Tag Archives: London

Seeing in the Dark

11 Apr

Seeing in the Dark with Victoria Brittain


            As with the best of journalists, Victoria Brittain has spent a lifetime enabling us to see in the dark! Or more accurately, she has shined a bright light on those whose suffering has been hidden by being deliberately situated in one or another shadow land of governmental and societal abuse, whether local, national, or geopolitical in its animus. These patterns of abuse are hidden because whenever their visibility cannot be avoided, the liberal mythologizing of the decency of the modern democratic state suffers a staggering blow. In recent years this unwanted visibility has permanently tarnished the human rights credentials of the United States due to the spectacular exposés of the horrifying pictures of prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or various reports of grotesque treatment of Guantanomo detainees. As with Bradley Manning and Wikileaks, the U.S. Government should be embarrassed by its response: a preoccupation with these unwelcome leaks of its dirty secrets, while manifesting indifference to the substantive disclosures of its endorsement of torture and other crimes against humanity. But it is not, and that has become and remains a deep challenge to all of us who wish to live in a society of laws, not sadistic men, a society based on ethics and human rights, not cruelty and dehumanization. Once such secrets have been revealed, all of us are challenged not to avert our gaze, being reminded that upholding the rights and dignity of every person is the duty of government and the responsibility of all citizens, and when flagrant and intentional failures along these lines remain unchallenged, the credentials of decency are forever compromised.


            This is but a prelude to commenting briefly upon Victoria Brittain’s extraordinary recent book of humane disclosure, SHADOW LIVES: THE FORGOTTEN WOMEN OF THE WAR ON TERROR (London: Pluto, 2013; distributed in the United States by Palgrave Macmillan). Brittain is a journalist who not only sees in the dark, but what is even rarer among the restless practitioners of this profession, she stays around long enough to listen. Here she listens with empathy and insight to the words and experience of women whose male partners have been targeted in Britain and the United States by the rapacious masters of homeland security in the years since the 9/11 attacks. These women and their children, mainly living in Britain, are the forgotten and neglected ‘collateral damage’ of those who are detained year after year without charges or trials as terrorist suspects. As the book makes clear, Muslims as a distinct ethnic and religious group, have been deprived of rights available to others accused of political crime. She quotes an American lawyer, Linda Moreno, “After 9/11 the Constitution was suspended when it comes to Muslims, especially Palestinians.” (p.161) But it was not only the liberal governments that were at fault, it was also the media that stereotyped anyone accused of being a jihadist or somehow sympathetic with the aims and activities of those alleged to be guilty of acts of terrorism as unquestionably evil, and such a menace as to deserve ill-treatment. In Brittain’s words, “[t]he enormity of the injustice perpetrated over a decade and more has been airbrushed out of America’s and Britain’s mainstream consciousness.” She goes on to ask a question we need to ask ourselves with all due gravity—“How did we get so coarsened that this is virtually unremarked?” (p.23)


            The real story here is that of several women who try to live in the ruins created by the detention of their husbands, and seek to do whatever they can to bring normalcy to their family life, and raise their children as lovingly as possible in the process. It is a difficult life where the reverberations of Islamophobia are daily felt via the hostility of neighbors and the treatment experienced in schools and elsewhere. In other words, society, as well as government and the media, are complicit in the incidental, yet severe, punishments endured by these families of targeted individuals. Yet the picture is not entirely grim as these women are also courageous and determined not to be defeated, even as they struggle against depression and acute anxiety, as well as the loneliness associated with the loss of their loving partner and co-parent. And what is worse in some ways, are witnesses to the collapse of their men due to the mistreatment of prolonged prison experiences unalleviated by the reality of indictments and charges. These men are mainly held on the basis of secret evidence that is not even disclosed to their lawyers, and the majority seem entirely innocent, victims of post-9/11 panic politics nurtured by the nanny security state. When in Britain such detainees are released, it should not be confused with ‘freedom’ because the former prisoner is require to wear electronic tags, subject to curfews, daily reporting to local police, living with rigid restrictions on visits by friends, routine intrusions in family space by security personnel, even prohibitions on use of computers. In summing up the overall ordeal of these families, Brittain comments, “[f]or all of them, something worse than their very worst nightmares had come true.” (p.149) One of the daughters who had endured this reality asks plaintively, “[l]isten to my story, then decide if you will be able to live my life.” (p.67) It occasions no surprise that the several of the men attempt suicide or experience paranoid delusion and that the women become clinically depressed.


            There is for several of the women a kind of existential double jeopardy. They came to Britain or the United States as refugees to escape from deadly torments in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Palestine, expecting at least the benefits of a liberal democracy, and instead were confronted by a far worse existence than what they had reluctantly left behind. Sometimes their memories were filled with happiness, as with one woman describing her earlier time in Afghanistan: “The life was not easy, but it was beautiful.” (p.154) These years of injustice were “intertwined with memories, ghosts and dreams of an Afghanistan or a Palestine—past or future. Those other shadow lives infused everything for them, if you came close enough to listen, and were, with their faith. Their secret lifeline of joy against bitterness and despair.” (p.164) Not only what was remembered, but also what was hoped for, believed in, a faith, often with overtones of the Koran, of a deliverance yet to come, however difficult the life of exile had become.


            Especially, the women from a Palestinian background were passionate about educating their children, sometimes doing the schooling at home to avoid the unpleasant atmosphere facing Muslim children in British society. Other children of imprisoned fathers received their education at local schools. Brittain is sensitive to their acute sense of their special circumstances: “One child spoke for several others when she said that now loyalty and duty to her absent father meant excelling at school and remembering to be happy.” (p.158) Remembering to be happy! Every child should be exempt from such a duty!


            Victoria Brittain has written a book that we need to read, ponder, discuss, and to the best of our ability, act upon. It is a captivating book of love and dedication, as well as of torments, and it is mainly the intimate renderings of these women doing the best they can under the most agonizing of condition that no decent society should allow to persist. What is made clear throughout is the degree to which the state-sanctioned cruelty to these individuals, including the terrorist suspects themselves, is a blend of panic, sadism, and anti-Muslim hatred, and cannot be convincingly explained away as regrettable but necessary measures to ensure the security of societies threatened by terrorism. In effect, Brittain condemns reliance on such disproportionate means in the alleged pursuit of the end of security, opportunistically sacrificing the few to promote the pseudo-contentment of the many. In his short Foreword, John Berger puts the essence of what makes SHADOW LIVES a mandatory reading experience: “What makes this book unforgettable and terrible is its demonstration of the extent of the human cruelty meted out by the (human) stupidity of those wielding power. Neither such cruelty nor such stupidity exist in the natural world without humankind.” (p.ix). In her Afterword, Marina Warner issues a similar injunction, although more directly: “..we need uncomfortable books like this one, to ask the tough questions.” (p.166) Indeed, we do!

Reflections on Two Occupations

23 Nov


Not long ago I took part in a workshop in London that was jointly organized by young Palestinians and Israeli, and discussed prospects for a just peace, emphasizing the imperative of ending ‘the occupation.’ At about the same time I experienced the radiant energy of the young occupiers at Wall Street and near St Paul’s Cathedral. Several months ago I was in Cairo not long after Mubarak left power, and visited Tahrir Square still alive with its memories of occupation by the protesters. Occupation became a word of many resonances, both favorable and heinous, and this poem tries to acknowledge this interplay of feelings of solidarity and alienation. Perhaps, it is too personal to be sharable.




Reflections on Two Occupations


To live             to love

                                                is to occupy           

                                                to be



By whom             with whom           


                        Tahrir Square

                        Wall Street

                        St Paul’s Cathedral

                                                            the world


To hope to dream

                                    to act





By whom            for whom

To fear to hide

                        to resist

                                                is to be


            from within

            from without


It was once your land

I entered your land

                        picking olives

                                                settling there

Buying occupying


Above all remembering

                                                another distant tale

Filled with tears and dying


                                                                        my land

                                                                                    my law                       

                                                            my birthright


And now ours to keep:

                        history forgives

                                                what is stolen if time passes quietly



Long ago now

I did ask you to leave

            in a polite voice

                        then a raised voice

                                    then a scream

                                                            then no voice at all

                                    to go             get out


All I wanted then was for birds

                                    to sing some old songs

All I wanted was for flowers

                                                to bend toward home


And now I declare

            to myself to you

                                    to the world

                                                this occupation will end:


The graves

                        already full


            as dawn


                                                            the Jerusalem sky in two


What is occupied with love lives

What is occupied with force kills

                                                            before it dies and lives again           



I never wanted this earth scorched

                                                            moist with

                                                                        native blood


amid the ruins

                        I fight              resist    pray           




Two Occupations

6 Nov

Two Occupations


            As someone who has witnessed the humiliations daily endured by Palestinians living decade after decade under ‘occupation’ the word occupation was for me an inalterably dirty word. I was especially conscious of occupation, especially prolonged occupation of the sort that Israel has imposed on Palestine as synonymous with ‘abuse’ and ‘oppression,’ having just completed intense discussions between leading Israeli and Palestinian voices for peace at an LSE workshop presided over by Mary Kaldor and Lakhdar Brahimi that seemed to have a single Archimedean point of consensus: ‘End the Occupation.’ Personally, I was not so content with such an outcome as it tended to narrow the Palestinian agenda to a kind of ‘land for peace’ formula, ignoring the plight of five million or so territorially dispossessed Palestinians living as refugees or exile, often enduring intolerable situations of vulnerability and deprivation that has continued for generations.


And then yesterday I visited ‘OCCUPY LONDON’ at the monumentally beautiful St. Paul’s Cathedral (#OccupyLSX) with some of the extraordinary young people who are making it happen, and quite possibly inventing a better future that seemed to be being enacted before my eyes. Ten days earlier I had a similar experience of exhilaration and hope after visiting Zuccotti Park (#OccupyWallSt) in New York City, witnessing a seemingly chaotic array of innovative synergies finding their common ground in nonviolently opposing what seems wrong in our society, economy, and state and envisioning and insisting upon what might be better, indeed much better. And what I took away is different from what I came with: I left these convivial spaces with an experience of joyful occupation. Of course, the joyful does not cancel out the dismal with respect to occupations, but it shows us that language is alive, grows with experience, and that parallel meanings can coexist even if the realities evoke contradictory ethical and political responses.


But also I had the further awakening through a conversation in one of the hospitality tents just outside St. Paul’s with a radiant young Indian woman. She was excited by what was happening around her, but was also worried that the goals of emancipation could not be achieved without new words clearly expressive of the vision of those gathered at these occupation sites. She was particularly concerned about the use of ‘democracy,’ which she felt had been spoiled by the shallowness and unrepresentative nature of her lived experience in democratic societies, and her disillusionment with political parties, campaigns, and elections, which remain the pillars of ‘democratic’ legitimacy. Even though the activists in the tents and on the steps of the cathedral tried to make clear their commitment to revolutionary change by speaking of ‘real democracy’ as gauged by accountability, transparency, participation, equality, justice, and human security in public arenas of decisions. As we spoke I wondered to myself, ‘was she asking too much?’ And then I thought, ‘without asking for the impossible there is no prospect of achieving the possible.’


During the conversation I tried my best to be responsive, although the assignment she gave me far exceeded my capabilities. To keep the conversation moving I asked timidly at one point ‘would you be more comfortable with livable politics?’ She smiled softly, obviously unconvinced, and so I tried again, ‘what about convivial politics?’ She liked this suggestion a bit better, or so it seemed, maybe appreciating my effort, but these words still did not capture for her the originality of what she was experiencing and desiring. Even though I disappointed her, I felt that we parted as friends for life. Such is the convivial atmosphere of magnetic energy that fills these occupied spaces with a contagious immediacy of hope.


My friend, Shimri, a core participant of the London movement, a vibrant personality of proven commitment, having spent two years in Israeli jails because he refused to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, is totally preoccupied with what he labels as ‘global democracy,’ and was both my guide at London Occupy site, but also one of three lead organizers of the LSE workshops. He hopes to democratize the United Nations, while helping to light bonfires of expectation in all 900 tent cities around the world, and with his infectious energy he imparts a sense of plausibility to even the most distant horizons of desire. Shimri explains to me the process at work at St. Paul’s as total democracy: daily assembly meetings, no leaders, everyone present can veto any decision, volunteer for any task that is to done, all are entitled to speak, and a Wikipedia spirit of taking a variety of steps without any central guidance that give those participants food to eat, books to read (there is a donated lending library in one of the tents), lectures to attend. There is no hierarchy, no ego, no blueprint. It is a radical atmosphere that suggests what the inner reality of the Paris Commune might have been like, or differently, the optimism of the early counterculture in America during the 1960s. But things are different in 2011: above all, these occupations borrow extensively from the heroics of Tahrir Square, and more generally are a sequel to the Arab Spring, and there is more sense of unmanageable challenge associated with the failures of existing crisis managers (it happened that the disastrous G-20 meeting in Cannes was happening over this very weekend). This debt to Egypt is overtly acknowledged in different ways in London. For instance, Shimri has a big sign in front of his tent with the words ‘Global Mubarak,’ and across from the cathedral is a London street sign that looks like the real thing,

with the words ‘Tahrir Square.’ And in its way, it was the real thing. This was Tahrir Square! At least for now! In important respects Occupy London LSK also spreace across the ocean from #OccupyWallSt, and in substance resembles the greater preoccupation of the EuroAmerican protests with the failures of the economy rather than the oppressive burdens on the populace associated with autocratic rule. In this regard it is helpful not to think too literally about the Global Mubarak metaphor. Whatever else it makes the transnational link, and defers to a flow of influence from South to North, which is itself evidence of a decolonizaing of the colonial mind, a process that still has a long way to go!  


I came away with many reflections, but above all the fervent conviction that almost all of us would be far better off if these young people filling the squares around the world were put in charge of our collective future. I for one would rather live in their world than in the current G-20 world. For sure, there would be an end to war and militarism, the human footprint on the planet would be lightened, consumerism repudiated and defetishized, poverty would be overcome, voting would be done without taking national boundaries too seriously, accountability would be determined by a rule of law that treated equals equally. I also realized that this brave confrontation with the established order might yet be ruthlessly crushed if our current angels of entropy become threatened, and decide to turned loose their hooligan legions., recalling the bloody end of the Paris Commune or the sad fate of the idealistic Soviets that ironically were among the first victims of the Russian Revolution. But this look back at dashed hopes in the past was my momentary daytime nightmare that vanished from consciousness as soon as I awoke and looked around me at the bright eyes of those standing close by.


I will save some other commentary for a later time, and only write now that part of what was happening in these civic zones of engagement was the revalidation of the utopian imagination, a necessary ingredient of any transformative politics. If we are to find ‘solutions’ we all need quickly to liberate our imaginations from the tyranny of ‘the feasible.’ The ‘realists’ presently holding the reins of power are unknowingly inhabiting realms of fantasy while the train of history approaches the station named DOOM. The young people are coming to admit this grim realization, and for this the rest of us can be thankful, enough so to allow ourselves the momentary privilege of hope.


Also, it is important that this first global dispersed expression did not start in the West. Even after the collapse of colonialism, the West has run the world. This is beginning to change with America’s decline and Europe’s muddle. That the Arab popular movements should awaken the underclasses, the 99%, in the West is one of the strangest geopolitical occurrences of the last hundred years.

Almost anywhere else on the planet would have seemed a more plausible staging ground for the reinvention of transformative politics in a global setting. It also illustrated the irrelevance of 9/11 and Islamophobia to the priorities and tactics of globalization-from-below, or what might be called ‘moral globalization.’