Message to a Young Muslim – 2001

For some days after the al-Qaeda attacks of “9/11” I was among the Red Cross volunteers assisting some 8,000 passengers and crew from 40 aircraft diverted to Halifax.  It was the start of a brief time of heady opportunity, with America’s allies pulling together, and even its enemies acknowledging that the barbaric attacks were a step too far.  Reflecting on the United States’ recent surrender to the Taliban,  I’ll share something I wrote twenty years ago to a student at Pakistan’s Quaid-e-Azam University where I’d spoken some months earlier. “What do you think of the current Afghanistan imbroglio?” he had emailed.  I think much of my lengthy reply has stood the test of time – but with one glaring and deeply disturbing exception near the end. I’ll leave you to judge.

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Sabbaticals

Each summer I try to take a couple of months off to reboot, clear the mind, learn new stuff and refresh the spirit.  This year I’m also starting a year-long sabbatical from responsibilities like committees, boards, task forces and so on. I need the break, and reckon that organizations may need to do some soul-searching if they can’t manage twelve months without one, particular, chronologically and melanin challenged part of the cisgender heteropatriarchy. (For those who ain’t woke, that means “old, white, straight guy”.)

See you back here in September. Hopefully by then we’ll have all cooperated in outsmarting that brainless but tenacious little coronavirus, so tiny that it would take a couple of thousand to span the period at the end of this sentence.  And to those unwilling to follow simple public health guidelines, I offer this thought for the summer……

(With thanks to despair.com)

The Case of the Disappearing Island: Bay of Bengal, 2009

Before taking up writing full time I’d spent a quarter-century assisting people on both sides of international disputes to meet informally and explore solutions that might be politically difficult to discuss officially. Indeed, in some cases, officials couldn’t even talk at all. It’s discreet, behind the scenes work that occasionally enables politicians to take credit for newsworthy diplomatic breakthroughs; sometimes sows seeds that won’t bear diplomatic fruit for years; but often has no measurable results at all, other than fostering modest improvements in mutual trust and communication. Inevitably, though, this somewhat arcane field of “Track Two diplomacy”  provides its practitioner with some quite interesting moments.(*)

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Finding Private Johnston – Paardeberg, South Africa

Field Hospital

Private Johnston’s great adventure ended abruptly on February 18th 1900. The 19 year-old militiaman had lied about his age to join the special contingent of the Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry, recruited to fight Boers in South Africa. But on the first day of the first battle Johnston took a bullet in the head. Mortally wounded, he died nine days later. “8105 Pte. Johnston G.” reads the casualty list. “Died of Wounds, 27-2-1900. Buried at Paardeberg, S. of Modder River, 150 yds S.W. of ford, 200 yds. west of house used as hospital.” A century later, preparing to travel to South Africa and intrigued by that cryptic entry, I resolved to find out who he was, explore where he fought, and visit his grave.

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A Musical Interlude on Camino – Spain 2016

In the historic town of Carrión de los Condes in northern Spain, a diverse group of weary guests gathered in the vestibule of the albergue (pilgrim hostel) at the convent of Santa María to join some of the nuns for an evening sing-along before the nightly Pilgrim Mass. Most of us were strangers, united only by walking the Way of Saint James, the Camino de Santiago, to the great cathedral at Santiago de Compostella, still more than 400 kilometres ahead. Song sheets were distributed, a guitar produced, a few well known songs sung, and introductions made around the circle as we each described where we were from and why we were walking the Camino. We were invited to sing songs from our own countries, so a South African pilgrim and I offered a brief rendition of “Senzeni Na”, a protest song from apartheid days. And therein lies a musical tale spanning continents and cultures.

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Cultures of Honour and Shame – Cairo, 1998

At Cairo’s airport the baggage staff were evading every request, suggestion or insistence that they issue the loss report I’d need to claim insurance for my missing luggage. It was nothing to do with them, they said – it was, after all, a Lufthansa flight and EgyptAir was just the local ground agent, so it was a German problem to solve, not Egyptian. After wearily accepting my host’s assurance that it would be looked after, I was grateful for reaching the hotel and the prospect of much needed sleep. But, as I opened the curtains, all accumulated grumpiness and fatigue evaporated. Floodlit, just half a kilometre away, rose the magnificent slopes of the great Pyramids of Giza. I must have spent at least an hour on the balcony savouring a cold drink, warm desert breeze and priceless view.

 

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Transcending Fundamentalism – The Lahore Literary Festival

Reports from Afghanistan this week tell of of gunmen storming Kabul University just before the opening of a book fair. It reminds me of similar anti-cultural violence in Pakistan in 2015. Just two days before the Lahore Literary Festival was due to begin, a suicidal fanatic had blown himself up nearby. Officials tried to cancel the event but the organizers refused to be intimidated. Both the army and police vowed to provide protection. Some foreign ambassadors declined to attend, but over the course of three days thousands of Pakistanis and guests from around the world joined in a resounding repudiation of fanaticism and barbarism.

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“Thou shalt not covid…”

At the moment – and that’s an important qualifier – Nova Scotia is said to be the safest place from the COVID-19 coronavirus in North America, along with the neighbouring provinces cooperating as an “Atlantic Bubble.” Some other parts of Canada have spent Thanksgiving weekend locked back down after renewed outbreaks. The public health debacle south of the border in the world’s richest country beggars belief. Yet the Halifax waterfront has been lively during the summer. Most restaurants and pubs are open, albeit with limited occupancy, mandatory masking, physical distancing, and registering patrons for potential contact tracing. Shops, salons, other businesses and places of worship are struggling, but most are staying afloat. Those who can are working from home, and the public and private sector are doing their best to mitigate the economic hardships on the most vulnerable. So what’s making the difference?

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The Pangolin Strikes Back

The pangolin is a gentle little creature; harmless unless you happen to be an ant. It’s the only mammal covered with scales – picture a pudgy, pointy-nosed otter covered with large fingernails. When threatened it curls into an appealing ball that resembles a large seashell. Its most deadly predator is the human which, unlike other species, doesn’t simply hunt for food, but mindlessly drives any prey it relishes toward extinction. By some reports the pangolin is the most illegally trafficked animal in the world. But, to the satisfaction of those of us who cheer for the underdog, it seems that this mild-mannered little creature may have struck back.

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From Baalbek to Beirut – It’s a Small World

The Global (formerly Foreign) Affairs website was advising Canadian travellers to Lebanon to avoid the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Baalbek; partly because of a volatile security situation and partly the presence of Hezbollah, designated by the Canadian government as a “listed terrorist entity”. That was disappointing because it’s a fabulous complex of temples: originally a Phoenician centre of worship, then Greek and finally, as Heliopolis, one of the most important sanctuaries of the Roman empire, with some of largest temples of the ancient world. Today it is one of the best preserved. While I’d never suggest disregarding these warnings (not least because doing so can invalidate your travel insurance), it’s worth remembering that they are, after all, only advisories.

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Nautical Royalty and the Migrant Experience

Queens departing Halifax

It’s not often you get to see two of the Cunard Line’s great passenger ships in port at the same time. It’s particularly significant in Halifax, where Samuel Cunard founded the company. Last week crowds lined the shores in brilliant late afternoon sunshine to watch the spectacle of Queen Elizabeth 3 and Queen Mary 2 leave their berths, steam in line up the Dartmouth side of the harbour, then turn seaward along the Halifax piers; Queen Elizabeth bound for St. John’s and Queen Mary for New York. Surely a more stately sight than Britannia, Cunard’s first tiny hybrid paddlewheel steamer with its full suit of sails furled away as backup, chuntering seaward along the same course 180 years ago.

I have a special fondness for Queen Mary 2, having immigrated to Canada (via New York) aboard her predecessor, back in the day when crossing the Atlantic by air was still a new but unaffordable luxury to us common folk. Dad had gone ahead to find a job, then Mum and I followed.

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Being Human on the Moon

Earthrise

“Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” (Analects of Confucius)

Fifty years ago tonight I was a young naval officer joining a bunch of students gathered around the TV in the common room at Pine Hill Divinity Hall (now Atlantic School of Theology) in Halifax. I was living aboard ship at the time so my recently-widowed mother, then a summer student, invited me to join them for the live broadcast of the first attempt to land people on the Moon. Just before midnight we were straining to interpret the grainy image of Neil Armstrong making his way carefully down the ladder of the lunar lander, waiting breathlessly to hear what he might say. Continue reading “Being Human on the Moon”

Beyond Words – Reflections on Tai Shan

For more than 3,000 years (with the possible exception of the iconoclastic upheaval of the Cultural Revolution), China’s Tai Shan (Peaceful Mountain) (泰山) has been a pilgrimage destination for emperors, politicians, scholars, common folk, and even the occasional visiting Canadian. It’s a memorable climb up the 1,500 metres (5,000 feet) of path and reputed 6,660 steps to spend the night in a lodge at the top, then join the pre-dawn crowd to watch sunrise over the eastern sea, just as Confucius did 2,500 years ago.

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Camino de Santiago – On the Frontier Between Faith and Culture

Santiago Matamoros

“When the fresh showers of April have pierced the drought of March to the root…then folk long to go on pilgrimages.”   (Geoffrey Chaucer in his Prologue to “Canterbury Tales” – loosely translated from the Middle English)

Six and a half centuries after Chaucer led a diplomatic mission to the kingdom of Navarre, I passed the same way – an April pilgrim celebrating my 70th birthday with forty reflective days walking the legendary Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James) along the popular route from southern France, across the Pyrenees and northern Spain to the magnificent cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. An important Christian pilgrimage for over a thousand years, it’s now popular with people of all faiths or none at all, whether for reflection or just a physical challenge or safe adventure. That makes for some interesting conversation along the way. A couple of weeks into the 800 kilometre journey, a Muslim fellow pilgrim shared her difficulty in reconciling this pilgrimage to the alleged tomb of a disciple of Jesus, whose core teaching was about love, with the recurrent image in churches and cathedrals along the way celebrating “Santiago Matamoros” – Saint James, Killer of Moors – mounted on a white horse and lopping the heads off hapless Muslims. Whatever happened to “love your enemies”?

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Lowering Flags at Wagah Crossing

It would be easy to dismiss the daily sunset ceremony at the crossing straddling the storied Grand Trunk Road linking Pakistan’s Lahore and India’s Amritsar, as a caricature of militarism taken to extremes. But I don’t, and here’s why. On the day I visited a few years ago it was indeed reminiscent at first of the famous Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch on 1970s television, but an unforeseen event uncovered a very human face behind the mask of blatant hostility.

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Thoughts for Remembrance Day

“5/6 June 1940: 1 Hampden and 1 Wellington lost …”:

In the history of the epic drama of the Second World War, this cryptic entry in the Bomber Command War Diary of Britain’s Royal Air Force seems little more than an inconsequential footnote. As those words were penned, two million German soldiers were facing the combined armies of France and Britain in the struggle for France. Adolph Hitler’s armies had trampled across the futile neutrality of Belgium and Holland in a matter of days. Neutral Norway had been taken with apparent ease. France was to fall to the Nazi onslaught within less than three weeks. When studying such momentous and overwhelming events, it is well to remember that such little footnotes are enormously momentous in their own right for the individuals to whom they refer.

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A Lunenburg Sketch-About

From the moment I first saw Emma Fitzgerald’s Hand Drawn Halifax I enjoyed her funny, spontaneous, uninhibited sketching style. My own amateurish attempts tend to be fiddly and fussy, with lots of dithering and erasing in trying to get everything just right (which it never is). So this summer I couldn’t resist an advertisement for Emma’s week-long course at Lunenburg School of the Arts “for those who want to sketch on location, in public, without fear.” That’s me. Continue reading “A Lunenburg Sketch-About”