stories of peace and oppression, inspired by a talk by Moazzam Begg

Thursday, 10 March 2011 at 15:57
This evening I went to a talk by Moazzam Begg held at Southampton University. Moazzam is a survivor of the Guantanamo prison camp in the United States, where he was held for 3 years without crime, charge, or any evidence being given for a crime. He is also a peace campaigner, and author of the book "Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Kandahar". I found the talk very inspiring and illuminating. As someone who knows practically nill about Islam, accept the general media slant on it, I was alarmed to hear about the level of suspicion and animosity many Islamic communities are apparently facing, not just from the usual suspects but from establishment too. I was also surprised to learn about the kind of hatred and violence the Jewish community faced in England and other countries, beyond Germany, during the lead up to WWII. Moazzam made a saddening comparison to the status quo. There were lots of interesting facts in the talk relating to how 'flexible' media and government can be. For instance, Nelson Mandela, perhaps one of the most widely respected and revered people on earth, is actually a convicted communist terrorist. Fancy that.

While I was very touched by Moazzam's personal stories of how borders could be crossed and bridges to peace and compassion built, I was also slightly disappointed at the polemic style the debate took sometimes. I would have liked even more focus on collaborative approaches to conflict resolution, and practical steps that everyone can take. I would have liked less engagement with threat-focused thinking, 'us and them', blame, etc. that some questions from the audience steered towards.

It's of course true that the more threat someone, or a group of people, perceives then the harder it becomes for them to resist focusing on the threat and becoming defensive (or potentially aggressive) in their thinking and action. The harder it becomes to retain a firm focus on working together to bridge gaps of understanding and rediscover our common humanity that underlies even strong cultural and religious differences. Therefore the more important it is to try and keep that more constructive approach, when threat raises its head.

As Martin Luther King put it "Peace is not some distant goal we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal." When Moazzam spoke of making peace with the soldiers that had beaten and tortured him, and even bringing them into his house for dinner, I felt his message was very much aligned with that philosophy. In one of his true stories he described how he'd developed a rapport with a young soldier at Guantanamo Bay. One day the soldier broke down in front of Moazzam's 8ft by 8ft cell, dropping to his knees and also dropping the food he'd bought with him. The soldier had committed adultery, had been found out and that day ordered to phone his wife and explain what he'd done. The soldier said to Moazzam, who spent everyday in that cell: "Do you ever have one of those days where you feel like everything is going wrong?" It was a funny story, but Moazzam becoming an 'agony uncle' to this young soldier showed how behind the roles we accept in life, people are just people. In another story he described how former torturers had wept down the phone to him in apology and later became dedicated proponents for peace.

Moazzam showed through his stories how engaging with 'the other', reaching out and learning about them, that conflict naturally gives way to peace. It's the kind of steps that he has taken that lead to profound inner change in people and that change spreading to others. But in the face of such entrenched and widespread 'them and us' thinking, or at least media coverage, it takes a lot of effort and sacrifice to get the message through to a critical mass.

As Moazzam pointed out, the English language bears the fruit of different cultures. Therefore by rejecting those cultures we also reject a part of our own identity. And surely it goes deeper than language? If we see someone and immediately judge according to a cultural or visual association, are we not also closing the door to our own virtues? How can we be compassionate or loving if we let our preconceptions rule us? To offer compassion or love to someone, we must first 'see' them. I think, then, that when we judge in this way we become smaller and more alone in the world.

On that note, I noticed myself making judgements about Moazzam even before he started speaking. I didn't have a clue who he was before the talk. All I'd been told in the invite was that it was about a guy who'd promoted education in Afghanistan and Iraq and that it had something to do with Islam. Since I have some interest in education and am starting to learn more about global affairs, I went along. I was sitting there, the talk was due to start 10 minutes ago, and a large man in a suite, who may have been Turkish, wearing a taqiyah (skullcap) entered the hall. Lots of people greeted him. I assumed that was the guy. Minutes passed and he sat down. All the while there was a small Indian man, in casual dress standing around the podium area. He didn't seem like he was setting anything up, so I wondered what he was doing there. It just didn't occur to me that he could be the speaker. Funny how the mind works.

If you get a chance to hear Moazzam speak I highly recommend it.

Thanks for the support these last years

Saturday, 5 March 2011 at 19:25
These last two and a bit years, on the whole I've been more focused and worked harder than I can ever ever before in my life. It's been wonderful in many ways, but pretty tough in others. I really couldn't have done it without support from my friends and the many kind people in my life. Thank you.

Just committing to taking as much time to write a book as is needed would seem insane to some, a practical impossibility to many, and a dream to others. Having been through it I can now say at times I did feel I was losing my grip on sanity and finishing it did seem like an impossibility. But the dream remained strong enough. Every time someone asked me how the writing was going, offered encouragement, or offered their own perspectives on what I was writing about, it really helped. Those personal connections reminded me of the worth of what I was doing, especially when I was at risk of accepting defeat.

Some people, you know who you are, really went out of their way to offer advice, feedback on chapters, or boundless encouragement. Hopefully I've not missed anyone out in the acknowledgements section of the book. But once again, thank you! (They'll be some copies in the post to a few of you shortly)

I may write a post another time on the details of my book creation and release process from writing, to layout, typography and cover design, on to pdf and e-book creation and finally the all important step of choosing how to print and distribute the book. All on the lowest possible budget, using open source, free software (except the fonts) and resulting in a global distribution through the world's biggest book distributor Ingram, while keeping almost 50% of the cover price per sale, including printing costs (in contrast the the usual 5-7%!). Yes, it's possible, providing you're prepared to do a hefty bit of work yourself and you can make the time for it. If you have a message to share that you have a strong faith in, it's no longer necessary to pin your hopes on the traditional publishing process, there are new, smarter ways.

Ok, I can't resist giving a few details just briefly. For anyone who's just about to look into printing and distribution, checkout 'Lightning Source' thoroughly. On the software front, here's a short list: LibreOffice, Scribus, Inkscape, Calibre, Sigil. For print fonts, there are many options, but for that classic 'book look', Baskerville Book is a very well used professional choice, and worth the investment IMO. On the free font side, there is 'Crimson Text' which is shaping up nicely and 'Apparatus SIL' which I used in the e-book and Google books version. While working on the layout, compare frequently to books you think look great and which are on a similar subject, and do print tests, don't just rely on how it looks on the screen.

What now? Now I'm preparing the website for show time. Making an effective website is a whole other art in itself - luckily one I have a fair bit of experience in. Like creating a book, there are countless little details to figure out and refine, all of which can take an age. But it's almost there. "Healthy Loving Relationships" has been available on Amazon and high street book shops since mid February now, but I anticipate the launch proper to start in a week or so, when the website is up to scratch. Then I'll be testing out all the marketing and promotion strategies I've been studying for the last year. I'm pretty excited about it and look forward to posting about the results.

Tango has been one of the sacrifices I've made, especially over the last year. Even though I've recently set up my own tango school 'Tango Lingua', which is starting out really well, I've just not been dancing much for myself and with the many followers I so love to dance with. For this I can only apologise and hope for their understanding. As soon as my finances 'deficit heavy', I'll be back to my old travelling tanguero ways.

I've been saying it for weeks, if not months, that I really need to take a week out and 'do nothing'. Soon...

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