“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine

The streets flashed past in a haze of light and the darkness shrouded the sky as the bright bulbs of Manama lit the way as our car sped into the suburbs to its rest point.  The flag reflected brightly; prominently and proudly on the number-plates of the cars as they darted their way through the winding streets and then cruise along the main highway acknowledging the skyscrapers standing tall against the moon and the blue-orange haze of the sky as the city lights up its surroundings.

From the hot haze of the airport runway, this was the first images I encountered in the Kingdom of Bahrain; a country rarely visited by tourists.  A trickle of those who enter the kingdom each year do so usually out of association with friends who already live in the country.  A tiny island that takes about an hour and a half to cross, the desert landscape, scarred with the moulded metal of oil pumps, power lines and refineries that scatter the flat golden sands that distantly ripple in the heat, south of the capital, Manama.  The inhabitants of one and a half million living in quiet residential districts leaving the rest of the island quiet and remote with only the movement of the oil pumps quietly nodding to a distant and unheard rhythmic beat.

There’s something beguiling about the Middle East even after visiting four countries.  Combinations of factors spring to mind – The people, the geo-politics, the unique landscape, the history and the physical landscapes.  A region that the news would have you believe lives in a constant state of conflict, violence, suspicion and deep conservatism that in person seems to exist really in a different entity.  The vistor and even a travel guide such as ‘Lonely Planet’ that promises a line that only friendliness and hospitality awaits.  The experience of the tourist and the national can be completely polemic.

Each summer, as a teacher I see the seven week break as a chance to re-connect with the world.  The term only  eats away your energy and free time. Term times a strange mix of unforgiving and relentless assessments, deadlines and paper trails alongside rewarding access to the young minds of tomorrow and the push for a better next generation.

The summer of 2017, included the central island of Denmark and its west coast as well as the UAE and Bahrain.  Bahrain is something familiar, having only travelled there last October.  The UAE however somewhere new and intriguing.  After hearing so many negative stories about Dubai, I reserved judgement and wanted to experience it alongside Abu Dhabi, with a possible side trip to Sarjah with its incredible beauty if what I had been told revealed the detractors correct.

Truth being told, I had friends in both places so inevitably  this directed the destination choice.  I was visiting friends who I made in India.  Unfamiliar with Middle East tourism before I visited for the first time, the thing that immediately struck was the vast number of South Asians living in may parts.  Fifty percent make up the population of Dubai, perhaps more in Qatar.  Oman was a revelation in itself, even after some time visiting other places.  As I drove out amongst the rocky sand mountains and cliffs, many hours outside of the capital Muscat, the smallest towns still have coffee shops owned by predominantly in my experience Keralan’s (people from South West India).  Coffee houses hosting delicious Arab breads, kebabs and fruit juices that defied the extreme heat.

The actual Arab populations of these countries in the Gulf is notably tiny.  Qatar only has a population that is made up of twenty percent nationals.  Dubai, possibly even smaller depending on statistics.  The Arabs, long independent of British and French rule, still welcome foreign expatriates to develop their infrastructure, unleash the potential of their oil wealth and create one of the most diverse communities that you can find anywhere in the world.

It was Bahrain though that made the impression that personally defined a Gulf trip more than any other.  The experience I generalise on above is no exception in the capital Manama.  British folk in their floppy sandals, shorts and women dressed in floral dresses that look closer to something from Debenhams or Marks and Spencer rather than an Arab souk (indoor market).  Bahraini’s are more frequently encountered.  Fifty percent make up the population, many dressed in crisp white thawbs, headdress in a red chequered pattern, neatly adjusted and re-adjusted.

Passing through Manama’s streets, it would be easy to be totally fooled.  Bright lights illuminate the soft creamy yellow of the walls and low rise buildings where distant glass reflects the new gleam of the city from the towering skyline of tall new builds.  You see your reflection in the streams of white, gleaming cars as they stream past on the busy city roads, racing towards the next set of traffic lights that look more closely related to the streets of British cities than Asian metropolis’s.

Bars, restaurants and clubs lined the streets of the central streets of the capital.  Westerners alongside Arabs laughed freely in the streets in their respective languages as the headdresses were neatly adjusted and western crisp linens walked side by side.  Bars freely flowed alcoholic beverages as expatriates attended tables in the hot sweltering heat under the bright, cloudless skies.  Pavements heavy with the mix of cultures, people and commerce.  I felt a sense of freedom, excitement and carefree living as if the strictures of ancient texts had been long removed and the new life was to live in the present.  No politics, seemingly no worries and families far away, young expatriates and youthful locals could drink and party long into the Arabian night, without fear of scorn or apparent consequence.  The day would finish late and the next would start late.  The buildings stood firm and the income allowed for free spending.  It felt like all fears and worries never existed in the minds of those who I passed as they continued on with their fine dress and tanned skin.

The rest of the island, quiet and only disturbed by mechanics as the black gold was sucked from the ground ready for its transformation to cash returns and refined oils.  Old fotresses continue to stand tall only looking young because of the age of the ‘tree of life’ that some speculate is the last remnant of the Garden of Eden.  The tourism videos advertising this as the year of archaeology for the Kingdom of Bahrain.

It was only as I drifted away from the main streets in search of more Bahrain towards the quiet residential suburbs that a different face of the country greeted me, the one face that seemed more familiar.

The next evening that I ventured off, our driver taking me towards the quieter suburbs.  Cars in their impatience that seemed to be a feature of driving standards here darted through the quiet roads as a stream of headlights in a tight line passed on the left.  The bright lights that illuminated the main centre and the business park dimmed and it was only shops that gave any sense of what I had witnessed before.  At this point, buildings still stood tall and their grounds extensive, alike the Surrey mansions that stood in rows that were familiar on car journeys in my childhood; only this time a modern Arab equivalent.

As I veered further into the suburbs where the streets emptied to the west of Manama off the signs of Barbar the only sense that something will arise, the atmosphere notably changed.  Small, dark windows in cramped homes that looked closer to something I had seen off images of Yemen in relative peacetime with narrow lanes and grey painted concrete stood desolate.  Arabic slogans daubed in thick black paint dirtied the walls.  I asked the driver where we had come to.  ‘Majority Shia areas.  Notice the young men dressed in black t-shirts.  It’s a sign of their protest against the government’.  As I glanced out of the window as the sun faded with the street lights in a dull illumination as the sky drifted towards a heavy darkness, I say young locals along with South Asians.  Some wearing different colours, but a young man wearing a black t-shirt, his thin waistline juxtaposed with a heavy beard, left to grow and hang roughly over and below the chin.

In truth, arriving here was an accident.  We were looking for an clubhouse, something more of an expatriate persuit.  Arriving an a congested junction, nothing more that a tight meeting point of three roads, facing us a three storey building pressing up to the boundary with small windows cut in the concrete in an uneven and seemingly unplanned accident, we turned around.  The young man with the beard, his back towards us and his thin arms, walked purposefully away.  As we came back to overtake him, the driver wound down the window, greeted him warmly and asked the direction.  In confident English and a few gestures and pointed arms later we went off again.

I enquired about more graffiti as we drove to assuming the place was small, was the main centre where a small roundabout and shops were about.  A small silence as hesitantly I pout forward an thought, ‘Were these anti-government protest signs?’.  Uncertainty in the answer, I asked if I could take some photos of the mosque.  It’s tall round dome, unlit towered the low line skyline, tucked behind some ugly houses decorated with dirty paintwork and sewage pipes with a narrow concerte alleyway towards it.  On the roadside opposite, two young men, walked towards our car, hose in tow plodding in the stillness of the early evening.  Young South Asians chatted on street corners as an old man in a the traditional Arab long robe stood gazing into the distance as I looked back in the mirror at the roundabout.

On the roadside, concrete stood low lying with thick bright orange paint with a touch of dark red that was interspersed evenly and again thickly with a heavy black.  In white and black heavy Arabic script alongside neutral images of camels and more political ones such as flags, the paintwork covered the wall that stretched around to beyond the line of sight like murals.  Both the drive and I couldn’t translate the Arabic but were both struck by the heaviness of the artwork and the prescient dark colours, particularly the black.

I asked to photograph the mosque and the driver pulled over.  Carefully, I walked down the alleyway, careful to not photograph locals, only because women in full veil are to be left alone.  Using my mobile phone, I sighed at the camera not really able to capture the impression I was taking away from this place.  The stained concrete paint seemingly the main focal point.  A picture of a man, proud with a neat white board dominated the entrance way and I thought he was some kind of local imam who had either a present or a past impact.  The picture lightened what was an almost industrial gloom.  I later learned that the man was Sheikh Isa Qassim, a shia cleric, stripped of his citizenship and the spiritual leader supported by Iran.  Iran has no place in the friendly relations with of the Gulf states.

I walked back to the car, and we continued on as the sun further sank behind the edge of the horizon.  Back to the main road; the rush of sleek white vehicles and fast paced traffic on the highway.  We turned right and headed past more shops and a larger conurbation.  A sign came close; ‘Diraz’.  We pass a junction and the cars on our right stood in a line, indicators flashing.  I imagine it’s a petrol station or some kind of shop, popular with locals until I see white SUV police cars.

Curious, I look beyond and another car greets my eyes.  Police question a driver and I realise it’s a checkpoint.  Blue signs ask drivers to stop.  I learn that this is the place where major flashpoints have occurred.  A road block greets the next entrance.  High concrete barricades and empty dirt on either side like two sides of the world that are forever blockaded.  So high are the barriers, that even in an SUV, you can only just about see over the top and the streets are deserted.  Later, back in the house, I watch videos of protesters throwing homemade grenades and rocks at police as they fire back with either live rounds or tear gas pellets at exactly this point.  Thinking back, as I passed the places initially, it was not in my mind that it was at this point that the vanquished hopes of the majority of mainly young youths and the distant spectators of worried elders played out it’s desperate struggle for the world stage to witness and condemn.

Another minute down the road and another checkpoint.  The street entrance, totally blockaded on one side whilst policemen in enquire into a car window of an anonymous local at the front of another queue of cars.  My mind immediately recalling the clear memories of news reports filming and escribing the  checkpoints on the Israeli-Palestine boarders.  Questions as you go in and questions as you go out.  Where, why, what, when and with whom.  For the locals this must be like a prison for your own home; all on one tiny patch of land as the waves of the Gulf seas crash into the sand.

Later, thinking on what I had reflected, what I had witnessed was neither dramatic, nor turbulent.  Yet, the omnipresent feel of containment, something like imprisonment and hopelessness disturbed my thought patterns.  This is not a country that allows debate.  Neither Sunni nor Shia would dare seriously raise questions these days to the government without fear of harassment, arrest, false detention.  Iran dirties the politics further with support to the Shia majority, placing in its hand, further geo-political unrest and suspicion.  My only conclusion that night from what I had witnessed was further unrest, further isolation for this community of local Bahraini’s suppressed by their very own authorities without compromise, dialogue or solution.  I reminded myself again that human to human, we can be very cruel.

One place, two voices; local alongside expatriate and tourist.  Two very different worlds a gulf apart in a place we ironically call ‘The Gulf’.

 

 

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Oh no… another one of those people with ‘reflections’…. ‘sorry; I think it’s the human condition…’

I seem to be making a bad habit out of writing too little and then apologising at the beginning of each blog entry for such a limited number of entries.  I’ll avoid a long paragraph on this, but; apologies and yes, this summer I know I need to write more.  Writing after a while feels like you’re limbering up, a few more blogs and I’ll be back to full strength.  This one to ‘warm up’.

I’ve been thinking for a while about this blog entry.  What to write, what is worth reading, worth even the effort.  Two events have shaped things.  Firstly, I’ve been in India four years now and at the end of the last academic year (I’m a teacher at an international school in Bangalore for those who don’t know).  Thoughts currently are that four years is enough time to reflect on my time in the country and write the thoughts and feelings in my head and try and make some sense of it all.

I’ve also turned thirty.  I’m not sure what I feel about it to be honest.  In some ways it’s a milestone.  Professionally, you’re not seen as young anymore or inexperienced so that’s a massive plus, but then you realise that all too quickly your twenties disappeared – I know, it’s what everyone says…  Questions arise in your head as you approach and pass the ‘big day’.  There’s constant pressure to think about ‘getting the balance right in your previous decade’.  I don’t think I really did that at all (does anyone?).  At times, I felt I didn’t do enough, didn’t read enough, didn’t play enough (I’m a musician), didn’t think widely enough, didn’t exercise enough… you get the picture.  All said and done, something says that most of these thoughts, doubts and questions to the ever present self are pretty universal and it keeps us striving forward to be better and do better.  Here’s to a new decade then.  ‘Roll on forty’… although I’m not feeling that enthusiastic about that ‘milestone’ right at this minute.

So what have I uncovered in my head after four years in India?  A huge amount of course; but what would be the most overriding thought? Perhaps, it’s this;  that I’ve really learnt the value of all sorts of connections between people and in this instance I don’t mean ‘business connections’.  The connection between two human beings on the fundamental level of empathy, understanding, common ground and shared values.  India is surely one of the most diverse countries with such a huge collection of peoples who speak different languages, practice different faiths, have widely disparate levels of income and backgrounds that differ beyond what the west can experience.  Yet within this, South Asians must be some of the most connected people.  Just go to any facebook profile and see how many friends people have.  Honestly, you wonder sometimes how they’ve met so many people and then if you are still unconvinced, look at the ‘like’ count…!  Two hundred and fifty people likin a mug shot of you outside the house smiling into a selfie.  If us Europeans reach over twenty ‘likes’ we feel overwhelmed by the popularity… and you haven’t even started on the comments box…  twenty comments within the first thirty minutes excluding the two aunties who always post.

It’s obvious to anyone working in India, Pakistan or any of the other South Asian nations that family plays a fundamental and central role in life at all times.  Sometimes I can understand when friends and colleagues say it can be suffocating.  Everyone has an opinion and sometimes the questions with an implied ‘I’m giving you pressure’ is possibly overwhelming (‘How about becoming a doctor?  How are your grades?  Are you married yet? No!!!?  But you’re thirty!?  My God!).

Push this too far and the terrible and tragedies of families driving loved ones to suicide or running away are sadly too frequent.  It seems there is sometimes little understanding that life is about balance and in the end accepting people need free space, not pressure and that you cannot live your own life through somebody else’s shoes.

That is the strong bond in many, many families between everyone.  The close ties, emotional honesty, frequent contact ensures those close that they have people they can talk to, laugh with, express their fears and suspicions and their hopes and aspirations.  All too often I sadly read about loneliness and recently, I heard on more than one occasion how it can affect your life so much that the effects on the brain and body can be the equivalent to smoking up to fifteen cigarettes a day.

However, as I hear this on the radio and television, I always go back to my time in India so far.  It’s a simple solution: Learn to reach out more.  Connect with your neighbours; those that you see each week at the gym, work, those that you haven’t heard from on social media in a while.  Simple questions of ‘How’s it going?’, ‘How’s your family?’ and statements such as ‘It’s good to see you’ mean a lot and I’ve tried to say them more because I genuinely care but don’t ways say so.  Perhaps my British reserve is unravelling… If so, then I have no complaints.

It’s so easy to stay in touch these days.  A ‘like’ on facebook, a one liner on ‘What’sApp’, a text message (already seeming ancient and costly…) or a post with a picture allows for that fraction of a second someone to be let in from the cold.  I like to go ‘out and about’;  a smile connects so easily.  When not with people and I’m no facebook addict, I enjoy seeing people who live far away posting a moment of delight without feeling my life is through the desktop or mobile as the front door is always close.  Back to facebook and not too much cuts through too much repetitive rubbish of drunken evenings and a loose camera/look at my amazing but to the rest of the world slightly dull plate of food/sweary rants… my eyes roll upwards in despair.

So the family questions I get, the warm smiles, expressions which embrace life matter to us.  I get them all the time from the people I work with.  I’ve learnt to copy it.  I come back to the UK and then find I end up doing it myself.  Quickly you build a quick and stronger connection.  Perhaps it’s just that I personally didn’t open up more before, although I really notice the expressions of joy, enthusiasm, irritation, happiness more in Indian English than in British English speech patterns.  I suppose you adopt a kind of hybrid eventually when fusing the two that might or might not work.

Ultimately, surely if we are all to find the supposed ‘inner happiness’, it’s finding the life and joy in the people around you.  Connecting with a few questions about their lives and the people and things that surround them and sharing a few anecdotes back is the small talk of close friends and family in the UK.  I suppose in India I’ve found you can just do it with just about anyone and somehow you can forget your worries and just enjoy ‘being’.  So perhaps the greatest secret to life’s ‘inner happiness’ is through others and yes no-one has to feel they are alone so go ahead: let’s talk and fulfil our lives through the interaction with others.

 

 

India in March 2017

Is India at a turning point or has it been for a while?  I pondered this for a few days as the media attention contemplated the huge BJP win (Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party) in the recent Uttar Pradesh state elections.  Is the government actively shifting the country away from a secular democracy to one where Hindu’s are the privileged majority?  No certain answers are yet forthcoming, but the warning signs are there.

So why does Uttar Pradesh matter so much?  Answer; voters.  A state that has much of the voting population of the United States of America, this recent election was a key test for the current government in one of the most populous states.  Could it sustain the popular vote that led it so convincingly to power in 2014?

Today the BBC report that a ‘hardliner’, a ‘firebrand Hindu’ will lead the state; Yogi Adityanath.

Image result for yogi adityanath

So why does this matter – why should I blog about this – and does this matter internationally?  Yes and no.  It’s a state election, so the influence over foreign policy from this new selection is non-existent.  However, it does have international ramifications.  The questions over the direction India is going under Narendra Modi do not go away in the international media and nor do they in media watchers over the world.

Amongst India’s great triumphs is its tolerance towards all major religions.  A country that accepts so much diversity surely is something to embrace and strengthen.  There’s a tolerance and acceptance of a person’s faith that even the most liberal Western minds would admire.

Realising foreign comment can be controversial in any country, comment does notably easily flows on Trump, Brexit and ‘western’ attitudes.  It doesn’t mean that there is no validity in this. On both sides, balanced and non-inflammatory comment in the centre ground still has a place anywhere from whatever background.

If India pushes away from an open tolerance, then the country has lost something that other nations look upon with admiration.  If the attacks on people of faiths other than Hinduism rise or critics are simply put down for being ‘anti-national’, then this misses the point.  A nation’s citizens and politicians have a duty to ensure the safety of all law-abiding individuals.  The increased attacks on non-Hindu’s and the increased fears and heightened rhetoric on Hindu-Muslim relations is surely a warning sign.  Opposition Congress member Manish Tewari may be right that India is possibly heading towards ‘greater polarisation’ should this trend of violence continue.  More division seems to be a sign of the times in 2017 internationally, though one can hope that some nations try and work towards something different.

As a foreigner, one of the first things that struck me about India was its openness towards people of belief.  Citizens could proudly profess their spiritual understanding from whatever faith (perhaps more so in an increasingly secular Europe where sometimes religious statements can turn a conversation icily cold).

My appeal is that long may India be tolerant, open and watchful of each other.  Increased fear and violence is no great advert and is surely only pushing a nation backwards.  Anti-nationalist sentiment, this is not; India is still a nation I live and work in and feel proud to.  Despite the increased nationalist sentiment of other nations, India is becoming an international player that could if it wants to pride itself on what it does best: Secular democracy in a part of the world where this fails to exist.

 

Back to the expat diary

“India shaped my mind, anchored my identity, influenced my beliefs, and made me who I am. … India matters to me and I would like to matter to India.”
Shashi Tharoor

I’m so glad to write I’ve blogged enough about my opinions on the ‘brexit’ vote recently (anyone else ready to ditch this new journo jargon?).  I felt it was important to record my thoughts at such an important time in the history of the United Kingdom and then lay it to rest.  It was a conscious departure from the normal reflections on living in India.  ‘Vote Leave’ is not something I plan on writing any more (cue: chant ‘cheers’ and ‘hooray’).  Countless people who are much more articulate than me can join Mystic Meg (is she still going?) in predicting the future in newspaper and online columns across the globe.  Good luck…: my patience with the speculation has already been exhausted and I am probably not the only one to have rolled their eyes as yet another ‘expert’ tells us life has now become a new British renaissance or we’ve been sold down the river by Farage and the gang.

It is therefore time to return to India and my naïve musings.

India is a land that still intrigues, fascinates and perplexes many.  I was reminded of this when I met up with some old school friends last weekend after a long time.  It was first on the agenda.  “Are you still there?  How are you still finding it?  You’ve been there three years… wow?  How is it really?”  I was bizarrely struck by the intrigue.  Though taking my own shoes off and swapping them for the others and seeing through their eyes, I suppose the questions and fascination is not really all that surprising.  It is after all a country that markets itself on fantasies of snake charmers and ‘exoticism’.

Once these myths have been dispelled though and life goes on, albeit still in India, what is it that still strikes me?  The opening of the quote I placed at the beginning of this blog sums it up all so much better than I could write myself.  It is a country that undeniably I have been shaped and influenced by.  Many things stand out; the warmth of many citizens, the belief in enterprise and hard work, the enthusiasm for life no matter what circumstances throw and the culture of ‘dharma’ and karma.  Equally there is the other side of ‘learning’ aka ‘life experience’: Hurtling down the wrong side of a traffic choked road in a tuk-tuk in a terrifying game of dodgems (the driver seemingly indifferent…) as the radio blasts. We charge, full speed, bouncing over the pot-holes, swerve and dart around on-coming traffic and chuck up the dust into the air as we accelerate towards our destination.  I arrive, knuckles white as I shakily shift around in my wallet for the correct change as he drives off to thrill the next passenger.  I genuinely thought up until that moment that all of this was the stuff of fantasy; friends and families gloatingly exaggerating their ‘incredible holiday in India’ story for the audience to yawn at.  Cynical me…

Cows munching toxic grass being tended to by elderly residents on the main artery roads from the city centre as I fly past.  Bus trips where money is passed through a sea of hands to the front before change in passed back through the maze of bodies is among other recollections from the past thirty something months of ‘Incredible India’ (I directly quote the India tourist board).  Night-time tuk-tuk races with unknowing passengers suddenly drafted in as extra ballast.  These are only a few of the wild and mad encounters that make Bangalore a more than interesting place to live.  ‘Unique’ doesn’t even come close…  there really is no other place like it.

It is so much more than this though that makes India the great place it is to work and live for me.  It could be easy for the casual observer to dismiss the place as a bit of a strange, real-life circus when in fact, under the skin, this is an incredible country of extraordinary citizens.

I’ve learnt so much from dharma and karma.  In essence I read it as ‘Give out what you would like to receive back’.  It’s the most motivational thing I’ve learnt and I think speaks for everything you do.  The generosity and warmth of many also takes me aback.  I remember visiting a local village, being welcomed into a home of someone I had just met and despite the clear disparity in lifestyle and income, I was still offered food and drink.  These were not wealthy people by any stretch and I felt humbled.

The willingness to engage strikes me as something that will leave an impression with me for perhaps the rest of my lifetime.  I’ve met so many people who strike up a conversation on a bus, train or queue.  Conversation seems to be in the blood and you never feel alone in India (a sense of overwhelming claustrophobia sets in on occasion).  I don’t think I’ve made friends quite so quickly as in India and no wonder why weddings have guest lists that seem to make aircraft full passenger lists on the new A380 look underwhelming.

These are just two examples that have instilled such a large impression on me.  Equally, the blatant corruption, poverty, distrust in politics that at times has turned rotten never leaves you. Neither does the dismissal of people on the basis of caste (it is a lie to say it does not now exist; the tacit approval is subtle but there).  These are not insurmountable challenges and they hit you direct in the face as soon as you step outside your front door.

India is truly a mix of the extraordinary: the uplifting, the shocking and distressing, the intractable problems of an overwhelming population growth and the possibilities that ‘can do’ presents.  It is what makes the country what it is.  If growth rates keep going and education levels keep rising, then this is a country that will shift as quickly as it has done in recent decades.  It seems in India that there is no time to stand still or drag your feet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Britain shifts – ‘Brexit’

What’s racism to do with brexit?  Was ‘vote leave’ really a rallying cry to racist xenophobes to hurl abuse at foreigners and apparently ‘foreign looking’ British nationals?  Is this really what has been lying under the surface in elements of British society and is this part of a new future?  How large are these elements and where will this lead to in the weeks and months to come?  I work as an ethnic minority and have done so now in two countries over five years.  For three years, I have worked in a country where my skin colour makes me stand out.  Rarely is this an issue.  In Britain, we should be a nation that has no place for racists? Are we not supposed to try and lead other nations on tolerance and fairness?

It is with regret that the headlines about Britain abroad are starting to paint a picture of citizens that are increasingly isolationist, seemingly devoid of civility and emotional intelligence.  What about an ageist society?  Yes, large numbers of older voters voted leave and statistics show the young voted overwhelmingly to stay.  However, this cannot be attributed to most young people.  Sadly, statistics are showing that only about thirty percent of young people voted at all.  Where were the remaining seventy last Thursday?  Certainly not in the polling booths.  Is disengagement really that profound?  So it was left to the older generation to cast the majority of notes when it is the youth who will feel the consequences of the decision in the long term.

We do though alongside the awful picture being portrayed, some extremely open minded, accepting, intelligent and leading citizens.  Any visit to a large British bookshop in the history section will show you that citizens do consume a quantity of international literature, history and politics from across the globe and journalistic reflections on international affairs sympathetic to other world viewpoints.  We can be an honest nation.  We have one of the leading media sectors in the world. Adversaries exchange intelligent comment in our broadsheets and investigative journalists as hard hitting questions of ourselves and others.  Admittedly, the ‘red top’ media rarely add much insight to the newsstands and more often than not, in complex debates,  are unhelpfully simplistic.

We have television media that is enquiring and thoughtful.  Two 24 hour news channels,  strictly regulated by Ofcom to ensure balance.  We also have a commercial rival in ‘ITV’ that only gets a license if it carries balanced current affairs for a certain number of hours a week in prime time.

Thus, we have facility to be informed, intelligent, wide ranging, open minded and fact seeking citizens.  We have free education for all from the age o0f 5 years of age up until 18.  Our media can question the government, hold it openly to account, attack and critise its policies and defend it.  That is not given to all.  perhaps it is the duty of all British citizens to step up and engage in much that we are given: Seeking the issues and reading widely (public libraries are free).  We have it all and can lose it all.  Is it not up to us as citizens to make the most out of the opportunities.  Few other nations have such opportunity for honest, open debate.  In places where democracy is severely challenged, it surely looks bizarre that so many disengaged.  Yet occasional vacuous statements and picture uploading onsocial media is given higher status, trendiness and priority.

The arguments for both leave and remain were largely  shrill rather than pragmatic, dishonest rather than truthful and desperately vote seeking rather than nuanced and honest.  This did not help when the vote leave campaign won.  Some votes cast were largely all about immigration promises.  This missed the point that yes; immigration is an issue that vexes many voters, but the vote leave or remain had other serious major considerations to contend with that largely were placed for some in the shadows.

Further to this, I do not buy the argument that those who voted to leave were xenophobes.  A casing point: The Times and The Sunday Times.  Prior to the referendum vote, The Times’s leading article on the previous Saturday pressed its readers vote ‘remain’ through a detailed argument.  The following day, The Sunday Times leading article (editorially independent of The Times) wrote that after much consideration of both sides, it was going to argue for its readers to vote ‘leave’.  It is obvious that the respective writers were neither ‘xenophobic thick racists’ or ‘tree-hugging EU leftie luvvies’.

The future is uncertain.  Who could possible desire to live in a future Britian that is increasingly ageist, racist, isolationist or economically poorer?  It is not simply government that can address all these issues.  It is up to every citizen to respond.  We have such opportunity.  We are nation that can aspire to great standards of intelligence, open mindedness and diplomacy.  We should do so and not waste excessive time on anything less.

 

 

 

 

Why despite ‘Brexit’, today I voted ‘Remain’

It’s coming up to lunchtime here on the south coast.  The grey sky with its heavy blanket looms large over the mass expanse of sky set amongst the waves as I look outside the window of my parent’s home in West Sussex.  Summer weather seems far away for the moment and the mid summer vote on the EU referendum seems bizarrely wintry.

Aside from the weather, the atmosphere is markedly tense at the polling booths today as the vote may swing either way.  It is sad to read that families have fallen out over this issue, though perhaps inevitable as the rhetoric has at times been shrill and bad tempered.

I voted for the United Kingdom to stay within the union and I know this will be seen by some readers to me as the wrong choice.  I have reservations about free movement the moment new members join the EU.  The quick rise in population levels place a great strain on infrastructure (London being the prime example).  The lack of democratic transparency (think of the European Commission which we rarely hear about in press releases or in the media)  and the lack of direction in decision making.  I hear all the arguments from Brexit; the man in charge of Wetherspoons, The Sunday Times leader. I’ve listened to Boris, Michael and others and yet still -rightly or wrongly- I am in favour of ‘remain’.

In an increasingly globalised world and an increasingly intermixed Europe, the shift from when we first joined the union has been marked and significant and definitely not always fully acknowledged by the ‘Brexit’ campaigners.  Free movement of people has had positives (mostly) and negatives (at times acute).  Some in the Metropolitan Police in London are shocked at Eastern European gangs who seem hell-bent on continuing a life of crime and exploitation and this does little to make the case for ‘remain’.  In fact, it flies in the face of what freedom of movement should be about.  Yet, this idea of free movement of people and trade has made Europe and Britain stronger and more adaptable.  Our standards of living globally are still some of the highest in the world.  If compared to my life in Bangalore, the comparison is clear and evident.  The photo below from my local community shows that the desire for a more equal distribution of wages, a demand for a credible infrastructure and continent wide pressure for good governance means scenes like this below will never be a part of the EU.

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I worked as a citizen inside the European Union.  Two years living in Sweden taught me more about living being inside the EU.  I learnt that the European Union for all the red tape that has not always been welcome, has also brought us closer to the Scandinavian countries equal rights for many good things.  Women’s pay, higher wages for the poorest, a better work/life balance and a desire for the best infrastructure, even in remote and hostile environments are just some of the benefits.  I still see it as a privilege that I was able to walk in and out of the country and transfer between nations via low airfares.  As was the easy acceptance of my EU passport and the ability to transfer currency back and forth when needed.  I respected the Nordic alliance when it came to many items. It seems they have for a time realised that small populations working together can achieve great banking and even television; a massive Scandinavian export.

I also saw the flipside.  The rise of the far right was for some voters a response to the communities that transformed quickly into violence and hostility where immigration assisted with the attack on communities civic values.  I noted the soaring house prices as the population rose.  To compound matters, this population spike was not evenly spread so that the housing stock in Stockholm was in short supply compared to Kiruna in the far north where the population was sparse.  Some attributed this to the fact that Sweden was part of the EU and free movement of people was creating a population rise that was quicker than the government twenty years had planned for.  I saw the resentment in schools as they had to put greater focus on Swedish as a ‘second language’ using ever tighter budgets.   This was and still is causing significant issues in the profession.

Yet I also saw the brightest foreigners make a real difference in Sweden.  Raising standards in the school I worked in was due to free movement of people and the exchange of international approaches.   As was the openness to other ideas from people outside the EU.  I saw doctors who were foreign born, aiding all of us professionally and well.  Through the night, coming back from the airport -more often than not- it was foreign bus and taxi drivers that uncomplainingly drove through the snow clad streets in the middle of winter.  Upon speaking with a few, they were so grateful for the chance to work in a country where standards of living and wages were so high.  They resented the fact that often some nationals shunned jobs that did not fit in with regular hours, despite the igh wages and conditions, leading to shortages that could be easily filled.

The simple truth is: the EU is a mixed bag.  Some aspects are remarkably great, some remarkably awful and it is a choice today between which is the greater of the two.  The EU represents both challenge and opportunity.  My conclusion of ‘brexit’ is that I do not agree that isolationism works.  I see Britain’s role in the EU as important.  We need not be a hostile outsider, believing all EU nation states are against us and that they all desire greater integration against the flow of popular opinion.  Some EU representatives do, but the ground swell of opinion amongst the common citizen is not universal praise for this.

So therefore, today I have voted to remain.  I predict that the EU will reform due to public pressure, the shifts in governments and the shock of nearly losing such an important member.  It is the United Kingdom’s duty to work with, rather than against our closest members.  It should strive for a position that draws each member towards us rather than away from us.  It is also for Europe to come together and listen to each other’s concerns and work diplomatically towards a solution rather than burying its head in the sand.  Therefore they should work with each member to understand their unique positioning in the union; how best to aid this so they become a more prosperous member of this elite club.

I suspect I will look back at this article in the years to come and reflect on what I thought at the time.  Times change as do opinions.   Whatever is decided, I will still be a citizen of the UK, knowing we have a democracy where the nation can freely decide.  We also have a public service broadcaster and range of national newspapers that have been allowed to debate both sides evenly.  In truth, this is possibly the greatest feature of the whole debate in a world of increasing closed attitudes towards adversarial expression and debate.