Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Why Muslims should remember Mandela



© Shafiq Morton
 
NELSON Rolihlahla Mandela, the colossus, has been laid to rest. That he affected millions of people during his lifetime is beyond debate.

From the ghosts of District Six to the tight alleys of Gaza, I have personally witnessed the electrifying effect that this man has had on the downtrodden. For them, he represented the possibility of the impossible – the hope of justice being served after decades of struggle.

This is something we need to respect and understand beyond the clichés of self-serving public officials and gravy-train surfers who know little about the values that Madiba – or the ANC – once stood for.

But why we should remember Madiba, firstly, is that because as a faithful and loyal servant of Africa’s oldest liberation movement, he was able to rise to individual greatness above its whole – or as Joel Netshitenzhe has said: Mandela was a man of “unique remarkability”.

In fact, it was this “unique remarkability” that was recognised by those near to him in the early 1960’s. The Mandela of 1990, the man who became president, was nurtured within a circle of close comrades. He became the sum of the sacrifice of those who were around him.

Madiba, of course, acknowledged this – although his tributes to Sisulu, Tambo and others were often eclipsed by his own headlines. Secondly, we should remember him because it was his overwhelming liberality of spirit, his endearing humility and his sense of humanity that created this “unique remarkability”.

Unlike the Afrikaner regime the anti-apartheid movement did not regard us as non-people, or declare the Qur’an subversive in the courts. Whilst some Muslims had been quietist, many had been present in struggle circles – from Ahmad Kathrada and Yusuf Dadoo to Amina Cachalia and the Meers.

In fact Goolam Vahed’s seminal book, Muslim Portraits, the Anti-Apartheid Struggle, lists 385 “A-team” Muslim anti-apartheid activists. Not all ANC (the book profiles, for example, activists such as Imam Abdullah Haron, the PAC’s Gora Ebrahim and Qibla’s Ahmad Cassiem) it does chronicle a proud political heritage.

And on Robben Island – where Madiba spent 18 years – the tomb of the Yemeni-born saint Shaikh Abdurahman Matarah (situated on the northern side of the prison) was a constant reminder of the role Muslims at the Cape had played against Dutch colonialism.

In 1989 Madiba wrote a letter to Shaikh Nazeem Mohamed of the MJC courteously expressing his appreciation of the Muslim community’s support for the anti-apartheid struggle. I saw the letter myself, but the Shaikh would not let me touch it.

He also sent a letter to Shaikh Abdul Gamiet Gabier in 1982 in which he spoke about his upbringing. He also expressed admiration of Dr Abdullah Abdurahman, as well as Molvi Cachalia and Imam Abdurahman Bassier, then imam at the Boorhaanol mosque in Longmarket Street.

In 1990, after his release, Madiba made several trips to the Cape. He paid homage to Tuan Guru at the Tana Baru, met local leaders and was the main speaker at the 1994 Tricentenary Commemoration.

Perhaps the most auspicious moment for us was his visit to the Awwal mosque in April 1994. There he stated that religious leadership should form the moral backbone of the new South Africa, and in a moment I’ll never forget, knelt on the ground when the Qur’an was recited.

The images of Madiba in a Cape Town mosque were transmitted across the world. Their impact was massive, for here was a non-Muslim head of state honouring Islam. He even got away with scolding US presidents and honouring struggle ties with Gaddafi, Castro and the PLO.

Madiba was a friend to all South Africans, including its Muslims, who today enjoy freedoms that are the envy of the ummah. Those who might want to carp need to remember that Madiba’s legacy is a South Africa without enemies. Only in Mandela country could a US president shake hands with a Castro.

Debate about whether Madiba should be the beneficiary of Muslim tribute – or even prayerful remembrance – is small minded. Scholars are unanimous that to honour another human being is a praiseworthy thing. That is why the Prophet (SAW) stood up out of respect for a Jewish funeral procession, saying that the deceased was a son of Adam.

He (SAW) had no qualms about allowing the early Muslims to seek refuge from the Quraish in the court of the Abyssinian Negus, then a well-known Christian monarch. “Go to him, for he is a just ruler,” were the noble Prophet’s words. Indeed, history shows us that the Negus was as magnanimous as the Prophet (SAW) in understanding truth and fairness.

The Prophet’s (SAW) letter to the monks at St Catherine’s in the Sinai is another example, in which the Prophet (SAW) extended a hand of friendship and a guarantee of protection in an agreement that stands today.

There was also the instance of Safana, the daughter of Hatim at-Ta’i who was Christian, but renowned throughout the Arabian Peninsula for his charity and good works. Safana was captured in a battle, and mentioned her father to the Prophet (SAW). The Prophet’s (SAW) response was that if her father were present, he would have immediately prayed for his mercy.

What we need to take from Madiba with respect to our Islam is that its traditional theology – whilst acknowledging differences – has always been implacably non-racial and expressly merciful to all. We were created into diverse tribes and nations to know each other, not despise one other, extols the Qur’an in Surat ul-Hujarat.

In acquiring a piece of Madiba memory for ourselves we have to appreciate similarly what he meant to others. As Zelda La Grange his former P.A. tweeted: whether you actually met him, or not, is irrelevant. Any relationship with Madiba was one of the heart.

La Grange was essentially saying that with Madiba there would be no exclusivity, which means that as a community we have to remind ourselves of the greater whole to which we belong. What Madiba demonstrated to the world, and what we can’t afford to forget, is that he saw us as equals.

 
 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Madiba Magic: the parts that make the whole


ONE of the most profound things about Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s release in February 1990, after 27 years of incarceration, was that it opened us to the world after 46 years of isolation. From being the world’s number one nasty nation, we suddenly gained moral credibility and international acceptability.

Our green passport, something of a curse until then, became the invitation to formerly forbidden territories. For me, as a South African journalist, it meant being assigned to conflict, disaster and famine in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

As a stringer who’d covered the anti-apartheid movement and Mandela’s release, I suddenly found my South African-ness no longer a liability. It was refreshingly liberating to no longer have the monkey of apartheid on my back. No longer would I be detained at Nairobi airport.

I was a photographer in those days and I realise now just how privileged I was to enjoy a bird’s eye view of our icon. I was an anonymous face in the media pack, for sure, but it did allow me to get closer than most to the towering presence that was Madiba – his clan name by which everybody grew to fondly call him.

It was noticeable right from the beginning that he had a special aura about him – it was something beyond his dignity, discipline and old-fashioned courtesy. For that reason I will never forget Madiba’s press conference the morning after his release at the residence of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.

On that day he was a 70 year-old, the world’s most famous political prisoner, catapulted from the sedate analogue 1960’s into the hurly-burly of the digital 1990’s. I can recall him looking quizzically at the booms of the TV sound men. He admitted later that he’d never seen such things before.

But what Madiba did that morning in a few moments was to win over the world. When journalists identified themselves, he would engage with them, calling them by their names and saying he was pleased to meet them as he’d enjoyed reading their reports.

Much has since been said about his fondness to engage with people, but perhaps not so much about the steely side of his character. I saw this in a brief, but unguarded, moment at parliament when he and FW De Klerk were set make a joint announcement about CODESA, the negotiations to end apartheid.

I was ducking under the front-row of seats to get a shot before the briefing when I witnessed an exchange between him and FW De Klerk. No disrespect to FW, but I could see who was in charge.

For behind the bonhomie, it was clear Madiba was a hard man you did not want to trifle with. In fact, De Klerk would meet the stinging wrath of Mandela in January 1994 on the issue of “Third-Force” violence, said to have been instigated by the Afrikaner Nationalist government, in the townships.

However, it was when I was abroad that I began to truly appreciate the impact that Madiba had – particularly in parts of the world where people were suffering. For them, our seemingly impossible victory over apartheid was a miracle against the odds that they could embrace as a beacon of hope for themselves.

We sometimes forget that they saw clearly the egotistical brinkmanship of the Inkatha Freedom Party’s Chief Buthelezi (who only agreed to participate in the 1994 elections eight days beforehand), the right wing military threat of the generals, the assassination of Chris Hani and “Third Force” violence – all elements recognisable in their politics. 

It is not for nothing either that Palestinians have embraced the idea of the Free Marwan Barghouti and All Palestinian Prisoners Campaign in the mould of the anti-apartheid movement’s Free Mandela Campaign of the 1980’s. Madiba’s well-known sentiment, that South Africans would not be truly free until Palestinians were liberated, epitomises his celebrated sense of humanity.

In fact, we have much to think about in terms of Madiba’s contribution to humanity, something that endeared him to so many. Because he was sincere, people believed him. He would sing “Twinkle, twinkle little star” and children would love him. No public figure of modern times can claim to have enjoyed as much universal trust as Madiba.

So when he visited the Awwal mosque in the Bo-Kaap in 1994 to thank Muslims for their contribution to the struggle, and knelt when the Qur’an was recited, he melted one billion Muslim hearts around the world. And in a new South Africa where religions now enjoyed equality, he visited synagogues, churches and temples with the same decorum.

To enumerate the instances I’ve heard ordinary people on foreign shores expressing their admiration for Madiba is impossible. The word “Mandela” has caused smiles from Cairo to Cochin – and, at times, has even opened some difficult doors.

I experienced yet another example of Madiba’s vast sphere of influence in Pakistan in October this year. I met a law student – our guide and interpreter – who was interested in going into politics. Pakistan is a country beset by huge developmental challenges not dissimilar to South Africa’s, and when I asked him why his passion for public life, his confident answer was “Mandela”.

 One thing that Madiba clearly understood was the command of the symbolic gesture. His wearing of Francois Pienaar’s no 6 jersey at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, his tea with Betsy Verwoed, the widow of apartheid master Hendrik Verwoed, have proved to be far more eloquent moments than thousands of well-crafted speeches.

B
ut the most profound thing I’ve witnessed about Madiba on my travels was that whenever he was seen embracing a child in South Africa, he was felt to be embracing another one in Gaza, an earthquake victim in Iran, an orphan in Darfur, a prisoner of conscience in Central Africa, an AIDS victim in Uganda and a bereaved mother in Somalia.


Indeed, to understand the whole of “Madiba Magic” we need to understand its parts and the fact that by one simple action, one man had the ability to inspire and reach out to so many people in so many different parts of the world.

 

Voice of the Cape Festival Launch, 2013

The annual Voice of the Cape Festival took place at the Vygieskraal stadium, Cape Town, on the weekend 7-9 December and paid tribute to Nelson Mandela.
 
 


















Copyright reserved. Shafiq Morton Photos.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Mandela: Madiba through my lens




The great moment in history outside Victor Verster prison,
February 1990.

The actual announcement took everybody by surprise.


Shaikh Nazeem Mohamed reads a letter
 Madiba sent to the Muslim Judicial Council in 1989

                                                        
 
 
                                                                                             
                                                                                              Madiba's famous cell, home for over 20 years.

                                                                
                                                                 The morning after the release at
                                                                                                              Bishop Tutu's house.



                                                    
                                                  The car that took Madiba from the prison. A Toyota Cressida.
                                                                                               No blue light convoys in the early days.
 
                                                   
                                                            Masjid ul-Awwal, Cape Town, April 1994.

                                                        
                                                          Former Justice Minister Dullah Omar (left)
                                                                                     and Shaikh Nazeem Mohamed in Awwal mosque, 
                                                                                          first mosque established in South Africa 1794.
 
 
                                                       
                                                                                  Sayyid Shaikh Muhammd al-'Alawi visits Robben Island.


                                                       
                                                                 Talking to local leaders, Bo Kaap.

                                                     
                                                           Imam Amien Ahmed welcomes Madiba.

                                                          
                                                                 Greeting locals in Cape Town.

                                              
                                                     Madiba is garlanded after talking to Muslim community
                                                                                                         in the Bo-Kaap, Cape Town.

                                                         
 
                                                                                             Madiba leaves Awwal Mosque, April, 1994.



                                                              © Shafiq Morton  

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Yes, Muhammad (SAW) is really still alive...


WHEN I first visited Madinah nearly thirty years ago, an askari – a tomb guard – slapped my hands when I raised them in supplication facing the Prophet’s grave. “Shirk!” he hissed sanctimoniously, telling me I must face the Qiblah wall instead.

My blood boiling at his insinuation that I was about to commit polytheism by greeting the Prophet (SAW), my first thought was to give this self-righteous moron a beating. It was the 1980’s and I was an angry young man.

Thankfully, whilst I realised that the Companion Sayiddina ‘Umar (ra) buried next to Muhammad (SAW) would probably also have wanted to thrash this boorish askari, I remembered that the Prophet (SAW) would definitely have steered the issue into calm waters.

I moved on, and whilst the askari berated a group of Turks who were ignoring him, I quietly raised my hands again. I remembered the words of Imam Malik (ra), who’d told the second Abbasid Caliph, Abu Ja’fr al-Mansur, over 1,000 years ago to face the Prophet (SAW) when he greeted him.

This etiquette speaks to the attributed Prophetic Tradition that whilst all prophets taste mortal death they are alive in the barzakh – the inter-space between earthly death and the final after-life. I would, therefore, not be passing salutations upon a lifeless pile of bones as so many literalists would have us believe.

The great 11th century scholar, Al-Baihaqi, explains that prophets’ souls are returned to them after death so they are ‘alive in their Lord’s presence’ like the martyrs. This explains why the Prophet (SAW) has been able to explain in such detail the physical appearance of prophets such as Musa, Jesus and Ibrahim (as).

A sound Tradition, quoted by Abu Hurairah, has the Prophet (SAW) saying that in his grave no-one would greet him from near or afar without Allah, the Highest, returning his soul to him so he could return that greeting – and so that Allah could bless that person ten times.  

In the barzakh the Prophet (SAW) possesses a supra-consciousness. He himself said that no-one would invoke blessing on him until the Day of Resurrection without a special angel informing him of the person’s name and lineage.

This is further re-inforced by the writings of Sayyid Muhammad Alawi al-Maliki, one of the modern era’s most authoritative scholars, saying that as a community we are shown to the Prophet (SAW) morning and evening and that he cares deeply about us and prays constantly for our welfare.

Or, as Anas ibn Malik reported the Prophet (SAW) saying: ‘…my intercession (or prayers to Allah on your behalf) is assured for all those who visit me’.

In the angelic realm, it is said that the Prophet’s (SAW) tomb – the most scared spot on our planet ­– is abuzz with heavenly beings, unimaginable colour and unearthly light. Each dawn, some 70, 000 angels who’ve just made devotions around the Ka’bah in Makkah, come to bestow salutations upon him.

These angels have been described as a ‘river of intense energy and light’. They only greet the Prophet (SAW) once and will re-appear on the Final Day in a dazzling and uncountable array.

However, for those who may still not accept that the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) is ‘alive’, there is plentiful evidence that he is, at the very least, highly aware of us. He (SAW), of course, can appear in dreams, and he did say that the Shaitan – the Devil – would not be able to shape-shift his form.  

The first account, a few decades after the death of the Prophet (SAW), is attributed to Sa’id ibn al-Musaib being the only person present in the Prophet’s (SAW) mosque after Harra, a battle in which Yazid ibn Mu’awiyya had sacked Madinah, killing 10,000 Companions.

For three days there was no adhan, but each prayer time Ibn al-Musaib would hear the call to prayer coming from the Prophet’s (SAW) grave. Muhammad ibn Hibban, the 10th century Hadith master, reports Ibrahim ibn Shaiban greeting the prophet, who audibly replied to his salams.

And if that isn’t enough, there are many who will claim that the ‘presence’ of the Prophet (SAW) comforted them. Martin Lings, the author of Muhammad, told me before his passing in 2005 that when he had difficulties with the book, he felt the gentle hand of the Prophet (SAW).

There was also an incident in Madinah when a young boy, sent into the Prophet’s (SAW) burial chamber to retrieve a dead pigeon, came out with an apple. Shaikh Ahmad Tijani, the Algerian founder of the Tijani Sufi Order, had seen the Prophet (SAW) in a wakeful state, and had conversed with him.

But the most famous incident proving the Prophet’s (SAW) state occurred in the 12th century when Sayyid Ahmad Rifai’i, a descendant of the Blessed House, visited the tomb of his forefather.

A man of modesty, Sayyid Rifai’i had not dressed himself in the travelling garb that Prophetic descendants did in those days. So when he requested permission to enter the chamber – a privilege allowed to the Sayyids – the guard had stopped him, asking him for proof of his lineage.  

Disappointed, Sayyid Rifai’i had cried out: “As-salamu ‘alaikum, ya jaddi.” (Peace on you, my grandfather).

To everybody’s amazement, the Prophet (SAW) had answered: “wa ‘alaikum salam, ya walidi.” (And peace on you, my son). Then the Prophet (SAW) had extended his hand out from the grave and Sayyid Rifai’i had kissed it.

For those literalists who would like to write this off as a Sufi fairy story, Sayyid Rifai’i’s kissing of the Prophet’s noble hand was witnessed by hundreds. It caused states of ecstasy and set off a frenzy – so much so that people slashed and stabbed themselves with their swords and daggers.

When they came round there were many injured and Sayyid Rifai’i was forced to pray for their healing, which the Creator permitted, the wisdom being that had the incident of the Prophet (SAW) proffering his hand to Sayyid Rifai’i been unpleasing to Allah, he would not have granted His Mercy.

 

Monday, December 2, 2013

A year in review


WITHOUT doubt 2013 reveals that the world is a restless place. Globalisation telescopes conflict and crisis into one’s digital consciousness. In South Africa we might be geographically distant, but we are still affected by whatever happens in the financial and political capitals of Europe and the US.

Our economy is more globally linked than other African ones, and so the dollar-based markets feed into our sense of well-being. South Africa, like so many developing countries, has heard voices demanding resources and an equitable share of wealth. Our service-delivery protests enjoy resonance in places as far afield as Brazil and Thailand.

Nor has South Africa been exempt from the modern slave-master, the bank-meister, whose fleecing of the middle-class with uncapped interest is duplicated by the micro-lenders squeezing the working-class. Marikana, and the extortionate wage demands of South African workers, are as much about debt as anything else.

Indeed, if I were to give any award for 2013 I would first give it to debt, the chief tool of 21st century oligarchs and their instrument of control. The US, which has re-defined the term “debt-ceiling”, is the only country in world history to have been able to print money to escape fiscal collapse.

This is because world currencies are dollar-based. The danger is not the dollar, but that these dollars are unsecured. The gold reserves disappeared during the Reagan and Thatcher years. Even the world’s biggest economy, China, is beholden to the dollar because of US debt.

Debt aside, we have a national election next year in which South Africa’s weakest post-apartheid president – already haunted by Arms Deal corruption – faces allegations of lying to parliament and abusing state funds, this whilst being upstaged by a political upstart, Julius Malema, who himself faces a litany of corruption charges.

Then there was the implosion of the Arab Awakening with Egypt going full circle from an infant democracy to an old-style dictatorship. The Egyptian deep-state, the military, allowed President Muhammad Morsi to stumble before conducting a coup, and then collecting 12 billion dollars in aid from anti-Brotherhood Gulf countries.

In Libya, things went from bad to worse, Prime Minister Ali Zaidan making a passionate plea last month for the militias to lay down their arms. Zaidan himself had been kidnapped by one of the militia groupings, whose agendas range from tribal fiefdoms to pan-Islamic Salafi-Wahhabi caliphates.

The release of millions of arms from Gaddafi’s armouries, as well as NATO surreptiously supplying the rebels in 2011, has seen unaccounted Libyan weapons filtering into neighbouring states such as Niger and Mali. These weapons have empowered a host of Salafi-Wahhabi brigands and Taureg insurrectionists throughout Africa.

Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Al-Ansaru, for example, are believed to have benefitted enormously from this uncontrolled flow of arms. Both the Tunisian and Algerian governments have expressed anxiety on the issue.

For Tunisia, a cautious Arab Awakening success story, uncontrolled arms flows could be a tipping point. A former Tunisian diplomat told me that the country could ill afford to be distracted by armed extremists smashing historical tombs and trying to impose a one-eyed Shari’ah.

For Israel, 2013 has been a challenging year. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has been banging the Iranian war drum for months, was reportedly “angered” by the recent Geneva nuke deal with Tehran – a deal unlikely to have been struck had Israel’s interests not been considered.

But his visits to the White House in September, accompanied by diplomatic fanfare, had seen him returning to Tel Aviv empty-handed on the big prize, US support for strikes against Iran.

And whilst Israel may be happier with the Egyptian military, it will be watching, with keen interest, peace talks on Syria in January 2014. Israel is a land of macho-politics, and its way out of weakness is to rattle the sabre. That is why Ehud Olmert attacked Lebanon in 2006, and why I fear for Netanyahu should things not go his way.

In 30 years I have never seen a conflict impact so disagreeably on the Muslim psyche as the Syrian one. It has triggered off a partisan response dominated by an acrimonious Shi’ah-Sunni debate that does not fit the Syrian model. For this, Saudi Arabia – fearing the approach a “Shi’ah crescent” into the Gulf  – has to shoulder as much of the blame as Iran.   

In Pakistan, one has to ask whether it was prime stupidity or deliberate CIA gamesmanship that saw a US drone killing the Taliban leader, Hikmatullah Mehsud, only hours before talks with the government on a peace deal.

On the Palestinian side, there is little to hope for. The funeral procession of Oslo has gone. The West Bank has been surgically pared into hundreds of disjointed slivers of land by illegal settlements. Jerusalem is surrounded. Gaza has been locked down. The ethnic cleansing project is almost complete. The much-vaunted talks have only precipitated Israeli settlement building.

The only glimmer of hope, amidst a flickering BDS campaign and the ongoing Mavi Marmara trial in Istanbul, comes from South Africa – a country whose pro-Palestinian stance has become well-known via the suggestion of Nelson Mandela that South  Africans would not be free until Palestinians were.

In October, the Ahmad Kathrada Foundation supported by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, launched a project entitled the “Free Marwaan Barghouti and all Palestinian Political Prisoners Campaign”.

The 54 year-old Barghouti, a leading figure of the two intifadahs, is probably the most celebrated of Palestine’s 5,000 political prisoners held by Israel. Seen as a unifying figure, Barghouti was behind the Prisoner’s Document of 2006 signed by all Palestinian factions that called for return to 1967 borders.

Barghouti, a Fatah stalwart who confronted the leadership in 1996 on issues of corruption, was once a strong advocate of Oslo. He became a leader of Tanzim, Fatah’s military wing. In 2002 he was abducted from the West Bank (in contravention of the Geneva Convention) to face a terror trial in Israel (another contravention) and sentenced to four life sentences in 2004.

For the first time – and one often wonders why only now - the Palestinian question has a single focal point, the release of political prisoners with Barghouti as its figurehead. This is a direct borrowing from the anti-apartheid campaign that rallied so successfully around Nelson Mandela. But, will it be able to do so around the figure of Barghouti? That’s a story for 2014.

Pakistan: a story in pixels



The Mohatta Palace, Karachi. © Shafiq Morton    
IT was already hot when we passed through the gates of Muhammad ‘Ali Jinnah’s memorial in Karachi. Jinnah’s massive domed tomb towered over a marble platform, the centrepiece of a sprawling urban park. The fountains approaching his tomb were not working, and its fetid pools were lined with algae.
In the sky above, flocks of kites soared in the morning thermals, their sharp eyesight capable of spotting rodents on the ground with pinpoint accuracy.  At least there would be no collateral damage when the kites swooped into the urban shadows.
Qaid-i-Azam (Great Leader) Mohammed Ali Jinnah is the founding father of Pakistan. A dapper legal man of Gujarati origins, Jinnah became the figurehead of an ideal expressed by the famous poet, Muhammad Iqbal. For a viable future, Hindu-dominated India needed a separate Islamic state.
The Muslim Mughal rulers of old India, descendants of Genghis Khan, had embraced religious and social diversity from the 16th to the 18th centuries, but this had dissipated with the arrival of the British, whose imperialism had become characterised by divide-and-rule.
Mahatma Ghandi, who found his civil rights voice in South Africa, was against the idea of the post-colonial partition of India. Jinnah felt that it was the road to disaster, and that as painful as it was, secession was the only route to social and political stability in the region.
Of great interest, and unknown to most, is that Ghandi received correspondence from Jinnah when he was in South Africa. As I watched the ceremonial guard inside the cool interior of the tomb, I wondered what would have happened to our history had Jinnah and Ghandi joined forces in KwaZulu Natal all those years ago.
Jinnah is indubitably an under-appreciated visionary, his legacy jaundiced by India’s nationalist perspective.  For Jinnah the Muslim enclave of Pakistan would not be a crude Shari’ah-centric state, but one of social inclusivity, tolerance and religious freedom. For Jinnah, Pakistan had to become a player in the market place.
Something of a social paradox, the somewhat Anglophile Jinnah smoked and drank alcohol, but his early speeches are firmly centred against corruption, nepotism, racism and extremism – all curses of 21st century Pakistan.
Jinnah would pass away a year after independence in 1948, his vision unfulfilled. The assassination of Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan in 1951 by an Islamic extremist, would see Pakistan descend into a spiral of nervous political uncertainty.
I walked through Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s  air-conditioned museum, a moment frozen in time down to his car and curious walking stick that could double as a revolver. The neglected gardens made me wonder whether they embodied Pakistan today – a country so distracted by its troubled past that it had no time to ponder its future.  
However, that is not to say Pakistan has forgotten itself, or lost hope. Extremism and fear have not  managed to stifle the diverse, creative and pioneering voices within Pakistan society, all clamouring for expression in a riot of colour, a colour typified by the richly ornate art seen on its trucks and scooters.
A tour of an exhibition entitled the “Labyrinth of Expressions” by artist Rashid Rana at the Mohatta Palace Museum, kindled much thought in this respect.  Rana, who is probably Pakistan’s most celebrated living artist, profoundly reflected all the conflicts and contrasts inherent in society in a very unique way.
When I first saw his wall-size canvases I believed I was looking at a repetitive, impressionistic style in which he’d used uniform brush strokes to create a stippled, Monet-like effect. So what, I thought.
But on closer examination I found my prejudice being confounded. Each of these “brush strokes” was a colour photo placed in the picture like a pixel – a square unit of colour that characterises digital photography. Each work consisted of thousands of images, and how he’d managed to co-ordinate them to reflect a larger image was beyond me.
His piece “Desperately Seeking Paradise” spoke to a condition prevalent in societies characterised by rich-poor divides such as South Africa and Pakistan. A three-dimensional cube, it lures the viewer into walking around it like the Ka’bah.
From the first angle one sees the mirrored facades of skyscrapers, and as one moves, each mirror becomes the micro-image of a slum. Rana’s reference, according to the exhibition catalogue, was that rich and poor alike sought Paradise.
Another piece, the “Red Carpet”, was a reaction to a suicide attack on the convoy of Benazir Bhutto in 2007. From afar, the “Red Carpet” appears to be a symmetric, if not pleasing wall hanging. However, closer examination reveals that each pixel is a bloody photo. One’s sense of initial well-being at the overall image is sharply challenged by its details.
Perhaps what I’m trying to say is that the story of Pakistan is not in the big picture à la Rashid Rana, but in its intricate pixellation. For behind the caricatures of corrupt cricketers, genuinely sinister religious extremists and bloated overlords is a society that has endured more slings and arrows than most – from earthquakes and floods to political meddling.
Not least was a US drone attack in the picturesque Swat Valley last month. With Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s new government focused on peace with the Taliban, negotiators were en-route for talks when they received the news that Taliban leader, Hikmatullah Mehsud, had been killed by a drone.
This shattering news hardly made a ripple in the global pond and led to the question whether Pakistan, a nuclear power, would ever be allowed to be at peace with itself. But in spite of this, traditional humanity prevails – in the most unexpected quarters and in the most moving of ways.

For this I go back to the 2010 floods, an event of Biblical proportions that displaced 20 million people. An old man is sitting in an empty tent in the Sindh province. He has lost everything and has not eaten for days. An aid agency worker offers him food and water.

“No thanks,” he says, much to the aid-worker’s surprise, “my brother in the tent next door to me is in much greater need. Let him eat and drink first.”

 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Robben Island: Springboard for Mid-East peace?

Marwaan Barghouti:
Courtesy Al-Ahram
SINCE the Arab Spring, the Middle-East and North Africa have experienced tectonic political shifts. From Tunis to Sana people lost their fear and gathered in mass protest to shake off the rule of their long-standing despots.

Tunisia's Ben Ali left in a hurry for Saudi Arabia, his plane loaded with gold bars. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down. Bashar al-Asad turned his guns upon the Syrian people.

Libya's Muammar Gadaffi was bombed by NATO and murdered by rebels, and after a protracted stand-off, Yemen's Abdullah Salih left office. However, in Bahrain Prince Hamad clung to power with the help of Saudi Arabia.

To say that the North African-Levant axis will never be the same is historical understatement. Every nation in it has felt the aftershocks of the Arab Spring. And whilst countries like Tunisia are working through their challenges, others such as Egypt are not doing well. 

Neighbouring countries have also been drawn in. Due to the Syrian crisis, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have had to deal with the Middle East's worst refugee crisis since the Mongol hordes.

On the political front, Iran has supported the Asad regime, ironically the only Syrian leadership the modern west has known. Beset by sectarian violence, Iraq's woes have boiled over into Syria and Syria has spilt over into Lebanon.

It's no wonder that Israel - the bête noire of the Arab world - has kept quiet in the eye of the storm. Instead of bombing Tehran as it has wished, the Israeli air-force has only ventured from its bases to bomb Syrian convoys.

But in spite of a low profile, Israel has been on edge. Disquiet about the future of the Camp David Accords and the security of its longest border with Egypt might have been assuaged by the military taking charge - yet, given the current volatility of Egypt - not much is guaranteed.

The Palestinian question has also been affected. Hamas' condemnation of the Syrian regime has forced it to relocate its headquarters from Damascus to Doha, costing it funding and support from the Persian nexus.

On the ground in the West Bank and Gaza, there has been frustration. Talks about the revival of the peace process have only meant more illegal settlement building, and further land dispossession. The release of 26 Palestinian political prisoners last week (as part of the peace deal) was blighted by 20 more detentions, including three members of parliament.

It is against this background that South Africa has played a significant role in the fate of Palestine's sovereign future.

The recent launching of the "Free Marwaan Barghouti and Other Palestinian Prisoners" campaign at Robben Island draws much from the anti-apartheid movement that coalesced around the figure of Nelson Mandela.

Organisers believe that with the endorsement of Ahmed Kathrada and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, publicity can be generated about the plight of Palestinian political prisoners. Since 1967, just over 800,000 Palestinians have been detained on political grounds, their conditions of incarceration violating international law.

The choice of the 54 year old Barghouti as the figurehead of the campaign to free the current 5, 000 Palestinian political detainees is a predictable one. He is, by far, the most influential and widely known Palestinian political prisoner today.

A charismatic figure of the 1987 and 2000 intifadahs, Barghouti joined Fatah (the resistance movement founded by Yasser 'Arafat in 1965) when he was 15 years old. He has spent 20 years of his life in Israeli jails, and since 2004 has been serving five life sentences plus 40 years for his alleged role in suicide bombings and the killings of Israelis.

A key Fatah figure, Barghouti was an outspoken advocate of the 1993 Oslo Accords determining an independent Palestinian state, and according to journalist Gideon Levy as a fluent Hebrew speaker, once had the telephone numbers of half the Israeli Knesset.

His disillusionment was fostered by Israeli violation of the Accords when settlement building (meant to have been frozen) was intensified. Like 'Arafat, Barghouti felt that Oslo died with the assassination of Israeli leader, Yitzhak Rabin, in November 1995.

In 1996 Barghouti openly challenged Fatah leadership on issues of corruption and nepotism. But it was as leader of Tanzim, Fatah's military wing, that Barghouti gained notoriety amongst Israelis.

He was arrested in 2002 after he was abducted from the West Bank (a violation of the Geneva Convention) and tried in Israel (another violation). Barghouti refused to defend himself. Without a defence counsel he was acquitted on 21 charges, but found guilty of three.

For many Israelis, Barghouti is a terrorist who should stay behind bars forever. Human Rights activists argue that if Barghouti, a resistance leader, is guilty of murder then for the law not to be an ass, Israeli leaders should face exactly the same charges.

They point out that if justice in Israel were to be equitably applied then Ariel Sharon should have been in prison for the Qibya massacre, and Menachem Begin should have been tried for the murder of 91 people in the King David Hotel blast.

Records show that Barghouti has only called for military aggression against military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. He has denounced the targeting of civilians inside Israel "our future neighbour" but has reserved the right to resist occupation (allowed by international law).

In 2006 Barghouti was the leading hand in the Prisoner's Document, an 18-point manifesto agreed to by all Palestinian factions calling for - amongst other things - a return to the 1967 borders.

Ahmed Kathrada, who served 26 years in apartheid jails himself, is adamant that the unconditional release of political prisoners is the most powerful message an enemy of yesterday can give to its future partners in peace.

Addressing guests at the launch on Robben Island, Kathrada said that humanity had a "sacred duty" to campaign for the release of Marwan Barghouti and all Palestinian prisoners as an essential step towards stability and freedom in the region.

And for those actively seeking a peaceful and lasting solution to the Middle East's biggest crisis in a sea of popular uprisings, there is a feeling that they may just have the man in Marwan Barghouti, currently the only credible unifying force in the Palestinian house.


Thursday, October 24, 2013

Pakistan in pictures

Pakistan is a country of endless fascination far beyond the Taliban and match-fixing stereotypes so commonly associated with it in the mainstream. Colourful, vibrant and industrious, the real people of Pakistan have had to face natural disasters, religious extremism, conflict and political uncertainty. But behind all that is a warm, hospitable and welcoming country. These images were taken over two visits to various parts of the country. These are some of my favourite textures

 
Copyright Shafiq Morton














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