Archive for April, 2009

More Libya Stuff

I worked with a dozen men from different European countries in Libya, teaching conscripts of the Air Defence Forces. My job was to teach them English. German and Swiss men taught them mechanical and electrical skills.
There were few women anywhere near us. The camp boss’s wife stayed for a few weeks and left appalled at the behaviour of men towards her. One nudged her into the swimming pool one night, fully clothed without checking first that she could swim. I think it was probably her morning recollections of how she shrieked at us that decided her to leave.
This was a good time for me. It wasn’t a wholesome or natural environment. It was very tense and argumentative.  You could walk into the canteen in the morning and judge the moods of the other men – how well they had slept, how anxious they were about whether their women were waiting for them – just by the darkness of their expressions.
Some men just don’t function until they have had coffee.
Sometimes when men yelled at each other, they couldn’t help laughing too. Walter the cook had asked me to send roses to his ex wife for her birthday when I was on leave in Geneva. They were still friends. She had even visited him in the camp.
The florist in Geneva said I could buy a dozen roses at their prices and the florist in Jersey, where she lived, would adjust the numbers to suit the price.
Walter was waiting for me when I came back to the camp.
“What the fuck have you done? You sent her sixty fucking roses.”
Some men smouldered quietly. Denis told me one day that he saw a scorpion in his ice cream.
What was good for me about that period was that it counterbalanced previous periods, like my religious phase in India. Where that had been a return to childhood to resample domination by a religious fascist, this was a return to the playground, to reassess my natural placing in masculine pecking orders. At school I had virtually volunteered for the lowest place, because I was small and could not fight. In among the heavy and frustrated men on the Taguira work camp, I placed myself more easily close to the top, or at least around the middle, because big hefty men liked me.
We lived in a camp near the coast. We had our prefabricated living quarters, two bedrooms in each with a bathroom between, so that you wouldn’t hear your neighbour wanking, but you would hear him having a shit.
We worked about twenty miles away in compounds that looked like ordinary English schools built in the Sixties, with their big glass windows and boarded walls.
One of the ways in which I had endeared myself to some of the men was by writing spoof notices for the staff board. Most of us were annoyed by the real ones, warning us that there was a shortage of pencils, for instance. I did one in which I pretended to be the Chief Executive from Zurich, setting a shot spots competition. This was my protest at the failure of the laundry system to wash out the semen stains from the sheets. And you could always tell by the semen stains you got back that these weren’t the same sheets that you had sent to the wash. You always knew your own.
I had the CE in Zurich imagine that these stains formed fortuitous images of small animals or even European countries. I offered a prize for the best identification of a shot spot with a recognisable object.

We travelled every day by Peugeot station wagons to army camps where we taught.
These were brutal places. The first day we arrived we saw a dozen boys in army fatigues being bunny hopped across the yard.
“They are putting on a show for us”, said Geoff, a skinny lad from New Zealand who lived in a constant fret.
They weren’t. They were always punishing somebody.
After mid morning break on my first day I asked one of the brighter lads, Sanousi, where the boy he had been sitting beside had gone. Why was he not back in class?
“Broken leg”, said Sanousi.
“Running in corridor”, said a tubby lump beside him.
Had he fallen and hurt himself?
No, he had been beaten for running in the corridor and now he couldn’t walk.
The standard punishment, I learnt, was to have two larger soldiers lift you upside down, with your feet fed through a loop wrapped along a stick and beat the soles of your bare feet.
Sanousi’s desk mate was in bed recovering from such a beating.
A worse punishment was to be made walk across the tarmac yard on your bare knees. One day I saw five boys put through this, with an officer walking behind to kick the soles of their feet so that their knees would scrape the rough surface.
And a common punishment was for a boy to be made stand in full combat gear in the hot sun, perhaps with his boots slung from his neck and his stinking socks in them, sometimes after being hosed down and made to roll in the sand. He would be stood there until he dropped and left to lie there afterwards if the officers judged that he had dropped too soon.
The officers who supervised these punishments seemed decent but bored men. I would never send any boy to the officers for bad behaviour, though some of the other teachers adapted quickly to the system. They could control a class; I couldn’t.
After a time I realised that I had to make some concession to established order I would just be the weakest, most easily defied authority figure in the school. So I would put disruptive boys out of the class and leave them to survive the officers as best they could. If they didn’t get caught, that was fine. They weren’t disrupting my class. If they did get caught and came back limping, then that was something they had brought on themselves.
Though they lived in a harsh environment, the boys themselves were sensitive and gentle. One day I met wee Khalifa after arms training. He was dragging a Self Loading Rifle along behind him, holding it by the barrel. As a child I had had a better sense of how to hold a gun, from playing with toys. I had loved to nurse my rifle and posture with it. Khalifa hadn’t the least inclination to do that.
One day in the language laboratory I told them that I could show them my country. I played The Lonesome Boatman into their headphones and said: Listen carefully. You will see the cliff over the sea. You will see a gull soaring out from the land and high over the waves. That is Ireland”.
They sat hushed listening to the mellow flute, then one of the boys came alive, shooting his hand up.
“Mr Malky! Mr Malky!  I can see it”.

One day the officers called a tear gas exercise. The boys were taken out into the yard and made stand with their gas masks off while grenades were let off around them. They had to wait for the order to don the masks. Streams of yellow and red gas poured up from spots on the yard and drifted across through the school windows.
“We can’t work in these conditions”, I said. “I am taking the teachers out”.
“Ah, you are not man enough for this”, said the officer in charge that day.
He was very amused.
He thought we would have been proud to accept the opportunity to show that we could endure being gassed by substances we knew nothing of.

There were three ranks of officer running these camps, distinguished by the number of stars on their epaulets, the lowest with one, the highest with three. Three star officers were so highly ranked that we almost never saw them or dealt directly with them.
All of the boys on their days off dressed like generals in fancy uniforms with braid and big epaulets, when they were allowed to hitch hike into Tripoli.

I wonder how they are now.


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Northern Irish politicians are campaigning for compensation from the Libyan government for their having armed the IRA. I wish them every success. But if they encounter a certain Colonel Juma, I’d love them to ask him if he remembers me.

In the early 1980s I taught English to conscripts of the Libyan Air Defence Forces.

One day I was with my class when a young three star officer came frantically into the class. The boys all stood sharply to attention.
The officer spoke a little English and a little French and conveyed the problem to me. Colonel Juma had arrived to inspect the metalwork class. I was to take the boys immediately to the workshop for a demonstration.
“No, I can’t do that. I don’t teach metalwork. That’s Peter Keller’s job. Go and find him”.
Three-star looked  appalled at me. I had not understood how serious this was. There was no time to discuss it. He snapped at the boys and they ran out to the workshops. I would have to find Peter.
Peter was a towering man with ginger hair and a sneering sense of humour. He took his job seriously and was often complaining about slack standards in Libya.
I heard some movement in the room next to the main workshop classroom where the boys were frantically tidying their uniforms and gathering samples of their metal work.
Inside Peter was on his knees on the floor, in a blue T shirt and white boxer shorts, painting a yellow line to mark the perimeter of a large green machine.
“Go away, Malachi. I am busy”.
“Peter”, I said. “Colonel Juma is here and he wants to inspect the metalwork class. You have to help”.
“I do not have to help. This is my day off. I am not really here at all. I have come in my own time to catch up on work and I don’t have to do anything”.
“O.K.” I tried to be more diplomatic. “This is not a problem of my making either, Peter, and I can walk away too”.
“Then do it”.
I went back into the class room and the boys were now erect and stiff at their desks. Each held up a little piece of iron which had probably started out as square, but had holes drilled in it and angles cut into it. I had done some metal work at school myself and could judge how roughly some of these had been finished.
Right. Let’s just wait.
Then the door opened and in walked Colonel Juma, the second in command of the Libyan armed forces, accompanied by several others of similar rank and a fawning and wilting young three star officer.
Juma was a stocky black man. His epaulets had gold eagles as well as stars. The other officers had declining numbers of stars and eagles, and beside them our own top man, with no eagles at all, looked pretty meek.
I had no idea what to say. I was without words. Colonel Juma approached me with a warm smile and I said hello and gestured towards the petrified boys.
Juma was clearly puzzled by my behaviour but perhaps used to people wilting before him.
Then the door opened and Peter strode through. He was wiping his hands with a dirty cloth.
“Why is it that you can never get any fokking work done around here?” He flung the cloth aside and strode on past and out the main door.
I probably whimpered like a stricken beast at that moment. I might have been rallying myself to address Colonel Juma and the officers, but now I was thrown and could organise no words.
Colonel Juma and one of the senior officers, perhaps the third in command of the armed forces of the Libyan Peoples Arab Jamahiriya, walked the ranks of the class. The other officer elected to provide some kind of commentary, though what he could have known about Peter’s metal work class, I don’t know. They were civilly making do with a badly organised presentation, which made them seem to me to be the most adorable of men.
Peter then returned through the class door.
“Gentlemen! What can I do for you today”, he said.
The colonels all turned and smiled warmly, as charmed by him as I had been by them. They seemed to float towards each other, cushioned on an air of supreme confidence.
Peter turned lightly to me and said: “You are looking a little pale Malachi.”

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One of the telling moments, when you seek to be a detached and cynical atheist, is when you open a copy of the New Testament to read the account of the Last Supper and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ – just for research purposes.
For you may have disregarded the myth since you left school and stopped going to church – which in my case was 40 years ago – but there is no escaping the hold of this powerful and moving story. Especially, the version according to John.
This is one of the stories that we learnt as children and it survives in our imaginations with a potency that Red Riding Hood and Santa Claus just don’t have.
And in a rapidly secularising Ireland, Easter retains a magic and enthralls like few other times of the year.
Part of that, of course, is because it is bigger, for most of us, than the Passion. We have our own rituals around eggs, bonnets and the flight to Donegal which have nothing to do with Christian heritage.
Easter is the first holiday of the Spring. April sunshine — when you get it — awakens a nostalgia for freedom and romance, the best parts of Springs past. The sap is rising. Something of our own selves, overshadowed by winter, is resurrected at Easter.
When we were children, we went to the church to pray at each of the stations of the Cross and to contemplate the suffering of Jesus. There was a bit of guilt-tripping going on there too. It is still the message of most churches that we are to blame, ourselves, for the suffering inflicted. God had to become a man and suffer as a man because we were sinful.
There is actually very little sense of that burdensome idea in the Gospel itself. Jesus never says, I have to go off and get flayed now, because Adam ate the apple, and you’re no better yourselves.
It is clear from the Gospel accounts that Jesus was crucified because he had rebelled against the Temple. He was – like myself – profoundly anti clerical. He is my anti-clerical hero.
I personally think the story has been damaged by the mythologising in the Christian tradition.
Without any interpretation added on to it, the story of the Last Supper and the arrest and crucifixion in John’s gospel evokes deep feelings. I suspect that this story would still be with us as a piece of treasured ancient literature, engaging our fascination still, even without the gloss. In a secularising Ireland, where fewer and fewer people take the church interpretation literally, it would be a tragedy if this story was lost to us because it was dismissed as only having Christian significance.
In most of the Christian tradition, Jesus is understood to have known himself to be the son of God, on a mission to lay down his life for the sins of humanity. What is lost in that version, is the earliest heartbeat detectable in world literature, of a man agonising and struggling.
Some of the Christian churches have gone back to the text, stripping away the ritual and theology of, say, the Catholic Churches, to find a simpler Eucharist.
The Last Supper is remembered by Roman Catholics as the establishment of communal sacrament, exclusive to true believers. The evangelicals read the story more truly when they offer the bread more freely. After all, Jesus did not refuse it to Judas.
But their conviction that Jesus was God makes much of the story unintelligible. Why would he have gone into the desert for forty days? Usually such a pilgrim is trying to draw closer to the divine – what need would Jesus as God have had to do that?
There are some elements of the story which are perplexing. When Jesus rode on the donkey into Jerusalem, in Matthew’s version, and reached into a fig tree for something to eat, and didn’t find fresh fruit, he cursed the fig tree never to bear fruit again. What was that all about? The modern Christian perspective allows little room for the petulance of Christ.
The story lends itself more to creative rereading than to ossification in doctrine.
There are numerous little flashes of temper, and even sarcasm, in the gospels. ‘The poor you will have always with you.’ There just isn’t an interpretation of those words available to us that does any credit to him. But they ring so truly that they tell us that they are the words of a real man; just not the man Jesus as envisaged by Hollywood or in the little holy pictures I used to have in my prayer book.
Nowadays, I am more likely to encounter the story of the Passion in literature and music than in church. There have been numerous novels retelling the crucifixion, from Kazantzakis to CK Stead. The body of music continues to expand, from the passions of Bach to the Seven Last Words of James MacMillan, religious music that sells to cultured secular people.
This story will not die so long as thier are minds to engage with it and retell it. It might even have a better chance to flourish when the churches have lost hold of it altogether.

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He can smile when he tries..

He can smile when he tries..

I doubt if Peter Robinson is the angriest politician in these islands. There have been stories of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair having shouting matches with each other, swearing and blustering in naked rage.
The first rule of politics, however, is that you don’t show emotion without having cleared it with your media adviser first.
Tony Blair was quoted on this by Alistair Campbell: you don’t lose your temper, unless you’ve planned to.
Beside Mr Robinson yesterday stood Martin McGuinness, who is accused routinely of far worse things than have ever been levelled against our first family. Indeed, the Sunday Times has just accused the IRA leadership of 1981 of allowing six hunger strikers to die in order to help Sinn Fein’s electoral prospects.
Top that Peter.
Yet, McGuinness stood aside looking every inch the considered and avuncular helpmate who knew he could get Peter out of that jam in a second, if Peter would only shut up.
Peter Robinson is obviously under enormous pressure; his big mistake is to let it show.
He has Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice snapping at his heels in the forthcoming European election.
He and his wife are the first Northern Ireland politicians to have been seriously targeted by the tabloids. In the past, they had no interest in what people got up to over here.
Peter Robinson may think that the whole thing is a contrivance of the Ulster Unionist party, but even they could not interest London in affairs here unless London had agendas of its own.
But they did enjoy Peter’s flash of temper. They saw plainly that he was only damaging himself.
The Robinson temper has always been with us. During the worst of the troubles when he was directing it at the IRA and those he accused of selling out to them, his gift for high dudgeon seemed righteous and invigorating..
We have more recently seen the naked blast of his rage directed at Margaret Ritchie and Martina Purdy. And both times in circumstances in which, merely stating his case flatly, and without emotion, would have carried the argument more convincingly.
There is one simple reason why no male politician in Britain wants to be seen on television shouting at a woman; it is because there is a perception of a woman’s vote out there. A careless politician can lose an awful lot of women voters in one stroke.
Of course, usually our sectarian political structures protect party votes in sectional blocks, and the secondary considerations like personality and policy count for little.
That is why we have had so many dull people in high office.
But I wouldn’t bank on things staying that way.
This morning, people may be saying to Peter Robinson that he needs a rest. Easter is coming. He should go away and clear his head.
But that isn’t the answer. His problem is that he resorts to anger, exultantly, with relish, never seems to feel more himself than when he is flaunting his umbrage at people he regards as smaller than himself.
The advice he needs is this: even when you are right and know it, the whole world will assume you are wrong when you scowl. Anger is a losing throw, said the Buddha. And when you come out fighting like a cornered rat, people will assume that it’s because you are cornered, that you have resorted to rage because you don’t have the argument. And for a man who puts his case as well as Peter Robinson can, that is a particularly ridiculous strategy.

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