“We prevent hate by educating others” 

I am obsessed with reading. I have probably learnt most of the things I know through reading. In a world where naivety and hatred are prominent, I believe education is vitally important in changing opinions and making people think and reading is a great place to start.  A few of my friends have recently asked for book recommendations, so here we go.

I am an avid reader of political non-fiction books as well as political fiction books. Not everything I read has to be true but it has to be thought provoking. So, below are some of my favourite books from the past year or so and the reasons why.

  1. The Lightless Sky, Gulwali Passarlay 

The quickest I’ve read a book in a long time. This book is a MUST read if you care about refugees, children or just humanity in general. It puts all the horrors refugees and asylum seekers face on their journey to Europe in stone. Its everything you sort of knew but didn’t think you could face, yet you have to. Not only does it talk about the brutality and unfortunate necessity of human smugglers, it faces friendship and heartbreak perfectly. My favourite thing about this book is its so real and every word in it is relatable for far too many people around the world. Also, Gulwali is from Afghanistan – a place that I hold constantly in my thoughts. It explains why (young) people have to leave the country – a state declared technically safe these days – and how parents must make the hardest decision of their lives. It places the perfect disconnect between ‘East’ and ‘West’ and highlights the sheer difference in culture between Afghanistan and Europe. The honesty in this book deserves an award in itself.

The book also mentions my favourite subject – the bureaucracy of systems in the UK. The immigration system, age assessments and dealing with social services, accessing education and, mental health. The biggest mistake people make is realising that just because someone is ‘safe’ now they’re in the UK, doesn’t mean they can miraculously forget everything they’ve seen.

Gulwali is a true inspiration. He’s pretty much the same age as me and I can’t even comprehend going through what he went through and achieving everything he has achieved.

There is one sentence in this book that will sit with me forever: “By sending me away, she definitely saved her son, but she also lost him”. 

Seriously, go read this book. NOW.

2.  The Last Kestrel, Gill McGivering

This book is most certainly a thought provoker – especially for the western centric thinkers. This fiction book based on non-fiction set in Afghanistan is about a journalist called Ellen Thomas whose Afghan Pashto translator, Jalil is suddenly murdered and she is determined to find out why. The book finds itself in the midst of three sides; NATO (British) forces, the Taliban and an innocent Afghan family. The book perfectly voices two different view points to the conflict and the NATO forces. Now, I thought it was going to be a stereotypical western book about Afghanistan. But the ending shocks you. It makes you think – well it certainly made me think – of the Afghan war in a completely different way. It puts a perfect spin on the possibilities of lies and indoctrination, of western propaganda. It represents a mothers revenge that, given events, seems only natural. And I loved every second of it.

3. Mornings in Jenin, Susan Abdulhawa 

I love anything Palestinian and this book was no different. This book kicked the life out of me on more than one occasion. Although it is ‘fiction’ , its technically fact. The book discusses the 1948 Nakba  from a very real, human perspective, making the whole situation almost unimaginable. The book follows a girl Amal, who has two younger brothers – one of whom gets snatched by an Israeli soldier. This brother, grows up thinking he is Israeli until he has an intense run in with his twin brother at a checkpoint. Amal ends up as a refugee from the 1967 war, leaving the Jenin refugee camp that she called home behind and ending up in a girls orphanage in Jerusalem. Susan’s writing is incredible at creating images – I could, and still can, physically see the refugee camp and the orphanage. Amal, eventually moves to America – where she becomes Amy – and lives a completely different life. This book leaves me speechless. It is so so important and so real for so many – it faces losing an identity in so many, multifaceted ways its hard to comprehend.

4. The Blue Between Sky and Water, Susan Abdulhawa 

I said that the last book hit me hard, this one hits you harder. Its pretty brutal from the start as it talks of a families run for survival in 1948 from their village of Beit Daras for a refugee camp in southern Gaza. It vividly describes rape at the hands of Israeli soldiers and the differences between the experiences of the Baraka family depending on their age and awareness. The book starts off following the family who fled to the refugee camp in Gaza before introducing Nur, a Palestinian American who ends up in Gaza to visit her family. This book has one significant difference to any others – its ‘magical’ element in the form of 10 year old Khaled who is the blue between sky and water as you hear his voice before he is born and then when he is dead. Khaled is the spiritual element that ties this book together. This book has constant surprises – it’s s complex, you just have to read it and find out for yourself. I promise you, you won’t regret a thing about it.

Susan Abdulhawa is without a doubt one of my favourite authors of all time. Her ability to bring things to life, spur the imagination and inspire you are things I have never found in another author.

5. Burnt Shadows, Kamila Shamsie

I was incredibly confused by the blurb of this book yet it intrigued me to read it. Starting in Nagasaki, this book then goes to India, Turkey, Pakistan, New York and Afghanistan. How? Go read it and you’ll find out. This book follows various people (all of whom are intertwined in some way or another) on their journey in search of identity and belonging. Its hard to say too much about it without giving anything away. Identity and belonging is incredibly important in todays world with many refusing to accept ‘foreigners’, ‘immigrants’ or ‘refugees’ yet this book frames it so slyly yet prominently as not to hit you straight on. If you want find out about how a child, living in Pakistan that is half Japanese and half Indian ends up in Afghanistan pretending to be a Hazara in a Mujaheddin Pashto training camp, you have to read it.

6. The Orphan Masters Son, Adam Johnson 

Probably the weirdest book I’ve read in the last few years. I was drawn to it as its set in North Korea and Adam Johnson has actually been to North Korea. The book is about a North Korean intelligence officer onboard a fishing ship and everything about it makes it seem like a biography. The book follows Jun Do who grows up in an orphanage yet believes he is the son of the orphan master. The book has a strong theme of propaganda – theres a lot of government discussion – and deceit as well as identity and brutality and politics in North Korea. Yet its also very bizarre. Jun Do somehow ends up working his way up the military and ends up on a trip to America. Jun Do ends up in America because (I’m not quite sure how) he ends up impersonating the famous leader (in terms of the book) Commander Ga, a military hero and then sets up the escape from North Korea of Commander Ga’s family – the famous singer, Sun Moon and her family. Again, this book is written in such a way that you can imagine being there. How an orphan masters apparent son ends up going through all this – who knows. Its such a strange read yet pure brilliance.

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The Arab Spring & Oil

The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ has troubled the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) significantly since 2010.  The protests were a shock to many around the world as no one had predicted such protests and consequently revolutions or wars could or would happen in the MENA region. However, once it became clear that this ‘domino effect’ was happening, people began to question whether there were any correlations between the nations involved.  One of the main things questioned was the role of oil. The majority of states that have experienced significant protest or civil war have not been states in possession of large quantities of oil.  So does rentier state theory explain the failure of mass mobilisation in certain states?

Let’s role it back to how this ‘Arab Spring’ began. In December 2010 in Tunisia Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit and veg seller set himself on fire in protest against corruption in the country. This led to all out protest in the nation and the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The protests soon spread as in January 2011, they broke out in Yemen and Jordan swiftly followed by Egypt in February 2011 following the Mukhabart beating to death Khaled Said (of which pictures appeared on the internet sparking outrage). A couple of weeks later, Hosni Mubarak resigned. The Libyan people joined the ‘Arab Spring’ in February 2011 too along with Bahrain, Morocco, Oman and Algeria followed by Syria and Saudi Arabia in March 2011 and finally, Kuwait in the summer of 2011. Every protest was different in nature and outcome as some were easily resolved by their leaders, others involved regime change or even counter-revolution and many continue to suffer grave civil war to this day.

Of all the states that were involved in the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Algeria and Libya were the only states with significant oil assets and Libya was the only state that saw dramatic change.

At first glance, it appears that states involved in the Spring that had oil wealth were able to survive the upheaval. Due to the sheer amount of money that these states make from producing oil, they were able to ‘buy off’ their citizens – which is exactly what Saudi Arabia did. Saudi Arabia put $136 billion into the public sector to help fund housing and unemployment. This undoubtedly prevented citizens from wanting to revolt further – along with the fact that people were arrested and often tried in courts specifically used for terrorism charges. The Saudis were also able to use their oil influence in Bahrain where they helped the Bahraini King suppress rebellion with military force (probably paid for by oil).

Although on the surface oil (rentier-state theory) may be useful in explaining why certain states did not have to deal with the mass mobilisation of their citizens during the ‘Arab Spring’, it doesn’t truthfully represent it. Oil prices fell during the late 1980s and we didn’t see political liberalisation then and also, there were a number of other causes such as the  authoritarian or monarchic (although monarchies can also be authoritarian) nature of governments and the protests themselves.

Arguably, it wasn’t the fact that oil producing states had financial abilities but it was how we used them. The Gulf monarchies attempted to consult and include the vast majority of the population rather than just a particular group of supporters – something that Libya failed to do. Libya did not use their oil wealth to appease their citizens in a successful way which ultimately led to widespread protests that spiralled. When Qaddafi finally attempted to ‘buy off’ his citizens (with $24 billion for housing) it was too little, too late. This just goes to show that some states were a lot more willing to use their oil wealth to buy off their citizens and prevent them protesting than others. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Monarchies recognised this ability – Libya, did not.

The majority of states in MENA are either ruled by monarchical or authoritarian governments. Its arguable that Monarchies were able to retain power without much issue during the ‘Arab Spring’ due to the nature of their regime and the tradition it entailed. Monarchies sit outside the normal legislative institutions making it easier for them to quell protest and offer reforms in an easier manner – due to the differing factions in the legislature. In Saudi Arabia reforms were granted as women gained certain political rights as well as noted changes to interfaith dialogues and the judicial system. Libya on the other hand played off clan and ethnic differences and held central importance to the army to stamp out process. The army then split into two meaning that civil war broke out. This is something we have also seen in Egypt and Syria – deserters – yet we have not seen it with monarchical regimes as they still retain full support of their militaries. Qaddafi came to power in 1969 following a military coup and played off deep divisions in the country ensuring he followed authoritarian rule. This created a fractured and distrustful society, which ultimately was prepared to rebel against authoritarian rule.

My last point is that the nature of the protests varied significantly. In Saudi Arabia protests were pretty limited – the majority of protests were in the Eastern Province, the Shia dominated region of a Sunni nation. Limited groups were involved in the protest such as the Free Youth Coalition and the National Youth Movement (both Shia). The protests did not call for the direct overthrow of the regime, only for changes to human rights and putting an end to corruption. There were vary few Sunnis who became involved in the protests. This meant that unity and mass mobilisation was not going to happen due to sectarianism being used as a counter-revolutionary strategy. This was the opposite to Libya were protest was widespread and mainstream. Libyan protests expanded nationwide and even set up the National Transitional Council (NTC). There were numerous opposition groups which had grown abroad as well as underground at home such as the Libyan Constitutional Union and the Libyan Islamic Group and, to top it off for Qaddafi, most the Arab world despised him making it a lot easier to overthrow him.

So, although oil wealth helped states that were willing to use their oil wealth to ‘buy off their citizens’, it was very much dependent on whether the state in question was willing to do so. Saudi Arabia was willing to put billions into employment benefits, housing and public sector pay and therefore this, to an extent, helped prevent mass mobilisation. Libya on the other hand, attempted to put a few billion into the state welfare and citizens, in particular housing, but it was very much seen as far too little and far too late. Furthermore, the protests themselves and their demands and the nature of the regime played significant roles. In Libya, a large section of society called for the fall of the regime whereas in Saudi Arabia, a limited sect of society protested. Furthermore, due to its monarchical nature and the support of their armed forces, they were more capable of overcoming unrest in the early stages whereas, in Libya, the authoritarian regime lacked the overall support of the military and therefore, the regime fell.

 

 

 

 

Forgotten States: Albania

Albania is a state pretty much everyone has heard of yet no one seems to know anything about. From my experience, all I ever hear of is people complaining about Albanian immigrants and ‘their way of thinking’ or ‘doing’ but there is no discussion as to the politics or nature of that country that these people have left behind. Along with Eritrea, Albania is one of the highest nationalities of young asylum seeking children in the UK. When I first worked with asylum seekers and refugees, it truly surprised me. I mean, theres no war, theres no conflict – or not that I know about reported in the news – so what are they doing here?

There are two simple answers to that: trafficking and blood feuds. Albania has had a rather turbulent past, even since the regime change from communism to democracy in 1990 but little of that has been documented by the media. To begin with – blood feuds. Blood feuds are a medieval tradition that affect perhaps hundreds of families in Albania each year – if not more. These feuds can derive from the most trivial situations – lovers stories, neighbours clashes to political debates. And it is nothing short of cold, brutal murder. They simply murder each other. The blood feuds are known as ‘kanun’ a tribal code dating back to the 15th Century basically meaning ‘spilled blood must be met with spilled blood’. This may perhaps be a shock to those who consider Albania to be a European country, NATO member and potential EU member in the future. This lawless tradition is something the government of Albania has failed to control and often refuses to accept as an issue, despite the fact that it results in thousands of families sending their children abroad. It is therefore of little surprise that Albania consistently sits in the top 10 nationalities of those seeking asylum in the UK.

The other issue facing Albanians, especially young Albanians is trafficking. Albanians have  long been victims of trafficking, mainly in the form of slavery and sexual exploitation. Often the ‘slavery’ involves criminal activities and forced labour – often on building sites. This trafficking is not limited to young people (women are largely affected too) but it undoubtedly has the greatest impact on them. For decades, young people have been trafficked to Western Europe, sometimes with the victim’s families being complicit in supporting the traffickers, other times by employing threats. The Albanian government and police force appears to be unable to control the situation. Once young people are in the  UK, they are often unable to tell anyone or escape from their traffickers due to the severity of threats they receive. Even once young people build up the courage to tell someone and receive support from government services and charities, the threat from traffickers often remains. The lucky ones who manage to escape the horror of trafficking, slavery or sexual exploitation are often then faced with new challenges.

Despite the atrocities that young Albanians face – making it completely understandable as to why they often claim asylum in the UK – most are often refused asylum. According to the Refugee Council, Albania has appeared in the top 8 child asylum seeking seeking producing nations in the world. In 2015, only 1 young unaccompanied asylum seeking child was given refugee status, 8 were given discretionary leave to remain, 288 were given UASC leave and 143 were straight up refused (British Council, 2015). The government has a policy that all those under 17 1/2 have to be given some sort of protection in the UK until they are 18 years old when they can be returned to their home country. It can be presumed that the 143 that were refused were perhaps age disputed and it was decided the were over 18. That means, one can make the assumption that in 2015, out of all young Albanian asylum seekers (440 in total), 1, yes 1, received refugee status.

We cannot be blind to the system and to the nature of human beings in the world. There are always those who try to cheat the system in some way or another but 2015 was not a stand out year for refusals of Albanians. 2015 was an example of how Albanian asylum applications are treated every year. Young Albanians are often running from death or escaping slavery or sexual exploitation. Yet we prevent this escape becoming permanent – all to keep our immigration figures down.

Oh, Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has become what Eritrea once was – forgotten. The violence and horror that is currently occurring (and has been for a while) has slipped off our television screens and out of our newspapers. Is this another example of western interest? Since the end of the NATO ISAF campaign ended in 2014 after 13 long years of conflict, Afghanistan appears to be of little interest to the western world. The lack of news coverage is not the only shift we have seen in European attitudes towards the country but also the change in policy towards Afghani refugees and asylum seekers.

The conflict in Afghanistan was arguably never going to be a success story. The ISAF forces invaded on the grounds that the Taliban had been harbouring terrorists and training them which obviously caused 9/11….not because of the horrible treatment of Afghani women and anyone who didn’t comply with the Taliban’s strict implementation of Shari’a law. Further to that, in recent years the US and NATO have not been especially successful with their hearts and minds campaign. To many normal Afghanis it was probably better to keep your mouth shut under the Taliban – at least you could get on with your life as normal whereas under the NATO ‘occupation’, the chances were you’d be kicked out your house so it could be used as a base – if it hadn’t already been bulldozed. Further to that, a lot of Afghanis relied on the poppy trade. Although it may perhaps not be the most morally right career, it was at least a way for ordinary people to make money. The ISAF forces simply tried to destroy the trade with little left to replace it.

It is no secret to anyone that Afghanistan suffers from severe corruption in almost all forms of government, police etc. and for that, I do not have an answer. I do know however, that this corruption was one of the reasons many turned to the Taliban. I once read that if someone stole, say your car, and you went to the local police station, they’d probably suggest you paid them and they’d look into it. If you went to the Taliban, they’d probably ask you for all the information possible and then ask you how you’d like the person to be punished (if they knew who it was). Although neither option is perhaps moral – with many criminals being stoned to death or their hands cut off under the Taliban – people were frustrated with the lack of action from the Afghani authorities. This is something too that ISAF failed to solve.

Furthermore, the ISAF forces themselves were flawed. There seemed to be a serious lack of  coordination between the forces. It was often mentioned that on rotation with US troops coming to a base/area to replace British troops after 6 months, the US troops would simply end up doing the same things that had been done before under the British tour – sometimes messing things up. This was not the only issue. Many governments followed different agendas. For example, under the British campaign it was decided that British troops could not shoot unless shot at first and with Germany, due to their difficult past, had very strict operating rules of what force could be used. This lack of coordination undoubtedly cost the campaign significantly.

Despite all this, when the last ISAF troops left Afghanistan in December 2014, success was very much celebrated. As far as NATO were concerned, they’d fought the Taliban and pushed most of them out of ‘troubled regions’ such as Helmand, they’d built some sort of infrastructure, trained the police and military and left behind a decent government structure. Yet Taliban are very much making a comeback in the country. I hate to use a saying from the Vietnam war, but I will. NATO might have won some battles but they certainly lost the war. Their impact has barely been felt in a positive way and now many individuals are not only threatened by the Taliban but ISIS too. Many districts have been taken back by the Taliban with even more being contested.

To add another flip side, the European Union declared that Afghanistan was now a safe place (or at least parts of it were – such as Kabul) meaning that European states could now return Afghan asylum seekers. Numbers of Afghani teenagers who have spent the most important years of their life in Europe and are now very much European have been returned. From the people I have known and the contacts I have had with various Afghani refugees and refugee agencies, Afghanis are all returned to Kabul regardless of where they come from. Imagine that. On arrival many also realise the broken promises of Europe – that they will get help to find jobs and reintegrate. Instead, many are killed or turn to drugs. If you look at Afghanistan, is it really safe? Would you want to go there on holiday right now? Absolutely not. It puzzles me how the European government justifies these returns.

With many Afghanis still making the treacherous journey to Europe to escape fear and persecution and find themselves a better life, the future looks bleak. They face failed asylum claims in Europe and possible return to Afghanistan. Another tragic story of a forgotten state.