A New Normal

Most of the small talk on zoom calls I’ve sat through, since last March, has defaulted to comparing Covid experiences, before a collective shrug of acceptance jolts participants out of their daily fug of speculation, and moves us onto other topics.

Within the aid sector, many commentators have articulated the typically unequal impacts of this pandemic on those in society less well off. Women and girls, as usual, marginalised and made more vulnerable. Poorer countries, and within them, poorer communities, confronting the harsh realities of their inability to access medicines and quality healthcare, in order to counter the virus.

Here in Vietnam, 31 million vaccines are due later in the year. Over in Western Europe and North America, many family and friends are upbeat about a return to “some kind of normality”.

For others, billions of others, Covid is lower down the list of zoom ice-breakers.

For Palestinians, whether living in Gaza, the West Bank or in Israel, the Eid celebrations of the last 48 hours could not have been more muted and shrouded in pain. The oppressive nature of a global pandemic suddenly rendered null and void, as children are blown up attending family dinners to celebrate the end of Ramadan.

In the past, when returning from an overseas assignment, and attempting to write about what I’ve seen or felt or done, I’ve tended to feel like a massive fraud.

Being a white man, working to promote women’s empowerment and gender equality – especially in parts of the world culturally enveloped in norms and behaviours that are wholly different to mine (I’m British to boot, which is just another delightfully ironic brushstroke on my rambling canvas) – tends to ensure I never feel very authentic.

All I know, when following this week’s news from Jerusalem and from Gaza, all I know, from the platform and vantage point that I have (ten years living in Vietnam, and visiting development programmes in two dozen countries), from working with Palestinian colleagues, and from travelling into Gaza and parts of the West Bank in 2017 with them, all I know is that the lives lost in this week’s conflict – lives now broadcast simply as numbers, and added to the long list of fatalities from both sides, stretching back to the end of the Second World War – were lost in the most unnecessary, unconscionable, and heart-breaking of ways.

Jonathan Freedland wrote on Friday about the hope that Gazans must be holding so close, that they can get back to normal, but that it is this ‘normal’ that has resolved nothing over the many decades of negotiations and cyclical conflict.

I concur with that sentiment. And I wonder how, through articles like his, and through the media writ large, it might be more plausible than ever before to build solidarity for those parts of the world (and there are many others to note, although none quite like this one) faced with a normal that can only be imagined by the rest of us as the stuff of nightmares?

Neither Jewish nor Arabic, I spent two summers working on a kibbutz in 1995 and 1996 – an experience I still hold dear – and then I’ve worked within the international development community since 2006, with any time spent on Israeli-Palestinian relations very much landing my support on the side of Palestinians.

As a friend suggested to me, one’s own social media preferences can play a big part in shaping our views on things. However, human contact and the visceral experiences that come with this, also lay deep foundations when it comes to forming opinions.

In terms of this last week’s events, I’ve read the arguments from both sides and of course neither will back down to each other. That much is certain.

For me, it remains impossible to justify the bombardment of Gaza and the killing of innocent families. Whilst the Israelis will blame Hamas for all things, it’s hard for me to see past what I saw when I was there, 4 years ago to the day, and not to see how the Israelis are complicit in the oppression of Gazans. A Palestinian fisherman was shot dead the week I visited, because he’d strayed outside of an allocated fishing zone, picked off by a military boat, patrolling the sea borders. His story lost amongst an ocean of others.

To live in Gaza with children must be a chilling experience. During the 2014 war, a colleague told me she went to bed every night (for over two months) covering her face, in case her house was bombed during the night. She wanted to retain some dignity in her death and, wearing a veil whilst sleeping was all she felt she could do to achieve this.

Other parents around the world went to bed last night feeling the same as my colleague did 7 years ago.

In Yemen, in Tigray, in Myanmar. All bloodshed this year, as it clearly so often is, has been both needless and poorly shared with the world. This is usually what happens, however Covid has compounded the phenomenon, taking over the lives and the algorithms of most people.

In the UK, no one is talking about Brexit that much anymore. Pundits are concerned, instead, with banning flights from Delhi into Heathrow. What of the British Government’s response to this week’s carnage in Gaza – “the Israelis have a right to defend themselves” – that, from the UK Secretary of State for the Middle East and North Africa. For me, his statement speaks volumes – none of which fill me with anything but frustration.

Treating with caution the views of extremist Israeli and Palestinian commentators and activists, and beneath a political frame and nuance that experts and historians are ten times better equipped to speak to than I, it seems to me that it falls (and has fallen) to other countries, including the UK, around the world to intervene in this insanely protracted and bleak generational cycle of war.

I am sure some would argue this responsibility doesn’t fall to others. However, in life, when two people are in conflict, it is very unusual to expect a resolution without a third party to facilitate a compromise, or to mediate the issues. In which case, how do Egypt, the US, the UK, Jordan and other countries’ governments, rest easy at night, knowing they have played a part, through their inaction or their bias, in the slaughter of innocent citizens?

Given the UK supplies so many weapons to other nations, and that past US administrations seem well sided with Israel, the vested interests of too many of these intervening countries seem set to supersede their effectiveness of actually finding a solution.

More campaigning for peace is required, more petitions, more journalists like Freedland given the platform to put forward opinions. All of this must continue, even if it’s merely pressing at the peripheries of some of the fundamental issues and decision making entities.

We can’t stop talking about this. That’s all I know.

When I was in the Old Quarter in 2017, I met a Palestinian shopkeeper who, genuinely, was holding out hope that Donald Trump (due to visit the day we left the region) might actually, actually, be the first US President to support peaceful resolutions that were sustained. The irony of the idea wasn’t lost on either of us during this exchange, but the shopkeeper represented so many local perspectives on the subject of peace, so deeply rooted in generations of disappointment, that he was allowing himself to dream that Trump might yet be the answer.

I wonder if this same man, this morning, is re-directing his hopes towards the Democrats, or, instead, simply praying for it all to stop?

Bubble Reputation

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Ma and Pa’s Wedding Day

Happy Birthday to my late Grandpa – Stanley Bishop. Son of Syd Bishop, a butcher from Ruislip, Greater London, Stanley Bishop (aka “Pa”) was born during the First World War, on a Thursday, exactly 103 years ago today. He went on to serve in the Second World War, by which time he had met and fallen in love with my Grandma, Edna.

One anecdote my brother and I grew up on, around the significance of the 27th day of the month, was that our own father, Peter, was born to Stan and Edna on 27th November 1949, followed by my arrival on 27th April 1975, and then my brother, Matt, was due to be born on 27th January 1978. Matt was late though (a February 1st vintage, in the end) although by all accounts he arrived quickly and full of gusto.

Dates often produce serendipity. Writing this from our home in Saigon (a city liberated by the Viet Cong a mere 72 hours after I arrived in the world, on 30th April 1975, a date which continues to commemorate the end of the various wars of that era) I was, this morning, musing on the fact that it was during this particular last week of May, a quarter of a century ago, in 1993, that I put down my pen in what was my last “A” level exam, and stepped out of the school’s Great Hall and into a new chapter of my life.

That I was born 3 days before the end of the American-Vietnam War, and that 25 years ago this week I finished high school, are not, I grant you, the most precise and brilliantly serendipitous coincidences. In any case, that last exam paper was on Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”. A play I enjoyed watching again earlier this year, whilst Issy and I were back in Melbourne.

“As You Like It” is a witty and insightful tale, its cross-dressing protagonists fumbling about in the Forest of Arden, getting into various romantic scrapes. The twist of having the traditional all male actors taking on the female roles of Rosalind and Celia – who then spend the majority of the storyline pretending to be men – is one of those great examples that defines Shakespeare’s lasting appeal: that of an ‘alternative framing’ which has continued to be utilized in various art and literature ever since.

Another timeless page from the play is Jacques’ famous speech about the ‘Seven Ages of Man.’ Jacques’ descriptions of each Age (the full prose is pasted below) and his overall conclusion about the circle of life – from “mewling and puking” to “a second childishness and mere oblivion” – are packed full with observations and philosophies. Indeed, the numeric “7” itself is a number much quoted across cultures. Days of the week. Deadly Sins. Years of bad luck (for mirror damage). “Lucky number” seven.

Even my seventh paragraph, containing seven words.

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Anyway, as I enjoyed this Jacques passage again, it was the soldier “seeking the bubble reputation” on which I alighted.

In the context of war, bubble reputation could be a reference to the fleeting nature of the honour or the fame that a solider experiences in battle. Essentially, a temporary thing, bursting like a bubble.

Another explanation I’ve seen is that Shakespeare meant for the word bubble to infer “a person deceived by an empty project”. In other words, a soldier signing up to a war that had been ill conceived.

You’d need a lifetime to collect everything that has been written about ill conceived wars or about the sheer hopelessness of war: from the various canons of WW1 poetry, penned whilst my Grandpa was a child; to those crafted about WW2, a conflict in which both my grandparents served, and from which my father was then an infamous “baby-boomer”; to the angry outpouring of the millions of people who took to the streets (during the time of my parent’s own courtship and wedding) to protest against western interventions in Vietnam; right up to the viral nature of how online communications, in the 2018 arena, connect a far greater number of us than ever before, in a collective disdain for war and for conflict.

Others might counter this by persuading that meaningful change, without some form conflict, is simply not possible.

The debate here will no doubt run on, and on.

What is not up for debate, is the reality of the scale of the current ongoing conflicts around the world: from countries where enlisting in the armed forces is compulsory for its citizens (a “necessary way of life”); to those where young children are stolen from their homes to serve in anti-government splinter cells, or are fleeing for their lives, away from conflict, and without their parents; to those countries whose reputations for initiating conflicts, over centuries past, has granted them a place in the world pecking order to make decisions about when and where to repeat the process again; or, still, to countries whose political agendas continue to cause slow, protracted crises, so much so that living in a ‘state of conflict’ has simply become the definition of ‘normal living’.

Whatsoever the context, I find this definition of Jacques’ “bubble reputation” (ie that of an “empty project” causing “deception”) striking.

Just how many of the world’s current conflicts could be said to epitomize this notion?

In spite of all the institutional structures and global governance systems, established after WW2 to prevent such a thing happening again, the United Nations (one of the main institutions created as part of this process) recently claimed that the world is in the midst of the worst humanitarian crisis since 1945.

In the four countries of South Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria and Somalia, the UN estimates that as many as 20 million people are facing starvation and famine.

For the (approximately) 6 million Syrian refugees – a fifth country to add to these statistics – who no longer live in their home country, it is estimated it will be 25 years until they might safely return.

So, on this 7.5 billion person world stage of ours, what part, what action, are we each prepared to follow through on, in the face of humanitarian crisis and the nature of its conflicted genesis?

The truth is that there are many ways to act and to bring about action (some mentioned on here recently) and to play a “part.” From writing to marching to joining movements to the honest discourse exchanged with those young people yet to embark on their second ‘Age.’

And, I believe it is the union of these acts, their voice, their grit, and their steely coalescence, which can provide – as a military operation itself would – all that is necessary.

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