White Helmets

Image result for white helmets logoThe White Helmets  are the largest humanitarian organisation in Syria. Founded in 2014, their 3,000 members risk death to aid and rescue civilians in the ‘most dangerous places on earth’.

According to the White Helmet website:

‘Our mission is to save the greatest number of lives in the shortest possible time and to minimise further injury to people and damage to property.’

When the vicious realities of the Syrian civil war caught the world’s attention in 2012, international aid agencies and NGOs provided fundraising and training to local civil defense volunteers. The Turkish charity AKUT and the British Mayday Rescue Foundation provided training in first aid, rescue and trauma care to Syrians across the border.  In 2014, the volunteer groups formed Syria Civil Defence, or ‘White Helmets’. Though their funding from outside sources, their ranks comprise of Syrians.

Syrian rebel territory, particularly dense urban zones like Aleppo, has been subject to mortar fire, aerial bombardment, barrel bombs and chemical nerve agents.  Unarmed White Helmets rescue civilians from rubble, tend to the wounded and maintain water and electrical services. They claim to have saved over 114, 131 lives since the war began.

Image result for white helmetsSyria’s regime and their Russian allies consider the White Helmets enemies. Saving lives and rebuilding infrastructure in hostile territory is not in their interest, as doing so prolongs surrender. As a result Assad pillories the White Helmets as simultaneously as being members of Al Qaeda and agents of US imperialism.  Sputnik, the Russian describes the George Soros sponsored White Helmets as ‘busy cooking up lies instead of protecting the human rights of the Syrian people.’ Kremlin propaganda pushes conspiracy theories that the White Helmets are American spies who conducted the 2018 sarin gas attack as a false flag operation.

The White Helmets are not without their detractors in the west either. Blogger Vanessa Bailey, known for her coverage of Israel and Syria, anti-Israel academic Max Blumenthal, and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd are among the best known, as well as the usual cohort of American alt right figures who feed into Russian propaganda. They claim the White Helmets:

  • are anti Assad
  • operate mainly in Jihadist territory
  • are funded by foreign governments
  • want foreign governments to intervene against Assad

These points are true. However, if volunteers are saving lives, does it really matter what banner flies over them? The White Helmets are merely unarmed medical workers but even so, if you witnessed firsthand the ravages of Russian bombardment you would probably be anti-Assad and favour intervention too. In 2016, during the height of the siege of Aleppo, the White Helmets and three other charities accused Russia of war crimes.Image result for white helmets

Only in rebel territory are innocents bombed day and night by Russian warplanes. Only in rebel territory are the White Helmets allowed to operate. Before a far right terrorist murdered her in 2016, British Labour MP Joe Cox had nominated the White Helmets for the Nobel Prize. If you ask me they are heroes.

In April 2018, President Trump halted US aid to the White Helmets.  In July, when regime forces took the regions of Deraa and Quintera, over 800 White Helmets and their families were stranded against the Israeli border. The Israelis evacuated 422 of them through the Golan Heights to Jordan. Now the remaining White Helmets in Syria are stranded in Idlib province, the last territory to hold out against Assad.

Sources: BBC, The Conversation, The Guardian, Russia Today, New York Times, The Nation, Sputnik, Syria Civil Defense

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What Makes an Animal Domesticatable?

Related imageWhy don’t we farm hippopotamuses for their meat? They are fat enough. Why can we ride horses but not zebras? Why did humans domesticate some animals but fail with others?

In Chapter 9 of Guns, Germs and Steel, Zebras and Unhappy Marriages, Jared Diamond describes the ‘Anna Karenina Principle.’ That is: ‘Domesticatable animals are alike; every undomesticable animal is undomesticable in its own way.’ For an animal to be domesticated it must meet a strict set of criteria. Any animal not meeting them cannot be domesticated.

  1. Diet. Domestic animals must be fed en masse for cheap. Carnivores and picky herbivores who cannot eat grass or grain fall short.
  2. Growth rate. Domesticated animals must grow quickly to be worth raising. While elephants and gorillas take 15 years to reach full size, a cow takes 2.
  3. Problems of captive breeding. Many animals refuse to mate in captivity and thus cannot be bred.
  4. Nasty disposition. Aggressive animals cannot be domesticated. We cannot ride zebras, for example, because zebras are wild and vicious. In zoos they bite more people than tigers. Wild hippopotamuses kill more people than crocodiles.
  5. Tendency to panic. Being fast, unpredictable and easily panicked deer and antelope are too difficult to herd. Reindeer are an exception.
  6. Social structure. Domesticated animals need to be comfortable in large groups and a rigid hierarchy which humans can take over. Antelope and bighorn sheep are too territorial and will fight each other instead of cooperating as domestic sheep and cattle do.

Domesticated is not the same as tamed. Many animals can be tamed, that is behaviourly modified to cooperate with humans. Domestication requires selective breeding of a new species which cooperates with and serves humans. It is how a wild boar becomes a pig.  So while elephants and horses can be used for transport and warfare, elephants are too difficult to breed in captivity and therefore can’t be domesticated. Tame elephants have to be captured from the wild.

Related image

Of the 148 species large herbivores which could provide food and/or transport to humans, only 14 are domesticated:

  • sheep (descended from the mouflon sheep, Middle East)
  • goat (bezoar goat, Middle East)
  • cow (aurochs, Eurasia/North Africa)
  • pig (wild boar, Eurasia/North Africa)
  • horse (Ukraine)
  • Arabian camel (Middle East/ North Africa)
  • Bactrian camel (Central Asia)
  • llama/alpaca (guanaco, Andes)
  • donkey (African wild ass, North Africa)
  • reindeer (northern Eurasia)
  • water buffalo (China/Southeast Asia)
  • yak (Himalayas)
  • bali cattle (banteng, Southeast Asia)
  • mithan/gayal (guar, India/Southeast Asia)

Dogs, although not ‘large’ or herbivorous, tick the boxes. Jared Diamond argues like pigs, dogs are in fact omnivores.

The benefits of domestication are many. Some of the above serve as beasts of burden, others a source of clothing or milk. All could be eaten, allowing for bigger populations. Warriors on horseback held a massive advantage over those who lacked them.

Image result for domesticable animals map guns germs steel

There is a correlation between where these species originated and where human civilization developed. 13  of the 14 domestic herbivores originated in Eurasia and only one (llamas) in South America. Australia, North America and southern Africa had none.  It is no coincidence that 5 domesticatable species originated in the Middle East, the cradle of civilization. However it was not only animals; the distribution of wild grains was also a deciding factor in where the first civilizations were born.

The Dubliners – Raglan Road

 

‘Raglan Road’ was first written as a poem by Patrick Kavanagh in 1946. He dedicated it to Hilda Moriaty, a university student Kavanagh met, and pursued a brief affair with, on Raglan Road in Dublin. After she criticised his poetic skills for their dreary subject matter, Kavanagh promised he would immortalise her in his poems.

Luke Kelly of the Irish folk group The Dubliners put Kavanagh’s poem to music and in 1986. It has since become a well-known addition to the Irish folk tradition. I love the mournful tune and how Kelly delivers. Frances Black sung it at the funeral of IRA leader cum North Irish first minister Martin Mccguinnes in 2017.  It also features on Martin Macdonagh’s ‘In Bruges’ (2008) – one of my favorite films.

The lyrics tell the tale of a man who falls in love with a woman on Raglan Road. He knows the relationship will hurt him, but goes in anyway. Man, I can relate.

Lyrics:

I gave her gifts of the mind
I gave her the secret sign
That’s known to the artists who have known
The true gods of sound and stone
And word and tint without stint
I gave her poems to say
With her own name there and her own dark hair
Like clouds over fields of May.

Spartacus

spartacus original poster.jpg

Spartacus (1960) is a swords and sandals epic starring Kirk Douglas and Laurence Olivier. Action, adventure, romance and intrigue abound.  The film follows the rise of the gladiator from the lowest rung of society to the Roman public enemy number one.

Last week my local cinema was showing classics on the big screen. I’d seen Spartacus only once, when I was a boy. This was back before I could tell when a film was dated. Back when I enjoyed every movie I saw. I remembered the battles and the “I am Spartacus” scene, but little else. Naturally the senatorial politics and Crassus’s monologue on liking both ‘snails’ and ‘oysters’ flew over my head. I also didn’t appreciate just how well written, and acted, this masterpiece was.

Related imageSpartacus is the story of a man who challenges the might of Rome. He is born a slave in the end days of the corrupt Roman Republic, and forced to fight his fellow men as entertainment.  But Spartacus has other ideas. During a dispute in the kitchens, he kills his trainer and inspires the gladiators to revolt.  They escape and roam the Italian countryside, ravaging Roman estates and freeing slaves as they go. Using the techniques he learnt as a gladiator, Spartacus builds a formidable army and humbles the legions sent his way.

That much is true. Spartacus was a Thracian gladiator who instigated the ‘Third Servile War’ of 73-70 BC, the largest slave rebellion of the ancient world.  When Crassus eventually crushed it, he crucified 6000 rebels along the Appian Way.

Spartacus’s director, lead actors and screenwriter were among the best in history. They made the film at the tail end of Hollywood’s Golden Age, when technicolor was new and exciting but before television diminished the movie going audience.

Image result for kubrick trumbo douglasKirk Douglas plays Spartacus. Well-built and charismatic, he fits the role well.  At 45 Douglas was conscious of being upstaged and used his position as executive producer to insist no one younger be cast as a gladiator. Nevertheless, his performance makes up for this.

Stanley Kubrick was chosen to direct two weeks into filming.  As much Douglas’s vision as his own, Spartacus is the only Kubrick film in which he did not have total creative control. With CGI not yet invented, Kubrick used 10,000 extras from the Spanish infantry for the final battle scene, filmed in a plain outside Madrid.

Image result for kubrick trumbo douglasDalton Trumbo wrote the screenplay from behind the Hollywood blacklist. Once Hollywood’s best paid writer, he fell victim to the Red Scare after refused to ‘name names’ of other Hollywood Communists.

Howard Fast, who wrote the book, was also under blacklist. It was only by chance, that his self-published work found itself in Kirk Douglas’s hands and was consequently adapted for the big screen.

Though Trumbo wrote Spartacus in exile under a pseudonym, Douglas insisted he take full credit for his work and personally accept the awards it won. Trumbo did so, at risk of arrest and was exonerated only after a newly elected John F Kennedy defied a conservative embargo to see the film. His endorsement broke the Hollywood blacklist. “Thanks Kirk,” Trumbo said. “For giving me back my name.”

Oscars:Related image

  • Best Supporting Actor (Peter Ustinov)
  • Best Art Direction
  • Best Cinemotography
  • Best Costume Design
  • Best Film Editing (nominated)
  • Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (nominated)

Pictured right: Peter Ustinov as the slave trader Bataiutus

Good quotes:

“You don’t want to know mine. I don’t want to know your name….. Gladiators don’t make friends. If we’re ever matched in the arena together, I have to kill you.” – Draba

“When a free man dies, he loses the pleasure of life. A slave loses his pain. Death is the only freedom a slave knows. That’s why he’s not afraid of it. That’s why we’ll win.” – Spartacus

“I’m not after glory, I’m after Spartacus!” – Crassus

Image result for crassus laurence olivier

Part of Spartacus’s draw is the universal appeal of his struggle. He is fighting for freedom. Not freedom in a nationalistic, Braveheart sense, but literal emancipation. His army juxtaposes beautifully with the Romans. While they are scheming and factional, his people are fiercely united. While the Romans buy their love with money and force, Spartacus and Varinia are mutual and pure. While the Romans hold the material advantage, Spartacus holds the moral.

Despite being old, Spartacus is still worth a watch.

From the Parapet Turns One

Blog world first year.pngI started this blog one year ago. This unfortunate date, I must add, was not by design but an unobserved coincidence – shame on me! I shan’t venture into cliché territory and say I’m honored or amazed at how far I’ve come, but I will settle on happily chuffed.

When it comes to creative projects, I rarely finish anything. A weekly blog, however provides enough gratification to keep me going, so for that I’m glad. One post a week is not a lofty goal, but it sure adds up over a year.

I don’t blog to make money. Sure, a little revenue would be nice, but if that were my aim, I would have given up long ago. For me, this blog serves as a way to write regularly and record topics of interest. Hence I avoid clickbait or a specific ‘niche’. Developing a skill takes work. 10,000 hours and all that. This blog ensures my writing is held accountable.

My audience isn’t big, but grows every month. I still use the free version of WordPress which, though not allowing in depth analytics or SEO, will tell you your number of readers and where from where in the world they come.

WordPress ‘likes’ are a bad gauge of interest. They only tell you what WordPress users like and most of my views come from Google, not the WordPress Reader. My most ‘liked’ post, for example – ‘2018 Blogging Goals’ – is not even in the top ten for most viewed. It’s only liked most because it’s about blogging – a topic WordPress users are interested in by default.

Most of my readers are from the United States, followed by the UK and Australia. I also get a fair smattering of views from around the world, as you can see from the map above. This month I’ve had 77 from Ecuador alone!

My most popular posts:

  1. The Caliphate of Cordoba
  2. Clairvius Narcisse and the Zombies of Haiti
  3. The Moor’s Last Sigh
  4. The Historical Babylon
  5. Green Eyed Devils

Originally I assumed my political posts would be the most popular. My real life circles prefer such discussions to history, after all, and political commentary on WordPress and Youtube is thriving . For this blog it’s not the case. My history posts get far more hits.

Maybe the market is saturated; maybe my political views are too vanilla. Successful youtubers and bloggers present controversial and/or nuanced opinions, after all. That’s what makes them interesting. Now I understand  regurgitating news reports without a clear bias lacks appeal. If people want a pseudo objective  take on current events, they will read the news.

Political posts aren’t evergreen, historical ones are. My post on the Battle for Idlib, for example, will only be relevant for a couple of weeks at most. After this the news report will be dated and irrelevant. Posts on the past, however, stay the same, and are far more likely to be searched on Google months later.

Blogging is a fulfilling hobby and I would urge anyone who is interested to give it a go. I’ve still got a lot to learn, but am happy with my progress so far. Hopefully I’ll still be posting one year from now!

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Stormclouds over Idlib

Image result for idlib Bashar Al-Assad and his Russian allies have begun their assault on Idlib, Syria’s last rebel stronghold. The days ahead are going to be bloody; likely the final chapter in a war that’s raged for 7 years.

Tahrir Al Sham, an Al Qaeda affiliated coalition, is the dominant force in Idlib. Then known as the Al-Nusra Front, the jihadist group seized the province from government forces in March 2015.  They imposed Sharia law and, in response to Assad’s growing power, united Idlib’s jihadists under a common banner. Tahrir Al Sham has 3,000 fighters and controls 60% of the province, including the city of Idlib itself. Since 2016 they have been the Assad regime’s toughest and best organised opponent.

The Turkish backed ‘National Front for Liberation’ control the rest of the province. Both Jihadist and ‘moderate’ factions number in their ranks.

Assad has been winning since 2016. While his myriad opponents, which once included pro-democracy forces, ISIS and other jihadists, bicker amongst themselves, Assad’s forces reassert his rule province by province.

Assad’s strategy is simple. First his regime sets its sight on a defiant city or neighborhood and besieges it, cutting inhabitants off from outside aid. Then Russian jets bomb it to oblivion. When the enemy’s back is broken and its citizenry is starving, regime forces and Iranian militias march in and crush any remaining opposition. One by one the rebel strongholds of Aleppo (2016), Eastern Ghouta and Daraa (2018) fell this way. The strategy is effective, but leaves of thousands of dead citizens every time.

Map: Areas of control in Syria as of 3 Sep 2018

Idlib is home to 3 million people. A third is children and more than half are refugees from elsewhere in Syria.

Turkey has closed its borders. Syria’s northern neighbor already houses 3.5 million refugees and the fears the destabilization a further influx would bring. When the battle for Idlib starts its people will have nowhere to run.  Given the regime and its allies’ tendency for war crimes, a humanitarian catastrophe of potentially unprecedented scale now looms.

On Monday President Trump warned Assad “hundreds of thousands of people could be killed” if he attacks Idlib. He’s right, but a tweet won’t deter Bashar Al-Assad or Vladimir Putin. Turkey and the UN issued similar statements to little avail. Assad, Putin and Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan will meet in Iran on Friday to discuss the issue.

If Idlib falls, as it likely will, the Syrian Civil War will be over.  While the northwest belongs to the Kurdish ‘Republic of Rojava’, they have maintained an uneasy truce with Damascus throughout the war, and will hopefully reach a peaceful settlement.

For now Russian planes are already taking the first casualties.

Sources: Al Jazeera, BBC, Foreign Policy, Gulf News, IRIN News, New York Times 

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The Catcher in the Rye

Disclaimer: No spoilers, but this review will discuss the premise and themes of the book. If you wish to go in blind, as I did, I suggest not reading.

The Catcher in the Rye is the quintessential book on teenage angst. Written by JD Salinger and published in 1951, this Great American Novel follows the escapades of antihero Holden Caulfield in New York City over three days.

It is notable for:

  • selling over 65 million copies
  • being the most censored book in American schools and libraries from 1961-1982
  • the reclusive nature of its author
  • association with the murder of John Lennon

Catcher was ahead of its time. Nonconformist icon Holden Caulfield foreshadowed the likes of James Dean, rock ‘n roll and the adolescent backlash against conservative 1950s American society. Not surprisingly this is the era the book’s popularity exploded.

Holden Caulfield narrates.  An intelligent but troubled rich kid, Holden is expelled from his fourth school after flunking all his subjects but English.  Not expected home by his parents until Wednesday he packs his bags heads to New York.

Caulfield talks in the New York vernacular of the late ‘40s, back when the often invoked ‘goddamn’ and ‘chrissake’, were considered highly offensive. It is one of the first novels to use the f word in print; moral guardians of the time lampooned it accordingly.

Other words in Holden’s lexicon:

  • Sexy – In 1940s lingo this meant ‘horny’, not sexually attractive.
  • Crumby – Dirty/unpleasant
  • Phony – Holden’s favourite word. Fake, disingenuous and hypocritical.

On the surface the Catcher in the Rye is a coming of age story. The problem is Holden doesn’t want to grow up. Adulthood, as far as he can see, is as corrupt and materialistic as it is morally insolvent and, above all, phony. Even so, Holden lies, chain smokes, drinks and thinks of sex constantly. Only children are truly innocent.

Despite his individualist bent, however, Holden still craves human companionship. Throughout the book he stumbles his way through interactions with a variety of characters which range from hilarious to downright depressive. There is subtext aplenty, not all of which is obvious on first reading.

The Catcher in the Rye is a favorite of Bill Gates, Woody Allen, George HW Bush and, most notoriously, Mark Chapman. The Beatle killer was obsessed by the book, and was found reading it moments after he shot John Lennon dead in 1980.

The Catcher in the Rye is still a polarising book. Your perception depends on the stage in life in which you read it. Fans tend to either identify with Holden, or at least appreciate the style and literary significance.  Detractors dislike the protagonist, his vernacular, or were forced to read it at school.

JD Salinger admitted in 1953 his “boyhood was very much the same as that of the boy in the book.” He too grew up in Manhattan and wrote early drafts while serving in WW2. At the peak of his success Salinger withdrew from the public eye and gave his last interview in 1965. He wrote 15 novels over the following decades, all of them unpublished.

Catcher is the bestselling novel never adapted into a film. Though Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson and Leonardo Dicaprio all campaigned for the role of Holden Caulfield it was not to be. Salinger guarded the book’s rights viciously on the assertion its subjective voice could only work in print. Though the author died in 2010, rights to the book remain firmly in Salinger’s estate – The Catcher in the Rye will not enter the public domain until 2080.