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.