World View published in The Independent 19 September 2014
Medecins Sans Frontieres, the French-founded aid agency, is back in west Africa where it started its work 43 years ago, when its pioneering doctors and nurses flew out to bring medical assistance to victims of the Biafran war.
Today the emergency is the Ebola plague, and according to Joanne Liu, the organisation’s president, the international response so far has been “lethally inadequate”. With more than 2,600 fatalities, 5,300-plus infected, the mortality rate for those untreated of 90 per cent and the numbers doubling every 24 days, the epidemic is exploding like a bomb “beyond anything we’ve ever seen,” as a spokesman described it to me, MSF finds itself almost single-handedly tackling the largest epidemic of its kind in history.
I say “almost single-handedly” because the Red Cross is also involved and, as we have seen, President Obama is sending 3,000 US soldiers to the worst-affected areas with their logistical and engineering capabilities. But with the entire health system of Liberia, the worst-affected country, in a state of collapse, this tightly-focused, single-minded agency remains at the sharp end of the response to the crisis, and it is dramatically over-stretched. As things stand, it simply cannot cope.
That’s why it is urgently seeking to recruit medical professionals to bolster its teams in the field. The work is obviously not for everyone. The pay is poor compared to working for the NHS, and after a one-month tour fieldworkers are obliged to take an unpaid 21-day layoff – because the work in the field, as the organisation does nothing to disguise, is testing in the extreme. Doctors and nurses are bottled up in their protective suits and obliged to work in conditions of strict military-style discipline inside the treatment centres, discipline which continues outside working hours with an absolute ban on physical contact of every sort and fanatical attention to cleanliness. “It’s really exhausting to live in conditions like that,” the spokesman said, “which is why we have short rosters so people don’t lose their vigilance. We want people to be sharp and fresh, and we don’t even allow them to volunteer for a second tour until they have been off for at least three weeks.”
MSF’s role in containing the epidemic is vital because the capacity and readiness of other aid agencies to tackle emergencies of this sort has fallen away over the last few years, as they concentrated instead on working with and empowering local organisations rather than being the shock troops of response. That’s why MSF has found itself in the unprecedented position of appealing to the US and other countries to send in military teams trained to deal with nuclear, chemical and biological emergencies, the appeal which Mr Obama has now heeded.
The other reason MSF finds itself so exposed is because the authorities in these states barely functioned, even before the outbreak. “It is difficult for people in the West to imagine the extent of disorganisation in these countries,” Adam Nossiter wrote in the New York Times this week. “There is a near-total absence of effectively functioning institutions of any sort, let alone those devoted to health care.” When Ebola broke out in in Uganda in 2000, the government immediately imposed tough measures to stop it exploding. In Liberia there is no-one to play that role. MSF, the only game in town, is fighting to get ahead of the epidemic curve instead of behind it, where they have been until now. For any nurse or doctor tempted to put their life on the line in the best possible cause, opportunity knocks.
World View published in The Independent, 11 September 2014
We have been reduced to a dreadful silence by the doings of Islamic State, so it is a matter of amazement and something approaching joy that young musicians only a few hundred kilometres from the IS heartland have the guts to mercilessly lampoon them.
A group called Al-Rahel Al-Kabir which translates the Great Departed, perhaps a nod to the Grateful Dead, are playing to packed houses in Beirut with their songs in satirical fake praise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – IS’s ‘caliph’ – and his movement’s works.
“Because there is no duress in religion, we will wipe out apostates,” they sing in devout tones. “Oh master Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, you who rule by God’s rules, you will lead God’s servants to an abyss like no other…Because Islam is merciful we will butcher…I swear to God if I was a cow I would be wearing a bra…”
This week has seen a cascade of condemnations of IS and their works from within the Islamic world, with most recently the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia adding his voice to that of the ambassador to the US of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi academics and many others.
This is all very welcome and not before time, but it’s always hard to know how to evaluate such declarations. Are they having their cojones squeezed by the White House? Are they merely saying what they hope the west wants to hear? Why did they not pipe up before? Few of us have a proper education in Islam, let alone a working knowledge of Arabic, and ignorance abets our suspicions. After all, don’t these muftis and the rest wear the same heavy beards and dingy robes as the executioners of Mosul?
So the hilarious songs of the Great Departed – much better and more punning in the original, I understand – help to clear the air. Especially because, as one of the band explained to Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper, “Those who consider that Baghdadi represents Islam could be offended, but the song doesn’t criticise Islam, it actually criticises the conception of Islam that Baghdadi and his group has.”
And in fact it is that false conception of Islam, whose roots go back to the 7th century, which is now coming under attack from within the religion.
The word for IS used by its Arab opponents is Daesh, a pejorative acronym which can be translated “medieval barbarism.” And IS was identified by two Saudis writing in the New York Times this week as the latest manifestation of the Kharijites, Islam’s first splinter group, who burst onto the scene when they assassinated the Fourth Caliph.
‘Kharijite’ literally means “those who went out,” and from the beginning they have had very clear characteristics. They looked and spoke in the most pious way imaginable but they were always addicted to killing – not in self-defence, but because they saw the world in black and white. Their religiosity was unrivalled: “you shall consider your own prayers trivial compared to theirs,” one authority explained. “What they say is true – but what they want to do is evil.” And above all, they bring disaster in their wake because of their murderous ways. “Never has a group emerged from our religion causing wanton violence and brought peace,” he said.
The pious-looking butcher who leads IS showed his identity with these people at the group’s foundation in 2011 when he declared, “The Shiites are evil. First we have to kill them. We must cleanse the religion.”
Educated Muslims know all about this ancient rogue phenomenon and the mortal dangers it brings. It’s high time they broadcast it from the rooftops.
World View published in The Independent 5 September 2014
There is much that is murky about the serial baby-fathering career of 24-year-old Mitsutoki Shigata. But if his so-far unexplained compulsion helps to shine a light into the world of international surrogate parenting, it will be a good thing.
The son of a Japanese mobile phone tycoon, the lanky young man has been identified as the father of at least 16 children between the ages of six months and one year, including four sets of twins. When the flat he rented in Bangkok was raided by police after a tip-off, Shigeta himself had fled, but nine of his babies were in residence, along with their nine nannies, plus one pregnant surrogate mother. DNA tests subsequently proved him to be the father of all the babies.
What was his game? The original and perhaps obvious conclusion was that he was an aspiring human trafficker, on an industrial scale. But as the police gazed around them, the young man’s Thai lawyer, Ratpratan Tulatorn, turned up to deny any wrong doing. “These are legal babies,” he said later. “There are assets purchased under these babies’ names. There are savings accounts for these babies, and investments. If he were to sell these babies, why would he give them these benefits?”
Mr Tulatorn has said that his client merely wanted a big family. Shigeta’s own explanation to one of the Bangkok fertility clinics he used was weird: the clinic’s founder reported him telling her, “He wanted to win elections, and could use his big family for voting. He said he wanted 10 to 15 babies a year, and that he wanted to continue the baby-making process until he’s dead.”
Whatever the truth about his motivation, his exploits draw attention to the stubborn and ugly fact about surrogate parenting which its advocates and the companies which trade in it prefer to play down or ignore altogether: the commodification of the human child at the heart of the industry. The customers are planning on completing their family by the addition of a little one. But from the industry’s point of view the baby is simply the product, the hired womb that produces it the factory.
That’s why David Farnell and his wife, the Australians at the heart of the earlier Thai surrogate baby scandal, felt entitled to leave behind baby Gammy, the surrogate baby with Down’s Syndrome, and depart with his healthy sister, Pippah. “We were very confused and we said that this is your fault, you must now take some responsibility for this,” he told Australian TV. “No parent wants a son with a disability.” In the same spirit we return damaged goods to the retailer, expecting a full refund.
The industry’s advocates paint a sunny picture of a win-win situation, in which the wealthy western couple, straight or gay, obtain their “right” to a child with their own DNA, the poor Asian surrogate receives a stonking sum of money by local standards, and everyone is satisfied. Forgotten in the calculation is the commodified child, whose questions about his or her origins, if answered honestly, are very likely to lead to severe confusion.
We don’t have to believe that a child is a gift from God to appreciate that the woman who carries him or her for nine months cannot be regarded merely as a suitcase. As Renate Klein, an Australian academic, wrote after the baby Gammy affair broke, “It is accepted without discussion that a ‘gestational surrogate’…will not have a relationship with the developing baby as it is ‘not her child.’ An absurd notion for any woman who has ever been pregnant.”
And if the human suitcases feel reduced to mere utility, what about the babies they nurture and bear? At least 16 small Shigetas in Bangkok can be expected to feel pretty baffled by the brave new world that has called them forth.
World View, published in The Independent, 21st August 2014
There have been several Indian pretenders to the Mahatma Gandhi legacy in the 66 years since his assassination, but only one of them truly deserves the title.
She looks nothing like the bony old wizard, but Vandana Shiva, a plump, Brahmin matron of 61, has a lot of Gandhi’s charisma, and approaching his level of global fame. And in one key respect the similarities are acute: against enormous odds, by the power of her oratory, leadership and tireless campaigning, she has for years put a large spoke in the wheel of some of the most powerful organisations in the world.
What Gandhi was to the British Empire, Dr Shiva is to Monsanto, the multinational agribusiness corporation, and its allies, including the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation, the US government, and Bill and Melinda Gates. She has put all these extremely powerful actors on the back foot for a very long time, which is not where they are accustomed to be. As Michael Specter puts it in a hefty profile of her in the current issue of the New Yorker, (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/25/seeds-of-doubt “Owing almost wholly to the efforts of Shiva and other activists, India has not approved a single genetically modified food crop for human consumption.”
The only question that really matters regarding Vandana Shiva and her campaign is whether or not that is a good thing.
The debate over GMOs – Genetically Modified Organisms - in the West tends to revolve around two issues: whether foods engineered in the laboratory are bad for us; and whether they might dangerously contaminate the environment. On the first question, Specter claims that “there has not been a single documented case of any person becoming ill” from eating GM food. Contamination, on the other hand, is a danger that requires careful management.
But from the Indian perspective the most glaring risk is quite different. India’s farmers are among the poorest in the world, and most of the thousands who have committed suicide have done so because they got hopelessly into debt – because of the costs of keeping up with the fertiliser-based Green Revolution that transformed Indian agriculture in the 1960s.
Among the costs that peasant farmers are spared are seeds –they use the ones naturally produced in the plant’s life cycle. But the so-called ‘terminator seeds’ sold by Monsanto have no progeny, by design. Every year the farmer must buy new seeds. In this way he is strapped to the vast locomotive of globalisation. Shiva’s phrase ‘seed slavery’ means nothing to the large-scale farmers of the west for whom such crops were developed. But in India it is a very real fear.
Shiva has brilliantly articulated this fear. But in the process she has got carried away with her own rhetoric, wowing her western audiences with visions of innocent, bio-diverse village India falling prey to evil western capital. In the process she has made herself look ridiculous, claiming that the expense of GM cotton – which unlike GM food crops is widely grown in India – has caused hundreds of thousands of farmer suicides, and that Monsanto is guilty of ‘genocide’.
Like Gandhi, Shiva is in thrall to a romantic vision of village India which bears little relation to the real thing. By stripping down to the dhoti and spinning cotton, Gandhi hoped to banish the modern world and lead India back into a state of innocence which never existed outside his imagination. By demonising technologies which, if adopted with sensitivity and common sense could potentially improve the lives of millions, Shiva is doing her impoverished compatriots no favours. This debate demands less heat and more light.
published in The Independent, 16 August 2014
by Peter Popham
It was the coming again of Harry Potter fever. Charing Cross bookshop Foyles stayed open all night to celebrate with jazz, the Royal Opera House and the Tate Modern were bathed in images of the cover, bookshops across the country happily anticipated a Rowling-like rush for the tills as the new Haruki Marukami novel, snappily entitled Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, became the book to beat in the pre-Christmas rush, having sold a million in Japan within a week of release.
But the comparisons are misleading: Murakami is nothing like J K Rowling. He may sell like Tom Clancy, yet remains a cult. He is as big as Dan Brown, but fans share their love of him like a happy secret.
At the heart of the new book we find a Murakami hero who is very much like all the ones that came before.
“It was as if he were sleepwalking through life,” he writes in the first chapter, “as if he had already died but not yet noticed it. When the sun rose, so would Tsukuru – he’d brush his teeth, throw on whatever clothes were at hand…He only spoke to people when necessary, and after school he would return to his solitary apartment, sit on the floor, lean back against the wall, and ponder death and the failures of his life…”
The prose is as flat and colourless as the protagonist. Then things happen: terrible things, beautiful things. He is attacked by birds with razor-sharp beaks and his flesh somehow becomes something else. “Tsukuru couldn’t fathom what this substance was. He couldn’t accept or reject it. It merely settled on his body as a shadowy swarm, laying an ample amount of shadowy eggs.” A vivacious, flirtatious woman takes him in hand. A challenge is presented which he forces himself to meet. Yet there is no transformation, no epiphany. Through everything he remains the same, his flat, pedestrian voice and tone of melancholy mystification as distinctive as Kafka’s.
Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949. His father was the son of a Buddhist priest, his mother the daughter of a merchant from Osaka. Both parents taught Japanese literature. He moved to Tokyo to study drama at Waseda, one of Japan’s top universities. But he is on record as saying that he only reads western novels. He rejected his own literary heritage, and Japan’s academic literary establishment, in the form of the veteran novelist Kenzabruo Oe, has repaid the compliment.
As a young man, Murakami’s immersion in popular youth culture was reminiscent of Nick Hornby’s. After university his first job was working in a record shop. With his wife Yoko, whom he had met at Waseda – they are still together but have no children – he then opened a jazz-cum-coffee bar which they ran together for several years. Then he started writing, eventually doing it full time. “One night,” he explained to an interviewer, “looking down the bar of [my] club, I saw some black American soldiers crying because they missed America so much…I realised that, no matter how much I loved this western culture, it meant more to these soldiers than it ever could for me. That was really why I began to write.”
His novels were successful from the start but it was with the third one, A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), that he found the tone for which he is beloved and familiar: sad, disconnected young mass man, living in a contemporary urban Japan which has nothing Japanese about it, meets bizarre circumstances which suggest weighty, symbolic significance or fanciful absurdity or both. Belying the mournful, pedestrian narrative voice, the results were beguiling and quickly captured readers in their snares.
The influences were overwhelmingly American: Kurt Vonnegut’s cocktail of science fiction fantasy and drily rendered, prosy reality; the capricious, feather light whimsy of Richard Brautigan; touches of Raymond Carver and the J D Salinger of The Catcher in the Rye, which Murakami has translated. His breakout book was Norwegian Wood, published in 1987, which sold millions to young Japanese and made him a household name. Averse to most of the paraphernalia of fame, he beat a retreat to the US, writing several more novels while a fellow at American universities including Harvard.
His absence from Japan reflected the absence of Japan – in any outwardly recognisable form – from his work. This changed abruptly after the twin traumas of the Kobe earthquake and the deadly sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo underground by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. He returned home, and for the first time wrote books concretely related to real events – a non-fiction work consisting of interviews with survivors of the gas attacks, and a book of stories tapping into the collective emotion generated by the earthquake.
But if these works suggested that Murakami was moving into more mainstream ‘social’ fiction, he has since returned to the enigmatic and surreal domains which are his favoured territory. And his fame has continued to multiply, with his three-volume doorstopper 1Q84 (2011) selling out its first Japanese edition in a single day and selling a million within a month.
Murakami’s prodigious productivity, can be at least partly traced to his intensely disciplined and methodical approach: he works every morning, aims to sleep by 9pm every night, and allows few of the fripperies of fame to get in the way of his work. This recalls the equally disciplined approach of the otherwise wildly different Yukio Mishima, who set aside specific days each year to write specific works. He is also a committed runner, having run more than 30 marathons, and has written a book about that passion.
But what is the secret of his worldwide success? His first translator, Alfred Birnbaum, responsible for the English version of A Wild Sheep Chase, says, “Part of his popularity is that his novels are dislocated from Japan in a globalised nowhere. I tend to think of him as an American writer who happens to write in Japanese – sort of a reverse Kazuo Ishiguro. He is a poor man’s Vonnegut, whose dry offhand style and admixture of absurd SF and routine everyday reality he copied so many years ago – albeit without the political depth.”
But others find something hauntingly Japanese in the very absence of any overt Japanese culture in his work – reflecting the fact that in urban Japan, Western culture’s triumph is now complete: the last gasp of resistance to it from the literary world was Yukio Mishima’s grotesque act of seppuku [hara-kiri] in 1970.
Murakami knows Japanese culture is now beyond rescue – but he also knows that something’s gone missing. “Something has vanished in these 25 years,” he said in 1990, “some kind of idealism. It has vanished, and we became rich.” The result is the aching emptiness shared by all his protagonists. As the critic Celeste Loughman puts it, “Neither materialism itself nor the preference for western popular culture is the problem. The problem is that’s all there is.”
Or is that really a problem, or an insight disguised as a problem? The Buddhist tradition to which Murakami is connected via his father describes emptiness, ‘shunyata’ in Sanskrit, as indistinguishable from form. And that is not a source of woe, because the self, too, is an illusion. These are the insights glimmering through Murakami’s texts which explain why they are not terminally depressing but on the contrary exhilarating – and intensely Japanese.