DAY 211: Meeting

May 25th, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

I expect readers are bored by my usual preoccupations; as am I, but the world is always forcing them on me. So today, let’s consider a different subject which preoccupies me from time to time: a comparison between the beliefs and practices of Alcoholics Anonymous and the Quakers. Both of these quasi-religious movements started with a strong belief in what you might call ‘God’ (heart of the heartless world, opium of the people) as their foundation, the Quakers naturally as a 17th century dissenting sect and AA as a sort of born

downloadAA meeting

again way of redeeming sinners. (‘There is one who is all-powerful. That one is God. May you find him now.’) Both of them are now not so sure; what they cling to is a belief that whatever it is you’re after you can’t do it on your own, and you’re better off in a ‘meeting’. This is a different object from what the rest of us understand by a meeting, where lots of us gather in SOAS or the Conway Hall and listen to Lindsay German and  nine other people denouncing the Tory Government’s policies somewhere (with twenty minutes for questions if we’re lucky) – it’s a more intense and more interactive affair.  In the case of AA, as many meetings as possible, say ninety in ninety days.


Quaker meeting

Which is difficult if you’re an alcoholic in Latvia (say – a not unlikely situation); in the case  of the Quakers, once a week will probably do. You go to the meeting, stay for an hour, have tea or coffee, wash up and (hopefully) feel better.  The impartial observer notes that the main difference – why do I even bother to say it? – is that Quakers say almost nothing all the time and just believe that the Spirit is giving them a helpful push along the road, while alcoholics talk compulsively about themselves – about their previous appalling behaviour, their recent lapses, their failure to progress from Step 6 to Step 7. Some alcoholics think that the Spirit or Higher Power is going to help them, others are (like some Quakers) quite frankly atheists. In any case, they feel/hope that this going-to-meetings activity is the essential element in getting anywhere.

I owe a great deal to these odd and slightly irrational practices.  Many Quakers these days make a great deal of the fact that they have NO CREED AT ALL; while the alcoholics have Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, which I suppose is a bit like having a creed. The other noteworthy difference is that the Quakers, like the Samaritans – the ones in Palestine, not the ones on the end of the phone – and the Parsis, don’t normally convert you, so their numbers remain on the whole small (outside Kenya – do they have different rules?), while converting or ‘twelve-stepping’ a still suffering alcoholic is in theory an integral part of AA practice.

I should write another paper on this, but it would surely just add to my long list of rejections. [I should here interpose, though it isn’t strictly relevant, the most brutal rejection I’ve ever had for a journal submission. It started:

‘Luke, you used to be known as a mathematician of taste and style.’

I leave you to fill in the rest.]

Many years later, the state of the world so appals me that what kind of a mathematician I am, or am known as, worries me no more.


This seems a perfect place to insert Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’. I can’t think why I haven’t done it before, when probably every GCSE poetry class has to con it:

It seemed that out of battle I escaped

Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,—
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand fears that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said that other, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .”

And – although the Kenyan Quakers probably sing in a different style or variety of styles – here’s  a Swahili song of praise from a meeting at Lehigh.















DAY 210: Where we are heading

May 22nd, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

I’ve been away for some time, and the fact that I’ve fallen on my back and cracked a rib didn’t help (the crack was misdiagnosed as a bruise by a hospital near me which I’ll refrain from naming). I’m still in some pain (thanks for asking); but I’ve been jolted into sharing my thoughts with you by two developments.

The first is the dangerous situation which is developing on the Greek island ‘hotspots’ ( see Human Rights Watch report) where it looks as though the UN and other NGOs will be withdrawing at the end of July, leaving thousands of refugees in miserable conditions on the overcrowded islands with an uncertain future. Izzy Tomico Ellis drew my attention to an article in the Indy (below) on this; as she writes:

‘On Chios, and indeed the other ‘hotspot’ islands an already horrific situation is reaching a point many of us on the ground are coining ‘the end.’

My words have run out to describe the atrocities committed against survivors of war and repression.

The terror they fled has been added to in an unforgivable cruelty enacted by European governments and all those that stand by in silence.

How many more suicide attempts will we witness?

How many more fascist attacks?

How many more will be locked up with no trial, no translator and quietly deported to prisons that hold no trace of human rights, let alone humanity?

How many more will cry out in the night from hopelessness and dreams of the past?

How many more will become sick from the awful food they are provided?

How many more children will we watch fall from rubber dinghies into the seas?

It’s not the ‘end’ of those fleeing their lands but the end of hope of a future in Europe. As the NGO’s presence is cut, along with the volunteers, the witnesses are shut out and Europe will be free to detain and deport them en masse’.

Thousands of refugees on Greek islands risk losing vital services as charities prepare to withdraw 

‘Who’s going to do child protection services on the island? Who’s going to do education? Who’s going to do the food?’

Afghan refugees on the Greek island of Chios REUTERS

Thousands of refugees in Greece are at risk of losing vital support as charities prepare to withdraw services from camps on the country’s “hotspot” islands, as changes to EU funding are set to leave them out of contract by the end of July.

The Greek government will take over funding and managing support services to the camps on 31 July, but aid organisations fear the prospect of a “humanitarian gap” resulting from a poorly planned transition.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on the islands have received millions of euros from ECHO, the European Commission’s humanitarian division, to provide services from laundry and clothing distribution to maritime rescue and child protection.

But officials confirmed this week that the way in which ECHO supports the response to the crisis is changing. As a result, the allocation of funding, as well as the selection of projects to be funded, will soon become the sole responsibility of the Greek authorities

“Reception facilities in the islands will be supported via the national programme,” said a European Commission spokesperson. “Funding channelled through the national programme is not managed directly by the Commission, but via the national authority responsible in Greece.”

A spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said the situation is part of the process of “moving from emergency response to a sustainable system”.

“The Greek government will assume greater responsibilities and take over services which are presently provided by UNHCR and the broader humanitarian community,” he said. “UNHCR supports the government throughout this transition.”

But the manner in which the proposed handover has been communicated has raised alarm, with some NGOs and local authorities relying on hearsay and rumours while others have received official instruction.

“People just don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Nicholas Millet of Be Aware and Share (BAAS), a Swiss NGO which oversees a school project on the island of Chios. “There are no clear plans for handovers or transitions, the Government hasn’t said what they’re going to take over or not.”

Greek Migration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas recently described the current situation on the island as reaching breaking point, after a spate of problems including suicide attempts amongst the refugee population and violent attacks by far-right groups.

“Who’s going to do child protection services on the island?” said Millet. “Who’s going to do education? Who’s going to do the food?”

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) currently runs two restaurants serving eight hundred meals three times a day to refugees on Chios. Director of NRC’s Greek programme Gianmaria Pinto confirmed that the NGO would cease its operations there on the cut-off date, but that it would be prepared to resume services quickly if asked to.

Pinto said the decision was communicated to NRC in mid March. “The services we provide will keep running until July and then after that it’s the government – through Greek NGOs, municipalities, whatever they decide.”

Pinto encouraged the national and local government to work with NGOs to ensure a safe transition. “The municipality has to be informed and they have to start working. If they decide to hire a Greek NGO, fine. If they ask NRC to stay, we are ready to do that.”

A spokesperson for Save the Children confirmed that the organisation was also in the dark. “We’re still waiting for information about funding and operations on the islands,” she said. “It’s unclear yet how camps and services for refugees and migrants will be managed.”

On Chios island, two members of the municipal government confirmed this week that they had received no official communication from Athens regarding the change.

Pinto also said he feared for the future of the NRC’s recently opened community centre. “The day we opened we knew we would have to leave,” he said. “But it’s becoming a humanitarian hub, lots of agencies use the space.”

Médecins du Monde (MDM) provide medical services on the island of Lesvos, which is home to over 4,000 refugees, according to UNHCR. Their operations in Moria, the island’s state-run refugee camp, will stop at the end of May.

According to the president of MDM in Greece, Nikitas Kanakis, the organisation was originally told by the Greek government in March that they would have to leave Moria by the end of April, after which they began reducing staff numbers on the island. Around a week later, Kanakis said, “it was clear that they couldn’t start. They couldn’t find the people they needed and they needed more time.”

MDM were subsequently asked to remain on the island for another month. “We want to help, but it’s not easy, because we have announced to staff that their contract has finished. Now we have to ask them to return.”

Kanakis said a team from the organisation would remain on the island to report on conditions and potential human rights violations within the camp, and expressed concern that vulnerable adults and children within the camp may fall through the cracks during the handover process.

“It’s not an established team that will move from another place to there,” he said. “I have a lot of reasons to believe they won’t find all the staff that they need. But hopefully they will do it. We are waiting to see.

“It’s not a bad idea that the state will take over the camps,” Kanakis added. “The question is just how they will do it, and in a lot of cases they don’t have the experience.”

Pinto agreed that in terms of “ownership and long-term sustainability”, it was important to eventually return management of the islands to the national authorities.

“In theory this is a good step forward for the government,” he said. “In practice, though, what NRC doesn’t want to see in August is humanitarian gaps. It’s now the moment to boil down this political decision into an action plan. We still have time, the end of July is not tomorrow. But it’s not very far.”

Millet said the move had been a long time coming, but needed to be handled well. “If the government is going to take over services they need to think about how they effectively transition over from the NGOs. We are supportive of the government to take over the services but we need to know how, and we’ll support it.”

The second is the news that Theresa May is thinking (if that’s the right word) of revising the 1951 refugee convention. Now, a convention is signed by a lot of people (or nations) and revising it isn’t just for a single one, without the risk of becoming a pariah state which maybe Ms May can take on board. I spent some time in law school on the Convention; my first surprise was that it actually doesn’t protect anyone today (since they didn’t become refugees as a result of the second world war). [You may remember, if you’re 75 or more, that the repression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising caused an exodus of 200,000 refugees almost all of whom landed in Austria. This caused no end of problems: they weren’t protected by the 1951 convention unless by a verbal sleight-of-hand; and the West had of course encouraged them to fight and called them ‘freedom fighters’ and now found itself responsible. The case is discussed for those who (like me) like reading law journals in Marjoleine Zieck’s ‘The 1956 Hungarian Refugee Emergency, an Early and Instructive Case of Resettlement’, Amsterdam Law Journal, Spring 2013, pp.45-63.]  These days refugees are protected by the 1967 protocol, roughly similar to the Convention; and most states have signed up to it, accepting that a person

downloadParticular social group

who has a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’ on the grounds of race, religion, politics, or membership of a particular social group is a refugee and you can’t send them back (‘refoulement’). What you then do with them is a different mare’s nest, involving asylum and where you got fingerprinted and Dublin III and things I didn’t learn in law school. But monkeying with universally agreed international conventions is a different order of magnitude, whose idiocy is characteristic of Theresa May – who seems not to know that this country signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights in 1953, before she was born, and that it has nothing to do with the EU.

I’d remind you (under the heading of poetry) that Odysseus visited a number of Greek islands (Calypso, Circe, Nausicaa, Cyclops) as well as coming from one himself and being in some sense (in most senses) a refugee. If I have time I’ll post a bit of his wanderings which might throw some light on the situation. In the meanwhile here is a lachrymose number from Nawal al Zoghby in which the lady gets so upset she throws her phone on the floor. It may comfort you if you have a cracked rib.


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