

I am not naive, however. There is a strong chance that the protesters wouldn’t have stopped peacefully at the Ministry of Interior. There is every chance that the protest would have escalated and swelled beyond control.

But perhaps therein lies the real reason why the protest was broken up with such force. Perhaps the government and the police fear a second revolution to follow the first, as happened in Russia and in France. This second revolution, of course, would not be patient with the current hierarchy.

I cannot say I support a second revolution or not: it is none of my business. But I believe one thing is certain: the actions of the police on Monday – and let’s not forget the government, who provoked the violence by making the march illegal – have made a second uprising only more likely.

Repression does not breed acquiescence in the Tunisian people – you would have thought 2011 had shown that eloquently enough.

Sidi Bouzid’s memorial to the 2011 Tunisian Revolution. Or the first Tunisian revolution?

Tunis: Police Attack Peaceful Martyrs March

I was walking around the central market in Tunis this morning, when I passed by a peaceful march. They carried banners proclaiming: “Never forget why they died – Freedom and Dignity”. The marchers were young and old, women, men and children, wearing smiles with their flags. So, being in full support of marches in general and this sort of march in particular, I joined them.

We marched on past the central market and across Habib Bourguiba – the main street in central Tunis. There, the police carefully chaperoned us across the road and to the headquarters of one of the unions, where we stopped.

A quiet gathering outside a union building in Tunis.

That, I thought, was that. The chanting stuttered and ceased. Some people left the crowd, which was only ever about 50-60 people, others stood around amiably, chatting and smoking, leaning on their signs, wrapped in their banners.

I asked one of the men what this was all about. He explained that today was Martyrs’ Day in Tunisia and that these people were unhappy with progress after the revolution. That seemed fair enough and I was about to leave when a journalist tapped me on the shoulder. He added that the group intended to march down Habib Bourguiba street, but that protests there had recently been banned. This sounded more interesting.

Still, though, the protest didn’t look like much. There were no angry young men – from their dress, I reckoned it was just a small group of liberal middle-class Tunisians. Then, without a signal, we started from the union building to Habib Bourguiba, in defiance of the police presence and the banning order.

But our fifteen minute pause at the union building seemed to be a tactic because, when we got back to Habib Bourguiba, the police didn’t seem to be expecting us. No one stopped us until we got to the cathedral, where a hasty line of police barred our way. Our small, timid group was kettled and, as always in Tunisia, a crowd gathered to watch the events. I slipped outside the kettle, to look on with them.

The kettled protesters. Outside the cathedral in central Tunis.

The crowd around me grew and grew, curious Tunisians come to watch the action. Or so I thought. Then, suddenly, as if a sprint-race starter’s pistol had sounded, a great chanting rose up from the crowd of bystanders. They turned as one and started to march towards the clock tower that marks the centre of Tunis. These were no bystanders – this was the march! I cackled with glee when I realised that our small, timid group of kettled friends were merely a decoy for the police.

Chanting, whistles, cheers. And police brutality. On Habib Bourguiba, Tunis.

And with whistles and chants and defiance, we marched on and on. The protesters broke through three lines of police, the first barred our way with linked arms, the second with riot shields and the third with batons and tear-gas canisters. Or at least, we broke through until the tear gas was fired and the batons were beaten. Then we ran.

Men, women and children burst out around me, staggering under the clouds of gas, stampeding at the cracking of the batons on helmets and the canisters’ explosions. Down the street and around the corner, people hacked up poisoned phlegm into the gutters and damped their eyes with handkerchiefs. The shops and restuarants hurriedly pulled down their shutters, dragging customers and bystanders inside for shelter.

We could hear the shouts from the police, hear more gas canisters fired, hear more baton cracks. I saw a mini-van of plain-clothed thugs arrive with white cudgels to beat and maim, to disperse the crowds with fear. Police, all in black, wore balaclavas – to protect themselves from their own tear-gas, or to hide their identities?

Aftermath: Protesters, press, police.

Gradually, Habib Bourguiba cleared of protesters. All that was left were shopkeepers peering out behind shutters, dazed, angry civilians and bewildered tourists. The occassional running police, the occassional beating. But the real action had shifted to the side streets, where kids were throwing stones at police, getting tear-gas in return. The kids then flee, chased by the cops, hopelessly.

Kids throwing stones. Police throwing tear gas canisters. Place Barcelone, Tunis.

But what is the meaning of all this meaningless violence? What does this demonstration of freedom mean for the protesters? What does this demonstration of force mean for the police?

I spoke to one young Tunisian school-teacher who was frustrated with the protesters. He said that they had freedom now, but they didn’t know how to use it. He said that people were asking for rights that were not important – like people with jobs asking for better jobs, or people with salaries asking for bigger salaries – when there are people without jobs, without money, without homes or food. This young man said that Tunisia needed security and that the current government couldn’t provide it. He stopped short of saying that Ben Ali could, but it was implied. He looked forward to going to London, to get a job there.

But the marchers are not merely gluttons for freedom. That much was demonstrated by the very nature of the government’s response to them. Some of these people had walked for six days from the town of Sidi Bouzid to commemorate the dead of the 2011 revolution. Today was Martyrs’ Day and any free country would accept and commemorate with the marchers the tragic loss of life under the old, despotic regime.

But instead they were met by a banning order that made their march illegal, then found their way blocked by lines of police and finally were brutally attacked with tear-gas and batons.

So much has changed in Tunisia? The next day, I tried to find out why this violence happened and what’s next for Tunisia.

A massacre you haven’t heard of yet: Camp Ashraf, Iraq

What is Camp Ashraf?

Camp Ashraf is a community of 3,400 Iranian exiles and refugees who fled their country in the years following Iran’s Islamic revolution. It is located 60km north of Baghdad, in Iraq.

http://ncr-iran.org/images/stories/2009/ashraf/asharf_map_300.jpg

Who lives there?

The camp is famous (or infamous) as a centre for the banned Iranian opposition group the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI), also known as the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK). It has been described as the Iranian opposition’s “headquarters”. The PMOI supports free elections, gender equality and equal rights for ethnic and religious minorities. The PMOI also advocates a free-market economy and peace in the Middle East.

In 1979, the PMOI were targeted in Iran by the new theocratic government of Ayatollah Khomeini. The PMOI fought back with their own terrorist attacks on the Iranian Islamic government. In the face of continued repression, the PMOI leadership eventually fled, first to France and then to Iraq where they established Camp Ashraf.

The PMOI were welcomed into Iraq by Saddam Hussein during the 1980s. Iraq, with Western backing, was at that time engaged in war with Iran. Saddam funded and armed the PMOI at Camp Ashraf: they had a common enemy in Iran.

Following the overthrow of Saddam, the US forces took responsibility for the security of Camp Ashraf. They granted the inhabitants “Protected Person” status under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Since the end of the US occupation, however, the Iraqi government has moved closer to Iran, putting the future of Camp Ashraf in doubt. The UK government takes the view that the Camp Ashraf “Protected Person” status no longer applies because the country is no longer in a state of war.

The PMOI were designated a terrorist organisation by the US in 1997, as a show of support for a (comparatively) moderate Iranian government at the time. The PMOI were also listed as terrorists by the EU in 2002, but this ruling was overturned in 2009. The PMOI are no longer considered a terrorist organisation by the EU or by the UK.

In May 2005, a Human Rights Watch report claimed that the PMOI were committing severe human rights violations against former PMOI members. This claim has been repudiated by the PMOI and a number of independent authorities, but the charge still stands.

There is no question that – as with all political groups across the world – there is much fault to be found within the PMOI. However, it would be a grievous mistake to confuse the protection of Camp Ashraf with politics. This is a mistake that could cost many lives.

The massacre of 2011

In April 2011, following a similar attack in 2009, Camp Ashraf was attacked by Iraqi forces. At least 47 residents were killed in these attacks and hundreds wounded. To compound these atrocities, the camp is currently under an Iraqi blockade, which prevents medical supplies from reaching the wounded. As a result of this blockade, at least 12 injured residents have died from treatable wounds in the past year. As recently as the 11th of January 2012, Iraqi forces prevented the entry of five special beds for paralysed patients.

The commander responsible for the 2011 massacre is being investigated by a Spanish court for war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against international community.

The attack was documented in gruesome detail by the residents, sometimes recording at the cost of their own lives.

The massacre of 2012?

The Iranian government has been pressing Iraq to close Camp Ashraf, as its residents and the PMOI pose a direct ideological threat to the current theocratic regime in Iran. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has responded favourably to this pressure and vowed to close the camp by April 2012.

“Iraqis consider the [PMOI] as terrorists and criminals and don’t want this criminal group to remain on their soil… In April there will no longer be a Camp Ashraf.”

– Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki

Maliki had previously promised that he would close the camp by the end of 2011. This threat has been postponed thanks to a last-minute arrangement with the UN. The UN was granted a six-month extension by Maliki, during which time the residents of Camp Ashraf will be transferred to a former US military base (ironically named “Camp Liberty”) and have their refugee status assessed by the UN.

On the 29th of December 2011, the first residents started to move to the new camp, as a “gesture of goodwill” according to PMOI leader Maryam Rajavi. However, these people have been prevented from transferring their assets and vehicles to their new homes. Furthermore, only a small area of the camp has been allocated to the refugees and cooking and water facilities are far worse than at Camp Ashraf. Camp Liberty is at risk of becoming a prison, surrounded by Iraqi police and armed forces.

Given the Iraqi government’s record of massacre at Camp Ashraf, it is hard to imagine that the closure of the camp will pass off without bloodshed.

What can be done?

To prevent a massacre, there must be independent monitoring of the camp. Until 2009, this was the responsibility of the US forces based in Iraq. With the end of the US occupation, that protection is no longer there and Camp Ashraf is at the mercy of the Iraqi military. The people of Camp Ashraf have no means of physical protection.

The people of Camp Ashraf do not have UN refugee status. They do hold protected persons status, conferred under the Fourth Geneva Convention by the occupying US army. However, this status only applies under conditions of war. Therefore the people of Camp Ashraf have no protection under international law.

The removal of these two protections, physical and legal, means that the people of Camp Ashraf are  increasingly vulnerable.

The solution is clear: for the UN to confer refugee status on camp as a whole and, in the meantime, to station a monitoring team on the ground to prevent a massacre. Then every member of the camp could be granted asylum in a democratic country – and not sent back to Iran to face punishment from the regime there. However, this simple solution is complicated by the status of PMOI as a terrorist organisation in the US.

Furthermore, the UN process of according refugee status will take a long time. The people of Camp Ashraf don’t have a long time – they have only weeks, until April. In April, remember, Prime Minister Maliki has promised the end of Camp Ashraf, one way or another.

The Iran Liberty Association, the writing of this article and a metaphor

The Iran Liberty Association is a group that aims to promote human rights in Iran and to support Iranian refugees. They are very active on the streets of London. Five years ago, I was approached by a man from Iran Liberty on Tottenham Court Road, asking for my help. I must have given this man my contact details because, earlier this week, he phoned me back to see if we could meet up.

So I went to see him and, as we sat in the sunshine of Camden Lock, he told his story of Camp Ashraf. He showed me a video of the 2011 Iraqi attack on Camp Ashraf and he explained how the residents of the camp needed help raising funds to expedite their case at the UN, to bring their story to the world’s media and to help prevent another massacre. He emphasised the importance of the people at the camp, describing them as intellectuals and defenders of freedom who formed the backbone of Iranian opposition to the oppressive regime in Tehran under President Ahmadinejad and the Ayatollahs.

There has been some suggestion on Internet message boards that Iran Liberty and Camp Ashraf are somehow fabrications, that they are a way of extracting money from unsuspecting wooly-headed liberals. A cursory investigation will convince even the most cynical that Camp Ashraf does indeed exist, is home to Iranian dissidents and is being targeted by Iraqi forces at the behest of the current government in Iran. Sources as diverse as The Daily Mail, the BBC and Amnesty International attest to this.

I am unable and (at least partially) unwilling to become too deeply embroiled in the political battles of a country so far from my own, that I understand so little, but I did promise that I would tell people about Camp Ashraf on my blog. This is where this article has grown from.

Also at our meeting was a gentleman who’d flown from Paris to contribute to the urgent Camp Ashraf campaign. He was a writer and poet, far more experienced than me, and he gave me as a parting gift a short story of his. I hope he won’t mind if I share a quote with you.

The story is about a man who is staring into a goldfish bowl at a tiny little fish. The man watches as the fish explores his bowl, with its seaweed, pebbles and shells. But the little fish seems agitated, not quite content with his home. Day by day, hour by hour, the fish grows bigger and bigger and he starts to see the bowl as more like a cage than a home. Eventually, the fish grows so large that the bowl can’t contain him any more. The man watches on as, with an almighty push of his fully-grown fins, the fish breaks clear of the water and out of his cage-bowl:

“The cage turns upside down. Its water pours into the room. You’re busy flapping your wings. The water completely covers the room. It rises. It reaches the ceiling. When you’ve leapt through the windowpane, the sky is blue. You are lost among the clouds. And now I’m swimming in the waters of the room. I rise up. I move down. I near the walls of a glass and stare at someone who is staring at me from the other side. My fins are growing larger.”

The metaphor is strong, I think. For me, it shows how, when one group gains power and freedom, they may well drown their neighbours, but they also show the way.

A Tribute to Juliano Mer-Khamis

Two and a half weeks ago, on the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, another political activist was assassinated: the founder of the Jenin Freedom Theatre in Palestine, Juliano Mer-Khamis.

Juliano Mer-Khamis (29 May 1958 – 4 April 2011)

Juliano was the son of a Jewish mother and an Arab Israeli father and always declared that he was both 100% Jewish and 100% Palestinian.

His mother, Arna, fought in the Palmach during the first Arab-Israeli war, but turned her back on Zionism and became a peace activist. Juliano himself enlisted as a paratrooper in the IDF, but was thrown out for refusing an order to force a Palestinian man from his car.

In Israel, Juliano identified himself as a Palestinian; in Palestine, as a Jew. This was typical of his brave and confrontational character.

He was a “beautiful and energetic man” who, according to his friend and colleague Stephan, was dancing on the tables the night before his assassination to celebrate the première of his latest project. Juliano had intense passions, exemplified by his love of food: a cup of olive oil for breakfast and a glass of Black Label at night.

The Freedom Theatre

Edward Said urged upon us the importance of narrating the Palestinian story, and that’s exactly what Juliano did through his films, his plays and the Freedom Theatre in Jenin.

Juliano’s ambition for the Freedom Theatre was to “give these children a piece of normality.” The theatre didn’t only tackle political inequality, but also women’s rights and religious intolerance and the theatre quickly became a centre for liberal thought in Jenin. The theatre works on three levels: theory, art and (political) action.

As an example, Juliano’s recent production of Alice in Wonderland managed to tackle women’s liberation, free will and resistance as well as putting on a great show. Juliano made Alice a Palestinian girl who is forced to marry by her family and seeks refuge in Wonderland.

According to Juliano, “art and politics are one,” and his attitude was: “you can’t free the land without freeing the mind.” That made Juliano himself a cultural freedom fighter.

Juliano’s tragedy

The tragedy of Juliano’s life is that he was well aware of his vulnerability, but naïve “to the point of fantasy,” according to his friend Ala. He confided to him: “I will only leave Jenin with a bullet in my head…” Three years ago he gave this extraordinary interview on Israeli television:

Juliano wouldn’t have wanted to be called a martyr of freedom, but that is what he was.

Juliano was shot down by a Palestinian from Jenin, the very people he was struggling for. Juliano’s colleague at the theatre, Ala, talked about how this betrayal had damaged his unconditional affection for the camp. He said he was like a father who is angry at his eldest son for fighting with his youngest. Nevertheless, he will cover them both with the same blanket at night and give them the same kiss. “I kiss you Juli,” Ala said before breaking down in tears at the memory of his friend.

The ongoing threat

Juliano was shot not because of his failure, but because of his success. The Israeli press might be wallowing in schadenfreude, celebrating the fact that a Palestinian peace activist was killed by a fellow Palestinian, but Juliano’s Israeli friend Uli doesn’t remember that discourse in the press after former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was killed by a Jew.

However, the Freedom Theatre today is very weak. They have some support in Israel, some support in Palestine and some support abroad, but it is fragmented and threatened on all sides. When Juliano’s body was carried away, students from the theatre lined the streets and applauded – but Jenin refugee camp wasn’t with them. The threat to the theatre remains.

http://www.thefreedomtheatre.org/


This is a review of An Evening in Honour of Juliano Mer-Khamis at Amnesty International Human Rights Action Centre in London on Wednesday April 20th.

The speakers were:

Stephan Wolf-Schoenburg, an actor and teacher at the Freedom Theatre. He was a close friend of Juliano’s and a witness to his assassination.

Ala Hlehel, an author, translator, and filmmaker. He is the editor-in-chief of Qadita.net

Udi Aloni, a filmmaker. He was a friend of Juliano and was working on two films with him at the time of his death.

Osnat Trabelsi, a filmmaker and founder of Trabelsi Productions. She was a colleague and friend of Juliano’s.

The End of the Era of the Dictators: Who’s Next?

Yesterday, a metaphor broke out over Trafalgar Square, as dark clouds rolled away over Egypt and the gloom of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year tyranny was dispelled in the bright winter sunshine of people power.

Amnesty International’s Rally in Solidarity with Egypt in Trafalgar Square

First Ben Ali in Tunisia after 23 years, now Mubarak in Egypt after 30 years – who’s next? The speed of the fall of these dictators is astonishing. The Tunisians deposed Ben Ali in 28 days; the Egyptians have ousted Mubarak in just 18 days.

Anatomy of a Revolution

We can see from the two time-lines below, that the response of both the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes has been both predictable and doomed to failure.

The Tunisian and Egyptian regimes both responded to the just grievances of their people with increasingly desperate threats, violence, cosmetic governmental reshuffles and sweet-talk of a childish “just five more minutes!” variety. But persistence, fortified by the justice of their cause, has won the day for the people.

Tunisian revolution time-line

  • 17 December – Self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia sparks nationwide protests.
  • 28 December – Ben Ali calls the protesters “extremists and mercenaries”.
  • 29 December – Ben Ali reshuffles his government.
  • 6 January – Tunisian lawyers launch a general strike.
  • 8 January – Six protesters killed by the Tunisian police.
  • 13 January – Ben Ali announces he won’t stand for re-election.
  • 14 January – Ben Ali flees to Saudi Arabia, after 23 years in power.

Egyptian revolution time-line

  • 25 January – Widespread protests in Egypt.
  • 29 January – Mubarak reshuffles his government.
  • 1 February – Mubarak announces he won’t stand for re-election.
  • 1 February – Mubarak calls some of the protesters “outlaws” and calls their protests “unfortunate clashes, mobilised and controlled by political forces that wanted to escalate and worsen the situation”.
  • 2 FebruaryViolent clashes between anti-Mubarak and pro-Mubarak provocateurs.
  • 10 February – Mubarak denies he will be stepping down, but will be handing more powers to his deputy.
  • 11 February – Mubarak resigns, fleeing to Sharm el-Sheikh, after 30 years in power.

What’s Next?

How the hell do I know? But all my wishes are for a peaceful return of power to the people of North Africa and the Middle East. They deserve it.

The Revolt in Egypt: Causes and Consequences, a brief review

Yesterday, I went to the King’s College London Middle East Research Group seminar on the causes and consequences of the revolt in Egypt.

I only stayed for two of the speakers, Dr Ashraf Mishrif and Dr Michael Kerr, because, well – just because.

The Economic Causes of the Egyptian Revolt

Dr Ashraf Mishrif made a prediction: either Mubarak would announce his resignation; or he would assume more powers to deal with the revolt. In other words: even the ‘experts’ haven’t got a clue where this revolt is going to end up.

Ashraf went on to talk in more depth about the economic causes of the revolt, safer academic territory.

In the last three or four decades, there have been a number of economic policies put in place by regimes in the Middle East in general, and in Egypt in particular – and they have all failed. The two economic reform programmes promoted under President Mubarak have had only limited success.

The years 2006-2008 showed solid growth at 7%, but this has not been felt by the majority of the population. Poverty has grown in absolute terms: from 17% in 2002, to 19.8% in 2010. There is also high inflation in Egypt at 11.8% and high unemployment at 9.8%.

And it’s not just in Egypt that we see this economic crisis: in Tunisia, Jordan, Syria, Yemen and many others. Even the Gulf States have high unemployment, at around 9% in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, for example.

The Egyptian regime refused to allow opposition groups to help plan these economic reforms – and this was a big mistake, politically and economically. The result has been that the regime has bound themselves to only a small segment of the Egyptian business community and the 7% growth has benefited perhaps as little as 10% of society.

During this time of growth, the Egyptian government also failed to put in place an effective social security system for the unemployed. This all meant that, from around 2004, workers and unions were rioting against the unfair and precarious economic situation. This unrest spread to the youth and to the middle classes, resulting in the present revolt.

What is the Egyptian Revolt?

Dr Kerr argued that this was not a revolt against Mubarak, but a revolt against failed Arab nationalist politics.

The revolt is certainly not (yet) a popular revolution. Only 2% of the population have been involved in the protests. Why might this be? Fear: of what the regime might do; but also of what might replace it. The Egyptians only have to look across at Algeria and at Iraq for frightening examples of what happens when revolts go wrong.

The revolt is not an Islamist movement. The relative silence of the Muslim Brotherhood shows that they are not seeking a leadership role in this revolt. It also shows how effective the regime has been in restricting the Brotherhood.

The Consequences of the Egyptian Revolt

There is the strong possibility, Dr Kerr believes, that the Egyptian government will paint personality change to look like regime change.

We’re not on the cusp of big change in Egypt.

The problem with the revolt is that there is no obvious or credible alternative in Egypt. The regime has played its cards very cleverly by, for example, injecting a small number troops into the crowds to raise tensions and to pit the Egyptian people against each other. This has caused the US to flip and flop in their response to the revolt: they only want to protect their interests.
You can trace political unrest in Egypt back to the US intervention in Iraq in 2003. The US foreign policy towards the Middle East has changed twice in the last ten years, from supporting the status quo under Clinton, to the interventions of George W. Bush – and now back to supporting the status quo under Obama. The Egyptian government have been using this to their favour.
The Egyptian people are not able to agree on what they might want to replace the regime: all they want is simply to be rid of them. The lack of a plan is not surprising, given how quickly the revolt rose up and spread. No one predicted this: 

this came out of the blue.”

The Cedar Revolution in Lebanon in 2005 is also not a particularly happy example for the protesters to follow. The gains of that revolution have been largely reversed. The pendulum has swung back towards Syria and the US appear to have accepted this, returning their diplomats to Damascus.

“The Egyptian regime could still claw back their position of three weeks ago.”

What follows the departure Mubarak is unclear. If there is a general strike, then the US will be forced off the fence and will have to support a regime – perhaps militarily – that protects their interests in Egypt. Egypt is too important a support for US influence in the region for them to let it go.

Will the revolt in Egypt set off a domino effect? Yes. However, the Syrian government won’t fall: it is more credible than the Egyptian regime. In the Gulf, the distinction is that they have a lot of money. If the regime there is foresighted, they can use some of this money to put in place social reforms that would keep the population from revolting.

To conclude: this revolt came out of the blue, driven on by the youth through technology and beefed up by the international media. But, Dr Kerr warned, the media is fickle. Once the televisions are switched off – what then?

“A revolution can disappear if you switch your television off.”

Review of Shirin Ebadi: The Role of Women in Promoting Peace in the Middle East

This is a review of a lecture given by Iranian lawyer, human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. It took place at the School of Oriental and African Studies on 2 February 2011.

When she came into the room, Shirin got a rapturous welcome from the crowd, packed into the stairwells, in the aisles and on every seat. The international press, students, alumni, her family – all were here. She was introduced by Baroness Kennedy, President of the Board the Governors at SOAS, who called her a personal heroine.

Shirin qualified as a judge but, after the Iranian revolution in 1979, she was demoted to a menial clerical position. She battled for many years for her position and eventually was allowed to practice law in her homeland in 1993. I was reminded of the long battle that Nelson Mandela faced to practice law in South Africa under Apartheid. Thirty years ago she was just an Iranian woman trying to make her way in the world, but her life was taken over by exigencies, by circumstances, and perhaps she had no choice but to become a heroine, in defence of her own life.

And so we listened to this human heroine, in translation.


Who is Responsible?

“The Middle East is in turmoil and the people ask, “Who is responsible?””

There are three reasons for the current turmoil, Shirin says. They are, in increasing level of importance:

  1. The Palestine-Israel conflict.
  2. The intervention of outside powers in the region, the US/UK in Iraq, for example.
  3. The lack of democracy and widespread human rights violations.

1. The Palestine-Israel Conflict

“Until there is peace here, there will be no order in the Middle East.”

The Oslo Agreement is just a document on paper, Shirin says. Radical extremists on both sides prevent the Oslo Agreement from being fairly applied. Violence from one side, leads to worse violence from the other side. In addition to its immediate effects, the Palestine-Israel conflict has been a source of other conflicts, for example between Hamas and Fatah. The crisis has also been exploited by governments.

What role can women play?

Women are opposed to the continuation of war. Palestinian and Israeli mothers have formed the Committee of Mothers for Peace. They negotiate dispute resolution between Jews and Muslims, always with the question: how long must we mourn our children?

However, in political peace negotiations, their voice is not heard. It is the war mongers who “negotiate”, but peace negotiations will bear no fruit without including women. Women may not have political positions in Palestinian politics, but they are the voice of civil society and are very important. The peace negotiations collapse because they exclude feminist movements. 50% of the world is female. You can’t ignore 50% of the world and hope for peace.

2. The Intervention of Outside Powers.

The Middle East is resource-rich and avaricious nations want their resources. The excuse is always to “advance democracy”, but the result is always a rise in Islamic fundamentalism – and the first target of Islamic fundamentalism is always the rights of women.

What role can women play?

Women in Iraq have set up committees to try and create working opportunities and training. Iraqi women are struggling, not only against the Islamists, but also for their national sovereignty.

This intervention by foreign powers stems from the main reason for the current turmoil in the Middle East: a lack of democracy.

3. The Lack of Democracy.

If the Middle East had strong democracies, they would not allow foreign powers to intervene in their domestic politics. It is crazy that Saudi Arabia spend $60bn on purchasing weapons from the US when their own people don’t have welfare. Sadly, for various historical reasons, countries in the Middle East do not have real democracy.

Even supposed “democracies” are not true democracies and their leaders are not fairly elected. For example, in Syria, the presidency is now hereditary, Bashar al-Assad taking over from his father Hafez. In the UAE, there are no elected parliaments; they are appointed by the king. The same is true in Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen and Bahrain. The only exception to this is Turkey, who do have a better level of democracy.

Iran claims it has elections every two years and that this makes it a democracy. But in all the elections, candidates must be approved by the “Guardian Council”. Any criticism of the government will result in the candidate being refused the right to stand for election. The Guardian Council is made up of twelve members: six directly appointed by the Supreme Leader and six others elected from a selection chosen by a man who is, in turn, hand-picked by the Supreme Leader.

For the elections in June 2009, three hundred names were put forward, but only four were approved by the Guardian Council. All four had previously held important posts in government, including one previous prime minister.

Therefore the most important problem in the Middle East is the lack of democracy.

The End of the Age of Dictatorships

There has been a patriarchal culture in the region for years and women suffer. There are also large gaps between the social classes. Many are deprived of their rights. Freedom of expression is also limited.

But for how long can dictators rule by military coercion? Now, in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, the people are asking for their rights. The age of dictatorships is over. Thanks to technology, people are getting closer and are able to organise. Look how quickly the people of Tunisia got rid of Ben Ali and now the same will happen to Mubarak and then in Jordan and Bahrain.

The protests started in Iran many years ago, the latest episode was seen in June 2009. Millions of people protested peacefully, but were met with violence and bullets. You can see all of this on YouTube. Then the government lied about what happened; they said that the bullets were fired by protesters. Many journalists were arrested to clamp down on the real news getting out. Reporters Without Frontiers report that Iran has the highest number of journalists, writers and bloggers in prison.

The economic situation in Iran is dire at the moment. Economic growth in 2009 was 1.6%, lower than Afghanistan and Iraq. So, despite the violence, the people haven’t given up. The government has increased executions: from January this year, there has been an average of two people executed per day. But the voice of protest is heard louder every day.

When the Egyptian people started to protest, the Iranian government said: “Listen to your people!” But what about when the Iranian people protest? The Iranian government says that there must be free elections in Iraq – can we have them too, please?

What role can women play?

“The rights of women and democracy are two sides of a balance.”

You can’t be democratic and deny 50% of people their rights. Women’s rights are the forerunners of democracy.

The feminist movement in Iran is the biggest and oldest in the Middle East. It began a hundred years ago with the constitutional revolution, while Turkey was still under the Ottomans and there was still a Czar in Russia. The strength of the movement is also explained by the fact that there are many highly-educated women in Iran. More than 65% of people at university are women. There are female professors and senior administrators.

But the laws passed after the revolution are discriminatory against women. For example, the value of a woman in law is half that of a man.

“My brother would get twice the compensation that I would if we were involved in the same road accident.”

The testimony of two women is worth the same as that of one man. A man can have four wives and divorce without reason. It is very hard for a woman to get a divorce. A married woman needs the permission of her husband to travel.

These laws are simply not compatible with the level of education in Iran. For example, the current health minister is a woman: does she need her husband’s permission to travel abroad to take Iran’s seat at the World Health Organisation? What if he refuses? The legislation is not compatible with the society, therefore the feminist movement is widespread.

There is no leader of the movement, there are no regional branches, but it is present in every home that believes in equality. And the movement is stronger for this: there is no one person to imprison or assassinate. That a woman can be arrested for “seeking equality” only makes the movement stronger. Results do come, too: for example, in 2004, the custody law was amended in the woman’s favour.

In my opinion, the Green Movement used the feminist movement as a role model. There are no leaders to depend on, it is also a horizontal movement. Women have also been at the forefront of the Green protests.

Democracy can only be achieved through peaceful means, not through guerilla warfare. The Committee of Mothers in Mourning meet every Saturday and carry photos of their children and simply look at each other in silence. They throw birthday parties for people in prison so that no one will forget them, held in their homes in order to evade street protest clampdowns.

Iranian women’s groups sent messages to Egypt and Tunisia, urging women to make sure they protect their rights. Just getting rid of a dictator won’t make everything fine. Another could take his place, perhaps he might have a different ideology, but it is the same dictatorship.

In Tunisia, the secular society is relatively strong. Women are now saying that they want equality. Rashid al-Ghannushi says he is not another Khomeini, but still Iranian women must warn them of the possible dangers of revolution.

“I am confident that democracy and peace will come to the Middle East.”

UCL Friends of Palestine: Why Am I An Activist?

On the 16th of December 2010, about forty people crammed into a small lecture theatre on a snowy night in London. Just one week on from the tuition fees protest, the topic of this evening’s event could not have been more timely.

Why am I an activist? This is a very personal question – why should a non-Palestinian become a Palestinian activist? Is it our fight too? Or should we take the advice of Malcolm X and work among our own kind?

“Work in conjunction with us – each of us working among our own kind…Working separately, [we] actually will be working together.” 

I do not consider myself to be much of an ‘activist’, but I have certainly been involved in ‘actions’. I am probably the sort of person that the four speakers were trying to reach: the potential activists, those who have dabbled and who could become useful foot soldiers in whatever the fight may be.

The Speakers

There were four speakers at this event:

1. Dr Ghada Karmi, Palestine.
A fellow and lecturer at the Institute of Arab & Islamic Studies at Exeter University.
http://www.karmi.org/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghada_Karmi

2. Eyal Clyne, Israel.
Has worked with Physicians for Human Rights–Israel (PHR), the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and Breaking the Silence, a series of testimonies given by Israeli soldiers against the actions of the Israeli army in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead in 2008/9.
http://peace4israel.wordpress.com/

3. Frank Barat, France. 
The coordinator of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, which seeks to reaffirm the primacy of international law as the basis for the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. http://www.russelltribunalonpalestine.com/en/

4. Jody McIntyre, UK. 
A blogger and champion of the Palestinian cause. Recently he became a potent symbol of the protest movement in Britain after he got thrown out of his wheelchair by policemen during the protests against the rise in tuition fees.
http://jodymcintyre.wordpress.com/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jody_mcintyre

1. Dr Ghada Karmi, Palestine

“Students have become a vanguard of mass protests that will get bigger and bigger.”

What makes an activist?

  1. There is a cause(s) that you feel strongly about.
  2. Reading about it is not enough. You believe that you have to do something.

It is this activism that changes history, not politicians or kings. The normal, natural course of history is that the powerful dominate and continue to dominate. It takes people to stand up and say ‘no’ for things to change.

The word activist has negative connotations in the popular use of the word, in newspapers and so forth. It implies that the person is someone a bit hysterical, not part of mainstream society. But in reality is means to put your money where your mouth is.

Ghada Karmi’s Cause

Ghada was born into her cause, she had no choice but to be an activist. How could she stay at home, watching television when her family lost their home, lost their land, lost everything in 1948? The state of Israel stole everything from her when it was created in 1948.

If there wasn’t an Israel, she said, she probably wouldn’t be an activist. She’d be in her own home, in her own land doing the things that we take for granted. We expect, for example, that our home will always be waiting for us when we go abroad, that our children will grow up in our land, that we will die and be buried in our own land. Ghada will never have that.

“It’s the sort of thing you only understand when you lose it.”

The point is that this theft of her home was an unjust act. She could have lost her home to an earthquake – it would have been sad, no doubt, but it would be a very different feeling to the one she has now. A colossal injustice has been perpetrated that has not been put right.

Ghada can think of no parallel to this injustice in history for two reasons:

  1. Other injustices have an end, they don’t drag on and on in the public eye for 62 years like the injustice perpetrated by Israel on the Palestinians has.
  2. The oppressor is not normally applauded for their unjust actions, in the way that Israel has been.

The Future of Palestinian Activism

Ghada Karmi finds it deeply impressive that there are non-Palestinian activists, that there are even Israeli pro-Palestinian activists. This gives her hope for the future, that injustice is injustice whatever your nationality.

Furthermore, she has seen the injustice of the Palestinian situation rise in the public perception over the years. When people used to ask her where she was from, she would answer “Palestine,” and they would say, “Pakistan?”

Ghada Karmi ended her speech with a call to join the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. She said this was the best way to hit Israel directly, the best way to help the pro-Palestinian cause in the UK. Israel must be isolated and shunned, like South Africa was under the Apartheid regime. Israel should not be welcome in the family of nations.

“Revolution until victory.”

2. Eyal Clyne, Israel

“Why should I care about Palestinians?”

It is the same, Eyal says, for why he should care about blacks or about women or about gays, being white, male and straight. Justice is universal. We all know the feeling of what it is like to be on the other side.

Life Under Occupation

  1. Two days ago the Israeli military demolished 11-13 fresh water wells in the Judea desert in the south of the West Bank. This was some Bedouin families’ only fresh water supply. The reason given by the Israelis was that they had no permit – but the wells existed from before the Israelis had control over the West Bank.
  2. A Palestinian who sold household goods in the market opposite Herod’s Gate recently was refused renewal of his trade permit and was told to find somewhere else to sell. He will probably be evicted next.

This is what it is like to be under occupation.

The Framework of Occupation

Eyal is a born Israeli, his parents are as well. We are into the third generation of born Israelis, born into the occupied situation. From a very young age, Israelis understand the assumptions behind the occupation:

  1. Eyal used to believe that the Israelis were really trying for peace, really trying to get along with the Palestinians, really trying to do the right thing.
  2. Eyal used to believe the security explanation, that Israel is in a dangerous and delicate situation. This is a key concept, not just for justifying oppression to the outside world, but also to Israelis themselves.

“I feel lied to.”

Cracks in the Story

There are problems with this framework, however; “cracks in the story.”

1. Housing demolitions. 
There have been 20,000 housing demolitions to date. But these demolitions, this wanton destruction of thousands of family homes, are not for security. The reason given for the overwhelmingly majority of demolitions is that the house lacks a building permit.

The excuse is legal, the true reason is political. The reason that these buildings do not have a permit is that the Israeli authorities do not give them out, they do not want Palestinians building permanent homes on their own land.

2. The ‘security’ fence.
The ‘security’ fence used to be known as the ‘separation’ fence. This was changed when the Israeli government realised that in Afrikaans ‘separation’ is ‘apartheid’. This fence has cost $2-3 billion in taxpayers’ money, yet it is three times as long as the Green Line, along which the Palestinian state is demarcated.

Why? Because 80% of the fence is built inside Palestinian-allocated territory, weaving in and out, cutting towns from their agricultural land, carving out prime cuts for Israel, dividing friends and families from each other.

The sad truth is that the wall was not built for security. If it was built for security:

  • Why not build it on the Green Line or even inside Israeli territory?
  • Why is it still only 55% complete, with much of it’s length open?
  • Why do so many of the checkpoints separate Palestinian towns, not from Israeli territory, but from other Palestinian towns?
  • Why are settlers still encouraged by the Israeli government – surely they are a security risk as well?
  • Why is so much agricultural land taken for security reasons?

And so it goes on, these cracks appearing in the framework of oppression.

It’s not just Israelis who are born into this situation, people in the UK are also being born into a situation where the Israeli occupation of Palestine is the norm. It is taken as a given that the Israelis are really trying and that they need to secure their lives against the terrorist threat. The Peace Process is another myth in this story.

Why am I an Activist?

  1. “I can’t trust these people. I have to do it myself.”
  2. Some things are beyond politics.

But why is he an activist for the Palestinians?

  1. Because it is good for him and his family. The security will improve with peace.
  2. Justice is beyond politics. Human rights must be universal.
  3. He doesn’t want people to get away with crimes, like the female settler he saw who crushed a four-year old boy’s teeth with stones.

Eyal’s Advice for Activists

The Palestine-Israel conflict is an incredibly emotive cause to get involved in. Eyal has some advice for activists so that their impact is positive, not negative.
  1. Always have room for listening. It’s complicated, there are not always good and bad guys.
  2. This situation is bad enough as it is. Don’t make it worse by demonising one side or the other. This situation could happen to anyone; look at what happened to the people of Germany under the Nazis, for example.
  3. Use details, use facts. Don’t just paint with slogans or labels, like apartheid and so forth. Stick to the facts.

3. Frank Barat, France

“To be an activist is to be alive.”

For Frank, why be an activist is a tough question – and why Palestine?

As a Frenchman born into a comfortable family, the only injustice he ever remembers suffering was when his dog died in mysterious circumstances when he was four.

In the absence of any personal injustice to right, his gut response to the question was simply: “to be an activist is to be alive.”

It follows, then, that the real question should be:

Why Aren’t There MORE Activists?

John Pilger recently uncovered US governmental documents that put activists and investigative journalists on a par with terrorists as a security threat the US government. That’s why there aren’t more activists: because activists are a threat to the powerful and so the powerful seek to prevent activists from developing. They do this by ‘manufacturing consent’, to use the words of Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky (via Walter Lippman).

This is achieved in three ways:

1. Education.
The education system teaches conformity. It teaches you that all is well in the world, or at least that all is well in your country compared to other less fortunate places. It does not teach scepticism; teaches don’t like it when you ask too many questions. School teaches you what life should be like: a nine to five job, one car, two cars, a house, a mortgage, X-Factor in the evening, football on the weekend.

2. Isolation. 
And if you don’t subscribe to this life, then the powerful try to make you feel like you are alone. That you are alone and you don’t have any money – why don’t you get a job and buy an iPhone? Unions are portrayed as evil or hooligans. Even your non-activist friends ‘don’t get it’, when you go and see them they only talk about their credit cards. All this isolates the budding activist, discouraging them or at least making their actions less powerful.

3. Repression. 
Police are turning into the armed wing of the government, when they should be civil servants. In this country you might get hit by a truncheon, arrested or kettled for twelve hours; in Palestine and Israel you might get shot. It’s all repression.

So why, despite all of this, are there still so many activists?

Activism is a way of life. It is very rewarding, very empowering. When was the last time you felt power? Was it when you bought that iPod or got drunk or played Tetris? Or was it when you were standing with 20,000 other protesters fighting for your rights outside Parliament?

Life should be about standing with the oppressed and never shutting up.

Frank ends with a quotation from Howard Zinn, the recently deceased American historian:

“The reward for participating in a movement for social justice is not the prospect of future victory. It is the exhilaration of standing together with other people, taking risks together, enjoying small triumphs and enduring disheartening setbacks – together.”

3.5 The Organiser, Bangladesh

While we waiting for Jody McIntyre, the organiser of the meeting recounted a little tale about his experiences in the student tuition fees protests:

“We occupied a room at UCL. It was very successful. We left it recently because it’s Christmas break and we wanted to go home…”

He also talked about how he was kettled in Parliament Square for twelve hours by the police. They would not let him leave, despite the peaceful nature of their protests. They would not let women go to the toilet. They would not let his eleven year-old cousin leave.

He compared their kettling at the hands of the police to the ‘Protest Zones’ in Beijing during the Olympics in 2008, which received widespread condemnation at the time by the British press. And now it is happening in London.

4. Jody McIntyre, UK

“Challenge the system.”

Jody was greeted like a hero when he showed up. It’s been a busy few days for him, in the full glare of the media spotlight. We watched the footage of him being thrown from his wheelchair and dragged across the tarmac road by police during the recent student protests against the rise in tuition fees.

We also watched his subsequent interview with the BBC’s Ben Brown in which the interviewer seem more concerned by Jody’s threat to the police than the brutality of the policemen’s action – or even the whole reason why they were there in the first place: the rise in tuition fees.

You can see both videos here: http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2010/12/15/jody-mcintyre-who%E2%80%99s-apathetic-now/

A man with cerebral palsy would find it hard to present a threat to an army of policemen, but Ben Brown persisted with questions such as:

“There’s a suggestion that you were rolling towards the police in your wheelchair, is that true?”

and:

“Were you throwing anything at the police on that day?”

This line of questioning reportedly drew over 5,000 complaints to the BBC. Nevertheless, Jody was given the time and space by the BBC to make his points and he scored highly against this ludicrous line of questioning.

Education for the Oppressed

In his speech, Jody made the connection between the fight for free education in this country and the fight for free education for oppressed students all across the globe, from Iraq to Afghanistan, from Pakistan to Palestine.

As UCL stops for the holidays, these countries suffer constant ‘holidays’ from education thanks to the actions of military oppression. Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008/9 was one long holiday for the students there. So too for students prevented from attending university in the West Bank because they find the checkpoints suddenly closed against them.

Jody talked about the example of the Hanoun family, who were evicted from their home in East Jerusalem just three days before the daughter was due to take her exams in Psychology. She did her revision in the street and passed with the highest mark in her year.

But Jody exhorts us not to only challenge individual cases, but to challenge the unfair system that allows them. Education is always attacked by the oppressor because education gives people the power to rise up. It is a fight for our minds.

And that fight starts with ourselves. Why is it that everyone in Palestine knows who Arthur Balfour is, but that no one in Britain does? Very few Britons know about our own former Foreign Minister, the man who set into motion the acts that led to the foundation of the Israeli state and the on-going oppression of the Palestinians.

Action

Jody tells us we should hit shops that support the occupation by importing Israeli goods ‘by any means necessary,’ to quote Malcolm X. Jody says that he doesn’t support individual acts of violence, but that, just as the Palestinians have a right to rise up against the oppressor, so do we against our government.

Why am I an activist?

“Because everyone of us has a moral duty to stand up and speak out for those who do not have a voice.”

So Why Am I an Activist?

This was a fascinating evening of speeches, each person bringing a different reason for activism to the party. Ghada Karmi’s activism of necessity, Eyal Clyne’s activism of universality, Frank Barat’s activism of exhilaration and Jody McIntyre’s activism of duty.

I know that I have certainly felt each of these when I have activated (is that a word?). I have fought to protect rights I enjoy that are under threat, I have fought for sympathy out of the rights of others and I have fought out of a sense of moral duty.

But the most interesting reason was that spoken about by Frank Barat: the exhilaration of activism. I was very happy that one of the speakers mentioned this, because there is no question that activism is exciting. It does make you feel powerful.

This is a good thing because it can drive us to greater achievement, greater victories; but it is also a great danger. It is important that we don’t lose ourself in our feelings and remember what we are fighting for.

Finally, I’d like to thank the organisers for putting on a great event.

A Meeting of Activists for Palestine

Not long ago I went to a meeting of Palestine activists, held in a community hall in West London.

A young man reads out a statement from Leila Khaled, who could not be with us today because the Israeli government wouldn’t let her travel. I’ve been to a few of these activist meetings and she can never make it. She’s a member of the Palestinian National Council, but Israel know her power as a hero of the Palestinian resistance movement after her involvement in the 1969 hijackings. What the Israeli government don’t realise is that her continued suppression only increases the fervour of our sense of injustice. The young man’s hands shake holding the paper, his voice shakes with her words also.

Then we settle down and watch a film documentary about the Raytheon 9, anti-war activists from Derry who occupied and wrecked the Raytheon arms factory in Derry. Raytheon supplied missiles to the Israeli army during their invasion of Lebanon in 2006. The film had pub-interviews with the activists in jocular reminiscence of their hour of heroism, pints of stout in hand. I don’t know if they’re idiots or heroes. They fought against the injustice, but what good did they do? The documentary mentioned the difficulty of attracting business investment in the Derry area after the end of the troubles in Northern Ireland. There was a concern that Raytheon would leave, damaging the economy of Northern Ireland and risking future investment. However, Raytheon are still there and Israel still get their missiles.

The Raytheon 9 were expecting to get thrown out of the building by the police, but they weren’t. The police thought they were armed and so called in a specialist unit. When this police squad – with guns and gas masks – burst in to where the activists had blockaded themselves, the Raytheon 9 were sitting around playing cards. They were arrested and taking to court, of course, but the judge ruled in the activists favour. It is not a crime to use illegal means to attempt to prevent a greater crime. Tony Benn came on, saying that this ruling shows that there is no moral obligation to obey a law contrary to your conscience. Mark Steele came on, saying that this was a glorious victory and that the worst thing for an activist is to feel alone, to feel that you are banging your head against a wall and not getting through to anyone.

There is raucous laughter and cheers and applause at the film’s end. It’s like watching a bloodsport; we’re tourists at a bullfight, with front row seats.

Next, there’s a panel of activists and they all have their speeches to make. But I’m losing interest with their fine words and raised voices. One of the activists is a captivating young woman. I stare despite myself: spectacular hair, rings of blonde, somehow brown, syrup, honey, gold, framing a white blushed face, perched on a chair, chin lifted, showing the delicate sinews of her neck. If she catches me staring I would have violated her image. My stares are not lascivious, but aesthetic; she is Rembrandtian. Fine arched eyebrows, a curl of gold from her ear, lashes in synchronisation. What makes a person like that join a movement like this? So young, so beautiful? What makes anyone stand up and fight?

I am not convinced by these speakers. Why? They talk of injustice, I do not doubt that there is injustice, but I struggle to whip up any enthusiasm. Is it simply my growing boredom as the evening wears on? Is it because I am unconvinced by the efficacy of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement? Is it because I still see things from the point of view of the government, am I too conservative? Should I have more courage to stand up and fight the wrongs of others? Or am I reticent because I don’t trust these speakers?

I suspect some of the panellists to be fantasists. One of them tells a story about being asked questions in English by Israeli guards and answering in Arabic. The Israeli guards then spoke to each other in English, saying, ‘Don’t worry about him, he’s just an Arab.’ Why would they speak together in English? I know the power of activism. I’ve seen people charged with their own sudden self-importance, overwhelmed by the feeling of power, of rebellion. I’ve felt it, I was an important person, I was a hero. But what do our actions mean, actually? Nothing at all. The feeling of power is a delusion, a luxury we feel as privileged British passport holders. Another panellist refers to the ‘millions’ of people killed by Zionism. This is a heinous falsehood. A high estimate would have 80,000 casualties in war since 1948 and perhaps another 15,000 during al-Nakba. That is a long way less than millions, even if you were to add on the number of people killed in custody by the Israeli police force. I’m sorry, but fantasy makes your argument significantly less convincing.

There is time at the end of the panel for questions. It degenerates into squabbles between the organisers of the event and the Stop the War campaign, who resent the chair’s anecdotal story that he had to wait forty-five minutes on a march to get help after he was detained by the police force. This forty-five minute claim dominates the questions and the discussions for the rest of the evening, despite some people desperately calling for unity and to focus on the injustice of the Israelis and the sufferings of the Palestinians. It reminds me of another forty-five minute claim that twisted headlines.

At the end of the meeting, a young woman stands up and declares that she is from Gaza herself. Suddenly the hall erupts into cheers and applause, people lean over to hug her and to shake her hand, to pat her on the back. The air is of that surrounding a celebrity: at last, a real victim!