Category Archives: Society

Hidden Perspectives: A Photo Essay

The developing world is often seen through a monochrome lens: a grey picture, yearning for the brush of western modernity. Yet, sandwiched between the emergent Elephant and Dragon economies of the new world, Bhutan challenges our vision of development, illustrating that under a new light the ‘developing’ world can also lend us its own color.

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The land time forgot: Prayer flags traverse Bhutan’s Himalayan terrain like arteries. Each color represents its own sādhanā, or spiritual purpose, pertaining to the five elements; Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Sky. With every mountainous breeze the verses they contain flutter off into the ether, spreading faith and blessing the Kingdom.

Untitled1The lonely hope: En-route to Punakha a woman roasts maize as a roadside refreshment to entice the intermittent traffic. Poverty prevalence in some rural areas is as high as 52.9%, compared to about 1.7% in urban regions[1]. Remoteness and mountainous terrain can isolate rural dwellers from significant markets.

[1] United Nations Development Programme, Bhutan: Rural Economy Advancement

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Holding onto the past: At the Zorig Chusum School of Traditional Arts in Thimphu, youth undergo 4 to 6 years of training in Bhutanese traditional art forms. Global development policies for education often target more modern technical and industrial skillsets, to prepare students for the international job market and to stimulate innovation.

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A refuge to religion: Almost 10% of the Bhutanese population is part of the monastic system[1]. Children as young as five are sent to monasteries by their parents who cannot afford to feed their families or pay for government schooling.

[1] Bhutan Youth Development Fund, December 2014

Untitled4Aged techniques: An elderly woman begins an arduous day’s labor, crushing chili after sun drying them upon her tin rooftop. Modern technology such as solar dryers would not only ease her strain, but it would allow her to sustain her livelihood throughout the year, including during the wet monsoon season[1].

[1] Fuller et al, Technical and financial evaluation of a solar dryer in Bhutan, 2005

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Out of school: Young children wander through the Punakha valley. Owing to Bhutan’s undulating terrain, school coverage is often thin in rural areas. As a result, these children would have to walk miles across rugged terrain to their closest school.

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Hard labor: Near Sopsokha in the Punakha valley, a subsistence rice farmer begins a day’s work under the heat of the Himalayan sun. The lack of modern farming equipment means rice harvesting is not as efficient as it could potentially be.

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Community ties: The lone farmer is soon joined by fellow villagers. By mid-morning the Punakha valley ebbs and flows with the rhythms, laughter and spirit of its rice farmers.

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A lesson in morality: A Zorig Chusum School student carefully cleans his paintbrush aside his ‘four harmonious friends’ portrait.  It is a universal Bhutanese image of a bird, rabbit, and monkey standing on each other’s shoulders upon the back of a patient elephant, symbolizing social and environmental harmony.

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Entrenching traditions: Velvet robed monks wander into the colossal Punakha Dzong courtyard. Traditional arts not only teach morals, they become part of the fabric of the country, painted and etched into the walls of its regal religious architecture.

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The poster-boys of Gross National Happiness: several monks beam with excitement as they initiate a fire purification ceremony. By their late teens, children who have been through the monastic system are well versed in Mahayana Buddhist teachings and spirituality.

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Keeping faith: A husband and wife enter the Memorial Chorten in Thimphu. Buddhism transcends secular life. It creates an affinity between people, environment and traditions, which in turn brings meaning and happiness to everyday endeavors.

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Two sides of the coin: A trio of monks softly hum verses outside the Gangteng monastery in the Phobjikha valley. When viewed from a different lens, the developing world can be as humbling to us, as it is to the countries we put under the microscope.

Painting the town red

As the early afternoon Andean rainfall subsides, a dense mist rises through the cobbled streets of La Candelaria; Bogota’s historic quarter. With the faint rumble of thunder, overcast skies and patter of water droplets shedding from the Colombian capital’s colonial architecture, a distinct sense of revolution flourishes in the air.

Remnants from internal conflict born in La Violencia; the country’s ten-year civil war during the 1950s, continue to be felt today. An ongoing rift between the Colombian government, paramilitary groups and left wing guerillas such as FARC and ELN has claimed an estimated 200,000 lives since 1958[i].

While the armed conflict, drug and crime syndicates have largely quieted today; their legacy means that Colombia now has the world’s second largest population of internally displaced persons, that is, behind Syria[ii]. Topics of income disparity, education and industrial policy have now spilled onto Colombian streets. With plenty canntoxicomonoed up, some Colombians are finding a new revolutionary voice.

When the Bogotano haze parts, like a stage curtain, it unveils large murals of vibrant, colorful and illuminating street art. With their illustrations unfolding at each junction of the capital’s mazy streets, like new pages of a book, their messages, like Colombia’s history, are deeply etched into the fabric of the South American city. The grafiteros want to tell the story; the spray-can has become their voice.

La calle es tu calle, ‘the street is your street’ reads one stenciled piece. From the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist graphics of the art collective, Toxicomano to the feminist and poverty visuals of Bastadilla, Bogotanos are rebranding the streets with their artistic messages. In February 2013 Bogota’s mayor promoted graffiti as a form of cultural expression, and with the city slowly becoming a hotbed for artistic voice, some authorities are even hiring grafiteros to spray-paint their own buildings.

Upon one Bogotano scaffolding wall, a large black and white fresco of an indigenous Choco region woman dragging a rich man and his material belongings comes into view. Nearby, DJ Lu’s stencil art portrays pinas granadas, ‘pineapple grenades’, alongside an image of a solider clenching grenade balloons. The multidimensionality and detail of the images, in their message and art form, has spurred grenadescuriosity. Graffiti tours offering up interpretation are now commonplace.

Toxicomano’s own front against ignorance and anti-mass media rhetoric strikes through the afternoon mist now rising into Bogota’s enveloping verdant hillsides. Their imaginary film promotions are stenciled throughout the city. One yellow highlighted title translates to, ‘Displacement: A film that should not be seen, let alone lived’, and nearby the phrase La vida real supera la fiction, ‘real life exceeds fiction’, is printed.

Bogotanos are coming to terms with their realities. Where social change still begets violence across the globe, the message of non-violent protest, and struggle for change, may find a new vehicle in the creativity and artistic penchant of humanity.

In the evening damp the doughy scent of sizzling Arepas, a Colombian flatbread, lingers in downtown Bogota. As Bogotanos refuel, spray-canisters reload. With the red-blood spill of history spread across the palette, tomorrow the grafiteros will attempt to recolor and redefine their very own revolution.

[i] Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory

[ii] Internal Monitoring Centre Global Overview report 2014

Related Material:

We need a creativity revolution – RSA, Adam Lent

The Wisdom of Tyler Durden – Tej Parikh

Bogota’s booming graffiti culture – Colombia Reports

The paradox of our Age

An almost palatable milky-chai aroma catches the soothing Himalayan breeze as a group of monks congregate upon a quaint cafe roof terrace with steaming white teacups. Below, a Chuba wearing woman adds a Spiritual awareness poster to the multitude of Reiki and Yoga notices already adorning its walls. The Dalai Lama’s Indian home of exile, Dharamshala, is a microcosm of the Tibetan way of life. It beats at its own pace; while the India around it searches for further acceleration.

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In 1959, the Dalai Lama completed an enduring fifteen day escape from Lhasa and arrived in India.  As one challenge folded, another unveiled itself. A global journey to support the welfare of Tibetans would expose him to the gulf between his ideologies, and the western-world. Witnessing the eternal chase to satiate endless desires that now lays bare in his adoptive home would have provided inspiration for his poem; ‘the paradox of our age’. The essence and simplicity that once embodied his Tibet is becoming harder to find in a world of growing complexity.

We have bigger houses but smaller families; more conveniences, but less time; We have more degrees, but less sense; more knowledge, but less judgement; more experts, but more problems; more medicines, but less healthiness;

In the sculpture classroom of the Zorig Chusum School of Traditional Arts in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, a poster reads, “If you’re a good human being, then the skills and knowledge you Himalayas (376)acquire will benefit the whole society. Otherwise it’s like giving a weapon to a child”. One student carefully ushers his paintbrush between the lines of his sketched “four harmonious friends,”  a universal Bhutanese image of a bird, rabbit, and monkey standing on each other’s shoulders on the back of a patient elephant, symbolising social and environmental harmony.

Education is not just a means to an end for the Bhutanese; it is an end in itself- to learn how to think. The ornately decorative architecture and the intricately painted murals of the country’s IMG_20131113_180757Dzongs and Chortens that are carved and shaded in the classroom, are not ostentatious items of show to portray power or yield monetary gain. Their worth is in preserving culture and tradition, and perpetuating morals.

We’ve been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbour. We build more computers to hold more information to produce more copies than ever, but have less communication; We have become long on quantity, but short on quality. These are times of fast foods but slow digestion; Tall men but short character; Steep profits but shallow relationships. It’s a time when there is much in the window, but nothing in the room.

On the path to Chimi Lhakang, the divine fertility temple in Bhutan’s Punakha valley, several workers begin sifting through the rice fields. The cloudless November morning sky allows the sun to radiate freely down upon them though fails to nullify their community spirit and the merry rhythm they have developed to their livelihoods. BoutsIMG_2605 of laughter echo from corners of the valley, which ebbs and flows with the motions of the farmers, while a gathering of children titter at the symbolic phalluses lining the temple route.

We may see opportunities to make rice growing faster, picking more efficient and the whole process, more profitable. Yet, from their Himalayan viewpoint, like the Tibetan monks enjoying afternoon tea, the Bhutanese prefer to embrace a life where values are multiplied, and possessions are not.

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When east meets west

A pendulum of sunshine flickers through coach C as the Himalayan Queen emerges from a petite tunnel and enters another. The train bravely chugs its way into the altitudinal panorama overlooking Solan hill-station, as a waft of spicy aubergine radiating from a passenger’s loosely fastened lunch tiffin battles with the fresh mountain air.

Himalayas (786)The 96km Kalka to Shimla railway mirrors the India surrounding it. Renowned for the steepest incline over such a distance; India too has risen from the plains to the lofty global heights in an incredibly short span.

The train pulls into Shimla while the sun settles behind the rolling peaks, turning the sky a dramatic orangey-pink hue. The ensuing mist-ridden milieu and peachy skyline befit the hundreds of Bollywood films set in the former British ‘summer capital’: Chori-Chori (1956), Kudrat (1981), Black (2005) and Bang Bang (2014), to name a few.

The transition of film titles in this chronological short-list alone echoes the dynamic India, and the world, is attempting to balance. The flattening and fusion of the world into a global community has brought cultural spheres of influences closer together. It has ignited the debate between whether these fresh cultures bring dilution or enrichment to our own.

Now a billion dollar industry, Indian cinema has transitioned from the Ramayana epics to western MTV culture in 100 years. In 1954, then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru received a petition from women who wanted to limit certain corrupting influences from films. 50 years on, item songs promoting a westernised portrayal of women have become a mainstay, and in attempting to modernise India’s image, the country in part is left with a crisis of identity.

With the largest youth population in the world, exposure to western influences has come at odds in an India which battles between retaining traditional values and the supposed ‘vogue’ imprinted in its media. Indian cinema may soon begin, if not already, to redefine the Indian psyche to Hollywood ideals, in order to fill film-makers’ coffers more rapidly.

In the middle-east the status quo appears to be treating different cultural influences with paranoia and subordination, avoiding any form of assimilation altogether. In Israel there is an inability to harmonize Palestinian and Jewish lifestyles, to the extent that absolute separation is sought. The Christian minority in the middle-east is also finding itself persecuted in the crossfire of sectarian violence.

In the modern world where connectivity is king, it seems that there is an equilibrium to reach, where we appreciate and accommodate the diversity of cultures around us, whilst remaining aware of how they influence our own values.

Deep in the Basacarsija bazaar in Sarajevo, ‘Europe’s Jerusalem’, a handful of moustachioed men sip their Turkish coffees and smoke hookah in the converted Morica Han, a 16th century Bosnian roadside inn originally built as a caravanserai. The noon prayer echoes through the courtyard from the nearby Gazi-Husrevbey mosque, whilst a Jewish man wearing a kippah saunters past toward the SarajevoHimalayas (819) synagogue. Here there is a striking synergy; Ottoman, Jewish and Christian influences have blended into a united Bosnian pace of life, where cross-cultural influences are adopted by others whilst preserving and enriching their own.

In the clamour at Shimla station, two refreshing Indian origin students emerge en route to the ‘Life and thought of Gandhi’ conference at the Indian institute for advanced studies.  With their fervour to learn the philosophies of India’s father set among their own international ambitions, they symbolise how the we must all adapt in the connected age. To embrace diversity, while remembering to champion our own heritage and identities.

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Castles in the sky

With its regal gold and crimson finishes, the strong white walls of the Tiger’s Nest monastery jut majestically above the verdant Bhutanese mountainside. It sits with a somewhat precarious comfort; as if it were held in place by the web of prayer flags radiating from its base.

Whatever castles we create above to house our beliefs, and however we choose to access that belief, through diverse ritual, tradition and storytelling, what ultimately connects humanity is the universal trait of having faith altogether.

Inside the monastery, a monk kneels down before a large shrine of Guru Rinpoche, known as the ‘second Buddha,’ and effortlessly glides his velvet robed body flat across the dark wooden floor with Himalayas (685)his arms outstretched in front of him and his hands clasped firmly together. After repeating the motion three times he takes a sip of holy water from his palms and splashes the rest over his shaven head. The Guru is believed to have meditated in the caves upon which the monastery was built, after he had flown from Tibet on a tigress’ back to subdue a local demon.

In the North Indian hill station, Shimla, a woman frantically circumnavigates the Jakhoo temple, dedicated to the Hindu monkey deity Hanuman. As the sun hides behind the cascading hillsides, a Himalayas (860)number of notorious scurrying monkey silhouettes aptly come into view. The woman touches every depiction of Hanuman, and as she recounts how Hanuman famously lifted a mountain to deliver a life-saving herb to a companion’s wounded brother, she asks him to lend his strength and bravery.

A Sikh man gently lays his clothing down on the white marble floor and immerses himself in the pool of nectar at Amritsar’s Golden Temple.  He methodically cleanses his face and hands with the water. Guru Arjan Dev the son of Guru Raam Das, the fourth spiritual master of the Sikhs, completed the excavation of the pool, and proclaimed that bathing Himalayas (1172)inside the pool will wash away all the sins one has committed.

On India’s North-western edge, the roar of a buoyed Indian crowd chants ‘Vande Mataram….India Zindabad’ in unison at the Wagah border ceremony, which officially closes the India and Pakistan border each day at sunset. In the oddly extravagant event, Indian border officers were pictured this year offering Eid gifts to the Pakistani Ranger wing commander during the ceremony. Here national banter appears to transcend religious differences.

Though, in our modern society where faiths mix together in an effervescing cauldron stirred by mass media and our increasing social interconnectedness, we are reminded more of our differences than our similarities. Religion’s power to unite is being wrongly realigned to a tool of separation.

Only a few hundred kilometres north of Wagah, the region of Kashmir remains in a state of flux. A purely geopolitical issue has become embroiled with a religious label of Hindu and Islamic dispute. In Burma, a nationalist movement headed by the Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, the self-proclaimed ‘Burmese Bin Laden,’ has been inciting hatred against the country’s minority Muslim population, and threatens to spread to other Buddhist nations. Whilst globally, Al-Qaeda has used religion to brainwash disillusioned Muslim men into killing themselves in the name of Allah. The rivalry and territorial tendencies that has historically underpinned human nature is driving these issues, but has been lost in translation and wrongly attributed to or wielded as inherently religious.

In the crisp Bhutanese air, the prayer flags weave down through the Paro valley, binding together all that they touch, revealing their pentuple of colours. Each represents its own sadhana, or purpose, pertaining to the five elements; Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Sky.  Himalayas (220)The last of these, the sky, reflects that which is beyond our everyday experience, and fuses the elements together, just as the monk sipping holy water, the woman praying at the feet of Hanuman’s large statue and the Sikh man bathing at the Golden Temple are bound together by faith.

The wisdom of Tyler Durden

“We’re the middle children of history man, no purpose or place. We have no Great war, no Great depression, our great war is a spiritual war, our great depression is our lives. We’ve been all raised by television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars, but we won’t and we’re slowly learning that fact.”

An Andean fog descends upon the Colombian capital, engulfing it in a timeless shell. A civil, guerrilla and drug warfare ridden history travels in its eerie haze. Yet its assault on the streets of Bogota’s old quarter, La Candelaria, is stymied by the vibrant tones of street art. Bogota’s grafiteros are the middle children-fighting a spiritual war.

Over the past two decades, socio-political, economic and technological advances have arguably enhanced the human experience.  This generation has been largely untouched by the conflict, economic maladies and social unrest to the extent faced by an early 20th Century global community finding its footing.   Today our battles focus on improving our rights, where our previous endeavours would have fought to create or defend them.

I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. “

The ‘spiritual war’ we face is endogenous to our environment. In the West, our battle is coming to terms with the consumerist society we have created, and questioning how to weight our values within it. In October 2012 a ‘WATERisLIFE.com’ video campaign went viral on YouTube. The video showed Haitians standing amid shanty huts, reading out ‘first-world problems’ such as ‘I hate it when my phone charger doesn’t reach my bed.’ Although its aim was to demonstrate the banality the ‘western world’, it still puts into perspective how spheres of concern shift as our basic rights are fulfilled.

For others, a spiritual war is about questioning their place in society. The growth of Islamic extremism illustrates how a proxy war to battle a western society, believed to be impeding freedoms, in reality is a redirection of anger from those finding themselves at the margins of society. Their frustrations have seen them indoctrinated into Jihad, and xenophobic organisations such as the English Defence League and British National Party, to find some semblance of voice.

A decade on from the 9/11, the Arab spring has demonstrated how the changing global environment has given humanity the opportunity to change the historic foundations forged for them. Social media provided the tipping point to battle against oppressive political regimes-and fuel a spiritual war for the Arab world’s people, who are trying to improve their positions in society.

In Bogota, the walls on each street tell a different story, from the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist spray-paintings by the artist Toxicomano, to the feminism and poverty graphics of Bastardilla. On one Bogotano garage door, a large mural of a young woman carrying a rich man and his belongings on her back comes into view.  Despite the humid afternoon mist fanning the capital, the deeply etched Spanish word ‘culpa’ or blame is easily readable on the rich man’s crucifix. ‘The poor and rich cannot live in harmony’ adds Ana, my guide. ‘The details, the messages and the colours are so impressive that some property owners actually pay the grafiteros to spray paint on their walls’.  Where the spray-paint can is symbolic for anti-social behaviour, Bogotanos have made it their sign of defiance and empowerment, their canvasses become their voice.

As we reflect on our place in society and choose our ‘spiritual war’, we must select our creative voices over our destructive ones to give ourselves a purpose and place, and to make a mark on history, where we are ‘the middle children.’

The Ugandan Asian footprint

‘They arrived with nothing but the clothes on their backs.’  Stripped of their wealth and livelihoods, 27,000 shivering Ugandan Asians arrived in Britain in 1972, to the condemning echo of Enoch Powell’s ‘River’s of Blood Speech’.  Over forty years on, Ugandan Asians are Britain’s most successful immigrant community. Their strength lay not in materiality; in what they own or the inheritance of empires, but in knowledge that could build ownership and create empires. They had been here before.

In the maze of pothole-ridden streets we arrived at the feeble looking Parikh ancestral home in Sojitra, in India’s northern Gujarat state. The latest squatter catches  our sight through the gaps in the door and approaches to let us in, his child scurries out past us like an ant, doing well to avoid the freshly laid cow dung by the stone carved doorstep.   Inside, the wooden stairs lacked sturdiness, the roof fought a dying battle with even the gentlest summer breeze, and the weak walls allowed the ringing of prayer bells to resonate through as darshan was called at the Vaherai Mata temple nearby.  Though the physical foundations were weak, the life lessons learnt inside were character building, and continue to be felt generations on.

Eighty years before, under this very roof would have stood the dejected figure of my great-grandfather, Purushottam Parikh. At the age of seventeen an immense burden fell on his young shoulders. His father had passed away leaving behind an extensive family and the debts he was unable to fulfil as a merchant.  ‘Parikh’ as those closest would call him, took the decision to migrate to Uganda with his wife and father-in-law, where thousands of Gujaratis before them had become the powerhouses of the growing Ugandan British empire. Innate to the Ugandan Asian persona was the willingness to take risk, for many like my great-grandfather, their circumstance left them little choice.

‘They would have been like Ram, Laxman and Sita,’ envisaged my grandfather. When Ram is depicted next to his brother Laxman and consort Sita-this form of the Hindu deity is known as Ram Parivar. Parivar, meaning family has always been focal to the Ugandan Asians’ story; it is treasured as a resource. After finding work as a Barclays Bank clerk in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, ‘Parikh’ would regularly return to India to invite and initiate his younger brothers into the opportunities of ‘the pearl of Africa’.  By his early thirties he was a manager at Barclays.

‘A pin-drop silence’ would befall the office floor when ‘Mr Parikh’, one of the most senior ranking non-Ugandans, entered.  Outside the orange-hues of the African road dust would linger in the air as he strode assuredly. Immaculately coiffed and suited, accompanied with his stylish pocket-pen, his panache was not unfounded. In 1953 he had received a letter inviting him to come to Britain to witness Queen Elizabeth II‘s coronation as an esteemed Barclays Bank employee. He dreamt to experience life in the ‘western-world.’  Yet after enthusiastically purchasing new suits and pressing his trousers for his visit he suffered a fatal heart-attack at the age of forty-three, months after declaring that he had finally fulfilled his father’s debts.

At the core of the Ugandan Asian personality was endeavour; whether to reach the heights of society, provide for a family or pay-off debts. Parikh’s dream lives on in his legacy. Idi Amin forced his family’s exile to Britain and Canada without the wealth that he created.  Instead, they left with the charisma and fortitude he had shown them, in order to rebuild it.

As the morning traffic on Belgrave Road in Leicester basks in the scent of a fresh batch of mogo, or cassava, and another sari shop in Wembley refills with the latest silk styles from across the globe, Ugandan Asians look into their rich and diverse heritage for strength.  Their talents were forged in India, their mettle was tested in Uganda-but they flourished across the world.

Challenging the ‘google society’

Ismail carefully unearths the Jordanian Zarb delicacy, prepared from a makeshift underground oven, brushing the orange Wadi Rum sands gently aside. Traditionally dressed in a salwar kameez and an extended keffiyeh drawn to protect his bearded face from the desert’s elements, he begins to chant Bedouin tribal songs.  His moonlit image cut against the backdrop of one of Earth’s greatest wildernesses symbolizes the stark contrast between Western stigma and his endearing hospitality.

In an increasingly interconnected, kinetic and information rich ‘google society’ making quick judgements has become integral part of our daily experience. ‘Thin-slicing’ in psycho-philosophical study is used to describe our supposed ability to make decisions in certain scenarios using only fragments of information. If we can achieve this then our judgements about the people, places and situations we encounter, based on snap perception, can be liable to the media, our upbringing and social circles-and therefore biased.

In 2002 George Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ speech refocused the West’s supposed enemy, and the ‘war on terror’ realigned our behaviours towards different faiths through passive reinforcement.  Often our media had an underlying tone, offering a sense of unilateralism, or an ‘us against them’ connotation which became harmonised with Ismail’s image.

Whilst we may subconsciously just be more cautious around someone of Ismail’s appearance, sometimes the subconscious has taken on a dangerous reality. Almost exactly 11 years after the 9/11 attacks 7 Sikhs were shot dead at a temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, USA by a ‘white supremacist’.  ‘I was born and raised in this country. I played little league baseball. My mom was a soccer mom. I’m a diehard Yankees fan. I’m an American,’ Amardeep Singh, a co-founder of the Sikh Coalition, lamented in an August 2012 Guardian report on the atrocity.  It illustrates how powerful the glut of media images actually were-injecting a stigma into peoples’ minds.

Our upbringing also shapes our view of the world, and therefore our choices. Joining a local family in Wadi Rum, a few kilometres from the ancient city of Petra, for a traditional Jordanian Mansaf feast- exemplified how our values and disciplines can be inbuilt from childhood. The son, Malik passionately recited a famous Islamic idiom, ‘sharpen the mind, harden the body, soften the heart, and be of service to others.’ The daughter, Sairah, mirrors her mother’s generosity, offering hot sage teas. Hospitality and munificence is part of Jordanian identity, and is perpetuated by parents passing on these values.

However we are also exposed to our parents’ dispositions. Not only can we be born into a religion, we can be born into a certain way of thinking, or on a certain side of a conflict. Following the announcement of a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel in late November this year, images of boys as young as six were shown wielding automatic weapons, AK47 assault rifles and handguns in celebration in the West bank city of Hebron. The graphics illustrate the cycle of violence in the region, but highlights more widely how we can be biased and indoctrinated by our upbringing.

Adherence to social convention is an innate part of human nature. Ideas and beliefs can replicate as they gather wider social acceptance. From 2008 to 2010, the spate of violence against Indian students in Australia, dubbed ‘curry-bashings’ by the Indian media, raised questions about xenophobia in Australian society.  According to The Age, a Melbourne newspaper, there was a 46% drop in Indians applying for student visas for Australia from July to 31 October 2009 compared to the same period in 2008. The growing Indian student presence may have sown the seeds of xenophobic beliefs and then spilled over into violence amongst a small sect of Australian society.

Similarly, there were questions over the global media reaction to the events-including claims that the Indian government had embellished the issue. This view has steamrolled in Indian society, with the reduction in Indian student visa applications, and with Bollywood star, Amitabh Bachan’s rebuttal of an honorary doctorate from Queensland University of Technology. Acceptance of the prevalent view can cause situations like this to perpetuate, and stereotypes to formulate-until they become self-reinforcing.

With the volumes of different messages around us, we have a tendency to accept those most useful to us, to enable us to function within society. We can begin to discard auxiliary thought which challenges these conventions. A recent study by psychologists Sparrow, Liu and Wegner ‘Google effects on memory’ contains findings illustrating that when people have access to readily available information sources, they remember fewer fact and less information because they can rely on ‘searches’ to acquire it. The internet effectively becomes our ‘transactive’ memory where we store our information.

Thin-slicing has become both more integral and pivotal in our lifestyles without us noticing. It is often easier to ‘search’ on the mass of consolidated information at our fingertips, revert to our upbringing or what our social circles believe to inform us rather than reaching for the new.

Ismail reappears from the desert darkness holding woollen blankets and covers the tired desert travellers, who lay asleep facing the glowing stars by the fire. We must engage in the information age without impeding our sense of self-discovery, so that we can continue to embrace various perspectives and see people like Ismail in a different light.

Facebook: The critical Mass

With the chaotic traffic of voices around us, acting like a magnet to our moral compasses, there has never been a greater necessity to be more in tune with our own judgements and ideals before we embrace others.

As you descend the escalators at Cairo International Airport, the words of a proudly positioned poster are emphatically revealed. ‘We must educate our children to become like young Egyptian people…’ This is the poignant message of Barak Obama, in February 2011, following the ousting of Hosni Mubarak’s 30 year dictatorship.

On 17th December 2010, Mohamed Bouzizi, a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire, in protest of the harassment he reported to have endured from a civic official. The action quite symbolically ignited the Middle East’s peoples’ fight for democracy and improved governance. From Sana’a to Damascus and Algiers to Baghdad, the baton of revolution was passed on. We moved into an age where the enemy was not another political state, but the people’s own state. Questioning one’s economic circumstance and struggles rather than accepting it became a norm.

What differentiates this revolution is how the battleground has been altered by what are now slowly becoming the bad boy pin-ups for democracy, Twitter and Facebook. The Chinese government were quick to notice the potential powers of social media and were quick to ban all access to Facebook in 2008. As word of revolt spread in Egypt, the Egyptian government effectively withdrew citizens from the internet, blocking Facebook and Twitter in late January 2011. They went one step further on January 28th 2011, the ‘Friday of Rage,’ by shutting down the country’s mobile phone signal.

Mark Zuckerburg would perhaps barely believe the power of his creation. The impact of any idea or concept relies on how quickly it can be replicated and transmitted, but primarily on how universal the idea actual is. Then a critical mass is reached.

In social dynamics, a critical mass is defined as the ‘threshold value of the number of people required to trigger a phenomenon by the exchange of ideas.’ To some extent we are all part of a critical mass in the everyday social norms we adhere to. In the case of the Arab Spring, many already had torrid experiences residing under dictatorial governance.  Social media then filled the gap, by making each individual part of a wider group, bringing them empowerment and then allowing voices and opinions to spread.

On February 6th 2011 as Egyptian Christians held Sunday Mass in Tahrir Square, Cairo-Muslims in quite iconic fashion, created a protective human ring around them, covering them from government fire. A unified message for democracy had been created, where factions and tensions used to lie. The power of the people is only sufficient when combined; social media aided this amalgamation, and helped to create an opposition with enough voice to overthrow Mubarak.

Facebook and Twitter play an increasing role in how we perceive the world around us. Never has the flow of ideas and opinions been so great.  History is littered with examples of inventions, wars, genocide and triumphs where a common idea has replicated.  Where social media has fought for democracy in the Arab Spring, and continues to do so, it can also become a breeding ground for hatred and xenophobia.

Drawing on the anti-Semitic propaganda the Nazi’s spread in the 1930s, the belief that the Jewish community were at fault for Germany’s maladies became widespread. It becomes hard to believe that less than 80 years ago, this brutal critical mass was reached, at such a stage of our socio-cultural development as a human race, and especially given the then relative lack of media, compared to what we are now accustomed to.

Twitter and Facebook keep us tuned in, as does the array of media around us. Despite the expanse of information available to us- we need to increase our ability to question, discern and dissect what we hear. Only then can we create an effective critical mass, with a message we could be as proud to convey as the Egyptians. Image

The ‘West Spring’

As beacons for economic development, our perception of progress amongst the lesser developed world is measured against the ‘west’. Yet, we barely need to use a microscopic lens to see social unrest and xenophobia scratching the surface of the western world. To what extent has the developed world actually progressed in the social sphere?

On 4th August 2011, Mark Duggan, was shot dead by police in Tottenham, and what began as a peaceful protest, two days later escalated into rioting, across Britain. The vast majority of violence was merely described by the media as ‘copycat violence’. Interviews with looters live on TV demonstrated a youthful ignorance amongst some communities, claiming to be in relative poverty-and simply taking back what they are owed.  Geographically the riots did take place in relatively ‘underprivileged’ regions of London, the West Midlands and Merseyside. Whilst to many the ensuing carnage was unjustifiable, it clearly paints a picture of unrest. We are used to seeing such scenes in Africa or Asia, but certainly not in the UK. It was at a point where Middle-Eastern countries were advising caution to their citizens travelling to Britain. It clearly demonstrated that social development issues still impact the west, and if anything becomes more challenging as economic development occurs. The London riots demonstrated how development in one sphere, economic, lead to tensions in social development, where it would seem income inequality and possible social dislocation powered the riots.

The open borders of the western world have also fuelled tensions in social development. The European Union currently finds itself on the brink of financial collapse, and as leaders are calling for a closer integration to save the euro, Europe has moved towards nationalism and xenophobia.  Last year, the Danish and French governments challenged the Schengen policy, of essentially a borderless state, by reintroducing limited border controls. Further, many politicians, such as Sarkozy, in the lead up to elections, have strengthened their voter base promoting national identity and attempting to bolster their countries’ borders. The Euro area crisis has left behind the lower middle and working classes; made redundant and disillusioned from the region’s economic woes. This is slowly building into a critical mass of individuals finding themselves able to relate to right-wing nationalist parties-which shun the multiculturalism that has built up in Europe. Are we seeing the rise of a xenophobic society in Europe? What was seen as necessary for economic development, open borders, is slowly becoming an excuse for economic failures.

The everlasting impacts of 9/11 have also strained religion and society in the western hemisphere. The FBI found that the number of hate crime attacks against Muslims increased 1,600% between 2000 and 2011. The huge rise is assumed to be the result of the 9/11 attacks. This wave of ‘islamaphobia’ seems to have snow-balled with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. It is not only limited to those of Muslim faith; slowly racial profiling and racial gang violence is becoming more general, with cases arising across faiths. With income disparities and fortunes unevenly spread in these capitalist societies and especially skewed away from immigrants, we have a breeding ground for those victims of hate crimes to seek solace in extremism and gang culture.

Youth unrest in Britain, rising xenophobic state in Europe and simmering racial tensions are timely reminders that the west’s development is far from complete. Do we need to look inward before we look outward at the social development on the underdeveloped? Are these tensions likely to reach a critical mass and spill over like in the Arab world?