Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Is there a 'Muslim world'?

Over the past few months I've been doing some research into the law of genocide. In law, genocide is considered 'the crime of crimes', so what interests me is how this crime identifies its victims. If genocide is at the apex of criminal acts, then it stands to reason that its victims are at the apex of victimhood. Much of the literature I've read focuses on how to identify membership in one of the 'protected groups' which are based on race, ethnicity, religion and nationality.

Fundamentally genocide is about removing the humanity of the persons deemed worthy of extermination. It is because they are not fully human that these people are not considered worthy of existing alongside the perpetrators of genocide. Hypothetically it is conceivable that someone will try to eradicate a particular group not because they perceive them to be inferior but merely because it is considered 'expedient'. But as far as I am aware, the massive scale that genocide implies always means that contempt for the livelihood of the intended victim far surpasses any 'rational' consideration of expediency. Put another way, in reality, genocide always requires the ritualistic dehumanisation of the victim, typically by contrasting them from the group on whose behalf the genocide is perpetrated. Here, the image of Nazi 'scientists' recording the differences between the size and shape of 'Aryan' and 'non-Aryan' skulls comes to mind.

I hope by now it is clear that any analysis of genocide therefore directs ones attention towards the question of human identity. Recently I was reading a few blogs on Islam and contemporary politics, both by Muslims and by non-Muslims. Given my current intellectual framework has been structured around my research, I began asking myself - what is this Muslim world that people keep referring to?

Now I will refrain from mentioning any blogs by name, if only because it is not useful to single out a few names when there are so many other candidates. Also, I don't wish to target anyone in particular lest this serve to demonise them and divert my message. But one thing that has become clear to me on reading these blogs is that this notion of 'the Muslim world' is largely a fabrication created for the purpose of claiming authority to speak on a particular issue believed to have universal or near-to-universal importance. Let me unpack these assertions.

Mahmood Mamdani spoke about this eloquently when he explained:

cultures do not grow in separate containers called civilizations. The claim that they do should be seen as part of an attempt to politicize culture, to harness culture to a political project.

There are a number of blogs by Muslims, for Muslims, on topics of interest to Muslims. The best of these blogs give a space for the thorniest of topics, topics like homosexuality and women's rights. Yet even most of these blogs tend to omit stories from countries which are predominantly Muslim. For example, I rarely see stories on African countries which are predominantly Muslim, apart from Egypt. I rarely see stories on predominantly Muslim South East Asian countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, on Bangladesh, or predominantly Muslim Central Asian nations. And so on.

I think there is an element of racism in this. Perhaps even an Arab-centric racism, not always practiced by Arab Muslims, which is something of an echo of the period many centuries ago when an ostensibly imperial Islam had imperial ambitions on much of the world known to it (Europe, Asia, Africa). But more than that, I think the main reason is ignorance and expedience. I say ignorance and expedience because I think these two things are linked.

Now I don't believe there is any deep, dark agenda behind this. Not at all. I think it has more to do with the way people, all of us, construct our universalist narratives. When you create a system based on value-statements (like civilisation, good and bad people, etc) it becomes necessary to universalise them. Otherwise these value-statements can become quite meaningless outside the four walls of the room where you chanced upon the ideas in the first place.

The problem in the present situation comes from a fairly ignorant and idealised understanding of what it is to be Muslim. By this I mean that there is an assumption that everything I do as a human I also do as a Muslim. Further, certain cultures are considered to be more representative of Islam than others. Lastly, the people who write about issues of interest to Muslims, and who claim to speak on behalf of Muslims, simply have no frame of reference to deal with issues stemming from the 'periphery' of the Muslim world. It is worth noting here that most of the references I do find on Islam in the periphery focus on things like female genital mutilation or the more oppressive elements of Sharia. In other words, they are wholly negative portrayals which seem to imply that these peoples are somehow less civilised. Of course, it is also important to note that there is no such thing as the periphery of the Muslim world save for the peripheries we construct in our heads.

So it seems that much of the Muslim world is neglected in the coverage of matters of interest to Muslims.

But all of these are just symptoms. They do not represent the root cause. I think the root cause for the relegation of much of the world's Muslim population is the simple fact that there is a lack of meaningful connection between most Muslims. I am not saying there aren't any connections. Of course there are, plenty of them. But these connections are no more powerful than other connections we all have with other people who are not necessarily Muslim (ie we have a relationship with these people and whether or not they are Muslim is not relevant to the relationship). Indeed, usually the connections we have with people have very little to do with religion.

Furthermore, I think our strongest connectons have very little to do with organised religion, but the immediacy of our social borders. Religion does play a role in this. But it is usually the intimate religion of quiet reflection or catching up with friends after Jumma prayers. That there are constant attempts by some who claim to speak with authority to sweep all of us under the one religious tent says a lot for the innate understanding that the authority people derive from organised religion is tenuous and artificial. That is not to say it cannot be very powerful. It often is. But it is also inorganic and needs constantly to be maintained. All forms of hegemony are simultaneously on the brink of destruction and renewal, even if their overall direction is towards assent or decline.

There is much more to say on this topic, but a lack of time precludes me from continuing in much more detail. For the moment, I shall leave you with this. I would suggest that the universalist invocation of 'the Muslim world' serves a political purpose. That purpose may not be an agenda. It may be a statement with political dimensions; a political statement. Whatever it is, it should be understood to be an attempt at speaking with authority that is not in and of itself authoritative. What we learn from such statements should be as much from what these statements do not say as what they do.

I hope there is some food for thought here.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Culture talk in the War on Terror

Mahmood Mamdani gave an excellent lecture at the London School of Economics a while back on the 'cultural framework' of the War on Terror. Here's a snippet:

The public debate [in the United States] was defined...by a presumption that the world we live in is divided in two: between those modern and those pre-modern. It is said that those modern make their culture; they have a reflexive attitude to it; they can separate the good from the bad, build on the good and correct the bad; their culture develops historically; and the story of that historical development is what we call progress. The pre-modern peoples, in contrast, are said to be born into a culture; they are said to have a tendency to internalize their culture rather than have a critical attitude to it. Rather than make their culture historically, they seem condemned to live it uncritically, and content to pass it on from one generation to another. Pre-modern peoples are said to wear culture as a badge, or to suffer from it, like a twitch, even a fever.

You can read the entire speech here. Definitely required reading.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Le Pantheon

Oracle of lust,
Cement cradle of fortune.
Who remembers the dust
That settled on your bones?

There was glory, true.
So much was proved.
Ego and harmony -
Rolled into one.

Yet today you just whisper
As they scurry about their lives.
Funny how this monument
Cannot raise you from the dead.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Six Day War forty years on

Today's The Independent carries an excellent report marking the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War. This was the moment when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip and commenced its settlement program.

The Independent reports that a senior Israeli lawyer advised that it would be illegal to build settlements in the occupied territories under international law:

The legal opinion, a copy of which has been obtained by The Independent, was marked "Top Secret" and "Extremely Urgent" and reached the unequivocal conclusion, in the words of its author's summary, "that civilian settlement in the administered territories contravenes the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention."

More on Israel

Since the protest outside the Israeli Embassy a few bits of information have come to light. One of the wardens at the hall I live in told me that he used to be a security guard at a nearby Embassy. He explained that the Israelis were complete cowboys. For example they would often harass him while he was walking home from work. On one occasion a suited Israeli guard demanded that he stop with one hand raised in a stop motion, the other firmly gripping a gun holstered to his midrift. This despite the fact that they are not allowed to carry hand weapons and he was merely walking down the pavement.

The Embassy itself is a sight to behold. I hope to have photos from the protest up shortly. In the mean time, picture this. The embassy is one of a number which line the beautiful, leafy Hyde Park. Most other of the embassy buildings are large estates with medium-sized fences out front. You can walk past them quite comfortably and admire the manicured gardens and exaggerated entrances with their large floppy flags. The Israeli Embassy on the other hand is surrounded by two cement barricades painted black and running the length of the front of the property. It actually reminded me of a classier, more green, less dusty version of the US Consulate in Peshawar, Pakistan (minus the gun turrets). The outer barricade is manned by nervous British police officers wearing bullet proof vests, guns, batons and a number of other devices I couldn't quite make out. Behind this barricade stand at least two suited Israeli agents with dark glasses and ear pieces. The embassy is located in one of the most posh and peaceful localities in London, so this picture of barricades and armed people is quite antithetical to the general ambience of the place. That's the magic that an apartheid state can bring to a place, I guess.

Speaking of barricades, an Arab Israeli friend of mine just told me about her ordeal the other day in leaving Britain for Israel. She's an Israeli citizen, a lawyer of some years of experience, a former UN translator, and scholarship holder. She was also the victim of some over zealous Israeli security. Before she was able to board her El Al flight to Israel, she had her bags searched three times. They took all her possessions leaving her alone with her purse to go through the usual immigration process and wait nervously in the departure lounge in the hope her luggage had made it to the plane. When it came time for her to board the plane she was searched again.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Protest outisde Israeli Embassy in London

Today I took part in a protest with the Free Gaza people outside the Israeli Embassy in London. It was a short lived affair because the (British) police asked us to leave the area, despite the fact that our protest was peaceful and we had not broken any laws. As we lingered in an area of Hyde Park adjacent to the Embassy, we noticed a young man in a nice suit and dark glasses observing us while speaking to someone on his mobile. He was quite clearly from the embassy and as we stared him down he realised his cover had been blown and slowly walked back from whence he came. We had the wonderful distinction of being followed by police in small cars inside Hyde Park. At least they stopped to ask us if we were having a nice day.

The purpose of the protest was to highlight Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip. Free Gaza is sending a boat to Gaza to break Israel's naval blockade. It's a worthwhile cause because it sends the message that Israel has no right to turn Gaza into a giant prison camp and prevent its population from freely moving wherever they choose to go.

Some more information on the campaign is available here.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

War on error

There's an interesting post on The Guardian blog about Muslim misperceptions of The West. It follows a previous post by the same author on Western misperceptions of the Muslim world. Definitely food for thought.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Current 10 most played songs

Alas no mixing equipment so I've been forced to resort to the traditional listening method. Although I don't know how you'd mix these tracks together...

1. Anthem by Filo and Peri.
Love it when a good set of producers manages to transform a rock ballad into a thumping dance tune. Catchy and relevant - especially given the lyrics are about leaving one's youth behind.

2. What's going on? by Marvin Gaye.
Every man at least at one point in his life wishes he could sing like brother Marvin. At least if only because of the pulling potential such a voice would provide.

3. Lyin' eyes by The Eagles.
A bunch of us sang this by a camp fire in the middle of nowhere in Western Australia. Hearing this song always transports me back to the land of cloudless skies and singlet-only weather.

4. Say Hello by Deep Dish.
One of the best chill out tracks around. Would love to slow dance to this on the beach while the sun begins to set (or rise!).

5. Love you more by Armin van Buuren feat. Racoon.
The type of song you want to welcome the weekend with, preferrably while you're speeding out of the city towards the coast or the mountains.

6. Adagio for strings (Fred Baker remix) by DJ Tiesto.
Fred Baker is a genius, definitely the best kept secret in Trance (although perhaps not so secret anymore). There's an incredible build up to this song before it literally explodes. One of those songs that has to be heard loud, in a big room with a good sound system to be truly appreciated.

7. Romeo and Juliet by Dire Straits (Alchemy live version).
I'd give anything to hear Dire Straits live. The Alchemy rendition of Romeo and Juliet was probably their finest moment.

8. Any better, or? by Marco V.
If you hear this while you're in the zone you're liable to cry (hopefully tears of joy).

9. Galaxia by Ferry Corsten.
Classically Corsten tech trance, understated, subtle beats which somehow grab your attention.

10. Wild world by Cat Stevens.
A useful accompaniment to the shower routine.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Understanding racism

Racism. You know it when you see it. But can you define it in a way that works for everyone everywhere?

A good radio discussion on racism with Paul Gilroy and Mahmood Mamdani. There are references to Rwanda, the partition of India and Pakistan, the 2001 UN Conference on Racism held in Durban South Africa, and a few other things.

You can listen to it here.

Sunset in Amsterdam

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Romeo Dallaire speaks

Romeo Dallaire*, former commander of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, spoke to a packed lecture theatre in London tonight. The end of his speech was met with much ovation and even a smattering of standing applause.

The basic thesis of Dallaire's lecture was that the world has changed, the conflicts and security situation has become more complex, notably through the advent of international terrorism, and the 'middle powers' (countries like Germany and Canada, among others) need to flex more military muscle in places like Darfur.

This message came across as alarmingly colonialist in its dimensions. It was consistent with the centuries old narrative of victims and villains in situations that forever require the intervention of powerful, Western states. There were tell tale signs that what Dallaire was saying was very much cut from this very ancient of cloths. For one, he weighed the crimes of powerful states such as the US in Iraq on the scale of negligence and error. The US had made a tactical error by not first seeking a UN mandate for its invasion of Iraq. Saddam should have been toppled during the First Gulf War. Clinton set the tone for US intervention in the third world, or the lack of such interventions, when he decided not to fully commit his forces to the conflict in Somalia because there was no strategic interest in the region.

Conversely, terrorists, militia groups and third world states like Sudan represented a new type of evil which needed to be disciplined by robust international military intervention. To be sure, the modern military commander must be inventive and dynamic in executing such interventions. But it was nevertheless through the military that such dynamism has to be expressed.

One cannot doubt Dallaire's sincereity, nor that he has a genuine interest in ending the suffering of innocents in places like Darfur, Sudan. But frankly, such sincereity is not, singularly, sufficient to justify the promotion of military solutions to complex problems.

This is not to say there aren't any solutions, let alone simple solutions. What is necessary is indeed quite simple. To begin with, the conflicts must be considered not merely in terms of warring tribes or militants or sweaty palmed third world despots. The origins of the conflict must be examined. The voices of the local people must be heard. Socioeconomics must be at the forefront of our analysis.

Sudan might as well serve as an illustration of this point. The janjaweed militias, the group of armed men on horses widely attributed to the ethnic cleansing in Darfur, are themselves the product of oppression and poverty. Many atrocities have been committed by other militias not aligned with the Sudanese Government. There is no clear distinction in Darfur between African victims and Arab villains. Sudan is a desperately poor nation whose borders, like those of most developing nations, were crudely drawn up by the European powers with limited consideration of the ethnic, tribal and other cultural affinities of the people within and outside these borders.

Indeed, one could go widen the scope even further to consider the prevailing international economic conditions which ensure that African countries like Sudan remain desperately poor, and therefore vulnerable to manipulation by local elites and multinational corporations.

One cannot address all these matters in a short item, but it is nevertheless of vital importance not to reduce the situation into a battle between good and evil, where the key relationship between the people of the South and the developed North is the barrel of a gun. A gun either pointed at them, or against some among them deemed too uncivilised for anything more.

* Dallaire is an interesting personality. He went through several years of depression and alcoholism as a result of the genocide his peacekeeping force failed to prevent. This failure was effectively inevitable given the lack of political will on the part of the international community to stop it, even though it was obvious well before the event that it would occur. The US and France may have also contributed directly to the success of the genocidal program. For further information on the US's role read this. For France, go here.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Gaza update

What is happening in Gaza? Here's the best summary of the most recent, tragic events which I've reproduced below in full:

by Rami Almeghari - IMEMC & Agencies
Israeli warplanes bombarded Wednesday a building, belonging to the executive force of Hamas, formed by the former interior minister, Saed Siyam of Hamas, killing three executive force members and wounding 30 others.

illustration photo
illustration photo

Local hospital sources confirmed that three people were killed and 30 others wounded in a deadly Israeli attack on a building in Rafah city.

The sources identified at least one of the killed as Najeh Abu Sakher, as the remaining two remain unknown.

Witnesses said that the building, close to Palestinian Authority's forces compound, has been completely destroyed due to the shelling Israeli shelling.

Hundreds of locals headed for the Abu Yousef Alnajjar hospital, as some of them donated blood, witnesses added.

Crowds of Rafah chanted slogans against underway Hamas-Fatah infghting in Gaza, calling upn the rival parties to halt their bloody shootouts.

The Israeli army attack on Rafah had further complicated an already deteriorated situation, as a barrage of homemade shells have been fired on nearby Israeli town since yesterday evening.

This attack comes amidst fierce street gun battles between the rival Hamas and Fatah since Friday in Gaza, where at least 30 Palestinians have been killed and more than 60 others injured.

Witnesses said that masked gunmen drag people out of the cars and check their identities, while some of those checked are taken hostages.

Witnesses added that streets are vacated of passersby as shops, institutions and stores are closed, while the population is locked down in their houses for fear of being attacked or harmed.

In addition, masked gunmen broke into residential buildings and began searching apartments, forcing tens of families to seek safe heavens in downstairs.

Current infighting in Gaza is the deadliest since the two factions agreed to a national unity government in March, in a bid to lift the internationally- imposed siege as well as months of clashes that have claimed the lives of at least 150 people.

Despite repeated ceasefire agreements, the latest was late on Tuesday night, both parties' gunmen are spread widely in streets, while shootouts are audible in different parts of the 450,000-populated city.

In the meantime, Palestinian deputy-PM of Fatah, Azzam Al-Ahmad, called on President Mahmoud Abbas to declare a state of emergency in order to contain the increasing violence.

Some Fatah MPs voiced the same position, while the chief of Rafah police department resigned due to the uncontrollable situation.

The Palestinian monetary authority ordered closure of local banks for the same reason.

The deteriorated security situation across the Gaza Strip has doubled the populations’ hardship amidst a crippling economic embargo; the international Quartet has imposed on a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority since last March.

The Quartet (United States, United Nations, European Union, Russia) has demanded the Hamas-Fatah coalition government to recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept past signed agreements with Israel before it wins recognition.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Palestine - one state or two?

Perhaps the biggest debate within the movement for Palestinian liberation is the question of the form of a future Palestinian state. Should there be one state incorporating current Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories? Or should there be a separate Palestinian State?

Chomsky makes a good summation of the one state and two state (binational) options here:

Among the options under discussion are one-state and binational approaches. These are crucially different. There are many forms of multinationalism in the world: Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, etc. The concept is a cover term for arrangements that allow forms of autonomy for groups within complex societies, not necessarily only those that choose to regard themselves as “nations.” Quite different are one-state systems, with no form of autonomy for various communities. In the US, for example, Latinos do not have autonomy or control over language or education in the areas stolen by violence from Mexico (or elsewhere); nothing approaching, say, the partial autonomy in Catalonia, to mention one of many cases of some form of multinationalism.

As a rule of thumb, those who favour one of these solutions do not consider the other a viable option. But regardless of which option appeals, it is important to consider what kind of political landscape could facilitate Palestinian statehood in the first place.

Any solution, whether related to the one state or two state proposal or something else entirely, will be dependent on the political power behind it. You have to remember that in everything Israel does there is the guiding hand of the world's only superpower. If that superpower has been able to create a highly advanced, powerful client state in Israel there is no reason why it cannot assist in creating a viable Palestinian state, either as part of Israel or not, with a handful of the funds it uses to support Israel. I say that as a statement of its capacity and powers rather than as a statement of probable outcome.

In other words, there can be no solution, like it or not, without leadership from the US. Let's assume there is a groundswell of public support for genuine Palestinian statehood. And this groundswell leads to an end to the Occupation. There is no reason not to assume such a state will be another Arab client regime which is still de facto reliant on Israel, particularly economically.

Of course, this assumes that Israel remains the key or a key client state for the US, thereby retaining its military and, to a lesser extent, economic strength in the region.

Obviously, this is not a good thing even if it is a result of the end of formal occupation. Therefore, we can't just look at what model Palestinian statehood will take. We need to also challenge the US-Israel relationship.

Insurmontable as it may currently seem, if Israeli and Palestinian societies can commence the long, painful process of integrating with one another, this would have the advantage of potentially reducing or removing the strategic relevance of Israel to the US. If this were to occur, the issue of Palestinian statehood would not just be a matter of recognising the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians. Rather, it would call into question the legitimacy of US interests in the region.

Seen in this light, Palestinian statehood no longer relates solely to the conflict with Israel or the situation in the Middle East. It goes further towards challenging US hegemony of the planet. Of course, by US, we really speak of the powerful elites for whose benefit the US's actions are primarily geared towards.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Gunmen kill Pakistan Court Official

A senior official of Pakistan's Supreme Court, Syed Hamid Reza, was shot dead early Monday morning by three unidentified armed men, according to the police. The death of Reza, the additional registrar at the Supreme Court, is believed to be linked to the current tension in Pakistan over the suspension of the chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Meanwhile Chaudhry's hearing on misconduct allegations was halted on Monday after one of the judges on the bench refused to hear the case.

Reports on Pakistan television news channel Aaj TV, say that the three armed men carried out the attack at Reza's home in the capital Islamabad at 4.30 am local time. Pakistan's acting chief justice, Rana Bhagwandas, visited Raza's family on Monday and expressed his condolences.


Sunday, May 13, 2007

Public outcry against Musharraf grows

On 9 March 2006 President Musharraf of Pakistan sacked the nation's senior most judge, a move widely seen as an attempt to stymie dissent against his dictatorial rule. You can read a good summary of the situation here. Last week Chief Justice Chaudhry traveled from Islamabad to Lahore to take part in his misconduct proceedings. A journey that would usually take 4 hours took 24 as well wishers lined the road from Islamabad to Lahore to express their support for him.

Dawn's I.A. Rehman described it nicely:

What happened in Lahore on Saturday night and on Sunday morning and all along the highway from Islamabad to the Punjab capital over 24 hours has no precedent in Pakistan’s history. We have certainly witnessed bigger congregations and quite a few incidents are on record when thousands of people waited for six to eight hours for their leader’s appearance at the meeting venue. But the crowd that waited for the Chief Justice at the Lahore High Court, and outside its building, was in a class of its own. And so was the occasion.

BBC reports that hundreds of people were arrested to prevent them from taking part in the demonstratons.

Since then, just this Saturday, clashes between pro and anti Musharraf political parties in Karachi turned violent killing at least 34 and injurying hundreds more. The Musharraf Government is looking ever more fragile. There are rumours that Musharraf is quietly doing a deal with Benazir Bhutto for a face-saving power sharing arrangement. But for now those remain rumors.

No word yet from Washington or London as to whether Pakistan is going to be invaded with a view to instaling a democracy.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Armin van Buuren at Turnmills 12 May 2007

Monday, May 07, 2007

Marcel Woods at Koko 6 May 2007

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Lobbying our environment away

The Australia Institute's Clive Hamilton writes about Australia's 'Greenhouse Mafia' in the latest edition of New Matilda:

It emerges that climate change policy in Canberra has for years been determined by a small group of lobbyists who happily describe themselves as the ‘greenhouse mafia.’ This cabal consists of the executive directors of a handful of industry associations in the coal, oil, cement, aluminium, mining and electricity industries.

Almost all of these industry lobbyists have been plucked from the senior ranks of the Australian Public Service, where they wrote briefs and Cabinet submissions and advised ministers on energy policy. The revolving door between the bureaucracy and industry lobby groups has given the fossil fuel industries unparalleled insight into the policy process and networks throughout Government.

Breaking News - 1 killed several injured in Rafah

Anees in Rafah, Gaza Strip has just informed me that as of yet unnamed militants fired on a party for children, killing a security guard and injuring a number of others. More information from the Associated Press here. One wonders how the criminals behind this latest carnage will be brought to justice while the Palestinian Authority remains under military and political blockade from Israel and the West. It is hard to overlook the possibility that such lawlessness will continue to escalate under the present situation.

Friday, May 04, 2007

When sport becomes unsporting

I've recently started playing cricket again in a last ditch attempt to extract my latent skills as an elite athlete. Well, not really. Actually, I've always wanted to play cricket in England. So far it's been quite an enjoyable experience. For instance, it's enabled me to visit parts of outer London I would never have otherwise seen and to frolic around lush green cricket fields lined with beautiful flowers and fancy-looking houses. The experience has also reminded me that my body and mind have changed some what since last I played. While I've always maintained a decent level of fitness, the niggles I pick up while throwing myself around take much longer to go away. My throwing arm is stronger and I hit the ball harder, but I certainly don't get as worked up as I used to. My greatest, wicked secret is that I don't particularly care if the team wins or losses provided I get a chance to play and run around and enjoy myself. Not all my team mates share these sentiments.

The average age of the team must be around 22 or 23. More than anything, playing competitive team sport again has reminded me of insights into masculinity I once thought were mere cliches. I play for a university team so the guys are generally well read, articulate and good humoured. There are some however who simply take everything all too seriously. For instance, our chirpy cover fieldsman, one of the best players in the team, is the stereotypical know-it-all sportsman who simply does not shut up. It does not help that he's around 20 and half my height (actually, more like 5'5'', and no I'm not 10'8''). Worst of all, he is constantly giving other players advice and criticism. Unfortunately, I was fielding at point for a large part of the day, about 10 metres from him, and it got to the stage where I simply had to tell the guy to can it. I literally, and quite unconsciously, did a 'zip-it' motion across my lips akin to Dr Evil. He looked at me stunned for a moment before the next ball was bowled. He wasn't so forthcoming with advice to me after that. I found the whole episode incredibly humorous but I thought it sensible to at least look like I was taking everything very seriously. We were, afterall, playing an amateur level game. One cannot take such things lightly.

Our wicketkeeper though had to take the cake. I sat next to him on the train ride to the ground and it was near impossible to get him to speak. On the field though he was enthusiastic with his words, if not his glovework which was rather poor. He dropped every single ball that headed his way, including those left alone by the batsman. It got so bad that I eventually had to stand at short fine leg, almost behind him, to stop the ball from racing to the boundary. Of course none of this would really matter in and of itself. That it did matter was not because he happened to be a little chubby and pink-cheeked. No. It was more of a factor of his tendency to keep telling off other fieldsmen for misfields or their lack of intensity. During team huddles he would reel off patronising one liners that would have made Ricky Gervais's character from The Office proud.

One reason I stopped playing competitive team sport some years ago was that I stopped enjoying myself. Matches became too serious and tense. It did not help that two of the last three teams I've played for were not very strong. The pressure to perform, to continually reappraise 'what went wrong' and for a few team mates to give everyone else advice on how to improve their game got to the point where I either switched off or started telling them to get a life.

I think a lot of men seek meaning and purpose through sport that it cannot deliver. Often they play to live out fantasies and aspirations their every day life cannot. Men have an unending urge to feel important and useful. Most every father, for example, exhibits this trait. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. What is wrong is when people can't accept the reality that they're not nearly as good as they'd like to think they are, that their dreams of playing for England or India or Manchester United are all a little daft, and they ought not vent their frustration at not being able to realise these aspirations on other people who don't share that dream. Most of all, sport is meant to be fun. It is fun precisely because it is pointless. It is not so fun when it becomes a focal point for the every day man's manhood. It saddens and worries me that many of the young men in my team measure their worth as men by how many wickets or runs or catches they accumulate. In that process they forget to simply enjoy themselves. Could this be a microcosm of a more general existential angst? Or was I standing at fine leg for too long?

Thursday, May 03, 2007


Are you looking for a present for someone?

Then why not give them a special photo?