Guns, Girls and the Great Kate

In the beginning, there was Kate.

Before ColvinUgrešić, Mernissi and Drakulić, there was Kate, in her flak jacket dodging bullets since before I was born.

After an archaeology-obsessed childhood, my interest shifted to journalism – more specifically, war correspondence.

The promise of adventure was not the draw – rather the opportunity ‘to tell the world what was really happening’ (or what a 13-year-old imagines is ‘really happening’ in between howling to Alanis Morissette and mourning a bad fringe).

Through the 1990s and into the millennium, I trotted through a journalism degree, temped at the BBC and University station and covered everything from boxing and Chinese New Year celebrations to the outbreak of the Iraq War.

Then the paths diverged – I took a postgraduate degree to hone my focus on the Middle East and before long I became a doctor.

All was not lost, however: I still visit conflict zones; I write for a handful of coins or a bottle of wine and deadlines skulk in every shadow.

I convey the narratives of the intriguing, inspiring, appalling and fantastical – just with a smattering of Geertz, Goffman, Smith and Hall.

Kate Adie’s awesomeness didn’t just lie with her dispatches that oozed courage and gusto – rather, her ability to bring home the truth, in whatever God-awful form it took.

She wasn’t there to deliver the official line; she brought us the guts, shattered dreams and the dystopia that accompanied the hell of war.

The American bombing of Tripoli in 1986, Tienanmen Square in 1989, Bucharest in 1989, the 1990-1991 Gulf War, the Yugoslav Wars from 1991-1999 , the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the war in Sierra Leone in 2000 – the dame reported from every major humanitarian and political event of the late twentieth century.

(And she began her career in Durham, ergo sealing the deal of saintliness.)

Her appearance at Aberdeen whipped me into a frenzy of proportions normally reserved for the Queen, the Pope and possibly the ascension of Jesus Christ himself, combined.

And, GOOD GOD she was glorious. Gorgeous. Sassy. Droll. Humble. Wise beyond anything. In 90 minutes she rocked the world of everyone in that room, aged 15-80.

As a trail-blazer, the questions had a feminist tilt (‘there was one thing you had to learn about news – it was for men. And women had to know that’), but the profundity lay not in the gender issues, per se, but the human ones.IMG_6934

The nuances of conflicts that pass – willing or otherwise – without regard: in Northern Ireland sectarianism touched everything, to the point that a murder was always linked to the Troubles, rather than gangland connections, passion crimes or criminal opportunism.

The desensitisation of journalists is a myth, for ‘there is no such thing as the desensitisation of people. That’s just a medical term and happens very rarely to people,’ as is the notion that journalists are – or should be – fearless.

The need to demonstrate an absence of fear affects most of us – whether it is in a safe zone or otherwise.

There is little to gain from bravado, according to Adie: ‘Journalists loving danger is a myth. All the old ones are not the bold ones. You bring back the story, you don’t become it. It helps to be frightened – that is the best sense of warning. Fear is useful, but awful, at times humiliating, but always necessary.’

And whatever happens, be polite, for ‘most people who carry a gun and aren’t in the army are either drunk or high. No journalist carries a weapon, so what do you do when faced with a hoodlum? Be polite, don’t be threatening and when they look the other way, RUN!’

The duty to tell the truth was a frequent trope: in Tienanmen only a handful of journalists ventured from the safety of the hotel to cover the atrocities, but the need to ‘record’ the events – in more than a purely journalistic sense – led her onto the streets.

The oppression has not ceased and even today the families of those still missing from 1989, as well as contemporary dissidents, are arbitrarily arrested by the state.

During the Romanian Revolution, which brought down Nicolae Ceausescu, numbers were inflated – on one occasion, thousands were reported dead, though the morgue held just two bodies.

The lecture closed on a sombre note: the decline of news and our engagement with the world around us.

Adie cautioned that our understanding of conflict is faltering.

Twenty years ago, news consumers numbered 14 million; today, just 4 million.

The sense of unease evoked a comment from a French journalist, who told Adie that ‘the less we fear that people are going to kill us, the less we need to know about them.’

The shift in public interest from conflicts to celebrities is less lead by editors, she reasoned, but rather by what we seek as consumers, since ‘journalism is a reflection of what we are; it does not lead it.’

The disinterest affects not just our understanding of conflicts, but also those affected, an issue picked up towards the end when Adie was joined on stage by members of the Immpact group, which focuses on women in dangerous situations and maternal mortality.

According to Dr Ann Phoya, the limited focus on global health reflects flaws in social and political priorities, since maternal well-being is  ‘not seen as sexy enough and is not covered enough. But without it the human race will become extinct and there will be no one to look at us then.’

This takes us full circle to the issue of women in society: for Phoya, ‘the girl child is not given enough attention,’ for Adie, talking of the case of the 276 Nigerian school girls, ‘If it had been boys, there would have been such a fuss. Women count for less in so many societies.’

As the panel wound to a close, this was reflected – from its commencement in the final 15 minutes, members of the audience started to leave the theatre.

Standing in line to buy a copy of Adie’s book, one member complained, ‘It was going so well. Pity we had to have that at the end. Every word counts with Kate Adie and we could have done without it ending it on a negative note.’

In one swoop, Adie’s entire message was lost: the spectator had come to see a celebrity and the nuances of truth, fear, the triumphs and tribulations of women and girls the world over, were reduced to a spectacle that ended on a bum note.

Seeing childhood icons in the flesh can be a disappointing affair.

But in this case, it only confirmed what I have always known: Adie is damn inspirational and will continue to be so well into my dottage.

Women, Tootle those Horns!

So here’s an interesting concept: when the gender balance in academia is tipped in favour of the boys, create a recruitment system that targets – and hires – only women.

This has been done at the University of Delft in The Netherlands and having overcome heckles of gender discrimination, convinced the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights that it was legit and subsequently won the case in 2012, the system is currently recruiting its second cohort of female super-academics.

But while the article centres on the unique system, its success and possible applicability elsewhere (all very interesting and positive), there is a point worth quibbling over: confidence.

Apparently, women cite their work less than men and on the whole, lack as much confidence as their male cohorts.

While each woman is different and this may be the case for some, I would counter that the onus lies not with women to change their approach to the profession (as suggested in the article, women should be trained to ‘lean in’), but with society.

In my experience, men who exude charisma and self-confidence are rightly lauded – adjectives such as ‘confident,’ ‘dynamic’ and ‘engaging’ are used.

Yet I can recall at least two job interviews in which I was informed that my failure was due to ‘an overconfidence,’ that I needed to ‘tone it down’ and be more placid.

This is not a new phenomenon – while my experience dates back to 2008, female colleagues at UK higher education institutions have related similar tales of woe in recent months.

Confident women exist- academia is delightfully awash with them.

What needs to be challenged is not the crisis in confidence that women are experiencing, but rather how society responds to confident women.

We should not ‘tone down’ our achievements, but rather – as men before us – be celebrated with and commended for our triumphs.

These triumphs were squarely earned and, damn, we can tootle our horns equally as laudably.


Images of IDPs in Afghanistan

You know the To Do List is growing longer when the blog posts become briefer – thus, here’s some profound photography from Lucy Kafanov, captured in Kabul last month:


Having fled the instability afflicting their home towns, the displaced families now call the IDP Camp home.

The rest of Kafanov’s collection can be viewed here, and for her broader work (definitely worth checking up on), click here.

Writing on Walls in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, political frustration is prompting women to pick up their graffiti cans and take to the walls in protest:


The presidential election was held last month and hailed as a success in terms of turn-out, and the final results will be announced on May 14.


34% of those voting were women – roughly one-third – and the ‘successful’ aspect is a small consolation when little else is changing elsewhere.

For Malina Suliman, known as ‘Afghanistan’s graffiti queen,’ the next best outlet is the walls, where she renders her own complaints, and those of the woman around her:

‘Ever since the Taliban took over, my life continues to be full of unexpected changes. Changes that I never want. I get really frustrated and can’t stay in my room. I need to go out, I need to get my frustration out. I need to draw. I meet and talk to people from the community. I listen to them and their problems and then make them into graffiti art.’


To read the article in full, click here.


Anthropology on Film

The fusion of two of my favourite things, photography and anthropology, have come together at the Saab Medical Library in Beirut, with an archive of images taken on anthropological field trips in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan by faculty and staff from the American University of Beirut.

Taken in the 1920’s and 1930’s, they capture the faculty and staff at leisure and in the field, as well as the surrounding communities and landscapes.

A02-12-01 A02-39-02 Old Tennis Court Syrian desert, 24 April 1935

Collected and at times captured by Tamir Nassar, they encompass scenes of family and professional life, urban and rural landscapes, architecture and transport, old and new.

Al-Aqaydat bedouin tribe in the Syrian desert on 28 April, 1935. Al-Aqaydat bedouin tribe, in Sheikh Ali's camp, 1935. Al-Aqaydat bedouin tribe, these photos were taken during our visit to the tribe in the Syrian desert on 28 April, 1935.

Both fascinating (days of yore!) and disconcerting (anthropological practices and perceptions left quite a bit to be desired) by turns, albums 1-4 can be found here.

Ode to The Bean

PD*2334451Mahmoud Darwish kick? Perhaps.

Or maybe it is merely the fact that the man captured every nuance of life in a sentence and spun it on from there.

Taken from Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982:

‘They can aim sea, sky, and earth at me, but they cannot root the aroma of coffee out of me. I shall make my coffee now. I will drink the coffee now. Right now, I will be sated with the aroma of coffee, that I may at least distinguish myself from a sheep and live one more day, or die, with the aroma of coffee all around me.

Now I am born. My veins are saturated with their stimulant drugs, in contact with the springs of their life, caffeine and nicotine, and the ritual of their coming home together as created by my hand.

“How can a hand write,” I ask myself, “if it doesn’t know how to be creative in making coffee!” How often have the heart specialists said, while smoking, “Don’t smoke or drink coffee!” And how I’ve joked with them, “A donkey doesn’t smoke or drink coffee. And it doesn’t write.”‘

And that, right there, is a truth plucked from the core of life.