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The grey zone

The grey zone. It’s an endangered space, according to the murderous zealots of ISIS/Daesh/Islamic State/ISIL (I’m going to stick with Daesh, since I believe they really, really don’t like it). It’s the space where people meet, talk, think, and maybe change their minds.

President Bush said after the 9/11 attacks that there were only two options, to be with ‘us’ (the US and its allies) or with the terrorists. Daesh essentially agree – you are either with the crusade or with the caliphate. There is no middle ground.

And of course in some senses there isn’t, not when it comes to the massacring of innocents, wherever that takes place. No ‘of course I condemn the killings, but…’, or ‘of course it’s terrible but the French (or anyone else) had it coming’. No way. I am passionately, profoundly, unequivocally, unambiguously against everything that Daesh stand for and everything that they do. I despise their murderous arrogance, their callous indifference to human life.

But the danger of Daesh and their ilk is their absolute certainty. They define everyone who is not unequivocally, unambiguously with them not as mistaken or misguided but as the enemy. The Quran condemns those who take innocent lives, but Daesh see all who are not with them as guilty – corrupt and degenerate westerners in the ‘capital of prostitution and obscenity’, ‘deviant’ Muslims in Beirut, on and on and on. This year alone, they have murdered ‘crusaders’ in Afghanistan, Yemen, Turkey, Chad, Nigeria, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Somalia, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria…

Are they evil? Individually, I doubt it. We have to distinguish the organisation from the individuals who, as Umair Haque says, have themselves been conquered and brutalised by it. But they’ve been carefully taught, taught to hate, taught to kill without mercy or remorse, and by the time they’ve strapped on the explosive belt and picked up the Kalashnikov it is probably too late for them to be persuaded or deterred from doing evil in the name of an evil ideology. It’s not too late, though, for those who are attracted by the certainties of that ideology, or flirting with fundamentalism, if we can reach them, if we could sit down with them in the grey zone and talk, and listen. Lydia Wilson did that, talking to Daesh prisoners on death row in Kirkuk:

They are children of the occupation, many with missing fathers at crucial periods (through jail, death from execution, or fighting in the insurgency), filled with rage against America and their own government. They are not fueled by the idea of an Islamic caliphate without borders; rather, ISIS is the first group since the crushed Al Qaeda to offer these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity, family, and tribe. This is not radicalization to the ISIS way of life, but the promise of a way out of their insecure and undignified lives; the promise of living in pride as Iraqi Sunni Arabs, which is not just a religious identity but cultural, tribal, and land-based, too.  (Lydia Wilson, The Nation, 21 October 2015)

In the grey zone we can try to understand, and we can look into the eyes of another human being and draw on what we share whilst we explore what we don’t. The grey zone is full of the things that Daesh hate – music, art, football, laughter, friendship, conversation, love. The grey zone is where we live.

Justin Smith said of the targeting of the Eagles of Death Metal gig that ‘what the attackers hated in January [the Charlie Hebdo attacks], and what they continue to hate, is a sort of offense that we could not possibly promise to disown. It is the offense of happiness, of getting jokes, and loving oxymorons.’

The British Humanist Association’s statement says that

‘life itself, the joy of living, was the target. … They did not attack infrastructure, politicians, military personnel, or sites of historical or cultural significance. They targeted innocent people, going about their lives, trying to make it through this difficult and complicated world with a modicum of fun and lightness. … It was, in every sense, an attack on multiculturalism; an attack on how we find happiness, outside the confines of a strict religious code of submission; an attack on the secular, enlightened spirit embodied by Paris’s vibrant, varied culture.’

Daesh tell us that the grey zone is on the brink of extinction, that it’s withering away. That’s what they want, of course, and that’s why we must protect it. Their intention in Paris was to provoke just that polarisation of views, to turn people against each other, to engender and encourage suspicion and prejudice, to make us afraid of each other. In Umair Haque’s words, ‘let’s be more courageous and wise than that’.

Hijabi-Muslim-girls-hold-posters-reading-NotinMyName-during-a-rally-in-tribute-to-the-victims-of-the-Paris-terror-attacks-650x366Billy Bragg said on Facebook:

We have to be careful not to mirror [Daesh’s] warped logic by declaring that all Muslims are enemies of the state. To do so would be to play into the hands of those who sent the murderers onto the streets of Paris. Jason Burke, writing in today’s Observer, points out that one of the main aims of ISIS is to polarise society. He quotes writings in which they state their wish to “eliminate the ‘grey zone’ between belief and unbelief, good and evil, the righteous and the damned.” … As the National Front begins to exploit the Paris attacks to gain votes in France, we must all be very careful not to divide our communities into those who are with us and those who are against us. ISIS wants to poison our society. If we hope to defeat the terrorists, we must also be vigilant against those who would help them achieve their aim.

So we have to continue helping the refugees, because they are human beings who are desperate and afraid and who are fleeing the same terror that struck at Paris, and we have to stand up against those who would turn them away on all sorts of spurious grounds but particularly now because they might be terrorists.

refugee cartoon

Kate Norlock wrote on the feministphilosophers blog:

Note the immediate interest on the part of some powerful actors to close borders and prevent refugees from moving, and consider helping those refugees. France’s leaders are already stating their intention to respond to these attacks. I’m no politician and I don’t know what nations should do, but I know that some refugees are in Europe now because they were trying to flee deadly attacks like those in Paris. Don’t let tonight be a night that hardens hearts against refugees. Let tonight be a reason to reach out.

We have to refuse to be bystanders when anyone – on social media, on the street, in the workplace – demonises or harasses Muslims or those who look as if they might be Muslims. We have to have conversations across the various divides of age, ethnic background, religion, politics – find out what other people think, share what we think, find the common ground. We have to counter and debunk the lies that are routinely told about refugees, immigrants, Muslims, and the propaganda that xenophobic political movements such as the Front National, EDL/Britain First etc. and their equivalents across Europe will make of the Paris atrocities.

None of this will stop Daesh. I’m not sure what will. How do you stop someone with an explosive belt and a Kalashnikov, who cares nothing for the lives of the people they will mow down, and nothing for their own life, indeed who is ‘seeking to be killed’ in order to gain martyrdom? Perhaps we cannot afford to be pacifists in any absolute sense. These are the moral quandaries that face us and perplex us, and we cannot take refuge in absolutes, because absolutes are a huge part of the problem.

We’re all looking for a ‘magic bullet’ to use against this big bad. There may be political and/or military solutions (just as likely, I’m afraid, there will be political and/or military reactions that will hurt Daesh’s victims more than they hurt Daesh itself).

For myself, what I want to do most of all is to fight – not with Kalashnikovs but with words and the way I live my life – for the grey zone.

Because the last thing the grey zone is, is grey. It’s every colour under the sun. And it’s beautiful.

Enjoy your life.

Make it count.

And don’t let the murderers win.

PS I am aware that the term ‘grey zone’ was used by Primo Levi in The Drowned and the Saved to describe a territory of moral ambiguity, or the suspension of morality, specific to the world of the concentration camps. My use of the term in this piece is based solely on its appropriation by Isis as described above.

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The music in my head (part 2): West Africa and beyond


To add to my most recent piece about the music of Mali, here’s a great piece from That’s How the Light Gets In on West African music (with a strong emphasis on Mali, naturally!)

Originally posted on That's How The Light Gets In:

This is the second of three posts which round up some of the music that I’ve enjoyed in 2015 but never got round to writing about. This one discussed music from beyond these shores that I have been listening to in 2015, particularly some fine West African releases.

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Mali is Music

We should probably have been in a courtyard in Bamako, or Segou. Whole families there, kids and the occasional chicken wandering in and out, meals being prepared and eaten, and the music going on into the night, interspersed with talk, and laughter. We were instead in the august surroundings of Firth Hall at the University of Sheffield, sitting in rows listening to Bassekou Kouyate, legendary Malian ngoni player and griot, with his wife Amy Sacko on vocals, in conversation with Andy Morgan.


As the time went on, you could almost hear the thought processes of the audience – ‘what time was that last bus again?’, ‘I’m going to struggle with my 7.00 alarm tomorrow morning’, ‘Can I discreetly text the babysitter to see if she can hold on for another hour?’. So when people started to slip away, they’d already stayed longer than they’d expected to, and they left wishing they could have stayed longer. We managed quite a nifty slip out of the door whilst clapping manoeuvre. A standing and moving sideways ovation perhaps.

Part of the reason we overran was that Bassekou speaks French and Bambara, so Andy had to tell us what he was going to ask him, then ask him in French, then translate Bassekou’s response. And – a tip for the future – don’t ask a Malian griot to ‘just tell us briefly what that song was about’. Whereas a western musician might be able to say, ‘cars and girls’, or ‘the man who done me wrong’, Bassekou’s answers tended to start with, ‘Well, back in the 13th century there was a king called x, in the town of y…’.

But the music – the music was sublime. The ngoni is a stringed instrument, believed to be the origin of the banjo, and possibly the guitar (though of course there are other stringed, plucked instruments that could claim that). In Kouyate’s hands it’s capable of virtuosic cascades of notes, and combined with the compelling rhythm that kicks in after the first few bars, and the warmth (and impressive range) of Amy Sacko’s voice, it’s music that moves the feet and the hips, as well as the heart.

Malian music makes me happier than almost any other music from any time or place. It’s the source of the blues, carried over the oceans by the human cargo of the slave ships, and mutating as it mixed with the other folk musics (and the hymns and psalms) of the various peoples of the Americas, until this black American music out of Africa became the music of a whole generation. And as it did so, of course, it travelled back home again. In Ghana the merging and melding of these musical traditions created the highlife music that I used to hear wafting over from the student residences in the evenings in Kumasi. In Nigeria, juju music and Afrobeat. In Mali, a rich diversity of music, from such fine artists as Salif Keita, Toumani Diabate, Tinariwen, Ali Farka Toure, and the young musicians who form Songhoy Blues.


At the end of the  concert, Bassekou Kouyate was asked by a fellow West African about the ‘problem’ of western sounds and musical styles taking over indigenous African music. Kouyate was having none of that. The music is theirs anyway – it’s simply coming home again, having changed a bit over the years, and blended with other sounds. There is a vast repertoire of songs there to be rediscovered, interpreted, shared with the world, and as long as this music is being sung and played, and the traditional instruments are being used alongside the western imports, the music will survive, because it’s strong and beautiful. The threat to this music is not of being ‘polluted’ or drowned out by western sounds. It’s from another source altogether, the fundamentalist Islamist groups that have taken over parts of Mali in recent years and where they have done so they have violently suppressed music – not western music, or secular music, but music.

“The world without music? It would be like a prison, right?” (Garba Touré, Songhoy Blues)



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Refugee Problems, Migrant Crises, and a small boy called Aylan Kurdi

When I did my annual Refugee Week blog blitz back in June, I could not have imagined that by September every day’s news, my Facebook and Twitter feeds and email inbox would be about the ‘crisis’ of refugees in Europe.  That every day there would be images that would sear their way into my soul – a mother trying to hold her baby’s head above water, a father weeping as he holds his children, and above all, a child lying in the surf, almost as if he’s just sleeping.  That every day there would be headlines that both evoke and challenge the dark history of Europe – trains packed with desperate refugees arriving in Germany and Austria, to be met with welcome signs and stacks of donated supplies, football fans proclaiming that refugees are welcome, Czech police inking numbers on children’s arms, Hungarian police pushing a desperate woman with a child on the railway tracks in Budapest.

We keep hearing that there’s a crisis.   Sure.  But the crisis is what these people encountered in Syria, Eritrea or any of the other hellholes they are trying to escape.  The crisis is what drove them to risk everything to get away, to try to find somewhere safe where they could establish some kind of life.  The crisis is what led them to pack their few belongings and hand over their cash to the crooks who loaded them onto unsafe boats and into the seas to perish.

They are the ones who are in crisis.  Not us.

We’re in disarray, which is somewhat different.  A coordinated, compassionate European approach could get the immediate needs met – a combination of government action and grassroots support – and start to plan for the longer term.

And what’s kicking off now, all across Europe, is at least in part, because of Aylan Kurdi.  Because even for those of us who already cared and campaigned and donated, that photo was the moment when we moved up a gear, or several.  I wrote this, for Refugee Week 2012:

‘It would be terribly easy to despair. But the other side of the picture is, as it always has been, the story of generosity and hospitality, of people giving a damn when it’s not their turn to give a damn, of the marginalised and spectralised finding a place in a community and people to listen to their stories.’

OK, if you read below the line on any newspaper report (and I wouldn’t recommend that you do), there’s the usual outpouring of bile and misinformation.  But meanwhile, many many people are getting involved, because they see not threatening feral hordes but distraught parents, frightened kids, human beings. The Daily Mail’s attempt earlier this summer to generate outrage about Brits having their summer hols spoiled by proximity to the feral hordes backfired rather when some of those Brits spent their summer hols helping rather than cowering in their apartments or threatening to sue the travel agents.  As a manager at Munich station said,  “It seems the more they [other rail travellers and employees] have contact with them, the more empathy they have’.  And just as public opinion shifted against the Vietnam war when we saw Phan Thị Kim Phúc running naked, her clothes having been burned with napalm, from her village, the picture of Aylan Kurdi lying on the beach has shifted the public mood.

Back in 1939 Norman Angell and Dorothy Frances Buxton published a Penguin Special on that era’s refugee crisis.

‘There are some of the saddest scenes in the world from which we British people are forever spared, and of which the keenest imagination among us could hardly form an adequate picture.  …  In the darkness of night, or in the grey of dawn, desperate men and women, sometimes even dragging along a pitiful child, make a dash to get through that double line [of armed police] and risk the rifle shot.  Some of them, like human tennis balls, are driven backwards and forwards, time after time, across the frontier.’

‘’There is a case, probably typical of many others, of a devoted father who succeeded in raking together 1500 francs and the price demanded by an English captain for the service of landing this refugee’s son (illegally) in England. The father saw his son embark; but he never heard of him again.  Many and awful risks attend such illicit methods.  The reader will hardly need to ask why human beings are driven to such desperate adventures.

The main difference today is that we can see these scenes unfolding, in real time, and we can look into the eyes of these desperate men and women hundreds of miles away, and recognise ourselves. And we can look at the small boy on the beach and, even as our hearts break, resolve to make things change.

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This must be what it was like when German Jews were refugees


A powerful and moving piece about the refugee crisis from That’s How the Light Gets In.

Originally posted on That's How The Light Gets In:

This must be what it was like in the 1930s when Jews fleeing Nazi Germany created a major refugee crisis to which the response of Britain, the USA and other potential safe haven countries was a collective shoulder shrug of indifference – or outright hostility. This summer we have witnessed an unfolding crisis on a scale unprecedented since the Second World War, as desperate people risk their lives fleeing the civil war in Syria and the murderous advance of ISIS. With some noble exceptions, the prevailing response, especially here in the UK, has been once again to demonise fellow human beings.

The initial response to the Nazi takeover in 1933 was a substantial wave of Jewish emigration, much of it to neighbouring European countries. But in 1938, after an increase in personal assaults on Jews during the spring and summer, the nationwide Kristallnacht (‘Night of Broken Glass’) pogrom in…

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Treating refugees as the problem is the problem

Originally posted on nowt much to say:


I hadn’t heard of Anja Reschke until a few days ago. She’s a German newsreader who, in the midst of the “migrant crisis” in Calais, used her slot on prime time evening television recently to brilliantly express her anger at the “little racist nobodies” who continue to attack refugees and asylum seekers, adding that “there is a mind boggling number of people that are doing lots for refugees, who are not racist, and I think it’s their voice that should be dominant rather than a handful of simpletons who think they should stir up hatred”. If only we could look forward to a similar tirade from the likes of Sophie Raworth or Huw Edwards. I’m not holding my breath though.

Sadly, the British television coverage of Calais has been altogether more mundane and predictable. The other night I watched James Brokenshire, the Minister of State for Security and Immigration, being…

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Ears still ringing


That’s what Billy Bragg tweeted, after his set at the Leadmill, which brought [my] 2015 Tramlines to an inspiring and emotional close.  Mine too.  It was bloody brilliant.

wristbandFor me, Tramlines isn’t about the headliners – we didn’t get to the Ponderosa this year, not because there weren’t some great bands on, but because what we love is stumbling across and being delighted by bands we’ve never heard of, and enjoying the music in the multiplicity of venues around the city centre.  To go from dancing to ska and afrobeat in the Peace Gardens to drinking Moonshine in the Cathedral (how deliciously transgressive is that) whilst listening to ‘experimental finger-style’ acoustic guitar, or rocking our socks off in the City Hall ballroom – that’s Tramlines.

I don’t know what the total numbers were, but the crowds around town were astonishing.  So many performers, looking out at us all from the various stages, seemed genuinely stunned by how many of us there were, and by our enthusiasm, our willingness to jump about, dance and cheer.  Maybe I’m naive, maybe I only see the best because I love my city and I love this festival, but there didn’t seem to be, despite the crowds and the fact that there had, most certainly, been drink taken, the level of ugliness that one might normally see on a Saturday night in town. I saw no aggression, only people being communal, enjoying the music together, being excellent to one another, and partying on.

lewrey downtown roots soulcrates

My Tramlines this year was:

  • Friday night:  Awooga, Lone Wolf (City Hall); Rawshack, Beth Frisby (Millennium Gallery)
  • Saturday: Bongo & the Soul Jars, Soulcrates Syndicate (Peace Gardens); Jim Ghedi (Cathedral); Smiling Ivy. Hot Diamond Aces (Cathedral); Blessa, Slow Club (Devonshire Green); Ultimate Painting (Cathedral)
  • Sunday: Chris Cooper Band, Downtown Roots (City Hall); Lewrey, Blossomer (Cathedral); Stealing Sheep, Billy Bragg (Leadmill)

Not a bad weekend’s worth of music and I reckon I got my weekend ticket’s worth by the time we headed home on Friday.

Best bits?  Beth Frisby was fab.  The various ska/afrobeat bands in the (sunny) Peace Gardens were ace, joyous beats making us all dance.  Downtown Roots were a blast, channelling Hendrix and Muddy Waters.  Stealing Sheep stole my heart.  And then there was Billy.


It was late, I was tired, my (wet) feet hurt.  But I went home that night not sure whether to laugh, or cry, because Billy made me do both.  He was everything I’d hoped for – he was funny, passionate, ranty, utterly professional (didn’t miss a beat when the lights went out on stage during one song, and dealt well with the odd minor heckle), and gave us – again – that weekend ticket’s worth singlehanded.    I got right to the front, thanks to the nice bloke who let me through.  And the young lads who’d been obliviously hemming me in and blocking my view earlier?  Contrary to the grumpy views being expressed by some of those whose view they were blocking, they were there for Billy, they knew all the words, they were singing their little hearts out.  He gave us the love songs, the quirky, funny, self deprecating love songs.  He gave us Levi Stubbs’ tears, and mine flowed.  He gave us the protest songs – and lord, they are as pertinent today as when they were written.  He gave us A New England.  And he gave us Between the Wars and I cried again and someone in the crowd gave me a hug, just because.

Billy said that the enemy is not doubt, or scepticism.  It’s cynicism.  Cynicism stops us believing that we can change things, that it’s worth bothering to try.  Cynicism stops us believing the best in other people, or the potential in ourselves.  There wasn’t much cynicism in evidence last weekend, and especially not at the Leadmill on Sunday night.

To quote Caitlin Moran (in How to Build a Girl), ‘Cynicism is, ultimately, fear.  Cynicism makes contact with your skin, and a thick black carapace begins to grow – like insect armour.  This armour will protect your heart, from disappointment – but it leaves you almost unable to walk.  You cannot dance, in this armour.’  If we want to dance, to laugh and love and share, let alone if we want to change the world, we have to shed that armour and risk being disappointed, risk being disillusioned and let down.

Billy said that we, in the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire, had ‘recharged his activism’.  I am damn certain he did the same for us.

Tramlines, Sheffield, thank you for last weekend, and I can’t wait for next time.  Early Bird weekend tickets for 2016 on sale now, you say?  Hell, yes.


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