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Yesterday after a busy day at work my sister and I met up for dinner and a movie. After a quick bite to eat we made our way to see The Lobster, a film about a dystopian future where single people are turned into animals if they cannot find a partner.

Then a gunman broke into our cinema and killed us.

That didn’t happen to us. But not so far away across a narrow strip of water we call The Channel, ordinary French men and women were enjoying themselves doing what so many of us do on a Friday night. Eating, drinking, laughing, socialising. Not one of them will have thought that last night would be their last Friday night. Not one of them could have possibly conceived that they would be brutally murdered at a cafe, a concert or football game. Not one of them could have ever imagined that they would die for no reason and perhaps most terrifying of all is the realisation that it could be anyone of us.

Last night my sister and I watched the horror unfolding in Paris, crying and holding each others hands as we tried to make sense of the massacre taking place. I’m not trying to co-opt the grief of those who had a loved one violently taken away from them yesterday. With the pull of a trigger their lives, hopes and dreams have changed forever. But 12 hours later I still do not understand what happened yesterday, I don’t think I ever will. I cannot understand what can drive a person to kill someone in such a brutal and callous fashion. To want to instil such unwarranted harm on another human being. To feel such hatred. It is to me, unfathomable.

Once again I can only watch as the people of France display courage and defiance against those who wish to inflict such brutality against them. The stories of ordinary people who offered their help to those seeking shelter, the football fans who proudly marched out of the Stade du France singing Les Marseillaise or the man who opened his window and allowed terrified people fleeing the Bataclan Theatre to climb into his home and seek refuge.

For an ordinary citizen it often feels that we are utterly helpless, that we have no real say in the actions of our governments and that we simply watch from the sidelines.  As Moliere once said, “It is not only for what we do that we are held responsible, but also for what we do not do”. What happens next matters. What we choose to do matters. We can allow ourselves to be overcome by fear, division and hatred or we can make a conscious decision to follow the immortal words of the French Republic, “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”. To stand tall together, to help others together and to not allow wanton destruction  or violence to divide us. These are the lessons we must take forward to honour those massacred yesterday.

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When you follow as many people as I do on Twitter it’s inevitable that you come across at least a couple of news stories that leave you dazed and confused.  Like the story about the guy in China who got an eel stuck up his bum after watching a porn movie or the former Tennessee mayor caught masturbating out of his car window…while speeding.

Then there are those which leave you feeling sickened and appalled at the depravity of some of the people you share oxygen with. That’s pretty much how I felt after reading the about the latest “fatwa” issued in Syria encouraging Sunni men to rape non-Sunni women.  (http://digitaljournal.com/article/347505)

This isn’t a twisted, belated April Fool’s Day joke. In fact it follows hot on the heels of another news story that Syrian women in refugee camps are being exploited by wealthy Arab men travelling to the camps to rape the desperate women and children.  (http://www.channel4.com/news/syria-women-rape-marriage-refugee-camp-jordan)

As the war in Syria rumbles on with no end in sight it’s disturbing to witness how, once again, women are being treated as trophies. “To the victors the spoils”, isn’t that the old saying? Except it’s not gold or land that’s being divided up here, but women and girls. The world sits back and watches as the horrors spiral out of control and men inflict their worst upon women. Again.

One of the many films I watched during my flights to Pakistan  was “I Don’t Know How She Does It” which frankly was SJP playing Carrie again. That however is not what this blog post is about.

If there was one thing that struck me during my most recent visit to Pakistan it was the resilience and strength of the ordinary Pakistani citizen. Whether it is dwindling electricity supplies, rampant corruption or basic safety ordinary Pakistanis just roll their sleeves up and get on with their lives.

I Don’t Know How They Do It.

In the 6 years (almost!) between my last 2 visits things have deteriorated for the average citizen dramatically. When I was younger I remember there would be the occasional power cut and the electricity might go for 20 minutes or so. An hour at the very most. Now? In the height of the summer people may have to cope without electricity for up to 14 hours a day. That’s in temperatures of 40C and higher.

Staying with my cousin in Lahore she told me how lucky they were because in their area the electricity went for only 2 to 3 hours a day and even then at scheduled times. I don’t know about you but that’s not my idea of lucky! I asked her how they managed and she said that they basically rearranged their lives around those times. No cooking between 6-7pm and making sure your clothes are all ironed before the 8am power cut. Needless to say I got caught out on more than 1 occasion. I was told to look on the bright side; at least her area had undisturbed gas supplies!

Before and during my visit everyone warned me to keep my eyes/ears open and always remain aware of my surroundings. Kidnappings, robberies and in extreme cases murders were becoming more and more commonplace. During my trip, following a routine visit to the bank, a cousin was held up at gunpoint outside her parent’s home. It was broad daylight and she was supposedly in one of the best areas of Lahore.

On my 2nd day in Karachi I visited Dolmen Mall, the latest addition to Karachi’s growing list of air-conditioned shopping malls. The first thing you  encounter when you walk through the doors? Armed guards waiting to inspect your bag and a metal detector, just to make sure they didn’t miss anything. It was an odd feeling having to go through such extremes just to visit Karachi’s equivalent of the Trafford Centre.

It was something I encountered again and again in Pakistan. While I found it odd, unsettling and downright uncomfortable everyone I was with reminded me that this was just part of the routine. Nipping to the bank to withdraw some jewellery? Then be prepared for your car to be checked for bombs. I kid you not.

Martin Luther King Jnr once said, “Our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change”. No nation is a better example of that than Pakistan.

Yesterday a very kind soul reminded me that it has been 5 months since my last blog post, which is rather remiss of me!

I’ve been meaning to put some thoughts onto paper (sort of) for a while now.   A lot has  happened in the last 8 weeks or so and the undisputed highlight was undoubtedly my trip to Pakistan. I still cannot quite believe that barely 2 months into the year I was holidaying in a country I’d vowed not to visit for a very long time.

Pakistan will always hold a special place in my heart and it’s somewhere I’ve long associated with warm lazy summers and family holidays I never wanted to end. Whether it was playing cricket in the garden, eating mangoes by the truckload or late night trips for ice cream it’s a place I have very fond memories of.

I guess that’s why seeing it’s decline in recent years is all the more painful. I’m not going to dwell on the ills plaguing Pakistani society (at least not for now anyway!) but suffice to say the constant news reports of bombings, corruption, persecution of minorities, political insecurity not to mention all the anecdotes from friends and family had put me off visiting in recent years.

Yet when the opportunity arose to visit for a family wedding I felt the old yearnings in my heart. Call it nostalgia, sentimentality or downright rose-tintedness, something made me stop and think that this is what I wanted to do. In some ways it was what I needed to do.

The moment I stepped out of Jinnah International Airport in Karachi I felt my heart soar. Karachi will always be my favourite city in Pakistan; nothing comes close to it. And yes, I’m referring to you, Lahore.  Despite the violence that has plagued this city in recent years and days(!) no other place has the same mix of people or the laid back atmosphere  that makes Karachi so special.

The first thing that struck me was the number of political posters around. Once a political geek, always a political geek…or something! That and the ridiculous number of billboards for “lawn”. For the uninitiated lawn is a type of material worn in the summer ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawn_cloth ) and since my last visit it seems to have exploded. What was once a simple fabric worn in the unbearably hot summer months has become a whole industry with dozens of Pakistani designers releasing their own “lawn collections”. Bizarre.

The oddest aspect was the price. Women, because women seem to be the driving force behind this madness, are happy to spend thousands of rupees on a single shalwar kameez made out of a simple cotton material that would have once cost them five or six hundred rupees. Just because it’s by Sana Safinaz or HSY. Which leads me onto the bigger issue of prices.

I was genuinely shocked at how expensive Pakistan has become. The days when you could buy a pair of sandals from Stylo for 400Rs are long gone and I almost choked on my Polo when I picked up a pair of very bland gladiator sandals that cost in the region of £25.

How can the average middle class Pakistani afford to pay such high prices? Despite its global image as a terrorist hell hole recent estimates put Pakistan’s middle class at around 70 million people. Not too shabby for a country that numbers 180 million or so overall. (http://dawn.com/2012/03/23/consumption-conundrum/)

Yet still, during numerous shopping trips I couldn’t help but feel that people were being ripped off. That’s right, me, a born and bred citizen of “Rip-off Britain” was finding another country expensive. I suppose it comes down to expectation. I do not expect a developing country with such a large poverty-stricken population to be expensive. Yet the average middle-class Pakistani seems to take it in their stride if the throngs of people I saw in stores like Khaadi are anything to go by.

The cost of essentials like food, petrol and electricty are even more worrying and it’s a trend that shows no sign of reversing.

Poverty? Politics? Religion? That’s for another day. I’ve rambled on for long enough tonight.

Another year. Another Armistice Day.

In the fast-paced world we live in it has become increasingly easy to forget, however unintentionally, just how much of a sacrifice was made by young men and women nine decades ago.

Every year I buy my poppy with pride and for as long as I live I will continue to do so. So yesterday I thought it was genuinely sad to see “Muslims Against Crusades” trending on Twitter.

Really? The rabble of one hundred or so that Anjem Choudary manages to gather together at his ridiculous rallies is really that important? Does their voice really have more value than those of the many muslims, like me, who wear our poppies with pride?

More importantly though instead of talking about this particular fool why are we not talking about the thousands upon thousands of muslim men who fought alongside British soldiers in World War One and World War Two?

Those who have had the privilege to visit the Menin Gate in Ypres (I haven’t yet) will have seen that amongst the Anglo-Saxon names are names like Muhammed and Aslam.

The British Indian Army, a volunteer army, numbered 1.3million in World War One. With 400,000 of those being muslim men. The remaining soldiers were brave Sikh and Hindu men who like their muslim counterparts fought in a war thousands of miles from their homeland of India.

By 1945 the British Indian Army was made up of 2.5million men. Approximately 650,000 of those men were muslim.

It was only a few years ago while chatting with my Mum I discovered that we too had family who had fought in North Africa for the Allied troops. A conflict which I had always looked at with the eyes of a keen historian suddenly had much more personal meaning.

Moreover it wasn’t just Muslim men either. Noor Inayat Khan was a British radio operator sent to aid the French Resistance. At the time she was the first woman to have undertaken such a role. She  was eventually captured and executed at Dachau concentration camp in 1944.

My point is fairly simple. Please do not forget the contribution made by Muslim men and women by dwelling on what a couple of hundred rabble rousers do. Instead think of the thousands who laid their lives on the line for King and country. Muslim, Christian, Sikh or Hindu they all deserve our respect and remembrance.

So after 2 incredibly eventful weeks Rebekah Brooks has finally resigned. She didn’t go so far as apologising…but then did anyone really expect her to?!

http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/jul/15/rebekah-brooks-resigns-phone-hacking-scandal

Watching the News International furore unfold has been rather surreal. The issue of phone hacking is no new thing. For years now celebrities, politicians et al have had their privacy invaded via hacked voicemail messages. However, the revelations that Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked seems to have outraged the public.

To clarify, I think this unsavoury twist in the grubby affair is utterly disgusting.  Yet as disturbing as these stories are there were other revelations that stood out. Most worrying, in my mind at least, were the claims that the Police were colluding with News International.

I expect the police in this country to maintain certain moral standards. Police corruption exists everywhere but the latest stories raise some uncomfortable and difficult questions for the future.

The News of the World has closed, Murdoch’s takeover bid of BSkyB is on hold (for now) and Rebekah Brooks has finally resigned. All good stuff.

But where does that leave the police?

to describe this horror….

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-13919946

A few cartoons in a Danish paper cause mass protest, criminal damage and death threats. This crime against nature? Nothing. Zilch. Nada.

No wonder there are so many with such a low opinion of Islam and its followers…..

Thank God then for Brian Haw.

I was genuinely saddened to hear that Brian Haw had died from cancer this weekend. His 10 year long protest outside the “Mother of all Parliaments” was nothing short of epic. There in the middle of Westminster, surrounded by some of the most iconic symbols of Britian lived one man protesting against a war that millions (including me) opposed.

For 10 long years he was a thorn in the side of the Government and a constant reminder of the Labour Party’s shambolic foreign policy.

His protest may not have started out because of the Iraq War (he was there long before that debacle!) but it was what he became known for. I opposed, and continue to do so, the terrible mess that was the Iraq War and I would loved to have had the courage to do what he did. There is something incredibly brave about laying all of your principles out on a footpath for everyone to see, comment upon and mock.

I once spoke to Brian to say thank you and he was warm and very gracious. I suspect he had lots of people stop by for a “chat” and I’m absolutely certain he would have forgotten me by the following day. I certainly won’t forget him. He offered a voice for millions.

R.I.P. Brian Haw

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/jun/20/brian-haw-obituary

"Listening to Grasshoppers"

I first read “The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy over 10 years ago and absolutely loved it. Shamefully I’ve never read any of her non-fiction books until now.

My sister recommended “Grasshoppers” describing it as an “eye-opener” into the “real” Indian Government. She was right. The book is a collection of essays written by Roy over the past 10 years depicting India today. Not she of “India Shining” fame but “Genocidal India” “Repressive India” and “Corrupt India”. Those aren’t tags you see often in the media.

In particular Roy concentrates on the 2001 Indian Parliament attacks and the 2002 Gujarat riots. It’s not pleasant reading. At worst the Gujarat riots were a planned, systematic massacre of over 2000 muslims with no justice for the victims. At best there was a complete breakdown of democratic Government which resulted in the deaths, rapes and displacement of thousands of citizens. Either way it’s not pretty.

Roy’s India is a harsh, brutal place where injustice is rife and democracy is just a buzzword for the Government with little or no meaning. Critics would say that her work is one-sided, unpatriotic and playing into the hads of terrorists. I say what can be more democratic than questioning your Government and exposing their indiscretions to the world?

Irrespective of your opinion of India it’s incredibly difficult to read this book and not come away with the feeling that the Indian Government has lots of dirty secrets under the bed.  Whether it be Kashmir, anti-terrorism legislation or minority rights India has a lot of problems that it needs to tackle before  it can fully embrace its “World’s biggest democracy” label.

The book is at times a little “ranty” (a new word for the dictionary me thinks) and yet Roy never crosses over into nutter territory because she is always asking the right questions.  More importantly her love of her homeland is evident throughout, she just wants hers country to be the best it can. For that I cannot fault her.

I’ve toyed with the idea of starting my own blog for years…..literally.  It would be no exaggeration to say that for the last 10 years or so I’ve considered taking the plunge and setting up my own little online world to share my thoughts and ideas many, many times.

Every time I came close to doing so something pulled me back. Isn’t blogging self-indulgent? What do I have to say that is so important? And perhaps the most glaring question of all, does anyone care what I think? (Probably not!)

This year was different though, 2011 started off with a bang  with23 dead in Alexandria just minutes into the New Year. The events that followed across the Middle East, first in Tunisia and then in Egypt were nothing short of breathtaking. One of the things that stood out for me (and there were many) was seeing the thousands upon thousands of young people in their 20s (just like me) using the internet to further their cause.

Whether it was spreading the word on Twitter or via their own personal blogs it struck a chord. Here were people doing what I have always wanted, under much more difficult circumstances.  So as a politically active, 20something I’ve decided to  honour them and follow in their footsteps.

Of course unlike them I don’t live in an unstable country and  I wake up every morning knowing that I live in a democracy where my biggest challenge is probably going to be a late bus or heavy rain shower. For that I am eternally thankful. The UK may have its faults but they are minuscule and insignificant when compared to the injustices so many others face every day.

So to bring my random ramblings to a close the purpose of my blog is pretty simple. It’s a place for me to vent or celebrate what’s happening in the world. If you like what you read then that’s fabulous. If you don’t then fair enough. Everyone is entitled to their opinion.

Happy reading.