Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Islamic Global Peace & Unity in London

The comfortable and familiar feeling of being among a sea of Muslims returned when I attended the Global Peace & Unity event held in London on November 24 and 25. There were literally tens of thousands of Muslims from South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Everyone looked the part, largely dressed in a way that set them apart from the rest of the British population. There were elegant East African women -- tall, thin, dark, and often carrying themselves with striking beauty. The South Asian women varied from those who wore an all enveloping hijab that left only the eyes visible--often thick with makeup--to those who made no attempt to hide their feminine charms. Likewise, their menfolk included men with imposing black beards and others whose visits to mens grooming saloons must have been at least once a week. Confusingly, the majority of this vast crowd spoke English with a thick working class British accent. My eyes were telling me "that man sure looks Arab" while my ears were saying "but he certainly sounds English". I was immersed in a mixed-up world of multiple identities and generational allegiances, where English was Arab and Pakistani was English, and where half the women wore cheap Chinese made Palestinian style kaffiyehs despite having almost certainly never set foot anywhere near Jerusalem.

Muslim woman
Muslim woman

There was a large room with all kinds of small booths and stalls offering things for sale and causes to contribute. One popular stall painted small flags on women and girls' cheeks, and henna on their hands.

There was a man and woman selling Muslim T-shirts. A brown shirt said simply resistance, and had a picture of an automatic weapon. A blue shirt had a superman logo that said "Muslims do it 5 times a day". But the finest was a red shirt with ISLAM in large letters, whose 'M' was in the style of the famous McDonald's logo. Beneath it was the slogan "I'm lovin it". I looked at it intently with a no doubt perplexed look on my face. I asked the man if he thought the shirt was sacrilegious. Without a hint of irony or humour, in his British accent he told me he didn't know what sacrilegious meant. I told him it meant it was against the sacred nature of Islam. He replied that he had designed the shirt himself, and that some Muslims loved it while others hated it. He thought it was practical. Imagine, he said, a young Muslim man being confronted by drunks on an underground railway station at 11 p.m. The drunks would find the shirt amusing, giving the upstanding Muslim the perfect opening to preach the glories of Islam. His wife was standing beside him, her face covered, busy serving customers. I did not know what she thought of such practicalities.

Mr McIslam
Mr McIslam

I asked a man selling a military biography of Khalid ibn al-Walid, otherwise known as the Sword of Allah, whether this was an appropriate book for a peace and unity event. He admitted he had not read the book and could not say. Before asking him this, I had taken his photo alongside it, honouring his request to include the honey he was also selling.

There was a booth with a bearded man bellowing loudly into the ear of a young woman. Above them was a sign promising to assist those suffering from evil eye, black magic, or jinn possession. The man was effective. Soon enough, the woman broke down in tears. While all this was going on, I asked his son of I had permission to photograph the sign advertising their services. He told me to go ahead. I took the photo, his father noticing out of the corner of his eye. He stopped helping the woman and began to berate me for daring to take a photograph. I let him speak, and when he was finished, I told him I had merely photographed the sign with his son's permission. His temper flaring, he demanded to know I was a journalist. I said I was not. He was agitated and I realised it was best to listen to him quietly and calmly. He said in his booming voice that British journalists had made a mockery of his work, and a French television station had confused him with a man wanted by the police, giving him all kinds of things to worry about. A elderly man beside me became very angry and demanded to know what I was doing there with a camera. I said nothing but looked him in the eye, which he took to be a sign of aggression. The curer of evil eye, black magic and jinn possession calmed down at this point, and told the other man he could handle it. I reassured him that at no time had I photographed anything but their sign. I gave him my card and expressed my sympathy for his predicament. He smiled, apologised, and resumed his work. The elderly man also smiled apologetically.

The massive crowd
The massive crowd

I came across a booth where a wife and husband of Pakistani origin had enterprisingly set up a small photographic studio. We struck up a long and fruitful conversation. The wife told me about their photography business, emphasising her skills as a woman photographer, which was very useful with the upsurge in gender segregated weddings. They were dull to photograph, she said, because they lacked the interaction between the groom and bride that made wedding photography so special. But it was good for business. In our discussions on Muslim marriages she told me that she believed a woman should always have the right to choose her husband, no matter what anybody else in the family says. She herself was married at age 17, without ever having met her husband till the day she was married. While she had a marvellous marriage with three children, she said as women became better educated they were demanding their right to choose their husband themselves. A skinny pimple faced young man came up to the booth, examining the beautiful bridal photographs on display. She offered him her brochure, at which point he realised that he was not at a booth offering to match potential brides and grooms. His friends laughed at him. The woman pointed out that all the brides were already married, and her husband pointed to a portrait photo of a girl who was about three years old, mentioning that she was not married. We all laughed.

I joined a crowd of many thousands enjoying musical performances taking place in a huge auditorium. On stage were a continual stream of earnest musicians emphasising their wholesome family values and commitment to Islam. It was in fact uplifting family entertainment suitable for the many young children present. The organisers wisely interspersed the more somber acts with a dash of humour, which proved to be a big hit. A Californian named Baba Ali had everyone laughing when he described how a Muslim could get thrown off a plane. One suggestion was to scream loudly in Arabic. Another was to turn to a friend mid-flight, waking him up and saying loudly "Osama, it's time, it's time." He said that wearing a hijab would not get you thrown off a plane. Neither would a large beard. But wearing a hijab while having a large beard probably would.

Baba Ali
Baba Ali

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The woman on the train

I saw her first at the underground railway station. She was about 30. Her face was red. It must have been a cold. She had a book with her. It was written in Turkish. I also had a book, by VS Naipaul. After arranging her clothes she settled into her seat to read. The train approached. She quickly got up, anticipating the train's arrival. We both needed a seat. We each found one. We smiled at each other. It is much easier to read while sitting. She opened her book and resumed her reading. I resumed mine. But she was too intriguing, so I ignored my book and watched her as she traced her finger over the words she was reading. Soon she was speaking the words to herself, immersed in the world the pages conveyed. The author's mind and her mind were meeting as the stations came and went. The author did not know. But I did, watching this woman on the train.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

God's villages

Once there was a man walking in a field with God. As they passed near a village, God asked the man if he knew the people living there. The man said he did. God asked him if he knew their religion. The man said “they are Jews.” The pair continued to walk and eventually they passed beside another village. God asked the man if he also knew the people in this village. The man said he did. God asked him he knew their religion. The man said “they are Muslims”. They continued walking and saw more villages. One was Christian. Another was Hindu. One was even Buddhist. God asked the man why the villages had different religions. The man thought about it for a long time. The only answer he could give was that the village children learned their religion from their elders, who were taught by their elders, going back generations, all the way to their prophets. God asked the man if he could explain why a certain child was born in one village and not another. The man said “only you know that”.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Laylat Al Qadr in Jerusalem

Upon recently arriving in Jerusalem, I was determined to go to the Haram Al Sharif and into Al Aqsa Mosque on the night of Laylat Al Qadr (you can read more about this holy night here and here). Many Muslims are unable to travel to the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, their third holiest site. It is therefore a great privilege for me to go there, and I wanted to make the most of it.

I walked in the direction of the Haram Al Sharif from Damascus Gate, down through the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem. There were many people--mothers holding tightly onto small babies, old men wearing their "kafiyeh" (head dress), and old women walking leisurely on the way. All were making their way to or from the Haram Al Sharif. The Old City's streets are narrow in some places. Because the shop keepers like to put seemingly half of their shop's goods for sale on tables outside their shop, the streets became even narrower. Pop music sung by women from Lebanon was heard bellowing out of one shop, while another not far away had Qur'anic music sung by groups of men with deep voices. Shop keepers yelled out what they were selling and how much it cost. "Hamseen sheckels!" they yelled again and again. Even the young boys working on behalf of their father or uncle had booming voices that no one could fail to miss. Smoke from meat burning on barbecues and countless water pipes hung in the air almost everywhere.

I finally arrived at my favorite entrance to the Haram Al Sharif, not far from the Western Wall. There were many thousands of men and women praying. Most of the women were in a different area from the men, around the Dome of the Rock, but there were a few women under the covered walk ways off to the side of the men. Some of these women were looking after small children. But others were quite old, and I am unsure why they were not with the other women. No one seemed to mind. It was all quite relaxed.

Praying on the Haram Al Sharif

While the men were praying with devotion and concentration, there were other men shouting out what food they were selling from their stalls. I did not expect people to be buying and selling things on such a holy site during one of the most holy nights of the year.

I immediately found a spot to join the men praying, and I did this for some time. Since I was off to the side, it was a safe place for me to start. After discretely taking a few photos, I went to another spot to pray. This time I went down the front, very close to Al Aqsa Mosque, and much more in the open.

I was doing the prayers like the other men, and soon another man came to pray beside me. I thought to myself "ahh, now I am really in the middle of things!" Many thousands of us prayed, and this particular set of prayers went on for perhaps another 20 minutes. There was a lot of Arabic that I did not understand but for me it did not matter. The main thing was that I was praying sincerely to God, with all my heart. I gave it my best concentration, and I felt my consciousness was changing. By this I mean that when I was focused on God in such a holy place, there was a special feeling in my mind that I cannot describe. All I can really say is that it is not an emotion. Just like when we fall asleep, our consciousness changes. In this case, it was changing but I was of course very much awake! It was wonderful to be in the midst of such a huge crowd of people praying to God on such an auspicious night.

When we finished, the man beside me turned to me and he said "you made many mistakes". I said "yes you are right, it is to be expected because I am very new to this". He asked me "are you Muslim or a tourist?" I gave him my answer, and he told me he wanted to teach me about Islam. While I think all prayers offered with sincerity are as real as each other, it is of course best to show respect for what is considered correct, so I was eager to hear what he had to say about correct ways to pray. I listened to what he had to say. Instead of talking about prayer, he emphasized the elements of cleanliness and purity. He liked what he was teaching, but I could not help but think he should have talked to me a little more first to understand exactly what he needed to teach me! However it was still good to listen to him.

After we finished our discussion, I went straight inside the Al Aqsa Mosque. It was not my first time there, but it was my first time on the night of Laylat Al Qadr. There was hardly any room to pray. There was many people and many things were taking place at the same time. Someone was giving a political speech about America and Israel. Some men were praying. Some were sleeping. Others were looking at everyone who walked by them.

Inside Al Aqsa Mosque

There was little emotion from the people praying and waiting inside Al Aqsa Mosque, giving the occasion a very different temperament than might be had a Shi'ite place of prayer, for example. My initial impression is that Sunnis seem to be more reserved than Shi'ites. Personally I prefer the more emotional and passionate approach--I cannot but help think of the example of Sri Ramakrishna on the occasion of religious festivities. Perhaps it will sound strange for me to mention a Hindu man as a role model, but for those who know of the life example of Sri Ramakrishna, it is of absolutely no surprise at all!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The dysfunctional relationship between the U.S. and Iran

In a piece sadly typical of the mainstream U.S. news media, Adam Goldman's idea of critical news journalism is to join the chorus attacking Iranian President Ahmadinejad. I certainly have no problem with any journalist critiquing the powerful, including of course President Ahmadinejad. The job of any decent journalist should be to understand power, to expose lies and to report the truth. Naturally a critical stance is absolutely fundamental to this. Like any powerful leader, there is plenty to write about President Ahmadinejad and his supporters. Yet Mr Goldman uses his critical stance only to critique the enemies of successive U.S. government administrations, including President Ahmadinejad. The U.S. entirely escapes his critical glare. His use of quote marks to describe American aggression are particularly revealing.

Missing is any acknowledgment of the deeply dysfunctional relationship between the U.S. and Iran, going back decades now. Few Americans are aware that in the 1950s Iran had a democratic government and a popular Prime Minister in Mohammed Mossadegh. This government was destroyed by the combined talents of the British and U.S. intelligence services, who in 1953 sponsored a coup and replaced it with a dictatorship far more accommodating to Western oil companies. The dictatorship led to the Iranian revolution in 1979.

During this entire period the relationship between the two countries could only be described as dysfunctional. Even the years of the dictatorship in 1953-1979, when government-to-government relations were good, the type of relationship between the two countries can hardly be described as healthy. U.S. support for the dictatorship was in no way meant to be something designed for the betterment of Iranians and their country. Instead, it existed to further the power and wealth of Western companies. Any benefits to Iranians were tangential to this objective.

The 1979 Iranian revolution of course dramatically changed the nature of the government-to-government relationship, and from my perspective the two governments did much to ensure the relationship between the two countries would remain poor. There were significant exceptions of course, such as the efforts toward dialog during the administration of former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. Yet on the whole, progress has been disappointing, which is the responsibility of both countries.

It is ironic that Mr Goldman's article finishes with a recognition of the right to free speech, given how much his own article resembles those found in countries with strict media censorship. It's all pretty much the same fare - "we are the good guys, with superior values and deeds, and they are the bad evil doers". It's an approach to journalism that any dictator would be satisfied with.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Amman, an ancient city still growing up

People have been living in what is today Amman, Jordan for many thousands of years, with archaeological evidence pointing to the existence of Neolithic civilisation in 6500 BC. In one respect, Amman is a very old city indeed. In other respects, it is a rapidly growing pugnacious youngster. It lacks the Grand Bazaar found in other Middle Eastern metropolises. It lacks the parks and historic monuments. Despite the fancy five-star hotels and advertisements for global cell phone companies, it still retains a somewhat village feel.

For instance, yesterday I visited the Post Office to mail a package overseas. The man in the Post Office was kind and helpful, informing me that it closed at 3:30 p.m. I returned at 3:20 p.m., thinking I had plenty of time to spare. Alas! While the door to Post Office was indeed open till 3:30 p.m., there were no services available from 3 p.m., because as he explained he had to count the day's takings. Curiously, the Post Office contained no postal supplies like envelopes and boxes. He informed me that I needed to buy them somewhere else. The next day I found a stationery shop which did sell such supplies. However the shop had only one padded envelope, and it was very large. I was unsure whether the Post Office would accept it. So the shopkeeper told me to go to the post office and check, and if it was okay, I could then return and pay him for the envelope. Given that we had never seen each other before, I thought that was really very kind and trusting of him.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Pervez Hoodbhoy, modern Muslim hero?

I met Pervez Hoodbhoy in 2001 at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. We spent some hours together. We exchanged ideas on religion and science, and he shared a little of his relationship with the great Pakistani intellectual Eqbal Ahmad. From these all-to-brief discussions I formed an immense admiration for Dr. Hoodbhoy, which I still hold. For I knew at once I was in the presence of a man whose goal was to serve his people as best he knew how. He could have easily been working in a prestigious Western university, living a comfortable lifestyle. Instead he chose to work in an environment which is at times deeply hostile to his cherished ideas on science and humanity. For years now he has been publishing a range of articles carefully advancing his views on science, religion, progress, intellectual freedom, history, and more.

Consider this recent article on science and the Islamic world. These are the words of someone passionate about his subject, yet respectful of people who hold differing views. His appeal is to Muslims who think critically, regardless of their personal religious views. Whether his readers be atheist or devout Muslims, there is something in his writings to seriously reflect on and ponder, which in my mind is a sign of excellent writing. It is in this sense that I think of Dr. Hoodbhoy as a modern Muslim hero. Having placed himself at the service of his people, who are Muslim, he has engaged Islam. He has taken the time to study Islam and its history. Islam benefits from Dr. Hoodbhoy because he poses challenging, vital questions for its followers in a dignified and respectful manner.

I say these things mindful I have till now completely ignored Dr. Hoodbhoy's individual religious views, and in this sense it is certainly deeply presumptuous of me to suggest he is a "Muslim" hero. Yet when I look to his dedication to his cause, pursued not out of a desire for fame or fortune, I cannot help but be reminded of the spiritual yearning for truth and freedom from the bonds of ignorance that exist within every major religion, including Islam. In this spiritual sense he is more "Islamic" than many practicing believers are. If more religious people were to serve their people instead of their intolerant arrogance, their religion and their community would flourish!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Americans being interviewed about our world -- Funny? Frightening? Arrggghhhhh!

An Australian reporter interviews Americans on their general knowledge of the world, and issues of peace and conflict:

How many Eiffel towers in Paris? Where was the Berlin Wall? What is the religion of Buddhist monks? Kofi Annan is a drink -- true or false? Who should be invaded next? The language they speak in Latin America is Latin - true or false?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Visit to Mandriva Paris office

Mandriva's Gnome expert Frédéric Crozat was kind enough to show me around the Mandriva office today. We then had lunch together. He is a real gentleman. We discovered we have a common interest in not only free software, but also photography. However our roles are somewhat reversed -- he knows more about software development than I do, and I know more about photography than he does ;-)

All the staff I met were friendly and kind. They gave me some free Mandriva products and goodies, which was a great surprise! I was also surprised to learn the language used inside the company is English, as that is the language shared with staff in other countries, e.g. Brazil.

For me it was an excellent experience to meet some of the people behind the software I have used at work and at home in different countries for so many years. With free software you know in your heart you are part of a larger movement that is improving the lives of people worldwide through meeting their needs.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Using fashion to promote a culture of violence

Mere days after Cho Seung-Hui shot dead more than 30 victims using handguns, photographer Laszlo Balogh photographed a model presenting swimwear during a fashion show in Budapest, April 19, 2007:

Notice the handgun attached to the garter belt? The physical intent of firing a handgun at a human body is to penetrate it with overwhelming violence, rupturing muscles, possibly shattering bones and disintegrating organs, causing vast pain and sometimes death.

The intent of attaching a handgun to the leg of a scantily clad model is not quite so simple. Perhaps the person responsible simply adores weapons. Perhaps he or she gets a thrill out of sex and violence. Or perhaps the person is simply dim-witted fool who provokes controversy without understanding it. But whatever the truth is in this instance, ultimately such displays glorify sex, power and violence.

The world of fashion as seen on global catwalks has long been one of the most vacuous human endeavors of all time. Shows like the one in Budapest demonstrate it to also be one of the most insensitive.

Monday, April 09, 2007

A not so tall tale of a small fish

If someone told you about the story of a fish that swims inside your body when you are urinating underwater and proceeds to gorge itself on your blood, would you believe such a story? Probably not. But in this case, you might want to learn about the Candirú, the Terrifying Toothpick Fish.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

El tornado - the story of the little vacuum cleaner that could

"With some people coming tomorrow night," I thought, "I had better cleanup."

I got the apartment building's shared vacuum cleaner, and innocently turned it on, not anticipating the maelstrom that was about to immediately ensue. In a violent outburst of noise, dust and bits and bobs exploded out of the top left corner of the vacuum cleaner's plump bag, forming a brown mushroom cloud. A veritable torrent of dust was unleashed. The hazy dust cloud covered the entire room with every other apartment's dirt. I stumbled through the gloom to the door, only to be greeted with the piercing screams of the smoke alarm.

"Thank God I started with Paulus's room," I thought.

After powering off the dangerous machine -- not yet having actually vacuumed anything up -- I removed the still full bag and took it out to the dumpster to empty it. Out came a mountain of dust, lots of long black hair, and a couple of used contraceptives. I was glad they had not blown out of the bag.

I reflected on the bag's crude design. You practically needed to be a mechanic to open it. That may have explained why it had apparently not been emptied for some years. Only a clever genius must understand why its design was patented.

As I stomped flat the bag's metal flap to close it up, I pondered the vacuum cleaner's incredible sucking power. It sucked like there was a tornado in town. That was it then, its name had to be "el tornado".

* I am kidding about starting in Paulus's room. And the contraceptives also. But everything else is true!

Monday, March 19, 2007

U.S. Navy Year in Review: reality missing in action

The U.S. Navy has put together a review of its year in 2006 designed, they say, "to share the Navy experience with the general public":


In 6 minutes and 40 seconds the Navy presents a series of often very good quality photographs in combination with a couple of musical tracks. Featured are a variety of men and women of all ages, either working in the Navy or being helped in some sense by the Navy. There are lots of smiling faces—former President George Bush, film star Halle Berry, and even a dolphin make an appearance.

Strikingly, however, while there are plenty of weapons, there are no victims of those weapons shown. The only reference I noticed to a U.S. casualty in 2006 was that of Paul J. Darga, who was killed in Iraq on August 22. He was symbolized by a gun and helmet. He is one of 3,166 U.S. armed forces deaths in Iraq so far.

The people the US armed forces fought against in 2006 are not featured, with the exception of one photo. Here, a few suspects (as the caption describes them) were alive, but in a submissive state.

There were no human bodies penetrated, bowdlerized, impaired, disabled or pulverized by weapons. I have asked the Navy if this is part of their operational guidelines when producing such materials. Perhaps they will respond. For whatever reason—and there could be plenty—the gruesome reality of violence and death is hidden, replaced by smiley happy people. If all the Navy did was rescue people, that would be ok. But part of their reality is killing and injuring people. Part of their reality having the same done to their personnel. This reality is missing in action from their year in review.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Face2Face in Israel Palestine

It's pretty amazing what you can do with a creative imagination, a 28mm lens, and the will to think big (all images are from the Face2Face project):

"The Face2Face project is to make portraits of Palestinians and Israelis doing the same job and to post them face to face, in huge formats, in unavoidable places, on the Israeli and the Palestinian sides."

It features my friends Eliyahu Mclean and Shiekh Aziz Bukhari. Shiekh Tamimi is also here:

To learn more about the project, and watch a good video, visit:


Universal love: Pato Banton in Jerusalem

My friend Eliyahu McLean hosted the noted reggae singer Pato Banton in his home in Jerusalem. Pato is described as a "conscious UK reggae artist", which makes sense when you hear his songs. This song is inspiring! Hajj Ibrahim is there to enjoy things -- of course.

Video made by CaseyYurow, Youtube.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Sikh Delegation meets Rabbi Froman

December 12, 2005

The religious peacemaker Eliyahu McLean let me know he was hosting a Sikh tour of the Holy Land, and he invited me to join them throughout their travels. I joined them when they visited Rabbi Froman in Tekoa. Sikhism is one of the world's newest religions, and Judaism one of the oldest. One is from the Punjab in India and the other Jerusalem. Both have about twenty million followers each, and both have experienced more persecution than they have the intoxicating glories of political and territorial rule. While the orthodox followers of one like to wear loose white clothes and the orthodox followers of the other like to dress in formal black suits, they both admire long flowing beards very much. It promised to be an interesting afternoon and evening.

The delegation of Sikhs numbered about twenty. They were all Orthodox: they faithfully followed their tradition of kesh (keeping their hair uncut) and wearing a kara (steel bracelet). One of them assured me they also wore the kangah (wooden comb) and the kirpan (ceremonial dagger), albeit a small version “so as not to cause problems with security.” They take this tradition very seriously, wearing their dagger even when they sleep. However they were not wearing what would strictly be considered kachha (short pants). I imagine this was a concession to modesty than for any profound religious reason.

Upon boarding a small bus to visit Tekoa I found the Sikhs sitting contentedly, their tall trim bodies filling the small seats. All but two were men. Some were already in a trancelike state, an impressive undertaking given the formal prayers had not yet started. Eliyahu later confided they had been up all night travelling and were probably just exhausted.

The Muslim peacemaker Ibrahim was there sitting at the back of the bus with his usual big smile and traditional Arab garb. Last time Ibrahim and I were on a bus he would take every opportunity to tell the young Israeli soldiers stationed at numerous checkpoints that they looked like one of his ten children and that they were beautiful. The soldiers invariably broke into a big smile themselves when he told them that, their tension spontaneously transformed into genuine joy.

The settlement of Tekoa is reputed to be the land of Prophet Amos. It is close to the Palestinian village Tekua. Mt. Herod sits silently nearby. Tekoa is in an arid part of the West Bank, beside a series of spectacular valleys heading down to the Dead Sea. What few trees survive without be watered by people are undoubtedly old and hardy.

We arrived in Tekoa to find an Israeli soldier guarding the entrance. Rabbi Froman is a man of peace but his village still relies on the military for protection.

Froman joined us on the bus with greetings of “shalom salaam”. He said in Jewish and Islamic traditions, shalom and salaam respectively mean both peace and “the very name of God.” Thus the land of peace is the land of God, according to both faiths.

We were guided to the edge of the settlement, overlooking the inspiring hills and valleys. Jordanian hills could be seen in the distance. A dry riverbed (known as a wadi) wound its way through the valley floor below.

Gulleys beside Tekoa
Gulleys beside Tekoa

Off in the distance an isolated settlement sat, its distinctive red roofs signifying it was Jewish. Although it looked peaceful, the existence of settlements like this are perceived by many Palestinians, Israelis and international observers as one of the three major causes of conflict between Palestinians and Jews, along with Palestinian refugees demanding they be able to return to their villages they left during wars during the 1948 war, and the status of Jerusalem as a capital city claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians.

Jewish settlement
Jewish settlement

Amidst laughter and joy the Sikhs' leader and Froman began to swap religious insights and stories, using the geography of the land and their respective religious culture for guidance. Ibrahim looked on as the Jew and the Sikh conversed.

Swapping religious stories
Swapping religious stories

But before this interreligious dialogue Rabbi Froman thanked the Sikhs for their remarkable hospitality at the 2004 World Parliament of Religions in Barcelona, where they fed the 8,000 participants free meals. Froman said Jews have strict dietary requirements, and confessed with a happy smile that the enormous Sikh tent was the only place in all of Barcelona they could eat. He apologized for not preparing a tent for the Sikhs. The Sikh leader said that on the contrary, the land itself was a big tent, where they shared the love of God. Froman said “yes, yes, the love of God.” The Sikh leader said they had come simply to pray, to love each other and seek peace. He added that we become wise by serving God and serving his people.

Swapping religious stories
Swapping religious stories

When Froman tried to articulate a spiritual dimension of hospitality, his budding command of English led him to confuse the word with hostility, bringing not only more laughter but an observation from the Sikh that language is tricky and cannot satisfactorily describe God. Froman added that despite his limited command of not only English but also Arabic, he has close friends who are Arab. He said it did not matter because “the language of the heart is less tricky than the language of humans.”

A young Sikh alone surveyed the land quietly as the sun hovered behind him, a land described by Froman as currently being in a “miserable” state because of the conflict between Jews and Palestinians, one of the few political references shared between them.


Jewish tradition holds that the wadi that runs from Jerusalem (a point of life) to the Dead Sea (a point of death) is special, for at what Froman referred to as “the end of days” the Dead Sea will receive the water from Jerusalem and become a sea of life instead of death. Froman also outlined a story from Chronicles, near the end of the Hebrew Bible where enemies are defeated not by power and force but by love, humility, and by singing to God and praising him (God was always referred to in the masculine sense by both Froman and the Sikhs). The Sikh leader then recounted a Sikh story which had a similar perspective on the need to praise God.

These observations reminded me of the complex nature of religious thought. While praising the God present in all people as being higher than one's limited self is a fine thing—or put it in non-religious terms, to live for the good of others and not just yourself is wonderful—to live responsibly does not mean abdicating reason to a vain hope for what Karen Armstrong calls “miraculous intervention”. She points out the danger of “a form of religiosity that reduces spirituality to magic.” Religious stories will always need wise interpreters, it seems.

After the two religious leaders shared spiritual insights, emphasizing a universal spiritual identity above that of their identities as faith leaders, the Sikhs lead a session of prolonged prayerful singing.

Prayerful singing
Prayerful singing

Prayerful singing
Prayerful singing

The Sikh leader and Froman sat side by side, emphasizing their unity and perhaps even their status as leaders in their respective communities.


Two thirds of the way through the sun began to set, and Froman excused himself to perform traditional sunset prayers while the Sikhs continued to sing. Their different voices of prayer came together, the unity in diversity clearly apparent to everyone present.

Sunset prayers
Sunset prayers

He then joined them once more, this time in a particularly enthusiastic round of singing the praises of a wonderful God, his body swaying back and forth.


As they all sang together the religious intensity became greater and greater, the men's voices rising in volume and quickening in pace.

After the devotional singing the men and woman talked among themselves. I conversed with a Sikh born in 1941, a humble man with a sharp mind. Many of the Sikhs in the delegation appeared to have roots in Kenya. There are something close to 500,000 Sikhs living in England, according to my interlocutor Sikh, who is leader of a Gurdwara (Sikh religious temple) in England. When I asked if it made sense to ask an Orthodox Sikh if they had a favorite Guru among the thirteen who founded Sikhism, he said it did not, as they regarded all of them as one. In response to a question of mine, he said the idea of Khalistan (an independent homeland between India and Pakistan for Sikhs) was one formed by the “propaganda machine” of India, and that his party was religious and not political, having nothing to do with the Khalistan movement. However he was familiar with a political figure associated with that movement, Singh Mann. He did not know of the Indian independence leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, being much more familiar with figures like Jomo Kenyatta, having instead grown up in Kenya and experiencing its freedom struggle.

On the way out we visited a Yeshiva (school of religious learning) in the settlement. There were an impressive number of students and many of them were studying in small groups. They were all very enthusiastic to meet the Sikhs and talk with them.

In the Yeshiva
In the Yeshiva

One thing about the beards, flowing garments and turbans of the Sikhs is that they immediately make them stand out from the crowd, even in a place rich with religious symbolism like Israel Palestine.

In the Yeshiva
In the Yeshiva

When back on the bus I felt a sense of great peace and calm among these religious Sikhs. Their very presence conveyed peace in our often hurried and turbulent world. The next day I heard a well-known Israeli peacemaker who is non-religious describe an experience where Froman was in the back of his car, presumably lost in prayer, completely oblivious to the vigorous political discussion taking place around him. Whether one admires religious peacemaking efforts like this, or finds it archaic, naïve or worse, it is undeniable that the religious figures see themselves playing a valuable role in bring peace to this land. It might be that the mere fact a variety of Palestinians and Israelis witnessing such figures may be an experience that stays with them for some time to come, perhaps even influencing their thinking. Perhaps sessions of prayers and singing gives them legitimacy in the eyes of the religious. Whether it not the actual act of prayer and singing contributes to a culture of peace is a research question where gaining evidence is not easy.

In the Yeshiva
In the Yeshiva

It has been said by some that “denial is not just a river in Egypt”—and this was powerfully illustrated on the bus ride to and from Tekoa. The Israeli man acting as tour-guide pointing out the sights on the way from Tantur to Tekoa began pointing out places where “Palestinian terrorists” had been shooting and murdering innocent Jews. He referred to Israeli settlements not as settlements but as towns. Just six weeks before his son's girlfriend was one four young people murdered by unidentified Palestinian gunmen not far from the road where we turned off to go to Tekoa, an tragedy that generated a lot of news coverage and led to the closure of the West Bank by Israeli authorities for some days. On the way back, the Israeli man again at some length talked about Palestinian terrorism, pointing out places where the Israeli State had placed protective barriers to minimize the effects of sniper fire from Palestinian villages neighboring the road. Not once did he talk about Israeli violence against Palestinians. In private I asked him why he believed the killings were taking place. He replied by saying the Palestinians had a culture of violence. Behind his back, Eliyahu just rolled his eyes and smiled. When I pointed out to the Israeli man that three times as many Palestinians had died compared to Israelis since the start of the second Intifada, he said that was because Palestinians were killing each other in intra-group violence. He said that Palestinians like to fire guns at weddings and funerals. In short his message was: Palestinians are violent and Israelis are innocent of any wrongdoing. Eliyahu mentioned quietly to me that the Sikhs would be visiting Bethlehem later in the week, where they will hear Palestinian perspectives.

The tour-guide when not talking about Palestinian terrorists did usefully point out that some of terraced fields we were passing by in the minibus had been dated as being between 3-4,000 years old by archaeologists, with ancient olive trees also present.

I must confess I was surprised that one of the Sikhs present was a professor at the University of London, who said he was a friend of the late Edward Said and of Noam Chomsky. He said he edits the journal Social Identity and is a specialist in post colonial theory, including sub-altern studies.

Comment from a friend on this article, January 1 2006:

“It is my view that the important thing for people like you, and even to some extent myself though I have been here so long, is to be a neutral as we can. This struggle is not a football match—and no good purpose is served by taking sides as so many outsiders of evident goodwill seem to do. The Israeli who described the attacks by Palestinians was telling the truth as he saw it, and indeed he seems to have had a personal reason for painting them all black. You will find the same absolute black and white views among Palestinians. Those who believe in peace have to slowly reduce the number of people holding these views, based on pure ignorance and inablity to see any point of view except your own, so that those who hold them are reduced to an impotent minorty. But it is slow work.“

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Radiance, pessimism, and hope

Only recently have I come to better appreciate the wisdom of the late Charles West Churchman, formerly a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. He once said:

"The design of my philosophical life is based on an examination of the following question: is it possible to secure improvement in the human condition by means of the human intellect? The verb 'to secure' is (for me) terribly important, because problem solving often appears to produce improvement, but the so-called 'solution' often makes matters worse in the larger system (e.g., the many food programs of the last quarter century may well have made world-wide starvation even worse than no food programs would have done.) The verb 'to secure' means that in the larger system over time the improvement persists."

Source: Churchman, C. West. Thought and Wisdom. Intersystems Publications, Seaside, Calif., 1982, p. 19f.

Churchman also offered an insight on hope and radiance, which I have come to recognize as being of seminal importance:

'It is tempting to define hope psychologically, as strong belief in and desire for a future without any perceivable evidence for its occurrence.... But something crucial is missing, because a man could engage in a risky gamble or adventure on the grounds that his gain, if he is successful, would be very great.

The word I want is "radiance." The Latin word claritas can be translated into "clearness," meaning "precise," as in Descartes or later in symbolic logic. But it can also mean "light" or "brilliance." Thus, one way to talk about aesthetics is to say that it is the variety of expressions of radiance, including the dark. But it is not merely "black and white," for radiance includes the colours, and sounds, and aromas, and touches.

Back to "hope." It means belief in the desirable without perceived evidence, but it also means radiant belief. I don't know what this means, but I can imagine it easily enough. When I say, "I hope that humanity will succeed in using its intellect to improve the human condition," and someone says, "How can you hope anything of the kind, given the way humans exploit humans?"—then there is no argument: he is trying to destroy the radiance, to put out the light, and I must do my best to preserve the radiance despite his cynicism.

And, of course, radiance includes humour, because hope is a motley, which includes its own absurdity. Hope is always both serious and ridiculous. Only there is no lesson to be learned, no rational conclusion to be drawn, from saying, "Hope is absurd." The rational mind wants to say, "Hope is ridiculous and therefore..." It's like someone saying, "What's the point of Hamlet after all?"'

Source: Churchman, C. West. The Systems Approach and its Enemies. New York: Basic Books, 1979, pp. 191-192.

To me personally, this means that even as we develop and articulate a deep awareness of the profound injustice and violence found in our world, we must at the same time embody a positive vision for the present and the future, and recognize the many positives in our pasts. We need to be radiant. This is not always easy, but it is often highly important.

Consider the act of criticism, for instance. When people are being critics of something—a film, or the actions of another person—they are often making observations on the character, conduct and perhaps consciousness of other people, or perhaps their works of art or commerce or activism. Sometimes people are overwhelmingly negative in their criticisms. There are some genuinely bad things in life, of course, but oftentimes there is good and bad mixed together. None of us are perfect—we all make mistakes, big and small. Yet when criticizing others, some people tend to focus only on the negative, forgetting the positive aspects of people and their efforts.

This is not a call for merely being "balanced"; rather, it is to draw attention to the interwoven roles of pessimism and hopefulness. In his remarkable book "The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace", John Paul Lederach refers to the "gift of pessimism". Lederach asks "What do people who live in settings that are moving from war to peace teach us about the challenge of understanding the nature of genuine constructive social change?" He says:

"First, in deep-rooted conflict, people locate themselves and change and gauge authenticity with an expansive view of time and an intuitive sense of complexity. These create a cautious approach to promises that constructive social change will happen in a short period of time, independent of the historical context in which the violence has evolved. In short, there is a prevailing ethos of pessimism. This does not mean that desired changes are not hoped for or possible, even in the short term. But pessimism provides a point of departure for understanding the nature of change. Very simply it says this: Gauging whether the change process is genuine requires serious engagement with the complexity of the situation and a long-term view. If simple answers are reached as if complexity did not exist, then just as Oliver Wendell Holmes suggests, they are not worth a fig."

Source: Lederach, John Paul. 2005. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace: Oxford University Press, USA.

This has a sound philosophical basis, as witnessed by a couple of thousand years of Indian philosophical pondering:

"The attitude of mind which looks at the dark side of things is known as pessimism. Indian philosophy has often been characterized as pessimistic and, therefore, pernicious in its influence on practical life. . . . Indian philosophy is pessimistic in the sense that it works under a sense of discomfort and disquiet at the existing order of things. It discovers and strongly asserts that life, as it has been thoughtlessly led, is a mere sport of blind impulses and unquenchable desires; it inevitably ends in and prolongs misery. But no Indian system stops with this picture of life as a tragedy. It perhaps possesses more than a significance that even an ancient Indian drama rarely ends as a tragedy. If Indian philosophy points relentlessly to the miseries that we suffer through short-sightedness, it also discovers a message of hope. The essence of the Buddha's enlightenment—the four noble truths—sums up and voices the real view of every Indian school in this respect; namely: There is suffering.—There is a cause of suffering.—There is cessation of suffering.—There is a way to attain it. Pessimism in the Indian systems is only initial and not final."

Source: Chatterjee, Satischandra, and Dhirendra Mohan Datta. 1984. An introduction to Indian philosophy. 8th ed. Calcutta: University of Calcutta, pp. 13-14.

In these points, there is much crossover in the philosophy of Churchman, Lederach and India's philosophical traditions. For instance, Churchman abhors short-term solutions that ignore the complexity of the systems in which problems are embedded, a point also made by Lederach.

Yet finally, in the midst of complexity and an awareness of suffering, radiance is an indispensable condition for long-term well-being.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Reflections on conflict and peace

The search for perfection, the longing for freedom, truth and pure peace has been humanity's earliest preoccupation in its awakened mind (Ghose, 1971). Humanity dreams of a state of being which is in flagrant contradiction with reality. Sages like Aurobindo suggest that life might well be a series of “transitory satisfactions besieged by physical pain and emotional suffering”, but like generations before us we still long to “build peace and a self-existent bliss”.

Consider these two children. They both live beside railway tracks in Karachi, their makeshift homes standing on the stones that surround railway tracks all over the world, squeezed in between a road and the tracks.

unhealthy boy

This boy looks unhealthy and perhaps even malnourished. His skin is diseased.

radiant girl

This girl, on the other hand, expresses a tremendous inner beauty. She is physically beautiful, but the radiance and joy she conveys is totally at odds with her surroundings.

It is in the midst of such radiance that the highest dreams dwell.

Despite the immense diversity of cultures that people our planet, and their varying experiences of violence and peace, there are universal shared experiences familiar to all of us, among them fear, discrimination, separation, empathy, artistry, hope, love, and solidarity.

Military Occupation

Let us see what we can learn from Israel Palestine. Perhaps there is something about life under military occupation and the threat of terrorism that opens a window into these universal themes.

We can start by taking a look at the Palestinian village of Bilin on a typical Friday afternoon.

Bilin is a symbol of resistance for many Palestinians. The immense separation barrier Israel has built separates the villagers from their land.

This land has effectively been stolen and given to Orthodox Jewish settlers occupying newly built settlements nearby.

It is an absolute disgrace, and a tremendous violation of the ethical and spiritual principles of Judaism. Rabbi Michael Lerner tells us that ‘The most frequently repeated injunction in Torah are variations of the following command: “Do not oppress the stranger (the 'other'). Remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”’

It is therefore no surprise that Israeli and international activists have joined Palestinians in weekly protests against the barrier, from before it was built to the present day.

The protests are largely nonviolent, but sometimes the villagers throw rocks, as the sound slides demonstrate. Such occasional violence unfortunately provides a convenient alibi for the Israeli military to undertake extreme actions. These actions are frightening. They scared me at the time and they scare me now.

After two years of continuous resistance, 11 Palestinians have been killed. Many Palestinian, Israeli and foreign activists have been injured, sometimes very seriously, including brain damage after being shot in the head at close range.

What have these sacrifices achieved? The fence was built without difficulties. Distinguished peace activist and Israeli parliamentarian Naomi Chazan is critical of the activists for putting so much effort into an unsuccessful undertaking, missing the opportunity to do something more productive for peace.

While she has a point, she under-appreciates the tremendous symbolic value for Palestinians of witnessing idealistic Israelis struggling courageously at their side. Such solidarity transcends typical notions of group identity, allowing at least some Palestinians and Israelis to regard each other as more fully human. The activists have also succeeded in making the conflict more visible.

One remarkable aspect of the Bilin protests is their orchestrated, almost ritualistic character. The basic structure of the ritual is pretty simple.

The nonviolent activists attempt to march to the barrier.

The soldiers confront them at some point, maybe in the village, or maybe at the barrier or along the way. They warn the activists to leave. The activists do not leave. The soldiers fire at them with tear gas, sound grenades, rubber bullets, and on occasion live ammunition.

The activists shout back moral slogans, appealing to the conscience of the soldiers. The soldiers say very little in return.

In short, there is a lot of mutual posturing going on, punctuated by occasional episodes of significant violence resulting in injury and death.

Posturing is used to project fear and strength onto opponents by demonstrating how dangerous and frightening an adversary one can be. Opponents can fight, flee, submit or posture themselves.

Posturing is exceptionally easy to see in child soldiers who have not had rigorous military training, such as with the young boys and men who fought in Liberia a few years ago. Video footage shows them firing their weapons with apparent abandon, shooting from the hip, dancing as they celebrated their manliness. They were much more concerned with posturing in front of their buddies and the enemy than they were in trying to actually kill people on the other side.

Posturing has always been a huge part of war, embodied in ritual and myth. Modern methods of military training channel the spirit behind such posturing into more efficient methods for killing, but nevertheless posturing is still commonplace (Grossman, 1996).

Separation and intimacy

One of humanity's central dilemmas is separation. The Buddha identified separation from what one loves as one of the “six moments when life's dislocation becomes glaringly apparent”(Smith, 1991, p. 102). It often plays an extremely important role in conflict.

I wrote about separation in this blog entry.

In a relationship if two people separate their intimacy is either stopped completely, or at the very least severely curtailed. One of the most bizarre aspects of military occupation is that this is not the case. Peoples are separated alright, but then they are pulled together in the most intimate of manners. Salam Fayyad, former Finance Minister of the Palestinian National Authority, explains this paradox.

He says: 'Examining the past 6 years of this conflict, I would characterize the Israeli-Palestinian relations over this period as having been too intimate—too intimate for the Palestinians and too intimate for the Israelis. You may be stunned by this characterization, for many have characterized it as the opposite. But the nature of relations today between Israelis and Palestinians has reached levels of micromanagement, where Israel is involved in the minute details of the lives of Palestinians. It is important to remember that the entirety of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is ruled by military orders—not by politics, logic, or reason—but by military orders with “security” dictating the rules of the game.'

If anything, Fayyad was being diplomatic. These “military orders” can make Palestinian's lives hell, with women unable to make it on time to hospital to give birth and cancer patients dying at the checkpoint because soldiers refused to let them pass through by vehicle, to cite but two very recent examples.

Tamar Meshulam

Artists and designers often have fascinating insights into life’s moments of separation, intimacy, awareness and identity.

Tamar Meshulam is a Jewish woman hailing from Jerusalem, who designed a peace game called Master Peace that won the first prize at the most recent UNESCO Design contest, a contest held every five years encouraging young designers to make a positive contribution to society. She says “Every game stands for something, Monopoly stands for capitalism; chess stands for war. I wanted to create something that stands for cooperation.”

Palestinians and Israelis have played the game together, and the game has generated interest in the Middle East, Europe, and the US. It has been described as “a communication project which uses the medium of a game to trigger off group dynamic processes among the players which contribute to an understanding of the ethnic groups and cultures in Israel.”

That’s one way of thinking about it. I spent some time interviewing Tamar, but frankly we are better off reading an account from the magazine Egypt Today. I have modified slightly an article of theirs, and reproduced it:

To play the game, the players are asked to work on a collective story in order to complete a “self-journey” from a place called home, outwards, and then back to home. This is a journey where identity is nurtured; people feel safe and recognize themselves.

The magazine poses the question that these are nice ideas, but how is it possible for Palestinians and Israelis to agree on a constructive story when they cannot yet agree on their past?

Tamar responds by saying “during the game there isn’t one past to agree on, because the story is composed of pieces of everybody’s interpretation of reality. The others are asked to try to comprehend the player’s point of view, and learn to accept it, though not necessarily to fully understand it.” The group’s agreements through their dialogue are made for present actions.

For Tamar cultural exchange is a vital part of the peace process. She says “Israelis and Palestinians experience their common history each in their own way of perceiving life. Getting to know each other’s mental perspective is beneficial for the future construction of our relations.”

“To accept the other’s experience and having the other accept yours is a major step in any relationship, if it ever happens. In the political sense, the situation between Palestine and Israel was a strategic ‘war game’. Now it aims for ‘no game,’ which is a long distance from ‘cooperative game’ [such as Master Peace].”

Tamar says “the use of abstraction in the game, acts as a method for opening new ways of expression instead of repetitive clichés. It definitely does not mean forgetting pasts. This whole game is based on the identities people gather throughout their collective and personal pasts.”


When we talk our collective pasts, of course, we talk of our ancestors. Wherever we go, we bring our ancestors with us. We bring them in our bodies. Our bodies are a living workshop of previous generations' embodied experiences. We bring our ancestors in our minds too. Our expectations, values, knowledge, experiences, hopes, fears and desires reflect what our ancestors thought. Whatever innovations we as individuals bring forth into the world always occur within the design patterns our ancestors have given us.

The ancestors I bring with me on my travels hail from the youthful country Aotearoa New Zealand, and before that from Britain and Greece. I had never personally been to the continent of Africa before visiting there last year. Returning to the United States after spending time in Uganda and South Africa gave me a new understanding of African Americans.

This was not a gradual realization. Rather, it struck me with tremendous force one day in Washington, DC as I saw an African-American man walk ahead of me. I realized that this man had likely descended from slaves forcibly brought to the United States from somewhere in the vast continent of Africa.

It was not an intellectual realization. Since being a small boy I have known that slavery had existed in the United States. Instead, it was an emotional reaction at a gut level. For a few moments, I was observing not an African-American walking down a street in what may well have been his home town. I was seeing a former slave. This man symbolized slavery. His ancestors were not only with him—they were him.

This powerful feeling was made possible only because of my time spent in South Africa and Uganda. Cape Town felt to me like a white town with black people on the periphery. Kampala, on the other hand, felt like a black person’s country, rippling with a multitude of black cultures and subcultures living alongside one another.

Without me being necessarily consciously aware of it, Kampala came to symbolize a truly African home. When I saw the man who had become a slave in Washington, DC, Kampala provided me with the mental imagery to imaginatively recreate the home he had been ripped away from, ending up in a city that symbolized the overwhelming power of the white Western world.

None of this is to suggest that an African-American leads a life any less authentic than a Ugandan, or that a white South African is somehow less African than a black South African.

All lives and all identities are authentic. To suggest one part of the African continent is truly African while another part is not, is not to comment on the authenticity of those who live there, but on the visible intensity of the presence of the place's ancestors.

It is worth noting that in describing his experience playing Idi Amin in the film “The Last King of Scotland”, Forest Whitakker very recently said “I'm African-American, I'm not African. It is my ancestors that come from there, so I had to understand a different rhythm, a different way of looking at the world.”

“Because I was dealing with a lot of people just as friends,” he says, “I got to understand that part of myself that is already deeply rooted in my ancestors in Africa in the way I behave, and that became stronger and stronger as I went along.”

Favela Morro da Pereira

On the day I arrived in Rio de Janeiro, on December 28 2006, violence left 18 dead.

The worst attack was on a bus. About 10 assailants surrounded the bus on a major highway and tossed gasoline-filled bottles inside. The attackers set the bus on fire and prevented the 28 passengers from getting off. Seven people burned to death.

Imagine you were one of the 28 people on that bus. Can you see the men surrounding you, trapping you, hemming you in? Can you see the flames leap and dance? Can you feel the heat burning your skin? Can you hear the screams of your relatives and friends, wounded and dying? Can you smell the burning gasoline, the burning seats, the burning hair, and the burning flesh?

It is safe to assume almost everybody in Rio believes the attackers came from the favelas, which are the sprawling slums perched on steep hills and other marginal places which are a legacy of slavery. Favelas are controlled by powerful gangs who deal in drugs and organized crime. Rio de Janeiro has one of the highest murder rates of any city in the world, and street crime is a major problem. In short, favelas have a notorious reputation.

Morro da Pereira is a favela in Rio de Janeiro. Neucirlan Oliveira lives there. He likes the sense of community and solidarity found in the favelas. Neucirlan is a peacebuilder, literally—he built a model of his favela on the hill outside his family home.

He started when he was 14 and of the boys that helped him, only one took up a life of violence by becoming a gang member. His name was Max, and he was shot dead by the police. I asked him why people join gangs. He said such young people lack information on the reality of what they are about to participate in. “They don't realise they can change the world” he says.

His peacebuilding work could do with some improvement—he banned girls from building the mini favela, justifying this with what are obviously feeble reasons. Perhaps he did so because it might lead to conflict among the boys themselves, disrupting their solidarity.

Despite his gender discrimination, his mini-favela has contributed to peace. But how are we to understand his artistic endeavor as a peacebuilding phenomena?

Since Aristotle is one of my ancestors, I feel it entirely appropriate to leave the last word to him. Paraphrasing Thomas Cahill (Cahill, 2003), we can draw upon Aristotle’s timeless observations of the Greek play, Sophocles's Oedipus Tyrannos, and apply them to Neucirlan’s efforts:

This is not life but a mimicking of life. We have been playing with imitation humans that can be put back in their homes made of bricks. We leave the mini favela warned by what we have witnessed but purged of negative emotions. We are pleasantly exhausted now; as if we had recently expelled a poison from our body. We are at peace, exalted by our encounter with this pageant of truth. We are restored by this vicarious brush with destruction and death. We didn't die. We are still alive—and can face tomorrow with a certain placid wisdom.

Aristotle's brilliant analysis has never been improved upon.


Cahill, T. (2003). Sailing the Wine-Dark sea: Why the Greeks Matter (1st ed.). New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.

Ghose, A. (1971). The Future Evolution of Man: The Divine Life Upon Earth (2d ed.). Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

Grossman, D. (1996). On killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (1st pbk. ed.). Boston: Little, Brown.

Smith, H. (1991). The World's Religions. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.